For someone who travels the world playing guitar, instrumental guitarist Neil Zaza goes to great lengths to make his fans feel right at home.
The in Twinsburg hosted the release party for Zaza’s new album, 212, on Friday night. Zaza spent the evening answering questions, signing autographs, posing for pictures and playing new and old tunes.
GitterPicker students and Zaza fans packed the house to capacity. Steve Radcliff, a founder of GitterPicker, was glad to see his students come out to see Zaza. “I think it motivates them to play guitar,” Radcliff said.
“So, you’re all here for a poetry reading?” Zaza joked before beginning his set. His power trio, completed by long-time associate Ray Liptak on bass and Garrett Janos on drums, first played a heavier cover of Message in a Bottle by The Police.
“I just enjoyed watching him enjoy playing,” said Mike Ray, an acoustic guitar student at GitterPicker.
“I was disappointed it was only an hour and a half long,” said Brent Fiorucci, a multi-instrumentalist. “I wish it went three or four hours.”
Neil Zaza has been releasing solo albums since 1992, but has always stayed close to his hometown, Northfield Center, OH. “For me, it’s really about coming to terms with ‘this is where I’m from’ and trying to give it back,” Zaza said. “I’m happy in my own skin, playing here.”
As a young guitarist, Zaza started playing simple tunes like Mary Had a Little Lamb, then moved on to play songs like the Lynyrd Skynyrd hit, Sweet Home Alabama. “Once you learn Sweet Home Alabama, there’s no going back,” he said.
A musical epiphany struck Zaza when he first heard the beginning of Van Halen’s 1978 hit, Running with the Devil. “It was like a beam of light. Angels started singing and I knew I’d never have a real job,” Zaza said. He was thrilled to have Van Halen’s former bassist, Michael Anthony, appear on his 2006 album, When Gravity Falls. “I was kinda starstruck. I pushed it out of my mind that I was playing with a member of Van Halen,” Zaza said.
Zaza’s past collaborations have also included Peter Frampton, Dream Theater’s keyboardist Jordan Rudess and Journey’s drummer and bassist, Steve Smith and Ross Valory. Currently, Zaza says he's working on something with singer Tim 'The Ripper" Owens, of Iced Earth and Judas Priest fame.
Although Zaza’s influences stretch across many genres, he seems to be most influenced by melody itself, regardless of origin.
“Melody always comes first,” Zaza said. “When people play too fast, there’s nothing there to dig in.” Zaza also focuses on strong songwriting. “That’s what keeps you listening: the songs.”
Zaza shared some advice for younger players. “You’ve got to play music because you love it, not to grow your hair out, or get into drugs or make money,” he said. He also cautioned players to take their time when learning new things. He said playing fast was “like eating candy all the time. It’s nice in smaller portions.”