Les Paul devotee Zakk Wylde dishes the stories behind some his favorite (and most infamous) axes.
A player connects to a guitar for many reasons: feel, tone, or even sentimental value can play a part in musical mojo. From his days as a young gun with Ozzy Osbourne to his longtime role as the head of the Black Label Society, Zakk Wylde and his Les Pauls seem to be a match made in metal heaven. In his own words, Zakk introduces us to his five favorite Les Pauls and explains why they mean so much to him.
1957 Les Paul Jr.
Ozzy got this guitar for me as a birthday present during No Rest for the Wicked, so it was probably my 20th birthday. He was like, “When Sabbath opened up for Mountain on our first trip to America, Leslie West was playing one of these things and it was the most insane guitar tone I’d ever heard.” I still use it for all the clean stuff I’ve ever done. Usually, it’s that guitar either through a Roland Jazz Chorus or through a Marshall—like a Bluesbreaker—at a low volume. Between that P-90 and the dried-out wood, those old guitars just sound good. It’s not a wall hanger, I actually use the thing, but it doesn’t leave the house.
1981 Gibson Les Paul Custom “The Grail”
I wrote “Miracle Man” on that, my first Ozzy song. Now we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of that record [No Rest for the Wicked] and all the memories connected to that thing and all the albums I recorded on that make it pretty special. Actually, I just used it yesterday to track some solos for the new album. It’s just an amazing guitar. I got her when I first got the gig with Ozzy. Scott Quinn, a buddy of mine who ran Garden State Music at the time, was a huge John McLaughlin fan and he said, “Zakk, I’ll trade you this guitar if you could talk to Gibson and get me a black double-neck." I got him the black double-neck and I got The Grail. It was all yellowed and loaded with EMGs when I got it.
I don’t think it even had the paint job yet when we were recording. When we were getting ready to do some photo shoots, I was like, “Dude, I can’t have a clean Les Paul. It’s Randy’s [Rhoads] signature thing.” I asked for the Hitchcock vertigo design but it came back with the bull’s-eye on it. I had to do the photo shoot the next day so I was like, “F*** it.”
2012 Gibson Les Paul Custom "Maple Vertigo"
This is basically the 21st century version of the bull’s-eye. I used it a lot on the new record. It’s pretty rare to see a maple fretboard, and I had originally done a camo paint job, but then we changed it to the vertigo. It’s basically a maple top with a rosewood body, maple neck, and maple fretboard. It gives the tone these glassy highs and it’s just a great-sounding guitar. It’s loaded with an EMG 81 and an EMG 85. That’s what I started out on with the first Ozzy record and I’ve used them ever since.
1989 Gibson Les Paul Custom "The Rebel
This guitar started as a black Les Paul Custom and I got it during No More Tears. Obviously, I painted the rebel flag on it because of the Allmans, Skynyrd, and everything like that. Everyone asked if I was from the South, and I said “Yeah, South Jersey.” The bottle caps came from me drinking one night. I saw Bret Michaels in a Poison video and he had a rebel flag on one of his guitars. I’m buddies with him now, but then I was thinking, “I can't be walking around with a rebel guitar. Bret Michaels has a f***ing rebel guitar!” Everyone was going to be yelling, “Hey Zakk, I love your Bret Michaels guitar.” [Laughs.] That’s when the bottle caps came into it and I started to sand it down and just mess with it. We were just laughing about how you can see the change in the beer caps between Miller Genuine Draft and Bud then onto the microbrews and the local breweries.
One day we were doing a photo shoot and Ozzy was busting my balls about Southern rock. I was like, “Where’s my guitar?” and I’m looking around because they want to get a shot of Ozzy and me with that guitar. I go outside and one of the guys had wrapped it up in newspaper and f***ing lit it on fire! There was an eight-foot flame like at a Rammstein concert. I put the guitar out and look at Ozzy and say, “You really don't like Southern rock, do you?” He was rolling on the ground laughing. [Laughs.]
When my daughter was about 2, she was walking around and playing with all the guitars. I have all the guitars up on hanging stands and I didn’t have them wrapped with rubber bands so they wouldn’t move. She was just a bambino strumming them and checking things out and next thing you know she bumped one and it was like a bunch of dominos. I stopped all the guitars from falling and I leaned the Rebel on an amp. And as I’m holding all the other guitars trying to figure out how I’m going to put them all down I look at the Rebel and in slow motion I see it slide off the Bluesbreaker. I’m like Cleveland in the Family Guy, “No … no … no … no.” Next thing you know the guitar falls, and we have wood floors in the house, and it hits and bounces. I didn’t think anything of it and a few days later I went to change strings on it and I grabbed it and while I’m tuning it the low E was making a weird noise and kept going all floppy. I flipped the guitar over and checked out the tuning machine and there was a massive crack and the headstock was just barely holding on. Eventually, Gibson replaced the whole neck but kept the original fretboard.
2009 Gibson ZW BFG
When I was going through the factory a while ago, I was looking at the tops coming out and they had a whole bunch of Standard tops. When the tops came out I thought they looked badass. I told them, “You guys ought to make a guitar like this, without any veneer, no paint, no stain.” The guitar completely breathes when it’s just bare wood. We talked about that and then eventually they made the BFG, or Barely Finished Guitar. I always called it the “Raw Top.” When they made the BFGs, they chambered them because a lot of cats are just like, “Les Pauls are great, I dig them, but standing up and playing them for a couple of hours and I’m ready to see the chiropractor.” That’s usually the complaint with a Les Paul, especially a Les Paul Custom. When I got it, I wondered what it would be like with a chambered body; maybe it would be too thin sounding. I was beyond shocked at how badass it sounds. The top end cuts, but it doesn’t rip your head off. There's a big difference between a good loud and, “Honestly, just stop.” [Laughs.] The spectrum of tone and fidelity of it is just phenomenal.