Deep Music Criticism #14 – Frank Zappa’s My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama

Sorry folks – I’m just on a Zappa jag lately. I’m eating my own dogfood – fans are constantly comparing me to Zappa so I feel like I need to study his music in earnest to get the connection myself. I’m still convinced that my aesthetic and point of view is different than Frank’s, and I never was especially inspired by his musical ideas. Sure I have common threads in my music – jazz and fusion etc – but I admired and listened to the same artists Frank listened to. I didn’t absorb the influence second hand through him.

Anyway, today’s track is my new favorite of his - My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama. I first heard the song in a live performance released on the live compilation album Strictly Commercial. The song was cool enough, but it wasn’t until I heard the original studio version last week during a spelunk into his catalog to define my Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs List that I feel in total love with the song. The studio version is a truly masterful little rock composition.

I’m also debuting this song criticism series as a video and podcast. Trying to spread through other media. Here’s the video:

And here’s the podcast:

Swing

This is the first thing I love about this song – the perfect and subtle rhythmic swing. Swing is a jazz concept that inherits from classical music, and certain folk music (especially negro spirituals, early blues etc.). The idea is to take a duple subdivision of the beat and instead twist it just a little to imply a triplet subdivision of the beat, like this:

In the rehearsal sessions for My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama, I’m sure Frank was very specific in insisting the band play with a light swing:

  • You can hear it in the drums – nearly every fill is triplet-based.
  • You can hear it in Frank’s vocals – the verse but especially the chorus, where the lead-in phrase “GUI-tar” just naturally forms that same “taaa-ta” rhythm as in the swing eighth note above.
  • You hear it in the horns most of all – sax players know how to swing. They starve if they don’t. Ian Underwood and the boys play their lines with bounce, and Frank wrote them with that in mind. Plenty of syncopation, plenty of swing.

Harmony

The progression here is just cool as can be. It starts with a tension between a pedal bass centered on the sub-tonic – that note one whole step below the tonic which is, aside from the blue note (aka tritone), the most important in blues, rock and pop music. During this section, the horns are playing a stacked fifth without any thrids. The tension builds.

The bridge section starts the harmony moving a bit, up to the IV chord (aka subdominant), while the horns add extended notes above the rhythm section (which? I’m not sure). Next comes the V chord (aka dominant), with the horns waffling around this again with some extended harmony that ends in the last beat before the chorus begins – a very strangely dissonant chord that must be a bastard between the dominant and some other kind. Again – I’m not sure and would need to look up the score to be confirm.

Texture and Sections

Sandwiched in between the verse-bridge-chorus main body of the song are three diverse and interesting little interludes:

  • A dissonant and nearly atonal contrapuntal duet between synth and a flute or whistle of some kind, accompanied by horns.
  • A ~15 second straight-rhythm, staccato sax solo in an almost stiff and stilted style (can you say alliteration??), in a pure minor key. The harmony is similarly stilted – stick on the minor tonic of whatever key Frank had modulated to here (surely different than the original, but I can’t spot exactly how far away we’ve gotten by this point in the song).
  • Then a ~20 second space of major-key lightness that features a Frank solo on, of all instruments, an acoustic guitar. Its unusual for him, but is just a perfect choice that only a skilled orchestrator like Frank would know to make. His faux-celtic, dorian-mode riffing is accompanied by a jangly, treble-heavy guitar that could’ve been Roger McGuinn playing for all I know.
  • The last bar leading back to the final verse is a bouncy riff played by the entire band, horns too, in a major seventh-to-dominant harmonic move that brings the key back home.

My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama is a short song that proves Frank Zappa’s brilliance in fitting into the strict format of “rock/pop song” all the hook, virtuosity, harmonic interest, rhythmic bounce and swing, and instrumental textures and timbres that one could possibly hope for in any great piece of music. Its a little 3-minute symphony. Scratch that – orchestral music is boring and standardized. This is more creative.

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