In the pantheon of guitarists who have stood alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Jake. E Lee had the biggest shoes to fill when he assumed the role in 1982. Following the tragic passing of Randy Rhoads earlier that year and a short-lived replacement in the form of Night Ranger's Brad Gillis, the Prince of Darkness set out to recruit an axeman to continue Rhoads' legacy.
After auditioning a plethora of budding guitarists for the role, Ozzy landed on Lee, who quickly found his feet despite the difficult circumstances, writing a wealth of material for Ozzy's third solo album, Bark at the Moon, and its followup, The Ultimate Sin.
Lee spoke with Guitar World for the November 1986 issue following the release of The Ultimate Sin, detailing his contributions to both albums, why Ozzy insisted he use a tremolo bar, his thoughts about Eddie Van Halen, and the monumental task of following in Randy Rhoads' footsteps.
You had far more input on The Ultimate Sin than you did on Bark at the Moon. Did you want to become more involved in the songwriting and production process, or was that just a natural process?
“It was thrust upon me, more or less, but I wanted more input. I’ve had almost complete control over every band I’ve ever been in, except for Ratt, which was almost a partnership between me and Stephen [Pearcy, vocalist], but I had control over the music.
“It was like a Van Halen/Roth thing: Steve had control over the clothing and the show, and I had control over the music. So I was used to being in control of the music in a band. And I wanted it that way with Ozzy.”
How much input did you have on Bark at the Moon?
“Most of the music was mine: Rock ’n’ Roll Rebel, Bark at the Moon, Now You See It (Now You Don’t), Waiting for Darkness and Slow Down were mine.”
How easy or difficult is it to present material to Ozzy?
“On Bark at the Moon, I approached him really cautiously, because I was the new guy and I could be out at any second. I’d just play him riffs, and if he liked the riff, then the whole band would work on it. But when I write a riff, I also write the verse and chorus and everything around it.
“Bob Daisley [bassist on Bark at the Moon] would change a part here or there, and Ozzy might change a part, too, but that was it, really. I didn’t argue too much if I didn’t like the way something was coming out. I’d go, ‘I don’t really like this,’ and they’d go, ‘Well, what do you know?’ And I’d go, [in a sheepish voice] ‘I don’t know anything.’
“I hated the strings on Bark at the Moon. And I hated So Tired. Actually, I didn’t mind it when we did it as a four-piece, but then they schmaltzed it up with all the strings, and I hated it.
“So I’d present something, and they’d fight, debate, say it sucked or whatever. Everybody contributed a little bit, so the songs didn’t come out the way I imagined they would.
“On The Ultimate Sin, while Ozzy was in the Betty Ford [Center], I got a drum machine, one of those mini studios, a bass from Charvel – a really shitty one – and I wrote more or less entire songs. I didn’t write melodies or lyrics, because Ozzy is bound to change things. But I wrote the riff and came up with a chorus, verse, bridge and solo sections.
“Then I wrote the drum and bass parts I had in mind. I put about 12 songs down on tape like that, and when Ozzy got out of the Betty Ford [Center], I said, ‘Here ya go! Here’s what I’ve got so far.’ And I’d say half of it ended up on the album.”
Does Ozzy interpret your songs in a way similar to how you originally heard them?
“He almost always does something different from what I expect. On this record he sang a bluesier style than I thought he would. Sometimes I’ll write something weird that I think he’ll like, and he’ll say, ‘That’s too weird. Are you on acid or something? This isn’t Frank Zappa.’
“Or I’ll write something simple that I think he might like, and he’ll go, ‘That’s pop!’ So it’s a weird little area: it can’t be too commercial sounding and it can’t be too weird. Especially on this record: we didn’t go out on a limb and we didn’t try to make it commercial. But we kept what we thought Ozzy could get away with, without raising too many eyebrows.”
That’s why a song like Shot in the Dark was a surprise, because it borders on FM pop.
“Yeah, we had our doubts about that one. I write a lot of songs like that. Most of the songs I’ve kept have been really commercial or really weird. I wasn’t so sure of the song when Phil [Soussan, bassist and writer of Shot in the Dark] first presented it. It was getting kind of commercial, and Ozzy wasn’t too sure of it either. But [producer] Ron Nevison gunned for that one, and it worked out all right.”
The fact that you don’t use a vibrato bar is a big part of the Jake E. Lee style. How did that develop?
“Ooooh! Everybody who uses a bar is going to hate me. [laughs] And everybody uses a bar. What Brad Gillis [Night Ranger, formerly with Ozzy] does with a bar is pretty innovative; some of what Eddie Van Halen has done with a bar is fairly innovative.
“I don’t think a lot of what he has done with a bar is innovative, but he has brought it back and he doesn’t rely on it like some people do. It’s real easy to start a solo by hitting a harmonic at the fifth fret of the G string and to end a solo by playing the E string and hitting the bar again.
“I’m not saying that Eddie relies on that, because, obviously, he’s a great guitar player. But a lot of people do use the bar when their brain or their heart quits thinking about the music. They need to have a filler, and that’s why I think a bar is cheating.
“I think young guys should learn how to play without the bar, and then, once they’re pretty happening, they can start incorporating the bar. That’s what I always planned on doing, but I’ve never gotten around to it yet. I haven’t gotten good enough.
“You put a guitar with a bar in my hand and I go crazy, whacko. You might as well glue my hand to the bar, because that’s all I want to do. I’m useless when there’s a bar on there, so for my own good I don’t use a bar.”
On The Ultimate Sin, did the absence of large-scale keyboard parts give you more creative freedom?
“Yes. That was something I insisted on. Ozzy kept saying, ‘We’ve always had a keyboard player. Where is a keyboard player now that we’re writing songs?’
“On Bark at the Moon, if we didn’t know what to do, it was real easy to say, ‘Don [Airey, keyboardist], make some kind of noise.’ When we were writing the new album, I more or less insisted that we didn’t have a keyboard player. I said, ‘Look, if we can write a song without keyboards, then the keyboards will add that much more when we finally do add them.’
“I wanted to write the songs and not have anything filling up space besides the bass, drums and guitar. If something didn’t work, we could change it musically. We brought the keyboard player [Mike Moran] in only after all the parts were done. We did demos all the time we were writing. We had keyboards there that belonged to Ozzy, and I played them on a lot of the demos.”
We didn’t know that you played keyboards.
“Yeah, that’s what I started on. I started playing keyboards when I was six, and I’m classically trained. I took classical piano for two to four hours every day until I was 16. I went to the Music Conservatory when I was 12 and I was the second youngest person ever admitted there. I was supposed to be a real promising piano player.”
“I hated piano! Piano kept me from playing football and baseball with the other kids. But I was always musically inclined, and my sister happened to have a guitar sitting around the house, and when I picked it up, I said, ‘This is the one.’ I started playing guitar and I quit playing piano. My parents wanted me to be the next Van Cliburn, but I wanted to be the next Van Halen.”
You later joined Ratt and then Rough Cutt. How did you hear about the spot in Ozzy’s band?
“Someone contacted me about it. At first I said no, because I didn’t want to step into Randy Rhoads’ shoes. It’s hard enough trying to replace a good guitar player – and I don’t want this to sound callous – but when they die, they turn into legends. I didn’t want to be compared to somebody else for the rest of my life.
“But I went down there anyway, and I think there was a list of 25 guitar players. We each spent 15 minutes in the studio doing whatever we wanted to do. We had our pictures taken; they were given to Ozzy and he picked three of us: George [Lynch, Dokken], Mitch Perry and me.
“George was flown to England and given first crack at it. Me and Mitch were left in LA. Ozzy came down and we auditioned at S.I.R. in New York City, and I got it. And I was 45 minutes late!
“Dana Strum, who did the first round of auditions, said Ozzy had almost walked out the door; he said, ‘Fuck it, if this guy doesn’t care enough to show up on time and he’s going to be this kind of problem, forget it. I don’t care how good he is.’ But Dana kept him there.”
Did Ozzy remark about the fact that you didn’t use a tremolo bar?
“Yeah. The first thing he said was, ‘Do you know how to play a guitar with a wang bar on it?’ And I said, ‘Of course. Anybody can play a guitar with a wang bar, but I don’t like it.’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you think about using one? Because I don’t think you can play some of these songs without one.’ And I said, ‘I can. I’ll show ya.’
“After rehearsal he said, ‘Yeah, fine, it sounds like you’ve got one, I don’t care. As long as it sounds good you don’t need to use one.’ He was under the impression that a modern guitarist cannot play without a bar. I proved him wrong, I hope. I can’t think of anyone new who doesn’t play with a bar.”
When you sit down to record a solo, what goes through your mind in terms of notes and effects?
“There are basically three different ways I work out a solo. The first method involves taping everything at the rehearsals and editing down the best parts from each take to make a master copy. The solos on Thank God for the Bomb and Lightning Strikes are good examples of this method.
“On Thank God for the Bomb, I played a different lead every time we rehearsed it, so I ended up with 50 different leads. I just took the best bits from every solo and put them into one solo.
“The second way involves listening to the rhythm over and over. I’ll set my guitar across the room; I won’t even touch it. I’ll hum the rhythm in my head and wait until the ideas start coming. Then I’ll pick the guitar up.
“That’s probably my favorite way of writing a solo. That’s the way a real musician would do it; he’d play what’s in his head rather than automatic riffs. I’m not that good yet, so I still go for the riff. I used this method on most of the songs.
“The third way is where I don’t have anything worked out and nothing in my head; I just walk in the studio and say, ‘Roll the tape, let’s see what comes out.’ Those are like jams. I did that on Shot in the Dark and Never Know Why. When I don’t know what I’m doing, that’s what comes out.”
“And the solo on The Ultimate Sin is really just an exercise in arpeggios.”
The solo on Slow Down, from Bark at the Moon, seemed to be really effective.
“I liked that solo. I think it was my favorite solo on there. It might be my favorite solo that I’ve ever done because it’s really melodic and it has a lot of fire, which is how I’d like to play. But I don’t get comments on that solo too often. I don’t get comments on my solos much anyway.”
Is that true?
“Well, I do now, but I didn’t so much on the first album. Kids would come up and say, ‘Hey, you’re hot! You’re great,’ but I actually got a lot of compliments on the way I moved. They would say, ‘Hey man, you move better than anybody.‘ I got a lot of general comments like that, but on this new tour a lot of people are telling me that my leads are happening.”
Maybe on the first album you were still living in the shadow of Randy Rhoads.
“Yeah. I still am.”
Were you a fan of Randy’s?
“Mmm, yeah. I thought he was the best new guitar player post-Eddie. I thought he was the most promising one I’d heard. I was sad when he died. In fact, me and Warren got drunk that night toasting Randy Rhoads.
“There was one show [with Ozzy] where there were these kids off to the side, so I went over to see what they were doing. They all had Randy Rhoads T-shirts, and they kept pointing at the shirts and going ‘Number One,’ and then they’d point at me and flip me off.
“I went over there after the show and I said, ‘Wearing a Randy Rhoads T-shirt only reminds Ozzy that he’s lost a friend. Randy is not around to appreciate it, and I don’t appreciate it. I’m glad you liked Randy but you don’t have to shove him in my face.’”
Do you ever have the feeling that other players are looking at you to see what you’re going to do next?
“Yeah – waiting for me to fuck up. I feel a little pressure, but it doesn’t bother me. On the first record, I felt it because there were a lot of guitar players out there who wanted the gig, and they said, ‘Okay, this is the guy he picked. Let’s see what he’s got.’
“I did feel that every time I went in to play something because I knew there were going to be a lot of people listening to see if I did any good or not. I’m not the kind of person who really cares what other people think. I play what I like, and if somebody else likes it, great; they’re a friend of mine.
“If they don’t like it, we can still be friends, but I don’t really care. I didn’t feel that kind of pressure so much this time, but I do feel it once in a while. There are guitar players who still come up to Ozzy and go, ‘I’m the guitar player you should have got.’”
Do you ever feel obscured by playing in Ozzy’s band?
“No. If anything, I think I get more attention than I deserve as a guitar player. If somebody comes up to me and goes, ‘Man, you’re the best guitar player in the world,’ I start feeling stupid. I go, ‘Nah, there are guys better than me.’ But if somebody comes up and says, ‘You really suck. You’re nothing compared to Randy,’ then I go, ‘Hey, fuck you! I’m good. I’m probably 10 times better than you’ll ever be.’”