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Tech Session

Dweezil Zappa - Tech Session

Issue #23

The biggest influence in Dweezil’s playing is obviously from his father, Frank, and Dweezil has spent a huge amount of time and energy in re-creating the music his father wrote and created in great detail.
Tom Quayle

Tom Quayle brings you an exclusive GI Tech Session on the incredible Dweezil Zappa.

Hi there guys and welcome to this style analysis of the amazing Dweezil Zappa. To help you get a grasp of some of the ideas that Dweezil likes to incorporate into his playing and writing I’ve composed a short piece of music that I’ve entitled ‘Zombie Spoof’ - the Zappa fans amongst you will get the link immediately. This piece utilises some of the ideas that Dweezil has incorporated from his Dad’s playing and some of the ideas and techniques that he has developed to form his own sound.

The biggest influence in Dweezil’s playing is obviously from his father, Frank, and Dweezil has spent a huge amount of time and energy in re-creating the music his father wrote and created in great detail. The first thing I would say to anyone wanting to get Dweezil’s sound and style under their belt is to study Frank’s music and the Zappa plays Zappa band, where Dweezil gets to really combine his own sound with that of his Dad’s. Let’s now look at Zombie Spoof and break down each section individually.

Main Theme/Call Phrase

The main theme for ‘Zombie Spoof’ is a tip of the hat to the call and response solo sections that are prevalent throughout the Zappa canon and is a simple pentatonic phrase in Am, including the b5 blue note. Notice how this is not your typical Blues phrase but is more vocal in its nature with lots of repetition on the A and C notes. There is nothing complex going on here but this phrase forms the ‘call section’ of our call and response structure and is repeated in between most of the more complex solo phrases. Also notice how this is doubled every time by each member of the band creating a very Zappa-esque sound in an ensemble context.

Response Phrase One

The first of our response phrases is based in A Dorian to match the Am tonality of the piece. This is actually a phrase that I picked up from Dweezil himself and is based on creating a group of five notes that is split into a distinct sub-group of two and three. If the two group either moves in a different pitch direction or is based on different intervals to the three group then we achieve a cool melodic effect where the group of five has a much more interesting sound than simply ascending or descending a traditional scale or pattern in groups of five. Once the first phrase has been established I simply sequence the same idea around the A Dorian scale matching the notes to fit the diatonic requirements of the scale.

Response Phrase Two

The second response phrase is built from the whole tone scale and is another odd note grouping idea. This time the phrase is built from seven notes but starts off the beat for even more added rhythmic interest. The phrase is repeated down in tri-tone (three tones) intervals resulting in a cool sound in relation to the Am tonality. Dweezil can often be found using whole tone and diminished scale ideas as they achieve such a diverse and interesting harmonic statement and can be used very effectively to add tension to a line or add an outside sound to a solo. A couple of the fingerings are tricky here so be sure to start slowly and build up the speed once you have the phrase under your fingers. This idea segues back into the main theme again.

Next we’re back to the main theme again…

Response Phrase Three

This is a very typical Zappa type phrase that requires a lot of technical ability to pull off but doesn’t sound particularly guitaristic at all. I have to be honest here and say that the harmonic framework wasn't a consideration at all when writing this phrase. It starts out in A Dorian and very quickly adds in all sorts of chromaticism and outside notes to create a phrase that relies far more on rhythmic interest and contour than on harmonic context. What I’m saying here is that you don’t need to worry too much about the harmonic relevance of any of these notes except for the fact that the phrase starts in Am and resolves back to Am at the end. The bits in the middle are all to create tension and if the phrase is doubled by the whole band then we don’t need to worry about the usual harmonic considerations. I would suggest that this is an approach that Dweezil uses all of the time in his soloing and composition where rhythmic interest is more important than the harmonic content of a line and the theory or scale choice comes secondary to trying to create a unique and interesting sounding line. This particular line is all picked using Dweezil’s trademark, super fast economy picking style but it should be executed in a way that works for you.

After playing the main theme again we’re into…

Response Phrase Four

This line relies on similar principles to response phrase three in that the harmonic considerations are less important than the shape and rhythmic interest of the line. This idea comes from a lick that Dweezil showed me that he claimed would fit over ANY chord I played underneath it. To my surprise (and a little horror!) it worked and I think the principle is the strong intervallic and rhythmic content of the line. The phrase is based upon a three note shape starting out in A Dorian to fit with the key. The opening descending A to D 5th interval is very strong sounding and is then followed by a rising 4th interval up to a G on the B string. This strong sounding ‘shape’ is then directly moved onto the B, G and D strings and moved up a fret, resulting in a continuity of shape but new notes and intervals. This is then repeated down a string set and up a fret again before being altered slightly on the D, A and E strings. To analyse these notes in relation to A Dorian is fruitless - the point is that the contour and rhythmic idea is strong and therefore it is enough of a thread musically to simply move the shape around in order to give the listener something to grasp onto. The whole phrase is then moved up the fretboard starting on the high E string again.

Response Phrase Five 

The last response phrase is based on a simple Am blues lick but is moved up a semitone or ‘sidestepped’ up to Bbm for a few of the notes in order to create some tension. Note how, at this point, given all of the harmonic material that we’ve heard so far, the semitone shift doesn’t actually sound all that strange. Side-stepping like this is very prevalent in Dweezil’s soloing and is a great way to create added interest without trying to get too technical in a theoretical sense or having to learn any new scales.

The piece finishes with the main theme again.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small insight into some of the aspects that make up the Zappa sound. Dweezil is an incredibly complex and intelligent player with many facets to his sound and technique but hopefully this should give you a starting point. Enjoy playing along with the backing track and I’ll see you all next time!


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Steve Morse

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