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Dweezil Zappa Pays Tribute to his Father By Darrin Fox - Guitar Player Magazine
“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, 'Idon’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.”
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 wellversed
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 almostinstantly, 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.
In 2005 Dweezil called
Jean Marc Belkadi to help him
prepare for his
Zappa plays Zappa Tour