Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Polyrhythms Inside of Polyrhythms
November 24, 2010 1:39 PM   Subscribe

Steve Vai explains his notation for "The Frank Zappa Guitar Song Book".
posted by Jpfed (50 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
remind me again what's the notation for turning on the wind machine?
posted by victors at 1:50 PM on November 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't even like Zappa's music but this is awesome stuff.

Many years ago, in Musician magazine I think, I read about what it says there at the end of the article about Vai having transcribed some Frank-speech. Vai described having had to practice the transcriptions for many hours a day before he could master them. But then it was so much fun to be able to play them along with Frank's voice in concert.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:55 PM on November 24, 2010


I often refer people to this!
posted by Monstrous Moonshine at 1:59 PM on November 24, 2010


This is cool stuff when used in moderation, but Vai's transcriptions of Zappa's guitar solos are ridculously over-notated and not even all that accurate for all that. There's a difference between using polyrhythms to get a cool intentional rhythmic effect and trying to nail down a real-time sloppy performance to such tedious precision that the transcription isn't even playable as such.

That said, one of the few redeeming qualities of Zappa's late-period sprechgesang style occasionally is hearing Vai play along with it (I don't think he ever did it live in concert, but rather transcribed live performances, learned them, and then played them back in sync). And check out Mike Keneally covering "Jazz Discharge Party Hats" simultaneously covering Zappa's speech and Vai's transcription.
posted by dfan at 2:05 PM on November 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


Steve Vai is a genius. I have enormous respect for his commitment to making music that he likes. But I wish he would make more music that I like, too.
posted by The World Famous at 2:06 PM on November 24, 2010 [11 favorites]


Vai self published this article and others like it back in the 80s through his newsletter. Somewhere I have a red clear plastic binder with this article in it, some other self published article in a yellow clear plastic binder (can't remember the title at the moment), and the score to "Little Green Men". It was a big thrill to my 16 y.o. self back then to get written music direct from an artist like Steve for such a small price. That's probably why I'm still a fan. Contrast this article with buying Rush/Yes piano score reduction sheet music that was missing all of the interesting instrumental song sections. I got to meet Steve once at a meet and greet, and he was very kind and patient with everyone.
posted by dr. fresh at 2:08 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Steve is a great player but there are lots of people who can pull off a convincing Mr Ultimate Speedfingers on a strat, it isn't all that special. I'm guessing this is what he sold his soul to Legba for. Pretty much worth it too, IMHO.
posted by jfuller at 2:12 PM on November 24, 2010


This is part of what has inspired me, at the late age of 44, to reboot my music studies: I've just started lessons with Arthur Barrow, one of Zappa's bass players/clonemeisters, so that eventually I can have some idea of what is going on with all those little black dots. I love this music, and the only way to learn how to play it is through notation. Thank God for Steve Vai!
posted by ergomatic at 2:17 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Steve is a great player but there are lots of people who can pull off a convincing Mr Ultimate Speedfingers on a strat, it isn't all that special.

If you seriously think that Vai's abilities begin and end with playing fast, then you haven't listened to much of his stuff.

I'm with The World Famous: Vai is one of the great electric guitar viruosos, on par (in his style, which isn't all fast) with Charlie Christian, Joe Pass, Stevie Ray, and any of the other greats you can name. The problem is that a lot of his music is way, WAY over-produced, and that he -- for reasons I've never understood, having seen him play amazing things without it -- rarely plays without a full rack of effects muddying up his sound.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:29 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was playing with a guy back in college and one day we threw some book or magazine open to one of these transcriptions. Charts have never been my greatest strength, but the guy I was playing with was conservatory-trained. We came to some notation over a phrase like "7:3."

"Oh, man," I said, "how the hell do you even count something like that?"

"You don't," he said, "You just play it really fast and sloppy and nobody notices."

Then again, he went on to write incidental music for basic cable TV shows. So maybe he's not the last word on music.
posted by el_lupino at 2:30 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Diddlydiddly filter.
posted by Decani at 2:33 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


remind me again what's the notation for turning on the wind machine?

where i'm from we call that a 'fan', musicians find them very useful for avoiding 'sweat running down the hair and face syndrome'.

there are lots of people who can pull off a convincing Mr Ultimate Speedfingers on a strat

never seen vai play a strat. got a link?
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 2:57 PM on November 24, 2010


never seen vai play a strat. got a link?

He plays on a Fake Strat
posted by Threeway Handshake at 3:04 PM on November 24, 2010


Also, Flexable is a really great, weird album.

never seen vai play a strat. got a link?

Enjoy. Steve Vai played on a '70s strat fairly often when he played for Zappa.

He plays on a Fake Strat

What I'm about to say I say as the owner of two Fender Stratocasters and a huge Fender guy:

Calling an Ibanez Jem 555 a "fake strat" is like calling a Ferrari Formula 1 car a "fake Mustang."
posted by The World Famous at 3:11 PM on November 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm just going to nitpick for a second: this isn't Steve Vai's personal notation system, this is standard (he does mention this in the article.) That's not to denigrate what must have been an enormous and very difficult task in notating all of this stuff, but I wanted to make that clear. Actually, I would err on the side that this is over-notated, but that's a personal opinion. Also, like others, he such a fantastic musician I wished I liked his music more.
posted by ob at 3:13 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


never seen vai play a strat. got a link?

Well, he does own at least one (although Ibanez is pretty clearly what he prefers).
posted by TedW at 3:16 PM on November 24, 2010


Except a Ferrari Formula 1 isn't shaped exactly like a mustang (except for the headstock, which I'm sure Ibanez would also rip off if it wasn't patent protected).
posted by Threeway Handshake at 3:17 PM on November 24, 2010


Is this the fake strat being referred to?
posted by TedW at 3:17 PM on November 24, 2010


Steve Vai on Frank Zappa.
posted by Splunge at 3:18 PM on November 24, 2010


A friend that was a few years ahead of me in High School was accepted as a music composition pupil by Nadia Boulanger in Paris, (I believe she had earlier rejected Leonard Bernstein in that role.) This would be early seventies.

Part of the audition process was a monitored test, where everyone in the room was handed a sheaf of music paper, and the phonograph needle was dropped on Zappa's guitar solo from Hot Rats. After one listening, the candidates were asked to transcribe it in conventional notation.

My friend already had every grace note committed to memory and aced that test. (Much later in life Zappa offered him a job administrating notations, but he didn't take it because he felt it only rubbed his nose in his own shortcomings as a composer, to take a clerical position.)
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:19 PM on November 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


Except a Ferrari Formula 1 isn't shaped exactly like a mustang

An Ibanez Jem is not shaped exactly like a Strat. They are somewhat similar in that they have two cutaways, a symmetrical waist, a pickguard, and the knobs are similarly placed.

But fine. It's like saying a Ferrari Daytona Spider is a fake Corvette Stingray. Close enough?
posted by The World Famous at 3:22 PM on November 24, 2010


A couple of Steve Vai's Stratocasters (one of which his website refers to as "one of Steve's favorite guitars.")
posted by The World Famous at 3:24 PM on November 24, 2010


Black Napkins with Steve Vai, 1981 Palladium NYC.
posted by Splunge at 3:27 PM on November 24, 2010


I'm just popping in to say your favourite shredder sucks. Although Vai is probably the most tolerable of the lot. Also to say your favourite Strat copy sucks. But not as much as mine, which was made in a declining 3rd would country, and they didn't even managed to get the headstock shaped right.

k thx bye
posted by Jimbob at 3:29 PM on November 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Anyway, I'm sure that somebody that doesn't know anything about guitars would have a hard time telling them apart, except for that hilarious handle they have.

But don't besmirch Fenders! You can trick out a Strat to be a shredder guitar, like what Yngwie "Fucking" Malmsteen does. Not that anybody should ever be doing that.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 3:32 PM on November 24, 2010


The JEM comes from a long line of what folks in the '80s called "Super Strats," starting with people like Vai tricking out their actual Strats and then following with other companies producing hot rod Strat-shaped guitars from the factory. Ibanez isn't the only "Super Strat" company to survive that era, but it is the most prominent one. Back in "the day," the Kramer Baretta was sort of the gold standard of the Super Strat. It also had a body that was a lot like a Strat but had a few differences to set it apart. Sadly, the corporate history of Kramer is full of unfortunate turns and bad decisions, so there were really only a couple of years where a Kramer Baretta was a brilliant instrument. After that, they started getting crappy and ultimately disappeared.

A lot of Steve Vai's guitars in the '80s, before he signed with Ibanez, were Strat-bodied guitars cobbled together from pieces from Performance Guitar, Charvel, or other makers. The section of Vai's website that shows his guitar collection is really interesting. It does include way too many Ibanez JEMs, though.

The biggest obstacle to turning a real Strat into a shredder guitar is the fingerboard radius, which is too small on a classic Strat to play with very low action. I'm not sure what Yngwie does about that. I know he scallops the frets, but I don't know whether his necks have a compound radius or something else to help lower the action. Newer strats are available with a larger radius, but nothing as close to flat as an Ibanez or a Jackson.
posted by The World Famous at 3:39 PM on November 24, 2010


I am a bigger fan of Steve Morse than Steve Vai. More listenable.
posted by legweak at 3:58 PM on November 24, 2010


Flex-able is one of the albums that made me want to play guitar, and I still listen to it sometimes. The rest of Vai's work is pretty lame, sad to say.
posted by Huck500 at 3:58 PM on November 24, 2010


I've never stopped loving Vai's Flex Able. And I didn't know he played for Zappa. So now I adore him even more.

disclaimer: can't play guitar at all

light. without. heat.
posted by davejay at 4:00 PM on November 24, 2010




http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6cplMM3d_Q

Best Zappa story ever, IMHO.
posted by Huck500 at 4:06 PM on November 24, 2010


Clicky version of the above.
posted by Splunge at 4:08 PM on November 24, 2010


Vai on Zappa

There we go.
posted by Huck500 at 4:09 PM on November 24, 2010


And check out Mike Keneally covering "Jazz Discharge Party Hats"

Mike Keneally is a god among gods. One of those one-in-a-million, born-with-it Mozart-type talents. He also nearly always has an utterly amazing band of other god-like creatures playing with him, as well. Dancing gets my vote for album of the decade (2000-2009). Dog and Wooden Smoke are also fan-fucking-tastic.

i like hyphens today
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:09 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


A few hundred years from now, people will be thanking Mr Vai.
posted by digitalprimate at 4:18 PM on November 24, 2010


The best description of Zappa's fingering style came, if I recall correctly, from Dweezil who once said in an interview that watching his dad play guitar was like watching a weird spider crawl up and down the fretboard.
posted by Atom Eyes at 4:19 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


No one should ever do most of what Yngwie does, though I will admit no one else quite scratches the epic cheesemetal itch I sometimes get quite like him. As far as Steve goes, I like his music just fine
posted by adamdschneider at 4:35 PM on November 24, 2010


Man, I'm just going to do a sloppy rudimental roll and call it a day.
posted by echo target at 4:48 PM on November 24, 2010


Didn't he dub both guitar solos in the duet in that Ralph Macchio movie?
(with a bit from Ry Cooder).
posted by ovvl at 6:59 PM on November 24, 2010


A Mustang is just a Duo-Sonic with a funny bridge.
posted by ovvl at 7:02 PM on November 24, 2010


A Mustang is a fake Jaguar.
posted by The World Famous at 7:10 PM on November 24, 2010


"Oh, man," I said, "how the hell do you even count something like that?"
"You don't," he said, "You just play it really fast and sloppy and nobody notices."


In musical notation, as with certain crimes, the intent itself is an essential component.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:19 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Steve Vai is incredible, and truly understands these complex rhythms, but really, this should only be impressive insofar as he is primarily a rock/prog guitarist (and a virtuoso at that)... he didn't invent any of these concepts and they have been around long before Zappa experimented with them.. but Vai does a wonderful job of explaining them. So for that he gets major points. I'm learning a whole book of Zappa tunes on drum set now, and it's fun to deal with nested polyrhythms in a context other than "modern music".. and I do NOT count the current fad of "indie classical" crap as modern music. The genius of Zappa, even if I don't love his entire output, is that he assimilated the modernist music coming out of Europe with his own eccentric ideas. Even a notoriously rigorous composer like Boulez was cool enough to take notice of that.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:00 PM on November 24, 2010


"Indie classical"? I've never even heard of such a thing. It sounds awful.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:16 AM on November 25, 2010


Didn't he dub both guitar solos in the duet in that Ralph Macchio movie? (with a bit from Ry Cooder).

Yup. Ry Cooder played most of Ralph's parts throughout the movie, up to and including the "blues" segment of the duel. Once Ralph pulls out "Eugene's Trick Bag" though - that's all Vai.

(Most of Eugene's fingering you see through the movie is Ralph Macchio though - he learnt the right fingering and handshapes to make things look realistic, though musically he was still Ry Cooder throughout...)
posted by benzo8 at 11:21 AM on November 25, 2010


Steve Vai is incredible,
posted by ReeMonster at 5:00 AM on November 25


I like the way "incredible" can mean such vastly different things to different people.
posted by Decani at 5:07 PM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


This video where he discusses a perfectly tempered neck really took my respect for him to another level.

This fpp is also awesome. Thanks.
posted by triceryclops at 11:14 PM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like the way "incredible" can mean such vastly different things to different people.

Care to elaborate? I'm not a fan of Vai's own compositions, but I don't think anyone can deny that technically, he is an EXTREMELY talented player and musician. There aren't enough rock musicians out there who can digest such rhythmic complexity. I saw the british band The XX recently on my friend's exuberant recommendation, and I had a nice time but damn, the two guitarists were playing at like, a 1st grade level, IF THAT. Moronically simple three note melodies that would repeat 80x in a song.. and after an hour of that? Pretty damn monotonous. So, whether you would die for prog rock or not.. (it's not my cup of tea), Vai is a musician's musician.
posted by ReeMonster at 8:20 AM on November 26, 2010


I'm sure this is going to be really useful when I'll face the enormous task of playing the music contained in the book that I ordered when I was seventeen - too many years ago. This book seemed like a passport towards some land of oz.
posted by nicolin at 2:26 PM on November 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I was in college, a friend of mine sent me a tape of Flexable Leftovers. I really liked Details at 10 and sat down to figure it out in at least the chord structure. I was frustrated figuring out the bridge and in a flash of inspiration, I sent him a letter asking him if he had TAB that I could buy.

A few weeks later, I got a letter back saying that no, there was no TAB and he intended to print some up some day but he di...oh hey wait, I found the original studio copy - would you mind Xeroxing it and sending it back when you're done?

So in my hands was handwritten music from Vai. In his handwriting. I knew that at that point I could hold onto it - heck of a souvenir. I also knew that would be a serious breach of trust. Theft, really. I copied it and sent it back with a thank you note.

About four years later, I got to meet him at a morning radio show broadcast. I thanked him again and asked him to autograph my guitar, a homemade Strat clone with custom wiring and a custom bridge. At that point, I had played it to death and had turned it into an autograph guitar. He signed it, but not before taking a long look at the autographs that were already there. He was particularly fascinated by John Lee Hooker's autograph, which was in block printing with backwards N's.
posted by plinth at 5:42 AM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like the way "incredible" can mean such vastly different things to different people.

1. so extraordinary as to seem impossible: incredible speed.
2. not credible; hard to believe; unbelievable: The plot of the book is incredible.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 7:31 AM on December 1, 2010


« Older From the NYT Economix blog: Are good-looking peopl...   |   The flat earth and geocentric ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments