“LISTEN TO MY FATHER’S GUITAR PLAYING
and how far he progressed from Freak Out to Roxy and Elsewhere,”
says Dweezil Zappa. “Frank evolved in leaps and
bounds in less than ten years. The amount of growth was
insane.” The younger Zappa, now 41, could just as easily be talking about his own progression as a guitarist.
Nearly five years after the inception of
Zappa Plays Zappa (detailed in the August
2006 GP cover story), Dweezil Zappa has continued
to retool his own guitar playing to near
“lobotomy” proportions. Not only to be able
to handle the elder Zappa’s ridiculously complex
tunes, but also to understand and convey
his old man’s highly personal, and filthy-beautiful
guitar stylings. During it all, ZPZ has
won a Grammy (“Peaches En Regalia” won
Best Instrumental Rock performance in 2009)
and enjoyed a more-than-robust touring
schedule to boot. Not bad, especially considering
that Zappa wasn’t sure about the band’s
prospects starting out.
“We’ve toured twice a year for the past
five years with probably 100 shows a year,”
explains Zappa, fresh off a two-month, 47-
show jag that took ZPZ to Japan, Israel, and
the U.K. among many others. “But in the
beginning, we didn’t know if we would be
successful enough initially to keep on doing
this, so in the band’s first year we really
honed in on the period of my dad’s music
between ’73-’79,” says Zappa. “I figured if
it was a one-shot deal, I might as well focus
on the music that I grew up loving the most.”
But as the band got its gig legs, and shows
started getting added to the itinerary, Frank
Zappa’s huge catalog of music began to seem
very do-able, albeit with a lot of hard work.
“There are so many levels that this music
operates on and there’s so much of it,” he
explains. “We’ve learned over 130 songs,
and a lot of them are the most complicated
pieces that my dad ever wrote. They’re difficult
because of challenging polyrhythms
and sheer note density, and then other tunes,
such as ‘Billy the Mountain,’ is 30 minutes
long and has over 3,000 words of dialog.
When you think about the discipline required
to memorize and execute all of this stuff the
way it’s meant be performed, it’s like training
for the Olympics all the time!” ZPZ’s
new double live album is fittingly titled
Return of the Son of…[Razor & Tie].
The new album really illustrates how ZPZ has
grown as an ensemble.
Yeah, we’ve developed a musical telepathy,
which is a very important aspect of
extended improvisation. We know where each
other will be going, and that’s key because
we try to make sure that anytime improvisation
is happening, that it’s truly something that is feeding on the moment. We don’t want
the same preconceived ideas being reshuffled
in a two-minute jigsaw puzzle every night.
Every time I take a solo, I’m trying to do something
that I’ve never done before.
How would you chart your growth as a player
since ZPZ began?
I’ve grown by leaps and bounds every
year, and it wasn’t through osmosis—it was
through constant practice and study and a
refining of techniques and musical ideas. I’m
very critical of my own playing, and I feel
I’ve gone from, “Hey, I have some newly
acquired technical skills so I’m going to play
a lot of notes for you” [laughs], to using my
chops more sparingly and playing more interesting
melodies. But that’s easier said than
done because it’s easy for me run my fingers up and down the neck while I wait for something
to click. Sometimes that can be cool,
but it’s often not my favorite thing to hear.
Since ZPZ started, I’ve had to work at
playing less and creating more space. I try
to find a balance of making a musical statement
and allowing the technical precision
to help me make the statement. That process
has meant a lot of fine tuning and tweaking
for me. If you equate guitar playing to speaking,
it’s very natural to me to speak in run-on
sentences. I can play a whole lot of notes
while I’m trying to think of the next good
idea. I’m really trying to avoid that. Some
people may like it, but I think there are a lot
of other people waiting for me to actually
connect with them. Hopefully, my run-on
sentences are getting shorter. Frank was
really good at breaking up phrases and leaving
spaces. Little by little I’m adjusting. I
think I’ve made good progress.
How do you get into the headspace to improvise
as freely as possible?
The times when I play the most interesting
things are when I disassociate from my
most engrained guitar habits and don’t think
like a lead guitar player. I need to listen to
what’s happening everywhere else on the
bandstand and respond to that instead of
worrying about driving the boat. Oftentimes
I’ll also put the focus on the rhythmic development
of the solo. Frank was a true master
at that. He was a drummer who became a
guitar player, so the rhythmic element within
his soloing is ridiculously strong. He didn’t
necessarily have the chops to where every
single note was executed perfectly, but the
charm of his playing is that he’s going for
things that he might not be able execute. I
love that reckless abandon he had. The attitude
of, “I’m going to go for the idea, even
if my hands won’t let me do it—my brain
says go for it,” is not one you find these days.
Not too many people are willing to risk that.
I try and capture that spirit in my playing,
but I do have some more technical proficiency than Frank did, so I sometimes tone
my chops down and slop it up a little bit.
Do you ever use any harmonic strategies for
“Zomby Woof” on the new live album is
an example of one of the few times I had a
particular strategy for a solo and stuck with
it throughout. The idea was, I know the solo
is in the key of A, but I’m not going to play
in the key of A. Instead, I’ll play a note that
is out and will totally mess with your head,
and I’m going to make you like that note by
letting the rhythms provide the contour that
shapes your ability to follow the solo. An
audience can pick up on repeated rhythmic
figure and not care what the notes are, as
long as you have an interesting resolution.
I could play “Happy Birthday” with all of the wrong notes, but you would still recognize
the tune because of the rhythm. Being able
to play outside the key signature and stay
out there is also something I’ve improved
on. I’ve trained my ear to hear those out
notes much better.
How did you get comfortable playing “out?”
I just told myself that there are no wrong
notes. If you have enough of an imagination,
you can keep exploring where that one weird
note will take you. It’s tough at first, and
you’ll find yourself running back to the comfort
of the blues scale, but give it time and
keep exploring. The resolution will be one
fret away, either above or below the note
You play the unison lines of “Inca Roads” with
a combination of sweep picking and hybrid picking.
You used to only sweep it. Why the change?
After playing these tunes for a while, I
found better ways to cope with some of the
real hard stuff. Sometimes I have to alternate,
hybrid, and sweep pick, all in one
phrase. The intervallic structure of some of
the melodies is so outside the lines of what
constitutes “normal guitar playing,” my outlook
on what’s possible on the instrument
has grown immensely.
Your dad said he rarely picked up a guitar
unless a tour was coming up. Do you go with that
Well, I definitely play a lot more when a
tour is approaching. When I get off the road
I stop for a bit so I can play with my kids,
then I slowly get back to playing and trying
to get some fresh ideas together for the next
tour. Each time we go out I try to have new
technical things, say, weird note groupings
or, in the case of the last couple of tours,
more hybrid picking. It takes a lot of work
before you can just whip it out. Not everything
You’re playing “Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt,” “He
Used to Cut the Grass,” and “Yo Mama.” Didn’t Frank
put those extended solo sections together after
Definitely. They sound like such amazing
performances, but they were performances
that never really happened. See, Frank would
take a guitar solo and put it over an entirely
different backing track—he called the process
xenochrony. He had an amazing ability to
take unrelated musical items and make them
sound like they should be together. He would
even take one solo that’s in a relative key of
a backing track and layer it on top for a totally
different tonality. It was never as simple as,
“This track is in E and this solo is in E.” I’m
not absolutely certain, but I think the solo
on “Yo Mama” was actually Frank practicing
backstage, and he recorded it on a Nagra tape
recorder, eventually placing it over a totally
different rhythm track. The fact that it lines
up rhythmically just blows my mind—and he did that kind of stuff when there weren’t
ZPZ has a new DVD coming out. How important
is the visual representation of the band?
It’s very important for me to be able to
show the audience a visual representation of
all of the details in my father’s music. We
worked hard as a band to make this music
audible, so I worked equally as hard to make
it visible. We recorded it at the Roxy, and not
only does the DVD feature some very difficult
tunes such as “Purple Lagoon” and “Don’t
You Ever Wash That Thing?,” it marks the
first time that I have actually edited a DVD
project on my own. I was always involved in
the editing process before, but I was never
pushing the buttons. This time I was. I learned
how to use Sony Vegas video editing software,
and I edited the entire concert on my own.
My basic goal is to always show the audience
what they are hearing. I’m not a fan of the
predictable “extraneous dancing lead singer”
shots during integral musical passages or
important solos found in so many music
DVDs—the music always suffers from those
kinds of decisions in my opinion.
Your dad listened to Johnny “Guitar” Watson
and Guitar Slim among others. Did you ever listen
to them to gain extra insight into Frank’s playing?
Not really. The way he interpreted Johnny
“Guitar” Watson or Clarence “Gatemouth”
Brown, or other blues guys he liked, was very
different. It’s not like he played their licks.
He wasn’t that kind of player. He infused
their attitude into his playing. In fact, I don’t
think you can find a single instance in all of
Frank’s recorded guitar solos where you can
say that is someone else’s lick. He truly spontaneously
composed, reacting to the music
going on around him. However, I do feel that
Frank is one of the most underrated blues
guitar players ever. When he tears up a blues,
it’s not like Stevie Ray Vaughan or other guys
who are really great at the blues, but often
play really predictable turnarounds. Frank
ate the blues up, but in such a different way.
The track “Merely a Blues in A,” from the
album Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank
Zappa; A Memorial Tribute showcases what I’m
talking about. It’s an awesome, very un-guitar
approach to the blues.
Frank’s improvisational ability can’t be
overstated. Take the solos on tunes such as
“Sleep Dirt” or “Watermelon in Easter Hay,”
for example. It’s haunting how he was able
to improvise those phrases and also develop
themes while ratcheting up the emotional
content. It’s ridiculous.
On Return of the Son Of… you get real close
to some of your father’s signature tones. Which
are the hardest ones to cop?
Frank had so many unique guitar sounds,
and as we progress and play more and more
music from different periods, I want the
sounds to reflect the period as well. There are
a couple of tones on the Shut Up and Play Yer
Guitar albums where it’s heavily modulated,
to the point of being out of tune, but it’s so
cool. He called it the “Bulgarian bagpipe
sound” and you can hear it on tracks like “Shut
Up and Play Yer Guitar,” “Return of the Son of Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar,” “Variations
on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression,”
and “Why Can’t Johnny Read.” It’s an
effect from the ’70s called the Dynaflanger
from a company called MicMix. Frank ran two
of them to knock his guitar out of tune with
that over-the-top modulation. I’m actually
using the same Dynaflangers he used, but it’s
all trial and error trying to get them to sound
the way he did. Plus, the way his guitar reacted
with the effect is a lot different than mine.
He had +17dB more level coming out of his
guitar with onboard preamps. I’ve gone into
the Fractal and made a recreation of the
Dynaflangers, and when I A/B it with the originals,
it’s close. The Dynaflangers make a lot
more noise, which is both good and bad, but
there’s no denying that the extra noise and
grunge is a big part of that sound.
Do you see the ZPZ experience influencing
your own music?
It might, but I can’t say for sure because
I haven’t had the time to write anything. I’m
going through a rebalancing in life in general,
and I think writing will be a part of my
life very soon. In the future some of my own
music will probably come into play with ZPZ.
I may rearrange some of my old stuff. I’m
also looking forward to writing new music
to challenge the band.
How do you learn tunes for the set? Do you
read, or do you figure them out by ear?
I’m not a good reader so I just listen. We
use Seventh String’s Transcribe! software to
slow things down. When we have too much
difficulty, we pull the master tapes out of the
vault and listen to tracks individually. We had
to do that recently for the tune “The Big
Swifty,” because the harmonies were so dense.
We needed to listen to every instrument individually
to faithfully recreate those clusters.
What are the biggest obstacles for ZPZ has as
a thriving, working band?
The challenge is for people to understand
what this band actually is. Too many people
think it’s a cover band, but I mean, you can call an orchestra a cover band because they’re
playing someone else’s music. Frank used a
rock band as an orchestra and that’s our
approach. Cover bands are associated with
nostalgia and that’s a fine, viable source of
entertainment—but cover bands don’t typically
win Grammy awards.
You’ve always stressed the importance of getting
your father’s music to a younger generation.
Have you made progress?
I see more young people in the audience
every tour. When I see kids, I bring them up.
I’ll put my guitar on a six year-old that doesn’t
know how to play and help him out, or
we’ll bring some teenagers up for a dance contest.
I want them to connect with this music
for a lifetime and discover it as their own.
Frank’s music really is current music, not nostalgia.
It’s not your parent’s music being
played by people who played with my father.
What’s wonderful about the band now is that
it’s not about alumni members. We have a
more youthful appearance and we go up there
and let the music speak for itself. It doesn’t have to be alumni playing it—they’re not the
reason the music sounded the way it did.
Is it an uphill battle to reach younger people
because of the way music is consumed these days?
Yes. I’m 41, and I already feel like I’m
from a whole different generation when I
talk about “young people these days.” The
reality is this: Kids today have nowhere near
the same connection to music as the generations
before them. They never will. They’ll
never have the experience of buying an album
and taking the time to sit down, listen, and
even read the liner notes and look at pictures
and ask, “What does this music mean
to me?” That doesn’t exist. Now, they’re
going to watch the music or have it in the
background while they do 12,000 other
things—they certainly aren’t going to buy
it. The devaluation of music is a problem.
Frank used to say music has become wallpaper
for people’s lifestyles.
ZPZ recently opened up a show for Jeff Beck
in Los Angeles. How was that?
Beck is a true master of his craft. I watch
him, but I don’t understand how he does
what he does. I do know that it’s all in his
hands. At one point he and Frank were going
to do an album together but Beck’s record
company said no because they thought it
would ruin Jeff’s career! The best part of that
show, however, was that Eddie Van Halen
came and watched from the side of the stage.
That was such a full circle event for me. I’d
been to so many Van Halen concerts over the
years and Eddie’s been to two of mine. The
first was a talent show I played at my school
when I was 12. I played “Running With the
Devil,” very badly of course, and Eddie
showed up to watch. I asked him if he remembered the last time he saw one of my gigs?
He said, “Yeah, it was at your school!” It was
great. We had a chance to play a bit backstage
and I showed him some of the things
I had to learn in order to pull off Frank’s complicated
music. Eddie said, “I don’t know
how your dad came up with that stuff, let
alone how you figured out how to play it!”
At a certain point, he laughed and said, “Who
would have thought that you would be giving
me a guitar lesson!” Understand I say that
with all the respect in the world. For him to
even remotely acknowledge me showing him
anything—that was an amazing moment.
IN THE SUMMER OF 2011, DWEEZIL ZAPPA AND THE
rest of ZPZ will be hosting the second annual Dweezilla Music
Boot Camp in the beautiful expanse
of the Catskill Forest Preserve in Big Indian, New York. (You
can click to dweezilzappaworld.com for sign-up info.) “I thought
the people who supported Frank’s music might like to have
some one-on-one time with the players in ZPZ,” explains Zappa.
“It’s not a fantasy camp where you only learn how to play Frank’s
music, however. You learn different styles of music and how
to be a better musician. You get private lessons, concerts—a
four-day extravaganza.” In addition to ZPZ members, ZPZ’s
crew will be there as well, imparting live sound and gear tips.
“We’ve had 14 year-olds to people in their mid-60s,” says
Zappa, who not only touts the Boot Camp’s gourmet meals, but the fact that all of the
classes are optional and open to everyone. “You have the chance to get into a different
musician’s headspace that way,” Zappa explains. “As a guitarist, you can benefit from learning
what a drummer thinks about when they improvise. You also get an idea how to count
out different rhythms and understand what they are and use them in your music without
making them sound like an exercise—the guitar is really a percussion instrument, right?
“I love teaching everyone, but my favorites are the real beginners,” he continues. One
particular student who came from Australia had only been playing for a few months, and
he asked, ‘What do I have to work on so that I can do what you do?’ I said there’s a lot,
but the good news is, you have a lot less to unlearn, than I did!”