Gorgeous Freak of Nature: Building Dweezil Zappa's Custom PRS
June 16, 2010
Photo by Diva Zappa
It’s a rare musician who’s both uncompromising and completely adaptable. But that perfectly describes Dweezil Zappa. It’s a duality that informed some of his father Frank’s most irreverent, inspired, and famous work. It’s also a musical mindset that equipped Dweezil to tackle Zappa Plays Zappa—an ongoing tribute project that finds Dweezil dissecting Frank’s work at the subatomic level, while also infusing some of his own improvisational color.
Enormous in scope, musically demanding, and subject to the scrutiny of fans that could fairly be termed religious, Zappa Plays Zappa is a project that would send most musicians running for cover. But for the unflappably mellow Dweezil, it was a challenge of manifold appeal. “I really liked the idea of giving fans an authentic experience, to hear the music as Frank intended,” he says. “And that meant I had to really get into it and push myself, too. I’ve had to expand my own abilities.”
Dweezil found the means to expand his playing vocabulary even further when he took delivery of a custom PRS guitar built to his specs early this year. With 24 frets, a semi-hollow body, and 57/08 Narrowfield pickups set up with an out-of-phase selector, it’s a guitar packed with expressive potential. But it was also conceived to help Dweezil reproduce the incredibly varied tonal landscapes his father created live and on record. And if Dweezil has his way, he won’t be alone using this model to create music in the years to come.
Premier Guitar talked to both Dweezil and the director of PRS’ Private Stock program, Paul Miles, to find out more about the design philosophy, materials, and minor madness behind this very special instrument.
PG Editorial Director Joe Coffey interviews Dweezil on camera as he chooses wood in PRS’ wood library at Experience PRS 2009. Click here to watch the video. Photo by Alexis Somers
Dweezil, were you compelled by any specific musical needs when you were designing this guitar?
Zappa: Every guitar has a personality that’s going to speak to you and dictate what you’re going to do with it. And I like responding to guitars that way. But in Zappa Plays Zappa, I had to figure out how to deal with the fact that Frank played a lot of guitars—SGs, Strats, Les Pauls, and some earlier stuff like 335s and Hagstroms. So I wanted a guitar that could get a big range of flavors and be a blank slate as I moved into other areas on my own. I’ve never had a guitar with 24 frets. Having 24 frets and the ability to get to them so easily and comfortably opens up a lot right there.
Paul, what was it like working with someone so open-minded and open-ended in their approach to a custom instrument?
Miles: Dweezil knew a lot about what he liked and what he wanted, and he was very good at conveying his ideas. That made us feel a lot more in control of the project than perhaps we actually were [laughs]. But we were also very lucky that he liked the first stock instrument we sent him, so there was some reference there. Dweezil’s a very down-to-earth guy too, so it was like working with a buddy.
What was the design process like?
Zappa: I’ve never had a chance to build a guitar like that—from the ground up. So I was really happy when the finished product turned out so close to what I imagined. I ended up trying to incorporate some oddball elements in the ornamentation, things like the bass- and treble-clef inlays, but I’m most happy about weird things in the wood that occurred naturally—all these freaks of nature put together in a single, beautiful instrument. The top, which had a rare, naturally occurring variation that results in the tiger stripe and curly going in a single piece, really spoke to me. I figured that kind of schizophrenia occurring in nature would have to lend some character to the guitar. And the headstock is built from this spalted maple—a diseased piece of wood with squiggly details that looks almost like a brain. The back looks a bit like a checkerboard, and the back of the neck has a crazy tiger stripe.
Miles: That top is one of the craziest pieces of wood we’ve ever seen, and it really set the tone for what the guitar would be, in a way. It was a piece of wood that everybody in the shop loved, but it was funny—no one would take a chance on it. When Dweezil saw it, though, he had to have it. But I think it really fits his personality. The back is a kind of African mahogany that’s a little bit heavier and denser than most mahogany. The neck was a nice piece of curly maple, and the fingerboard was Macassar ebony. Dweezil had sent us a picture of him playing one of his lemonburst Les Pauls, and he was really going for that kind of feel. It’s a neat mix of new and old influence.
Left: Rick Ames sands the flamed maple neck on Dweezil Zappa’s custom PRS. Center: The guitar midway through the finishing process (note Zappa’s name in the neck-pickup cavity). Right: Brian Lutz in the spray room. Photos by Paul Miles
Apart from the visual style and materials, what other factors guided the design?
Zappa: I wanted it built a little like a 335 so I could get that natural sustain, and I had it wired so the middle position is out of phase— Jimmy Page style. The first McCarty model PRS gave me was so comfortable straightaway that I didn’t see any need to change fret size or neck shape or anything like that. I’m pretty adaptable and, again, I really like for a guitar to tell me what to do. I’ve never been a collector of really specific needs. I’ve never needed one perfect guitar and a bunch of backups that are exactly the same, and I don’t like getting psychotically attached to things, either. Guitars are meant to be played and do a job. So I guess I’m pleased that this one really does end up doing so many things well.
Miles: Dweezil went with 57/08 pickups—he really liked that sound. He also really liked the nitro sunburst on the first guitar we sent to him. That guitar also had the wider, fatter neck—which Paul [Reed Smith] checked out himself because he’s such a stickler about necks. In general, the hardware wasn’t anything too out there—a stop tailpiece—and he went with a 25" scale. He really took a lot of cues from that first guitar. The big difference in the electronics was the out-of-phase option and the Santana model-style control set—which helped us keep the wires out of view through the f hole on the lower bout.
What inspired the shape and configuration of the body—and did building it that way present any other challenges?
Zappa: Because the guitar came together around all these weird pieces of wood—all these odd ingredients that gave it such a different personality—I didn’t want it to look like a typical PRS. And when I saw the picture of the mandolin I really latched onto that shape. It appealed to me straightaway.
Miles: Dweezil looked through the PRS book and found that mandolin shape, which we were nervous about at first because no one had ever considered using it as a guitar body [laughs]. Once we got going, it proved to be not too difficult, though. We already offered our Custom model shape with a single F-hole, so we had CNC programs that could take care of hollowing out a guitar of that depth. The one unique problem was taking the lower bout in so far and having a neck joint to support the guitar. But we moved the neck down into the body further, which gave us more glue surface. Being able to reach every possible fret was really important to Dweezil. We ran a test body to make sure everything lined up and would intonate. But once we checked all that out, it was full speed ahead.
Eric Granroth checking the action (left) and adjusting pickup height (right) on Zappa’s guitar. Photos by Paul Miles
Dweezil, have you had to change your approach or tinker with your rig to accommodate this guitar?
Zappa: The whole point of this guitar was to open up new possibilities and textures. So, to tell you the truth, I’m happy about what I don’t know yet. The Fractal Audio Systems Axe-Fx Ultra amplification system that I use now allows just about any kind of classic tone. But it also allows me to do some really insane, mad-scientist stuff. The classic tones that I can get out of the PRS, as well as the out-of-phase tone, are great for recreating those classic sounds. But it’s also so playable and has so much range and sustain— especially with that hollow body—that I can go from classic to weird really easily. So it’s a pretty ideal match for the Axe-Fx Ultra, which is designed to really communicate the personality of the guitar, but also has all this sound potential that I’m still exploring.
You mentioned that Zappa Plays Zappa took you quite a ways out of your comfort zone. Does the PRS help you get back into that zone?
Zappa: I studied the music for two years before even putting the band together for this project. I realized I was going to have to do a lot of work, both physically and mentally, if I was going to do what I’d set out to do. I had to learn some really impossible guitar parts—even things that were written to be played on marimba or keyboard—and then be able to improvise in a style that was reminiscent of Frank’s. The PRS doesn’t necessarily make the difficult stuff any easier [laughs], but it’s really playable and makes you want to get in there and explore pretty crazy stuff.
Is there a future for this guitar beyond this one instrument?
Zappa: I would love to see it become a signature model!
Miles: A lot of Private Stock customers that have come through have asked about it and have been very interested. We see a lot of potential for it as a new model.