Zakk Wylde is a man who says what he means, and does what he says. From the moment he picked up a Les Paul at age 15, he pursued his dream of joining Ozzy Osbourne's band with the force of a freight train. Practicing as much as 12 hours a day—from the time he came home from school till the time he went back the next morning—his proficiency on the instrument was astonishing. It wasn't long before everybody in his hometown of Jackson, New Jersey realized somebody special was in their midst.
"People were saying I was pretty good, which was cool," Wylde admits. "The thing is, there wasn't anything else I wanted to do with my life."
Wylde paid his dues in local bands such as Zyris and Stone Henge, and in 1987, at the urging of his girlfriend (and now wife) Barbaranne, he sent a demo tape to Osbourne. As fate would have it, Osbourne was looking to replace guitarist Jake E. Lee (who had replaced the late Randy Rhoads, an idol of Wylde’s). At first, Ozzy dismissed the tape—”Probably just another Randy clone,” he said at the time—but Randy Castillo, Osbourne’s then-drummer, urged the singer to give it a listen. And one listen was all it took: Within days, Wylde was in California, ready for, as he puts it, "my one and only shot." Almost comically, the guitarist who’d spent the better part of his teenaged years woodshedding for the chance to audition for Osbourne didn’t have to play so much as one note: Ozzy hired him while he was still tuning up. (Incredibly, the same scenario occurred when Osbourne first met Randy Rhoads.)
Twenty years later, Zakk Wylde has remained a constant and integral member of the Ozzy Osbourne band. Over the course of seven albums with Osbourne and ten with his own band, Black Label Society, Wylde has established himself as not only a strong songwriter but one of the world’s pre-eminent guitarists. His catchy, choppy riffs and mind-bending solos, a unique mix that includes elements of metal, jazz, and country, are copied and analyzed by guitarists here and yon. On a personal and visual level, Wylde has become one of rock's most colorful characters. The foot-long beard, the chain-link guitar straps, the leather vests, the Li'l Abner physique, the beer throwdowns, and more significantly, the bullseye and camouflage graphics that adorn his six(!) various Gibson Signature Model guitars—they're all indelible elements that comprise the Wylde aesthetic.
In the following interview, conducted just hours before he was due to take the stage in Dallas for Ozzfest 2007, Wylde holds forth on a variety of topics: his love of in-store appearances, his lasting partnership with Osbourne, what it means to be a Black Label Society member, and his undying devotion to Gibson guitars.
You're doing some solo in-store appearances on your days off from Ozzfest. No rest for the wicked, huh?
That's right, brother. The in-stores are such a blast. They're not like clinics, which I've done; they're more like record signings. The kids pile in, we crank my albums, I hang out with everybody and sign whatever they got. It's like a big party. (laughs) I never get over the fact that people want to shake my hand or tell me that I've inspired them in some way. I love doing these things. There's nothing like 'em.
I would imagine you sign a lot of Les Pauls.
It's unreal. I mean, like I said, I'll sign whatever they want—I wouldn't turn away anybody who's come to see me—but yeah, there's a lot of Les Pauls coming at me.
[At last count, the Gibson Custom Shop offers two Zakk Wylde Les Paul models, the Bullseye and the Camo; there are three different Epiphone Zakk Wylde Les Pauls, a Bullseye Custom, a Buzzsaw Custom, and a Camo Custom; and now there's a Gibson Custom Shop Zakk Wylde Flying V Custom...]
I'll roll with that, you know what I mean? The more the merrier, I say. Then I have this guitar that I designed called a ZV—you know, a "Zakk V." It's like an SG on the top and a Flying V on the bottom. The guys at Gibson made two prototypes for me, and they came out totally bitchin'. I've been using them on the road. Awesome guitars, brother. Here's the thing: The fact that I'm attached to them is cool, and if my fans buy them because of my name, hey, that's an honor. But the honest truth is, they're great guitars in and of themselves. A guy could walk into a music store, pick up a Zakk Wylde guitar, start playing it and go, "This is an awesome guitar," and he might never have heard of me at all. That's the thing about a Les Paul or Flying V: They're bigger than the artist. Whether they have a bullseye on them or not, they're still the greatest guitars out there.
However, the bullseye graphic just screams “Zakk Wylde.” How did that come about?
Originally, I had a Les Paul that had a cream color, which looked way cool. But when I got in Ozzy's band I decided that I wanted to have something on my guitar that made me stand out, like the way Randy Rhoads did with the polka dots. So a friend of mine did a paint job on it with the idea that it would look like the poster for the movie Vertigo, only it came out looking more like a bullseye. When I saw it I started laughing; to me, it made perfect sense. Joining Ozzy's band and trying to fill Randy's shoes—I might as well give the fans something to aim at! (laughs)
Now, this was the guitar you call "The Grail"? At one time, you lost it while on tour, right?
Yeah, it fell off a truck! God, I was heartbroken—I thought I lost the thing forever. One day, though, this guy went into a pawn shop and he saw it on sale for $250. He bought it, took it home, but he had a weird hunch about it: He'd read somewhere that I'd lost it and was looking for it. So he took out the pickups—I still don't know why—and sure enough, he saw "Z.W." underneath them. He contacted me and got it back to me. He returned my baby! (laughs)
When you picked up the Les Paul at 15, who were your big influences?
Well, there was Jimmy Page, Randy Rhoads, Hendrix, Gary Moore—they all played Gibsons. Plus, I've seen pictures of Clapton and Keith Richards with Les Pauls. I said to myself, "Okay, that's the guitar for me." It's just the greatest guitar in the world. The spectrum of sounds you can get with a Les Paul is unbeatable. You can be crunchy, warm, you can play Al Di Meola licks or crank up the super metal. You can't do that on any other guitar. No way.
How's Ozzfest going so far?
It's insane, as usual. (laughs) Ozzfest is proof-positive how crazy the world is, man.
Are the new Ozzy songs going over well?
They're slammin'. We have three or four of them in the set. But you know how it is—people come to a show, they wanna hear the hits. Before we went on tour, I looked at Ozzy's catalog; he's got something like 99 songs. I told him, "Hey, boss, we gotta whittle this set list into something tight, or else we're going to be up there onstage for 14 hours! (laughs)
You're doing double-duty, as usual, playing with Black Label Society before you hit the stage with Ozzy. You are, in fact, the hardest-working man in show business.
It's true, bro. I do my set with Black Label, then I run offstage, have a beer, and then I'm right back out there with Ozzy. No breaks for me. It's wall-to-wall action. But I love it, man. I dig working.
Have there been any particularly crazy moments onstage that you care to share?
It's all crazy. But the only time when it gets really nuts is when we run out of beer! (laughs) You don't wanna be around me then.
Which Les Pauls are you playing on tour?
All of them. I got my Buzzsaw, the Camo, and obviously I have my original Bullseye with me. Oh, and I use my Flying V a lot. The whole deal. I have a separate bus that's filled with my guitars. I got a couple of Gibson doublenecks,too —I play the doubleneck on "Mama, I'm Coming Home." It sounds killer.
What about the Rebel, the Les Paul with the bottlecaps on it?
Yeah, I have that one, too. I tried counting all the bottlecaps I put on it, but when you drink as much beer as I do, you get beyond counting, you know what I mean? (laughs) I just crack open a beer, and if the mood strikes me, I just nail another bottlecap on. Hey, you gotta have a hobby.
What does it take to become a member of the Black Label Society?
You just gotta have a liver and kidneys and be breathing! (laughs) Seriously, though, it's all about having a positive attitude. It's a lifestyle thing. If you're cool and you're into the music, and you're not a dirtbag, fine, you can be in. No dirtbags allowed.
Now, you actually sell the Black Label vests on your website, right?
Yeah, bro. You can buy one. Anyone can hit the swag if they want to.
So, if I bought a Black Label vest, I could be in your club?
You're in, dude. Definitely. (laughs) Long as you got the right attitude and you're cool to go.
How has Ozzy been on tour? I heard that he had to have emergency surgery the other day.
Yeah, he had a blood clot in his leg. He was complaining that his leg was giving him some problems, so went to the hospital, and before you know it, he's having the thing operated on. But he was back onstage two days later. The guy's a stormtrooper. Takes more than a blood clot to stop that guy.
You've been with Ozzy for 20 years. What's the secret to your relationship?
I think we're the only two people who can stand to be around each other. (laughs) No, there's no big secret. We dig the same music, we're cool with each other, we never get into arguments—it's a chemistry thing. We roll together real well. I love the guy.
Your beard is quite impressive; it's reached Billy Gibbons proportions. Tell me, under what circumstances, or for how much money, would you shave it off?
I don't know. If you got 50 bucks and a case of beer, I'd probably consider it. (laughs)
In addition to your fierce style of metal playing, you're pretty amazing at chicken pickin'. Have you been adding any of that style into some of the songs you're playing live?
Oh, yeah. I mix it up, play around with different genres. It's all music, you know what I mean? The other day, kickin' back on the bus, I threw a Django Reinhardt CD on for the hell of it. That stuff's amazing. You have to keep your ears open; otherwise, you get in a rut.
After Ozzfest wraps, I understand you're going to do a series of Black Label dates.
Not as many as I'd like. I have a little time off between Ozzfest and an arena tour I'm doing with Ozzy, so that's when I'm going to be tearin' it up with Black Label. Those shows will be insane. That's when the real madmen come out to party. The madmen and their mad women. I think the girls love getting crazy at the Black Label shows more than the boys.
Crazy, as in how?
You have to use your imagination, brother. That's all I'll say to that one. (laughs)