by Gabe Gott
In the United States, there is a niche market for guitar-based instrumental music; however, in the rest of the world, it is a different story. Just ask Akron native Neil Zaza, who is best known for his song, “I’m Alright,” off of his third album, “Song” (1997). Here, it is seen as one of the most common and challenging songs for guitarists to learn; however, in Asia, the song is so popular that it is not uncommon to hear ring tones and dance remixes of it.
“It’s just a different attitude towards the music. Whereas, in the U.S., it’s more viewed as guitar music, overseas it’s viewed as just music, which is a nice thing,” he says. “But to tour over there, it’s fantastic because you really get to experience a whole different side of things, and you see different cultures and different ways that things are done. It’s just a whole other world from growing up in Northeastern Ohio.”
In spite of his success overseas, Zaza still resides in the Akron area. You might even catch him from time to time at one of his favorite haunts, Nervous Dog. He also attended The University of Akron, where he studied classical guitar under renowned instructor and performer, and current Chairman of Guitar Studies at the university, Professor Stephen Aron, who Zaza credits for instilling in him a strong work ethic.
“He really held me and all of his students very accountable for what we did on the instrument. There was certainly no slacking off,” he says. “We had to come in every week, and we had to give it, basically we had do it as if it was for real. He was very passionate about what he was doing and what we were doing.”
Zaza credits that work ethic as one reason for his success, and on March 12, in a performance presented by The Akron Civic Theatre’s Club at the Civic Series, he will be fulfilling a longtime goal by performing at the local landmark. At the show, audience members will be seated on the stage with Zaza and his band as they perform a career-spanning set, including selections from his latest album, 2015’s “Peach.” It will be his last show in the U.S. before he leaves on a three-month tour of China, Europe and various other parts of Asia.
“I love the venue because it’s so historical and beautiful, and I understand the stage sounds really great,” Zaza says. “When I was a kid out of high school, I was a roadie for Three Dog Night for one of the shows they did at Akron Civic, and I remember wanting to play this stage one time, and, actually, in the dressing room right off the side of the stage, I got up and signed the ceiling with a Sharpie — you know, my autograph back in whatever year it was — and it’s still up there, and I thought it was kind of funny that I’ll actually be getting to be play at the Civic.”
While today he is best known as an instrumental guitar virtuoso, his first band, Zaza, had a hit song with the 1989 power ballad, “Maybe Tomorrow,” which, he says, was a learning experience on what not to do, and it still instructs him to this very day.
“I think what I learned from that band is that you really have to be proud of the product that you put out,” he says. “You can’t just put something out and think that the fans are instantly going to just flock to it, and you really have to stand behind it.”
In the early ‘90s, that band disbanded, and that’s when Zaza himself embarked on his solo career. It took a few albums to establish his voice as a guitarist, and it was the song, “I’m Alright,” that helped him discover it.
“I really started thinking about the melodies in the music and the actual songwriting. If you listen to that song, it’s not about the technique, and it’s not about, you know, how fast I was playing. It really was about how the song was connecting with people,” he says. “I think it’s really kind of a template that I follow to this very day, which is, you know, let’s make sure the song is really good. Don’t worry about showing that I know this riff, that I can play this fast, ‘ooh, check this out.’ You know, if you author a good song, it’s going to be ‘I’m Alright,’ and then it’s gonna be alright.”
(Feature image: Neil Zaza, photo courtesy of philipbh.com)