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This article was originally published in issue #23
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In 1984 Frank Zappa recorded a double album called Them or Us whose track listing includes a couple of standout songs, Sharleena and Stevie’s Spanking (dedicated to Zappa’s lead guitarist Steve Vai) that feature Zappa’s then 15 year old son Dweezil guesting on lead guitar.
On ‘Spanking’ Vai takes the first solo in his typical spectacular style, throwing in everything from his huge arsenal of licks: swooping whammy bar dips, dazzling modal runs and huge intervallic tapping patterns. You can almost imagine Vai stepping back after completing this dazzling tour de force with a smirk that says ‘Follow that if you dare, sonny!’
When Dweezil Zappa takes his solo at around 3.50 minutes in, the resulting barrage of notes is simply breathtaking. Dweezil’s solo is less free-form and arguably not as harmonically well informed as Vai’s but Dweezil’s lighting speed minor pentatonic licks and dexterous legato suggest that Eddie Van was sitting in on the session, rather than a mere teenager. In this dazzling display Dweezil proved beyond doubt that he was already a highly accomplished musician and a formidable guitarist in his own right - and no doubt his dad appreciated the irony of his protégé Steve Vai being matched note-for-note by his own flesh and blood!
It probably would have been too ironic for words had Dweezil decided to become a lawyer instead of a musician but growing up in the liberal and decidedly artistic Zappa household, a conventional career path was unlikely to be on the cards for any of Zappa’s four children.
Like his father, Dweezil wasn’t worried about the consequences of speaking his mind and his first job as a ‘VJ’ for MTV saw him unceremoniously booted off the channel after 12 weeks for repeatedly lampooning the videos and openly criticizing MTV’s advertisers for what he saw as a cynical way of marketing their products to MTV’s youthful audience.
During the 1980s Dweezil consolidated his growing reputation as a Rock guitarist, cutting sessions for hip hop artists The Fat Boys and '80s heartthrob actor/singer Don Johnson. Around this time Dweezil also turned his hand to acting, appearing in several American TV sitcoms and a enjoying small roles in a couple of hit movies, including an appearance alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man (1987).
However, with music as his main calling, Zappa has collaborated with a diverse range of artists including fellow guitarists
Kip Winger and Mattias IA Eklundh as well as adding solos to recording by Extreme (He-Man Woman hater from Pornograffitti) and The Dixie Dregs, to name but a handful of the artists who have called on Dweezil to add his distinctive playing to their tracks.
“One of the things that I notice is that you can strike the string lighter, a heavier pick will roll off some of the top end, so if you have a thin scratchy sound a heavier pick will help to reduce some of that.”
However, the bulk of Dweezil’s recorded output comprises six solo LPs that he recorded to date between 1982 and 2006, plus a huge plethora of work that he did with Frank Zappa, both during his father’s lifetime and on recordings of his father’s material that Dweezil has worked on since Frank Zappa’s death from prostate cancer in 1994.
Since 2006 Dweezil has focused on bringing his father’s musical legacy to a new, younger audience via a series of tribute concerts performed by Dweezil and a crack band whose members occasionally include former Frank Zappa illuminati, including Steve Via, bassist Scott Thunes and saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock. The music is recreated to exacting standards by Dweezil and the core band and the Zappa Plays Zappa tours received a rapturous welcome from Zappa fans who were thrilled to be able to hear Frank Zappa’s music performed live once again. Indeed, Frank Zappa even pops up and joins in thanks to the magic of audio and video, playing along in synch with the live band on several popular chunks of the Frank Zappa oeuvre, including sections of Chunga's Revenge, Cosmik Debris, and Muffin Man.
The positive reaction the Dweezil’s decision to revive his father’s music rewarded Dweezil and the ZPZ project with a 2009 Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in recognition of the ZPZ band’s performance of the instrumental Peaches in Regalia, which is hailed as a Frank Zappa classic.
A 2012 live album of Zappa material, F.O.H., features the band in a totally live performance with no overdubs, engineered afterwards to recreate the sound as it would have been recorded during Zappa’s lifetime on equipment that he would have used. Frank Zappa was no stranger to live recordings, he taped hundreds if not thousands of his own gigs and often mixed and matched performances, including overdubbing guitar solos from one performance onto a separate recording of a show recorded separately in order to capture the best performance.
Dweezil’s choice of guitars for the Zappa Plays Zappa tours reflects his detailed approach to recreating many of the same guitar tones that Frank used. The 2013 Zappa Plays Zappa tour saw Dweezil wielding a modified Gibson SG that was a replica of Frank’s favourite early '60s SG Special that became something of a Zappa trademark. Starting life as an SG Special, Dweezil’s SG similarly features a blonde headstock fascia, a Maestro vibrato unit and replaces the original P-90 single coil pickups with ’57 Classic humbuckers that are wired to coil tap and phase-reverse switches. The resulting out of phase tones lend the guitar a nasal honky quality that Frank Zappa often employed in tandem with plenty of high gain overdrive as a major part of his lead guitar sounds.
Gibson recently started producing a replica of Frank Zappa’s original SG, which is nicknamed the ‘Roxy’ SG after the groundbreaking Roxy & Elsewhere Live album that featured that particular guitar. Ironically Frank Zappa went on record as saying that Gibson had never approached him during his lifetime, despite the fact that he was one of their most high profile players during the 1970s and 1980s. Although Frank played many guitars, including highly modified Strats and a battered sunburst Fender Stratocaster that Zappa reclaimed from death after it was smashed and immolated by Jimi Hendrix, the Gibson SG remains the instrument that most hardcore Zappa fans associate with him.
Besides his father's signature Gibson SG, Dweezil also relies on a Fender Eric Johnson signature Stratocaster that he has modified with a Piezo pickup in the bridge to help him recreate acoustic sounds live on stage. “It’s a good sounding guitar,’ Dweezil explains, “I have been playing it on a lot of songs that Frank used a lot of Strat-specific songs and songs that go between clean and distorted sounds.” Dweezil prefers light gauge Ernie Ball strings, claiming that unlike the majority of Rock guitarists his fingers don’t develop tough callouses and that heavy strings “rip the skin off my fingers!”
Frank Zappa reputedly never played strings heavier than 009-.42 gauge, and it never did his tone any harm, either!
By contrast Dweezil prefers heavy gauge faux tortoiseshell guitar picks by Red Bear, which claim to recreate the unique sound and feel of genuine tortoiseshell. “It makes a real difference,” Dweezil insists, “One of the things that I notice is that you can strike the string lighter, a heavier pick will roll off some of the top end, so if you have a thin scratchy sound a heavier pick will help to reduce some of that.”
Dweezil’s effects rig is simply huge and starts with an immense pedalboard characterized by two wah wah pedals, one in front of the rig and one that he runs after his modulation effects, which he claims gives him more choice of textures. Recreating the era that is reflected by the band’s set list is paramount and to achieve this Dweezil employs the astounding Fractal Audio Axe-FX processor - in fact he has two, with the second as a spare in case any guests turn up! - that Dweezil claims lies at the core of the tones that he painstakingly researches and recreates for each FPZ tour.
Dweezil chooses to run his effects directly through the front of the Axe-FX II, rather than the processor’s effects loop. His stageboard includes a Bogner Ecstasy Blue overdrive, JAM Pedals Fuzz Phrase, SolidGoldFX Formula 76 octave/fuzz, TC Electronic PolyTune Mini, SolidGoldFX Electroman delay, JAM Pedals Big Chill Tremolo, and JAM Pedals Red Muck. An MFC-101 MIDI Foot Controller allows him to remotely control the Axe-FX II whilst a quartet of expression pedals control master volume and pre-set functions depending on which pre-set is selected.
From teenage prodigy to a respected custodian of his father’s legacy, Dweezil Zappa has matured into a highly respected musician who has found a unique niche. By helping to keep Frank Zappa’s music alive, he is enriching the lives of long standing Zappa fans and subsequent generations who never got to see Frank Zappa perform his music live.