WATERBURY — You grow up with high expectations when your dad — a wacky but monumentally respected international musical star — lists your religion on your birth certificate as “musician.”
But today, at age 44, Dweezil Zappa is living the destiny his father Frank pinned on him so many years ago, carrying on the Zappa legacy in a stellar tribute ensemble while at the same time passing on some of his more spiritual wisdom about music and guitar playing to enthralled followers who eagerly sign up to take his pre-concert master classes.
Zappa recently held one of those classes — he says one of the largest he’s ever presented — last winter at the Ridgefield Playhouse where he was appearing on a tour promoting one of his father’s most beloved or notorious albums (depending on who you talk to), Roxy & Elsewhere.
But this spring, Zappa is shelving his Zappa Plays Zappa tour that recreates the Roxy platter from front to back, in favor of playing another mystical and misunderstood guitar genius’ material. He is currently appearing as part of the collection of guitar masters headlining the Experience Hendrix Tour, which jams into the Waterbury Palace Theater March 29.
For the second time, Zappa has been invited to appear alongside fellow Hendrix devotees including Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys bassist Billy Cox, Bootsy Collins, and fellow guitarists Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Eric Johnson, Doyle Bramhall II, Chris Layton, Eric Gales, Ana Popovic, Henri Brown, Dani Robinson, Stan Skibby, and Quinn Sullivan.
Having primarily heard the music his father was working on or listening to at home while growing up, Zappa eventually began discovering new sounds on the radio. Besides his father’s music he began listening to the Beatles, Queen, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Who and of course, Hendrix.
According to his bio, the younger Zappa’s ear was attracted to the trailblazing guitar styles of Edward Van Halen and Randy Rhoads. And he listened to their records for hours on end trying to figure out a way to translate what he was hearing in his head to his fingers at the other end of the guitar.
Along the way, he had opportunities to ask his dad for some help.
“I remember asking Frank to help me figure out the song ‘Revelation/Mother Earth’ from Blizzard Of Oz. I really didn’t know anything about chords and in that song Randy Rhoads was using classical music elements that were really new to rock guitar at the time. Frank helped me learn the finger picking intro.”
To gain more fundamental knowledge of technique and scales Dweezil Zappa was fortunate to have some assistance from one of the musicians in his father’s band at that time, another Experience Hendrix alumni, Steve Vai.
Years later, Zappa welcomed Vai on his first ever Zappa Plays Zappa tour featuring a brand new band recreating and reimagining the vast catalog of Frank Zappa material.
In an exclusive chat with The Newtown Bee, Zappa talks about his affinity for Hendrix, and how he is helping pass on some of his talent to both established and fledgling musicians at his frequent pre-concert master classes, which he will resume once the Experience Hendrix Tour draws to a close April 8.
Newtown Bee: So it looks like the Experience Hendrix organizers thought highly enough of you to ask you back for a second tour. But this year you’ll be up there with some new blood including Zakk Wylde?
Dweezil Zappa: Some of the same people were on last year’s tour, but the inclusion of Zakk will be a cool dynamic. [Note: Wylde is not on the Waterbury show.] The thing that’s attractive about playing the Hendrix Tour is it’s so different than what I try to do with my dad’s music. We work very hard to be specific about the arrangements, and which versions of the songs we’re doing. So if someone was to listen to [the Zappa Plays Zappa] versions of the songs we do and then compare it to Frank’s, there is a very strong representation that is commensurate with what the original is. Whereas the Hendrix Tour has more varied interpretations of the music.
Bee: The tunes are so universally known that they are both easily recognizable and embraced for the most part — or at least that’s been my impression having seen three of these Hendrix outings.
Zappa: (Tour managers) don’t go with everything having to be exactly like the record or a specific live version. So the players on the tour still maintain their own individual style. They’re still playing a Hendrix song without trying to necessarily pull off a Hendrix impersonation.
Bee: So how do you approach a Hendrix song — or the Hendrix songs you’ve been assigned to play this tour?
Zappa: I approach playing a Hendrix song the same way I approach my dad’s stuff. When I learn any of the songs, I basically learn it note for note to play it with respect and reverence to what Jimi did. And then I try to match the sound as close as I can to the records as well. To me all those things are parts of the total composition. So to perform that song, I want to play it the way Jimi played it, I don’t usually feel like I’m going to reinterpret it in a way that is any better than the way he did it.
Bee: So how does each player end up with the songs they perform on the Hendrix show?
Zappa: Well I only did the tour once before, but they gave me a list of five songs they thought would be good for me to participate in. Some of the people who have been doing it since the beginning, like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, they pretty much play the songs they have been playing every year — people identify with that. I played “Freedom” last time and a couple of songs with Eric Johnson, (including) “Little Miss Lover.” I learned all those backwards guitar parts and all this kind of feedback stuff, and Eric handled the rhythm stuff. So the combination of us playing those two parts to duplicate the record arrangement hadn’t been done before. That was cool to pull together that way. It sounded good.
Bee: Switching gears, I wanted to talk a little about the master guitar classes that you started hosting on your Zappa Plays Zappa Tours. I was able to attend one when you were in Connecticut last winter.
Zappa: Yes, that was one of the largest ones I ever did. It was interesting to see how it worked for multiple people.
Bee: So they are usually a bit more intimate?
Zappa: It really can vary. I’ve done them for small groups of six to the Ridgefield group that was more than 50. As word started getting out that these were happening, it started averaging about 15 to 18. I guess it’s kind of tricky to schedule because of people’s work schedules and stuff.
Bee: Does this cause a major shift in the logistics of how you prepare for the show versus before you did the classes?
Zappa: It doesn’t have any effect on the logistics of setting up for the show from a production standpoint, but it does mean that I have much busier days.
Bee: So how do you walk in and find a common thread that can bring together fledgling players with expert guitarists and get them all kind of rowing together at the same time?
Zappa: One of the main things that guitar players want to be able to do is develop the freedom to improvise and play some things that will work in any key. It’s a lifetime’s worth of work to figure out the strategies of organizing those ideas for yourself. But there are a few shortcuts that may make it easier to take what you already know and organize it differently.
Bee: So you have possession of those shortcuts?
Zappa: My goal is to give people a different framework. In its simplest form, most guitar players are familiar with core scales for improvisation. So people usually find themselves in three of four boxes common to that. So I try to give them both a visual shift of the fretboard, and the mental shift of their perspective to consider other notes, along with a way to compartmentalize the guitar. It’s breaking down little ideas that grow into a bigger idea, which grows into more complex stuff. Most people try to develop long phrases when they are learning to play. That’s fine at first, but if you’re not developed at improvising and you make a mistake, if you’re not in the moment you’re stuck covering your tacks from where you fell off the rails.
Check out a video of Dweezil Zappa on the Experience hendrix tour here.
Learn more aboutbthe Experience Hendrix Touer at: experiencehendrixtour.com
For information and tickets to the Experience Hendrix Tour, contact the Waterbury Palace Theater Box Office at 203-346-2000 or visit palacetheaterct.com.