For the last decade, Dweezil has fronted Zappa Plays Zappa, an incredibly virtuosic group that pays tribute to his father’s immense catalog of music. Photo by Ken Settle
Your live rig is really based around combing the digital and analog worlds. How did you balance that in the studio?
I hadn’t been playing through amps in about six years. I wanted to go back to an old-school approach and see if I’d been missing anything by using the Axe-Fx. I didn’t really use it at all on the record except for “Malkovich.” That rhythm track was played through a preset. Everything else was mostly a “Black Flag” Marshall—the Angus-style one. Then there was also this Port City Pearl. I liked all the sounds I got on the record, but I could make all the sounds with the Fractal without any problem.
Amp modeling has come such a long way. At this point, what do you feel are the differences?
It used to come down to the feel. If you did a blind test and the feel and response changed, you could tell. But now that’s right on the money. As far as audio goes, it’s all right there. I prefer the Fractals for what I have to do in Zappa Plays Zappa, because I have to refer to 30 years of recording technology in order to come up with different sounds. Sometimes my dad would split a signal four different ways with a clean direct sound mixed in with three different amps and other effects. I had a big analog rig for the first two years, but it just started to break down, it was really expensive to take everywhere, and it was loud onstage. Everything improved when I started using the Fractals live. Now you can get a real stereo spread in the PA and you can actually be in the PA.
You got such a wicked fuzz tone on the solo to “Truth.” What did you use for that?
That was the Marshall and, if I’m not mistaken, the Port City amp with a JHS Pollinator and a JHS SuperBolt. The Pollinator has a great front end. I also used it on the solo to “Jaws of Life.” It makes this broken, under-biased sound. Neither pedal had a very high-gain sound, but the fretless guitar has the Sustainiac, so it allowed me to keep those notes going. It was really about getting the texture of the attack of the front edge of the pick.
How did you first approach the fretless guitar?
It was definitely weird. Gibson made me a fretless SG, but it has a Sustainiac pickup and piezo in the bridge along with Antares Auto-Tune, which gives you a lot of different tunings. You can still play all the fretless gliss stuff without it sounding chromatic, and it will actually let you play chords in tune. The guitar is very complicated to make. But I plan to use it more for other things. I need to spend more time with it because I got it just in time to do a couple overdubs on the record.
You’ve been working on this somewhat secret all-star guitar project for decades. Has there been any progress on that?
It started on analog tape as something that was just going to have a few guests on it—maybe only 10 or 12 minutes long. Then it kept growing into a 75-minute piece of music and now there are over 40 people on it and there’s still more people to put on it. I got busy with a lot of other stuff and didn’t work on the project for a while. The last time I worked on it was about a year ago. I took all of the stuff that was on tape and put it on the computer. Over time I had been putting in pieces of my dad’s music. This was way before I was doing Zappa Plays Zappa. It [started] more than 20 years ago. I have new spaces to write new stuff. I think I’m going to turn it into a surround-sound mix. It’s basically an audio movie. The music—the audio soundscape—changes moment by moment.
A film score without the film?
Yeah. It’s like if you were to see a movie that had a bunch of extras in the background, but they were all famous actors. Somebody would come into focus here or there. That’s what happens. Like, “Oh, that’s Yngwie Malmsteen. That’s Angus Young, or Eric Johnson, or Eddie Van Halen, or Brian May.” The music changes every time somebody new steps forward. I haven’t recorded anybody in the last decade, but I do want to get more of the classics on there, like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page—it would be good to get Clapton. Of the newer players, I’d like to get Tim Miller. He’s one of my favorites. Richard Hallebeek—he’s really good. Guthrie Govan would be great. There was a section that Frank was supposed to play on, but he got too ill so I played on it. I remember I took all the strings off the guitar and just left the D string. I purposely played an entire solo on just one string.
What I have to do is block out some time to finish. But it might take more than three months. It’s a pretty crazy project. It would be a good Pledge campaign. I have another idea for it, but I think it’s better if I keep it to myself right now.
During the fall 2015 tour, Zappa Plays Zappa performed Frank Zappa’s One Size Fits All in its entirety. Each night the show opened with the band playing the theme to Star Wars before heading into the album’s well-known first track, “Inca Roads.” Dweezil begins the song’s signature guitar solo odyssey—a longtime highlight of his father’s concerts—at 4:36.