Zakk Wylde: “Ozzy Said, ‘Look At This Kid, He Must Really Love Randy Rhoads…’ I Shit My Pants And He Said, ‘Change Your Pants Then We’ll Play’”
All it took was one art lesson at a New Jersey high school for a young Jeffrey Wielandt to succumb to the seductive power of the riff. A student in his class had spent his time drawing a detailed, jawless skull surrounded by lightning bolts. You know, the sort of artistic effort which would have concerned teachers contacting parents for a quiet word.
But Jeffrey – who’d change his name to the decidedly more rocking Zakk Wylde seven years later – was transfixed. That crude rendering of a metal T-shirt design had piqued his interest in a band who were from the other side of the Atlantic.
“My buddy said the band were called Black Sabbath,” remembers Zakk. “His older brother introduced him to their music. I’d never even heard of them. I ended up getting [Black Sabbath’s 1975 compilation] We Sold Our Soul For Rock’N’Roll. After that, it was a matter of collecting their records and Ozzy’s solo stuff with Randy Rhoads.”
It was a chance meeting with a local guitar tutor which sparked a near four-decade love affair with the guitar. He played for Stone Henge and then Zyris. When Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist Jake E. Lee was fired, the glam metal-haired teen recorded a demo in the hopes of filling the vacant slot. Ozzy once revealed that his tape – this was 1987, remember – was the first and only one he listened to.
Since then, Zakk has performed all over the world with the Black Sabbath vocalist, while fronting his own band Black Label Society since 1998.
“It’s like being a soccer fan as a kid, your favourite team is Manchester United and now you’re on the team!” says Zakk of landing the Ozzy gig. “If you’re going to play for that team, you’re supposed to win championships every year. That’s why you’ve been drafted to play. That’s the way I’ve always viewed being an Ozzy guitarist. I’m truly blessed.”
Over the course of his career, he’s evolved into a muscle-bound, Viking biker-sort, and, more importantly, is now regarded as one of the greatest guitarists in the world. And while Manchester United aren’t quite as formidable in the Premier League these days, Zakk’s success shows no sign of flagging.
When did you decide to devote your life to heavy metal?
“I was 14. I was playing as a linebacker and I went to my coach’s house to talk about continuing to play football when I went to high school. There was a Les Paul in the room, and I was like, ‘Mr. Wright, do you play guitar?’ He said he played country music, but his son Leroy was the one who was serious about it. Leroy came out and played some Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Ozzy had just released Crazy Train, so he played some of that. I was mesmerised, like he was doing a magic trick. Right there, I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life. I took lessons from Leroy for about a year and a half. He was great, teaching me theory and the songs I wanted to learn by the likes of AC/DC, Sabbath, [Jimi] Hendrix and Zeppelin.”
How did you react when you first heard Randy Rhoads playing on Ozzy’s 1980 solo debut, Blizzard Of Ozz.
“I was floored. Ozzy always says, ‘Before The Beatles came out, life was in black and white and then everything was in colour.’ Ozzy’s first two records [Blizzard… and 1981’s Diary Of A Madman] were like my Beatles experience. Whenever I hear a song like Over The Mountain, it transports me back in time. I love those records and Randy Rhoads’ playing.”
Did your guitar ever leave your side during your teenage years?
“I would play all day, but I guess it’s the equivalent of kids playing video games nowadays. You just want to keep getting to the next level. Any musician will tell you, if you love playing your technique and skills improve. When I first learned the lick in AC/DC’s Back In Black, that was a major breakthrough. The addiction took hold.”
When was the first time you saw Ozzy live?
“The first concert I ever saw was Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio on vocals, on the Mob Rules tour. But the first time I saw The Boss [Zakk’s nickname for Ozzy] was at Madison Square Garden [in April 1982]. I’d bought a ticket to see Randy Rhoads, but Bernie Tormé was playing [due to Rhoads’ tragic death the previous month]. I was lucky enough to talk to Bernie before he passed away [in March 2019]. I told him how inspiring he was at that show. I was only 15 then, but I remember how great he played.”
Five years later, you replaced Jake E. Lee as Ozzy’s guitarist. What do you remember about the audition?
“I went down and Ozzy was like, ‘Have I met you before?’ It’s because he saw a Polaroid of me that I sent in with the tape and he said, ‘Hey, look at this kid, he must really love Randy Rhoads.’ I remember I shit my pants and he said, ‘Zakk, just change your pants then we’ll play,’ then he said, ‘And make me a ham sandwich, but go light on the Colman’s mustard.’ He still tells me to change my trousers and make him a sandwich!”
How drastically did your life change?
“It changed. I was making more money than when I was pumping gas. People always say that fame and money changes you, but I think anybody who was an asshole in high school who then gets a bit of fame or money, it’s just adding water to the plant. I think at the core is who you are. What got you there is hard work and practice. I don’t know how people believe their own bullshit. I’m blessed to be able to do what I want to do. I’m a huge Ozzy, Randy and Jake E. Lee fan, and now I’m in the band. It’s the coolest thing ever.”
One of your first Ozzy gigs was at Wormwood Scrubs in London. Nothing like a prison gig to learn on the job, eh?
“I was pretty much the closest thing to Pamela Anderson that those inmates were going to be seeing for a while! That was one of the high points of my career. I must have passed the audition, otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”
The first song you wrote with Ozzy was Miracle Man, which appeared on 1988’s No Rest For The Wicked. What was that time like in the studio?
“We were writing at a converted horse barn near Brighton, and there was a pub in walking distance called The Wheatsheaf. I remember between the drinking in the studio, we’d be at the pub, jamming in the beer garden. It was a blast and we had nothing but fun. With Miracle Man, I played something and Ozzy got me to keep playing it while he came up with the melody. He’d always knock it out of the park. He’s the king of melody.”
Your Pride And Glory album turned 25 last year. How important was it for you to make that particular record?
“It showed my love for The Allman Brothers, Elton John, Sabbath and everything else. When we played Monsters Of Rock in 1994, it was amazing. Playing Donington with The Boss was a big deal for me.”
The following year, you spent a week jamming with Guns N’ Roses. What was it like playing with Axl Rose?
“I’d known Slash and Axl when Appetite [For Destruction] started exploding, because that’s when I went out to LA to work with Ozzy. I kept running into them at [famous dive bar] The Rainbow. Gilby [Clarke, GN’R guitarist] had just left, so Slash suggested they give me a call. I was working on [Ozzy’s 1995 album] Ozzmosis at the time. Axl asked me to come down for a jam, and we had a lot of laughs. Nothing was really happening other than demos at Duff [McKagan, GN’R bassist]’s house. Oz was like, ‘Are you gonna play with the fellas or are we doing this?’ I needed an answer from the guys, but nothing happened. Oz couldn’t wait around, so he got Joe Holmes in. He shreds.”
How did that feel?
“It was pretty cool seeing someone else play your stuff. Joe crushed it. He’s a good dude, man. I didn’t fall out with Ozzy. There was no big fight or whatever. We’ve never got into an argument, ever.”
A few years later, you formed Black Label Society. How did that come about?
“I’d done [debut solo album] Book Of Shadows before that, and that whole thing was just me sitting around in limbo. I wasn’t ready to be a singer-songwriter. I was like, ‘I’ll just take these riffs, the heavy things and the mellow stuff’, and that’s pretty much how Black Label was born. It all came out of that. I was just like, ‘What am I going to do here? I can’t be sitting around for the rest of my life,’ so I thought, ‘I’ll just sing on it myself.’”
Black Label Society have been really prolific in the last two decades. What stands out as a personal highlight for you?
“The whole ride. Playing the Royal Albert Hall in London was definitely an honour. I mean Sabbath, Cream, Hendrix, The Beatles, the Stones and Zeppelin all played there. That’s kind of like playing Madison Square Garden in New York City if you’re an American. Every legendary band worth their salt has played there, so it was pretty cool.”
In 2009, doctors advised you to stop drinking after you suffered blood clots. What impact did that have on your lifestyle?
“I used to love drinking. Like, sitting in practice, I’d crack open a cold beer or I’d go to the pub to solve the world’s problems, talk about sports, music or current events. But when I was 42, the doctor said I needed a liver transplant. He was like, ‘Guys die on that table, or you could just quit right now and go listen to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath records, and make sure you have a clean bill of health.’ I was like, ‘Well, I definitely love Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi too much not to,’ so I stopped drinking right there.”
Speaking of the sauce, you released your own Berserker Hot Sauce.What’s the hottest you can handle?
“Even when I made hot sauces, I still stuck to the mild stuff. We had ones where you couldn’t even have it touching your skin. That’s how amazingly hot that shit was. I enjoy a hot curry, but I want to actually taste the food when I’m eating it. I don’t want it to burn holes in my body, where I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, I have three assholes now!’”
Everyone has an idea of what Ozzy is like based on his larger-than-life public persona, but how is he in private?
“Friends who’ve known Ozzy ever since he was eight years old have all said the same thing, that no matter how much money he’s had or how much fame he’s had, he’s always been the same as he was back in school. He takes the piss out of himself all the time. Even if you just sit around watching TV with him, you’ll be on the floor crying and laughing. It’s a miracle that any work ever gets done. He’s hysterical all the time. We get together, we jam and we go home.”
Your Instagram feed is a fine example of a musician who doesn’t take themselves too seriously. What makes you laugh?
“The movie Animal House and stuff like that. I re-watch a lot of old Seinfeld episodes, too. As far as social media goes, I think it’s cool that you can let everybody know what you’re up to, what the band’s currently doing and where you’re going to be in the world. I just like having a good time with it all.”
You don’t feature on Ozzy’s latest album Ordinary Man, but do you think you’ll record with him again someday?
“If he wants to do it, without a doubt. He’ll say, ‘Zakk, if you have any riffs lying around, then let me hear them and we’ll take it from there.’ [When my daughter got married] Ozzy and his family were there. They remember the day she was born. It’s pretty crazy how time flies, man.”
You’ve known Sharon Osbourne since you were 19. What sort of influence has she had on your life?
“I lovingly refer to her as Mom. She’s been like a mother figure to me since then. My life wouldn’t be what it is without them, that’s a fact. I wouldn’t have Black Label and I wouldn’t have been able to do Pride And Glory or anything. Everything I have, I owe it to them. They took a 19-year-old kid and gave him the an opportunity of a lifetime.”
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