inlaid with mother of pearl. Photo by Clay Patrick McBride
Almost 25 years after Ozzy Osbourne listened to Zakk Wylde’s mailed-in audition cassette and asked him to join his band, Wylde remains an inspiration to thousands of players around the world. And that’s due to his underdog tale as much as it is to his distinctive playing—including his much-copied pinched-harmonic squeals, which are now a staple throughout metal. Thanks to Wylde, guitarists know to aim high, shoot for the moon, and expect the impossible. During the past two and a half decades, Wylde has squandered none of the opportunity he was given. He has contributed guitar to five Osbourne albums, including the late-period Oz classic No Rest for the Wicked, and cut 10 albums with his own Black Label Society.
Wylde’s intense drive as a player, and even as a businessman, has made him a larger-than-life figure among contemporary metal and heavy-rock guitarists. And his influence has spread well beyond the realms of metal and shred, as a listen to any Alice in Chains record reveals. His image is that of a leather-and-denim-clad Viking wielding a bull’s-eye Les Paul. But behind the stage persona is a musician with chops that transcend metal and a voracious appetite for creating larger-than-life sounds.
Gregarious, gentlemanly, and unflappably psyched, Wylde took time out on the eve of his band’s new tour in support of Order of the Black to share his thoughts about producing big sounds, the new Black Label Bunker studio, songwriting inspiration, and how to get the collective goat of the Allman Brothers Band.
With Order of the Black, you and Black Label Society have become a very self-contained unit. From production to playing, you guys are doing this on your own.
Oh yeah, man. I’m really proud of this record, sonically. Because we just did it in the new studio, the Black Label Bunker, and it sounds insane. I’ve been telling people, “If you ever want to hear what a Marshall JCM800 sounds like—just buy this album.” We nailed that sound!
It sounds like you guys have become very resourceful in the studio.
I don’t understand why you wouldn’t do it that way. Or at least be interested in doing it that way. All you have to do is look at Jimmy Page. I mean, if you weren’t already blown away by Page as a writer and guitar player, well, then you find out he’s producing the records, mixing the records, involved in the artwork. It’s amazing. Once you get on a roll like that, what producer would want to try to produce Led Zeppelin? It’d be like trying to coach Michael Jordan or something. The best thing you can do is just stay out of the way!
Doing things ourselves lets the band be the band. These are talented musicians I’m working with, and we really just need someone to hit record and make sure we’re getting things down. If you believe in and know where you’re going, you don’t need to ask for directions. So a great engineer is what I need. You should be your own worst critic. The records are a document that lasts forever, so we’re going to do whatever we need to do to get something right. The final result is all that matters. And that’s a beautiful thing.
After being such a road dog for so long, has the studio started to take on greater appeal?
The running joke around the bunker is that we should turn Black Label Society into Steely Dan—just make records and never tour. I love it. It’s like watching my 8-year-old sit there with a thousand crayons and a blank sheet of paper. The studio is my version of that—a big box of crayons. It’s really set up to sound great and be ready to capture whatever color we want to mess with, whether it’s a grand piano, a wall of Marshalls, or an acoustic guitar. And it’s so much fun to bring those elements together just the way you want because you’ve set them up to sound amazing. The studio, and the whole experience of being there, is awesome.
Do all the possibilities ever test your sense of discipline?
No. You can’t get too caught up in it, even though the possibilities are exciting. You have to accept that, down the line, you’re going to wish you had done some things differently and keep moving. I’m sure Jimmy Page went crazy remastering all the Zep stuff and thinking, “Ah man, I wish we’d done that bit differently.” Eddie Van Halen is always going off about the part of “Eruption” he says he totally screwed up. Meanwhile, the rest of us are going “What the hell are you talking about? It’s perfect— get over it, Eddie!”