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This article was originally published in issue #32
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Despite the extreme accuracy of his alternate picking, there is an element of reckless abandon to Wylde’s approach that is essential in order to capture the spirit of his sound.
Mesmerised by Zakk Wylde's blistering style? Struggling to get a grip on the Wylde trademarks? Doug Cartwright provides a unique Guitar Interactive Tech Session on one of Rock's true contemporary greats.
Zakk Wylde is one of the most prominent lead guitarists in the world of modern Rock and Metal music. After starting out in Ozzy Osbourne’s band, Wylde has gone on to create his own band Black Label Society, in which he also sings leads vocals. As well as having proven himself as a powerful and convincing frontman, Zakk is also an accomplished songwriter having co-written many of Ozzy’s biggest hits during his tenure in the band, as well as single-handedly writing all of the Black Label Society material.
Zakk’s lead style is characterized by his hard picking attack, huge string bends and fast, tone-wide vibrato that all combine to create one of the most aggressive lead styles around, so a good command of alternate picking technique and pitch-perfect intonation for string bending are musts in order to successfully emulate his style.
Despite the extreme accuracy of his alternate picking, there is an element of reckless abandon to Wylde’s approach that is essential in order to capture the spirit of his sound. He picks considerably harder than many of his shred contemporaries and frequently rakes across the strings, particularly to add aggression to his bends. His vibrato is legendarily fearsome and is performed by hooking the thumb over the top of the neck, slanting the fingers across the frets and shaking the forearm from the wrist. Unusually, Zakk likes to barre across the strings with his index finger when performing vibrato; this allows him to mute the lower strings to perform a pick rake into each note for maximum aggression!
Zakk is commonly associated with the minor pentatonic scale, and it’s certainly notable that he bases many of his fast licks around the CAGED pentatonic shapes as opposed to the more common 3-note-per-string shapes. However, he also has a range of other, more chromatic ideas at his disposal that I consider a key element of his style, as well as more general chaos-sounding noise ideas which all add up to create the huge excitement and adrenaline in his playing. As these are frequently overlooked I’ve tried to include a few different examples of his non-pentatonic ideas in this month’s solo to give readers some fresh Wylde-inspired shred ideas.
The track kicks off with a typical Zakk-style riff played in drop-D tuning, which makes use of the D minor pentatonic scale and features a one-finger powerchord being bent and released, a trademark of Zakk’s rhythm playing. I also featured the obligatory pinch harmonic (arguably the technique most associated with Zakk), which will require a higher string action than many shredders prefer to execute with the desired aggression. The track has a driving feel typical of early Black Label Society material throughout.
The solo starts with some characteristic string bending and vibrato; the first double-stop bend relies on the tension caused by the bent G-string clashing against the A on the B string as it’s pulled in and out of tune. The second bend is a more straight forward affair, a typical Zakk articulation where the pitch is instantly hit, then the string is released slightly to make the note flat before bending it back into tune again. This is reminiscent of the typical blues-style ‘curling’ of string bends, where the pitch is manipulated a little to give it some attitude, but in a much more aggressive manner appropriate for this form of music.
The next lick is a typical example of a minor pentatonic repetition pattern, where a small phrase is repeated to create a hook, which is one of Zakk’s most common improvisation devices. The phrase includes the b5 interval that gives it a bluesy vibe. I repeat it three times, and then conclude with a double stop; the solo uses a wah pedal throughout, and the pedal is pushed fully forwards here to accent the double stop. For the second half of the lick the phrase is repeated once, then we leave it to head into another characteristic pentatonic pattern that descends to conclude the lick.
At this point the backing track changes key from D minor up a tone to E minor, and the solo reflects this by confidently hitting a high E on the first beat of the bar. This is a prime spot for that legendary vibrato, and really it’s hard to overdo it at moments like this. Just grab the note and really shake it for all it’s worth! I then proceed to play another characteristic ascending pattern through E minor pentatonic position 1, before letting rip with another repetition pattern that spans across positions 1 and 2 of the pentatonic scale and alternates leading notes with each bar to give the lick a boost of adrenaline. This line is performed rhythmically as all sixteenth notes (4 notes per beat), but the lick is phrased as two groups of six and then a group of four; this is a great way to make licks seem less regimented and a technique that Zakk employs regularly.
The final lick in this section of the tune is an ear catching ascending chromatic line, the first of several non-pentatonic ideas in the solo. This is a shape that I remember stealing from Zakk years ago and still regularly use in my own playing; you can find tons of examples of it on Black Label Society albums and also in footage of Zakk’s unaccompanied live guitar solos. It’s clearly very angular and I would suggest it’s probably been inspired by nothing more than playing a diagonal shape on the fretboard; nonetheless it’s an instantly recognisable sound that really helps to break up the pentatonic tonality of the piece overall and grab the listener's attention. I perform it using strict alternate picking starting on a downstroke, a challenge in itself at this speed! The lick is also phrased rhythmically as eighth note triplets for the extra disorientation effect.
The track now returns to the key of D minor and features a typical metal ‘stops’ rhythm section, prime territory for big guitar fills! I start the section with a long string bend to counteract the blazing speed of the bars previous, before adding another classic Zakk ‘noise’ technique, trilling two frets higher than the fretted note with the right hand index finger whilst bending and releasing the string. Zakk describes this as his attempt to emulate a Floyd Rose dive-bombing technique on his fixed bridge Gibson signature models, and it’s a great trick for any Metal player to have up his (or her) sleeve.
The next lick is the most typical Zakk Wylde pentatonic repetition pattern of all, the simple descending 4’s lick. However, instead of sticking to the D minor pentatonic scale I ascend the shape chromatically in semitones; ascending chromatically is another typical Zakk technique for breaking out of the pentatonic framework and creating ear-grabbing licks. In this case it also serves as a nice tension-builder for the backing track as it leads back into the original riff.
Once the riff kicks back in I play one more Zakk chromatic idea - a fretboard shape that consists of a tone between the index and middle finger and then a minor 3rd between the middle finger and pinky. Zakk has frequently bust this shape out throughout his career, forcing it across all six strings with no position shifts; he places it as though his middle finger is playing the root note of the key on the E strings and then blazes across all the strings, with the sheer speed of what he’s playing making the outside notes pass as interesting flavours rather than the hideous clashes they might be if they were allowed to ring out for longer.
In this case I’ve just played it across the top three strings and grouped it with an odd rhythm; essentially there are nine notes evenly played across two beats. Don’t get too caught up in this though; in reality this is a simple phrase of nice notes being played as fast as possible, targeting a down beat as an exit point to perform another doublestop bend.
The solo ends with another typical minor pentatonic repetition pattern being moved descending through the scale, again with the addition of a b5 interval for a more bluesy vibe. The lick is also phrased as two groups of six and then a group of four, even though all the notes are performed as consistent 16th notes. Once again the rhythmic illusion this creates is desirable for its effects of disorientation and added excitement.
For the recording I used my Fractal Audio Axe-FX II, modeling a Marshall JCM800 with the tubes swapped to 6l6’s, as per Zakk’s preference. The people at Gibson UK were also kind enough to lend me a great Epiphone ZV guitar for the recording and video, which really added to the vibe of the track and was great fun to jam on. Finally, I also used a Dunlop Zakk Wylde wah throughout the solo; Zakk has used Wah Wah pedals on a majority of his recording in the last few years and they really bring out the vocal quality of his awesome vibrato. If you’re new to using a wah, be careful not to fall into the trap of just rocking your foot back and forth to the beat; Zakk leaves his just beyond centre for most of the time, pushing forward to accent and emphasise string bends and vibrato moments.
That’s it from me on the subject of Zakk Wylde’s guitar style for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed the tune and found some new licks to play. Have a go with the backing track and have fun!