As a teenager, Zakk Wylde gained notoriety as one of the hottest young guitarists playing the New Jersey Shore bar circuit. He got his big break in ’87, when he was asked to audition for Ozzy Osbourne. In addition to his technical ability as a player, Wylde’s energy, image, and his love for Black Sabbath and Ozzy music made him a natural for the gig.
During his 10 years with Osbourne, Wylde honed his chops and songwriting skills. He co-wrote and recorded No Rest For The Wicked (’88), Just Say Ozzy (’90), No More Tears (’91), Live And Loud (’93), and Ozzmosis (’97), all of which achieved multi-platinum success. And Live And Loud won a Grammy for Best Live Performance.
Stepping away from the metal scene, Wylde broke out on his own to front Pride & Glory, a blues-influenced power trio. Next, he released Book Of Shadows (’96), an acoustic album that showcased his songwriting. Sonic Brew, his latest offering, marks a return to his heavier rock roots, but still incorporates the familiar elements of his blues and acoustic influence. His new band is called Black Label Society. In addition to handling all guitars and vocals on the new disc, Wylde played bass, piano, and co-production work. The only other musician involved in making the record was drummer Phil Ondich, who doubles as Wylde’s drinking partner. On tour, Black Label Society will include Nick Catheanese on guitar and John DeServio on bass.
Pull up a barstool and grab a cold one while we spend happy hour with the Wylde Man, discussing his new life as a member of the Black Label Society.
Vintage Guitar: How has your style and technique changed over the years?
Zakk Wylde: I constantly try to get better. I listen to other players and check out other styles. With almost every player, the way you end up evolving is through writing. If you constantly write tunes, that’s the best way to evolve and to develop your own style.
Who influenced your playing early on?
I had a guitar teacher named Leroy Wright. I used to play football all the time, until I saw him play guitar. I couldn’t believe someone could actually move their hands like that. He was playing all types of stuff, like Hendrix and Sabbath. I was about 15 at the time, and he was 10 years older. He turned me onto stuff like Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, Hendrix, John McLaughlin, and Al DiMeola.
Was guitar your first instrument?
I actually started off playing piano for – literally – two weeks. I couldn’t stand it because the lessons were things like “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” I didn’t want to stick to it, so that’s when I started playing guitar. Leroy showed me how to play songs I wanted to play. I learned some Sabbath stuff, and the big breakthrough was when I could play the “Back In Black” lick. I felt like God. The bottom line is that you’ve still got to do the scales and exercises to develop the dexterity in your fingers so you can play, but when you’re hanging with your friends, you want to be able to play something cool. If you can sit around and play songs from your favorite band, that’s what keeps you interested.
Who influenced your vibrato technique and all the harmonics you use?
It’s hard to say. I don’t think vibrato is something you can’t really teach someone. I think you can show someone how to do it, but it’s sort of like a running back in football, you either have good vision or you don’t, either you’re fast or you’re not. I think it’s the same way with vibrato. That’s one of the greatest things about guitar technique and it’s the closest thing to singing. Any singer will have their own vibrato style, which gives them their own identity. Listen to Angus Young’s vibrato and then listen to Robin Trower’s. They’re two completely different players with totally different styles. They can both play the exact same thing on the same guitar and it will sound completely different. When I started trying to develop a vibrato, I just tried to shake the strings as much as I could.
Which singers influenced your vocal style?
I listened to Ozzy before I played with him. I used to play in cover bands and do Ozzy tunes at keg parties, and songs by Sabbath, Cream, Hendrix, and Marino. Later on, I got into Ronnie Van Zandt, Gregg Allman, and Ray Charles.
What was the most important thing you learned working with Ozzy?
To be myself, and he told me that from the get-go.
Who influenced your songwriting?
I was definitely a huge Sabbath fan. In fact, the first album I bought was We Sold Our Souls For Rock ‘N’ Roll. Tony Iommi definitely influenced my heavier playing. As far as songwriting goes, my biggest influences were Sabbath, Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin.
What’s your typical process for writing songs?
Right now, for Sonic Brew and with Black Label Society, the majority of the songs start with riffs. Pretty much all of the songs on that record are riff songs, and it’s pretty much just riff music. The riffs come first, then the lyrics, then the melodies. I could never write a melody without hearing the music behind it first. The music always inspires me to sing something over it.
Do you do much home recording to make demos of your new songs?
No, I think demos are pretty much a big waste of time and money. The process of making a demo sucks the life out of any song. Through the years with Ozzy, we’d demo stuff then we’d get into the studio to cut the record, I’d feel like a dog chasing his tail. Ozzy would say, “We did it one way on the demo, but it doesn’t sound the same on the final track.” Well, that’s because the performance was probably better back when it was a fresh song and we were inspired to record it.
The problem with the demo is that usually the performance is good, but the sound quality is bad, so you’ve got to redo it. That never made sense to me because I would always approach making the demo like we were doing it for real, then when we’d go into the studio I wasn’t always as inspired.
If you don’t make demos, how do you document the new music you’re working on? How do you present new songs to the band?
I don’t have any major recording setup, I just have a boombox in my room. I stick a cassette in there, press record, and then just play the riffs. That’s it. When we recorded the Sonic Brew album, everything was very casual. I picked Phil up at the airport, we grabbed a couple cases of beer, then went to the studio. Phil hadn’t heard any of the songs before, so I just showed him all of the parts. We’d play through it two or three times and then just go and track it.
What kind of guitars, amps, and effects did you use for the recording?
The same old stuff I always use, which is pretty much the same stuff I’ve used since I played with Ozzy. You know what they say – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I used 100-watt Marshall JCM800 heads, model 2203, with straight Marshall 4 X 12 cabinets loaded with 200-watt EVs. I used to have Celestions in my cabinets when I played with Ozzy and Pride & Glory. They were 70-watters and they were really loud, then I hooked up these EVs and I couldn’t believe how clean they sounded. It’s just pure guitar, and for the music I’m doing you need a lot of attack, and if you have the vintage-style speakers they really break up. They sound very warm, but when you get down to the low strings you want more meat. The EVs just sound so much better because I tune to 440 Hz and I’ll often drop my low E down to a B or an A. I use a custom set of GHS Boomers, .010 to .058, so it doesn’t get too floppy.
Aside from the stacks, I also used a little Epiphone practice amp for some parts, like some of the solos, and I used a Marshall Bluesbreaker for some overdubs, like some of the clean parts and slide parts.
For guitars, I used my Les Pauls and a Gibson SG. The Les Paul with the bullseye is an ’81. I used the SG when we did the Ozzmosis sessions, I think that’s a ’95. I also have a Les Paul Classic that has a Fernandes Sustainer pickup in the neck and I used that for some of the solos and intros on some of the songs, like “The Rose Petalled Garden.” Then I have an old Danelectro I use to overdub some clean parts. I bought that in New York City on 48th Street. I think I paid around $800 for it, although it probably only cost $20 to make. But there’s nothing that sounds like it.
For my acoustics, I have a Gibson Dove I used on Book Of Shadows, but I used an Alvarez on Sonic Brew, for “Taz,” because that’s a pretty fast song and the Alvarez guitars play like Les Pauls.
For effects, I used the Dunlop Rotovibe, the Jimi Hendrix wah, the Jimi Hendrix Octave Fuzz, which I used on “The Rose Petalled Garden” [for] that “Purple Haze” sound. I also use a Boss Super Overdrive, Boss Stereo Chorus, and a Boss Octaver. My rig is pretty basic. I plug straight into the amp and use the same stompboxes I had when I was 17.
What kind of tubes do you use in your amps?
I use 6550s, they get a bigger and tighter sound than the EL34s.
Do you track with effects or add them afterward?
I step on them while I’m tracking, whichever ones I want to use, as if it was a live gig.
How many guitar tracks do you typically record for each song?
Just two. I usually do one track with my Les Paul on the left and then double it with my SG or another Les Paul on the right. That’s for the rhythms. Then I’ll usually put on another track with any overdubs I want to do.
Do you play in the control room or in the same room with your amp when you’re tracking?
When we’re getting a drum track, I’ll play bass or guitar and I’ll have the amp set up in an isolation booth, but I’ll have the heads right next to me. I’ll stand right in front of Phil’s drums and we’ll just start tracking. Then once we get Phil sorted out, I’ll move all of the Marshalls into the control room and I’ll sit behind the desk and we’ll just work on guitar tones, which doesn’t take long – we’ll A/B a few mics with other guitar tracks I like or other productions, as far as the fidelity goes, to make sure it sounds big.
What are your typical amp settings?
I keep the volume and gain set between 6 and 8, but I usually keep the presence down a bit. I have the treble and bass set pretty high and keep the mids somewhere around the middle. I never roll the mids all the way off, that’s a completely different sound altogether. I definitely keep some mids in there because I like the crunch they give it.
Do you use the same rig onstage and in the studio?
Yes, it’s the same rig. It’s such a childproof system. If my rig ever goes down, it’s either because the power cord got pulled out or somebody unplugged the head, or maybe the fuse blew. It was never because the head fried or anything like that. Those Marshalls can take a beating. I run two heads, but I bring four out on the road.
How are your guitars set up?
I set the tailpiece all the way down, close to the body, and I wrap the strings around the other way, like a wraparound bridge. It seems like that puts less stress on the strings and I never end up breaking any strings when I play live. I got hooked on doing it that way when I first joined Ozzy. I also prefer high frets and I always shave the back of the necks down to the bare wood, so there’s no lacquer on it. I set the action pretty low, but not too low, because when I grab the neck, I want to feel like there’s something there. [And] I like frets with some height.
As for the pickups, I set them as close to the strings as I can get them. The louder, the better. I use EMG 81s and 85s, which are active, so I don’t have to worry about string pull.
How does your approach to playing differ between playing live and in the studio?
I never understood why people think there’s that much of a difference. When I joined Ozzy, people would say they knew I could play live, but they wondered if I could play in the studio and if I had any studio chops. What the hell does that mean? If you can play, you can play. The only difference is that in the studio, if you mess up, you can fix it, whereas when you’re playing live, if you hit a clam you just keep going.
Do you prefer either?
I dig ‘em both. But when you’re playing live, if you’re going to stand there like a mannequin and make sure you don’t make any mistakes, that’s pretty boring. It’s got to have some energy and that’s more important than getting all the notes perfect. If I’m going to see a live band, I want to hear the energy, otherwise I could sit and listen to the record if I wanted to hear it all played exactly the same. I’d much rather hear someone hit some clams than hear something that sounds sterile, where everyone’s just sitting there and there’s no energy. When we play live, I try to keep the solos sounding as close as I can to what I did on the record, but I don’t always play the parts exactly the same. But on the outro solos, then it’s a free-for-all and I just go off. I really dig that, too. I love improvising.
What do you consider your best recorded solos?
On the new album, I dig a track called “The Beginning…At Last,” and from the Pride & Glory stuff, I really dig the solo for the song called “Sweet Jesus.” It’s a piano song, but it’s cool. I really like the solo on “Time After Time” on No More Tears.
What are your favorite solos by other players?
My favorite is definitely the “Hotel California” solo. That one was amazing, you can sing the whole thing. Then anything from the Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush album. Just pick anything from that album. Even his unaccompanied solos are amazing. I’ve never heard anybody play pentatonic scales like that before. As far as rock goes, Jimmy Page is way up there. He played so many classic solos, like the ones on “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway To Heaven.” I think that the “Stairway To Heaven” solo is a great lesson in how to piece together a solo within a song.
What do you think are the most important elements to creating a good solo?
You’ve kind of got two schools. There are guys like Al DiMeola. I’ll listen to his solos and he’s got certain phrases that he uses and then goes off from there. But then you’ve got someone like Jimmy Page whose riffs are more memorable, where you can sing every line from one of his solos. I guess it just depends on what mood you’re in and what you’re into.
What kind of things do you work on when you practice?
It depends. I just come up with different things that I want to do on my own or I’ll sit down with a metronome and play through some pentatonic scales. I get off on that stuff. Or else I may go out and get videos from certain players that I dig, like Al Di Meola, Alvin Lee, or Joe Pass, and I’ll just learn different things from different players. If I get bored or stuck in a rut, I just break out some of my old records, like Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, and I’ll just start jamming with them and improvise over the records.
What do you do to warm up before a gig?
I drink a lot of beer, then I do scale patterns on the guitar to get my hands warmed up.
What are your goals for the future?
I’d like to own my own microbrewery and I’d like to just continue doing what I’m doing with Black Label Society, playing the kind of music I love.
What advice do you have for other players on becoming better musicians?
Play the music you love and play it to death. Don’t let anybody tell you it’s not what you should be playing or you’ll never make it in the music business.
The Wylde Man and his Black Label Society are touring the U.S., Japan, and Canada throughout the summer.
Photo courtesy of Kayos Productions.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct ’99 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.