In an age when anyone can become a “Guitar Hero” by firing up the Xbox and mashing colored buttons in pace with onscreen prompts, it’s good to know that some bona fide guitar heroes still know to how to shred for real.
In the pantheon of rock guitar gods, few loom larger — figuratively and literally — than Zakk Wylde, legendary axeman for Ozzy Osbourne and lead berserker of the southern-fried metal outfit Black Label Society. He walks the walk of a metal overlord — bedecked in biker attire, his blond mane tamed under a black bandana and his bulging biceps typically exposed — and, through his blistering guitar playing, he talks the talk.
To give you an indication of just how “metal” Wylde is (as if any more proof was needed), he recently named his newborn son “Sabbath.”
Having cranked out five albums with Ozzy Osbourne and more than a dozen records with his Black Label Society and other projects, Wylde has built a vast repertoire of music, much of which he showcased on a recent coast-to-coast tour of Canada.
Rock Cellar Magazine sat down with Wylde for a wide-ranging conversation about music, sports, Ozzy & Randy Rhoads, spicy condiments and, believe it or not, a classic string quartet.
Rock Cellar Magazine: First off, congratulations on the recent birth of your son, Sabbath.
Zakk Wylde: Thanks, brother. This is our fourth, our third boy, and it’s killer. Their ages are 20, 19, 10, and now the little guy is 12 weeks old. The family is awesome.
RCM: Black Label Society is about to wrap up their cross-country ‘Lords of Destruction Over Canada’ tour. You’ve really traversed the whole country this time.
ZW: Yeah, some people don’t realize there’s a lot more cities to tour than just Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Calgary. Canada’s a lot bigger than just four stops. That’s why we hit Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Halifax, Thunder Bay, and a batch more shows on this tour.
From the very beginning with that first “No Rest for the Wicked” tour with the boss (Ozzy Osbourne), Canada has always been ass-kicking, really embracing rock and roll bands.
RCM: And you’ve been doing lots of meet-and-greets with fans this time?
ZW: We don’t have fans, we have “family.” The Black Label heads are one gigantic family, so every time we roll through town we hook up with our extended family with the meet and greets, so it’s definitely way cool. So we’re doing the Canadian chapter of Black Label, then we’re heading off to do the South American chapter of Black Label, playing several shows in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.
RCM: South Americans sure love their metal, don’t they?
ZW: Dude, there’s a huge heavy metal culture down there! Last time we were there, the people in the audience were singing the riffs, you know what I mean? Before I come in to sing the next verse, they’re singing the riffs — that’s how much they love it! I remember me and JD [John DeServio] and Nick [Catanese] would be looking at each other on stage as the whole crowd is singing the riffs and we’re going, “Holy shit, man! This is like, insane!” They absolutely love it.
And they just love livin’ and having fun. They love life in general, man. They love partying and having a good time. There’s none of this Debbie Downer shit, you know what I mean? And they don’t care how fucking hot it gets down there, they just want to have a good time.
RCM: Speaking of heat, can you tell us about your line of Berzerker Brand hot sauces?
ZW: Blair (Lazar) of Blair’s Death Sauce approached me a few years back and said, “I really dig what you did with Ozzy and what you’re doing with Black Label. What I’m thinking is, would you like to do your own signature hot sauce line?” And I said, “Well yeah, I eat ‘em and love Tabasco and everything like that.” When we’re on the road we enjoy finding these hot sauce joints and I’ll buy a bunch of them so I can have ‘em in the house.
It’s funny, we’ll be on the road somewhere like Albuquerque, and pick up some sauces with names like Blow Your Ass Out, Colon Cleaner, or Screaming Sphincter (laughs). So when Blair asked me if I wanted to do a signature hot sauce line, I said, “Yeah, of course!”
RCM: Some of Blair’s sauces are ridiculously hot. It’s said that one holds the world record for “hottest food product?”
ZW: Oh yeah, Blair’s the fuckin’ man! The stuff he makes is slammin’, ’cause he has this farm — I think it’s down in Mexico — with this little old guy who works there, and Blair owns the property. It’s super cool ’cause the little guy just lives there, that’s his home, and he crops the fields and does the whole nine yards so Blair can get the fucking hottest peppers on the planet.
RCM: Tell us about the different heat levels of your Berserker hot sauces.
ZW: There’s four varieties with Original Berserker being the mildest, Sonic Brew is moderate, Stronger Than Death is pretty hot, then Shot to Hell is the hottest. I like having the variety because sometimes a hot sauce can be so overpowering to a meal, you can’t even taste the food, and I’m not into that. Sometimes all you want is just a little bit of tang, so it adds to the flavor of the food rather than taking away from it.
And the Berserker sauces go great with eggs, salmon, tacos, fajitas, or anything I cook, grill, or have recently killed, that could use that extra kick (laughs). It’s slammin’, so the recipes are geared towards our Black Label family, who like to get their asses kicked and get a full sweat goin.’
RCM: Speaking of family, did you feel welcomed into the heavy metal family when you first joined Ozzy’s band in 1987?
ZW: Oh totally, and still do today. Even those very first shows, everyone was rooting for me because they knew I was on the team, and loved Randy Rhoads as much as they did. They could see I played Randy’s stuff exactly his way, and had the highest respect for what he did. There’s no way you can fill his shoes, so you just have to give respect to his music and play it accurately.
You have to, because this is the house that Rhoads built. And without Randy Rhoads, there never would have been a Zakk Wylde.
RCM: Do you remember what you played when you auditioned for Ozzy?
ZW: I think we did Crazy Train, I Don’t Know, Bark at the Moon, and Suicide Solution.
RCM: What influence did Randy’s playing have on you, having played his songs countless times around the globe for over 20 years?
ZW: One of the biggest things I learned from him is construction, and where you can go with a solo by playing Randy’s music. He was a brilliant soloist who had such a melodic sense — there’d be a beginning, middle and end, as he could tell a whole story in a song. He had “feel,” which is something only the greats have, you know what I mean? When I listen to Randy, I feel every single note as his solos are like gold. It doesn’t matter how many times you listen to Randy’s music, you’re waiting for those incredible moments that were all part of his tremendous arsenal.
The testimony to Randy’s greatness is the fact that we still all remember him, and see his image on magazine covers, in books, and posters everywhere. He’s a legend for what he accomplished on those first two Ozzy records, and I’ve always considered it the highest honor performing Randy’s music all those years playing live with the boss.
RCM: 30 years later, Ozzy’s set-list still includes so many songs from the Randy Rhoads era, like Goodbye to Romance, Believer, and Mr. Crowley.
ZW: Dude, I have to tell you a funny story. A while back, Ozzy comes into my studio and he sees these posters on the wall. He looks at the Led Zeppelin one and starts telling me some stories about John Bonham and how they would get fucked up together in the bars. Then he looks up at this poster I have on the wall of Aleister Crowley, and he goes, “Zakk [assuming Ozzy's voice], who’s the fucking bald-headed cunt on the wall?” And I’m just fucking cracking up. So Ozzy says, “What the fuck’s so funny?” And I said, “Dude, you don’t know who that is?” Ozzy goes, “Why the fuck should I know who he is? Who the fuck is it?” So I said, “Ozzy, you’ve only been singing about him for the last 30 fucking years! It’s Aleister Crowley, bro!” There’s a pause, then Ozzy says, “Oh, is that what he looks like?” I kid you not, brother.
RCM: You tell some great stories in your book Bringing Metal to the Children: The Complete Berserker’s Guide to World Tour Domination, released earlier this year. When you started out in music, did you ever imagine you’d write a book?
ZW: No. I’m shocked by the fact that I wrote a book! I only learned to read this year!(laughs) It’s like a George Carlin-on-steroids piss-take on the music business. I wish I could tell you that the stories in there were made up, but sadly they’re all far too true. I’m telling you, the cast and characters that you meet in the music business — let me put it this way:
if you want to be a doctor, you have to go to medical school and get a degree. If you wanted to be a technician or a welder, you have to get a license. But to be in the music business, you just have to show up, dude [laughs]. And that’s why you get this never-ending avalanche of pathetic comedy working in this business.
So you don’t get pissed off, you have to just keep laughing and that’s basically what the book is all about. There’s one chapter in there called “Unimportant People Making Important Decisions,” and that’s really the music business in a nutshell.
RCM: But you’ve also met some of your heroes along the way though, right?
ZW: Oh yeah, and whenever I’ve met my heroes it’s always the coolest thing whether it’s Frank Marino, the Skynyrd guys, or jammin’ with the Allmans. In that moment you’re thinking, wow, that’s really them! From meeting Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to Tony Iommi and all the Sabbath guys. Jamming with Geezer Butler was killer, and getting to know Bill Ward and everything like that.
RCM: As a huge Black Sabbath fan, how do feel about Ozzy, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler working on a new album?
ZW: Put it this way – if anybody’s going to be working on the new Sabbath record, it couldn’t be in better hands than [producer] Rick Rubin. Father Rubin is a massive Sabbath fan as well, and if anything Rick is going to make sure it turns out to be an awesome Sabbath record. Especially, if this is going to be their last one – their swan song. Rick’s going to want to have a feather in his cap, looking back on this one and say, “Yeah, I helped work on that last Sabbath record.” So without a doubt, bro, it’s going to be killer.
More Sabbath just makes life a bit better, I always say. The more Sabbath we can get in our lives, the better off we’ll all be.
RCM: Do you have a favorite Sabbath song?
ZW: Sabbath changed the game with Into the Void, with that riff of doom and Ozzy killin’ it on the vocals. The whole band killed it, the solos, and if someone who had never heard Sabbath before and wanted to know what they’re about, I’d play them Into the Void. Because that’s when they’d go, “Oh yeah. I get it.”
RCM: Tell us how you came to record the fairly obscure Sabbath track Junior’s Eyes.
ZW: Yeah, I think people thought, “Man, I didn’t think they’d whip that one out!” I mean, Ozzy can’t stand that record [Never Say Die] but I’ve always told him, “I know you don’t like it, but as a Sabbath fan I really love that album. It think it’s fucking cool.” So I was sitting around the house one day, cranking it out in the garage, and I thought wouldn’t it be cool to cover Junior’s Eyes and Black Label-ize it, and make it our own thing. You know, how Jimi Hendrix did with All Along the Watchtower, or something like that. Then I just sat behind the piano and started doing it, ’cause I can take any heavy song and strip it down, while making it dark. When I started singing it I thought, “Wow, it came out really cool!” An awesome song is timeless.
RCM: Did the same thinking go into your acoustic cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water?
ZW: Exactly; that song totally kicks ass! I’ve always loved it with those incredible vocal harmonies. With that one I think I heard it on the way to work on the radio and thought, “Let’s record that one!” We just Google the lyrics, listen to it a few times, and then we’ll do it. Because I’ve always loved that song ever since I was a kid. I’ll hear it on the radio and think, “Damn, I wish I had wrote that one!”
RCM: You’ve recently launched your own weekly sports talk radio program, “Wylde on Sports,” on SiriusXM. Tell us about that.
ZW: We’re having a blast with that. We recently had Kevin Butler on and Drew Butler, his son who’s playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and we also had Father Jericho on there. So it’s great.
RCM: You’re referring to WWE wrestler Chris Jericho, right?
ZW: Yeah, Chris is a super cool guy and funny as shit. He’s doing what he’s always wanted to do with his band Fozzy and he’s kicking ass, man. Me and Chris, he’s always busting my balls ’cause I’m a huge fan of the Ultimate Warrior. Chris always likes to go on about that and talk about how I got a major man-crush on the Ultimate Warrior. It’s hysterical, bro.
On the show, we’ll have athletes on, and the next week we’ll have my goofy buddies that are in music or acting or entertainment. We’ll have someone juggling chainsaws in one segment, then the next one everybody’s sitting around the table talking NFL, about what’s goin’ on or what the guys are doing. It’s way cool, man.
RCM: Do you listen a lot to SiriusXM?
ZW: Yeah, I listen to it in the truck, so I’ll be listening to sports talk radio or the NFL Network, then I’ll be listening to some new wave music or liquid metal. I listen to everything, man. From Blasko (Rob Nicholson) to Christopher Parkening playing classical guitar to Beck, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucia. Then it’s back to listening to Van Halen, or the new Rush album, Clockwork Angels, which I’ve got on my phone right now. It’s killer.
RCM: Do you still buy albums?
ZW: I’ve got vinyl, and then obviously, I’ve got iTunes. I bought Echo & the Bunnymen’s box set on iTunes. I’ve got my staples that I listen to like Zeppelin, Sabbath, Neil Young, Elton John, The Eagles, Skynyrd, Bad Company, the Allmans – lots of classic rock. Like I said, I’ll listen to everything from Ministry to Sarah McLachlan.
For me, if I’m a fan then I’m going to go out and buy the new record, ’cause I still buy records. I support the bands.
I’m not going to just download a song. I’ll just go buy the whole fucking thing – it’s not like an album costs fucking 80 grand – it’s a fucking CD, dude! If you’re a fan of the artist, go out and buy the fucking shit!
[Black Label Society current lineup: John DeServio, Nick Catanese, Zakk Wylde, Chad Szeliga]
RCM: Black Label Society has a new project in the works for 2013, right?
ZW: Yeah, after we roll down to be with the South American chapter, December will be the North Pole chapter and Santa for the Black Label family. Then in January  we’re going to film the DVD for Unblackened, where we’re doing the whole thing with a 4-piece string section, a pedal steel, and I’m going to have some of my musician friends sit in on some of the songs.
RCM: So this will be another acoustic recording?
ZW: Acoustic and electric, with the string section behind it. I’ll still have all the Marshalls going with the acoustic, then rip out an electric guitar solo or something. I think we’re doing two full weeks of rehearsals just to get ready, then maybe in February we’ll mix and edit. It’ll be killer, and I’m really looking forward to knocking this one out.
RCM: Looking all the way back to the first album you recorded with Ozzy, and touring the world in the late ’80s, what changes have you seen in yourself professionally and personally?
ZW: I’ve matured, but having said that, I still have the same passion for all the things I loved when I was 21. So my love for music has never changed and I still love playing every night.
RCM: How has your own guitar playing evolved?
ZW: As far as technique goes, you’re always practicing and maintaining your technique and trying to do different things. For me, I learned along the way how solos have to fit the songs. I’ve learned so much about writing music. I’ve always said that all the greats write their own shit. Whether it’s Randy Rhoads playing Over the Mountain or Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, or Bach or Mozart, they’re the real musicians because they wrote their own music.
Then there’s all the changes in my own albums from the Pride & Glory stuff to Book of Shadows, I can see that’s where I was at, at that point in my life and where I was creatively. Then with Black Label, I just started doing riffs again. That’s about it. And it’s always interesting because the possibilities are endless. Forever, you can keep coming up with different things, and that’s what’s so awesome about it.
RCM: Do you think acoustic music will always play a big part in the music of Black Label Society?
ZW: When it comes to songwriting, it depends on what side of the bed I wake up on. There are nice and quiet mornings where I sit down in the morning, I’m chillin’, and obviously I’m going to write something reflective and mellow. But later on, I may put the octave pedal on and just start writing riffs and maybe crank some Zeppelin or Sabbath, or anything that inspires you. Then you’re off and running. Most of the time when we’re doing an album, ideas are flying about all over the place. But once we get done doing all the heavy stuff for a while, you can get burnt out on that.
That’s when I’ll sit behind the piano or start doing something acoustic. The Black Label heads get it. They know the mellow stuff is all part of our sound. They know it’s part of what we do as we just keep goin’, staying strong and keep “bleeding black.”