“I had a couple of solos mapped out, but for the most part I just go for it... I think that you lose all the soul if you think about it too much”: Roy Z on keeping things simple and song-serving with Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford's solo bands

Roy Z
(Image credit: William Hames)

Before hooking up with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson in 1994 for Balls to Picasso, SoCal native Roy Ramirez – aka Roy Z – was known for his bands Seventh Thunder, Gypsy Moreno, and Royal Flush. His time with the group Tribe of Gypsies, though, would prove especially important. 

Through a chance meeting with Dickinson in 1993, Roy Z and his bandmates became his backing band as he embarked on a solo career after leaving Iron Maiden.

“It started in July ’93,” Z tells Guitar World. “And it was by mistake. I was working on a Tribe of Gypsies album in LA and Bruce was working there too. One day he came in, and I found out that he had stopped to listen to what I was doing. I was like, ‘My God, he's listening to my album?’ 

“I was introduced to him and he said, ‘I love your band – I’d like to use you guys.’ Before I knew it, I was on a plane to London – and we’ve been working together ever since.”

While supporting Dickinson on six solo records – and a seventh, The Mandrake Project, on the way – Z continued to release albums with Tribe of Gypsies, dabbled in production, and, notably, joined Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford’s solo band.

As heavy metal titans seemingly cut from the same cloth, you might assume that working with Dickinson and Halford would be similar experiences; but Z insists: “It’s completely different.

“How they individually go about their creative processes are different. That said, Bruce and Rob are both working-class people, meaning they’re hardworking. And they’re both gifted and have been the top guys for so long. It’s amazing to watch what they do and how they uniquely utilize their similar talents.”

Bruce and Rob are both working-class people, meaning they’re hardworking… It’s amazing to watch what they do

Meanwhile, Z’s approach and mindset have mostly stayed the same over the last 30 years – he says he keeps it simple, focuses on the song, and doesn’t overthink it.

“I’m a producer too, and putting that hat on forces me to really think about the song,” he explains. “So when I switch back to being just a guitarist, it’s about what’s necessary for the song.

“I find myself just going for my identity versus trying to sound like I’m trying to keep up with trends. So that’s my focus – to keep allowing that to happen, letting it come to me, and using that as a base to do what I do from there.”

Your style differs from Bruce's approach with Iron Maiden in that you incorporate a lot of Latin influences, but there’s some overlap. Have you ever felt beholden to his established approach, or do you have free rein?

“It’s a bit of both. I have a lot of different influences, ranging from blues to hard rock, heavy metal and Latin stuff. That allows me to play whatever Bruce needs for a particular song; it’s not like I have to learn something new.

“I’ll pull from my repertoire and say, ‘Oh, it would be cool to try something like that.’ It’s a mishmash of everything I’ve studied and like to jam along with.”

How did things shake out regarding your riffs and solos for The Mandrake Project?

“I come in with an old-school approach where I start with a song and keep my focus there – I try to do whatever is needed for the artist to make their vision happen.

“I go to different spaces in my head and heart and come up with riffs. It’s the same with solos – I try to play whatever is appropriate for the song’s mood; capture the vibe. But I try to avoid being selfish and having too much self-indulgence.”

Are you an off-the-cuff player, or do you map things out beforehand?

“90-plus percent of my playing is off the cuff. With this record, I did have a couple of solos mapped out, but for the most part I go for it. I don't overthink it – I have a theory that you'll lose all the soul if you think about it too much.”

Did any of the songs from The Mandrake Project prove to be especially challenging for you to work through?

“Believe it or not, not really. But I was going through some physical stuff with the finger on my right hand, making things difficult. I remember it took me a long time to get the solo on Sonata (Immortal Beloved) right because of that. But Bruce coached me through it, and we finally got it after many attempts. After all that, it felt good when we finally nailed it.”

Do you feel especially close to any songs from a guitar perspective?

“It’s hard to pick one, but I’d say Afterglow of Ragnarok was pretty cool. I’m thrilled with that riff because it’s memorable. Another is Resurrection Men, which has a beefy middle section that sounds pretty sinister. But this wasn’t a huge riff album; it’s more about the tunes.”

What gear did you rely on to shape your tone while recording?

“I’ve got an old EVH 5150 from back in the day that I always use with Bruce, and I’m using mostly Gibson guitars and a lot of my homemade pedals. It’s an array of random stuff – different pedals, amps and even guitars. I don’t go into anything fixated on a specific thing – it’s not like a factory assembly line, you know?”

What will your live rig look like when you head out on tour with Bruce?

“I’m going with a Neural DSP Quad Cortex for a lot of my sounds. And I’ll be using a Seymour Duncan PowerStage 700, which is basically a power amp that I like. I also have a Laney power speaker, which is pretty cool. 

“I just got this new pedal by TWA, which is an overdrive. It’s made by the same guy who invented the Tube Screamer in 1979, so I’m excited about that. I’m sure I'll have some wah, too, but that’s about it.”

I just got this new pedal made by the same guy who invented the Tube Screamer in 1979, so I’m excited about that

Where do things stand with your other projects?

“As far as my own music goes, I’ve got a lot recorded, but I’m searching for the right outlet to put it out. I’m not too happy with the current outlets available, so I’m putting together an outlet that’s more favorable to being an artist.

“Right now, I’m just concentrating on getting ready to tour with Bruce, learning the set and getting my gear together.”

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is an iced-coffee-addicted, oddball Telecaster-playing, alfredo pasta-loving journalist from Long Island, NY, who, in addition to being a contributing writer for Guitar World, scribes for Rock Candy, Bass Player, Total Guitar, and Classic Rock History. Andrew has interviewed favorites like Ace Frehley, Johnny Marr, Vito Bratta, Bruce Kulick, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Rich Robinson, and Paul Stanley, while his all-time favorite (rhythm player), Keith Richards, continues to elude him.