Orginally printed in Guitar World, September 2006.
While he's busting his hump playing two sets a night at Ozzfest, he's
recording two new albums and composing music for ESPN. Zakk Wylde might
be Shot to Hell, but we're happy to report he still has time to shoot the shit.
St. Patrick's Day is supposed to be a festive occasion, but you wouldn't know it here in North Hollywood. Heavy storms have been saoking the Los Angelas basin for over a week now, and today the endless stretch of gas stations and fast-food joints along Lankershim Boulevard, never a particularly cheery street to begin with, seems gloomier than ever. But inside the nearby Ameraycan Studios, the party’s just getting started.
“Turn it up! Turn it up!” shouts Zakk Wylde, handing Guitar World a cold beer from a nearby cooler. Zakk is ostensibly here to lay down some tracks for Shot to Hell—“You know, as in the state of our livers!”—his eighth Black Label Society album, which is also his first for Roadrunner Records. But right now, all Zakk wants to do is watch Zorro-hatted New Age guitarist Esteban hawking his line of
“quality” acoustic guitars on the Home Shopping Network. “There’s our guy!” Zakk exults, as Black Label bassist John “JD” DeServio cranks up the TV volume. “He’s got a fuckin’ cock of doom, bro! JD and I were watching him the other day, and you could see it in his pants. We were goin’, ‘Look at the size of that thing!’ ”
“Look, the shirt’s over his lap. They made him cover it,” says a bummed-out JD. “They made him cover the cock!”
“Dude, I’m his biggest fan,” Zakk says with a laugh. “I love Esteschlong! Look at him! He’s always smiling, always happy.”
At this point, the HSN hostess begins to extol the virtues of Esteban’s guitars. “It’s all wood,” she says. This cracks Zakk up completely.
“It’s all wood?” he guffaws. “I thought it was made out of steel! Seriously, I wanted to buy one of those guitars, just to say we got one—and because it says ‘Esteban’ on the headstock! I’ll take in onstage and play ‘Spoke in the Wheel’ with that fuckin’ thing!”
But when the tally of Esteban guitar sales from the last hour is announced, Zakk’s mood momentarily sours. “Wait, he just sold 2,087 of these at two hundred dollars each?” he marvels. “Dude, Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin—they’re the three best guitarists in the world. They must be sittin’ at home goin’, ‘What the fuck is this?’ This guy just made four hundred grand, and Al and Paco are goin’, ‘Do we have enough for this In-N-Out burger? Who’s got some change on ’em?’ ”
Zakk takes a deep swig from his bottle, and silently ponders the cruel irony of the situation. “He’s got the weapon of doom, though, dude,” he finally announces. “Just send him to Iraq. He’ll defeat the terrorists.”
Though it would certainly make for some great television, you won’t be seeing Zakk on the Home Shopping Network anytime soon. Not that he has anything against it. It’s just that the hard-drinking, straight-shooting, iron-pumping, profanity-spewing guitarist already has a pretty hefty “to do” list, as it is. Not only has he been trying to finish Shot to Hell in time for a summer release, he’s also been helping Ozzy Osbourne, his longtime boss and mentor, write songs for the singer’s next album. On this summer’s Ozzfest, Zakk will once again be pulling double-duty, headlining the second stage with Black Label Society (whose lineup also includes drummer Craig Nunenmacher and guitarist Nick Catanese), and playing at least 10 shows with Ozzy, whose current band also includes former Faith No More drummer Mike Bordin and Rob Zombie bassist Blasko. In his copious free time, Zakk is also writing and recording incidental music for ESPN. “You know when they’ll have like a two minute segment, talking about the legacy of [major-league baseball TV and radio announcer] Harry Caray, or somebody? I’ll put, like, a mellow piano thing behind it,” Zakk explains. “They pay me in two cases of Beck’s beer, and a bottle of Captain Morgan for JD. But it’s fun, and I love doin’ it.”
The hardest-working man in showbiz? It’s a cliché, sure, but it’s one that pretty much sums up Zakk’s blue-collar approach to life and music. “This is what you choose to do, and it’s gotta get done, so that’s that,” he says. “Anything gets old after a while, except for maybe hanging out at McSorley’s pub in New York City. But what are you gonna do? If it’s what you do and you’re having a good time? It’s all what you make of it, man.”
Zakk’s unquenchable gusto for his work comes through loud and clear on Shot to Hell, a meat-and-potatoes rock album infused with his personal “berserker” brand of metallic shred. “Concrete Jungle,” “Blood Is Thicker than Water” and “Give Yourself to Me” are dense, snarling ragers that would go over well at any biker bar, but he also throws a few sonic curveballs on the record, as well. “New Religion” starts off with a melancholy Mellotron passage that flows into a wordless gang vocal chant, then kicks into a heavy minor-key dirge that’s highlighted by a guitar solo Zakk calls “Gary Moore meets Al Di Meola.” “It’s definitely far beyond gay,” Zakk notes of the song’s “men’s chorus” intro, “But that’s the reason we did it. I think our fans have come to accept the ‘gayidity’ at this point.”
There are also mellow moments, as well, like the soulful ballad “Lead Me to Your Door” and the Eagles-like “Sick of It All,” both of which are (of course) graced by sky-scraping guitar solos. “You’ve gotta have both, man—the heavy shit and the mellow shit,” he says. “As much as I love the heavy shit, I don’t want to hear it all the time. If I’m lifting, it’ll be Ministry or Meshuggah or Dimebag, you know what I mean? But if I’ve just gotten done crushing my skull with my Les Paul and Marshall, and we’ve got a 28-hour bus ride ahead of us, we’ll throw on Elton John, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye… whatever. Anything but the heavy shit! After I’ve just finished killing myself, the last thing I’m gonna do is throw on Meshuggah.”
Though he’s typically produced his own records in the past, Zakk shares production credits on Shot to Hell with Michael Beinhorn, who’s previously worked with Korn, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden and, of course, Osbourne. “The record company said, ‘We know you’ve produced all the records, but we want a big-name producer on this,’ ” Zakk explains. “I told them, ‘You’re fuckin’ high if you think I’m going to work with someone who’s gonna tell me what to do.’ But I’d worked with Mikey on Ozzmosis, and we had a blast making that record, so I told them, ‘Find out what Mikey’s doin’! Get him down here!’ ”
Given that Ozzy once went out of his way to virulently slag Beinhorn to this Guitar World correspondent, I remark that Zakk’s choice of producer seems a bit surprising. “Oh, that’s just because Mikey wanted to make sure that, when you double the vocals, you make it tight,” Zakk responds with a chuckle. “Ozzy was always like, ‘What the fuck? I’ve gotta do this again?’
“But if I’m gonna have anybody with me,” he continues, “it’s gonna be someone who I can ask, ‘You think I oughta take a left here, or go straight? Should we go over Laurel Canyon, or go down Highland?’ With Michael, I can go, ‘Was that good?’ and he’ll go, ‘I think you’ve got a better one in ya.’ That’s all. And I’ll be the first one to tell you if I think I can get it better—the ‘pings’ [artificial harmonics], the double-tracking, my vocals…whatever. We’re all here for the same goal: we want to win the World Series championship, you know? And it was so easy working with Mikey. We just bounced ideas off each other, like, ‘Let’s try this guitar tone or that one.’ ”
Though Zakk filled the small studio with a veritable arsenal of guitars and amps, his main weapons of choice for the sessions were, as always, his Les Pauls and Marshall JCM800s. The guitars that saw most of the action were “The Rebel”—his used-and-abused Les Paul Custom with the burned Confederate flag finish and a couple-dozen bottle caps nailed to the top—and his Les Paul signature models, each one of which is named after a particular New York Yankees great. “Whatever the serial number is, that’s how I name ’em,” he explains. “If it’s 15, then it’s ‘Thurman Munson’. On this record, it was mostly ‘Lou’ [Gehrig] and ‘Joe D’ [DiMaggio]—numbers 4 and 5.”
Although all of Zakk’s Pauls are outfitted with EMG 81s (bridge) and 85s (neck), he insists that no two of them sound exactly the same. “It’s amazing,” he says. “You stick the same goddamn pickups in there, same kind of wood on each guitar, and they all have their own characteristics. It’s crazy, but it’s a beautiful thing.
Like my ‘Mirror’ guitar”—Zakk’s Mylar-wrapped Les Paul—“I can use it live, because nobody’s gonna know the difference. But in the studio, I know it’s not gonna sound as good, because it’s made with mahogany, and maple’s way harder and brighter.
“I urge any kid who’s going in to the studio for the first time to take all your guitars, run ’em through the same amp, and listen back to them on those little fuckin’ studio monitors. They don’t lie, and you will know in a minute which guitar you’re gonna use for the rhythm, lead…whatever. When you’re in the room with your guitar cranked up, it’s like looking at a chick with a ton of makeup on. But when you’re listening to it through those little speakers, it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s see what she really looks like!’ ”
The ripping tones on Shot to Hell aren’t entirely EMG flavored, though. “If I wanted something that’s a real departure, then I’d use a ’57 Junior or shit like that,” says Zakk. “You go to P90s, and it’s a completely different pickup than an EMG. And I’ve got a Les Paul Classic with a Fernandes Sustainer pickup. I used that on ‘Blood Is Thicker than Water,’ and that thing is fuckin’ awesome. It’s like an EBow, but a million times better!”
Two months after our St. Patrick’s Day conversation, Guitar World meets up for a beer or three with Zakk at the Saddle Ranch Roadhouse, a Sunset Boulevard faux-cowboy joint, complete with mechanical bull. He’s about to begin rehearsals for Ozzfest, but Shot to Hell still isn’t quite finished. Just the other day, in fact, he found himself in the unusual position of having to lengthen a guitar solo in an attempt to garner radio airplay.
“The record company is talking about making ‘Blood Is Thicker than Water’ the single,” he says, “But they told me that, at 3:28, it was actually too short for rock radio formats—it needed to be around 3:40. We just went back into the studio, and made the guitar solo two bars longer. The solo is the thing that usually gets its ass kicked in an edit, but this time it was, ‘Ooh! I get to make it longer!’ I never thought I’d ever hear that in my life!” he howls. “That’s like if [porn star] Rocco Siffredi’s pounding a chick in the ass, and she’s saying, ‘Y’know, I could use a little more!’ ”
This afternoon, the Roadhouse’s video screens are serving up an odd combination of contemporary “big hat” country and Eighties hair metal, and a clip of Winger’s ‘Seventeen’ catches Zakk’s eye. “It’s so crazy, man,” he reflects. “When you’re a ‘chick band’ like that, you’ve made your deal with the devil. If you think you’re gonna have a long career in music, forget about it. But if you’re a dude band… Look at Sabbath, Zeppelin, Metallica, whatever. They still have careers, because guys ain’t fickle. Guys will stick with their band.”
Sure enough, even though there are several serious SoCal babes hanging around the place, the fans that find their way to Zakk’s table today are strictly male. They all want to buy him a drink, talk about some show they saw him play, or tell him about their new T-shirt line. Zakk is unfailingly friendly and down to earth with all of them, even the pushy drunk one who wants to write lyrics for him. “Let me give you a song, bro!” the guy insists. “I’ve got some good shit! I’ve got this song about the war, dude! It’s amazing! I’ll give you the hook—‘You’re feeding another war/With your pedals to the floor!’ You know what I mean? It’s really fucking good, man!”
“I can dig it, brother,” Zakk nods, shaking the guy’s hand and taking his phone number. “You know, everybody wonders why I never go off the bus,” he chuckles, as the would-be songwriter staggers out of earshot. “That’s why I never come down here, because everybody’s always networking. You can’t blame him for fucking trying, man, but come on!”
Even if Zakk was in the market for some creative assistance, it’s more likely that he’d turn to one of his many longtime pals in the music biz. After all, Zakk is nothing if not loyal. He’s still married to his childhood sweetheart, Barbaranne, and he’s been friends and jam mates with JD DeServio since they were both in their early teens. Next May, it will be 20 years since Ozzy took the teenage gas station attendant from New Jersey into the limelight, and Zakk is still generally more than willing to drop everything whenever his old boss needs a hand.
“I’m about to go up to Vancouver to mix Shot to Hell,” he says, “But Oz wants to start doing some jamming pretty soon for his new record. We’ve already got, like, 20 songs. It’s gonna be a piece of cake, though obviously that record’s not going to be done until after the summer. There’s just no way.” When asked what he means by “a piece of cake,” Zakk explains, “Me, Blasko and Mike go into the studio and bang all this shit out. Except for the solos. Usually I overdub the solos after Ozzy puts down his vocals, because you’ve gotta hear the vocal lines. You know where the solo section is, but if you want to put some guitar fills in here and there, it’s gotta be around the vocal. The vocal line is the most important thing.”
Despite all his fame, awards and endorsements, Zakk knows his work with Ozzy will always overshadow his Black Label music, but he seems completely cool with it. “Really, the stuff Randy [Rhoads] did with Ozzy is the House That Ruth Built,” he says, and laughs. “I’m just Mickey Mantle—the other drunk dude!”
As for Shot to Hell, he says, “it’s just something ass kicking to listen to once you’re done wearing out the other records. And now you can have eight friends over to your house for drinks, instead of seven. There’ll be Black Label coasters for everybody!”