Dweezil Zappa: Sharing the Force

“We’ve made a set change that should be pretty obvious,” announces Dweezil Zappa as his Zappa Plays Zappa band launches into an orchestrated rock take on the theme from Star Wars before morphing seamlessly into Frank Zappa’s “Inca Roads.”

“We’ve made a set change that should be pretty obvious,” announces Dweezil Zappa as his Zappa Plays Zappa band launches into an orchestrated rock take on the theme from Star Wars before morphing seamlessly into Frank Zappa’s “Inca Roads.”

Tonight, at a Guitar Player Presents event at San Francisco’s ornate Warfield Theatre, Zappa is featuring music from his father’s 1975 album, One Size Fits All—including the aforementioned “Inca Roads,” “Florentine Pogen,” and “Po-Jama People.” There are also oodles more choice Frank Zappa cuts, such as the “hits” “Montana” and “Cosmik Debris,” as well as more obscure tracks that include “The Grand Wazoo,” “Apostrophe (’),” and “The Evil Prince.” Throughout the marathon show, Zappa’s execution, improvisation, and tonal array astonished audience members, who shook their heads and smiled in joyous disbelief.

In addition to celebrating the 40th anniversary of One Size Fits All, Zappa recently released his first CD of original music since devoting himself to performing songs from his father’s vast catalog. Via Zammata’ [Fantom Records] reflects Zappa Plays Zappa’s considerable influence while maintaining its own quirky Dweezilness. On the album, Zappa incorporates a fretless Gibson SG, a Godin Glissentar fretless 11-string acoustic, oud, and banjo. Via Zammata’ also features the Zappas’ lone father-and-son song collaboration, “Dragon Master.” It’s an ambitious, monster-movie cut with outrageous satanic lyrics penned by Frank that Dweezil finally finished after the song sat on the shelf for many moons.

As 2015 drew to a close, a decade of Zappa Plays Zappa and the release of Via Zammata’ was tempered with his mother Gail’s passing on October 7, and his dad’s 75th birthday on December 21. And yet, Dweezil is firing on all cylinders. He’s a man on a continuing mission to enlighten folks about his often misunderstood father, he works tirelessly to become an ever more advanced guitar maestro, and he’s dedicated to helping others improve their 6-string skills with his Dweezilla Boot Camps and Master Classes.

Congratulations on a decade of ZPZ, and the 40th anniversary of One Size Fits All. How do you go about tackling a full Frank album?

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I always start with the hardest thing, which, in this case, I’d already done, because we’ve had “Inca Roads” in the mix for a long time. It wouldn’t be as hard if I just played a guitar solo like Frank did, but I play the parts he wrote for keyboards and marimba, which is insane. Nobody ever played it on guitar in his band, and for good reason. It doesn’t set up well at all. But I chose to learn that song on guitar for the first ZPZ tour because I wanted to demonstrate my dedication to the audience. You can’t see over the shoulder of a marimba or keyboard player, but you can see my fingers on the fretboard. People are shocked at the degree of difficulty, and they gain a new level of respect for Frank’s music.

It was transformative because I had to change my picking technique, and there were all kinds of different fingerings where the pentatonic stuff wasn’t two notes per string. It was often about playing one note across three strings. It was a challenge to play the chord shapes with big stretches, and to learn to pick to smoothly across all the strings. I had to overhaul my whole approach, but it opened up so many other avenues that it was more than worth doing. I share a lot of those ideas in class.

What’s your approach with Dweezilla guitar classes on the road?

I have two courses that are available via TrueFire.com, (Dweezology: Fretboard Freedom and Phrase Generators), and I get into a bit of each. I try to help players understand how to simplify their thoughts by viewing the guitar as three sets of two strings. Then, anything you play on one pair can be played exactly the same way on each of the other two pairs—just divided by the octave.

Another core concept is to start with an idea in one key position, and then learn to connect it to what I call “your neighbor to the left or right.” It’s like being an athlete ready to move in either direction. You can expand any idea instantly, and you can turn a two-note-per-string idea into a three-note- per-string idea just by combining two shapes. I use visual references because I want people to understand immediately and intuitively without worrying about music theory. I want you to look at what you already know in different ways, such as re-sequencing notes or playing them in different groups.

Looking at your live rig, it’s impossible not to notice the word “Listen” written in big letters on your MFC-101 MIDI Foot Controller.

That’s there as a reminder to listen and react in the moment—to make music each and every night as opposed to noodling. It’s easy to forget that when you’re playing.

Can you detail the SG you’re holding?

It’s the Frank Zappa “Roxy” SG. They made 450 of them two years ago. This one is modified with a Sustainiac pickup in the neck position to provide automatic feedback. On a stock model, this toggle switch closest to the horn would have been a phase flip, but now it’s the on/off for the Sustainiac. The inner toggle remains the same—in the up position it puts the bridge pickup into single-coil mode. I use that quite a bit coupled with the single-coil side of the Sustainiac pickup for rhythm sounds, especially clean tones. When you engage the Sustainiac, it disengages the single-coil side and works in conjunction with the bridge pickup to create a magnetic field that facilitates a feedback sound. You can feel the string turn over on itself and keep going. Put your finger on a string.

Oh wow, it’s alive! What are doing with that knob to manipulate the sound?

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The bridge pickup’s tone knob is wired to dial in the Sustainiac’s threshold—how much it will react. Sometimes, I want a more subtle effect to create things that almost sound backwards. You can focus on the main fundamental, or the upper harmonics. With the push/pull engaged, it blends them in various ways. Frank got the “Zoot Allures” sound on the original recording from a live show when he was standing right next to his amp getting really nice feedback. He was playing a very loud sound, but he turned the volume down a bit on his guitar to make it a cleaner. The Sustainiac can make a completely clean sound feedback. You can keep changing the setting to emphasize different overtones, and it acts as if you were moving around in front of your amp for different kinds of feedback.

Those harmonics ring out beautifully.

Right. Unfortunately, my main “Roxy” SG is in Gibson’s shop for a headstock repair, but it also has a piezo pickup in the bridge that adds the top-end sparkle and low-end body of an acoustic guitar. The rhythm guitar sound on “The Grand Wazoo” is an excellent example of when I’d incorporate the piezo pickup without the Sustainiac. Frank originally tracked that playing an acoustic guitar through electronic effects including an envelope filter, and a Leslielike modulation.

Did your dad layer it with an electric guitar as well?

No. But to recreate it I layer two sounds—a Leslie sound panned to one side, and a cleaner sound with a bit of a phaser and a wah-like filter. You can almost hear the envelope opening. I control modulation speeds via two expression pedals. I set one side to a fast rate, and the other side slower. Together, it’s a cool combination.

How is your gig rig routed through the two pairs of powered QSC P.A. speakers behind you on the right and left?

There are two Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX II Preamp/FX Processors, and I’ve got an expression pedal assigned to the volume of each one. The top Fractal runs to the two outermost speakers, and the bottom Fractal feeds the two innermost speakers. In addition to the Fractal’s own effects, I have a bunch of other effects routed in different ways. Some go only to the top Fractal, and some go only to the bottom Fractal. Others go to both. It’s a wild setup. The main thing is the ability to blend tones and effects. In a studio, the expression pedals would be faders on the mixing board. They can be set preor post-fade. I can set up, say, a reverb send, so it’s not just reverb on top of my regular signal. I can create any kind of effects architecture, and then use my feet on the pedals to rebalance things onstage whenever I want.

You’re way down the rabbit hole with the Fractal system, eh?

The Fractal system allows me to play at a lower stage volume with full stereo width onstage and in the P.A. without phasing problems. It does all of the power amp and speaker simulations in the box, and the QSC KW122 speakers are full range. They deliver the super highs and lows in a usable way that guitar speakers can’t reproduce.

The Fractal system’s other main benefit is programmability. You can dial in tones that sound exactly like a particular recording using every recording tool—such as multiband compression or reverse delay—and have it exactly the way you want it on every gig in every room. I designed my rig to recreate every era of Frank’s guitar tone. Frank would often split his signal four or even five times. He would use three or four different amplifiers, plus a direct signal to achieve textured, 3D-like sounds. He would also use effects in different ways. He used a pair of MicMix Dynaflangers to make doubling sounds, and so do I. The Dynaflanger works with an envelope, so it’s essentially detecting how hard you hit the string, and modulating accordingly. That allows you to have one side of the stereo field stable, and the other side modulating against it. The doubling sounds very natural because it’s not an LFO—it’s not just a sweep. The envelope is controlling a delay going from like 0ms to 100ms, but really fast.

Here’s an example of a pretty clean sound on one side [plays through his rig], and a bit distorted on the other. It goes more out of tune the harder I hit the strings, and that’s accentuated when I use the CryBaby. With that blend, you get the sound featured on Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar. You can make it bigger by adding a fuzz pedal [steps on a custom GoochFX Too Much Fuzz]. My website has more information about the rig, but it’s not fully current because the pedals are always changing.

I notice you step on the Electro-Harmonix POG2 quite a bit.

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Right. But I don’t use it for any of the octave stuff. I only use it to delay the pick attack for an envelope sound. I can get various versions from sounding like a synth to sounding like strings in varying degrees [plays a violin-like passage].

That practically sounds bowed.

Yeah. And you can get all sorts of different flavors by adding various fuzz pedals. I have a huge array of effects so I can get into the zone on something, and say, “Okay, I have a sound I’ve never used before. Now what happens?”

So much of your father’s music is fully worked out, and then he leaves moments such as the “Inca Roads” solo wide open for improvisation.

It’s wide open. And that’s what’s so genius about Frank’s compositional style. He designed the music to work that way, so every performance is unique.


“Sinister Footwear” might have been the guitar solo of the night. Can you share some insights?

Sonically, I’ve got the Sustainiac and a Dynaflanger going. “Sinister Footwear” is always a challenge to play over because of its unusual temperament with two major triads a half-step apart—G and G#.I try to rearrange those in different ways, and I go a little berserk bending and sliding around to create Indian sounds. I incorporate Eastern-sounding scales, say, harmonic minor with slight alterations, or I add the b7 to a G major scale to sound Mixolydian for a moment. I’m studying authentic Indian techniques. At the moment, I’ve adapted them to use mostly with pentatonics, but the way those slides maneuver in Indian music is called “gamaka,” and they typically ornament a scale in a certain order. I’m simply working with some of the sounds as I develop it further. A lot of it comes down to groupings of fives and other things to create interesting, continuous contours. You can actually play anything you want—especially if you alter the intervallic structure to mix it up. You’ll still have the same rhythms, but the notes will trick you into thinking you’re hearing something else.

You incorporated a lot of Eastern tonalities on the “Muffin Man” intro, as well.

That’s an improvisational thing. I used the Sustainiac like I mentioned earlier to make an almost backwards sound so I can flow into a note. I hit the string very lightly, let the sustainer catch the note, and then I let it bloom. It sounds like a volume swell. It’s as if you were standing in front of a really loud amp with your finger barely on the string, and then the amp picked up that frequency and brought it up to level.

Considering that you use the Fractals live, did you record your new album Via Zammata’ with actual amps?

Everything on the record is actually amped except “Malkovich.” I wanted to see if I was missing anything, and I wanted somebody else turning knobs so I could focus on playing. We recorded drums and bass to tape at a different studio, and then tracked all the overdubs into Pro Tools at Winslow Court Studios in Hollywood. I borrowed [Voodoo Lab sound designer and gear zealot] James Santiago’s “Black Flag” Marshall JTM head, and ran it through a ’70s Marshall cabinet. I also borrowed James’ strange, modified blackface Fender for a slightly edgy clean sound. There was a Port City Pearl amp coupled with a Port City 2x12 speaker cabinet, and another Marshall in the studio, as well. I realized that I could recreate any of those sounds in the Fractal, but I wanted mostly localized mono guitar sounds.

The tone on the main theme of “Funky 15” is interesting because the attack sounds synth-like.

The main sound on “Funky 15” is the “Roxy” SG with the Sustainiac engaged. I split the signal through the “Black Flag” Marshall and the Port City signal chain with a JHS Pedals Pollinator fuzz. I used the same combination on the solo, except that one side also has a slight bit of modulation from a Strymon Mobius pedal to knock it a bit out of tune.

That’s a pretty wild main theme. How did it come about?

Its origin comes from my process of taking a shape—in this case a group of four notes—and moving it around. It’s a bit of a finger game that doesn’t necessarily relate to one scale. The cool thing about a lick like that is you can start it virtually anywhere. That theme moves around to several different locations, but it’s essentially the same shape or pattern.

Did it begin as a guitar exercise?

Yes. When I was teaching at the Crown of the Continent Guitar Workshop and Festival, I was playing around with it. “What the hell is that?” Mike Stern asked. I showed it to him, and he transcribed it for me. I mentioned that I was thinking about turning it into a song. “Man, you should do it over a funk tune,” he said. I’d had the main groove sitting around for a while, so I put them together.

What’s the time signature?

It’s in 15/8, which is tricky. At first you’re thinking, “This is pretty groovy. I can tap my foot to it.” And then you’re like, “Wait. What the hell just happened?”

Can you describe the circumstances that led to “Dragon Master,” and how it finally developed into a finished recording?

I was in Sweden promoting my 1988 album, My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama, and when Frank’s tour stopped in Stockholm we met up. “You’ve got to hear this,” he said. He written “Dragon Master” with only a basic chord progression, and he made his band play it. He handed me the lyrics, and they were hilarious. “You should write the music to this,” he told me. So I did. I messed with a version of it a while back, but I didn’t complete it. During this record I decided it was time. The lyrics were so preposterous, but I wanted the song to sound completely legitimate, so I tried to give the music a magical, metal space. I played the oud on the intro to produce a sensibility that says [lowers voice], “We have awakened the dragon.”

Had you ever played oud before?

No. I got one just for this, and it’s an interesting instrument. It’s over 1,000 years old, so it’s basically the first guitar.

When the song shifts gears there’s a driving riff, and then a short, synth-sounding lead. What exactly is going on?

The driving rhythm is the “Roxy” SG, but the lead is actually a custom fretless SG. Gibson made it for me with a Sustainiac pickup and built-in Antares Auto-Tune for Guitar technology—although I didn’t have the Auto-Tune turned on for that solo. The solo ends with a crazy pattern. On a fretless, you just can kind of move up and down the neck and get a strange sound. Again, I took a shape and moved it up the neck while I picked across the strings. The key is how the rhythm moves the contour. That passage actually starts off based on a scale—maybe Dorian mode. The final climb is across three strings, but the shape allows for at least two notes to be a half-step apart the whole time, and then there’s another note that’s probably a full-step apart from those two as it’s moving. The tonality is definitely dissonant compared to the other stuff played before it.

When did you get the fretless SG?

I got it last year just in time for about three days of guitar overdubs, so I took full advantage while I could. It’s all over the song “Truth.”

“Truth” is a very interesting track. It’s instrumental and largely orchestral with a dreamy sounding main guitar part that eventually gives way to a super dry solo that’s so cool.

That’s the fretless with the Sustainiac. It’s my favorite solo on the record, and it’s probably one of my favorite solos I’ve ever recorded. It has obvious hints of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but then it goes other places. It sounds like slide guitar, but then you realize it’s not and wonder what’s going on.

What inspired you to order a fretless guitar?

I wanted to see if Auto-Tune technology could make a fretless guitar playable beyond lead lines. Complex chords don’t usually work on a fretless guitar, but Auto- Tune makes them work on this one. The Auto-Tune can basically see on a grid, “Oh, you’re intending to play a barre chord, so I’ll take these notes and shift them to that position.” You can adjust the threshold of how much it will pull notes, but only up to a degree. If you go too far, then it starts to sound chromatic. It feels bizarre to play on a fretless neck because the notes don’t have as much give. I need to work with it more, but I intend to make it more of a main instrument down the road.

The main “Nothing” solo is another highlight with lots of fuzzed-out, bending licks before you take off into some pretty intricate phrasing. What inspired that?

“Nothing” is the Jimi Hendrix Strat—the one Frank received from Jimi at the Miami Pop Festival. There are two different pedals making that fuzz sound—a Pollinator and a Maxon Fuzz Elements Air pedal. So it’s the “Black Flag” Marshall and the Port City combination, and two different fuzzes blended together. I like how the two different attacks make notes bloom in different ways. I achieved the feedback old-school style standing in a room with the amps turned up loud.

What a privilege to play Hendrix’s Strat. What does that feel like?

That guitar is completely badass. It has tons of personality and character, of course. Halfway into that solo there’s a bit of feedback. When I played it, that was a moment when I thought, “That’s not me—that’s the spirit of this guitar. It’s channeling this Hendrix kind of sound.” That was really cool.

What instruments make the interesting sounds on “Malkovich?”

That fuzz tone is actually played on bass, but I play the main riff on a Godin Glissentar, which is like an 11-string nylon fretless. It’s basically an oud in the shape of a guitar, and it makes that cool out-of-tune texture when mixed with the fuzz bass. I also used the Glissentar for “Billionaire’s Son” on the part that sounds like George Harrison-style slide guitar. I played banjo on that, as well.

You’re a big proponent of alternate rhythmic groupings to spice up phrasing, but alternate tunings don’t play much of a role in Zappa music, do they?

No. But I did finally tune a Telecaster to open G for the first time when I wrote “Jaws of Life.” It’s hard enough to learn to play the guitar one way, so then when you throw a wrench in it… Most of what I do is so visual. It’s about these patterns that have become comfortable. All of that disappears in an open tuning, although I would probably do better now because I’ve learned to use my ears much more over the years.

Are you going to tour to support Via Zammata’?

Yes. Putting a show of my own music together is a pretty big challenge because I’ve got to do all the singing, and I’ll be playing stuff I don’t do very much. After that, I’m going out on the Experience Hendrix tour for a while, and then I’ll get back to Zappa Plays Zappa.

Frank would have been 75 years old on December 21, 2015. Do you have any special plans moving forward?

Well, 2016 is the 50th anniversary of his first record, so there are some things I’m trying to pull together to commemorate not only that, but 50 years of his music. I look at it as an old-school Italian family business. It’s a good tradition to carry on, and Frank’s music needs to be better understood.


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Dweezil Zappa, Fantom Records, and Guitar Player are offering one of Dweezil’s prized Gibson SGs to a lucky contest winner. The SG was played by Dweezil at his Dweezilla Guitar Camp, and several SGs were used during the recording of Zappa’s recent solo release, Via Zammata’. Check dweezilzappaworld.com for tour dates.

“I play SGs all the time,” says Dweezil, “they have a distinct sound that became part of the fabric of Via Zammata’.”

For a chance to win, type http://bit.ly/dzcontest into your browser, or look for the contest link at guitarplayer.com, on our Facebook page, or in GP’s Twitter feed.

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In addition to the grand prize of Dweezil’s SG (and a copy of Via Zammata’), the contest also offers one first prize of a signed song list and the Via Zammata’ CD, and eight second prizes of one copy of Via Zammata’ each.

We’ll publish the winners online and in the magazine after they are selected. Good luck!