(This article originally ran in Guitar Player’s August 2006 issue.)
“When people would ask Frank how he wanted to be remembered,” says Dweezil Zappa, sitting in the studio control room tucked inside the rustic confines of Zappa Family Headquarters, “he would say, ‘I don’t. It’s not important.’ Well, to me it is important. I want my kids, and my kid’s kids to feel as strongly as I do about my dad’s music, because it’s so unique. Especially living in a world where so much music sounds the same, there isn’t anything that sounds like Frank.”
So Zappa—who enjoys the distinction of being immortalized with his dad on the cover of the January ’87 issue of GP (which also included a Soundpage)—decided he was going to do something to ensure his father’s work isn’t forgotten. In the process, he put himself in the hot seat as a guitarist.
“I thought the best way to get people interested in Frank’s music was for them to see it performed live,” he says. “But the minute I decided to do the Zappa Plays Zappa tour, I knew my main challenge was to get my guitar skills together. I had to play the really difficult, complex parts found in Frank’s music, as well as improvise solos in the context of that music. So that required rethinking how I play on not only a technical level, but a mental level, too, as I tried to incorporate the idiosyncrasies of his playing into my own playing.”
So Zappa got to work, and gave himself, to use his term, “A Complete Guitar Makeover.” He then assembled a band of young, 20-something musicians, as well as three guest players who served time in his father’s band; Terry Bozzio, Napoleon Murphy Brock, and Steve Vai.
“I feel that if I don’t do this, there’s a chance his music will slip into obscurity within my lifetime,” says Zappa. “Frank is truly one of the great American composers, and he gets major kudos and respect in the classical world, but that world is a lot different than the pop/rock world that can, and will, easily dismiss anything. I don’t want that.”
What has been the biggest challenge in getting this celebration of Frank’s music off the ground?
Where do I begin? My main priority was to make sure the group truly represented the spirit of Frank’s music—which means we have to play the music accurately. I didn’t want this to be thought of as some specialized tribute with a circus atmosphere preying on the mind of the consumer, because Frank’s audience knows that there was integrity in everything he did. We’re not trying to turn this into an overly commercial event. First of all, you can’t commercialize something that’s not commercial. And I don’t say that begrudgingly. I think Frank’s music has the potential to be commercial, in the sense that, if it had exposure, people would like it. But will it be played after an Ashley Simpson song on the radio? I don’t think so.
You’ve said the ZPZ tour is an “official” representation of Frank’s music. What makes it official, and is the ZPZ tour in any way a reaction to other Zappa tribute bands?
On a certain level it is a reaction to those outfits. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people go out and play Frank’s music. And in some small way, they’re contributing to building an audience. But it’s not the same. I feel we’re official, because, well, I’m related, and I believe that makes me the most appropriate person to mount this project. I think my dedication will come across quite easily.
What specifically bothers you when you hear other groups playing Frank’s music?
I’ve heard a lot of different people do versions of Frank’s music, and I’ve never once heard one that made me say, “Wow, they got it right.” Not once. Believe me, if I did hear that, I’d be psyched. You know, “Who are these freaks who can do this?” The versions I hear are usually in the ballpark, but you’re not playing the music correctly if you’re putting your own stuff in there. That’s what I really don’t like. I know how hard it is to play Frank’s music, and I feel for anyone who is trying to do it. But if they’re going to do it, I want them to do it right, because if an audience hears a bad version of his music first, they may not give it a fair chance. That’s what ZPZ is all about—getting people interested in exploring more of Frank’s music.
You’ve put together a band of young, unknown players. Was this intentional?
Yes. I feel Frank’s music is very contemporary, so I wanted to present it onstage in a way that a young person can embrace—and that means seeing someone around their age playing it. I think college-aged kids—and even younger—would be fascinated by this music. They just don’t know about it, because it seems that Frank’s music has skipped a couple of generations.
Why is that?
Much of it is due to the way the media has reported on him throughout his career. Some of it is also because the stuff of his that did make it on the radio—such as “Valley Girl”—really didn’t represent what he was about. Ask a person who doesn’t really know Frank’s work what song they’ve heard, and invariably it’s “Titties & Beer,” or maybe “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” Sure, those songs represent his sense of humor, but he’s not Weird Al Yankovic. He’s a bonafide brilliant composer whose music will stand the test of time. I want people to become more familiar with that aspect, rather than what may have made its way to the public consciousness by accident.
Another reason I feel his music has been overlooked by younger generations is because of the high level of musicianship it takes to play it. Years ago, musicians would aspire to that level. Now, a lot of musicians worry more about achieving the right look, and hoping the label’s clever marketing can put them over the top. There hasn’t been an emphasis anywhere that I’ve seen on finding the best musicians out there, and then giving them an opportunity to play. Maybe in a jazz context, but strictly jazz.
But Frank blended so many styles together—and there was so much going on musically—that once you’re exposed to it, you’re so disappointed that no one else is even trying to do something like that. Who is writing music this hard? And it’s not hard for the sake of being hard. It’s very musical and memorable and cleverly arranged. It’s not an exercise. That’s another reason why I feel younger fans will be inspired by this music, because they may not know there’s a reason to go out and be that good on your instrument.
Was it hard finding young guys who could play Frank’s more difficult stuff?
Yeah. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to find them, but I did. The spirit of the band is amazing. It’s almost like we’re training for the Olympics. It’s difficult music that requires many of the band members to be well-versed in jazz, rock, and classical music, as well as having big enough ears to wrap themselves around the improvisational nature of his music.
What period of Frank’s guitar playing do you find the most inspiring?
The years that make up most of our two-and-a-half-hour set list, 1972-1979. That’s when his tones were the best, he was touring more frequently, and he was playing more. Listen to the Apostrophe’, Over-Nite Sensation, and Roxy & Elsewhere albums—those are milestone records not only for his guitar playing, but for his writing and arranging as well. He was blending rock, jazz, classical, and funk.
You’re playing extremely difficult tunes such as “Black Page #2,” “St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast,” and “Inca Roads” on the guitar. What did you do to work your playing into shape to handle that music?
In order for me to play the really hard stuff on guitar, I had to completely revise my picking technique, as I found strict alternate picking to be too cumbersome. So I studied Frank Gambale’s method, which a lot of people call economy picking. The basic idea of that method is to economize your picking hand’s motion by using successive upstrokes and downstrokes. For example, if you’re playing three-note-to-a-string scales, the picking motion, starting on the low-E string, goes down, up, down, then down when you move to the A string. This allows for high speed with clean execution, and with very little hand movement. It changed the way I play entirely, and it has allowed me to play what I hear in my head.
I also took lessons from players such as Jean-Mark Belkadi and T.J. Helmerich. It was like Guitar University here! And I worked with Brett Garsed, who he showed me how to incorporate the fingers of my picking hand to get to some of the wide intervals in Frank’s music that I couldn’t get to with a pick. I use that technique to play “Black Page #2.” I also took some lessons from the late Ted Greene to round out my knowledge of chords and harmony.
You’re also taking a ton of extended solos during the ZPZ show. Did you refine your improvisational chops, as well?
Oh yeah. I worked from a book by Wayne Krantz called An Improviser’s OS for Guitarists, which I’ve barely scratched the surface of. It’s brilliantly executed with great concepts and exercises, and is somewhat similar to Nicholas Slominsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. My dad loved that book, and he was a friend of Slominsky’s. The coolest thing about the Krantz book is the types of exercise it teaches you to jump start your solos. For example, to limit yourself to, say, three notes. They are the only notes you can play, but you can play them in any order in any octave. Say you’re limited to the 1, b2 and b5. You think you’ll run out of ideas almost instantly, but when you dig in, and try to mix them up rhythmically and by jumping octaves, the possibilities are endless. A lot of those concepts are actually in Frank’s playing and writing.
That kind of discipline is a whole new world for me. In the past, I had my pet, specialized licks that I would just plug in. I was from the “rock guy” school, where a solo means getting your stock licks out. Frank came from an entirely different headspace. He described a solo as “air sculpture,” and that is such a fascinating concept that makes not only improvisation more satisfying, but guitar playing in general more satisfying. His perspective on soloing also required me to listen more to what’s going on around me and react to it, as opposed to only listening to what I’m doing.
Are there aspects of Frank’s playing that show up in your playing simply as a result of DNA?
It’s funny, but his bizarre phrasing and odd note groupings have always been relatively easy for me to capture. That’s probably because I heard him play so much growing up. I’ve heard tapes of me playing when I was 12 years old, and I sound more like Frank than the guys I was trying to sound like—such as Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads.
I’ll tell you, before I decided to better myself as a guitarist, I was a player who couldn’t talk to you about scale degrees and intervals. Studying all of this information has made me a better player, a better musician, and a better improviser. The work was overwhelming—it literally took me six months to work out parts that are less than 30 seconds long—but it was all so much fun. I only wish I had been motivated to do this 15 years ago. Then I would have had the chance to talk to Frank about it. It’s such a pity that it dawned on me too late, but I’m doing the best I can.