Zappa & Son

Onstage Together For The First Time

A "Soundpage" exclusive by Tom Wheeler

Guitar Player, January 1987


    Our 20th anniversary issue required a unique Soundpage, and here it is: our first extended-play recording (40% longer than usual), our first digitally recorded and digitally mastered Soundpage, and the world premiere of the live version of "Sharleena." Recorded at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles on December 23, 1984, it was the very first time that Frank Zappa and Dweezil Zappa teamed up on twin guitars in concert. An earlier version of "Sharleena" appeared on Frank's 1984 LP Them Or Us [Barking Pumpkin, SVBO 74200]; Dweezil also contributed a solo to the studio recording. The Soundpage version is significantly longer than the four-and-a-half-minute studio cut. The live cut – in perhaps a still longer version – will appear on You can't Do That On stage Anymore, a Rykodisc CD scheduled for mid '87 (Barking Pumpkin plans to release a 10-album LP set under the same name in early '87; for information on Zappa records, CDs, and concerts, dial 818-PUMPKIN).

    Whip the Soundpage onto your turntable, fire it up, and start enjoying the soulful ensemble vocals and the rhythm section's infectious groove. At about two-and-a-half minute after that, his father comes in on co-lead guitar. It's a remarkable performance by any standard, but it's astonishing given the relatively brief time Dweezil had been playing guitar.


TW: How much time did you and Dweezil rehearse before performing "Sharleena" on stage?

FZ: None. It was the last concert of the 1984 tour. I'd been on the road for six mouths and had just gotten back to town. Dweezil had been rehearsing away, and since we were working at the Universal Amphitheater, I knew that he wanted to go onstage. He had played a solo on the album version, so he already knew the song. It was just a matter of him coming down to the soundcheck in the afternoon and getting his equipment set up. That was the first and only time that he and I had ever played together live.

TW: Was it mainly his idea? Did he come to you and say, "How about if I sit in tonight?"

FZ: Yeah.

TW: What sort of guidelines did you have? Did you talk it over ahead of time?

FZ: No, but it wasn't the first time Dweezil had appeared with the band. he made his debut onstage with the group in Europe when he was 12 years old in 1982. he played with us at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, on two of the three days we were there, and also in Munich, Vienna, and I think one other city. But I was conducting on those, and the Los Angeles performance was the first time that he and I played lead guitar together. When two lead guitar players perform together, I think it usually turns out like noise. It's not one of my favorite thinks on this planet to listen to or participate in.

TW: What made this duet work so well?

FZ: At least I had the good sense to stay out of his way [laughs]. My goal was to make a piece of music there, not to play competitively or to dump your bag of tricks on the stage. Usually that is not happens when jam session occur. Usually jam session are exercises of egomania.

TW: From the time Dweezil first picked up a guitar, how long was it before he joined you onstage for those European date?

FZ: A little over year. He played on a heavy metal tune that we were doing called "Stevie's Spanking," which is another one from Them Or Us that he did with us in the studio. Onstage, since I was conducting, I had to tell the band to kind of run interference. Although Dweezil had a lot of manual dexterity when he started off, he had problems with rhythm – counting where to come in and what to do, just like most beginning musicians have a problem with that sort of thing. He was also limited in the number of keys that he could play in, and I had to modify the arrangements a little bit in order to put things in a comfortable key for him during his part of the solo. I would give cues for the modulation back to the right key and that kind of stuff. So it's not easy under those conditions to jam away with your son on the stage. But by 1984 he had gotten enough skill and had also recorded that song one time, where it wasn't a big mystery for him to get up there and play the solo. compared to the album cut, his style had developed significantly by the time of the Soundpage version. Considering how much he practices, I wouldn't expect anything less from him. He practices a lot. He goes about five hours a day, and right now the number of days that he can do that is determined by what kind of film calls he's going out on and stuff like that. He usually practices every spare moment.

TW: On the live version, is that Scott Thunes on bass?

FZ: Yes, and Chad Wackerman on drums. The keyboardists are Alan Zavod and Bobby Martin, and the vocalists are Bobby Martin, Ike Willis, and Ray White. Ike and Ray both play guitar.

TW: When mixing the two lead guitars, did you intentionally avoid a hard left and right separation?

FZ: Yes, because Dweezil starts off first, and if he were to be off to one side it would have been kind of obnoxious. I'm not sure if that kind of separation really obviates what the musical activity is, but I think it makes an obnoxious-sounding record anyway. When it's placed hard to one side, it's a mono signal – it sticks out, especially when you're wearing earphones. How many tracks was it recorded on? The original was a 24-track digital recording, and the remote was my truck, the UMRK [Utility Muffin Research Kitchen] mobile. The mix was done here in the UMRK. The live recording engineers were Mark Pinske and Tom Ehle, and the room mix engineer was Bob Stone.

TW: What was your guitar equipment?

FZ: A blonde Stratocaster, a Marshall amp, and two small Acoustic amps.

TW: What's it like having your son in your band, or playing lead guitar for you?

FZ: He wasn't really in the band; he was just sitting in. Having him sit in, that's fine. I don't think he would desire or even enjoy being in one of my bands, just because the style of music that we play is so much different than what he likes to play. But I like musicians of any description under any circumstances when they are playing good music.


    Dweezil Zappa recently turned 17, and was 15 when the Soundpage was recorded. His first record was 1982 12" single ("My Mother Is A space Cadet /Crunchy Water"), and his new album, Having' A Bad Day [Barking Pumpkin, ST-74204], was reviewed in last month's issue. He also plays Don Johnson's Heartbeat [Epic, 40366], which is the 17th-ranked album in America as we go to press. Steve Vai is an alumnus of both the Frank Zappa band and Alcatrazz. Himself a Soundpage veteran (his incredible "The Attitude Song" inaugurated the Soundpage in our Oct. '84 issue) and winner of Guitar Player's 1986 Readers poll as Best rock Guitarist, he is currently on tour with David Lee Roth. A few years ago, shortly after Dweezil Zappa took up the guitar, Steve shared some pointers with his friend. For Dweezil's brief interview (look for a full-length feature in an upcoming issue), Steve provided these introductory comments:

    "When we started working together about five years ago, Dweezil was an absolute beginner. He couldn't even hold a pick. He couldn't hit one note without accidentally hitting four or five other strings. I gave him lessons here and there. He'd bring me things like Van Halen solos, and he'd want me to figure them out and show them to him, and I turned him on to Randy Rhoads and other players. I told him about Yngwie Malmsteen and said, "Hey, you should hear this guy."

    "A couple of months lather, Dweezil's down in his basement and I'm hearing these thins come out of there, and they sound like Van Halen and the sound Yngwie. Next thing you know, he's a terrific guitar player himself. He progressed at a rate that was phenomenal, a rate that I have never seen in another musician. Within a year-and-a-half of being a total beginner, he was an accomplished guitarist with a lot of technique."

    "Dweezil emulates very well, and he started doing it at an age that a lot of players start doing it, around 12. But at the same time – and here's where he's different – he's asserting his own identity at a very early stage. I think Dweezil is a musician of the future. He has good ideas, and at the rate he's going, he's definitely one of the guitar players of tomorrow."


TW: You had no guidelines for Los Angeles performance?

DZ: Right, it was all just improv.

TW: Your style had changed since the Them Or Us version.

DZ: That version was really Frank taking bits of four solos and editing them, so it wasn't even something that was played. It had no continuity. I mean, I could never repeat it – I could never repeat anything I play, basically. When I did it live, I was so nervous that I didn't know what I was playing until about two or tree minutes into the solo, and then I could kind of get comfortable. It's like a five-minute solo, and I just had fun with it. We also did "Whipping Post" lather on that night, which was real good, too. That turned up on a CD [Does humor Belong In Music?, available in the U.S. only as an import].

TW: What equipment did you use for the recording?

DZ: I was using this guitar that had body by Performance. It had a Kramer guitar neck, a Floyd Rose, and two preamps in it that are stacked and just mondo overdrive. I played through this Acoustic amplifier – I don't know what model – and just turned it all the way up and turned on the preamps and just went for it. I didn't really have hardly any equipment at the time. I just recently bought my own amplifier.

TW: You mentioned Performance.

DZ: Yeah, it's just a little guitar shop in Hollywood with a couple Japanese guys who do really great work on guitars. They redress necks and all that stuff, and build custom guitars. A lot of people get their stuff there, like Steve Vai, Warren Cuccurullo, and Warren De Martini. I had painted the guitar this fluorescent green color and put it together before the paint was dry, so it all cracked. It looks like it's about 10 or 15 years old when it's only around two years old.

TW: You studied a bit with Steve Vai?

DZ: When I first started playing, he showed me some chords and scales and stuff, and I just took it from there. He showed me some basic mechanics so I would get in good habits, rather than bad ones. My style was build from listening to records and taking from my favorite players and making it my own – same as most people learn. But the way I play now is different, too, you know.

TW: How has your style evolved since the time you performed "Sharleena" onstage with Frank?

DZ: Then, I was just totally into working out my picking, which was real sloppy, and I got that down by the time I made my album. Lately I've been doing a whole bunch of film calls and others things, and I haven't had a chance to play, so I have to go back and do that again. My picking hand is real stiff, the same way that Warren De Martini plays. I pick erratically and irregular. There is just as much sloppiness to everything I play as there is accuracy. I kind of like that. I don't want to be too clinical and too perfect.

TW: What are your practice habits and routines?

DZ: It's strange, because I get different ideas when I play. Sometimes I will only play solos, and then sometimes only chords. It just depends on what I feel I'm missing out on. When I really have a lot of time, I write songs, but normally I just have enough time to make sure that my fingers are still happening.

TW: You mentioned listening to records – who were some of the influential players?

DZ: When I first started playing it was definitely Van Halen – anything. And anything with Randy Rhoads was a huge influence, and it's been the same ever since. Now I have been getting into a lot of different styles. My favorite guitar player at the moment is Warren De Martini [of Ratt]. I just love everything he plays. I've been getting into a lot of Southern influences. I have been listening to Albert Lee and Steve Morse and stuff. I think that heavy metal country songs are pretty funny, so that's my direction at the moment. I like to mix the two. I heard this song the other day that had some lyrics about "I remember when coke used to be a cola and a joint was a bad place to be." I thought it was really funny, and I thought it deserved a heavy metal cover.

TW: Are you going to do it yourself?

DZ: Who knows – for my own personal use, maybe. I could do it for fun.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)