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Zakk Wylde

December 1, 2010
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IT’S INTERESTING TO LOOK AT ZAKK WYLDE AS ONE OF THE ELDER statesmen of metal, but think about it: He got his gig with Ozzy over 20 years ago. In the decades in between, he has created a recognizable style characterized by a huge tone, blazing pentatonics, sweeping vibrato, and the best post-Billy Gibbons artificial harmonics on the planet. Although he’s known to many for his work with Ozzy, Wylde has ten releases with his own Black Label Society, including this year’s amazingly deep and heavy Order of the Black [Koch]. BLS has become almost as much a belief system as a band, with fans sporting the gear (or “colors,” as Wylde says) all around the world and the first ever Black Label Berzerkus tour about to get underway. No longer working with Osbourne, Wylde is free to focus 100 percent on his own band. “Black Label to me,” he explains, “is like Led Zeppelin is to Jimmy Page.”

The riff on “Crazy Horse” that opens your new record might be the coolest use of flange since “Unchained.”

That’s funny. I’m using the MXR Van Halen Flanger and there’s an “Unchained” button on it. You press that and you get Eddie’s “Unchained” setting. That’s exactly what I used.

What was the rest of the signal chain on that song?

I used my Rebel Les Paul into my pedals—my Black Label Dunlop Chorus, the MXR Wylde Overdrive, the EVH 90 phaser, then my Rotovibe, and then the Wylde Wah. I ran all that into my signature Marshall JCM800, but the only pedal that was on was the overdrive. I just step on the flange when I need it.

How are you setting the controls? How much distortion is coming from the amp and how much is coming from the overdrive pedal?

The gain on the 800 is all the way to 10 and the master’s probably around 4. As far as the rest of the settings go, I just crank them to 10, and then back off what is poking through a little bit too much, like if something is too present or too treble-y or whatever. I only really need two sounds: clean and dirty. If you want it clean like “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” I turn off the distortion pedal and turn my guitar down. There’s your clean guitar. Without the distortion pedal on, what it gets me is like a Malcolm Young “Highway to Hell” tone. There’s really no sustain. If you want to play a long sustaining solo note, you’re not going to get it. But the beautiful thing about my overdrive pedal is, whether you run into a Soldano, a Dr. Z, a Fender Twin Reverb, or a Marshall, your amp will sound exactly the same when you kick the pedal on, except you’re going to have more sustain. And that’s all you want.

Your solo in “Overlord” has some really cool, outside note choices.

I know the notes you’re talking about. The song is in a minor key but then I start playing major notes. I also do the diminished scale a little bit.

Was that improvised or composed?

Definitely composed. Every solo on this record—and the majority of everything that I’ve recorded—is pretty much composed. There’s a little bit of improv in some spots but I generally approach them like a Neal Schon or Randy Rhoads-type of thing where the solo has parts. It’s got a recognizable melody or section. With a classic Neal Schon solo, you’ve got a great melody and then he just kicks it into freakin’ hyper overdrive and does his blazing John McLaughlin stuff. With Randy’s stuff, it’s all a song within a song. I could play his solos for you and you would instantly know what song they’re from.

It’s interesting that you mention Neal Schon, because I think you have more in common with him than a lot of your fans might realize.

I think he’s really underrated. Just like with David Gilmour, the magnitude and the hugeness of the band and all the massively successful hit songs have overshadowed the guitar playing. Neal’s the complete package. He’s got amazing vibrato, his phrasing is incredible, and he’s a great blues guitar player aside from having John McLaughlin chops. He ain’t messing around.

You really come out swinging on “Black Sunday.” You don’t hear many guys starting songs with a solo part like you did there. It reminds me of the Scorpions song “Bad Boys Running Wild.”

That’s exactly where I got the inspiration for that. We had already recorded the song and I picked up my Graveyard Disciple Epiphone with the Floyd Rose on it and we put that little piece on the beginning.

Did you use anything other than your live rig for this record?

For the clean stuff I generally just turn my guitar’s volume down, but the intro to “War of Heaven” is my ’58 Les Paul Jr. that Les Paul actually signed. I like to use that for clean tones because the P-90s just sound insane. I ran it into a Roland JC-120—with the chorus setting on.

You also have a signature chorus pedal from MXR. There was a time when guys playing heavy music wouldn’t go near a chorus.

I’ve always liked that sound. Some of the tones that Andy Summers got with the Police were awesome. The chorus that Randy got on his live tone was amazing. I think his live tone completely, absolutely surpassed his recorded tone. I was always like, “Man, what is that?” He’s got that awesome chorus and it just sounds so wide.

You didn’t start playing until you were 14.

Getting serious with it, yes.

Six years later you had the Ozzy gig. No matter when you got serious with it, that’s still an amazing feat to be able to develop the kind of chops that it would take to nail that gig.

Practice, practice, practice. Yngwie didn’t just wake up one day and start playing like he did on that Alcatrazz record. He has a god-given gift, for sure, but he started just like everybody else. We all start out at the same place. Then, with technique, it’s a matter of repetition and that’s all it is. The most important thing is learning what to do with technique once you get it.

That’s something that has always set you apart. You’ve always had chops but you also had the bends and vibrato. Lots of players sound like they don’t prioritize those things.

I remember when I was younger, for a 17-year-old kid, I could play really fast. Technically I was good. But there was no phrasing. Blues? Forget about that. I couldn’t play blues. That’s what I always tell any kid: Listen to John Sykes, listen to Yngwie. They have amazing vibrato. Neal Schon: amazing vibrato. He can play the blues. Eddie Van Halen. The minute you hear Eddie’s vibrato, you know it’s him. You just hear it. All those players that I mentioned are great blues guitar players.

There’s a whole crop of young players who seem like they’ve taken your advice.

The guys in Avenged Sevenfold are great. The guys in DragonForce are insane. Shadows Fall, Trivium, In This Moment, Alexi— they’re all guys that actually practice, which is awesome. This new breed is going to give us the next Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halens. Trust me, good guitar playing is alive and well.

Black Label Society is your full-time gig these days. What are your plans?

Right now we’re getting ready for Ozzfest. After that we’re going out on the Black Label Berzerkus. The guys in Clutch are joining us and they kick ass. Children of Bodom will be there and Alexi throws it down like nobody’s business. It’s going to be cool. The Black Label family’s getting bigger and bigger and Berzerkus is going to be more of an event than a concert. I kind of think about it like this: I know these guys that were into the Grateful Dead. They lived all over and they would meet in Jersey and road trip to see Dead shows. It was that band that brought them together. It’s like that with Black Label. It’s bigger than me. We’ve created this big unity of family, all over the world, like the Dead did.

So you’re the Jerry Garcia of heavy metal.

I have no problem with that. Jerry was cool. He kicked a little ass.

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