Article and photos by: Bill Foster
Neither Brad Poyner nor I knew what to expect when we showed up at Knoxville’s jewel box, the Bijou Theater, for a guitar masterclass with Dweezil Zappa.
For the past 10 years, Dweezil, the late Frank Zappa’s eldest son, has been keeping his father’s music alive by touring as Zappa Plays Zappa. On March 15, his “One Size Fits All” 40th Anniversary Tour played in Knoxville. At each tour stop, Dweezil offers an afternoon guitar class for up to 15 fortunate students (for a fee, of course).
Ten students, ranging in age from about 25 to 65, attended the Knoxville class in the upstairs merchandise room of the Bijou. I was there with Brad Poyner of Three Star Revival, the Lost Fiddle String Band, and Vagabond Philosophy. He is one of Knoxville’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of young hotshot guitar players.
Unassuming is the first word that comes to mind when one meets Dweezil. He walks in dressed simply in jeans and a t-shirt looking at least ten years younger than his 45 years. No entourage or handlers. He simply says “Hi guys” and sits down to play, holding his main guitar, a custom walnut copy of his dad’s Gibson SG, complete with coil tap, phase switch and homemade tremolo.
The lesson is both unstructured and informative as Dweezil sits and plays outlines of his way of thinking about soloing, picking technique, and how to think about the entirety of the neck of a guitar, rather than thinking in boxes as many players do.
Brad Poyner says, “When I look down at the guitar I see a box about 4 frets wide, and I know how my fingers will traverse between strings while staying in that box until I’m ready to move to the next box.
“But Dweezil sees the guitar as if you are standing at the head, looking down the length of the strings as you would to inspect a truss rod. Zappa explained that as he learned guitar as 3 sets of 2 strings, there are 5 sets of 4 notes that repeat themselves all over the neck.
“He doesn’t play scales like most would, with the occasional 3rd interval in between a string of adjacent notes. Instead, he plays them like one would draw constellations in a sky full of stars. He leaps from one note to another in ways that would never occur to most players. At the end of it the listener can see the picture, and it isn’t a Leo or a Capricorn. It’s just really badass music.”
Zappa says the most misunderstood part of soloing is how important rhythm is to the process. He demonstrated this by playing a recognizable version of “Happy Birthday” with incorrect notes.
Rather than play five notes in a row, Zappa says a player can break the string into a series of two and then three notes, or into three and then two notes, or alternate between the two patterns. From here, Zappa demonstrated how a musician could take a phone number and construct a rhythm pattern from it. This is the same way his father wrote “Black Page” based on a drum solo he liked. To Zappa, there is no such thing as a wrong note as everything depends on context and how it is resolved.
After the lesson, Zappa was happy to hang out and meet with students. A local maker of boutique distortion pedals brought him a sample. Many students had their guitars autographed.
I was curious about how someone so technically skilled can find new inspiration. Zappa told me that he rarely listens to guitar [music] nowadays. For instance, he is presently focusing on the work of Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papazov. Most importantly, Zappa says he still finds new things in his father’s music every day, and that his father left behind a legacy that a lifetime of study cannot uncover.
© Bill Foster, 2015.