What I learned at Dweezilla Boot Camp

February 8, 2012

Last summer, 100 or so Zappa fans converged for five days at the Full Moon Resort nestled in the scenic wilds of New York’s Catskill Mountains. They came for Dweezilla Boot Camp, Dweezil Zappa’s annual musical extravaganza featuring classes taught by Dweezil and the Grammy-winning cast of Zappa Plays Zappa. Other goodies included great food, exclusive ZPZ performances, private lessons, gear demos, and casual chats with hangers-on like Flo and Eddie, Tony Levin, and Andy Aledort, as well as reps from Fractal Audio, Pigtronix, Voodoo Lab, and PRS. I personally appreciated the musician- friendly scheduling of activities which ran from a civilized 10:30 in the morning to 1:00 a.m. The camp’s motto was appropriate: “Learn and Destroy,” meaning absorb as much info as possible and destroy all musical boundaries in the process.

In Dweezil’s master classes he suggested improvising with complex rhythmic phrases similar to those used by his father. Frank Zappa had a ferocious picking hand, so these licks should all be worked up to challenging tempos. Dweezil’s first example [Ex. 1] deals with quintuplets broken down into of two- and three-note groups and moved across the strings in an A Dorian tonality.

He then suggested moving into a higher position and reversing the accents, so that the three is placed before the two in each quintuplet, as in Ex. 2.

The song “Po-Jama People,” as recorded on One Size Fits All, fades out on the studio version and was never played live, so Dweezil devised the tricky ending lick in Ex. 3 to be used by his band. Notice how the ideas in Ex. 1 are woven into a longer phrase that employs large left-hand stretches and changing rhythmic emphasis. Zappa has followed in his father’s footsteps by truly improvising and never playing his solos the same way twice. He encouraged the students to take chances by altering their rhythmic accents and note selections while moving ideas around the neck. The Zappa soloing method is largely driven by unusual rhythms, which makes sense considering that Frank started out on drums, not guitar.

Another interesting concept at the camp was Ex. 4’s process of creating complex voicings. Frank liked to superimpose sus2 chords at various intervals against other chords. While the class strummed an Am triad, Dweezil played the sequence of sus2 chords against it. The tensions created range from mild to bizarre, as follows:

Csus2 + Am = Am11
Dsus2 + Am = Am11
Esus2 + Am = Amadd6, 9
F#sus2 + Am = Amin/maj7#11, 13
Absus2 + Am = Amin/maj7b5, b9
Bbsus2 + Am = Amb9, b13

Dweezil also mentioned that these chords can be arpeggiated and transformed into melodies instead of merely strummed as chords. Try this with a friend or in the recording studio, laying down one track of Am and then one track of sus chords to hear how they blend.

One fascinating revelation of the week was Dweezil’s admission that he is “not very good at reading music.” When asked how he managed to learn complex pieces like the infamous “The Black Page” without reading, he explained that he had imported MIDI files of the composition into software that enabled him to slow the music down. After memorizing it by ear he then juggled his fingerings until he was able to play it at full speed. ZPZ drummer Joe Travers was amazed to hear this, having assumed that Dweezil had learned the tune by studying his father’s epic score.

Needless to say, after five days of exposure to the sophisticated musical world of Frank and Dweezil Zappa, their awesome fans, and the ideas and sounds of the topnotch players they surround themselves with, I left camp feeling refreshed and inspired to learn and destroy all boundaries in my own playing.

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