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Blending a highly disciplined approach to guitar playing and an open-minded sense of humor, Dweezil Zappa has made a name for himself right up there with his legendary father, Frank Zappa. Through his innovative recordings, stints as an MTV VJ, and epic live shows, Dweezil has proven that he is a creative force to be reckoned with.

Gear Talk with Dweezil

zZounds was lucky enough to ask Dweezil Zappa a few questions about his guitar rig -- and his advice for beginner guitarists. Read on for all the details on how Dweezil gets his sound!
Do we have your permission to record our discussion for use on zZounds' website or other zZounds media channels?

Yes, but it must be recorded to analog 16-track at 7 1/2 ips, and then tape flanged.

What's on your pedalboard?

My pedalboard changes frequently in order to reflect the material I am performing on tour. That makes it difficult to describe accurately. Generally speaking, I have an MFC-101 MIDI controller for my Fractal Axe-Fx [processor/preamp], and above it on a custom-made retractable pedal shelf, several fuzz or gain boost pedals and a few delay or modulation effects. I also have four volume/expression pedals, and a wah-wah off to the side as well.

What's your go-to effects order chain on your pedalboard?

This is also difficult to answer because of the nature of my rig. It's designed to be flexible in terms of routing, so that I'm not locked into any particular order. I like having the ability to change the routing of effects, especially since they react differently when used in combination with fuzzes, wahs, delays and modulation.

What's first, what's in the middle and what's at the end?

Well, here's the simplest answer. The rig is set up to be two autonomous stereo rigs with analog and digital devices switchable in-line via MIDI or as stompbox inserts. The explanation gets more complicated from there.

The signal flow is: guitar hits a TC micro tuner, then a few fuzzes -- a custom Paul Trombetta 4-channel CeyZo fuzz and a few other custom pedals -- then a Jam Whacko wah, and then a few more fuzzes or modulation devices, including a Jam Big Chill Tremolo pedal used with the wrong-impedance expression pedal to cause a bizarre tremolo feedback effect. There are about 10 in-line analog pedals inserted in front of the Fractal Axe-Fx, that color both stereo paths simultaneously.

Prior to amplification, the analog path hits an analog Steve Firlotte guitar splitter where the RJM loop switcher controls individual loops that insert effects in front of each separate stereo Fractal Axe-Fx. Once that chain is connected, there are many incredible combinations of fuzz/distortion that can color either side of the stereo spectrum and have dynamic attack differentials for more realistic doubling effects. This is also designed to properly implement an effect known as the dynaflanger. This requires the dynaflanger effect to be placed on one side of the stereo field, while the other side's signal is left dry. The dynamic envelope side is modulated out of tune via fast delay changes in response to pick attack. When heard in stereo against the dry side it produces an amazing doubling effect best heard on my dad's record Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar.

The end result of all of this wild routing is that any preset can have its own personality and sound like two guitarists playing with two different tones at once. For example, it is possible to create an image that consists of distorted stereo left with a Fuzz Face, delay and reverb; pristine clean compressed phaser in the center; and custom Big Muff distortion on the right with dynaflanger modulation. The definition within the frequency spectrum is fully modifiable and there is a lot of headroom. The four QSC KW series speaker configuration allows this type of imaging because Fractal A feeds wide left and right, and Fractal B feeds inside left, center and inside right. Each preset can change panning with an expression pedal providing other modifications such as simple stereo hard left and right with Fractal A left output only and Fractal B right output only -- or dual stereo, with both Fractals in stereo.

Inside the Fractal, there are already so many combinations of amp, fuzz/distortion, room/reverb, modulation, delay. My rig allows me to use all of that, plus creatively use some custom-made analog pedals that can be inserted into the common path to both Fractals, or the autonomous path for more unique textures within presets.

It should also be noted that the expression pedals can control wah pedals in the Fractal, which allows me to place wahs in different locations within the signal path, either pre or post, or do unconventional things like run two different wahs on the left and right with different parameters in order to create intense phaser sounds. Hundreds of other parameters can also be controlled via the same expression pedals within each preset. For example, the input gain to an amp can be used like a wah or volume, allowing a natural "breath-controlled" gain swell.

Which guitars do you use live?

I have mainly been using the Frank Zappa "Roxy & Elsewhere" Gibson SG. They made 450 replicas of his famous guitar, and they are very true to the original in tone and playability. It is so versatile, that I can do -- and have done -- entire shows without switching guitars. When I do require a change, I use some custom-made Fender Stratocasters and a few other things, like Gibson Les Pauls or my PRS Dweezil Zappa signature model guitar.

The main guitar since forming Zappa Plays Zappa has been my walnut Gibson SG. I've played it at every single Zappa Plays Zappa concert I performed up until the FZ "Roxy" replica was made by Gibson in 2013. The walnut SG was a real workhorse and I absolutely love that guitar. It is the one guitar that helped me transform my playing the most and I would hate to part with it. It has been slightly modified since the 2006 tour to include push pull tone knobs. The bottom tone splits the coil of the bridge pickup and the top tone knocks the neck and bridge pickups out of phase. It's very close to how Frank had his "Roxy" SG set up. It was recently set up at the Gibson custom shop in Nashville and it plays better than ever. They put it on a machine called a Plek which analyzes fret height and shaves offending frets. It made a huge difference to the playability and intonation of the instrument.

I have played a few other guitars on ZPZ tours -- a Fender Strat that started its life as a cream-colored Jeff Beck model but later became a lipstick pickup sparkle factory. It was featured in some tour ad campaigns and I used it on "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" and "Suzy Creamcheese" in 2009. I've played a few Eric Johnson model Fenders as well over the years. A white one, a tobacco burst and an ice blue. The latter guitars have 22 fret necks and Eric Johnson was kind enough to give Fender permission to add the extra frets for me since they are not part of the specs of his signature model. I have also played a custom Fender Stratocaster that has an embossed image of my dad layered into the tobacco burst finish and a custom-shaped Strat pickguard inspired by Jeff Beck.

Which guitars do you use in the studio?

I use the same guitars I mentioned -- because they offer me all of the timbre and texture I am looking for.

What's the blend of your guitars currently? How are you using different guitars to create your excellent textures?

I typically favor the SG for its playability and versatility. The main one I play has something Frank's didn't have: a piezo pickup system. It can be blended in with the other pickups and it really adds some great character to some clean sounds. When I want to layer things, I am looking for variation and diversity. So I may choose to play a Strat and an SG, or a Les Paul and a Telecaster. The truth is, many of my guitars are set up to create the majority of those timbres by wiring the pickups to have out-of-phase possibilities, and series or parallel. That way, in a live situation, I can get very close to each style of guitar, all in one guitar.

Do you have a favorite guitar of your dad's to play live or in the studio?

My favorite one that I play, which my dad gave to me, is the Stratocaster that once belonged to Jimi Hendrix. It is a very unique guitar with a lot of history and character.

Something with a little extra special in it?

It is special for sure. My dad used it in various configurations over the years. I recently restored it back to the way it was probably best known. It now has the appearance it had on the 1977 Guitar Player cover.

Tell us about your current amp setup.

No analog amps -- only recreations inside the Fractal Axe-Fx.

Multi-amp?

I can do up to four amps at once, and use the effects the same way I would in a mix situation in a studio. I go direct to the front-of-house PA system, with a little stage spill for the audience via the QSC KW series speakers.

How do you use the QSC KW? Why did you choose KW?

I use four KW122s behind me on stage as both guitar monitors and a front fill, so that the first few rows in the middle of the audience can hear my guitar clearly. So often the front middle seats are the best seats in the house, but the main PA speakers can miss the front middle of the audience a bit. I love the KW122 because it’s powerful and clear without adding distortion. I work really hard to create specific guitar sounds with my Axe-FX and it’s important that the sounds produced by my guitar amplifier and speaker are consistent and uncolored. I want my guitar on stage to sound how the audience hears it through the main PA and the KW122 does just that. I really like the sound of the birch cabinet because the low end is tight and controlled yet extended and warm.

Which mics do you use to record your amp?

I don't have any need for microphones on my guitar at this point. Because I go direct with my rig, I get a very consistent sound night after night.

Do you use headphones?

I do use some headphones from CAD. They are great for listening in loud environments on the road for guitar programming, because they have strong rejection and well-balanced amplification. They have good fidelity, and they are also really great for use during recording sessions. For even higher fidelity in a quieter studio playback environment, I like to use George Alessandro music series headphones.

Which model of CAD headphones do you use?

The MH510.

How about in-ear monitors?

Ultimate Ears.

Do you have a favorite pair of studio monitors?

I love my Focal SM9 monitors. They are very sweet for all-day critical listening without over-exaggerating the high end. They have a very warm and natural-sounding low-midrange.

What upcoming projects are you working on?

I have a few recording and DVD projects that are in the works. One of the audio recording projects features my own new music that I hope to get out before the fall. I'm excited about it. I'm also working with a few companies to develop some guitar equipment -- a few signature pedals. Hopefully we will get one of them out before the end of this year. Another thing I'm doing more of is teaching. I am working on developing more Dweezilla guitar camp locations and creating an online instruction series. I'm doing my first Dweezilla guitar camp in the UK this November.

If you were going to give advice to an up-and-coming guitar player, what gear would you recommend to get started?

Well, for the average beginner, I would recommend starting on an electric as opposed to an acoustic. It's easier on the fingers, and you have many more things to fall in love with. The electric guitar is expressive and versatile. So for the budget-conscious I would say a Mexican Fender Strat. That gets you quite a lot for an affordable price. If you have a budget, I believe a Gibson SG is the most underrated instrument, and a must-have. I also believe the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx is an amazing stand-alone sound-shaping tool. Those two things together are a must-have, if it fits your budget.

As far as those seeking knowledge, I have a few amazing websites to visit. Truefire.com has a wide variety of great lessons for all styles and skill levels. Chris Buono's lessons are really good! For beginner to intermediate, check out davidwallimann.com. For the advanced, I highly recommend timmillermusic.com, tomquayle.co.uk, derrylgabel.com. And Oz Noy's DVD series are also an excellent resource.

My own site, dweezilzappaworld.com, will begin to have more guitar instruction over the coming months. It is the best place to find out about tour dates and Dweezilla guitar classes. The classes are for all age groups and skill levels. I teach Dweezilla guitar classes prior to most concerts on our Zappa Plays Zappa tour, so anyone who may be interested can find out about attending them on my site.

Get even more more details on Dweezil's rig »

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