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This article was originally published in issue #32
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The truth is that as a player, Zakk Wylde is one of the most recognizable people in Rock and Metal.
Zakk Wylde is of the very few guitarists to have graced GI's cover a second time - that's how important we think this guitar giant is! Levi Clay interviews the man behind Black Label Society and offers this appreciation of one of today's greats.
It's a cold February in London, but spirits are high as we head down to the Roundhouse in Camden to sit down with (arguably) the most iconic guitar player in the Metal world. We're ushered backstage and set up our cameras in the band's dressing room. There are Marshall practice amps and John DeServio's fretless bass just kicking around and then Zakk Wylde walks into the room.
From a personal perspective, I can't say my heart isn't racing. This is a man that I've looked up to for many years. My formative years on the instrument were filled with Zakk's bootcamp drills and learning his solos. It would have been easy for him to throw me off my game, but anyone who has met Zakk, or watched an interview with him will tell you that aside from his intimidating 6ft 2inch high mammoth frame garnished with leather, chains and impressive beard, he's an absolute teddy bear with a heart of gold and a pleasure to talk to. He cracks jokes constantly and doesn't mind opening up, which is good because we have a lot to talk about.
Back in January at the NAMM show we got a rather curious email from Zakk's camp inviting us to come down and check out his new “Wylde Audio” range of products which was billed as “A new audio brand designed and conceived by guitar Legend Zakk Wylde”. We had assumed we might be looking at DAW plug-ins, or cables, but it turns out that Wylde Audio will be launching this year with guitars, amps and anything else Zakk thinks he can do a great job of.
All it takes is a quick browse of any comments section on any news site to see that people are seriously questioning the move as Zakk has spent decades at the round table of both Gibson and Marshall. It seems like a crazy move, but at the same time, it's the best move for a man who doesn't see his career as playing music for fans. This is a man who has gone beyond music and created a lifestyle which unites his fans tying them into more of a family.
The truth is that as a player, Zakk Wylde is one of the most recognizable people in Rock and Metal. It may be the done thing now, but back in 1988 when Zakk exploded onto the scene as the young guitar man in Ozzy Osbourne's band, his wah soaked leads, blistering pentatonic picking, Southern rock tinge and screaming pinched harmonics really set him apart from the pack. Even he was aware though that as a blonde kid playing a white Les Paul, he may look a bit much like Randy, so he decided to paint his iconic bullseye on the guitar, even though (in his own words) that just gave the audience a target to throw things at.
During his time with Ozzy he developed his sound and his image. He went through a very Southern Rock phase, sporting his 1989 Gibson Les Paul Custom dubbed “the Rebel”, a confederate flag Les Paul with 36 beer bottle tops nailed to it. This chicken pickin' influence can be heard more obviously on his album Pride and Glory, the 1994 release that first saw Zakk as a band leader.
His next album, Book of Shadows, was actually all acoustic aside from a few solos like 1,000,000 miles away and it showcased Zakk as a singer and song writer. The video for Way Beyond Empty actually used to get lots of screen time on VH1! But this was all just killing time before the Zakk Wylde we think of today, formed Black Label Society and the band released their first few albums.
From Sonic Brew to Stronger than Death right up to 2003's The Blessed Hellride Zakk stopped treating his image like it was about him. He took influence from motorcycle club mentality and started wearing the leather with the back patch set (a fact that would cause friction with motorcycle clubs who, rightfully so, feel that people earn patches, they don't buy them), he would talk about wearing the “colours” and towns were “chapters”. Aside from writing great music, I remember seeing a guy walking through my home town in a BLS jacket and thinking “that's cool, I want to be a part of that” and before you knew it, I'm wearing the colours and I feel like I'm a part of something bigger. That was a great move on Zakk's part, pushing the idea of a family, uniting people with the music. That idea is still going strong with both 2010's Order of the Black and last year's Catacombs of the Black Vatican.
From there the band has stayed steady, but the brand has grown exponentially. It's a merchandising machine with the logo on anything and everything from patch sets and shirts to shot glasses and aprons. The fact is, the fans believe in the band, they support the band and at the top of it all is Zakk, the president. If he makes something, the chances are he's doing it for the family so it will be worth checking out.
From the small amount of time I got to chat to Zakk about Wylde audio, the concept seemed simple. If you're in sports and you're good, when you retire, you might coach a team. Where do you go from that? You own the team. This is something that Zakk can be involved in from every angle to give his fans exactly what they want at prices that make sense. I mean, we've probably all wanted a Gibson Zakk Wylde Les Paul at some point or another, but the huge price tag shatters that dream pretty fast for most of us! The same would go for a Zakk Wylde Marshall, or anything else he just wants to get in the hands of the fans. That's the impression we were given, this is about taking audio products that he thinks he can improve and delivering them to the fans at prices that make sense.
The thing I found most interesting is that this wasn't an attack on Gibson or Marshall, in fact he was still sporting a selection of Gibson's guitars and a wall of Marshalls that night on the gig and that can't be stressed enough. The rumour mill moves quickly online, but Zakk had nothing but good things to say about Gibson and Marshall, still saying they're like family to him.
Unfortunately, the products were still in early prototype stages when he unveiled the brand so we can't say for sure what they will be launching with, or even how much they'll retail for. But what we can say for sure is we're open minded, we can't wait to check them out - and you can be sure we'll be doing just that!