Zakk Wylde's Blakk Magic

May 11, 2006

It’s not just Zakk Wylde’s guitar sound and stage persona that are over-the-top huge. From his inextinguishable passion for practicing guitar to his unquenchable thirst for beer, his ever-growing biceps to his ever-growing beard, his massive herd of Gibsons and Marshalls to the monster pickup he drives (is that thing even street legal?), everything about this guy is larger than life—everything, that is, except his ego. If you’ve never hung out with Wylde, you might be surprised to find that behind that hissin’-and-spittin’ roaring rock-god exterior is one of the most humble and reverential dudes in guitar-dom—particularly when it comes to paying respects to other guitar players.

When he’s discussing the legends that forged the way before him, contemporary shredders who came up alongside him (such as his fallen brother in arms, Dimebag Darrell), or the legions of newbies he has inspired, Wylde speaks in hushed, hallowed tones. For him the guitar and nothing else—save perhaps cold, bottled beer—is the eternal flame that unites us all. And though the Ozzy Osbourne/ Black Label Society guitarist has done more to keep that torch burning bright for future generations—and keep metal guitar relevant in the new millennium—than any one of his successors, he’ll be the very last guy on the planet to admit it.

What Wylde will talk about, though, is how he has done all that he has. I spent the day with Wylde at Ameraycan Studios in North Hollywood, California, where he was putting the final overdubs on the positively crushing new Black Label Society album, Shot to Hell [Roadrunner]. Like a one-man school of rock, the unrivaled king of metal shares how he has stayed true to the guitar throughout his 39 years; how he plays, records, and practices; what exactly he’s doing on that giant solo he takes at Ozzfest; and when the next guitar hero may arrive.

Now that Dime is gone, you’re kind of “the guy.”

There are still a lot of great players out there. You’ve still got Eddie Van Halen, Vai, and Satriani.

But those guys are a generation ahead of you.

Well, there’s Kerry King of Slayer—the heaviest band on the planet. Then you have newer bands like Shadows Fall and Lamb of God that have ass-kickin’ musicians, beyond super heavy, who all know how to play their instruments.

But when it comes to headlining giant crowds like Ozzfest and doing a giant guitar cadenza, you’re pretty much the last guy standing. Why is that?

It’s weird. I mean, you’ve still got Slash throwing down. You’re never going to hear a Velvet Revolver album without any guitar solos. Jerry Cantrell—he played solos even when the whole Seattle thing was happening. Dan Donegan from Disturbed is now taking solos. He’s shredding, and they never used to do that. It’s cool. And I’ve noticed more and more at Ozzfest that bands are starting to do solos now, because, for a while there, it was only about the super heavy-thing. So I think guitar solos are definitely getting popular again.

No matter what the climate was, you’ve certainly never stopped throwing down.

There was a time when producers were definitely telling guys like me and Dime that solos were “dated.” We’d be like, “How can a solo be dated if it’s good? Tell Randy Rhoads and Van Halen that.” Listen to “Over the Mountain” or “Crazy Train.” Those songs are great—you gotta have a good song—but if the song is the cake, then the solo is the icing. Good solos never go out of style. I can understand some radio edits, but just imagine “Stairway to Heaven” without that solo. It’d be a different song.

When I first started with Ozzy, Bon Jovi was the big thing, and I couldn’t stand that kind of music. I was into Sabbath and Zeppelin, but we were writing these songs that sounded like Bon Jovi because the producer guys were telling us, “You’re never gonna make it if you’re playing that old crap. That stuff is going out of style.”

How do you deal with that kind of pressure from the guys who write the checks?

You gotta play the music you want to play. When Limp Bizkit and all them were coming up, I was being told, “You should be doing rap sh*t like that. What are you doing with this whole Viking berserker biker image you’ve got going?” I was like, “You gotta be kidding me. You’re saying that if I put on a backwards baseball hat, a pair of shorts, some Vans, and an oversized T-shirt, that’s gonna fix everything? Take your record company and cram it!”

You just gotta stay true to what you love. That’s what all the great bands I love did. I think it was Alvin Lee who once told Ozzy, “You’re gonna call your band ‘Black Sabbath?’ You’ll never go anywhere with that name.” Well, that’s what the band name became, and, last time I checked, Sabbath got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Is the lack of more guitar gods such as yourself because everything that’s possible on the guitar has already been done?

After Jimi Hendrix, everyone figured, “What the hell more can you do?” Then Jimmy page shows up with a violin bow. Then Van Halen comes out and just destroys the planet. Then Randy hits, and people are like, “You can’t get any better than that.” Then Yngwie Malmsteen shows up. And it doesn’t have to be a matter of reinventing or coming out with a new technique like tapping or something, it’s just about showing up with some great playing. For instance, when Guns N’ Roses came out, it was equally stunning. Guitar was getting totally over-the-top and here comes Slash just playing blues—blues on steroids. And you don’t have to have solos. Green Day stuck to their guns, and they’re one of the biggest bands in the world.

The only way to find your own identity is to keep doing what you love. If you think about finding that identity, it’s never gonna happen. Just keep plowing ahead with all the stuff you love. And don’t be afraid to sound like your influences. If you’re way into Metallica, your band should sound something like Metallica—at least in spirit. If your band ends up sounding like the Backstreet Boys, you’ve got a problem! Take pinch harmonics, for instance. I do them all the time, but I got them from Billy Gibbons, who was doing them way before me.

Yours are way more extreme.

Exactly. They’re different than Billy’s—more on the lower strings. But I learned it from listening to ZZ Top records, and asking my guitar teacher, “What is that thing he’s doing on ‘La Grange?’” John Sykes was doing those harmonics for years, too. That record he did with Whitesnake [Whitesnake] is amazing. It’s beyond stupid. So, the thing is, you’re not reinventing the wheel. You’re just taking the wheel and putting on different treads.

It’s also tied in to learning from other players.

There’s nothing better than learning from great musicians. I was in Japan, and Steve Lukather was playing in town, so I caught his show, and it was just amazing. You have to go see other people like Luke whose playing is just beyond insane. But nowadays, between instructional videos and all that, there are so many ways you can learn. It’s just a matter of gathering a bunch of information and doing what you want with it. The thing is, you can’t just learn from Dime and me. You gotta go further back. You gotta listen to guys that came way before us.

What did you learn being friends with Dimebag?

The reason why Dime was such a great player was not because of his great technique, but because he had such great feel. Dime had chops, and chops and technique are certainly awesome—they give you way more options—but speed is just speed. Jimmy Page didn’t have the chops of John McLaughlin or Paco de Lucía, but he could speak with the guitar like no one else.

True, speed is just speed, but when I watch how fast and powerfully you pick, I think to myself, “I want that.” How can someone achieve something similar?

Ask Steve Morse, Eddie, and Lukather, and they’ll all tell you the same thing—it’s just repetition. Over and over. It’s like lifting weights—you can’t get big overnight. You gotta lift constantly. Take Yngwie. He didn’t just pick up the guitar and start playing like that. Someone showed him how to play “Smoke on the Water,” and he took it from there.

Do your ears ring?

Without a doubt, man. After all those years standing in front of Marshalls, my ears ring all the time. I don’t know if they’re as bad as Pete Townshend’s, but if I’m laying down at night and turn off the TV, my ears are going weeeeee. I usually sleep with the TV on. But, no regrets. I tried wearing plugs onstage, and I couldn’t stand it. You can’t feel anything with plugs in. I never play out of the top cabinets, though. I always love cranking out of the bottom ones, so you can feel it on the back of your legs.

How many cabinets in that huge wall of stacks are you actually going through?

Four—the four bottoms behind me. It sounds great. It has that spread. The rest of the Wall of Doom is just for show. And I’m just running two 100-watt heads—usually one of my signature Marshall JCM800s, and one of the older ones—pushed a little by my MXR ZW-44 Wylde Overdrive. Marshalls sound the same every goddamn night, and that’s what you gotta love about those amps.

What speakers have you been using lately?

Electro-Voice is making me 200- and 300-watt speakers now. They’re definitely more ass kickin’ than lower wattage speakers. They’re cleaner and fuller sounding when you kill them with 100-watt Marshalls, and they don’t break up on you.

As wild as you are onstage, I’m surprised you never play wireless.

I’ve tried wireless units in the past, but they compress the sound too much. With cables, you don’t lose your tone. I use Monster cables—sometimes as long as 50 feet.

You often kick on some chorus at live shows.

I don’t use it in the studio much, because I get a stereo sound by double-tracking the guitars. Live, I use an MXR M-134 Stereo Chorus. It just makes everything wide. At Black Label shows, Nick [Catanese] is doing the same thing with his rig—which is the same as mine—so you’re hearing this huge quad-chorus. We double solos and lines, and it sounds killer. Nick is awesome. He’s my Ronnie Wood.

Describe your first meeting with Ozzy in 1987.

Before or after I crapped my pants? Really, I just wanted to get an autograph. But they flew me out for an audition.

What did he say to you after you played?

He told me, “Just play with your heart—that’s all you gotta do—and you’ll be fine. By the way, change your pants!”

What have you absorbed from Ozzy after all these years?

That music is endless, man. Think about it. After all the great Sabbath albums he did, he’s like, “What am I gonna do now?” Then he goes solo and comes up with Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. It’s endless. Ozzy is one of the guys who showed me how you gotta just love music and not let anybody sway you. You wanna do a ballad? Do it.

For a while there, Ozzy was looking for another guitarist to do his new album.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t gonna do this record. Ozzy knows I’m always a phone call away. He was just jamming with some other guys, and that’s no big deal. He was like, “Zakk’s so busy doing Black Label, let me see if I can get some other guys in here.” Who gives a sh*t? Our relationship is bigger than music. I mean, he’s godfather to my son, you know? All he had to do is call me up and say, “Zakk, wanna do some jamming?” And that’s what he did. I’m going up to his house tonight to start writing songs. I’ll just start putting down some riffs, and we’ll take it from there. We’re hoping to get the album done in time for the summer Ozzfest tour.

How can a guitarist up his or her game for a big show?

Really, you gotta look at it like it’s just another gig. We played The Tonight Show with Ozzy, and everyone was freaking out. I was like, “Relax. We play the same damn song every night. Just go up there and do it.” You don’t need to worry about stepping up your game for a big show. It’s like if we were playing the Super Bowl. Hopefully we’ll all have a great game, but you know what? We came this far, and we kicked everybody’s ass getting here, so just do the same sh*t we did last week. Don’t worry about trying to pass for 400 yards and six touchdowns. Just play naturally. Don’t force things.

What are you guys going for with Shot to Hell?

Zero record sales [laughs]. I just look at it as just another Black Label album. As long as it doesn’t sound like the last album, we’re good to go. This is number eight. It’s meat and potatoes, man. You get bored with the others, you can listen to this one. I can’t stand it when bands say, “This is the best thing we’ve ever done,” because it’s like, “But you said that about the last one.” If this is the biggest record I’ve ever done, great. But if it’s not, I won’t discredit the other albums I’ve done, because, at that space and time, that was the best job I could do. That’s the cool thing about music—it takes you back in time.

How many takes do you do on a solo?

One. That’s it. If I don’t like that one, then we’ll just do it again. Or if I’m doubling one of the solos, I just keep doing takes until I get it just right. You can cut, paste, and punch in easier than ever nowadays, but, with me, it’s all about getting it in one shot. Or, I may sit down and compose a solo, so it has an intro, a melody, and a fast thing.

The solos on the new album sound so spontaneous. Can you really play them back note-for-note?

Every one of them! I’ll play the same solos live. The guitar lead is just important as the vocal melody. It’s just like it was for Randy Rhoads. When you’re doing “Mr. Crowley,” you can’t play another solo, you gotta play that solo.

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