Ax Men: Zakk Wylde and Joe Satriani Riff on Their Craziest Concert Moments, Jimmy Page and the State of Rock Guitar
How did teaching feed into your own playing?
WYLDE It pushes you—especially with the advanced students. They learn all the shit and you gotta have something new to show them the next week. They know all the diatonics and all the pentatonics, so now we start breaking out the diminished scales.
SATRIANI And your job is to crystallize musical concepts—put them into a couple of sentences. ’Cause maybe the kid’s showing up for 30 minutes or something.
WYLDE But then, Jimmy Page always used to say, “The reason I love the guitar is because they didn’t teach it in school.” And I get that. But I always say, if you get a car with a stick shift, eventually you’re going to learn to drive it by yourself. But before you blow through about three transmissions, usually it would be pretty cool if somebody just showed you how to do it. Eventually, sure, you can learn how to play “Stairway to Heaven” by yourself. But you’ll learn it a lot quicker if somebody shows you where to put your fingers.
Apart from obvious names like Hendrix and Page, do you have any guitar heroes in common?
SATRIANI Pete Townshend is one of my heroes, because he’s another guy who brings it all. He can play great, write great songs, and he puts on an amazing show. Quite crazy. I was just reading Pete’s autobiography [2012’s Who I Am: A Memoir] and I learned something I never knew before, and that was that he used a G string that was the same gauge as his B string. So when he did his double-stop bends, both strings would move at the same degree. That hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s an old blues player’s trick, but no one had suggested it to me before.
Was Pete big for you too, Zakk, or too early?
WYLDE No, but I’m on a steady diet of that classic stuff. It started in the sixth grade, when I was into Elton John. But then my friend at school—we were in arts and crafts doing sculpture—made a skull with a lighting bolt going through it, and it said, “Black Sabbath 666.” I go, “What is that?” And he says, “Oh that’s a band my brother listens to. It’s a rock band.”
So the next thing I know, we’re at the mall and my mother says, “Well, you can get a record, but only one.” So I got [the Black Sabbath compilation] We Sold Our Soul for Rock ’n’ Roll. Because it was a double album, so it was like one record, but really it was two. I remember putting the record on and being terrified—and loving it! And Sabbath became a favorite band.
Actually I found Sabbath before I found Led Zeppelin. My friend Scott Smith was my age, and his brother was 44. And he was the one who turned us on to Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Bad Company, Skynyrd… The thing is, if you like Eddie Van Halen, then you should also look into the people who influenced him, like Eric Clapton. And if you like Clapton, you should look into whoever influenced him.
SATRIANI Yeah, and Jimmy Reed and all those blues guys.
WYLDE Exactly. You keep going further and further back. I’d hear Jimmy Page talking about all these blues guys he liked and I would go check them out. And when I joined Ozzy, I remember asking him about Tony Iommi and where he got all his stuff. And Tal Farlow was one of his main guys. I would never have heard about him otherwise.
SATRIANI Mentioning Tony Iommi and Tal Farlow, you remind me that I was really into Black Sabbath when I was a kid. And I took some be-bop lessons from Lenny Tristano. And for the lesson, he’d have me bring in a record and scat-sing the melody and solo, note for note. No playing, just singing. ’Cause his whole thing was getting the music inside of you. So I’d bring in all kind of records—Bird [i.e. Charlie Parker] and Coltrane, McLaughlin and Johnny Winter. And I remember also bringing in “Planet Caravan” by Black Sabbath. We played the whole album in my high school band, but that song was my favorite, ’cause it was just so weird. And where was that coming from? Jazz players like Tal Farlow.
WYLDE And Barney Kessel.
I believe you’re both big John McLaughlin fans as well.
WYLDE Yeah, without a doubt. When I was 15 years old and started playing, my friend’s band would come over and play covers from Inner Mounting Flame, along with Dixie Dregs songs. Instead of just playing like a Doors song, they were playing stuff note for note off Inner Mounting Flame. It was amazing, the way they were using pentatonic scales, which is something usually associated with crappy rock playing.
SATRIANI Oh, they’re all really cool, when it comes down to it. There’s no scale that’s more potent or powerful than another. It’s all in how it’s used. You have a couple of thousand years of amazing African music, all playing off three different pentatonic scales.
I think Inner Mounting Flame is cool, but for some reason I like Birds of Fire the best. Maybe because it sounded more like a rock record to me or something. Just the way they arranged the whole album.
WYLDE All the guys in that band were out of control, too.
SATRIANI Possibly the best show I ever saw in my life was a concert by the Mahavishnu Orchestra—the original band—at Hofstra University. It was one of those shows I could not believe. Just the musicianship. And I’d seen lots of rock shows. I’d seen the Allman Brothers on the last night of the Fillmore East. I’d seen a lot, but that Mahavishnu concert was something else. I realized, Yes, musicianship can really achieve something incredible.