Cobra Kai star Billy Zabka on his love of ’80s rock, jamming with Robert Downey Jr. and the time Eddie Van Halen gave him a guitar lesson

Cobra Kai
(Image credit: James Clark)

One of the very first scenes in the very first episode of Cobra Kai depicts Johnny Lawrence, former karate badass (to use Johnny’s favorite descriptor) and walking 1980s artifact, hopping into his beat-up red Pontiac Firebird and cranking up Poison’s glam-metal anthem Nothin’ But a Good Time.

It’s one of many ’80s rock-soundtracked moments we’re treated to, courtesy of the soon-to-be sensei: Throughout the first three seasons, Johnny unapologetically rocks a Zebra No Tellin’ Lies baseball tee, inspires his teenaged karate disciple, Miguel Diaz, to change his ringtone to Ratt’s Round and Round and, later on, sneaks Diaz into a Dee Snider concert as physical therapy for a (literally) back-breaking injury. Clearly, Johnny Lawrence loves hair metal.

But what about the real-life actor who plays him, Billy Zabka?

“Yes, Billy Zabka does love hair metal,” confirms Billy Zabka himself, speaking to Guitar World via Zoom after wrapping shooting for Cobra Kai’s new fourth season. “I lean more toward the Def Leppards, the Whitesnakes, the Van Halens. I’m all things ’80s rock. That was my music.”

That music, Zabka reveals, was there with him the day he auditioned for the role of Johnny Lawrence – his first-ever film appearance, by the way – in the original The Karate Kid. He recalls being in his late teens and driving to the audition in his father’s Volvo, blasting Dio’s Rainbow in the Dark

“I got there, walked into this room with all these karate black belts, and everybody was out Johnny-ing the next guy,” he says. “It was tense, and the energy pushed me back out of the room and into my dad’s Volvo. And I sat there with my little cassette player and cranked up some Zebra. It helped me to not get psyched out.”

Zabka landed the role, of course. But more than that, he inhabited it so fully – imbuing Johnny with a depth and pathos that turned him into a sort of anti-hero – that he went on to play hot-tempered bad boys in a slew of ’80s flicks, including the 1985 high-school caper Just One of the Guys and the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School

Additionally, Zabka continued to act in film and television, began directing commercials and music videos and also became an Academy Award-nominated writer and producer.

But before he did any of this, Zabka played guitar. In fact, he calls the instrument “the theme of my life since I was 10 years old.” It was at that age that he first picked up the instrument, having just moved with his family from New York to Southern California.

“It was a way to try and fit in and meet some friends,” he says. “I would go to a little park, Shadow Ranch [in the San Fernando Valley] and learn guitar with a bunch of guys and a nylon-string.” 

Billy Zabka

(Image credit: Courtesy of Impact24 PR)

He continued to play throughout his school years, including at his high school Battle of the Bands in El Camino Real, where his group, Siricon (“a silly, funny name”) had some stiff competition. 

“We played against Fishbone,” Zabka recalls with a laugh. “Angelo Moore, John Fisher, I went to high school with those guys, and they were running around onstage with horns, playing all this crazy jazz and fusion type music that no one had ever heard before.”

The guitar’s a companion, just like it always has been. It’s just part of life for me

In fact, Zabka continues, “Here’s an even crazier story: In junior high school Angelo lived across the street from me, and when they first started the band, they didn’t have a lot of instruments. So I had a little keyboard, I had an amplifier, and they would come and use my stuff and I would jam with them.” (When reached by phone, Moore recalls, “I remember going over to his house, kickin’ it and playing games and running up and down the street. Childhood memories, man…”)

Zabka obviously didn’t pursue music with the same zealousness as his Fishbone school mates (or, for that matter, his father, Stan Zabka, a successful pianist and composer who co-wrote the 1950s holiday classic Christmas Eve in My Hometown and later worked for and performed on The Tonight Show), but he did take it seriously. 

He enrolled at the Dick Grove School of Music in California, where he learned to read music and studied to be a trained session player and studio musician, and he also played in a series of bands, including one with a few friends called the Acoustic Outlaws. “We’d perform at pumpkin festivals and things like that, where we’re sitting on haystacks singing Listen to the Music and Layla,” he recalls.

Zabka says that he “loved guitar deeply,” but at the same time, “it was always something of a hobby. I went to college at Cal State Northridge and entered the film school, and then I got cast in The Karate Kid. So as far as my career was going, I was headed to film. But music was the other thing that fed me artistically and creatively. And that’s also why I never chose not to pursue it professionally – it’s something I don’t look to get anything back from, outside of just the joy of doing it.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t find the time to bring the guitar into his acting life whenever possible. On the set of Back to School, for just one example, Zabka recalls impromptu jam sessions with co-star Robert Downey Jr. at their hotel after full days of shooting in Madison, Wisconsin. “I would always bring my guitar to any set I went to, and [Downey] happened to bring a Casio with him. So we did a little jamming. And he’s a great piano player, actually.”

In 2019, Zabka had the opportunity to live out his rock dreams by performing to a packed audience at Hollywood’s famed Whisky a Go Go (Johnny Lawrence, we presume, would be super-jealous).

Armed with a Taylor acoustic (his other gear over the years has included a Takamine acoustic electric guitar, a white Ovation 12-string and a “chestnut-brown” Les Paul Custom with a Marshall stack), he joined Cobra Kai composers Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson onstage to perform Johnny’s theme song, Ace Degenerate

At first, Birenberg and Robinson assumed Zabka would merely strum along and try to keep up. “They sent me the basic chords, and then I had one rehearsal with them in Hollywood and it sounded like crap,” Zabka recalls. “They were like, ‘Okay, that was good. We’ll see you tomorrow.’” 

But just like Johnny Lawrence squaring off against Daniel LaRusso at the 1984 All-Valley Karate Tournament, Zabka was intent on showing Ace Degenerate no mercy. 

“I went home that night and pulled out my guitar, sat by the firepit in my backyard and learned all the chords, all the licks, everything,” he says.

The next night at the Whisky, “We got onstage and I think I surprised Zach and Leo when I started going into the licks and actually playing the song. You can see it in the video that’s posted online, where Zach’s kind of like looking at me, like, ‘Hey, you got it!’ ” Zabka laughs. “But what a thrill to play the Johnny Lawrence anthem, and at the Whisky of all places. I mean, all points came together.” 

It was something of a full-circle guitar moment for Zabka, and not his only one. He recalls a moment in 2015 when, in a twist of fate, one of his first guitar idols, Eddie Van Halen, gave him something of an impromptu guitar lesson. 

“The first concert I ever went to was Van Halen – the 1980 Invasion tour,” Zabka says (and true to form, in a Season 1 episode of Cobra Kai Johnny Lawrence can be spotted wearing an Invasion tee). “To be 14 years old and watching Eddie come out and play Eruption, it was like this music came out of the sky. He was just bigger than life.” 

A few years back Zabka celebrated his 50th birthday by going to see Van Halen, once again reunited with David Lee Roth, at the Hollywood Bowl. “And I bumped into a good friend of mine, Janie, who had actually married Eddie. And she said, ‘Do you want to go and meet Eddie?’ I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? Yes, I want to go meet Eddie!’” 

He continues, “So I’m with a few of my buddies, and we all get in an elevator and go downstairs to the dressing room… and there’s Eddie Van Halen. And he was just the nicest guy. At one point he hands me his guitar and he says, ‘You play?’ I go, ‘A little bit – let me show you my version of Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love.’

“So I go into it, and I’m playing it up on the fretboard. He goes, ‘No, man, no.’ And he literally gets behind me and starts playing the notes and showing me how it’s just a simple A minor thing. And then a few minutes later he’s like, ‘All right, I gotta get ready.’ It was so epic.”

Zabka may have received some guidance from the master, but these days he’s functioning as something of a six-string sensei himself. “My son is just starting to play, and he’s the same age I was when I started,” he says. “So I have a renewed love and interest in the guitar, and in getting the cobwebs off and the rust out in order to show him some things.”

Even as Zabka’s profile rises once again with Cobra Kai (in addition to his starring role, he’s also an executive producer on the series), he still makes time for his first love. “The guitar’s a companion, just like it always has been,” he says. “It’s just part of life for me.” 

He recalls a recent visit with an old friend by way of example. “I was just in L.A. visiting a buddy of mine that I lived with for eight years back in the late ’90s. We used to have these great parties at our old condo together, and everybody would come and bring instruments and we’d have these big jam circles.

“He just bought a house in Toluca Lake, and so we went out to dinner and then went back to his place. So we’re walking through his house, and there’s his piano. We had some friends with us, and he had his Taylor over in the corner. We hadn’t played together in, like, 15 years, but I grabbed that guitar and we went right into Sweet Home Alabama. And it went on from there for the next hour. We just jammed. It was so great. I love the guitar.”

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.