What can you say about Frank Zappa? Legendary musician, someone who pushed the envelope to the limits, outspoken critic of the normal way of things, but best of all, he played Fretless Guitar. While Frank’s fretless work is limited to four known tracks (there may be more in his archive) he has passed his fretless legacy on to his son Dweezil Zappa, which we will discuss later.
Way back in 1977, Frank Zappa gave an interview to Steve Rosen in Guitar Player’s January 1977 issue, here is a small excerpt of that interview:
Frank Zappa: I do have a fretless guitar, and I’m pretty good on that. At one time Acoustic manufactured a fretless guitar, they made a prototype and tried to interest people in it, but nobody wanted it. So the prototype ended up at Guitar Center. I walked in there one day and asked them if they had anything new, and they said, “Have we got one for you!” and they brought out this thing, and it was really neat, so I bought it for $75. The only restriction was they had to take a chisel and some black paint and scratch off the word “Acoustic” on the headpiece, because Acoustic didn’t want anybody to know that they had made such a grievous error as to make a fretless guitar. I’ve put a Barcus-Berry on that, too, and I send the magnetic pickup to the left and the Barcus on the right The thing that sounds like a sllde guitar on “The Torture Never Stops” (Zoot Allures) is actually a fretless. It’s also on “San Ber’dino” and “Can’t Afford No Shoes” (both from One Size Fits All). It’s different than a regular guitar; you don’t push the strings to bend them, you move them back and forth like violin-type vibrato, which is a funny movement to get.
Well, that is about all Frank said about Fretless Guitar in the press, but when we posted this section of the interview on Unfretted we did get the following reply from a contributor known only as Dave:
In Dave’s own words: No that was a production guitar, I worked at Guitar Center (the only one at that time) in Hollywood, Los Angeles, USA, and in 1973 and I remember having that / those guitars I’m pretty sure it was a guitar made for Acoustic by the Hohner Company. There was also a production run made in Japan but I do not remember which ones were made first. The guitar was modelled on the “Esposito” guitar (the first prototype 335 style guitar) owned by Harvey Gerst (he played in a band called Sweetwater). Harvey Gerst was the mastermind behind the Acoustic company in the 60’s. The ones that they imported from Japan had wicked cool thin flat necks! and played like buttah!
Acoustic Company Fretless Guitar
Just what did this Acoustic Company Fretless Guitar look like?
This model was bought by Greg Segal in 1985, who bought it used at a shop in Reseda, California, where it sat for a few years before he bought it.
Black Fretless Fender Stratocaster
From April 1982: A recording of Frank Zappa, changing guitar strings, chatting with roadies, mentions a black Fretless Fender Strat, then plays it, and tries the new Floyd Rose during rehearsals in the UMRK 20th April. UMRK = Utility Muffin Research Kitchen is the name of the recording studio that Frank Zappa built and used extensively for many of his musical recordings.
Frank Zappa’s Fretless Tracks and where to find them
One Size Fits All
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (1975)
Can’t Afford No Shoes – First off you think the solo was done using a slide, but on second listen, yes its fretless.
San Ber’dino – Not as obvious as the first track, in fact you have to listen real hard to spot the fretless.
Frank Zappa (1976)
In Frank’s own words…. “The thing that sounds like a slide guitar on The Torture Never Stops is actually a fretless guitar.”
There are quite a few versions of “The Torture Never Stops” but the fretless guitar version is only used on the studio album Zoot Allures.
Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart + the Mothers of Invention. (1975)
Frank used a fretless guitar on “200 Years Old”
Frank Zappa (recorded 1972, released 1996, re-issued 2012)
The 2012 re-issue is a four CD set from the original vinyl mix. It is nicely packaged and the story behind this release and why the music did not surface for so long makes an interesting read.
Down in de Dew is the only fretless track and it is instrumental. Frank’s fretless style is fluid and precise, is it worth buying a four CD pack for one fretless track? I think so.
Interestingly enough “Down in the Dew” was released on a cassette free with Guitar World magazine circa 1973.
Passing the legacy on
Well, you already know that Frank Zappa’s legacy was passed down to his son, Dweezil Zappa. They had already collaborated and preformed together before Frank’s untimely passing and it is a great credit to Dweezil that he embraced Frank’s pan dimensional approach to music, that is taking everything on board and picking pieces here and there and creating new music. The really great thing is he also took Fretless Guitar on board, the earliest example we can find from Dweezil is “Rubberband” from the album Shampoo Horn.
If I had to sum things up, I think Frank Zappa used the Fretless Guitar as another “Tool in the Armoury” I think Dweezil Zappa uses the Fretless Guitar as an instrument in its own right.
More famous fretless players More Fretless Guitarists