Zakk Wylde's Acoustic Side

April 29, 2016

“The music you love is what you eat, so that’s going to be in your DNA, and what’s going to come out,” says Zakk Wylde. “I’m on a steady acoustic diet all the time, between the Eagles, Neil Young, Elton John, the Band, Creedence, Bob Seger, and, obviously, the mellow sides of the Beatles and the Stones.”

Those influences—and many more—inform Wylde’s “Opus Stupendous Technicolor Dreamcoat Fantasy,” otherwise known as his album, Book of Shadows II [eOne Music]. Technically, it’s Wylde’s second solo album, but it features bassist John DeServio and drummer Jeff Fabb, both of whom occupy respective chairs in Wylde’s primary project, Black Label Society. And although the remarkably beautiful Book II is milder than Wylde’s usual mayhem, it’s hardly a strictly acoustic affair.

“The songs are based on acoustic rhythms with mostly clean electric, Dickey Betts-type solos,” says Wylde.

Book of Shadows II comes 20 years after its predecessor, which was cut following Wylde’s original stint with “The Boss,” Ozzy Osbourne. In addition, Wylde is always up to other interesting endeavors. He’s currently busy mocking up acoustic guitars for his new company—Wylde Audio—and preparing to tour with Experience Hendrix. Wylde will also be a featured performer on Steve Vai’s roadshow, Generation Axe: A Night of Guitars.

How did your first acoustic guitar shape your outlook on the instrument?

From when I first started to right now, my whole outlook on the acoustic is that I basically want it to play like an electric guitar. I’m talking about the action, because on lots of acoustics, you realize as soon as you get above the fifth fret that you’re not going to be shredding any Al Di Meola licks any time soon. If some mother asked me, “Zakk, can you do me a favor and make sure my kid gets a good first guitar at the music store?” I’d make sure the action isn’t five feet off the neck! You can’t even play a barre chord. There’s nothing more discouraging for a beginning player. You can adjust the action to a degree, but the guitar has to be comfortable to play, and you should be able to hear the whole thing sing. My first guitar was probably just like everybody else’s—some cheap beataround guitar that was just something to play.

When did you get your first decent acoustic and start making significant recordings?

I’ve been with Gibson since I first started with the Boss, back when I was 19 or 20 years old, and got my Gibson Dove. I used that for my first record, Book of Shadows, and all the stuff we recorded with the Boss, including “Mama, I’m Coming Home.”

“Mama, I’m Coming Home” sounds like a 12-string.

Actually, that’s a 6-string and a 12-string. I think the 12 might be an Alvarez-Yairi. Those acoustics are phenomenal, as well.

Who were your acoustic guitar heroes?

Father Al [Di Meola], Jimmy Page, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucia were huge influences.

You’ve included solo-acoustic instrumentals on albums throughout the years, and you fired up some flamenco flare on “Speedball” from the 2002 BLS album, 1919 Eternal. What do you remember about that track?

I was just sitting around, and I thought, “I’m going to come up with a little piece.” That’s an ode to Al, John, and Paco, and, obviously, King Edward Van Halen’s “Spanish Fly.” I tracked “Speedball” on an Alvarez-Yairi DY61 that sounds great and plays like butter.

“Takillya (Estyabon)” from 2004’s Hangover Music Vol. VI also has that Spanish style, and it sounds like a nylon string.

I tracked that with a Yamaha classical that my buddy gave me all the way back when we were 15 years old. I still jam on that guitar to this day. The action is super comfortable.

Speaking of Eddie Van Halen, “T.A.Z.” from the first Black Label Society album, Sonic Brew, is kind of like an acoustic “Eruption.”

Once again, I cut that on an Alvarez that plays like an electric guitar. I’ll use an Alvarez for rhythm parts, as well, but I use my Gibsons and Epiphones for a lot of chordal parts. On the new record, I actually recorded a couple of rhythm tracks on Loucin guitars made by Garren Dakessian. He’s a Canadian luthier who made me two acoustics—one with the bulls-eye graphic, and one with the buzz saw. He didn’t paint them on—he cut the graphics out of wood. The body is a tribute to early Epiphone acoustics. He loves that body style. He tweaked it and made his own with a deep cutaway. You can hear it on “Useless Apologies.”

“Useless Apologies” is a plaintive acoustic strummer in 6/8 that stands out because there’s no drums or bass.

Actually, that song took a couple of different forms. It was an electric song, and then it was a trippy-type thing like Pink Floyd. It was originally in G minor, but ended up in G major. I already had those lyrics written, and they happened to fit.

You recorded Book of Sorrows II in your home studio, The Black Vatican. Did you produce it as well?

Yeah, along with the guardian angel of the Black Vatican, Father Adam [engineer Adam Clumpp], and Father JDesus [bassist John DeServio]. You can’t have too many cooks in the kitchen, because otherwise it’s like, “Dude, go watch porn so we can mix!” Adam and J will spend all day mixing, and then I’ll come up and do a taste test. “J, maybe a little bit more cilantro.” It ultimately boils down to the tunes, but as far as production fidelity goes, you want to beat every record you’ve done. Good sound quality—it’s almost like a good steak. Cook it right, and you get the reaction you’re looking for—“Wow!”

What do you use to ensure your acoustic tracks get that reaction?

We have a $12,000 Telefunken tube mic, so that usually helps. I point it between the bridge and the soundhole from about a foot away. Although, that thing is so crystal clear that it will pick up stuff two miles away! I use the Telefunken for vocals and other stuff, too. For acoustic guitar, we point two other skinny mics [Editor’s Note: Most likely small-diaphragm condensers] directly from the left and right side of the Telefunken. Those pick up more of the fretboard, and then more of the guitar’s body. It’s kind of like miking a speaker cabinet where you have one getting the low end, one focused on highs, and another on the mids.

Can you describe how the tracks go down?

We don’t rehearse. I’ll get Jeff and JD over to the Vatican, and I might throw a song at them I wrote that morning. Jeff will sit next to me and play air drums while I show him the song on acoustic guitar. When we track it for real, I’ll be set up in the control room looking at Jeff through the glass.

Do you write a lot of your music on acoustic guitar?

Oh yeah. We tour all the time in “The Submarine” [his tour bus], so I bring my Gibson Chet Atkins in a gig bag for practicing. I have a steel-string version, but I bring the nylon-string because it’s quiet. I don’t want to annoy the crap out of everybody else while I’m busy trying to run scales as cleanly as possible at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. I’m usually the first one up. I make java for the rest of the crew, and I start jamming on the acoustic. That’s how I write pretty much everything. I start noodling, and then an idea turns into another song.

What’s your main performance acoustic?

My main live acoustic is an Epiphone Masterbilt with a cutaway. I throw a magnetic EMG pickup in the soundhole, and I run it through my regular pedalboard into a Roland Jazz Chorus. When I solo, it almost sounds like I’m playing a Strat using a single-coil neck pickup. It’s nice and super clean.

Do you use compression to treat the acoustic guitar?

No. Sometimes, I’ll use a chorus effect, or I’ll put a little slapback delay on the solo to make it sound big.

You introduced your first Wylde Audio guitars at Winter NAMM 2016 with three electric models, and you mentioned working on an acoustic model. Can you share some details on assembling the ultimate acoustic?

You combine the awesomeness of the acoustics you already have. For example, using ebony or maple for the fretboard will sound much brighter than rosewood. You put it in a blender, and then you make that fit. Again, it’s like putting together different ingredients and spices in food. You take the back and sides from one guitar, the top from another, and the body shape from another until you get the right combination.

Do you know what it’s going to be called?

Not yet. I’ve got the body shapes and everything, so the guys are working on it right now. I’m showing each step of the way on my social media.

Do you have any parting shots on acoustic versus electric music?

I love both. As much as I love listening to Zeppelin doing “Black Dog,” I love it when they do “Going to California.” The great thing about acoustic music is that it definitely puts you in a different mindset. I wanted Book of Shadows II to be one of those records for when you’re on a road trip or sitting on a plane, and you just want to chill out.

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