As the eldest son of the legendary Frank Zappa, Dweezil Zappa followed in his father’s footsteps by developing into a talented guitarist and songwriter. The Zappa son has released several solo discs, and collaborated with his brother and sister, Ahmet and Moon Unit, and others.
Although he grew up in a musical family and has been a musician nearly all of his life, Zappa expresses a common sentiment when he say he finds it difficult to relate to much of today’s pop music, with its teen pop singers, hip-hoppers, and rappers who don’t play instruments. Plus, most fans of those artists do not play instruments, and have no aspirations to do so. And even on the rock side, where the groups are made up of actual players, many emerging acts are rap metal bands that tune their guitars down low and don’t play songs with accessible melodies or interesting guitar solos.
“There’s too much distance between the generations at this point,” he says. “I’m 31, and I see people who are 25 who don’t have any reference to Van Halen except for Sammy Hagar. They don’t know the Dave period. Then there’s the people under 25 who have no real reference of anything before Limp Bizkit or Korn.
“Nobody’s going back to the real players. It’s depressing.”
Feeling displaced by the scene, but knowing trends change, Zappa recently took a sabbatical from playing guitar to work on other projects, like being the voice of Ajax on USA Network’s “Duckman,” hosting USA’s “Happy Hour” with brother Ahmet, and indulging himself in the game of golf.
“I was just bored by playing music, and frustrated by the music business itself,” he explains. “Before I did the record, I was playing more golf than guitar.”
In a recent exclusive, Zappa shared his thoughts on the state of today’s music and the politics of the music business. He recounts the events that led to the making of his latest solo album, Automatic (Favored Nations), and how the project was brought to life.
Vintage Guitar: Ten years from now, which of today’s popular new bands do you think will still have a career?
Dweezil Zappa: I can’t name any off the top of my head. I don’t have anything against the Britney Spearses and Christina Aguileras of the world. Ultimately, it’s difficult to create a pop song that works – one that’s memorable and has all those things that make a song a hit. I did see Christina Aguilera in concert, and she was good – I liked her better than other bands I’ve seen. I had a lot of respect for ability to sing and dance. And at least she’s not singing to tape.
But right now, so much pop music is performed to tape, and it’s more like a Broadway show for kids. Next, it’ll all be on ice! I don’t think it’s going to be too long before a dinosaur rock band comes back with a musical version of their career. Maybe we’ll have “Ozzy On Ice,” which would be pretty cool – skating backwards and singing “Crazy Train” and “War Pigs. “
Kiss on ice could be very cool!
They’d be able to build some pretty cool skates, but it could be dangerous, with all the fire they use.
Where do you see the most change in the music of today?
The real thing that’s gone is riff-oriented music. Gone are the days of hearing three or four notes and knowing which band it is and who the guitar player is – back when you didn’t even need to hear the singer to know which band it was. That doesn’t exist now because most music is made up of so much heavy production stuff, like it has to have hip-hop influence and some idiot going, “Yeah, yeah. One time. Yeah.”
I can’t take it. On a certain level, the guys in those bands are well-rehearsed and tight when they play, but I’d rather listen to someone who spent some time to be good at their instrument and believe that good musicianship is something to aspire to have.
How have these changes in trends affected you?
It made me want to quit. The beauty of that is that no one would give a damn if I did. Well, maybe two or three of my friends might…
The only reason I made this record is because I recorded “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” for the movie. But they didn’t end up using it. They went with a Busta Rhymes track instead. You know, he’s timeless…
Anyway, in my version, I kept it sounding very close to the original because it’s nearly impossible to improve on the original. It drives me crazy when people do covers and they try to make it sound too different. Sometimes their take on it just sucks. On “Mr. Grinch,” at least, we kept the baritone vocal and I learned all the parts off the original and played them on guitar. Then I added another part that makes it a little more “rock” sounding.
Like I said, the record wouldn’t exist if not for that song. It was supposed to go on the movie soundtrack, but when they decided they weren’t going to use it, I decided to put it out anyway, at Christmas time. It’s a good, dark, rock Christmas song. So I contacted Steve Vai, since he’s got his new label, Favored Nations, told him I was thinking about putting a record together, and gave him a few songs to listen to.
He said, “Let’s do it,” but we’d have to do it quickly to have it out by Christmas – which, by the way, is the worst time to put out a record.
We decided to do it anyway because of the association with the Grinch. So I took some unfinished songs from years earlier and put them with some newer ones. It was fun. It made me have to play guitar, because I hadn’t played in a long time.
And the result?
I do like the way the record turned out. It’s got a good combination of structure and improvised oddities. I like it. I think I have one last guitar record in me, which is the one I’ve been working on for 10 years – the “What The Hell Was I Thinking” project, which is a continuous piece of music that’s 75 minutes long and has all these different players on it like Eddie Van Halen, Eric Johnson, Blues Saraceno, Warren DiMartini, Brian May, Angus and Malcolm Young, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Albert Lee. It’s just a bunch of guys. I think the best way to describe it is as sort of like an audio movie. But beyond that, I just don’t think people care about guitar music anymore, so I think that will probably be the last instrumental guitar record I do. It’s a bad time to be a guitar player… that’s what it boils down to.
It seems those of the 30-plus generation are still interested in hearing guitar music and often go back to their older records, but the younger audiences have just never been exposed to it. But the problem is that those older people are now disenfranchised – we’ve all become non-consumers of music at this point because we really don’t buy new records. We listen to our old records.
Tell us about making your record. Had you made demos of any of the tracks first?
No, I don’t make demos because, to me, demoing is a waste of time. Chances are you’re going to play it the best the first time that you record it and any time you try to overwork something, it usually doesn’t end up becoming better. It may be a little different or maybe even a little worse. So I try to use the original recording, even if it wasn’t recorded that well. I’ve been getting more involved in the production end of things because I’m doing my own engineering. So now I can get a better handle on the sounds I hear in my head.
I actually hadn’t been playing for a while before I decided to do this record. Time away from playing kind of inspired me to play what naturally comes to mind. I didn’t have to brush up on any technique, because who really cares about technique these days? I just basically played within myself, and in a lot of ways I gave myself more freedom to improvise. There are things on the record that are completely improvised, like the tribute to Michael Hedges, the “Secret Hedges” thing. I just tuned up a guitar to some strange tuning – I had no idea what it even was – and then I just played a whole song. It was tuned pretty low – C or lower. I just tuned the guitar as an experiment and whatever came out, came out.
It was interesting because I couldn’t ever have just sat down to specifically write that song. That’s what I kind of like about it. It’s like instant access to your brain. It just sort of came out right on tape, like siphoning out a little thing.
Frank always had an interesting way of describing his guitar playing, especially his solos. He thought of them as “air sculptures.” So in that context, it makes it more interesting to do something like that – to give yourself an opportunity to write a song or perform a song in that way, where you’re just inventing something on the spot. I did add some overdubs to it after the fact, but it was strange because I was having a hard time trying to figure out the rhythm afterward. It was just a free-flowing thing, so that usually makes it more difficult to figure out the phrasing, and my phrasing is a bit weird to begin with.
The first song on the record, “Fwakstension,” was started a long time ago and never completed. As is, it has a bunch of mistakes in it. At first, I thought I’d just fix those parts, but I couldn’t even figure it out again. I didn’t know what the hell I played, but at the time I’d recorded it, it was really easy and just natural. It’s a weird pattern in an open tuning, and it’s all fingertapping chords with some strange rhythms, so it wasn’t exactly easy to figure out.
I was kind of under the gun, so I just figured that no one is going to know there are any mistakes because they’d never heard it before in the way it was supposed to be. I didn’t use a pick for anything on that song, it’s all chord tapping.
There are some songs that are newer, like “Automatic,” which I probably recorded two years ago. The most recent one would be the “12 String Thing. ” For that, I used Warren DiMartini’s Guild 12-string. I think it might have been tuned to an open tuning. That song was constructed in the same way as “Secret Hedges. ” I just ran a drum machine and played whatever came out, then added other things on top of it afterward. There’s only a hint of the 12-string, but it started with this little thing…
“Purple Guitar” is something I used to play with my band, and became sort of a musical joke. It’s a song made up of three different sections and they sort of trade off when they each come in, but for the main verse part, there is always a lick at the end of the verse. As the song progresses, the lick gets longer and longer, until it’s just an entire guitar solo at the end, while the whole band plays.
I listen to that song now and I don’t even remember how I remembered the parts. It was under my fingers then and it was easy to play. We used to play it at the regular tempo first and then at double tempo, which was hysterical because it was impossible to play.
How has your sound and style evolved with each record?
I don’t think that, from record to record, my playing is very specific. You can’t pick out the one thing that I do on every single record or say that I have one specific style. I sort of change things around quite a bit from record to record. There may be one or two things that are consistent, but for the most part, I never play the same guitar and I always have something different I’m messing around with.
How can different guitars affect the way that you play and create?
I like to have guitars that are as drastically different as they can be, because it makes you think and play a different way each time. I know there are plenty of guitar players who set up all their guitars to play and sound identical to the one they like, down to the finest detail. I don’t get that.
To me, that would never be necessary. I don’t have any allegiance to any one guitar. I’ve never endorsed any one guitar brand because I like too many guitars. They all have something special.
I typically prefer cheaper guitars. I think that once you get past paying $1,800 for a guitar, it’s too much. I like well-crafted guitars, and vintage guitars are certainly nice. But once you go past $10,000, then it’s like buying furniture; God forbid you take it out on the road.
I remember Jeff Beck picking up one of his Strats and showing it to me. It was like the third Strat ever built. As he picked it up, he nicked the corner of it. He didn’t care if he put a ding in it because, to him, it was just a Strat sitting in his living room.
But I can’t see why [collectible guitar] prices are so high. I know it’s basically about supply and demand, but there are guitars you can make and sell for $200 to $300 that can give you what you’re looking for just as easily as some crazy vintage thing.
I guess it’s very subjective. To me, the Mexican Strats are just as good as any of the U.S.-made ones that are $1,000 more. They have personality and there’s something about them that I like, but that’s all I look for when I pick up a guitar. It’s got to either be that its physical appearance is striking and that makes me want to pick it up, or it has to have a certain kind of sound that appeals to me.
I like to have guitars that are ugly, but in a cool way. So I have a collection of things like that.
Tell us about some of the guitars in your collection.
What I’ve been playing fairly frequently as my main guitar for the last two years is an Ibanez Iceman, but it’s nothing like it was originally.
It was given to me by a friend, and it was in really bad condition. I replaced the neck and had it painted in gold sparkle with cream binding. I put P-90 pickups in it and set it up so the strings go through the body way behind the bridge. I set up a few guitars like that, where the strings come up over the bridge from way back. For some reason, there’s a certain sound it offers… it’s a little more alive. It’s got this strange resonance with that setup.
I’ve got a few vintage guitars, too. I’m not anal retentive about it, so I don’t know the year or serial number of any of them. I’ve got an SG and a couple of Les Pauls, but nothing along the lines of a ’59 flametop. I think most of the people who own those guitars don’t even play them, which is kind of sad. I’d rather have a guitar that’s built to look like that. I’ve got $200 Stratocasters that look like vintage Strats. I just roughed them up and they’re fine.
I can’t understand spending $12,000 on a vintage Strat. I can have 300 guitars for that amount, but I don’t need 300 guitars. At one point, I was on my way to having 300 guitars, so I thinned the herd and ended up selling a bunch of them. I probably have about 60 guitars now and I’m ready to sell some of them, too. Anything where you haven’t opened the case in five years has to go. I sometimes will forget about a guitar I haven’t seen in a while, then I’ll open the case and it’s like have a new guitar again. So I’ll play that one for a few weeks. Some find their way back into the rotation.
Tell us about the Hendrix Strat that belonged to your father.
I have it and it’s for sale. The only original thing is the body – the neck and electronics were destroyed – but Frank rebuilt it and played it in the ’70s. Then it disappeared for awhile before I found it and had it rebuilt to be more like a stock ’60s Strat. It’s got Lindy Fralin pickups, and it sounds good. It’s a great-playing guitar. I love it… but if somebody else loved it and wanted to spend the right amount of money on it, it’s also a beautiful guitar for them to own.
Which tracks did you use it on? And which other guitars were used on the recording?
It was used a little bit on “The Grinch,” “Automatic,” “The Havenera and Toriadore.” It’s sort of interspersed in the tracks. It’s a good texture guitar. I didn’t do anything on this record that has the traditional Strat sound on it, but I have used that tone on some other stuff that may or may not come out at a later date.
As far as the guitars go, I just sort of used whatever was handy, but in some cases, I had to get specific about the tones I wanted. I used a Guild Brian May signature model on some of the textures on “The Grinch” and on all of the stuff that’s heavily orchestrated. I used it for certain parts with real midrangy sounds.
How has your interpretation of great guitar tone changed over time?
Ultimately, I think guitar is the best instrument to be able to play because it’s the most versatile and you can make it sound like whatever you want. You can bend strings, change tunings and have other devices that make the guitar sound different. So it’s a great tool. If you have any sort of creative bone in your body, you can keep yourself occupied with guitar for a while.
But as far as what it should sound like, that’s so subjective. I like things to sound specific to whatever I’m working on. Some people have a very recognizable tone and that’s great. You know when it’s Edward Van Halen or Eric Johnson or Jimi Hendrix or Angus and Malcolm Young or Jimmy Page, as soon as you hear the guitar.
That’s an artform in and of itself – to have such a recognizable sound and voice that you know who it is within two notes.
But again, the guitar can be a chameleon, so you can have the thinnest mosquito tone and that can still be cool. It really doesn’t matter. To me, it’s all relative and I’ll play through whatever amp and effects, and play whatever guitar. I just like twisting knobs. I don’t think there are any set rules to get the right tone.
Did you use amps or record the tracks direct?
I used a combination of things; a prototype version of the Wiggy amp I designed with Peavey, and a lot of other Peavey stuff, too, like a 5150 and the Classic 100. There are parts where I used some Fender stuff and there’s a touch of some Marshall stuff, too. I also used the Lexicon Signature 284 direct recording amp with other effects like an MPX2. That’s all over “The Grinch” and some of it’s on “Hawaii Five-O.” I’ll just use whatever. A lot of times it all depends on how lazy I’m feeling. If I don’t feel like mic’ing up a cabinet, I’ll play direct. And if I can get a good sound through an amp, I’ll use it. I’m not so obsessive about sounds and gear.
Tell us about the Wiggy.
It was introduced at the NAMM show last January. It’s solidstate, and every knob does something. Each knob just says “More” or “Less” and there are no numbers on it. It’s got a five-band EQ that basically focuses on the lower mids and top-end. You can split the bandwidths so you can get some really weird out-of-phase sounds. Besides being really versatile in the EQ area, the amp’s distortion works so that when you turn your guitar up and have a distorted sound, it’ll be as distorted as you’ve made the amp. But if you back down your guitar’s volume, it’ll be crystal clean, without that midrange honk that comes in with most amps when you turn them down.
It’s also very responsive to dynamics, but the interesting thing is that when you plug in different guitars with different pickups, every guitar’s personality is drastically different and you really hear it. For some reason, when you play through a lot of amps that have a very saturated sound, you’ll get very similar sounds from different guitars. This one has some character to it. It has more of a ’60s sound, in terms of the distortion, but you can do some cool stuff with it.
It also looks very cool – like nothing else. [The] shape emulates the dashboard of an old Astin Marti – the big windows are like the speedometer areas, and they’re backlit. From a distance, it looks like a Wurlitzer juke box, but it has a separate head that sits on top of a cabinet. It has a brushed aluminum face and a 2×12 cabinet.
If you were going out to do a live gig, what would kind of rig you play through?
It depends. If I was going to play the stuff on this record, I’d have to bring a crazy Bradshaw rig. But if I was just sitting in with someone, I could play with any amp. I’m not that specific.
Do you maintain any sort of regular practice routine?
No. I used to have scales and practice routines I learned early on and I’ll do them occasionally. Steve Vai showed me some stuff. I had about half a dozen lessons with Steve and he gave me a book of things to think about and work on. But mainly I learned from working on it and doing it on my own.
I also learned a lot of stuff from records. Getting the chance to see good players up close helps, too, because you can see the techniques and exactly how they do things. That’s pretty much how it worked for me. I used to have much better technique, but who cares?
What advice would you offer to another musician on developing their own voice as a player?
If you like the way something sounds, then just follow it – even if it’s making other people cringe. It doesn’t matter if it’s not resolving to the right chord or if it’s got an extra bar.
A lot of people get lost in trying to do things in the supposed “right way,” by learning all the rules. It’s nice to have that as a background, but you really need just play what you like. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I’m not a schooled musician, but I know enough about what I’m doing to know which chords go with what and which notes can work over the chords. At that point, it’s however you want to arrange them. My dad’s attitude was that it’s really just code for doing whatever you want to do.
For example, if you want to play a half-step in the wrong key and the whole time and you’re doing it because a.) you think it sounds good, b.) you’re making yourself laugh, and c.) you want to piss people off, then those are all the right reasons to do it.
Do people compare your music to Frank’s?
I suppose they do, but I don’t really consider it relevant. If people say it doesn’t sound enough like Frank or it sounds too much like Frank, that’s stupid.
First of all, if I was to sound like Frank, it’s because I should – I’m related, it’s in my genes. Then to say that I don’t sound enough like him is stupid because I’m not trying to sound like him. I have a lot of respect for my dad’s career. Anything I do that’s similar or would make somebody remember Frank, I think it’s a compliment.
A lot of people ask whether having the name helps or hurts. Sure, there are plenty of people who get deals based on who they know. But you still have to have your own merit to go anywhere.
Does working with other musicians inspire you to play the guitar in different ways?
I’ve been playing with my girlfriend, Lisa Loeb, and it’s fun because it’s a different kind of guitar playing. There’s no pressure involved and it’s less consuming mentally than the stuff I used to do.
When I was doing my own music, the band would rehearse so much stuff. To do the best version of the music I would like to make is so much work. My dad did it in a crazy way, and I’ve just sort of followed that example.
When we were touring and doing it, it was fun because we were pulling it off. But we would rehearse six days a week for practically 12 hours a day. Technically, we could do anything. But if you’re playing for 200 to 500 people, you can’t make any money at it. It’s just a wicked circle. So I’m not sure I’d ever get involved on that level again for my own music.
But when I’m playing in another person’s band, I don’t have to have that in my head. I can just learn the songs and play, and it can be fun. Nobody’s here to see me, so it doesn’t matter. In that way, it made music fun again.
Lisa is probably the main reason I made the record. She made me start playing guitar again because she likes rock guitar playing and she told me that I should play with her.
Another person I enjoy playing with is Blues Saraceno. He and I always have a good time because we basically have the same influences and grew up wanting to do the same thing. Now we’re both stuck in the same situation, as far as our music and the whole situation with the business.
For a laugh, we’ll sit down in a room and give ourselves an hour to write and record a complete song. We put the stopwatch on and go. We do those funny kind of challenges in the studio all the time and nine times out of 10, the songs are really good and are so much fun to do. Then we’ll realize why we like playing music. It’s like a fun little hobby now.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.