Zakk Wylde has been renowned for the last 25 years for his guitar pyrotechnics with the Prince Of Darkness – Ozzy Osbourne – and his own band, Black Label Society. For the latest BLS album, Unblackened, Zakk has hung up his Les Paul and gone acoustic. Joel McIver meets the temporarily mellower Wylde man of rock.
Words: Joel McIver Photography: Richard Ecclestone
‘There’s nothing like playing a loving rendition of ‘Killed By Death’ by Motörhead on an acoustic guitar,’ sniggers Zakk Wylde, sipping his coffee at Gibson Guitars’ London headquarters. ‘It gives it a whole other vibe…’
And who are we to argue? This is, after all, none other than the man who accompanied Ozzy Osbourne around the planet on endless occasions, playing the world’s biggest stadiums and also developing a reputation as one of the fastest-fingered shredders – on electric or acoustic – that anyone has ever seen, ever. But this is no mere speed demon. Zakk, who played with Ozzy from 1988 to 2009, has always tricked people into thinking that the hard rock vocabulary is the only language he speaks, thanks in part – it has to be said – to the bearded-caveman look that he’s been sporting for decades now. The truth is that whether he’s on a grand piano, an ancient acoustic steel or the shreddiest of electrics, Zakk is a master of a full range of styles.
Look at Black Label Society’s new album, Unblackened, if you need proof. A live concert filmed at the Club Nokia in Los Angeles earlier this year and featuring Zakk and band largely on acoustic instruments, the CD and DVD run the full gamut of musical emotions, from all-out riffage to the most horizontally-relaxed of ballads. If you want a multifaceted show, and indeed one which showcases Zakk’s ongoing love affair with the acoustic guitar, look no further.
‘I used my Chet Atkins as far as the acoustic parts went,’ says the great man, who no-one ever calls by his real name, Jeffrey Wielandt. ‘I used my Chet steel too. I’ve had those guitars since I started with the Boss [Ozzy]. Those guitars are amazing. Back at my studio, the Black Vatican, I got an Epiphone Masterbilt plugged into my pedalboard, so I have all the distortion I need, but I can play it clean too. I got EMG pickups in there so they sound great. I used a J200 on the album, plus I had a Gibson 12-string ready to use for Unblackened, but we didn’t end up using it.’
‘We were just talking about Jimmy Page and ‘The Rain Song’ and all that stuff,’ Zakk adds, referring to a pre-interview chat in which he and Acoustic took a quick tour around Gibson’s showroom. ‘I do like alternate tunings, like open E chords – I’m thinking of the Allman Brothers and ‘Sweet Melissa’, and the Black Crowes with ‘She Talks To Angels’, that kind of stuff. That open E tuning makes you think differently and inspires you to write different things, for sure. The chord shapes are completely different and you get into a different mindset.’
Asked if he studied classical guitar as a bouffant-haired, spandex-clad youth in the 80s (see YouTube for the frankly hilarious evidence), Zakk reveals that yes, the tarando and the apoyando were early friends of his. ‘I took classical lessons for a little while, with fingerpicking and so on,’ he explains. ‘Most of my stuff is written on acoustic to this day. In fact, a couple of the really heavy songs on the next Black Label Society album after this one have been written on acoustic. Sometimes you’ll play a riff on an acoustic, and you know that it’s going to be really heavy when you play it on electric. I always have both of them sitting out, so I can grab one first thing in the morning. I’m usually the first one up, so I usually make a load of java for all the fellows and pick up the acoustic.’
He continues: ‘What instrument you’re playing depends what style you write in: if you’re playing the piano you might write some Elton John, Neil Young, Eagles shit. Then you pick up the acoustic and you write some more reflective, Bob Dylan, Allmans, Skynyrd, Bad Company stuff. I’ll just sit there and write riffs and it’s amazing. Every day I’ll have a new song, or maybe two. Listen to Sabbath or Zeppelin and the riffs will come, believe me. There’s only X amount of notes in a pentatonic scale, but look at how many riffs you can get out of those notes. Lyrics are different because you can’t say the same thing all the time, although you can express different viewpoints on a subject.’
However, classical guitar was not a major component of Zakk’s playing style during the early part of his career with Ozzy, for one very good reason. His idol Randy Rhoads – the prodigy who had played on the sometime Black Sabbath singer’s first two solo albums, Blizzard Of Ozz (1980) and Diary Of A Madman (1981) – had been famous for his classical playing. Indeed, Rhoads – who lost his life in a tragic plane accident in March 1982 – had planned to study classical guitar at university when the time came to leave Ozzy’s band, although he was cruelly denied that opportunity when he climbed aboard that fateful plane.
‘When I started playing with Oz, classical was Randy’s thing,’ explains Zakk, ‘so I decided to cross that off the list of things I’d do on guitar. I also had no sweep picking, and no harmonic minor – I just crossed off everything on the grocery list that I couldn’t use. I was stuck with pentatonic scales, picked real fast like John McLaughlin or Frank Marino. At the time everyone was copying Yngwie J Malmsteen, and I didn’t want to sound like an Yngwie ripoff, so I crossed that off the list. It was already bad enough that I had the blonde hair and the Les Paul [like Rhoads], and that I loved Randy’s playing. I even put a bullseye on my Les Paul, so it wasn’t just a cream one like Randy used.’
Classical or not, Zakk’s playing with Ozzy made him a guitar hero, and he’s featured on countless guitar magazine covers since he hooked up with the Ozzman back in 1988. Appearing on five studio and three live albums with Ozzy’s band, plus no fewer than 11 albums of various kinds with Black Label Society, he has been prolific to say the least. For most of that time he was fuelled by vast amounts of booze, as documented on many, many hours of backstage footage and implied by album titles such as Alcohol Fueled Brewtality Live! (2001) and Hangover Music Vol. VI (2004). However, Zakk quit the demon drink in 2009 after a tussle with a blood clot – and although he’s talked about his enforced sobriety on many occasions since then, we feel it would be appropriate to ask how his new regime has affected him as a guitarist and songwriter.
‘Actually, not at all,’ he explains. ‘We always got everything done anyway. We always drank, had a good time and laughed our balls off, but we always got the shows done even though we partied like Navy Seals, because we answered the bell like Navy Seals do. So nothing’s really changed there. People say to me: “Did you just feel sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, Zakk?” and I say: “No, I never got sick and tired of drinking.” If it was really bad, and we’d really gone over the radar the night before, we’d crack a couple of cold ones when we woke up, drink a six-pack to feel human again, and get on with the day. I loved every second of it – sitting and playing guitar and drinking, or going to the pub and talking to people.’
He warms to his subject. ‘Me and Oz were talking about drinking and not drinking recently, and he told me it was a launchpad for creativity, which was the truth,’ he observes. ‘But let’s get real: when you’re messed up, you think about things differently. You write for a magazine, right? Say you go to the pub and you write down 20 things that you want to do with your magazine. You’ll look at that list the next day, and you’ll go: “There’s about two ideas on here that are kinda doable, and that have seeds of coolness. The rest of it – what is this shit?’ Ha ha!”’
‘But I have no regrets,’ he adds. ‘I had a good time doing it. People ask me: ‘What’s the secret to stopping drinking, Zakk, when you’re on the road and it’s around you all the time?” What am I gonna say? Go for it, have a good time, and when it ain’t working for you, you gotta put the ‘Closed’ sign on the pub door. There’s really nothing more for me to tell you.’
Moving swiftly on, how did Zakk come up with the Unblackened concept? ‘The guys in the band were complaining that they needed more money,’ he guffaws, ‘so we said: “Let’s throw this idea in there and see if we can get some money from the record label” ha ha! That’s always a motivation, but we’ve always talked about doing this anyway, because in the live shows we’re always bringing out the old piano for one of the mellow songs or for Dime’s song.’ He’s referring here to ‘In This River’, released in 2005 in tribute to Pantera/Damageplan guitarist ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott, a close friend and drinking partner who was murdered on stage the previous year.
He continues: ‘The Black Label Berzerker Nation [the BLS fanbase] have always asked if we were ever going to do a full-on acoustic session with the mellower songs that never see the light of day. A lot of the time, if we’re playing a festival or we’re opening up for somebody, we’ll only have 45 minutes or an hour’s set, so we’re just gonna do the heavy stuff. The situation doesn’t call for wheeling the piano out when you’re playing Donington or somewhere like that. The audience isn’t there for that reason. So this was a really great opportunity.’
However, Zakk’s idea of accompanying the acoustic songs with strings failed to pan out. He tells us why… ‘In pure Black Label fashion,’ he chuckles, ‘nothing ever runs smoothly: it just can’t! You know the major disasters like the Titanic and the Hindenburg? The Black Label String Quartet was equally devastating and tragic. I spent a month writing string parts in the Black Vatican. I’d do an acoustic pass of every one of the 29 songs I chose, and put strings to them – a cello, two violins and a viola. I used the string patches on a Korg keyboard and I found an app that would actually write out the music, so I didn’t even have to do that.’
‘When that was all ready to go,’ he continues, ‘I brought the string players out. I knew we weren’t gonna play all 29 songs I’d been working on, otherwise we’d have to break out a cot and a sleeping bag and a fuckin’ morphine drip for everyone in the crowd, so I whittled it down to 17 songs. The string quartet came in and we planned to have a final rehearsal right before the actual show. That was what we were gonna do, but it was tricky because they couldn’t hear themselves over the Marshalls, which were blasting out. The set was mellow but we were still amplifying the acoustic guitars. They were like: “We can’t hear a thing!” Next thing you know, they started having problems with the parts. We were laughing our balls off, it was so terrible.’
‘We were playing the end of ‘Layla’ – you know the mellow legato parts? They were playing it all in single, staccato strokes. I told them: “Guys, have you ever heard this song? It’s by Eric Clapton. You gotta let the notes ring out!” They had no idea what I was even talking about. It was definitely Monty Python meets Mel Brooks on steroids. They said: “We can stay an extra hour if you like?” I said: “I don’t know if we could make this acceptable in six months!” We paid them and they were on their way. In the end we got [renowned ex-Dream Theater keyboard player] Derek Sherinian to play the stuff on a Mellotron.’
So after all these years, what does Zakk have left to achieve? He laughs hollowly, evidently a bit fatigued after his flight over here. ‘Aside from the Nobel Peace Prize, world peace, curing cancer and cleaning up the dog run before brunch? Just a couple of things to do. Hopefully then I’ll talk Robert Plant into doing a short run with Zeppelin… Actually I’m doing a new record as soon as I’m done here. We’re on a deadline and everything’s gotta get done, but I keep getting pulled out of the studio. I’ll be writing lyrics and they say: “Can you take this phone call? It’s real important…” and I’m like: “I know I have my own studio, but would you be pulling me out of the studio if I was renting it at a thousand dollars a day?”’
Before he goes, does Zakk have any advice about songwriting for Acoustic’s readers? Indeed he does. ‘Listen to your favourite bands that you love, and listen to their cool riffs that make you want to play something like that. By the time you morph and twist that riff, it’s its own thing. I just listen to every Lady Gaga album I can, steal every riff and put it in a blender – and next thing you know it sounds like Black Label and nobody has a fuckin’ clue. Ha ha! But seriously, ‘Miracle Man’, Ozzy’s song, is the same fingering as Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’, but nobody would ever know that if I didn’t tell them.’
He adds: ‘Play the music you love. That’s what you should always do. If Led Zeppelin, back in the day, had decided to play like the Monkees, because they were real popular and they had their own TV show, what would have happened? Luckily, Zeppelin didn’t like that shit, so they didn’t go that way. They loved old blues stuff, so they took those riffs and jammed on them. Black Sabbath didn’t play like the Monkees and then play what they really liked afterwards: it doesn’t work that way, but when I was 17, that was my perception of what you had to do. People were telling me to look like Bon Jovi back then because Jovi were so popular. But actually that was the antithesis of what I liked. I’m friends with Jon and they’re all great guys, but it’s just not that easy. You’ll always be a day late and a dollar short if you follow what’s popular.’
Zakk concludes: ‘When Alice In Chains came out, they sounded like Alice In Chains. They played what they loved. Green Day sounded like Green Day. They didn’t sound like Guns N’Roses, because they liked the old punk shit. “Billie Joe, let’s get you a hat like Slash!” “I don’t do that, dude. I like colouring my hair green and pink and blue”… so they stuck to their guns. Oasis loved the Beatles, and their songs sounded great because they stuck to what they loved. They picked up an acoustic guitar and started writing ‘Wonderwall’. It was what the Beatles would have come up with if they’d been playing today. Oasis weren’t like Nirvana because that wasn’t them.’
‘Whatever bands you like, play like that,’ concludes our man, and off he goes. If you have better advice than that, whether you play acoustic guitar or any other instrument, we’d like to hear it.
Unblackened is out now on Eagle.