There is nobody better to keep Frank Zappa’s music alive than the ridiculously talented guitar-playing fruit of Frank’s own ridiculously talented loins. Words by Peter Hodgson.
Noody has kept the Zappa name and musical catalogue alive like Dweezil Zappa. Dweezil is out there every year, playing his father’s music with the respect, discipline and accuracy it deserves – and, of course, with the characteristic Zappa humour that pushes it over the line. You may have heard that there is conflict within the family over the Zappa Plays Zappa name, merchandise funds that never reached Dweezil, and a crowdfunded film being made without the support of Dweezil and his sister Moon. With all of that going on, it’s more crucial now than ever to recognise Dweezil’s contribution to his father’s legacy (and to buy a shirt or two to show your support). Dweezil returns to Australia – and, for the first time ever, hits New Zealand – in February, and we caught up for a chat about all things guitar.
It’s been a while since you last visited us.
We love coming down to Australia, and we’re always looking for opportunities to come down and play. We’re looking forward to it, and to playing New Zealand for the first time is very exciting. I think it always comes down to the budgets and that kind of thing, and it’s always hard with a bigger band.
Will you be playing stuff from your latest solo record, Via Zammata, on this tour?
We’ve been talking about it. The songs that have come up are “Dragon Master”, “Funky 15”, “Truth” and “Nothing” – we’ve played those in the past, but we haven’t played them recently. It might be fun to get those songs up and running again.
I feel like anyone coming to your show respects who you are as a musician, beyond just wanting to hear your dad’s music.
Well, we’ll work on making that happen then!
Is there a thematic focus to this tour?
For the past year, we’ve been operating under a celebration of my dad’s first album being 50 years old – so we started off playing a fair amount of stuff from Freak Out, but it’s become almost a chronological show where we start off with Freak Out and some of the earlier records for maybe the first 45 minutes, and then it branches out from the early ‘70s into the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and it kind of jumps around in the final third of the setlist. The show has been known to go on for up to three hours at times, because there’s just so much stuff that we’re having fun playing. I would expect that we’ll still continue with some of those same elements, but we’re getting ready to go to England and Europe at the end of this year and we’re looking at adding eight-to-ten songs that we haven’t played before. By the time we get to Australia, we’ll probably have an even more complete bag of tricks to select from.
You’re also doing masterclasses on this tour!
Yeah! I haven’t had a chance to do that before, apart from a few in the US. I don’t usually like to call them ‘masterclasses’, though – that’s just a title that people seem to use as an easy way to explain it to people. I don’t profess to be the master, y’know? I like to share information that will hopefully open doors and make playing more fun and intuitive.
I have a few skills that, over the years, have been really good things to pass along. They’re things that I’d just developed from teaching myself. But it’s funny, because when I show them to people – even people who have been playing for dozens of years – they’ll say, “I never even thought to look at the guitar that way.” But that’s the first way I looked at the guitar when I started playing at the age of 12. It revolves around seeing the guitar as three sets of two strings, and understanding that whatever you can do on one set of two strings, you can do on the other sets. And once you know where your octaves are, it completely changes your idea of how much you have to learn on the guitar. For example, there are only five shapes that you can make in the pentatonic scale on a pair of strings, and those are completely repeatable on the next set of strings. You just have to start them on the next octave.
And so eventually, that gives you a completely lateral look at the guitar’s neck, and you end up not playing in boxes anymore because if you want something with higher notes, you move higher up the neck, and when you want lower notes, you just move further down. And when you simplify it to that extent, you help people break out of the box that usually haunts guitar players for a long time! It also helps to understand the primary shapes of the pentatonic, and realise that all of those shapes exist in virtually every scale you will ever play. It minimises the process for your brain to have to think about memorising so many different scales and other things. You either have a half step, a whole step or a minor third kind of situation, and that’s all you’re pretty much ever going to run into for basic scale shapes. I usually run through a few simple things to help people start to see it that way.
Another element to it is to always understand where you are at any time, and pick a base shape. Then, whatever you look at going towards the headstock or towards the body of the guitar, I always talk about it as ‘meeting your neighbour to the left’ or ‘meeting your neighbour to the right’. That way, you can extrapolate on your base shape and know where you are in your range, and wherever you are, always knowing what that relationship is. It helps you to really, truly improvise instead of memorising guitar licks.
A lot of the time, the real struggle people have is one of continually learning things and then not actually remembering them or being able to put them into context or make them useful. Most people don’t want to practise what they’re good at – they just want to practise what they know, and they’re not going forward with that attitude. That’s what I hear from people most of the time. People are saying that they really want to get away from the bad habits, and I think these small tools help to make doing that more fun. I have some other things that are a little more unusual – for example, I teach people how to write a melody to their phone number!