Ax Men: Zakk Wylde and Joe Satriani Riff on Their Craziest Concert Moments, Jimmy Page and the State of Rock Guitar

It’s difficult to imagine two human beings more different than Joe Satriani and Zakk Wylde, even just in terms of physical appearance.

Satriani is slight and slender, with a clean-shaven face and head. Wylde is big and hairy, with full beard and black-leather biker garb encasing his paunchy frame.

As the two men stand side by side before a white backdrop inside a San Francisco area photo studio, the contrast is even more dramatic. To a stranger viewing the scene, the guitars they’re holding would be the only clue to why the hell they’re posing together.

Not surprisingly, the inner man matches the outer in both cases. Satriani has always been an introspective guitar hero. He broods long and hard on the creative processes behind the records and concerts that have placed him at the vanguard of virtuoso rock guitar playing for the past three decades.

On the other hand, it’s hard to conceive of Zakk Wylde ever experiencing anything like moments of introspection, let alone being familiar with the term. His abundant store of energy is direct outward, mostly in the frenzied flurry of rapid-fire guitar notes that have made him a metal guitar icon. His conversation is, oddly, like his guitar playing: it comes in nonstop verbal torrents heavily peppered with off-color jokes and personal references that only a Wylde fan could understand.

Riffing on his Catholicism, he rattles off the names of his guitar heroes as if they belonged to some ecclesiastical hierarchy—Saint Rhoads, Pope Page, Father Vai… And like all true rock and roller outsiders—especially one from New Jersey—Wylde is an advanced master of the fine art of inserting the f-word into every sentence whether it fits or not.

And while Satriani and Wylde seem so different as people, they are nonetheless brothers-in-shred and good friends of many years. So when Guitar World suggested that they meet up to share stories and insights from their many years of fretboard glory, they were happy to oblige. Wylde paused en route to a business meeting with iTunes to make the date, and Satriani valiantly rose from a sickbed, where he’d been battling an exceptionally nasty cold recently.

At the end of day, all agreed that it was well worth the effort to get together and compare notes on life at the pinnacle of rock guitar mastery.

Can you remember the first time you heard one another’s playing?

ZAKK WYLDE I’d just gotten my gig with Ozzy when I first heard Surfing with the Alien. And I thought, Wow…great melodies, great chops. Just awesome songs. Whenever I hear Joe playing, it kind of sounds like Billy Gibbons if Billy Gibbons had Al Di Meola’s fucking technique. ’Cause it grooves like Billy, but it’s got this insane technique. But aside from how ripping it is technically, there’s that blues in there all the time. And that’s what it’s like with a real player, like Joe. You know where they’re coming from, but they put their own unique spin on it and make it their own thing.

JOE SATRIANI I first heard Zakk probably around the same time, when he started playing with Ozzy. What a shock! The years between 1978 and 1987 were a decade of solid teaching and club work for me. So I was getting exposed to the next generation of guitar players who were starting at a higher level than I did. Higher expectations. Zakk was one of the first players I heard where I was like, “Wow, this bumps it up to a new level.” That was exciting, because the musicianship and the showmanship were both there. You have to have that, because it’s rock and roll.

And what a tough gig Zakk had! He had to follow the legend of Randy Rhoads and Ozzy’s history with Black Sabbath. Zakk’s a multi-instrumentalist as well, and his technique on electric guitar translates beautifully to acoustic. That’s a very important indicator of the power he has, which I noticed right away.

Joe mentioned teaching guitar, which you did as well, Zakk, right?

WYLDE Yeah, before I started playing with Ozzy. Teaching’s great, man. But I also had normal jobs like working in a gas station and in a [supermarket] produce department. I didn’t plan on doing that for the rest of my life, but I had no problems with it because I was doing it to save up for a Marshall amp or a Les Paul or some other piece of gear. But when I taught, it was definitely cool when there were students who would practice and had a passion for the instrument. Not all of them did. But when you had a student who’d come to a lesson and could play all the scales you taught them last time, it was really rewarding.

How did teaching feed into your own playing?

WYLDE It pushes you—especially with the advanced students. They learn all the shit and you gotta have something new to show them the next week. They know all the diatonics and all the pentatonics, so now we start breaking out the diminished scales.

SATRIANI And your job is to crystallize musical concepts—put them into a couple of sentences. ’Cause maybe the kid’s showing up for 30 minutes or something.

WYLDE But then, Jimmy Page always used to say, “The reason I love the guitar is because they didn’t teach it in school.” And I get that. But I always say, if you get a car with a stick shift, eventually you’re going to learn to drive it by yourself. But before you blow through about three transmissions, usually it would be pretty cool if somebody just showed you how to do it. Eventually, sure, you can learn how to play “Stairway to Heaven” by yourself. But you’ll learn it a lot quicker if somebody shows you where to put your fingers.

Apart from obvious names like Hendrix and Page, do you have any guitar heroes in common?

SATRIANI Pete Townshend is one of my heroes, because he’s another guy who brings it all. He can play great, write great songs, and he puts on an amazing show. Quite crazy. I was just reading Pete’s autobiography [2012’s Who I Am: A Memoir] and I learned something I never knew before, and that was that he used a G string that was the same gauge as his B string. So when he did his double-stop bends, both strings would move at the same degree. That hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s an old blues player’s trick, but no one had suggested it to me before.

Was Pete big for you too, Zakk, or too early?

WYLDE No, but I’m on a steady diet of that classic stuff. It started in the sixth grade, when I was into Elton John. But then my friend at school—we were in arts and crafts doing sculpture—made a skull with a lighting bolt going through it, and it said, “Black Sabbath 666.” I go, “What is that?” And he says, “Oh that’s a band my brother listens to. It’s a rock band.”

So the next thing I know, we’re at the mall and my mother says, “Well, you can get a record, but only one.” So I got [the Black Sabbath compilation] We Sold Our Soul for Rock ’n’ Roll. Because it was a double album, so it was like one record, but really it was two. I remember putting the record on and being terrified—and loving it! And Sabbath became a favorite band.

Actually I found Sabbath before I found Led Zeppelin. My friend Scott Smith was my age, and his brother was 44. And he was the one who turned us on to Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Bad Company, Skynyrd… The thing is, if you like Eddie Van Halen, then you should also look into the people who influenced him, like Eric Clapton. And if you like Clapton, you should look into whoever influenced him.

Robert Johnson.

SATRIANI Yeah, and Jimmy Reed and all those blues guys.

WYLDE Exactly. You keep going further and further back. I’d hear Jimmy Page talking about all these blues guys he liked and I would go check them out. And when I joined Ozzy, I remember asking him about Tony Iommi and where he got all his stuff. And Tal Farlow was one of his main guys. I would never have heard about him otherwise.

SATRIANI Mentioning Tony Iommi and Tal Farlow, you remind me that I was really into Black Sabbath when I was a kid. And I took some be-bop lessons from Lenny Tristano. And for the lesson, he’d have me bring in a record and scat-sing the melody and solo, note for note. No playing, just singing. ’Cause his whole thing was getting the music inside of you. So I’d bring in all kind of records—Bird [i.e. Charlie Parker] and Coltrane, McLaughlin and Johnny Winter. And I remember also bringing in “Planet Caravan” by Black Sabbath. We played the whole album in my high school band, but that song was my favorite, ’cause it was just so weird. And where was that coming from? Jazz players like Tal Farlow.

WYLDE And Barney Kessel.

I believe you’re both big John McLaughlin fans as well.

WYLDE Yeah, without a doubt. When I was 15 years old and started playing, my friend’s band would come over and play covers from Inner Mounting Flame, along with Dixie Dregs songs. Instead of just playing like a Doors song, they were playing stuff note for note off Inner Mounting Flame. It was amazing, the way they were using pentatonic scales, which is something usually associated with crappy rock playing.

SATRIANI Oh, they’re all really cool, when it comes down to it. There’s no scale that’s more potent or powerful than another. It’s all in how it’s used. You have a couple of thousand years of amazing African music, all playing off three different pentatonic scales.

I think Inner Mounting Flame is cool, but for some reason I like Birds of Fire the best. Maybe because it sounded more like a rock record to me or something. Just the way they arranged the whole album.

WYLDE All the guys in that band were out of control, too.

SATRIANI Possibly the best show I ever saw in my life was a concert by the Mahavishnu Orchestra—the original band—at Hofstra University. It was one of those shows I could not believe. Just the musicianship. And I’d seen lots of rock shows. I’d seen the Allman Brothers on the last night of the Fillmore East. I’d seen a lot, but that Mahavishnu concert was something else. I realized, Yes, musicianship can really achieve something incredible.

I saw them in that era too, at the Nassau Coliseum.

SATRIANI Yeah, wow. I also saw them when they recorded their live album, in Central Park.

Something all three of us have in common is that we’re all East Coast guys—from Long Island and New Jersey. Have you ever thought about how coming up in the tri-state area shaped your development as a musician?

SATRIANI Well, you get exposed to everything. That’s the thing. Because the metropolitan area would bring in international music, southern rock and country music when I was growing up.

WYLDE New York City had it all.

SATRIANI You could go to the Nassau Coliseum, which I did. I saw Sabbath there, which is a whole story in itself. It was Lynyrd Skynyrd opening for Sabbath, and Sabbath didn’t come on for two hours. It was wintertime—festival seating on the floor. And for some reason we all started two bonfires. People just started burning coats, shoes, whatever. Then they turned the lights on. The fire marshalls came out and they hosed us down. And there were people throwing bottles…

What year was this? Early Seventies?

SATRIANI ’72? Somewhere around there. Then Ozzy came out, and his voice sounded all ragged. He apologized and said he was sick. And the audience just booed. The whole place reeked of fires that had been put out. And we were all covered in fire retardant and water. It was an incredibly exciting concert, I gotta say.

We walked home from there, which was, like, three miles or something, and we just thought it was the best thing ever. ’Cause not only did we get to see Black Sabbath, but it was an experience. I couldn’t hear everyone very well, but I remember that Geezer’s bass was the best thing I’d ever heard in my life. I just remember thinking, If this guitar thing doesn’t work out, I’m gonna be like that guy.

Both of you must have had some memorably cataclysmic gigs of your own.

WYLDE Oh yeah. I remember one time, with Ozzy. We were playing at Irvine Meadows. Ozzy screams at the audience, “All right, who wants to go crazy? Get up here and rock out with the Ozz! Come on…‘Crazy Train!’ ” We break into “Crazy Train” and the audience just rushed forward and started pouring onto the stage. Next thing you know there’s, like, 400 people onstage. We didn’t even get to the guitar solo in “Crazy Train.” Projection screens were breaking off, coming down. A couple of people broke their legs, got pretty banged up. Some of them were grabbing Ozzy. You’re not going to stop that many people rushing up on the stage. Randy [Castillo] stopped playing because they were taking the drums apart. They were stealing the microphones, the cymbals… I remember I got into a fucking brawl with a couple of guys who tried to grab my guitar.

They were taking the buckets of water that Ozzy had onstage and started throwing them around. Some of the water landed on the fucking monitor console. Five-foot flames are shooting out of the fucking monitor console! Complete fucking chaos. At the end of the show I remember them walking out with Ozzy’s TelePrompTer, which was this fucking giant TV screen. Walking right out with a 48-inch screen, monitors, drum sets… Everything was fucking missing. And it was a benefit show for Randy Rhoads—to have his mausoleum built and the whole nine yards. It was just chaos. The damage was ridiculous. Who knows what the lawsuits were.

Didn’t you have security?

WYLDE Not when you get 16,000 people rushing the stage. Sheer numbers, man. You could have the Dallas Cowboys offensive lineup there and they couldn’t have stopped this.

SATRIANI For me it’s gotta be a G3 gig in Kuala Lumpur a number of years ago. Eric Johnson and Steve Vai had done their sets. We were playing in a stadium. It was raining. And by the time they got us onstage, it was four in the morning. We started to play, and I think we played maybe 12 minutes. I remember I was in the middle of “Satch Boogie,” and Galen Henson, who at the time was our tour manager, was making funny hand signals at the side of the stage, like [“cut throat” sign], then the “gun to the head” gesture. I’m used to hand signals like “speed up,” “slow down” or “shorten this,” but this was something different.

Finally, he just comes walking out onstage, right in the middle of the show, and he says, “The army is here, and if we don’t get out of here they’re gonna kill us or put us in jail or something.” And as he’s talking to me, the army showed up on the stage—guys with their machine guns pointing at us. I stopped the band and said, “Everyone, just get into the cars and leave. Forget about the gear.”

I told my tech, Mike Manning, “Leave everything. Just go. Let’s all get out of here.” We were driven back to the hotel by the press agent’s boyfriend, who was a professional race car driver. I don’t know how fast we were going. I was in the back seat. I just kept thinking, It’s okay. I’m not dead. I’m not in jail. It’s gonna be all right.

What was going on? Political unrest?

SATRIANI I just think the army, or the local whoever they were, weren’t paid sufficiently enough to allow us to play so late. This was, like, a two-week festival. Jethro Tull played, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson had played. There were, like, 30 bands that day. By the time we got on it was too late, the situation was getting heavy, and I wasn’t sticking around. So we finally got out. It was about 6:30 in the morning. We’re in the hotel restaurant having beer and noodles. We were at the airport by eight, and we were on a plane and out of there.

WYLDE It was kinda like that Black Sabbath concert! Except for the walk home.

SATRIANI It was so frustrating because I wanted to play! I felt bad for all the people who had come out to hear us.

What recent piece of guitar gear are you finding indispensable these days?

WYLDE I’ve got my new Gibson Moderne going on now: the Moderne of Doom. I used that on my new record and I’m really digging it. And I’m working with the Dunlop guys on a new phase-shifter unit. But I’m not a crazy gearhound. I’ve been using a Marshall JCM800 since my first Ozzy record, and I still use it. I have friends who are constantly changing their gear all the time. And I go, “What did you use on that album? And why aren’t you using it anymore? Because that sounded really good.” So I’ve been using the same amps forever.

Well, yeah, but you do have your own signature model Marshall.

WYLDE Yeah, I actually use the stuff I fuckin’ endorse. So I’ve never understood when friends of mine complain about their endorsement deals. I say, “Why don’t you just ask them to make you what you want?”

And I know Joe really uses his own signature Marshalls. Joe, I remember you telling me how you used some of the custom features on your last album.

SATRIANI Yeah, it was nice. The Marshall thing kind of developed the way it should. It took a long time, which was great, because we could really dial things in. Because if you use a piece of gear on a record and you’re heading in a certain stylistic direction on that record, you think, Wow, this amp is perfect! But then you go out on the road and you’re doing material from your entire catalog, and you go, “Whoa, maybe this amp isn’t going to be able to handle it.”

We wound up doing two or three records and a few live DVDs, so by the time the amp went into production, it had been through so many interesting changes and prototypes. I could report from the road and the studio: “This is what happened.” I just think it’s cool when an artist can spend enough time developing a piece of gear before they put their name on it. It’s like an open set of doors instead of a closed set.

WYLDE And Joe’s signature model guitars: those are Ibanez’s Ferraris—top of the line! It’s the same with me and my guitars. You gotta love what you’re playing.

Which is good advice for any aspiring Zakk Wyldes or Joe Satrianis out there who might one day land an endorsement deal.

SATRIANI Absolutely. Make sure you get it in hand before you say, “Okay, put it on the market and let Guitar World run the ad.” The creative musical artist works in a different way than the creative people who design and build musical instruments.

Zakk and I might have a conversation while we’re having our picture taken that sends one of us off in some new musical direction. And because we’re performing artists, we want to share our ideas with the public right away. But that’s not how the industry of manufacturing instruments and amplifiers works. It can take two years to develop a product, and by then we may be off on three different artistic tangents.

And that’s where the problem lies. Sometimes the industry wants to say, “Yeah, but could you just sign off on this today?” I always say resist as long as you can until that thing is what you really like.

Where do each of you go for inspiration when you’re having a dry period, when it’s just not happening?

SATRIANI I like playing vintage instruments. That usually helps me out. Sometimes you pick up an old piece of gear that you wouldn’t normally play and then you have a limited range. Guys like Zakk and me play a very modern style of guitar. We need instruments that can withstand a lot of pressure.

We’re cooking like crazy onstage. But you go back in time and older instruments were sometimes designed for a simpler basket of techniques. So it’s interesting to sit there and struggle with something that was designed for a simpler playing style and see how it changes your perspective on your own approach to your own instrument.

Kind of like going into a different tuning.

SATRIANI I love that too. I do that all the time. None of it may ever work its way onto one of my records, but it’s just a new area for creativity. Create some inspiration. It feels like you’ve been somewhere else and you’ve collected some new information.

WYLDE Without a doubt, different tunings and different instruments can help. But inspiration is all around. You could be driving to the store and hear something like “Whole Lotta Love”—just how simple the structure is—and you think, It would be cool to do something with a simple riff like that. But then a creative guy like Joe will take that inspiration and he warps, twists, bends and changes it till it sounds nothing like “Whole Lotta Love.” So inspiration can come from that too—your favorite artists.

SATRIANI Speaking of “Whole Lotta Love,” I often think I have to find myself a [Vox] Super Beatle [amp], ’cause that’s what Jimmy Page used back then. I never would have guessed in a million years that the guy had a Super Beatle that he played on hundreds of other people’s songs as well as the first couple of Led Zeppelin records. A Super Beatle!

One of the English ones, though.

SATRIANI Yeah, I just think that’s so cool. That’s something I’d like to do sometime, plug a Les Paul into a Super Beatle and spend an afternoon making believe I’m Jimmy Page. Sitting there and being a wannabe for a few hours is kind of fun. Then you put it away, go back to your own rig, and you’ve gained a new perspective. You also acquire an amazing respect for, in this case, Jimmy Page and what he achieved with the gear that he had.

WYLDE It’s nice to have hundreds of crayons in the crayon box. But if you have just a few, you have to be creative. If you don’t have a pink crayon, then you have to take a red and a white, mix them together and you go, “Oh wow, red and white make pink!” Would Sgt. Pepper’s be as good if the Beatles had hundreds of tracks instead of just four? I don’t know.

How do the both of you relate to the current wave of extremely technical prog-metal guitar players-—the Tosin Abasi types?

SATRIANI Some of them are great. I flirted with seven-string. But basically I just don’t like the sound of it as an instrument as compared with a six-string. And then there’s guys playing eight-string. They really impress me—how they’ve built a world around this new instrument. It’s crazy. Charlie Hunter plays a 10-string, and that is the freakiest thing ever. He plays chords, bass lines and melody all at the same time.

WYLDE It’s crazy how Uli Jon Roth had a 35-fret guitar, the Sky Guitar. He was a big Strat guy, but he’s got this Sky Guitar now, and it’s just crazy. Even when he was playing a Strat it was out of control. You gotta remember, he was doing that wild stuff in 1974.

SATRIANI The Earthquake and Fire Wind records…amazing.

WYLDE He was killing it, even back then. The first explosion of guitars was Clapton, Hendrix and Page [in the mid Sixties]. But what people forget is that Allan Holdsworth was killing it in 1972. How he plays nowadays he was doing back in ’72.

SATRIANI A Small Stone phase shifter into a 100-watt Marshall.

WYLDE And you had John McLaughlin doing all that stuff back in 1970. It was just a massive explosion of insane guitar players that came out back then. And everyone’s technique was beyond insane.

So is it like that now with these new seven- and eight-string guys—a new plateau that’s going to change the rock guitar vocabulary? Or is it more just a small niche-market thing?

SATRIANI It’s hard to say. I think about a player like Don Felder; his playing is really amazing. The structure of his solos is mind blowing. So I don’t know if that’s going what’s going to happen, if we’re going to get another Don Felder out of the new generation—an accomplished player who also impacts the mainstream. Because what these young guys want to achieve with their music is different than what, let’s say, Felder was looking for with the Eagles.

And I like that fact. This new stuff doesn’t sound anything like what’s come before.

SATRIANI No, it’s brand new. And I never feel like it’s lacking anything when I put it on. If I listen to Animals As Leaders, I’m just taking it for what it is.

Well, I don’t find myself humming along.

SATRIANI Yeah, but there’s lots of music where you’re not supposed to be humming along.

WYLDE You don’t hear a lot of blues or vibrato in the younger players. They can play fast, but if you ask them to play “Red House,” the feel isn’t there. The licks aren’t there.

SATRIANI When I think about my early influences, like Tony Iommi and Jimmy Page, they just sound perfect to me. They had great phrasing. They never put technique in front of the music. I love that. And Don Felder is the same way. What he plays is pure music. There’s no extra stuff. So I’m looking over my own stuff a lot thinking, Make sure you clean out all that trendy shit. I think that’s what you want to do with your influences: you want to distill what is pure music. That way, you learn to admire the quality of those players and the foundations they built for you.

Once you get to where you’ve mastered reproducing the notes and the parts, you can get to another level with it and appreciate the pure musicality of it.

SATRIANI Exactly. And that’s what Zakk is talking about—beyond the finger movements. Way beyond that.

We have to constantly keep reminding the young beginners of that.

SATRIANI Yeah, but that kind of music—like that band Necrophagist—it’s just brutal-sounding music, but not in any way designed for blues expression. Which is fine. There are no rules. When I listen to stuff like that, the first thing I think is, Wow, that’s a crazy feeling this is giving me. But then the musician part of me kicks in and I think, I can’t play that! Maybe I’d work on it for an hour and give up. It’s just not me. But then I think, How are they remembering all that? It like listening to a good hip-hop artist and thinking, How is he remembering all those words? In an hour-and-a-half show, how many lyrics are they remembering?

WYLDE It’s like a phone book.

So, here in the digitized 21st century, does rock still matter?

SATRIANI Well, it does to me. And I guess whether the answer to your question is “yes” or “no,” does that change the way you feel about rock?

WYLDE When people say “Rock is dead,” I don’t think so. It just takes on a different form. It just keeps morphing—from Elvis Presley to the Beatles and Stones to Led Zeppelin. It’s the same thing with guitar solos. I remember talking to Dimebag, saying, “Guitar solos are dead?” That doesn’t change the way I feel when I hear Joe killing it on the guitar. That will never go out of style. Great is great. Whether it’s Joe, Al Di Meola or Dimebag, that will never go out of style. Like a great steak or Levis and a T-shirt, rock won’t go out of style.

Photo: Kevin Scanlon

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Alan di Perna

In a career that spans five decades, Alan di Perna has written for pretty much every magazine in the world with the word “guitar” in its title, as well as other prestigious outlets such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, Creem, Player, Classic Rock, Musician, Future Music, Keyboard, and He is author of Guitar Masters: Intimate Portraits, Green Day: The Ultimate Unauthorized History and co-author of Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Sound Style and Revolution of the Electric Guitar. The latter became the inspiration for the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibition “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll.” As a professional guitarist/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist, Alan has worked with recording artists Brianna Lea Pruett, Fawn Wood, Brenda McMorrow, Sat Kartar and Shox Lumania.