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Give The Drummer Some: On the record with Zappa's Drum Alumni

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This excerpt appears in The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling (Harper Paperbacks, 2008).

Composer/bandleader/guitarist Frank Zappa needs no introduction. He was an incredibly prolific musician who died in December 1993, and his estate, the Zappa Trust, is still releasing new editions of never-before-heard recordings organized under the late maestro's supervision. While Zappa's legacy has been much discussed over the years, a brief overview of his relationship with drums and drummers is in order. Frank's first instrument was the snare drum, and his first composition, (written at age 13), was a solo drum piece entitled "Mice." The mid-60's edition of his group, The Mothers of Invention, was one of the first rock bands to feature two drummers. As Frank's reputation grew, so did the respect for the players who occupied the drum chair in his many illustrious bands. Rather than us analyze his drum-centric attitude, we're happy to let some of Frank's old percussion associates tell it like it is. Special acknowledgement must go to the late Jimmy Carl Black, the original Mothers Of Invention drummer who was always generous with his time and grateful to many his fans all over the world. So, without any further delay, let's give the drummer some, it's the least we can do.

(in chronological order)

Jimmy Carl Black (1964-'69)

"Frank was originally a drummer before he was a guitarist. He was a big fan of Edgard Varese who also wrote a lot of percussion pieces. Frank used percussion better than anybody else has ever used it in a "rock" band, if that's what we were. I didn't read drum music that well, not like Artie Tripp did. We played good together, I played the rhythm and Artie could do whatever he had to. Frank had a way of writing my parts out for me-he knew my limitations."

Aynsley Dunbar (1969-'71)

"His mind must have been preprogrammed to percussion because his ideas flowed with a drummer's ideas. He liked the drums to get excited behind him and play with his riffs. He wrote music from drums, especially percussion, and knew what it should sound like. I started to feel it wasn't necessary to be in the band anymore because everything was starting to get written out. The only room was behind solos. I'm not one of those guys who like to play the same prearranged thing note-for-note every day."

Chester Thompson (1973-'74)

"Frank had great effect on me as far as being able to play with precision. I learned a lot about odd time signatures from Ralph Humphrey and that was great because I had so much to absorb coming into the band. When I joined, it was two drummers and my job to supply a funk side to what was going on. I still had to learn the book, but between Ralph's way of breaking down time signatures and Frank's understanding of what could and should happen, it was a great education."

Terry Bozzio (1975-'78)

"It was a special connection because Frank understood what drummers were doing and he dug it. [As Frank's drummer] you're in this unique position of being a guy who really has to go all ways. You had to be able to improvise your ass off and you needed to be able to hear and interact with Frank in terms of improvisation to accompany him. Then you had to be able to read because the drummer was always expected to play the classical stuff and all of the more intricate music as well."

Vinnie Colaiuta (1978-'79/1980)

"'The Black Page' is a great piece of music on its own and it did a huge service in terms of legitimizing the role of the drum set in ways that people didn't realize. Frank treated drums like a legitimate instrument. Rhythmically, he wrote structured music for the drum kit that was never done before. 'The Black Page' stands all on its own compositionally—that's what it represents as a piece of music and that's what it did for the drum set as an instrument."

Chad Wackerman (1981-'88)

"I showed some of my parts to other drummers and they didn't know how to start. But you break things down slowly like you would with any difficult piece. His music demanded fearlessness. That's the only way you could play it-if you took away the fear then it opens up for you. I worked with Frank and the London Symphony Orchestra playing multiple percussion parts on the drum kit. Frank told me, 'You realize that the drum-set has never been used this way, ever? We're making history here!'"

Learn more about The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling. © 2008, Mitch Myers

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