“I’ll try to help you use what you already know in a different way,” summarizes Dweezil Zappa. “The most common problem I hear from guitar players is that they’re stuck in the pentatonic box and having less fun playing because they can’t break through to the next level in an improvisational situation.” Zappa is addressing a roomful of players that paid to see his master class a few hours before a performance of father Frank’s 40-year-old classic Roxy & Elsewhere at San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom presented by GP. The class is a snapshot of the “Learn and Destroy” concepts he professes at Dweezilla Music Boot Camp where Zappa reveals the secrets of how he transformed his playing in order to pay proper tribute to Frank’s far-out music. The thrust of this class is using rhythmic devices to incorporate subdivisions within odd note groupings that spice up phrasing, and in turn free up note choices.
Tackle the Box
“I try to take small ideas and grow them into big ideas,” says Zappa. “It’s much easier for me to break things down into small components rather than trying to remember a whole long phrase. And there’s a big difference between training yourself to run up and down a scale and training yourself for improvisation.
“When I ran into problems and started falling back on familiar turf, I started breaking down the guitar into pairs of strings. I avoid some of the issues that arise due to the half-step tuning difference between the second and third strings by thinking of patterns on the top two, middle two, and bottom two strings. That keeps the pattern symmetrical. You will run into some challenges when navigating between the G and B strings, but nothing that should throw you too terribly.
“The concept is to play something such as a pentatonic scale in groups of the same notes in different places up and down the strings, and ultimately all over the fretboard. The idea is to use a scale, but play something musical, not just run the pattern. “For example, in the third position on the bottom two strings play G, A, C, D. Then play it in the fifth position on the middle strings. Now play it in the eighth position on the top two strings. Try the same thing in reverse. Now play the same notes, but vary the rhythm a bit in each grouping. The whole idea is to mutate as you play, rather than playing Stock Lick #1, and then Stock Lick #2. The components should be living and breathing as you play them. Mutating the rhythm makes it much more interesting for the listener.”
“When it comes right down to it, the listener is more interested in the rhythm than the notes. Phrasing—how you deliver the notes—makes music memorable. Guitar players tend to think in such a linear sense that the patterns and sequences of notes sound really scalar. For example, if I was going to play five notes of A Aeolian, or natural minor, I could just play five notes in order down the scale. But it’s going to sound much more interesting if I break that up into subdivisions of 12-123, or, 123-12. Those variations sound more musical.
“There’s song of my dad’s called ‘Echidna’s Arf (Of You)’ from the Roxy & Elsewhere album we’re going to play tonight. It has a bunch of five-note sequences that are all phrased 12-123. That kind of flow has a contour that gives the listener the feeling of going on a journey. I thought, ‘How can I turn that into a rhythmic device for improvisation without having to think so much about crazy things?’ The first, easiest way that came to me was doing it on one string.
“In the key of A minor, I chose to do this: Starting on the B at the 4th fret of the G string, I strike down with the pick once and hammer on a halfstep higher to C with my second finger. Next, I downpick with my first finger on the C, hammer on to D with my second finger, and hammer on to E with my pinky. That’s a total of two pick strokes and three hammer-ons.
“Now mix that up by grouping the notes 123-12. Downpick with your first finger on the A at the 2nd fret of the G string, and then hammer on to the 4th and 5th frets with your third and fourth fingers. Now move your first finger to the 4th fret and downpick before hammering on your second finger on the C at the 5th fret. That’s a downstroke and two hammer-ons plus a downstroke and one hammer-on. Of course, you can pick each note if you want.”
GO WITH THE FLOW
“When you play those examples one after the other it creates a flowing, floating sound that’s almost hypnotic to the point of forgetting time. Or we could start with the second one and then play the first. Now if you start to change the note sequence around, you have something that’s rhythmically and melodically interesting. Keep in mind that you have freedom with note choices because the continuity and contour of the rhythm keeps the listener interested.
“To prove that, I will play a whole song horribly wrong in terms of notes, but the rhythm will tell you what it is. [Zappa proceeds to play the rhythm to “Happy Birthday” using all the wrong notes, but everyone in the room can easily identify the tune.] You get the sense of the song because you identify with that rhythm.
“Now let’s return to previous example of playing on one string using those two groupings—12-123 and 123-12. Just knowing that rhythmic device and attaching the notes of your choice gives you infinite possibilities. And you can apply it to spice up anything. It offers so many ways to think about writing music and improvising.
“Once you start to internalize those rhythmic groups, map them out on the neck, and play them enough to develop muscle memory in your fingers—you’ll forget about mathematics and just play. And it’s not about playing in odd times such as 5/4. It’s odd phrasings. Of course, two odd groupings together will add up to an even number. Keep in mind that you can still use groups of five without connecting all the notes. [He plays 12—pause—123.] You can phrase however you want. It’s about taking small pieces and turning them into bigger things—however that works for you.”
“Here’s something I should have thought of a long time ago, which is applying the five note—12- 123—concept more intervallically across groups of strings. We’ll stay with the key of A minor.
“Place your pinky at the on the C at the 8th fret of the high E string, pluck a downstroke, and pull off to your first finger on the A at the 5th fret. Now barre the top three strings with your third finger at the 7th fret to create the top of a B minor chord, and rake your pick down across them. Ease the pressure from your fretting finger after hitting each string to focus the sound on each note, rather than letting the notes ring out like a chord. Now that you’ve executed the 12-123 pattern, repeat that exact same shape and pattern one string lower, starting on the G at the 8th fret of the B string. Repeat those two over and over to get the flow. Try moving positions and string groups. When I play groups of seven notes I simply add two to five and think of the phrase as 12-123-12, or 12-12-123. It’s so simple, but it sounds like crazy wild stuff. I can play any random notes, but you’re still going to follow the contour of the line, and that’s what makes it so fun for improvisation. You can literally play any notes as long as you wind up on target for your big finale.”
What’s Your Number?
“Now let’s take something really stupid and use it as a rhythmic device. Remember Jenny’s phone number, 867-5309? Let’s use that. What’s the easiest way to play eight notes? Let’s group them in pairs of strings like we did at the beginning of the lesson. We’ll stay in the A minor, and start in the pentatonic box playing two notes on each of the top four strings as we work our way down from the C at the 8th fret of the high E string. Next we’ll play three notes on each of the middle strings to get six. Use the 9th, 7th, and 5th frets on the G and D strings. Now let’s use one of the five-note patterns from earlier, and add two notes for a total of seven. [Zappa continues through the full “Jenny” number picking groups of notes that fall easily under the fingers. He encourages everyone to try it using his or her own phone number, or any number set.]
“It’s a fun exercise to try because once you get used to the rhythm of your own phone number, depending on what notes you chose—and you can choose any notes—you can re-write that phone number a million ways. It opens up so many doors to changing your phrasing. It all comes down to vocabulary, and expanding your rhythmic sense will open all kinds of doors to more note choices.”