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Viva Evolution Dweezil Zappa39s Guitar Odyssey

December 1, 2010
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“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 improvisations?

“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’re on.

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 regimen?

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 is instantaneous.

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 the fact?

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 any computers!

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.

The Dweezilla Music Boot Camp

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!”

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