Neil Zaza clearly remembers the first guitar lesson he ever took. It was at a YMCA in Macedonia. "I learned 'Smoke on the Water' [and] 'Sweet Home Alabama,'" he remembers. "From that point, I didn't want to do anything else."
Zaza's rep as a virtuoso axe man quickly escalated, and he formed the band Zaza in 1987. The group released two albums before breaking up a few years later. "We had a good run," he says. "That showed me that the Cleveland fans can be really dedicated to what you do. But once I left the band, I never looked back."
Zaza's past solo albums are filled with the same rapid-fire fretwork usually found on records by Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. He'll celebrate the release of his new instrumental album, 212, at 8 p.m. Friday at the Kent Stage.
This time around, Zaza puts the emphasis on songwriting rather than shredding. You'll still hear complex solos in songs like "Go!" and "Baroque Sky," but there are actual hooks guiding them here. "I wanted to keep it like the records that I grew up on," he says. "I wanted no filler on it. I wanted to let the song catch you."
Zaza toured extensively throughout Asia and Europe last year, and he's planning a similar itinerary for 2011. After the Kent Stage show, he's off to Italy and Poland, where he'll play several festivals. "My music seems to resonate with people overseas," he says. "[In the U.S.] guitar players come out to see you. But in Korea or China, everyone comes out. It's not just a bunch of guys checking out your riffs."
Tickets to Friday's show range from $21.20 to $100 and are available at kentstage.org.
Cleveland rappers Illogic, Muamim Co., and Ill Poetic team up with Columbus-based J. Rawls for the Ohio Takeover Tour, a hip-hop showcase at the Agora Theater at 9 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10. Rawls also put together a tie-in mixtape that can be downloaded for free at naturesounds.bandcamp.com
Singer-songwriter Jim Miller performs his annual spring tribute to the Grateful Dead with an all-Dead set at 9 p.m. Saturday at the Winchester. Tickets are $7, available at thewinchester.net.
Promoter and manager Gregg Kelley has enlisted rappers Dex the Passion, Nyland, Haz-Mat, the Worker Ants, a Gift for the Unblessed, C-Dub & Eads, Wizzle, Rusty Nail, and Of Human to play his birthday party at 7 p.m. Saturday at Peabody's. Tickets are $6, but you can pick up some free ones at peabodys.com.
With bassist Jamie Boulder playing out of town with another band, metal stalwarts Destructor are giving one lucky fan the chance to take his place onstage when the group opens for German thrashers Destruction at Peabody's on May 6.
Disclaimer: You actually have to know how to play to be eligible. If you've got what it takes, send a video or YouTube link of you and your bass-playing skills to email@example.com. Entries must be received by this Friday, April 15. So get riffin'.