On the latest Zappa Plays Zappa tours, Dweezil has been favoring a custom Gibson Frank Zappa “Roxy” SG based upon the one his father used on the Roxy & Elsewhere album. Photo by Erik Kabik
“I’m not even sure what a ‘Dweezil Zappa’ album would sound like at this point.”
It was December 2012 and Dweezil was excitedly flipping through patches on his Fractal Axe-Fx and describing how he reverse-engineered his way through the tones of his father, Frank Zappa. At the time, Dweezil was neck-deep in Zappa Plays Zappa, a virtousic outfit he put together in 2006 to spread the Gospel of Zappa.
At some point since then, Dweezil figured out what a solo album should sound like—and the result is Via Zammata’. “I didn’t have time to write all-new material, so I dug through what I had to see what could tell the story,” he explains. Part of that story includes “Dragon Master,” the only tune he cowrote with his father, in the late ’80s. From the Arabic melody in the main riff to the decidedly Dio-style vocals and ridiculous lyrics, the song effectively combines the quirkiness of the Zappa universe with the imagery and attitude of classic Iron Maiden.
The new album’s title came from a trip that Dweezil took to Sicily. He was there to learn more about his father’s family, and discovered the street his ancestors lived on. “The name of the street was Via Zammata. The building [they lived in] was just tiny,” says Dweezil. According to what he learned from the locals, the word “zammata” has a rather complicated meaning. “We don’t really have a word like it in English, but it’s used to describe the sound of children’s footsteps playing in a rain puddle.”
Expanding the orchestration of rock music is a thread that weaves in and out of the Zappa cannon. With this latest album, Dweezil decided to put the songs and arrangements up front rather than creating a wall-to-wall shred fest. “I wanted to get to the simplest version of each song,” he relates. “Even saying that it’s simplistic—that’s not really the case for every song, because there’s something a little twisted in all of these.”
Those twisted ideas might be demonstrated best in “Malkovich,” a dark and spacey jam centered on a spoken word performance by John Malkovich, the actor. The fuzzy riff and Devo-like chorus came together rather quickly, as the band wrote, recorded, and mixed the whole song in a single day. “It’s funny. When I go back and try to learn the main riff, it’s hard to hear the ‘B’ part of the riff because of the mix. I have to strip stuff away so I can actually hear what I played,” Dweezil says, laughing.
Considering the ever-changing landscape of the music business, Dweezil took a more inclusive approach to recording and releasing this album and used PledgeMusic, a crowdfunding website, to bring fans into its creation. It was not the action of a desperate artist, but, rather, a way to give them a peek behind the curtain. “It was about telling people I’m making a record and asking them if they want to be involved from the ground up,” says Dweezil.
The excitement in Dweezil’s voice is palpable. On his latest tour with Zappa Plays Zappa, the band joyfully tackled his father’s One Size Fits All album in its entirety to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release. PG caught up with Dweezil between his daily master class and soundcheck to talk about the Beach Boys, improvisation, and a quasi-secret all-star guitar project that has been decades in the making.
You hold master classes before each show on tour. Did the desire to do these come from a formative experience you had in your youth?
I know how important it was for me seeing Eddie Van Halen, my dad, or Steve Vai up close. I know what the value of that is in terms of how it can completely change your playing overnight. When people started asking me about how to play stuff, we started the Dweezilla Music Boot Camp. But then I got too busy to keep doing the camp—but I do want to bring that back—so I started doing 90-minute master classes on the road.
What do you get out of doing these classes?
I don’t have a lot of time on the road to practice, so when I’m trying to explain something it further engrains the concept for me. My approach is to take something that you already know and expand your vocabulary by creating a strategy to look at it three or four different ways. I try to make it feel like it’s not this daunting thing that you have to memorize. I explain some pretty complex subjects, but I try to make them as simple as possible.
Was there a particular “light bulb” moment that changed how you view improvising?
When I was about 12 I discovered how to organize the fretboard into three sets of two strings and that they were mirror images in all these patterns. Then, I wasn’t thinking about playing in these vertical boxes. It just helped to connect ideas. I still take lessons with people that do stuff that I don’t know about.
How has your view of improvisation evolved while playing your dad’s music?
When I started working on my dad’s stuff I had to really think about true improvisation and not relying on a bunch of standardized, pre-composed licks. I grew up in an era when guitar solos were composed. Eddie Van Halen composed solos. Randy Rhoads composed solos. You found the perfect solo for the song and there was something cool about that. My dad didn’t do that at all. He wanted to be right in the moment and react to what was happening. You have to have an entirely different vocabulary. I had to make the mental change as well as the physical, technical changes. I’ve been doing Zappa Plays Zappa for 10 years and I’m just now getting to the point where I feel like I’ve developed enough vocabulary to really go off script. Every time I play “Inca Roads,” I try to play an entirely different solo, with stuff I haven’t done before.
How do you balance familiar elements of a solo with newly improvised passages?
What I try to do in Zappa Plays Zappa is play in context to the music. I want to play in a way that Frank might have played, use some of the phrases he actually played, but add my own ideas as the line to get there. And if you have a sound that’s evocative of the era or a specific thing from the record, that’s helpful too. I don’t like to hear people play Frank’s music and go off in a direction that sounds nothing like what Frank would have done on a solo. Some people think that’s what your supposed to do. For me, even if I learn a Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix song, I want to learn how to play the exact notes that they played and the same phrasing, because to me that’s playing the song.
You mentioned that some of the tunes on Via Zammata’ came from older demos.
I took some songs and rearranged things. Then I ended up writing a couple of things. “Funky 15” was written for this album. “Truth” was originally going to have lyrics, but I ended up going more towards a Jeff Beck-style instrumental. Then there was “Dragon Master”—I tried to add some of my interest in Arabic music into that song. All the things I did with textures and stuff was a result of my experience in playing with Zappa Plays Zappa. The songs came out different because of the experience of breaking down arrangements in Frank’s songs. The songwriting is different because, for lack of a better description, it’s more like a pop singer-songwriter record than a big guitar album. To a large degree, most of the material on here is less complex than anything from my previous records.