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This article was originally published in issue #3
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Listen closely to Wylde's playing and you'll hear not just the straight-ahead Blues influences of so many of his contemporaries, but Jazz influence and, perhaps even more surprisingly, some extremely accomplished Country picking.
Zakk Wylde is a force of nature. He also happens to be one of the most talented and charismatic guitarists of his generation. Gary Cooper analyses the master's career. Stuart Bull and Andy James provide the interviews
It's all too easy to write-off Zakk Wylde as 'the Wylde man' – the shredder par excellence, but not much more than that. And, to be fair, he doesn't do a lot to play the myth down. The beard, the hair, the physique, the clothes, all shriek metal – even the trademark bullseye Les Paul. It's right in your face. And then there's a career that encompasses well documented problems with drink and subsequent 'health issues' and – possibly an even greater risk to life, limb and sanity – a large chunk of his career spent with Ozzy Osbourne.
Born in 1967 in New Jersey, Zakk (he was christened Jeffrey) abandoned his early guitar studies and didn't pick up the instrument again until he was 14. It's worth noting the year there – 1981, long past Rock's 1970's golden days, but close enough for him to have been immersed in the influences of that era – Jimmy Page, Jimmy Hendrix, Clapton and later guitar gods, like Gary Moore and Randy Rhoads. Read the standard biographies and it all fits neatly into place. Wylde (his real name is Wielandt) went on to slay his local contemporaries with material from Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Rush. So far, so very predictable. But also inaccurate. If Zakk Wylde was just another fast metal guitarist, he'd probably still be in New Jersey. The fact is, Zakk Wylde is a very much more accomplished guitarist.
Listen closely to Wylde's playing and you'll hear not just the straight-ahead Blues influences of so many of his contemporaries, but Jazz influence and, perhaps even more surprisingly, some extremely accomplished Country picking. True, it's played at ear-splitting volume and somewhere close to they speed of light, but it's there – and it makes Zakk Wylde an individual stylist and instantly recognisable – one of the least appreciated reasons why some guitarists make the big time and some don't.
Classical is another big influence on Wylde's style – perhaps not so surprising when you realise Randy Rhoads was his idol and that Rhoads was also influenced by classical techniques and style.
And then there's the missing link – Southern US Rock. Wylde says that, though he was aware of Lynyrd Skynyrd and other Southern/Country influenced bands when he was young, Sabbath had been his main thing and it wasn't until after he joined-up with Ozzy, in 1987, that the Country bug bit – intriguingly, Wylde has said, deeply implanted in his brain by having listened to the great Albert Lee. And, before you could say 'how about the real devil's instrument?' Wylde was soon starting to perfect his fingerpicking – on a banjo!
It all came home to roost in 1993, when he depped for The Allman Brothers' Dickey Betts. It was just one gig, but it was a signpost in Wylde's career.
Jumping back in time, Wylde's big break with Ozzy meant stepping into Randy Rhoads's gigantic shoes and, with the greatest respect to Rhoads fans, Wylde managed the transition with aplomb, for all that he had never played in a world class band before. He may have joked that he put a bullseye on his trademark Gibson Les Paul to help the Rhoads lovers take aim at him, but only the most bigoted would have failed to recognise Wylde's own prodigious talent.
In 1990, Ozzy released his second album featuring Zakk Wylde: No More Tears. It's regarded as one of Zakk's best performances and GI's Andy James says: “I think he came into his own as a writer and guitar player evoking more of the Lynyrd Skynyrd style influence in his playing as well as his super accurate picking technique and ferocious vibrato on that one”
Wylde had a solo career ahead of him, too. Still with Ozzy, in 1992 he formed Lynyrd Skynhead, which later morphed in Pride & Glory and then, in 1995, he was back with Ozzy once again for Ozzmosis.
If you filter out the 'almosts' and 'maybes', the two major elements of Wylde's career to date have been his monumental work with Ozzy Osbourne and the project that was to come next – the Black Label Society, which he formed in 1998. OK, there was also his solo album Book Of Shadows, not to mention the legendary jamming with Guns 'n Roses, being dropped by Ozzy in favour of Joe Holmes for the Ozzmosis tour – but that's stuff from Wikipedia.
Important as those other career events were, it is Black Label Society that has gone from strength to strength, despite its floating population. Zakk worked again with Ozzy, eventually being replaced by another great guitarist – Gus G – but still powering on with BLS, still blending his mix of apparently quite disparate styles - Metal, Blues, Jazz, Classical, Rock and Country, as if it was the easiest thing in the world.
In terms of his gear, Zakk has been a loyal and steadfast Gibson/ Epiphone man since the start. He says that the first players he admired were all Les Paul wielders and he has become one of that family, in spades. He has also flirted with Gibson's more adventurous sister brand, Epiphone. He's had several Signature Les Pauls launched in his honour (one of which we review in this issue) but some of the Epiphones have been... well, Wylde to the point of distraught – look at the Epiphone Wylde ZV Custom, apparently the result of a night on the town between a Flying V and an SG. Equally as worrying is the Epiphone Graveyard Disciple – not even a new idea, as Vox beat Epiphone to the coffin-maker's pattern book, way back in the 1960s.
Zakk's taste in amps is as classic as his taste in Les Pauls (let's ignore some of the Wylder Epiphones for now). He uses JCM800s, with Marshall cabs loaded – unusually – with EV speakers. This latter makes more of a difference than you might suppose, in case you have never tried an EV driver!
And effects? Having used a variety of classic designs in the past, these days they are from the Jim Dunlop/MXR stable and we have all four of them on review in this issue. Wylde's pedal board is about as simple as it gets.
Which is more than you can say for Zakk Wylde. On the surface he's a hard-nose Heavy Metal guitar slinger – faster than lightning and master of a thousand riffs. But there's more - a lot more – to Zakk Wylde's guitar playing. Cast aside the image for a moment and listen carefully. This is one of Rock's greatest contemporary players and a guitarist with surprising depths.