Dweezil Zappa refers to his father, the late composer/guitarist/uber-iconoclast Frank Zappa, by his first name. But it’s not from lack of respect; it’s just the family way.
You want respect? Consider that the younger Zappa, a talented but unschooled guitar player, spent two years, from 2004 to 2006, delving into the finer points of his more erudite father’s extensive catalog, learning music theory and reading skills so he could take the elder Zappa’s music on the road with a large touring band. As a result, Zappa Plays Zappa–in its third year with a fourth in the planning stages—has seemingly become an annual event.
“My background was as a guitar player who learned everything by ear,” Dweezil says during a phone interview from a Miami hotel room. “I had to start studying all of these things I skipped over as a part of fundamental music education, things that are necessary to play this music in terms of harmony and music theory and all that stuff. I knew I couldn’t lead a band without knowing what was going on in the music, without being able to communicate with musicians who do know that language.”
In inaugurating Zappa Plays Zappa, Dweezil’s goal was to bring Frank’s music—from the freak-rock of the ’60s-era Mothers of Invention to the bent jazz and avant-garde composition of later years—to new generations of listeners. In doing so, he and his traveling outfit have learned songs from across the Zappa oeuvre, ’60s to ’90s, with a set list that changes year by year.
“I think what made Frank’s music special is that he was a composer,” Dweezil says. “And being a composer, there are really no patterns within the music. A lot of times in music, especially music written by other guitar players, you can recognize patterns, because guitar lends itself to being played according to patterns. A majority of guitar players play with a limited amount of options, and they can get by with that.
“Frank’s music explores an infinite realm of things, so the colors and textures and timbres of instrumentation in his songs really need to be looked at very carefully. So in learning the material, we try to create the same timbre of instrumentation as on the records. That’s as important as the songs themselves.”
In choosing songs for the road, Dweezil says he picks from a master list of his own favorites, then includes Zappa standards that many audience members have likely come to hear. There’s plenty of overlap, to be sure: “A lot of the fan favorites are some of my own favorites. Some of my own preferences are ‘G-Spot Tornado,’ which is from his Yellow Shark classical record; that took months to learn. ‘I’m the Slime’ is a fun one, and so is ‘Peaches en Regalia.’
“We occasionally play some things that are obscure, but mostly we play things people are coming to the show hoping to hear. There are exceptions, though; songs like ‘Bobby Brown,’ ‘Titties and Beer,’ ‘Dancin’ Fool.’ Those are songs that rely on a specific delivery of sarcasm that Frank did really well. We stay away from those songs, partly because they give some the impression of him being sort of a ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. I’d rather focus on stuff that really demonstrates his skill as a composer and guitar player.”
Dweezil says he had worries when he set out on the first Zappa Plays Zappa tour in 2006—about whether audiences would turn out in sufficient numbers to see a second-generation Zappa perform the exceptionally complicated and decidedly non-commercial compositions of the first. Thus far, his fears have been put to rest.
“At first, there was a big unknown—is there an audience to see this?” Dweezil says. “We were prepared for playing the show on an annual basis, if there was truly an audience that was inspired to come see it. Now we’re in our third year of touring, and have plans for next year as well. There’s plenty of material left to choose from.”