5 soloing lessons you can learn from Zakk Wylde

Zakk Wylde
(Image credit: Steve Jennings/WireImage)

Zakk Wylde was born in New Jersey in 1967 and since his appearance on Ozzy Osbourne’s No Rest For the Wicked in 1988, has remained one of the most respected and renowned players in the hard rock and metal genres. Zakk’s combination of bluesy feel, shredding alternate picking and trademark pinched harmonic vibrato is as legendary as it is recognisable.

Zakk’s tenure with Ozzy has continued throughout the years with No More Tears and Ozzmosis being highly recommended rock guitar masterpieces. As well as this, Zakk released the acclaimed Pride and Glory in 1994, which paved the way for his Book of Shadows solo works and Black Label Society, with whom Zakk has released multiple albums. His bluesy Southern metal style makes him the perfect choice to honour Dimebag Darrell’s legacy for the ongoing Pantera tribute shows.

Zakk uses a lot of alternate-picked pentatonic and blues scale patterns and Example 1 demonstrates a typical six-note descending sequence with each note picked with confidence and attack. The key to mastering this two-notes-per-string picking technique is in the angle at which you tilt the guitar pick

The common perception is that we hold the pick in a horizontal plane and move it in a ‘down-up’ motion. Although this theoretically works when playing on one string, changing strings is a messy and inexact affair. Instead, position your hand so the tip of the pick is higher up in space than the round edge of the pick.

This makes picking more of an ‘in and out’ motion, with some ‘down and up’ movement too. So with each fragment, the pick moves into and away from the strings. Starting ‘away’ from the strings allows for a clean first ‘downstroke’ on any string. So, whether so are traversing multiple strings, like Ex1, or moving back and forth between a pair of strings like Ex3 and Ex4, this technique will serve you well.

Once you are comfortable with alternate picking, we can add pinched harmonics, or harmonic squeals or screams. To achieve Zakk level harmonics you’ll need gain and chorus to widen the sound. The pinched harmonic is so called because we ‘pinch’ the string with the side of the thumb as we pick it.

The physics are the same as producing a regular two-handed natural harmonic, except the node point touch, pick and release motion is all performed with the same motion. The harmonic’s pitch and clarity depends on the point on the string at which you are positioned. Move up and down the string to discover the different harmonics available.

Once you hit the harmonic, use your fretting hand to add a wide vibrato. There is really no vibrato too wide in the Wylde world. Use your forearm and wrist to repeatedly bend the string up and down at least a tone, but a minor 3rd bend will probably sound more Zakk-like.

Our final example is an approach Zakk takes when phrasing three-note arpeggios across strings as with his famous Miracle Man solo. Rather than alternate picking, Zakk uses a downward sweep picking motion across two strings, followed by an upstroke to complete the three-note repetition. This is a cool technique to use in any style of playing.

Play each example very slowly at first and focus on accuracy rather than speed as you learn these techniques. 

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 9, Bass 7, Middle 5, Treble 7, Reverb 2

To get you in the ballpark, you’ll preferably need a humbucking electric guitar, although single-coils will work if you tame the treble. Amp-wise, it’s high-gain stuff, either from the amp itself (set the gain to 8 or 9), or with a distortion pedal (distortion plus overdrive works great). Zakk often uses a chorus pedal to make his pinch harmonics jump out, so try that too, plus light delay.

Example 1

This lick is based in the D blues scale (D-F-G-Ab-A-C) and is phrased with a descending sixes pattern. Start with a downstroke and use alternate picking throughout, being sure to move your pick in and out of the plane of the strings to enable clean string changes.

Example 2

Play the pinched harmonics (PH in the tab) by touching the string with the side of your thumb and releasing as you pick with a downstroke. You can produce different pitches of harmonic by picking different points along the string. Remember, more gain and using the bridge pickup means stronger harmonics.

Example 3

This two-string lick is perfect for honing your fast alternate picking. As with Example1 angle your hand so the upstroke brings the pick away from the strings; this should make string changes and downstrokes a lot cleaner.

Example 4

Now transfer the two-string picking technique to the first and second strings and this time  the lick moves up the fretboard through the E minor pentatonic scale (E-G-A-B-D). Use the side of your palm to keep the open bass strings muted for a cleaner lick.

Example 5

This lick is based in ascending arpeggios found within D minor pentatonic scale (D-F-G-A-C). The picking style is more like sweep picking with a repeating pattern of two downstrokes and an upstroke. The lick starts with slower triplets, then speeds up to 16th notes.

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Charlie Griffiths

Charlie Griffiths plays guitar in acclaimed prog-metal outfit Haken, and has a wealth of experience handling corporate and session gigs for genres as diverse as rock, heavy metal and pop. He has been a regular contributor to Total Guitar, Guitar Techniques, and Guitar World for over a decade, and released his debut solo album Tiktaalika in 2022.