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STAIRWAY to HEAVEN: Led Zeppelin Masters Tzan Niko interview

Formed out of the ashes of 60s supergroup The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin became one of the greatest rock bands to inhabit the earth. Along with The Beatles, Led Zeppelin is one of just two bands who have been awarded 5 diamond albums, which translates to sales of more than 10 million each. Their album Led Zeppelin 4 has sold a staggering 37 million copies to date. In their prime, they even had their own jet plane called ‘The Starship’, the first Boeing 720-022 ever built. Now, 35 years after the end of the core lineup, 36 musicians and singers, led by Adelaide’s acclaimed Zep Boys bring a massive orchestral tribute show Stairway To Heaven: Led Zeppelin Masters to both Brisbane and Melbourne. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to the show’s guitarist Tzan Niko about the role he plays in the extravaganza.

Photo 6-12-2015, 10 51 12 AMIt was only half a dozen years after the demise of Led Zeppelin in 1986 that The Zep Boys decided to dedicate an entire show to the UK legends. What started out as a project for a single night’s performance, turned into a career for the Adelaide band lasting decades. Tzan came late to the band, asked by singer Vince Contarino to join in 2012 and has been an integral part of the band and these orchestral shows ever since. Interestingly, Tzan was never a Zeppelin freak growing up, preferring the more direct rock route of another legendary UK band, Deep Purple.
“I was familiar with the Zeppelin stuff but no more than your average person,” explains Tzan about his teen years. “I was into Deep Purple. I got into Zeppelin more when Vince asked me to join the band. I had about six and a half weeks notice before the first gig, which was at The Gov in Adelaide. So I had to learn all of this Zeppelin stuff that I’d never known before. Obviously I have a new appreciation of Led Zeppelin now after doing the study into them.  They mixed a lot of different elements of music and made it their own. They were four minds of a higher plain who came together to make this music.”

Tzan was the perfect choice for the Zep Boys and for these shows in particular. He has a Bachelor of Music and Diploma in Jazz, has worked regularly in musicals and is no stranger to working with larger ensembles. “The key thing is us locking in with the orchestra,” Tzan says of the task at hand. “The orchestra has a certain pulse that they lock into, very rigid, whereas us we can fluctuate at times. It’s finding a happy medium so we can gell together, which is why the conductor is there. The conductor is the time keeper but a lot of it is the orchestra following us.”

Tzan carried out extensive study on Jimmy Page’s guitar parts and gear in preparation of the Zep Boys gig but more than anything he’s intent on capturing a spirit rather than an exact representation of Page’s tone.
“I have gone more with the approach of replicating as close as possible the playing, as opposed to the exact tone,” he tells me. “As long as the tone is pleasant and captures the spirit, that’s the approach I take. I have studied his gear but it’s gear which works for Jimmy Page, which may not translate the same for another player. I work with what works for me in terms of tone. It’s more about the playing and replicating the notes and the phrasing, making sure all of the famous solos are captured as best I can with my abilities.”

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On stage Tzan uses similar guitars to Page, a Gibson Les Paul Custom, Les Paul Studio and also an Epiphone version of JImmy’s twin neck guitar as well. For the acoustic guitar parts, Tzan chooses to play Maton guitars. “The Maton I use for my own shows in Adelaide is a Maton TE1 Tommy Emmanuel model,” he says. “For these shows, we just use hired guitars and they vary. I just ask for a Maton and what they give me, I play. The only thing I specify is to have the AP5 pickup, which I prefer to the AP4.”

For the Brisbane show on July 2nd, the band will be accompanied by the prestigious Queensland Symphony Orchestra. In Melbourne (July 8 and 9) it will be their customised Black Dog Orchestra. Both orchestras will be conducted by Nicholas Buc, who guided the Black Dog Orchestra so masterfully when they played the Sydney Opera House in two sold out shows earlier this year.
“Achilles Last Stand works really well,” offers Tzan when I ask which songs work best with an orchestra. “Stairway works of course … Black Dog works well. Obviously Kashmir works well because it’s just built to be played with an orchestra. They all work well. Zeppelin used the Mellotron on songs like No Quarter and All Of My Love, so those translate really well too with live strings replacing those Mellotron parts.”

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When Tzan is not impersonating Jimmy Page riffs, he’s either doing fill-in gigs for bands around Adelaide, teaching or working on his debut solo album. “It’s more shred stuff,” he says of his solo album. “Steve Vai, Satriani, Malmsteen kind of stuff. Also there will be some nylon string acoustic songs too. I have a flamenco pop tune, one called Klughless as I’m a big fan of Earl Klugh. There’s a country one in a Dixie Dregs style. I’m usually an Ibanez kind of guy and I have a JP6 John Petrucci Music Man guitar too. My workhorse though is my Peavey Wolfgang which I have had since ’98.”

For now Tzan is concentrating on the upcoming Stairway To Heaven: Led Zeppelin Masters shows. “For Led Zeppelin fans, it’s a must-see,” he says. “But even if you’re not, just hearing these great songs backed by an orchestra is something you’ve got to hear to believe.”

STAIRWAY to HEAVEN Led Zeppelin Masters will be playing Brisbane on 2nd July at Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre and  Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on Friday 8th July and Saturday 9th July

Tickets via and

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