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Dweezil Zappa takes Herculean musical task learning father’s music
Published on - July 25, 2008

Dweezil Zappa says as a teenager he learned difficult pieces by rock guitar greats Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhodes, but considered learning pieces composed by his father, Frank Zappa, to be "impossible."

Frank Zappa is one of the great icons for musical outsiders. For the converted, he's one of modern music's great composers. However, casual listeners probably only know Zappa's more comedic music that made it to radio.

"They know 'Don't Eat the Yellow Snow,' 'Dancing Fool.' ... In general, they know Frank as a comedy artist like 'Weird Al' Yankovic," says his son Dweezil. "But when you consider that Frank made over 80 albums, that barely scratches the surface of what the rest of Frank's music sounds like."

Dweezil launched the Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006 to present his father's music anew:

"My goal in doing this was to alter the casual listener's perspective of Frank, and understand and appreciate what he contributed to music as a composer and a guitarist and a band leader."

Frank Zappa died in 1993 after a career of creating challenging rock and classical music, creating some of the funniest and most provocative music of the later 20th century and regularly irritating politicians and journalists. More than 80 albums of his music have been released and Dweezil says his father composed a lot of music that has never been heard. In order to decide what Frank Zappa music to present in a show, Dweezil listened to every one of his father's albums in chronological order and practiced what his father appropriately called "impossible guitar parts" for more than two years.

Guitarist Steve Vai had played some of the parts on the original Frank Zappa albums, but other pieces had never even been attempted live.

Some of Frank Zappa's later work was performed on Synclavier, which used sampled and synthesized sounds, and allowed Dweezil to create music parts that no one had ever attempted on the instruments.

Dweezil points to the songs "G-Spot Tornado" and "Inca Roads" as the hardest things he currently plays.

"It took months, if not years, for certain things to be able to be playable," says Dweezil. "When it comes to crunch time, unless you've played it a million times your fingers are probably not going to go there. There are probably things that are just completely impossible to play on guitar, but I haven't given up on anything yet."

Of course, finding other musicians who were able to play the music was also a challenge. Dweezil says he designed auditions for Zappa Plays Zappa to know immediately if a musician was qualified. Only one keyboard player, Aaron Arntz, completed the keyboard audition requirement of learning the complicated works "Inca Roads" and "The Black Page" and transcribing them in only two days.

Dweezil hired Scheila Gonzalez after the multi-instrumentalist played all the flute, clarinet, keyboards and saxophone parts on "Peaches en Regalia."

Although some of the songs have moments of improvisation, Dweezil takes great care to present his father's music as his father did. If he takes any liberties, it's only in sometimes combining different arrangements that bands led by his father once performed.

"Frank's music really needs to be treated in the same way you treat classical music," says Dweezil. "If you're not using the right notes and the right rhythms and the right instrumentation to create the textures and tonalities that he was going for, then you're not playing his music."


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