You’re famous for being open to talking to young players you’ve inspired. But are you ever hesitant to recommend guys like McLaughlin to metal fans?

Not at all. I tell anyone who’ll listen, “If you want to hear a real guitar player, check out Di Meola or McLaughlin.” But it’s weird, kids will come up to me and tell me I’m the reason they picked up the guitar. And I’ll tell ’em, “No way. Randy Rhoads is the man.” And they’ll say, “Who’s Randy?” And I’m just sitting there going, “Wow!” I guess it’s a little like me learning about Robert Johnson from Jimmy Page. But man, it blows my mind how some kids don’t know their history. It’s insane. But for that reason, it’s awesome to be able to turn kids on to that stuff.

You did a stage turn with the Allmans. Even with all your chops, was it tough stepping into that part on short notice?

Well, I’m a huge fan. Their agent called me and said Dickey Betts couldn’t do the gig. I’m a huge, huge fan of Warren Haynes’ playing. I didn’t know what harmonies to do, but Warren ran me through the stuff on a Saturday morning before the gig, and it came together pretty quick. It was important to keep a sense of humor. I remember riding back to the hotel with the band and talking about songs in the set. Warren asked if I was cool with “Dreams.” And I said, “Yeah, man. That Molly Hatchet song you do? You guys do a great version!” Warren just turned to me and said, “Zakk, keep talkin’ like that and we’re gonna send you home!”

I was watching some of your lessons on pentatonic runs where you’re playing through a clean amp, and I was stunned at what a nasty rockabilly player you could be if you wanted to.

I love the sound of that stuff. Old rockabilly music has some of the most insane guitar playing you’ll ever hear. Though I really think I get it from Albert Lee. I mean, you wouldn’t necessarily think of Albert as a rockabilly player, but he really is—one of the best. And he’s English! I love the way those things get twisted around and come out the other end. The British Invasion stuff is amazing for that reason. Music is so powerful in that way. It grabs you and you have to get it out, but it’s still going to be you.

Do you ever get in a rut as a player?

Oh sure, but it’s nothing watching an Allan Holdsworth DVD won’t fix. It’s just like writing songs. You have to always be willing to look to the great ones.

BLS Guitarist Nick Catanese on Backing up His Hero
Known affectionately to BLS fans and his band as “the Evil Twin,” Nick Catanese is as dedicated and capable a sideman as you’re likely to find. He has played with Wylde since Wylde’s first solo endeavor, Book of Shadows, and he does yeoman’s work providing the chugging rhythm, second lead, and harmonies that propel Black Label Society’s two-guitar onslaught. Like Wylde, Catanese is incurably enthusiastic about Black Label Society and playing guitar for a living. And while he’s been honored in the last year with a signature Paul Reed Smith and watched Order of the Black rocket to the top of the Billboard charts in the first week of its release, he remains refreshingly optimistic, self-effacing, and attitude-free about the whole experience.

Nick Catanese onstage at the Pearl Room in Mokena, Illinois, with his PRS SE
Nick Catanese signature model. Photo by Joe Coffey

It must feel good to be part of a band that’s now successful enough to do things on its own terms.

It’s a family and a great team, you know? The songwriting and the vision are really Zakk’s. And I try to be there as a friend, as well as a guitarist, because that can get a bit heavy, being the huge figure that he is. But he’s such an icon to guitarists and to me personally, it’s a thrill. And he’s inspiring. He works so hard and expects the same from others around him, so you rise to that level. It’s really gratifying. Especially when I look back to the Book of Shadows project, which was just Zakk, me, and an Astro van.

Is it strange to be working with someone who influenced your playing?

Yeah, I’m still a fan. And I bought my first Les Paul because of him. I remember being three or four rows back at the No Rest for the Wicked concert in Pittsburgh. And if someone had told me that eight years later I’d be playing with the guy onstage, I would have just said, “Sure man, whatever.” It goes to show that nothing’s impossible.

Things must be pretty telepathic for you guys at this point.

Even before rehearsals, Zakk will call and throw a set list together and have a really good idea of what he wants. “Let’s do the doubled solo in ‘Genocide Junkie’ and the diminished lick in ‘What’s In You.’” He’s pretty specific, and it helps my head get in the right place. But on the piano songs—things like “Darkest Days,” where I’m taking the lead—it’s really challenging. I’m glad when he says, “Man, just play it like you.” His style is its own animal, so I can’t do it anyway. But I can do what I need to do to make it sound like Black Label.

What process do you go through to establish your own voice in Black Label?

I’ll play something and see what Zakk thinks. But having been in Black Label such a long time, there’s no egos or anything—partly because Zakk always believed I can do whatever the band needs. That inspires a lot of confidence.

What’s your favorite aspect of Zakk’s playing?

The thing that blows me away isn’t even the playing so much—everybody sees and knows about that. I’m amazed by what a songwriting machine he is. He just comes up with riff after riff.

Getting your own signature PRS must have been pretty cool.

Zakk has always sort of insisted that Black Label is about the sound of Gibsons and Marshalls. But two years ago at NAMM, I went out with Paul Reed Smith for a clinic, and we were talking about how PRS guitars are these elegant weapons. They look so nice hanging on the wall, but they’re just these monsters when you plug ’em in. Later, I went to the factory in Maryland. I stopped in Paul’s office, which they call the mousetrap for rock stars. He started showing me wood, and the next thing I know, I have this cardboard box full of wood pieces they’re going to make into a guitar. Then, a month or two later, I get this violin-cut guitar that Paul built with a note from him on the back of the headstock. That guitar—with its 57/08 pickups—sounds like Godzilla on steroids. But when we started working on the signature model, we worked from the SE model—we kept it really simple, made it black, put my Evil Twin logo on it. The thing sounds amazing, and it’s the guitar I play live.

But the whole experience with PRS was incredible. The people who work there are just the highest caliber. And Paul himself—the fact that he played my guitar to get it right—just blows my mind. He’s a brilliant dude . . . a freak of nature or a really nice Dr. Frankenstein.

What design specifics did you ask for on your signature model?

I like a pretty chunky neck, like a Les Paul Custom, which has a feel I always loved. When I hit the stage, I like that feeling of knowing the guitar is on and nothing’s going anywhere. I also wanted EMG 81 and 85 pickups, which people always think I use because of Zakk, but I’ve used them since playing in my local band in Pittsburgh. Paul was so funny. He’d say, “You know, Nick, we make pickups, too.” But I really had to have the EMGs in there. I love how tight they make everything sound—especially for rhythm. They’re great for those Hetfield-style sounds, or Iommi doing “Into the Void.” The first time I heard No Rest for the Wicked and realized that’s what Zakk was using, I remember feeling like I’d made a good choice.

You and Zakk seem like the kind of guitarists who could work with anything.

It’s funny, because I end up talking to a lot of fans that get all the gear—a Les Paul loaded with EMGs, a JCM, and everything else—and they tell me, “I still don’t sound like you.” And I always say, “You don’t understand—that’s a good thing.” Because 90 percent of your tone is in your hands. Zakk could play Eddie Van Halen’s rig, and it’s going to sound like Zakk. And it’s cool that a basic sound, like my PRS through a Marshall, can evolve into something else in someone else’s hands. The world needs more kids who want to practice their ass off to find their own thing. And that’s my favorite thing to see—the kids who want to be players instead of rock stars.

Zakk and Nick’s Gear Box

Zakk Wylde
Guitars—Gibson Zakk Wylde Signature Les Paul, Gibson Zakk Wylde Flying V
Amplifiers—Marshall JCM800 2203ZW with Marshall 4x12 cabs
Effects—MXR Zakk Wylde Overdrive, MXR Black Label Chorus, Crybaby Zakk Wylde Signature Wah
Picks—Dunlop Tortex 1.0 mm
Strings—Dunlop Wylde Icon Series (.010-.046)

Nick Catanese
Guitars—PRS Nick Catanese Signature Series, PRS Double Cut with EMG 81 and 85 pickups
Amplifiers—Marshall JCM800 2203ZW with Marshall 4x12 cabs
Effects—Plush FX Pedals Noxious Nick Catanese signature distortion, MXR Zakk Wylde Overdrive, MXR Black Label Chorus
Picks—Dunlop Tortex 1.0 mm
Strings—Dean Markley Nick Catanese Evil Twin Shotgun Set (.010-.060)