A loner, Zappa taught himself to play electric guitar and drums. He also spent prodigious amounts of time playing the hi-fi, carefully studying the recordings of such Chicago blues greats as Muddy Waters, and such leading avant-garde classical composers as Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky.
Zappa's first live gigs were as a drummer--in garage bands and in the high school marching band. He was thrown out of the latter after the bandmaster caught him smoking in uniform.
"For that, I will be eternally grateful," he later wrote. Zappa, however, continued playing rock, eventually forming the Blackouts, which he described as "the only R&B band in the entire Mojave Desert."
After failures in filmmaking, college and a first marriage, Zappa moved to Los Angeles. There, he became the guitarist for a group called the Soul Giants, which eventually transmogrified into the Mothers of Invention.
The time was the mid-1960s, an era of rich experimentation in rock music. San Francisco had the psychedelic movement. England had the increasingly eclectic Beatles. And Los Angeles had, among others, Zappa and the Mothers, whose satirical, theatrical musical montages were unlike anything else to have ever hit the airwaves.
Their first recording, "Freak Out," was later described in the Rolling Stone Record Guide as "rock's first experimental music masterpiece, influenced mainly by such modern composers as Edgar Varese, but with an anarchist aggression that is far more defiantly celebratory than arty."
In sales figures, the 1966 two-record set had moderate commercial success. As music, it had limited influence on mainstream tastes--although Paul McCartney was once said to have cited it as an inspiration for the Beatles' seminal "Sgt. Pepper's" album.
Yet as a cultural document, such songs as "Who Are the Brain Police?" and "Help, I'm a Rock" had a significant impact. In a time of social outrage, the Mothers were crowned the kings of outrageousness.
A common sight in lava lamp-lit college dorms of the era were posters of Zappa sitting naked on a toilet seat--titled Phi Zappa Krappa. And in concert swings around the United States and Europe, the Mothers exhibited a decidedly Dada streak--Zappa occasionally stopping the music in mid-song to relax, read a newspaper and taunt the audience.
But by 1970, the entire band had quit or been fired by Zappa, who viewed the Mothers as means to his ends more than as musical cohorts.
The prolific Zappa and the latest incarnations of his group continued to tour and record, as well as release a zany, free-form film, "200 Motels," based on life on the road.
In 1974, Zappa had a minor AM radio hit with "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," about relieving yourself in the Arctic. In 1979, he scored with a disco parody "Dancin' Fool." Three years later came "Valley Girl," which reached No. 32 on the Billboard charts.
"It was a joke," he told the Washington Post about his hit. "It just goes to show that the American public loves to celebrate the infantile. I mean I don't want people to act like that. I think Valley Girls are disgusting."
In truth, Zappa found much of American culture revolting. An articulate man of contrary tastes, Zappa detested love songs (characterizing them as "one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States"), drugs, hippies, corporate record companies, the public school system and fundamentalist Christianity.
By the late 1980s, the lanky musician seemed to spend as much time in a business suit as with a guitar strapped around his neck.
With the post-Cold War era, Zappa, who called himself "a devout capitalist," also became a business consultant, brokering joint commercial ventures with the Soviet Union and in 1990 served briefly as guest host of an interview program on cable's Financial News Network.
Zappa was a "relentlessly driven" worker, said longtime friend and free-lance writer Rip Rense, recording countless compositions and running his various business enterprises from the sprawling house where he lived with his family for more than two decades. In all, Zappa released more than 40 albums.