The Drummers Of Frank Zappa

By Mark Griffith

Modern Drummer, July 1999

Throughout the history of drumming there have been a few gigs that have made a special impact on the music and drumming communities. Playing with the likes of Miles Davis, Sting, Steely Dan, Chick Corea, Weather Report, or John Scofield has automatically entered the drummers into a respected elite. But in some respects, playing with Frank Zappa has inspired even greater awe among drummers, and carried a special mystique that stems from the leader's demanding reputation and his penchant for over-the-top musical complexity.

Many younger drummers immediately associate Chad Wackerman, Vinnie Colaiuta, or Terry Bozzio with Zappa's bands. But few remember the other important Zappa drummers: Aynsley Dunbar, Chester Thompson, Ralph Humphrey, and Jimmy Carl Black. Yet all of these drummers contributed significantly to the demands of this prestigious gig.

To properly understand Zappa's drummers, you must first understand the history of Frank's music. Zappa's style of "fusion" went beyond jazz and rock 'n' roll to include doo-wop, folk music from around the world, sea chanteys, the blues, and twentieth-century classical. Zappa's musicians had to be ready to play anything their leader's expansive musical mind could envision. Let's look at the recorded legacy and the evolution of the drummers of Frank Zappa.

Frank Zappa himself was a drummer. His early drumming efforts, which can be beard on four tracks from The Lost Episodes, aren't groundbreaking, yet they are loose and very confident. One can only wonder if Frank's experimentation with an expanded rhythmic language can be traced to his early drwnming. Zappa's other early experimemal recordings (all included on The Lost Episodes) include drummers Chuck Grove, Vic Mortensen, and Drumbo (John French).

The first drummer to play in Zappa's Mothers Of Invention was Jimmy Carl Black, on the influential Freak Out! Jimmy's playing sounds like an extension of Zappa's early drumming: loose, orchestrated, supportive, and unpredictable. It's also interesting to note that it possesses the same relentlessness and sense of reckless abandon that many of the later Zappa drummers are now known for. Covering unusual, creative themes, early Zappa music was very "'60s," without being overly psychedelic. Freak Out!, Absolutely Free, and We're Only in It For The Money are quintessential examples of rebellious creative '60s music, and all feature Jimmy Carl Black. As the rock-solid foundation of The Mothers Of Invention, he began the long tradition of adventuresome Zappa drummers. Jimmy is also the drummer on Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, Zappa's excursion into traditional doo-wop music.

Zappa's seminal Lumpy Gravy, the first of many orchestral recordings, was released in 1967. It included great studio drummers like Shelly Manne, John Guerin, Paul Humphrey, and Frankie Capp, but did not document a working Zappa band. For this article, we will only discuss the drummers who played with the working and touring Zappa bands.

Back in The Mothers Of Invention, Jimmy Carl Black was soon joined by drummer/percussionist Billy Mundi, who was later replaced by Arthur Dyer Tripp. Both Mundi and Tripp furthered the rhythmic support of the band, but Black remained tbe band's primary drummer. The addition of a percussionist who also played drums expanded the Zappa sound a great deal. This second edition of The Mothers Of Invention was best documented on the live recording Ahead Of Their Time and the popular Uncle Meat. The home video Uncle Meat includes footage of this band in action. The Mothers also appeared on the recordings Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. This music was aggressive and entertaining, but sometimes lacked the focus of earlier recordings such as Freak Out! This focus would soon be restored, however, with the changing of some personnel and a lot of new music.

One change came when Aynsley Dunbar joined Zappa and recorded Hot Rats, which featured the momentous compositions "Willie The Pimp" and "Peaches En Regalia," both of which Zappa would play with all of his later bands. Hot Rats introduces Dunbar as a sturdy but adventurous drummer. This mostly instrumental recording clearly defined the direction of all of the future Zappa bands. Hot Rats is a true classic, and Aynsley Dunbar is one of the reasons why.

Chunga's Revenge is a very good recording that successfully combined the humor and satire of Zappa's earlier vehicle with the instrumental prowess of the new band. Again, Dunbar is aggressive, creative, and powerful. Pay close attention to bis amazing solo on "The Nancy And Mary Music." Also check out Zappa's return to drumming, on the melodic drum and percussion solo "The Clap." Here Frank's playing is more precise, while remaining loose and spontaneous. Unfortunately, Chunga's Revenge was largely overlooked because of the great success of Hot Rats, but both the music and the drumming are excellent.

The Mothers Of Invention and an orchestra are featured throughout Zappa's next recording, 200 Motels, which is a soundtrack to a bizarre film of the same name. While remaining solid, Dunbar began to use a more advanced rhythmic vocabulary and play more over-the-top. Just Another Band From LA. is a good live recording featuring Dunbar, but the Live Fillmore East, June 1971 recording captures this band at its best. Also check out Playground Psychotics, The Grand Wazoo, and Waka/Jawaka.

Nineteen seventy-three brought another change of drummers, and a change of musical attitude. The '70s brought fusion to the musical forefront. Zappa's influence was undeniable, but he bad also been influenced by the original fusion bands. Fusion pioneer violinist Jean Luc Ponty and keyboardist George Duke had now joined Zappa, and the drummer was the technical wizard and fusion forefather Ralph Humphrey.

Each Zappa drummer conformed to the requirements established by the drummers before him, but also added his own distinct voice. The common denominator that unites them all was unbridled and fearless creativity. In retrospect, Humphrey seems to have been the logical next step in the evolution of the Zappa drummers. His playing was slippery, and his advanced rhythmic concept furthered the complexity that Dunbar had introduced. Ralph refined the spontaneity of Jimmy Carl Black, but was more sophisticated and adventurous than either Black or Dunbar.

Ralph Humphrey's first recording with Zappa was the exciting Over-Nite Sensation. This recording captured a band of virtuoso musicians playing everything that Zappa could dish out. Fortunately, this "fearless fusion" band was also caught live on Piquantique, from the Beat The Boots series of Zappa's officially sanctioned bootleg recordings. Piquantique features one of the first "impossible to play" Zappa compositions, "Kung Fu." (This tradition of daunting compositions includes "RDNZL," "The Black Page," and "Drowning Witch," all of which gave even the best Zappa bands and drummers plenty to chew on.) These are two priceless recordings of a stunning band that permanently established the Zappa musical direction.

The next recording, Apostrophe, was released in 1974. It featured both Dunbar and Humphrey, as well as studio legends Jim Gordon and John Guerin. This recording is particularly important because it introduced several Zappa "standards," including "Nanook Rubs It," "Cosmik Debris," and "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow." The drumming on Apostrophe is tasteful, but unusually sparse. This sparseness left the compositions open for a great deal of interpretation by later drummers.

It is these interpretations that make Zappa music very interesting, and what made Frank's bands almost "jazz-like." Zappa's many bands interpreted the "Zappa standards" in the same way that jazz groups have intepreted standards like "Autumn Leaves" and "There Will Never Be Another You."

Ralph Humphrey had been in the Zappa ensemble for about a year when in 1974 a second drummer, Chester Thompson, was added to the group. The double drummer idea was nothing new to the Zappa band, but whereas Arthur Dyer Tripp and Billy Mundi had also doubled on percussion while Jimmy Carl Black played only drumset, Humphrey and Thompson both played the kit. Chester fit the Zappa concept like a glove, and the synergy of die two drwnmers – as well as percussionist extraordinaire Ruth Underwood, who was also featured in the 1974 band – provided an adventurous, dense, and virtuosic rhythmic springboard for this amazing group.

Roxy & Elsewhere, with its shining "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing" and "Son Of Orange County," is one of Zappa's alltime best recordings, a virtual study in odd time signatures and aggressive drumming. Note in particular Humphrey and Thompson's signature double-drummer tom fill on "More Trouble Every Day," which later snuck into Genesis's "Afterglow."

Less dian six months later, Humphrey departed the band, leaving Chester Thompson as the lone drummer. With a lot of touring under the band's belt, die music got faster, looser, and even more aggressive. This sleeker Zappa ensemble (reduced from eleven members to only six) is captured on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2, The Helsinki Concert. Chester's astounding live (solo) presence deserved to be documented. According to Zappa, this was one of the audience's favorite ensembles, as well as one of his own.

The next recording, Studio Tan, shows an ideal cross-section of Frank Zappa's broad compositional range, and Chester Thompson sounds great throughout. "The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary" is typical of Zappa's twisted Broadway show-like story/compositions, and the challenging "RDNZL" appears on many different recordings. "Revised Music For Guitar And Low Budget Orchestra" is a standout example of Zappa's group supported by an orchestra. And "Lemme Take You To The Beach" is a brief experinient with surf-influenced pop music. (Studio drummer Paul Humphrey sits in for Thompson only on this track.) Chester Thompson also plays on One Size Fits All.

The next drummer to fill the Zappa drum chair was Terry Bozzio. Terry combined die wild sense of humor and spontaneity of Jimmy Carl Black, die hard-hitting aggressiveness of Aynsley Dunbar, the sheer virtuosity of Ralph Humphrey, and the groove of Chester Thompson. On the live Bongo Fury Bozzio stays "inside" while providing a firm foundation for Zappa and Captain Beefheart's musical antics. And he is a dominating presence on parts of Orchestral Favorites, one of the most outstanding Zappa recordings.

Zappa's large group was back for Live In New York, the first recording that contains Bozzio's famous "Black Page" drum solo. Also check out the amazing "Cruisin' For Burgers." This adventurous band's groove was relentless, largely because Terry and bassist Patrick O'Hearn always kept the band firmly grounded. No drummer has ever orchestrated drum parts like Terry Bozzio, with his signature aggression, grace, and control.

Sheik Yerbouti isn't as unbridled as the previous recordings with Bozzio, but like Apostrophe, it created a foundation for future interpretation. Check out the amazing "Rubber Shirt," "Dancin' Fool," and "Yo Mama." Terry also shines on two tunes from the Sleep Dirt recording, "Filthy Habits" and "The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution," and plays on 1975's Zoot Allures.

Terry's last album with the Zappa band (recorded in 1977, but not released until 1983) was the live Baby Snakes (available as a CD and a video). This recording includes many of the same tunes from Live In New York, and played by a much smaller band with a less aggressive approach. Still, the video is an insightful look at a live Zappa performance fearuring Bozzio.

For an interesting study of how Terry's drumming evolved while he was with Zappa, listen to Bongo Fury, Live In New York, and Baby Snakes consecutively. Recorded almost exactly a year apart from each other, these three live albums invite comparison.

Drummer David Logeman had a brief stay in the Zappa band, recording the entire You Are What You Is and some of the live Tinsel Town Rebellion. Like Apostrophe and Sheik Yerbouti, You Are What You Is is an important album not so much for the playing, but instead for the many Zappa standards it introduced. Logeman's drumming was sure and firm, but his Zappa days were short. He briefly re-joined the band in 1980.

This brings us to the inimitable Vinnie Colaiuta. The Zappa classic Joe's Garage, Acts. I, II & III features Vinnie from beginning to end (although Terry Bozzio does brief vocal duties as Bald-Headed John, one of the story's numerous wacky characters). This satirical, frequently lewd opus (described in the liner notes as "a stupid story about how the government is trying to do away with music") includes "Dong Work For Yuda," "Keep It Greasey," and "Watermelon In Easter Hay." Joe's Garage features a litt le of everything drum-wise: inside, outside, reggae, groove, funky, etc. Many drummers have raved about this recording in the pages of Modern Drummer, and it's a recording that every drummer should own.

On die other side of things, the three volumes of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar are completely outside and not for everyone. It will take a while for your ears to acclimate to the musical craziness on these amazing discs, which find Zappa superimposing guitar and rhythm section parts from different performances. The result is some of the most over-the-top rock 'n' roll music ever produced. I also highly recommend The Frank Zappa Guitar Book to any drummer who wants to further investigate Colaiuta's rhythmic approach. It includes transcriptions of these recordings (mostly guitar, but quite a few drum transcriptions as well).

Tinsel Town Rebellion is the only "official" live recording Vinnie made with Zappa. However, Any Way The Wind Blows and Saarbrücken 1978 from the Beat The Boots bootleg series are the best documents of Vinnie's live performances with Zappa. Stylistically these three recordings fall somewhere between Joe's Garage and Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar. Colaiuta's last performances with Zappa were on two tracks from The Man From Utopia.

The last drummer to hold the coveted 'Zappa drum chair was Chad Wackerman. Chad joined the band in 1981, and recorded most of The Man From Utopia. Next came Ship Arriving Too late To Save A Drowning Witch, featuring "I Come From Nowhere" and the hit single "Valley Girl." While hardly typical Zappa, Utopia, Ship, and Wackerman's next recording, Them Or Us, did document a new direction for the Zappa band.

You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vols. 1-6 display Chad ingeniously interpreting all of his predecessors. This series consists of compilations of live performances of all of Zappa's bands, but a majority of the performances (except for Volume 2) include Wackerman on drums.

Wackerman and percussionist Ed Mann are also featured on the London Symphony Orchestra, Vols. I & II recordings (now issued together as a set). Though drumset isn't used on the entire album, it is interspersed beautifully throughout the compositions. "Pedro's Dowry," "Bogus Pomp," and "Strictly Genteel" were previously recorded on Orchestral Favorites (with Bozzio ), and the different approaches are fascinating to study. Wackerman is explosive on the first movement of "Bob In Dacron," and very melodic on the first movement of ''Mo N' Herb's Vacation."

London Symphony Orchestra, Vols. I & II is a perfect resource for studying the abstract side of Chad Wackerman's drumming. Here he occasionally sounds like the avant-garde jazz drummmers of the late '60s. This is some of the most exciting "out" drumset playing ever recorded.

In 1984 Zappa recorded Thing-Fish and the live CD and video Does Humor Belong In Music?, both of which feature Wackerman. Humor bears some similarities to Them Or Us, but die video release is a gem. For those who haven't seen Wackerman play, this is a great way to do so. His effortless approach and relaxed execution are unparalleled.

Both Mothers Of Prevention and Jazz From Hell feature a large amount of programmed Synclavier drumming by Zappa, which gives us another glimpse of his drumming concept as it had been influenced by a long line of fantastic players. Not surprisingly, however, these Synclavier-rendered performances are a little stiff.

Frank Zappa's last working band (known as "the 1988 band") was a twelve-member ensemble that could do anything. The three amazing live recordings Broadway The Hard Way, Make A Jazz Noise Here, and The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life are superb documents of an extremely versatile ensemble being poked and prodded by Chad Wackerman's challenging drumming. The very satirical Broadway The Hard Way also finds Sting sitting in on a stirring version of The Police's ''Murder By Numbers." Make A Jazz Noise Here is even better, because it focuses on music more than satire.

Frank Zappa asked this band to do everything from "Stairway To Heaven," Ravel's "Bolero," and "Theme From Bonanza" to Zappa standards such as "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue." The 1988 band was The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, a title derived from the fact that many audiences never had a chance to see and hear them live. This recording is a Zappa – and drumming – classic.

Frank Zappa released almost fifty recordings in his all-too-brief but extremely prolific twenty-five-year career. In studying this strange, intricate music, as well as the "family tree" of Frank's influential drummers and the high standards he held them to, we can all become much better musicians. Thanks to Jimmy, Billy, Arthur, Aynsley, Ralph, Chester, Terry, David, Vinnie, Chad – and most of all to Frank Zappa, a true genius.