What does it take to be a guitar hero?

Zakk Wylde
(Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

We united Zoltan Bathory, Zakk Wylde, Lzzy Hale and Ben Bruce for a look at the state of guitar music in 2018, the evolution of the guitar hero, and what it takes to be a true rock star in the modern era. Here’s what they had to say…

How does it feel to be labelled a guitar hero?

Zakk: “It just goes to show that payola and prostitution is alive and well! My friends have always said, ‘Zakk, you might not win any awards, but if you hold in there long enough there’ll be nobody else to vote for. Hang in there long enough and there’s no one left, you’re the winner!’”

Lzzy: “If somebody calls me a guitar hero I immediately look behind me and try to see who they’re talking to. Ha ha! I’m still in this mode where I know that I’ve worked hard and I know that I deserve to be here, but it’s still really weird, and in the back of my mind my 13-year-old self is saying, ‘You don’t deserve this, you have everyone fooled!’ But it’s an honour!”

Ben: “It’s a surreal thought. I started playing guitar when I was really young; I was probably about 12 years old. But, even before then, when I was four, I’d pick up tennis rackets and pretend to play guitar. A lot of people don’t think playing guitar is a journey in life – it’s more of a hobby for a lot of people – but I knew from day one that that’s what I wanted to do with my life, so it’s nice to look back now at when I started and what I had to go through to get to where I am now. It’s nice to be recognised in my field; it’s an incredible feeling.”

Lzzy: “Yeah, I meet so many kids, a lot of them are becoming teenagers now and they’re sending me photos of them getting their first guitar online. They’re like, ‘My first concert was Halestorm’, or, ‘I’ve never seen a girl that played guitar before’, and to me, that’s cool, that makes it all worth it.”

Zoltan: “We write the songs that become soundtracks to people’s lives. I never even considered myself a ‘guitar hero’, though. A guitar hero, to me, is a hero to other guitarists. The guy that all of us are looking up to. When you listen to somebody like Eddie Van Halen or Yngwie Malmsteen or Vinnie Moore, then you’re listening to them as an instrumentalist. That’s versus, let’s say, a ‘rock star’.”

Can you guys all remember the first time you were enraptured by someone playing guitar?

Lzzy: “A Cinderella VHS!”

Ben: “The first band I ever saw live was Deep Purple. I was living in Dubai at the time and it blew my mind to see all these people turn up in a tennis stadium to watch these guys play heavy metal music. I think, for me, that was it: I was like, ‘This is what I wanna do with the rest of my life.’”

Zoltan: “It was Iron Maiden for me. To this day, Dave Murray’s lead tone is still one of my favourite guitar tones. The guy just fucking nailed that, you know? And so I got into all that. After Iron Maiden, that’s when I really got into metal, and that’s what launched me on the path to become a musician.”

Zakk: “Actually, what really got me interested was the guy I took lessons from. When I was eight years old I started playing, but I wasn’t serious about it; my parents had introduced it to me I guess, and I just wanted to hang out with my friends, so I didn’t dedicate myself to practising or whatever. When I was 14 I got really serious, and I saw who eventually became my teacher, Leroy Wright. To physically see someone’s hands playing all these songs, just watching his fingers doing scales… I thought it was the most interesting thing I’d ever seen in the world. To hear songs is one thing, but to see it just blew me away.”

Lzzy Hale

Lzzy Hale (Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

Zakk, you came through in an era where the larger-than-life, superhero-level guitar player was a huge part of the metal scene. What was that like?

Zakk: “I had all these great guitar heroes I wanted to beat! There were so many amazing guitarists. For those older guys, the second you heard them you knew instantly who they were and that still holds true today. Whether you were Steve Vai or Nuno Bettencourt, the minute they pick up the guitar and I hear a vibrato in like two notes, I know instantly who is playing. That’s the true mark; as soon as you know who they are within the first two notes.”

Lzzy: “That’s the era I’m a huge fan of, of course. It’s my parents’ fault, because that was the kind of music that they loved, and I’m very thankful to have parents who actually liked rock music!”

Ben: “When you think back to that era, the 60s, 70s and 80s, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen… they were at the forefront of all these bands, and then that sort of dwindled away and people would only care about the singer.”

Zoltan: “See, that’s what I meant at the beginning about ‘guitar hero’ versus ‘rock star’. You have to separate the two. The rock star is larger than life, they live the life that everyone dreams of. The guitar heroes are not necessarily… a Vinnie Moore or a Marty Friedman is not a flashy person, they can just play your eyes out. And of course, there are many guitarists coming through in bands that are fucking amazing players, but in a time where heavy metal and hard rock isn’t as big a focus, it’s hard to have the kinds of guitar heroes that we had back in the day, the flashy guys that could play and were successful. Metal and hard rock was the centre of the music world back then. So the ‘rock star’ and the ‘guitar hero’ were together. Now, it’s separate, because there are only a few bands that can live the rock star life.”

Lzzy: “Honestly, I think that some of it is that bands, especially rock bands, started taking themselves a little too seriously. If I can burst the bubble: the reason that we’re all into this music is that we’re not cool, so we’ve got to stop trying to be cool. You should not be trying to be flamboyant if you’re not.”

Zakk: “There’s still great players today, it’s just a different thing. Everything’s always moving, morphing and changing, which is the way it’s always been. There are still guitar heroes, but they don’t wear capes because it’s too much of a giveaway!”

Ben, Asking Alexandria were one of the new prominent bands of your scene to proudly don that cape and be a little more flamboyant...

Ben: “I just remember thinking that it was such a shame that guitarists being at the forefront of metal bands had died out, and it was always my goal to bring back that persona: to have the guitarist and the singer be the frontmen. It sounds selfish because that’s my position, but I missed that about rock.”

Is it fair to say Asking's image also played a massive part in what made the band stand out?

Ben: “I think it was hugely important, and I don’t think there’s anything embarrassing about that. People go, ‘It’s all about the music’ but it’s always been about the image as well, since the beginning of rock’n’roll and heavy metal. Elvis Presley went onstage and his image was important to him, Led Zeppelin went onstage and their image was important to them. Same with Ozzy – he has a look and an image. So, when people go, ‘Oh, this band just looks good,’ well, yeah! That’s part of the package. It’s part of the appeal and I don’t think that that’s a sad thing to say.”

Lzzy: “It’s a blurry line. I wear a leather jacket in everyday life because I keep all my stuff in it. So it’s really not that far-fetched! Ha ha! But I was a very shy child, and when music was introduced into my life, and I saw those guys that were able to put on these clothes and be able to walk out and command the stage, it was like, ‘Oh my god, they’re superheroes!’ It gave me an outlet. So in that aspect, I’ve become the person I’ve wanted to be through music.”

Ben Bruce

Ben Bruce (Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

How did you all start to find your own style?

Zoltan: “It was around the summer of 2000. I wasn’t a fan of nu metal, but I liked the sound. That big, ferocious sound.”

Ben: “That’s when I was growing up. It was guitarists like Wes Borland, Mick Thomson and Jim Root that were at the forefront. Slipknot, Papa Roach, Linkin Park – these were all of the big guitar bands.”

Zoltan: “I was kind of like, ‘OK, I like this sound, but I also like the sound of traditional heavy metal.’ I switched to baritone guitars, so there was a bit of a longer neck, much heavier strings. But also, I grew up in Europe, which is influenced by classical music, so therefore you’re listening to melodies and harmonies. Then in America, they are more blues and rhythms based, so it’s more groove-oriented. So there’s the American, groove-based guitar-playing, mixed with the European background. That’s where my sound came together.”  

Lzzy: “See, I actually started on keyboards! I went on guitar when I was 16 and we lost our first guitar player. I got my dad to teach me a couple of chords, then I got really impatient and discovered Drop D, and decided to play along to our songs that we already had. And I’ve been doing that ever since. Ha ha!”

Zakk: “My pinch harmonics came from when I was with my guitar teacher and we were learning how to play La Grange [by ZZ Top] and stuff like that. Billy Gibbons to me is the forefather of the whole pinch harmonic thing, for sure. But I’m a huge Sabbath fan and the Black Label Society stuff isn’t too far from that; Pride & Glory was obviously more Southern rock with slow, heavy vibes, but Sabbath is always the dominant ingredient. The riffs are inspired by the guys I love, and it’s an exploration of that love. It’s where we were from, you know? Whatever music it is you love, that’s what you should build. Not what everybody tells you, like, ‘This is popular and if you don’t do this you’re not going to succeed’, it just doesn’t work that way. You have to be true to who you are and what you love playing and it will naturally come back.”

Lzzy: “Yes, you have to always remember: ‘This type of music made me feel so good that I wanted to start a band.’ It’s such a no-brainer. You have to keep that as your focal point, your North Star. I think that as soon as you start straying and comparing yourself to other people, and being like, ‘Well, those people are cooler than I am, so maybe I should be like that’, that’s when things can start getting confusing. I’ve seen really good people in good bands fall off because of that. I’ve seen bands get confused to the point that you can’t even recognise who they are album to album.”

Zoltan: “You have to follow your own rules. If you’re like, ‘I’m gonna learn some Yngwie, some Steve Vai, a little bit of Dimebag Darrell’, then you’re gonna have something, but you’re still gonna be a sum of all those guys. And because I never really had a guitar teacher, I had to figure out my own shit.”

Do you think you need to carry a bit of ego to be a guitarist in a heavy metal band?

Lzzy: “Well, with social media, there’s so much music and so much content, honestly it’s become about selling ourselves, too. Yes, you have to know your songs, you have to play well, you have to go out there and kill it, but if you aren’t out there letting the audience know that you’re out there and you’re having a great time… it’s kinda hard to stick out if you’re a wallflower up there.”

Zakk: “I think the whole thing is just about wanting to go up and do it. It’s all about live, ass-kicking shows. You know who you are and what you’re capable of doing, so you gotta go out there and do the best you can. As far as ego goes, I remember not too long ago I’d just got back from tour and the kids had locked the door to my house. I was stood there, like, ‘Open up this door! It’s me! Dad! Do you know who I am and what I’ve done?!’ They were just like, ‘Yeah, we know…’ Ha ha!”

Zoltan: “The better you get, the more humble you get, because the more sophisticated you are, the more you realise what you can’t do. At the beginning, a guy learns three chords and thinks, ‘Man, I’m a rockstar!’ The reason you think that is because you just don’t know how far you are from a Yngwie, in terms of ability. You have to be very sophisticated to understand the little mistakes you make.”

Zoltan Bathory

(Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

Do you think guitar music has become overshadowed by electronic music in the mainstream?

Ben: “EDM and pop have definitely taken over for now. Music is forever evolving and changing, and this is just another evolution in music that’s popular now. People get really upset and offended by it, but if you really listen, and I noticed this when we were writing our latest album, there’s been a lot of guitar in these songs. It’s just used in a different way. I had a DJ called Crank approach me and ask me to play on one of his songs, and he’s an EDM artist. I was like, ‘How is this gonna work?!’, but I went to his studio, I wrote licks over this thing and thought, ‘This stuff is here!’ And then there’s just the magic in a studio where you can manipulate the notes and change the tone, so I think, a lot of times, people don’t even realise there’s guitar there, but there still is. It’s going back to that nu metal thing: people are just trying to find new ways to present it and do different things with the guitar than what people usually associate the guitar with. If people opened their eyes and their ears, they’d notice that guitar isn’t disappearing, it’s just being utilised in a completely different way right now.”

Zakk: “You have to remember that when disco was huge, there were lots of people hugely into that, but that still didn’t stop Led Zeppelin, didn’t stop Al Di Meola, still didn’t stop Sabbath, or any of those guitar-driven bands. It’s just another form of people looking at what else is going on. I think the guitar is still alive and well – you just have to go on social media to find some amazing players. And I think they’re great! I think it’s awesome that they’re inspiring others, which is what it’s all about.”

What modern players are still kicking ass, then?

Lzzy: “I love the fact that there are people like Synyster Gates that aren’t afraid to come out and do solos and play like that.”

Ben: “I think there are legends among us, like when I mentioned Wes Borland and Jim Root, and yes there’s Synyster. Those guitarists, I think they do rightfully belong in that same league as Slash, Eddie Van Halen… and Zakk!”

Zakk: “Yeah, Avenged are doing great. They are inspiring a whole generation of 15-year-old kids to pick up a guitar.”

Lzzy: “Also, Reba Meyers from Code Orange, she’s my hero right now. She has approached metal in her own way, staying true to herself. I don’t even wanna call it a ‘look’, because you can tell that it’s genuinely her. And she’s a whole new voice for the girls that I grew up with in the Pennsylvania scene; we all liked heavy music, but we were an absolute rarity in the crowd as well as onstage. She represents the way that we felt when we went to see a metal show, and what we wanted to be and what we wanted to see onstage. It’s just so great that that’s there.”

So the future of guitar music is safe for now?

Lzzy: “Everything in rock and metal is a little confusing right now; everyone is trying to find out where they fit. What I love about a band like Code Orange is that it’s almost like they’re saying, ‘We don’t give a fuck if we die young.’ They’re just going at it 125%, do-or-die, ‘We’re gonna give you everything and leave blood on the stage’, and that is really needed right now.”

Ben: “When someone like Motörhead or Black Sabbath first put distortion on guitar, everyone went, ‘Wow!’, but I guarantee, when that happened, people were asking, ‘What are they doing to the guitar? This isn’t what the guitar was made for.’ They pushed the boundaries then and I think people are continuing to push the boundaries further now. Everything goes in cycles. Trends come and go. But, like I said, I think there are legends among us. In 20 years’ time, people will look back on Synyster Gates, Wes Borland and Tom Morello like, ‘He’s a guitar god!’”

Zakk: “If you’re truly a musician, it’s all in your DNA anyway. If I didn’t have Ozzy and Black Label Society, I’d be in a weddings band, or a cover band, or I’d own a music store, I’d teach… Everything would still revolve around music. I wouldn’t have a crummy job I couldn’t stand. So long as there’s a me and you to keep the light bills on and maybe buy a record every once in a while, I’d still do it. We’re all still playing music – we’re doing what we love doing and making money doing it. For any musician, that’s a win.”

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