It’s not uncommon to see the children of famous musicians continue their parent’s legacy after their death – think Jeff Buckley, Ziggy Marley and Dhani Harrison – but few do it as well as Dweezil Zappa. Since releasing his first single at the age of 12 (produced by Eddie Van Halen and co-written by Steve Vai, nonetheless), Zappa has showed no signs of slowing his creative output, working as a prominent session musician in addition to his own solo work and constantly touring as Zappa Plays Zappa, an ongoing tribute to his enigmatic father, the indefinable Frank Zappa.
With a diverse body of recorded work spanning over 60 albums, Zappa describes selecting a setlist that best reflects his father’s discography as a challenge; however, it’s unlikely that you’d ever see him and backing band The Others of Intention play the same set at any two shows. “We have to kind of consider that there’s probably a fair amount of people expecting the fan favourites, but we never really treat it like a greatest hits revue,” he says. “Traditionally, I’ve tried to stray away from some of the more comedic elements, because it tends to give people the wrong impression about my father’s music. But we haven’t played in Australia for a while, so there’ll definitely be some recognisable material, as well as some of the more twisted, progressive material and classical compositions that never made it on the radio.”
In true Zappa style, free form jams and improvisation still take up a fair chunk of the band’s set, with Zappa emphasising his penchant for spontaneous audience interaction. “Sometimes if I see a young kid in the front rows, I’ll bring them up on stage and make them play an instrument. Even if they don’t play guitar, I’ll move their hands like a puppet and just jam. Half the time, those kids come to shows a couple years later and be like, ‘Hey, remember me?’, and show me pictures of their new guitar or whatever, which is really cool.”
When on the road, Dweezil sticks to a fairly limited number of guitars, primarily performing on a Gibson SG modelled after his father’s famous Roxy SG. “I actually modified the SG so I could play an entire show with only one guitar. It’s got a Piezo pickup for semi-acoustic sounds, and a Sustainiac for infinite sustain which I use on certain things, and I can blend all those sounds together if I need to. Sometimes I also play a Stratocaster, but ultimately it depends on the set and location we’re playing in.”
Due to the huge amount of amplifiers and studio equipment used by his father across his career, Dweezil utilises the digital amplifier processor Fractal Audio Axe-FX II to emulate the plethora of tones associated with the Zappa name. “When you’re on tour, it’s just too unreliable to be bringing so many amps and pedals on the road. I used to have like 250 cables at one point. Axe-FX was just more consistent, and over time it just keeps improving,” says Zappa. “The rig I’m taking to Australia is actually what I call my nano-rig, because it’s small enough to fit into my overhead luggage. All I need to do is plug it into the speaker and I can get decades’ worth of my dad’s guitar sounds.” Likewise, for pedals, Dweezil tends to travel lightly, only packing a limited number of analogue effects in favour of digital processors. “I’ve got a custom made fuzz pedal, and an Eventide H9. Other than that, all my effects come through a Fractal AX8 floor unit.”
In addition to his 50th anniversary Frank Zappa shows, Dweezil Zappa will be delivering a series of guitar masterclasses while on tour next year, allowing aspiring guitarists to get a first hand glimpse of Zappa’s inimitable two-string technique. “The way I learnt guitar was based around moving up and down the neck so I could learn how to play scales on two strings to avoid getting stuck in two or three pentatonic boxes. I started to notice shapes that were commonly occurring across the fretboard, and once you integrate these patterns into your playing, it’s like a lightbulb moment that just opens up the fretboard so much more.
“I’ve done exercises in the masterclasses where I get people to try [to] do the whole two-string thing as well as add some new rhythmic options. For example, I have an exercise where I get people to play their own phone number on the guitar and write a melody to their own phone number based on subdivision. That’s always pretty fun."
Dweezil Zappa will celebrate 50 years of Frank Zappa’s work on his Australian tour kicking off Thursday February 22 in Brisbane.