Zakk Wylde, Scott Ian and Gary Holt on the furious riffs, high-octane gear and lifer philosophies that shaped their careers – and why everyone cheats with downpicking

[L-R] Zakk Wylde, Scott Ian and Gary Holt
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When Guitar World connects with Zakk Wylde, Scott Ian and Gary Holt, the metal guitar titans are a week and a half into their North American tour: Anthrax and Black Label Society co-headlining as they did last summer, this time with Exodus roped in as special guests. 

Their show in Penticton, British Columbia a few nights earlier made headlines for an attendee referred to by the music press as ‘Angry Jesus’ – thanks to his long hair, beige robe and violent moshing – being escorted out of the venue by local police officers. It was, by all accounts, an unforgettable night which perhaps saw one bearded metal fan enjoying just a little bit too much of that holy water...

“Yeah, he got kicked out during Zakk’s set,” grins Holt – who, despite owning a blue ESP singlecut with the words ‘Officer Holt’ written around a police badge, wasn’t actually the one making arrests that night. “I don’t know what got him so angry,” he continues. “Maybe he turned a little too much water into wine [laughs]!”

“That’s what usually happens,” cackles Wylde, with a mischievous grin. “Maybe Exodus played a couple too many songs from the first record and it got him too fired up. Don’t mess with the Catholics!”

The three metal legends are on a joint Zoom call today to look back on their history as guitar players and share a thing or two about what they’ve learned along the way. When you sit down and think about their collective credentials, it’s quite staggering – as well as Black Label Society, Anthrax and Exodus, they’ve recorded with or toured as part of Ozzy Osbourne, Slayer, Pantera, Mr. Bungle, Stormtroopers Of Death and Pride & Glory. 

Then, of course, there have been the one-off collaborations with the likes of Public Enemy, Eric Gales, William Shatner, Destruction, Black Veil Brides, Leslie West, Dweezil Zappa, Metal Allegiance and many more. 

They’ve all played a part in making metal guitar what it is today, from the furious downpicking typified by Ian in the mid-'80s, the instantly recognizable ‘Zakk Attack’ explored on Wylde’s legendary instructional Pentatonic Hardcore and Holt’s love for diminished dissonance, as detailed in his own tutorial A Lesson In Guitar Violence. 

Here we look at the stories stretching back through nearly four decades of friendship and get them to cross-examine their own unique takes on all things six-string...

[L-R] Zakk Wylde, Scott Ian and Gary Holt

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Take us back to the very beginning – when exactly did you all first cross paths?

Wylde: “I first met Scotty and the Anthrax fellas when I was rolling with Ozzy in 1988, back on the No Rest For The Wicked tour. That’s when we first started hanging together. And it’s great that we’re all rolling together now, because just the other day we were talking about our friends who are gone. 

“Whether they were amazing musicians – guitarists, singers, drummers or bass players – they don’t even play any more. They just fell off, for whatever reason. Then we have our buddies who are lifers that are still playing. 

“I guess the joys of the journey are trying to get to the Madison Square Garden or Royal Albert Hall. But while you are working on getting there, it’s a case of still playing and making sure you love it. You have to obviously still pay all your bills and rent. But the secret is to never stop playing. 

“I was talking about this with JD [Black Label Society bassist John DeServio] the other night. Even if I wasn’t blessed with having Ozzy in my life, I’d still be playing music, whether it be teaching, working in a music store, playing in a covers band or a wedding band. As long as you’re still playing, that’s all that matters at the end of the day. I guess you could call me, Scotty and Gary lifers.”

You have to be persistent and plough through it in this business. There are no other options. Just keep playing

Zakk Wylde

So you met Zakk long before that beard took shape, but even early on, he still had that signature wide vibrato…

Ian: “I was clean shaven too back in 1988. I even had hair on my head [laughs]!”  

Wylde: “JD gets to hear that vibrato every night and gets violently ill! People are always like, ‘Your bass player is so stealth and ripped’ and I go, ‘Yeah, it’s because he can’t hold his food down after hearing me play!’ But seriously, it’s crazy how many of our buddies from back then aren’t playing anymore. 

“Me and Scott were talking about this the other night, how they stuck it out from doing arenas with me and Ozzy back in the day, through the mean years of Anthrax, and now Anthrax is back on top. 

“There was a fall-off period where a lot of bands would have quit or given up. We know so many great musicians who gave up when they reached that lull. You have to be persistent and plough through it in this business. There are no other options. Just keep playing.”

Ian: “We always compare ourselves to De Niro in Raging Bull when he goes, ‘You never got me down, Ray, you never got me down!’ That’s how we’ve always felt, just like Jake LaMotta in the movie. No matter how many punches we took, we were never going to stop playing.”

Scott Ian

(Image credit: Katja Ogrin/Redferns)

So what would you say are each other’s strong points as guitar players?

Holt: “Well, when it comes to my own playing, I know I do a good job with the five licks I know. Five might be generous; maybe it’s four [laughs]!”

Wylde: “That’s all you need. It might only be four or five licks, but if you do them well, there you go. I remember I did a similar thing with Buddy Guy, where he was asked what he liked about my guitar playing. 

“I said, ‘Actually guys, let me speak for the Pontiff over here and answer on behalf of Buddy Guy – what he enjoys most about my playing is the sound right before you put the record on and, most of all, when the album ends [laughs]! It’s the silent bits in between. 

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Yeah, like Buddy Guy is gonna know anything about my guitar playing!’ As if he would be able to answer a question about my strong points. He didn’t even know what my name was and we’d been on the same Hendrix Experience tour for about three years [laughs]!”

Holt: “It doesn’t matter, because it’s Buddy Guy! It would be an honor even if he said he didn’t know who you were…”

Wylde: “Exactly! When people ask me what I offer kids as a guitar player, it’s the fact they can look at me and think, ‘If this ass clown can make a living playing music and afford the energy bills, then there’s hope for all of us!’ There is hope, kids. Just keep practicing.”

In my eyes, that’s one of the reasons why we’re all still here doing it to the level we’re doing it: we’re all originals when it comes to playing and songwriting

Scott Ian

All jokes aside, though, the three of you are instantly recognizable as guitar players...

Ian: “I think the best compliment you can pay any musician is a bit like ‘name that tune’, when they have such an original sound, you name that guitar player in one note. I can do that with both of these guys.

“You instantly know whether it’s Zakk or Gary. They have their own sounds, feel and style. They’re complete originals. Of course, everything is derivative and comes from somewhere. We all came from similar influences but we took that and turned it into something of our own, expressing heavy music through our own filters. 

“In my eyes, that’s one of the reasons why we’re all still here doing it to the level we’re doing it: we’re all originals when it comes to playing and songwriting.”

Holt: “Well put! Sometimes all it takes is that one note. One of my all-time heroes is Angus Young, and I can identify his solos from just a pick slide. I’ll be like, ‘Aha! That’s from Let There Be Rock.’”

Ian: “And, by the way, I love Zakk’s vibrato. Who cares what JD thinks!”

Wylde: “Exactly. And, like I said earlier, he enjoys it because he’s losing weight and staying ripped!”

Zakk Wylde

(Image credit: Guillermo Legaria Schweizer/Getty Images)

And while you all have different tones and styles, to some extent, it can all be traced back to Tony Iommi...

Wylde: “When any of us tell younger musicians where we came from, it all stems back to Lord Iommi. He was the Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Lennon, McCartney and Burt Bacharach of riffs. I mean, he created a whole genre that spawned Exodus, Anthrax, Black Label Society and various movements of different-sounding bands. 

“But all three of us take our influences and everything we’ve loved and digested over the years, and then play from the heart. I remember before I started with Ozz, I was trying to get a record deal and everyone was playing Bon Jovi kinda stuff to get our big break. 

“And then a lot of us realized that we didn’t like this music or even own any of these records. Why aren’t we playing music that we actually enjoy and love?! It’s right there in front of you but you can’t see it. I can hear Scott at soundcheck or Gary at soundcheck and it’s easy to tell where they come from as guitar players. 

“They’re not trying to play pop music. And with Bon Jovi, they’re playing exactly what they want to play and that’s the reason it became successful. Why pretend to be something that you’re not? Whatever it is that comes naturally is what you should be doing. That’s the only way you’re going to excel at anything.”

Holt: “That’s 100 percent correct. We all took the music we loved – all heavy metal starts and ends with Tony – and then we just added all these different things we liked, stirring it around in a big pot. In my case, it became Exodus. I grew up as a hard rock kid; those bands are where my roots are. The metal and punk rock came later. 

Eventually you realize you owe it all to the giants whose shoulders you’re stood on. If I can influence some other kids, more power to it. I’m just paying it forward

Gary Holt

“Eventually you realize you owe it all to the giants whose shoulders you’re stood on. If I can influence some other kids, more power to it. I’m just paying it forward.”

To some degree, the success boils down to just how unique a spin you put on it...

Wylde: “Exactly, it’s all about that passing of knowledge, but with some degree of originality. Even with Saint Rhoads, there was his whole love for Mick Ronson – from how he was holding the Les Paul, the haircut, the whole nine yards. I never knew anything about that. 

“To me, Randy Rhoads was just Randy Rhoads. My friends would go, ‘Oh my god, this guy must really love Mick Ronson!’ and I’d be like, ‘I don’t know who Mick Ronson is!’ Then I learned more about it, finding out more about the history of things. 

“You eventually realize that Randy got a lot from Mick Ronson, who obviously got it from somebody else. Then Randy inspired the three of us, so we’re all indirectly inspired by Mick Ronson. That’s a beautiful thing that shows just how awesome the lineage of music is. You can see the roots almost like a tree...”

Holt: “Zakk often talks about Frank Marino. I was the youngest of six kids who grew up listening to Frank Marino but I never realized how much of an influence he had on Zakk until he mentioned. Now I listen to Zakk’s songs and I’m like, ‘Oh, I get it now!’ but I didn’t link the two together for a long time.”

Gary Holt

(Image credit: Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

When it comes to tone, there are many similarities and also a fair few differences. Zakk and Gary, you both love an EMG 81 in the bridge, while Scott prefers something like a Seymour Duncan JB. Zakk, you’ve used a Boss SD-1 on many a classic recording while Scott might prefer a boost and Gary might opt for a parametric EQ. But you’ve all mainly used EL34 tube amps for your live shows…

Ian: “I don’t even need a boost anymore; I just go straight into the EVH EL34.”

Holt: “I’m the opposite – I boost everything. And then I boost it again [laughs]!”

Wylde: “It all depends on what you want. Like Father Scott said, with certain things like EVH amps, Soldanos or Wizards, they have a lot of gain. The beautiful thing about JCM800s is that it’s such a simple circuit. There’s a good amount of overdrive, even more if you put a pedal in front. 

“If you want to clean it up, just turn the pedal off and roll the volume on your guitar down. It’s all good. There is no right or wrong way to do it. All it comes down to is whatever works best to get the tone you enjoy!”

Scott and Gary, you’re no strangers to JCM800s either…

Ian: “I love those old 800s. That’s what I used on the first six Anthrax albums with the TC Electronic Booster+ Distortion in front. When we recorded that Bungle record in 2020 [The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo], because it was just straight-up thrash, I pulled out my original 1982 JCM800 and old TC boost.

Every amp after the JCM800 is a derivative, to some extent. Those Marshall amps are like the wheel. The same goes for Les Pauls and Strats. Everything that came after is a variation or tweak on that

Zakk Wylde

“Dave Friedman made sure the amp was running properly. I plugged it in and it was the exact tone from those early Anthrax albums. I used a combination of that with the EVH, which brought a little more bottom-end. I was so happy with the sound of both being used together.”

Holt: “I saw the clip you posted from the studio. I was like, ‘Aha, there’s that classic-sounding crunch.’ Like I was showing you the other day, on this tour I started using this new pedal I found from this Canadian company called GUP Tech [Presence Depth EQ]. It basically has this resonance control, so I put that in the loop to add back some low-end. It’s perfection and makes my amp sound super-loud! 

“The same goes for those old Jubilees. I boost them up and they get nice and crunchy. I went through all these different amp companies over the years and then [super-producer] Andy Sneap pointed out all I’m trying to do is chase the sound of my 1987 800. He said I was just trying to find a Marshall tone in something that wasn’t a Marshall. So I’ve made it easier for myself… I just use Marshalls!”

Wylde: “Every amp after the 800 is a derivative, to some extent. Those Marshall amps are like the wheel. The same goes for Les Pauls and Strats. Everything that came after is a variation or tweak on that, like a pair of Levis and a Fruit Of The Loom t-shirt. The original is always simple and works for everyone!”

Have you plugged into each other’s rigs on this tour?

Ian: “Not yet!”

Holt: “I’m dying to plug into Zakk’s rig!”

Wylde: “You can go for it anytime you want. Usually I have my anal bleaching appointment, getting my nails done and picking my makeup for the show, so I look good in my kilt. You gotta do what you gotta do because looks count. It’s all in the presentation, bro!”

Holt: “You can’t have your ass all brown and gnarly!”

As for the guitars in your hands, Zakk, your classic recordings were done with a Les Paul Custom. Gary, you mainly played Jackson Superstrats before moving over to ESP singlecuts and Scott, you’ve loved your Jacksons from very early on...

Ian: “Funnily enough, I do have this black Les Paul Custom that I’ve been using on records for quite a while now. It sounds so good! I randomly got it when Anvil had that movie come out years ago. They did a premiere in London, and because my friend made that movie, they had me come to London and jam with those guys, playing Metal on Metal together after the screening. 

Everybody cheats. Even James Hetfield cheats now… I’ve seen it enough times! If he’s doing a savage downpick section and then he throws in slide, that's there for a reason. It allows you to lose a couple of notes

Gary Holt

“This was back around 2006 or 2007. I didn’t bring a guitar with me or anything. There was just this Custom lying there for me to play. So I jammed the song and nobody took the guitar back afterwards. It was just sitting there at the end of the night. I even called the people who made the movie saying, ‘I’ve got this guitar here!’ and they were like, ‘Well, someone will get in contact!’ 

“I ended up going back to LA and took the guitar back with me. Months later, I got this email from someone at Gibson asking if I had this Les Paul Custom and I told them, ‘Yeah, it’s been sitting here for months... I really enjoy playing it because it sounds awesome!’ So they let me keep it. I don’t even know what year it is, but that’s when I got it. I’ve actually got a whole bunch of Gibsons.”

Wylde: “Father Scott, look at the first number and the fifth number on the headstock. That will usually tell you when it’s from..."

Ian: “I’ve also got an '81 Flying V. That guitar’s been on every Anthrax album, doing rhythms on various songs. It’s one of the best-sounding guitars I’ve ever had. I’ve got a couple of Les Pauls. I’ve got every Angus Young SG signature they’ve put out. I’ve got Explorers. I mean, Gibson make great guitars – that’s why I own so many of them!”

Scott Ian

(Image credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

You’ve all mastered the art of downpicking. Zakk, even though you tend to live on the sludgier side of metal, the recent shows with Pantera have been more right hand-intensive when it comes to riffing. And Gary, even on your own tuitional, you admit you occasionally mix in some alternate in there, like on the song Verbal Razors

Holt:Everybody cheats. Even James Hetfield cheats now… I’ve seen it enough times! If he’s doing a savage downpick section and then he throws in a ‘brrrp’ [motions descending slide], then that ‘brrrp’ is there for a reason. It allows you to lose a couple of notes…”

Wylde: “It’s okay to take a nice little breather!”

Holt: “It’s become really hard for me after battling this chronic tennis elbow in both arms. Towards the end of Slayer, I was getting so many cortisone injections I couldn’t even count them. It turns your tendons into mush! 

If you’ve got a good up-pick, it’s not even cheating, because it sounds just as good as the down!

Scott Ian

“I have a friend who is a San Francisco Giants hand surgeon and he saw my MRI and said I might need Tommy John Surgery. I couldn’t play anymore. I’d play for 10 minutes and my arms would lock up. I’ve been through therapy and don’t have any injections any more, so I’m good now, but downpicking is harder than it used to be. Age catches up! 

“But I’m grateful I’m still playing every day and playing injection-free. I need my sound to be really good and then I can ride. If I have to cheat a little more on downpicking because of it, so be it.”

Ian: “If you’ve got a good up, it’s not even cheating, because it sounds just as good as the down!”

Holt: “Yeah, I’ll do the down, down, down, up – throwing in that little one. Usually that’s all I need! And you mentioned Verbal Razors. Damn, when I listen to that shit now, I think I must have been out of my mind! There’s so much downpicking, but then you’ve got to jump from the E string into all this riffage. That one is a challenge these days!”

Then there are right-hand punishers like One World, A.D.I./Horror of It All and Imitation of Life. What on earth were you thinking when recording Among the Living, Scott?!

Ian: “Well, I can tell you one thing was for sure – I wasn’t thinking about having to play those songs 30 years later [laughs]!”

Holt: “Exactly. On the new Exodus album [2021’s Persona Non Grata] I probably threw in more downpicking than I did on any of them. I blew out my right elbow doing the song The Beatings Will Continue (Until Morale Improves). After recording the album, I got elbow problems really bad. 

“That’s when I had my last two injections – one right before the album, which worked really well, and one after the album that got me a couple of weeks living pain-free and then everything went to shit. I don’t know what got into me, trying to do more of that than ever on this latest album… at the end of my 50s!”

Ian: “Not too long ago, I was tapping out BPMs to songs from Among the Living, just laughing to see how much we would naturally speed up throughout songs. There are a couple of moments where I’d be downpicking at 220 or 225. I didn’t really know! I see videos of myself doing it back then and always think it would take me months to get up to that speed nowadays. 

The pentatonic is the most lyrical scale. I mean, it actually is… when you listen to singing and everything like that, you’ll find most of it lives in the pentatonic scale

Zakk Wylde

“Any long section above 210… just forget it! I was doing that when I was 25. I wasn’t thinking about doing that with 59 year-old forearms. It’s a physical impossibility. Anything 210 and lower, I’m good. I can hang there. But anything faster than that has to be short bursts. My 11-year-old son has a faster right hand than me now. He can out-downpick me any day!”

Zakk, given that your instructional was titled Pentatonic Hardcore, it would be fair to say you’re the bluesiest out of the three of you. Those five notes are clearly home for you!

Wylde: “The pentatonic is the most lyrical scale. I mean, it actually is… when you listen to singing and everything like that, you’ll find most of it lives in the pentatonic scales. It’s interesting with picking – I’d say using only downs and alternate are two very different animals for sure. When it comes to more of the extreme side of metal, you need to do them both well.

“Like you said, when I’m rolling with the Pantera fellas, I’m playing Dime’s stuff. It’s definitely a completely different thing to playing Crazy Train, Bark At The Moon or any of the things I did with Ozz, like Miracle Man, or stuff like that. It’s just a different technique, without a doubt, and definitely a bit closer to what Scotty and Gary are doing.”

Scott, you were also with Zakk at the end of last year for one of the Pantera shows in South America. It was great to see you on lead Whammy for the song Becoming. Dimebag’s tech, Grady Champion, trusted you with the same task back in the '90s – clearly you were the right person for the job.

Ian: “When Dime started using the Whammy pedal back in the day, even before we were touring together in '97 or '98, I would go to shows in New York or LA and somehow get roped into being the guy in charge of his Whammy pedal for that song. 

“So it was from when Far Beyond Driven came out onwards – any show I was at, Grady would have me run the Whammy pedal. I got the timing down, I got the feel down and I got the pocket. Darrell didn’t want to have the pedal out front because he didn’t want to be stuck to it… he wanted to be able to move around and not stand there for those sections of the song. That’s why he always had Grady doing it out back. 

“They probably let me have the job to give Grady’s foot a break during the show! We were in Chile back in December. Zakk was there with Pantera and I was there with Mr. Bungle. I was standing right next to Grady and there was the Whammy pedal on the floor. We kinda had this funny look between us. Then I saw Grady had already stuck this piece of tape on the pedal that said, ‘Scott, don’t fuck this up!’”

Some people might say I’ve got the best foot in metal!

Scott Ian

Wylde: “Scott crushed it, so thanks very much, Father Scott! I was surrounded by my three guardian angels – Grady, Scott and Saint Dime. So yeah, I knew I was in good hands.”

Ian: “Some people might say I’ve got the best foot in metal!”

We noticed some bands got onsite early and even streamed the soundcheck – a bit unfair given how much work had gone into this reunion tour...

Wylde: “For me, everything’s always being filmed anyway, you know what I mean? Like, there’s people there, how could you expect it not to be filmed? It’s kinda silly. 

“Everybody on stage was up there saying, ‘Nobody release any footage or photos!’ and I was thinking, ‘But there’s a ton of people in front of us soundchecking – what are you talking about?!’ It was always going to end up everywhere. I think we were halfway through soundcheck and it was already out there. You know… I couldn’t care less, man. It is what it is.”

Zakk Wylde

(Image credit: Guillermo Legaria Schweizer/Getty Images)

While we’re on the subject of Pantera, do you have a reaction to the German and Austrian show cancellations that happened last week?

Wylde: “There’s nothing I can do about that, you know what I mean? In terms of my role, it’s always a case of being ready for whatever – as in seeing if the fellas want to add any more songs or anything like that while we’re out rolling together on this tour. If I get a call from Phil or Rex and they want to change up the set or do whatever, I’m usually just in the back lounge working on more songs!”

It’s been really interesting hearing your take on the leads – sticking to the feel and format of the original recordings, while also working in some of your own licks...

Wylde: “It’s inevitable I will end up sounding like me. If Dime was playing with Ozz and doing my stuff, it would sound like Dime playing the solo to No More Tears or Mama, I’m Coming Home. It would be Dime’s vibrato, Dime’s tone. It would sound like him playing my stuff. Even if he did it note-for-note, it would sound like him because that’s his sound, you know what I mean? 

“So yeah, we’re having a blast out there playing these songs. I’m just honored I get a chance to pay tribute to the brothers. It’s a pretty special thing that’s happening right now. I can’t say I have a favorite song or solo, though. Just like when I’m playing with Ozz, I enjoy the whole thing. I love all of it and any of it, from the first note we play to the last note we play. It’s all awesome.”

  • The Anthrax/Black Label Society US tour featuring Exodus continues through February 2023 – head to Anthrax.com for tickets and full dates.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).