With Zakk Wylde, what you see is very much what you get. An unassuming, tell-it-like-it-is guy, he makes no apologies for being the beer-swilling, English-language-brutalizing, boot-and-leather-wearing, Les Paul-and-Marshall-jacking Jersey-boy badass of hard rock. And why should he? With the help of heavy metal icon (and latter-day reality TV star) Ozzy Osbourne, a great deal of chemistry, and 1991’s No More Tears album, Wylde and his trademark bullseye-finish Gibson Les Paul were a vital force in moving heavy metal out of its late-’80s stagnation and giving it a pulse in the grunge heyday of the early ’90s. In fact, were it not for Wylde and a very small handful of other guitarists, heavy metal may have been altogether unplugged.
And he’s no one-trick pony. A versatile player who can stomp a mudhole in the ass of many a musical style, Wylde’s work with Ozzy and his own band, Black Label Society, is sprinkled with acoustic blues, country, and other stylistic dalliances he says foretell his musical future.
Black Label Society this month begins touring behind its brand new album, Mafia, a requisite punch in the nose courtesy of Wylde and two tons of guitar tones. Things kick off in the U.S. before rolling to Japan, Europe, then back to the States.
Vintage Guitar: You and Ozzy have recorded some of his best work, and you share a deep-rooted relationship. Safe to say you’ll always work together in some fashion?
Zakk Wylde: Yeah. Ozzy and Sharon are like parents to me – he’s the godfather of my first boy. And just because I’m not playing with them all the time doesn’t mean we’re not together. Just because you don’t live at home doesn’t mean you don’t go visit on the holidays. You’ve just got your own place now, ya’ know?
Between Ozzy’s band and Black Label, I’ve got a nice variety of things to do. With Black Label, I’ve got a hand in everything, down to album artwork, production, everything. With Ozz, all I do is worry about going in and playing my ass off, then call it a day. With a Black Label record, I’ll step out while it’s mixed, then come in with fresh ears and go, “Can you bring the kick drum up on that,” or “Can you turn that down,” or whatever. I get a chance to wear more hats, so it never gets stale. And when I go back with Ozzy, I’m always excited and I always have a blast.
When Hangover Music, Vol. VI was released last year, you offered it up as, literally, music to listen to while you recovered from a hangover, saying the next record would be something you could listen to while you get back to the party. Does it fit the bill?
Absolutely. Hangover Music came from being on tour, when at the end of the night, you’ve got a 20-hour bus ride ahead of you. I’m not gonna listen to Meshugga when I just got done blowing my brains out with a wall of Marshalls and a Les Paul. So I’d mellow out listening to Credence, the Allmans, Skynyrd, Elton John, the Eagles, Neil Young… you know, all the good stuff. So I thought, “It’d be killer for us to mellow out on the next record, give fans something different to listen to.” If it’s good stuff, that’s all that matters. And just because it’s mellow doesn’t mean it’s not heavy or dark. (The Eagles) “Desperado” is a kick-ass song – there’s nothing wimpy about it.
And when it came time to do the Mafia record, I’d sit in the garage with a bass. I usually crank out riffs – especially heavy riffs – on a bass, with Craig (Nunenmacher) pounding out something on drums. In about a week, I had 23 songs written, then Craig did his drum parts in about eight days, Jamoe [bassist James Lomenzo] came in and did his bass parts. Then I doubled guitars, and that was about it.
When I go into the studio, I don’t have song ideas. I like going in fresh, and with no second-guessing. If you’re paying a grand or $1,200 a day for the studio, you better start pulling something out of your ass, you know?!
And you don’t like to mess around with demos, right?
No! If you demo, you might get it right the first time, with a great performance. But because you recorded on your four-track Fostex, the sound quality is crap. Then someone will say, “Well, let’s do it for real.” And I’m like, “Well, I thought we did.” And then you do it over. You’re like a dog chasing its tail. I’ve done all that before. Even when we did No More Tears, we had to chase everything, trying to out-do the demo.
In 1996, I was jamming with Guns and Roses, and one day at Duff’s studio he showed me their demo tapes. It was like someone’s music library, where you’ve got tons of CDs and you go, “Here’s the Beatles, here’s the Eagles, here’s the Stones, the Led Zeppelin. It was just a closet full of DATs, cassettes, CDs, and I said, “You gotta be f***in’ kidding me! That’s all song ideas?!” And Duff goes, “Yeah, we’ve got a few…” You’re looking at what, 12 songs? Forget an album, you got enough here for a double box-set!” (laughs).
So to me, once you record a song, it’s done. Lay it to rest. Dial it in as good as you can, then move on to the next one. Otherwise, you sit around all day and never get a thing done. How long do you suppose Jimmy Page mulled over “Stairway to Heaven”?
Right. It’s rock and roll, not like working on someone’s brain.
I know. F***, even during brain surgery, they don’t work that hard!
Is your guitar and amp rig pretty consistent on Mafia?
Yeah. I used the white Jackson Randy Rhoads guitar on a few solos, but it’s mostly the Rebel (see photo) and some other Les Pauls. But that’s about it. And the same old JCM 800 into one cabinet, then I’ll double it. The cab has 200-watt EV speakers.
You’ve been using the EVs for many years.
Yeah, it was a mistake how they went into the cabs. Over in Europe, some of my speakers were (blown), and this guitar shop we went to, all they had were these 200-watt speakers. So I stuck ’em in there, and at soundcheck that night it was like, “Holy s***!” It was just so much cleaner. And with the EMGs, as far as the tightness goes, it’s awesome.
You’ve also stepped it up a bit in terms of effects on this album, including writing “Doctor Octavia” it seems just to play through your Boss Octave pedal.
Yeah, I was just sitting in the garage one day, and thought I’d write a little “Eruption”-type thing. It actually reminds me more of a Frank Marino thing off of Mahogany Rush Live.
Do you think there’s anything that will surprise BLS fans, Ozzy fans, or Zakk fans in general?
Nah… I’m proud of every one of my records, because at that moment in time, that’s the best I could do. I can’t stand it when bands say, “Oh, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done!” Because it’s like, “That’s what you said on the last record…”
So I don’t compare my records to each other. It’s like with Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV probably sold the most because of “Stairway” and “Rock and Roll,” but what, are you gonna tell me that Physical Graffiti sucked? It just depends on what mood you’re in. If you and me are on a road trip, and you’ve got the Zeppelin catalog, I may say, “Dude, put on Presence. I haven’t heard that one in awhile.” It’s their least-selling record, but it’s cool.
So Mafia is just a reflection of where your head was at at that moment?
Totally. And eventually, I’ll ease my way back into the mellow s***. It’s all set up so that down the road, I’ll be doing like Neil Young did with the acoustic guitars, pedal-steel, and all types of cool sounds, so I’m not doing the heavy thing ’til I’m 107… Then again, I’m not sure my liver will be around that long! (laughs)
Is BLS doing well?
Without a doubt. We just signed a worldwide licensing deal with Artemis and JVC, we completed two amazing videos, one of which is a tribute to my brother, Dime, and we’re selling out our tour dates all over the world.
What do you think of people who collect guitars?
Well, I get Vintage Guitar magazine all the time. I’ve bought some s*** out of there, too. Actually, I just got a Gibson RD Artist out of VG, from a store in Atlanta. I bought one because my first guitar teacher, LeRoy Wright, had one. And I always thought his was so cool. I got one like his, in sunburst, and I took the electronics out and put my EMGs in it. The whole point of the guitar was that Moog s*** in there, but my EMGs sound slammin’. And the guitar is ugly as hell. But it’s a kick-ass guitar. I paid $850 for it a year and a half ago, and now I’m seeing them going for $1,800. And I don’t think RD Artists are all that “in demand,” ya’ know! (laughs).
Not yet, maybe, but their time may come…
Yeah, in the year 6022! After World War III, everything will have been destroyed. The only thing left will be the cockroaches and the RD Artists! (laughs).
You got your original Alpine White Les Paul Custom as a graduation gift from your parents?
Yeah, we got it for $800, new from the dealer. I wanted to get one like Randy Rhoads’. I had $500 to put down, and I had to wait until I could get the rest. Now you can get a $3,000 Les Paul, put some money down, then make payments on it, like a car. When I bought mine, they didn’t have that s***, or I would’ve gladly paid $60 a month until I paid the thing off.
Anyway, when I graduated – and how that happened, God only knows! It was like Jeff Spicoli graduatin’ high school (laughs)! But all I remember is my parents saying, “We got something for you,” when I came home that day. And there it was, sittin’ on the kitchen table. I was like, “Holy s***!” They’d chipped in the other $300.
After I started my endorsement with Gibson, they sent me a black doubleneck. But Scott Quinn at Garden State Music, back in Jersey, had another white Les Paul that played great, and he offered to swap the doubleneck for it. So we did, and I that’s the one that I had the bullseye painted on.
That’s the one that fell out of the equipment trailer a couple of years ago?
Right. We were between Dallas and Houston that night, and we pulled over in the middle of nowhere. I go, “Where are we,” thinking we got a flat or something. But I look back and see our tour manager walking around shaking his head. I go to him, “What happened?” He says, “Well, we forgot to lock the trailer.” I’m like, “What! Forgot to lock the trailer!” God forbid we would’ve f***in’ killed anybody – we’ve got (Ampeg) SVT cabinets in the back of that thing. SVT heads – and you know those things – you try pickin’ up one of those and you’ll blow your nuts right out. I go, “What happens if one of them falls out and slams into someone’s windshied? You’d kill ’em!” Then he told me that a couple of the guitars fell out… First off, I’m pissed because what are the guitars doing in the back of the trailer? They should be in the bus, ya’ know? But then they tell me George fell out – I always name my guitars after Yankee players – I’m a huge Yankee fan. So 003 is the Babe, 4 is Lou, 5 is Joe D. And then we had the Grail. So I go, “Well, which ones are gone?” And he goes, “George is gone and the Grail is gone.” I go, “You motherf***ers! You gotta be f***in’ kiddin’ me! What the f***!”
I recorded all the Ozzy stuff with that guitar… wrote my first tune with him on it, recorded pretty much everything.
Anyway, the thing was found in a pawn shop, where someone had sold it for $250; ya’ know, it’s beat up, and I suppose when someone walked in with it, they offered him $250. And the guy who bought it opened up the pickup cavity, and it had my initials on the bottom of the pickups. So he got in touch with Randy, one of the guys who does our website, and told him he might have one of my fiddles.
So we took care of it. And the guy was super-cool. I hooked him up with one of the new signature model Les Pauls.
Did anybody get fired because the trailer was left unlocked?
Well, it was a miracle nobody got f***in’ murdered, ya’ know? Forget gettin’ fired!
My original question was, “Did anybody suffer bodily harm…”
Yeah, that would’ve been even better.
Do you acquire guitars just for the sake of getting them?
I’ll buy something if I really like it. ‘Cuz I don’t have Lambourghinis – I don’t waste my money on that crap. And even though I’ve got a Marshall signature head, I’ll still buy a JCM 800. And I still have all my 2203s. If I see one of those in a music store, I’ll buy it. Or if I see one in VG… every time I open that thing, it’s like window shopping. I’ll underline things, and maybe check ’em out. It’s like going through Toys R Us.
Where did you get the ’57 Gibson Les Paul Junior?
That’s the one Ozzy got me on my 24th birthday. When Sabbath first came out, they opened for Mountain, and Ozzy thought Leslie West had the thickest guitar sound, so he picked me up one of those. I use it for most of the clean stuff in the studio, running through a Roland Jazz Chorus.
And I got a new one – a ’57 Special reissue, with the TV finish, and it sounds f***in’ great, too. And I’ve got a ’58 red double-cutaway – Les Paul signed the back of the thing. I used that when we were doing the Ozzmosis record. We recorded the album in Paris and finished it in New York. So I’d go down to 48th Street every day before we went into the studio, just to check out all the fiddles. Michael Beinhorn (the album’s producer) got me that guitar while we were tracking. It sounded great on the tracks, so he said, “You like it? It’s yours.” I was like, “Get the f*** outta here…”
I also bought a ’65 SG, red with a single P-90 with the crappy whammy with the big plastic piece on the end. It moves about a 1/4″. Basically, you can only use it for very light trem. I think the Floyd Rose has surpassed it (laughs). But that thing sounds great for the clean s***.
I take all of them to the studio and use whichever one sounds best. I could record everything with one of my normal Les Pauls with the EMGs, but those P-90s have such a real, warm sound to them.
You’ve recently scored a couple of Randy Rhoads copy guitars, one a Jackson, one built by GMW Guitar Works in Glendora, California. Is there an endorsement deal in the works?
No, I got them as gifts. I’m endorsed by Gibson. I’m a Gibson guy. I’ve got a bunch of different guitars though. Dime had a few made for me… on the back of the headstock it says, “Built for Zakk Wylde at the request of Dimebag,” in his handwriting. The thing is slammin’!
Because I’m such a huge fan of Randy’s, I wanted a white V like his Jackson. My wife got in touch with Jackson and had an exact replica made by Mike Shannon, who made Randy’s originally. I had Mrs. Rhoads sign the back of the headstock. Fortunately, I get to see Mrs. Rhoads all the time, as my 12-year-old daughter, Rae, takes piano lessons from her. It’s actually the school where Mrs. Rhoads taught Randy to play guitar.
When we were in the studio making Mafia and looking at the Randy Rhoads’ website, we found the polka dot V made by GMW. My children bought me that one for my birthday, and we went to Pasadena to pick it up. I’m going to use it live… it sounds awesome!
When I first got it, I was out in the garage, wailing on the fiddle, and I called Dime – this was about two weeks before the bulls*** went down (Ed Note: “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was shot to death while onstage in Columbus, Ohio, on December 8; see VG, March ’05. Wylde and Abbott were longtime friends) – and said, “Check this out.” And I’m wailing on the Floyd, doing divebombs, goin’ nuts shreddin’. I said, “Dude, I’m invincible now!” (laughs) He goes, “You sound like Dimebag, you ***hole!” I said, “I know! Better watch it, ya’ bastard!”
The Jackson doesn’t have a locking nut, so I don’t use the whammy all that much. Even Randy didn’t use it that much. But with the GMW’s Floyd, you can go nuts. But if you break a string, it goes completely out of tune.
Are you looking for any particular vintage guitars to add to the collection?
Obviously, I love collecting the stuff, but I’ve got so much s*** right now. Like anyone else, I get different guitars for different reasons; I got a Danelectro because it’s got the lipstick pickups, which sound more chimey than the P-90s. I got the two doublenecks, a Tele, a Strat, the reverse Firebird, normal Firebirds, and all types of cool acoustics. So I’ve got all the bases covered. I could start a rental company – Black Label Rentals!
I went down to Rudy’s in New York City, and he showed me this ’59 Les Paul that he was selling for $140,000. I picked it up… it was light as hell and played great, but the only thing I kept thinking in the back of my head was, “You dumb f***in’ mick kraut jackass! Do not f***in’ drop the damn fiddle!” Ya’ drop the thing and it’s like, “Barb… I wrote a check today for 140 grand.” “You whaaat!”
Talk about the tour.
BLS worldwide domination will begin in March, first in the United States, then in Japan, Europe, and back to the States. I hope to be doing Ozzfest, because it’s the only ass-kicking summer tour in the U.S.
Where’s your head at in regard to Dime?
It’s nuts, but he’s around all the time. When things get dark and bleak, Dime will be there. I’ve got two houses on 10 acres, and I usually get relegated to the garage to do my jamming, work on stuff, and have a beer or two. And I’ve never had birds fly into my garage, but I was out there the other day, just chillin’ out, working on a guitar, and a f***in’ bird flies in and lands on this Les Paul copy that my buddy, Rob, made into a clock. I said, “Hey, Dime. Whaddya’ doin’, bro?” He’s just hanging out in there. So I know he’s around.
I had talked to him when he was in Boston, when I’d just gotten the Rhoads guitars. They were making their way to Ohio, and we were planning on hooking up at the NAMM show, ‘cuz he was going to introduce the new Dean guitar and the Krank amps. We were all stoked, but he was really excited, because he put a lot of thought into designing the new guitar.
But it’s unbelievable. I’ll be hanging around the house, cool, but then see a picture of him, and I’ll just start breaking down. I’m definitely never gonna get over it.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.