Neil Zaza, AKA “The Crank Master”, is an independent guitar player from Ohio, who is carving out a career in music using some very creative methods. A blistering guitarist who shames most other guitar-wielding human containers, Zaza balances his technical mastery with a keen melodic sense as well as a challenging compositional style. Zaza has consistently aimed for control over his musical career, and has definitely hit the bullseye.
Dan McAvinchey asked Zaza about his influences and musical goals, the advantages of digital home studio recording, and his ideas for others wishing to follow in his footsteps.
Dan McAvinchey: Neil, how did you get interested in music, and who were some guitarists that influenced your musical tastes?
Neil Zaza: I just always loved music and when I found that I could play it if I wanted to, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. To try to list some of the bands and/or players that influenced my own playing…that would be a very long list. I have to say that my number one influence from the beginning was Van Halen. I don’t think I sound like him at all, but I really was influenced by him in a fanatical way early on. I still listen to the first four records (the REAL Van Halen) and it still give me chills how great he was.
Another player that I feel has had a lasting impact would have to be Neal Schon. His phrasing and sense of melody are just outstanding and that is the stuff I try to emulate these days. Guitar playing is not about technique, but about melody and the translation of emotion.
Dan McAvinchey: Tell us about the guitars and other gear you are using to get the Zaza sound.
Neil Zaza: I have been changing gear around a lot lately. I have just fell in love with an amp that I just purchased from Dr. Z. Amplification here in Cleveland. It is a handmade, class A, hand soldered amp that just KILLS! It has the best tone I have ever heard in an amp and it is all over anything I am doing in the studio as well as live.
Other amps and stuff include a 5150 combo/half stack with a STRAIGHT cab, Rocktron PatchMate, Replifex, Rack Interface, Power Station, tube screamer, mxr phase 90, mxr flanger and a Lexicon Jam Man all controlled with an All Access pedal.
That is the live stuff. In the studio I have been using the Z as well as a Peavey Classic 30 with a 112 e cab. Guitar wise, I have been using my EVH Music Man, some Zion Ninety Telecasters, a G&L ASAT classic custom, and a G&L George Fullerton model. I love ’em all!
Dan McAvinchey: What are you hoping to achieve musically?
Neil Zaza: I am hoping to bridge the personal gap of what I feel inside, translating that to the instrument and finally to the audience. I really have come a long way from the “shredder” that I used to be. I have spent some time finding what it is that I want to say on guitar and how I want to say it. I really focus on melody as opposed to just riffs now which I feel really helps my playing as well as my compositions. I really am just trying to be myself.
Dan McAvinchey: What is your most recently completed project and what’s up for the future?
Neil Zaza: My just completed Christmas CD would have to be the most current one. I also am going to LA to record a project with drummer Robin DiMaggio (Steve Vai, Toni Braxton, Boyz 2 Men, Mariah Carey, etc.) that will be some heavy funk stuff.
Dan McAvinchey: How do you compose your music?
Neil Zaza: I really compose all the stuff I write with a guitar and a little hand held tape recorder to capture the idea. I really just play the guitar and hum the melody and go from there. I find that if it sounds good in that state, it is a good song.
Dan McAvinchey: Do you record at home or rent time at a commercial facility?
Neil Zaza: I do record in both my home studio as well as a commercial facility. I feel that I can get the best of both worlds like this. When I record at home, I can take the time to do the recording the way I want and take time on things that I feel are important to concentrate on. I don’t have to look at the clock and think about the bill that is running at the time. Then, I go to a bigger studio to do some of the tracking that I can’t do at home (drums) as well as mixing some of the material. In terms of digital editing and recording, I really have it great at home. I never knew that the command “undo” could cause so much creativity in me. I can’t screw anything up and I can take chances with crazy punches and riffs because all I have to do is press “undo” and I am out of it.
Dan McAvinchey: What went into the decision to form your own record label and release an independent record?
Neil Zaza: The real basic premise is that no one else is going to put records out the way I want them done. I don’t want be one of the millions looking for that elusive deal that never comes or when it does, it is not right. I can record anytime I want, set my own budget, and release things when I have something musically to say. That is a great freedom that I really could not live without. I know it is not Geffen or Warner, but at least my music is getting out right now.
Dan McAvinchey: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent musician?
Neil Zaza: The only real thing with it is that you have to do it all. That is the good as well as the bad. You get it done just like you want, but you have to do it yourself. I would love to have a great company do it for me, but for now this is how it is.
Dan McAvinchey: Care to share any marketing or promotion tips for musicians about to release their first independent record?
Neil Zaza: There are a few thing to be very cognizant of. One is that you have to have a good promotion budget and not to skimp corners when it comes to this. You can have the greatest album and if no one knows that you have one out and available, it really is no good. Utilize all that you can with local publications and national ones as well. Always think of the nation as your market and not just your town. You can be the biggest thing in your hometown and unless they know you around, it really is not going to help you. Be a big fish in a big pond.
Always stick to your vision of the music that you want to play. Do not be swayed by trends. Be true to yourself and your art. If you are not, you and your music will suffer. Great music will survive if it comes from the heart.