The sight of Zakk Wylde performing at full throttle is one of rock’s great spectacles. Towering at the lip of the stage, blonde hair flowing like a vengeful Norse god, barking profanity into a microphone on a stand fashioned to resemble a human skull, crushing endless cans of lager like paper cups... it’s easy to see why some consider the Black Label Society man to be the last great rock guitarist, and even easier to understand my trepidation as I pick up the phone to him.
Is it fair to describe you as an old-school rock star?
Well, yeah, I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years with Ozzy, so I guess so. I know what I like and I know what I don’t. I still have my heroes. Like, in the studio where we recorded Shot To Hell we had posters of Jimmy Page, Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen stuck up there on the walls. The studio looked like some fucking 14-year-old’s bedroom, man. And put it this way: if my playing inspires some kid, like Jimmy Page or Tony Iommi inspired me, that kicks ass.
Unlike many musicians, it sounds like you enjoy the actual recording process
The studio is the best, man. Playing live kicks ass too, but it’s a free-for-all. The studio is a much more controlled environment. We always have a blast in there. We don’t do pre-production, rehearsals or any shit like that. Me and Craig [Nunenmacher, drums] just get in there. He’ll be like: “So how many songs have you got?”, And I’ll be like: “I got nothing”. So then it’s up to me to pull something out of my ass fast – when we’re paying $1,500 a day for studio time.
We record the riffs first, get a cool riff down, then we’ll get some melodies. Then I’ll find some subject matter I’m interested in, write it down and pump it out. I don’t know how these guys take two years to make an album. That’s insanity. I don’t get it. I’ve written eight albums and I’ve done a movie [Rock Star], and inbetween all that stuff I’ve done world tours. And it’s just because I love it. It’s never work, you know what I mean? I could be out there mowing lawns or pumping gas, but instead I get to make a living playing music, and… [shouting at someone in the background] I’m doing a fuckin’ interview!
Everything alright, Zakk?
Sorry, man. I’m at home with the kids. I’m doing my domestic duties.
Are you one of the guitarists who are keeping virtuosity alive?
Well, y’know. Slash is still out there doing it, Yngwie [Malmsteen] is still kicking ass, Gary Moore is still shredding away. But I think rock’n’roll can definitely just be three chords, without a doubt. With a lot of rock music, less is more. It’s always a killer riff that people are gonna gravitate to, like with something like Whole Lotta Love; it’s only got about three notes, but…
How do you usually approach writing lyrics for songs?
They could be about anything. So they could be about the war that’s going on right now, or religion, or my mum passing away – as soon as you get any subject matter like that, you just start writing away. And of course you’ll read the newspapers and check out the news and you’ll find out stuff that’s happening.
When are you at your most creative?
The beauty of music is that it depends on your mood. I can be in the studio doing all the heavy shit, cranking riffs through a Marshall stack, firing ’em out. As soon as I get bored of that I’ll just sit down behind a piano. And when you sit behind a piano you’re always gonna write shit that’s more reflective and melancholy, y’know? The same on an acoustic guitar. Like, I’m not gonna write Iron Man on a piano. But once you start jamming a riff like that with a bunch of distortion, it kicks ass.
You often seem quite concerned about the state of the world, in particular the situation in the Middle East. Does that influence your writing?
Well, yeah. It’s crazy what’s going on over there. Like, everybody chill the hell out, y’know? Go get a cocktail. Relax… It should be that easy, but it ain’t. A cocktail would be a good solution. They should put a whole bunch of Irish taverns around there; forget the blitzkrieg and have a couple of beers.
What do you think would have happened if you’d joined Guns N’ Roses in 1995, after you’d played with some of the guys?
I had a blast with those guys, but nothing ever materialised. That’s when Book Of Shadows and Black Label Society happened, y’know. It was like: “Okay, well if nobody’s gonna sing on all these riffs I’ve got lying around, then I’ll just do it my goddamn self”.
It could have worked out. At the time, you had Slash, Duff [McKagan] and Axl [Rose], so it was almost the original line-up. We had a good time, but once you get lawyers and managers and all that stuff involved, that changes everything. Or it can if you let it. I still think Axl is a great guy and one of the best frontmen ever. I hope it works out for them. But I’m so busy kicking ass with Black Label that I’m too busy to take a dump, let alone worry about anyone else.
Have you tried any good beers recently?
I’ve actually just opened a batch of them now. We always have a ton of beers up on stage with us, half of the time I’m giving them out to the crowd. I’m stuck up at the microphone now, so it’s not like I can just take a beer break. Half of the time, I’ll just turn around between songs, take a mouthful and that’s about it. I can’t get blitzkrieged on stage.
Plenty of rockers seem to be drinking mineral water these days, and staying off the hard stuff. Other rock stars can drink whatever the fuck they like. I couldn’t give a fuck!
This was published in Classic Rock issue 98.