(Zakk Wylde/Dario Lorina cover story for the June 2014 issue of Guitar Player magazine.)
Lifer — Zakk Wylde’s Undaunted Guitar Odyssey Continues in the Catacombs of the Black Vatican.
BY JUDE GOLD
(Bonus Material Follows This Story: An Interview with Wylde’s new co-guitarist, Dario Lorina)
By Jude Gold
It’s no secret that Zakk Wylde has, at times, been a bit of a rock and roll wild man (no pun intended). He is, after all, the guy who once totaled a golf cart backstage in Detroit, and, in his drinking days, would open beer cans on stage at Ozzfest by slamming them against his skull so hard they exploded. But while a strong argument can be made that you’d have to possess such a wild side in order to keep up with Ozzy Osbourne for the better part of two decades, it would be a mistake to judge the guitarist solely on his antics. This guitar hero is a lot more sophisticated than many guitar cognoscenti realize.
Take, for example, the militaristic bull’s-eye logo Wylde is so vividly associated with. It’s all over his signature Gibson guitars, Marshall heads, and Dunlop/MXR pedals—but while it may invite combat-related puns when describing his aggressive guitar parts (like “machine gun riffs,” “explosive tones,” etc.), the logo Wylde originally envisioned had nothing to do with artillery or targets.
“I wanted a spiral graphic like the one Alfred Hitchcock used for the movie Vertigo,” says the Black Label Society (BLS) leader. “But when I got the first guitar back, it had a bull’s-eye on it. I had to do a photo shoot that day, so I was like, ‘Oh well, I guess I’ll be the bull’s-eye guy.’”
Two years ago, with the release of the Zakk Wylde Les Paul Custom Vertigo, Gibson remedied that. “I had to wait 25 years for it, but I finally got the design I wanted.”
Other facts you might be surprised to learn about Wylde:
The passion and discipline Wylde has put into the guitar has resulted in the ultimate payoff: Like only a handful of other players on the planet, he has achieved a sound. Take, for example, the distinctive way he applies his snarling, ultra-wide vibrato to pinch harmonics, most notably on the low string. Now there’s a sonic signature that can pass Les Paul’s famous “Can your mom tell it’s you on the radio?” test.
Really, though, if you want to understand Wylde in an instant, there’s only one way: Close your eyes, open your ears, and listen to one of his solos—such as his volcanic lead on “My Dying Time,” off the new Black Label Society album, Catacombs of the Black Vatican [eOne Music]—and reflect on how powerfully his playing pairs anarchy with grace, ferocity with finesse, mayhem with musicality, chaos with calm, blues with bombast, defiance with discipline. Those things aren’t usually found together, but they go hand in hand with Wylde—both in his playing and in his life.
JUDE GOLD: What is the Black Vatican?
ZAKK WYLDE: It’s my home studio. It used to be the guesthouse, but we hired Zack Fagan and his company, Under the Wire, to convert it into a place where we could track and mix. Zack designed Ozzy’s home studio, and he does the job right. We basically gutted the place, which used to be a mobile home—ripped out the floors, the bathroom, and the shower—and remodeled. One bedroom became the drum room, and the master bedroom became the lounge. There is also a piano room, and another bedroom is now the amp room. The console and Pro Tools rig are in the middle of it all. It came out great.
What was your main amp on Catacombs of the Black Vatican?
I’m actually working with Marshall on updating my signature head, and we have a solid prototype that I’ve been using. That’s what I used on the majority of the record. We’re still tweaking it—you know, experimenting with different transformers, tubes, and stuff. It won’t be drastically different than the current version. The goal is just to further expand on the shimmer and tight bottom end that’s always been there. We were hoping it would be ready by January’s NAMM show, but we were still messing around with it.
I also have some Marshall Bluesbreaker combos at the Vatican, including a rare Jaguar Bluesbreaker that Jim Marshall gave to me personally. That thing sounds awesome. There were only like 45 of those made.
What did you do for clean sounds on the new album?
Well, I can get a great clean sound from my 800s by turning off my overdrive pedal and backing off the guitar’s volume—that results in a tone that kind of sounds like the clean part on ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” But a lot of the chimey stuff you hear on new songs like “Scars” and “Angel of Mercy,” and in the breakdown on “I’ve Gone Away” was done with a Roland Jazz/Chorus 120. For those parts, I used either the tobacco sunburst ’57 Les Paul Junior Ozzy gave me when we were recording No Rest for the Wicked or the ’58 double-cutaway Junior Michael Beinhorn got me when we were doing Ozzmosis. The P-90 pickups in those guitars sound great through the Roland.
Your new Les Paul Vertigo has a maple top, clear finish, and a maple fretboard. That’s a pretty striking combination. How does it sound?
It’s a bit brighter than, say, my Grail, which, like most Les Paul Customs, has an ebony fretboard. It’s a bit honkier. I remember Gibson had put out a Les Paul in 1978 or so that had a maple fretboard and a clear maple neck and looked cool. That was the idea behind the new guitar.
I used the Vertigo for pretty much all the distorted rhythm guitar tracks and many of the solos on Black Vatican. For the solos on “Angel of Mercy” and “Scars,” though, I used Blue Balls, which is what I call one of my Pelham Blue Les Paul Customs. And for the solo on “Damn the Flood,” I used the tobacco sunburst Johnny Winter-style Firebird that I got after we finished Ozzmosis. The single-coils on that thing sound great.
What’s the inspiration behind your new Gibson ZV Buzzsaw model? It looks like an SG fused with a Flying V.
Tony Iommi in the front, St. Rhoads in the back. [Laughs.]
Speaking of inspiration, what inspired you to stop drinking?
Well, five years ago, the back of my knee had been killing me, so I finally went to the doctor, and he said, “You’ve developed blood clots and need to be on blood thinners.” I said, “Doc, does this mean I have to chill out on the booze?” He goes, “Put it this way, Zakk. If you drink the way you tell me you do, and you’re on these blood thinners, whatever your first night of drinking is, I hope it’s a good one, because it will be your last.” I thought, “Well, that might suck.” So I stopped drinking.
What caused the clots?
I have no idea. I had always thought you only get blood clots when you’re 80 years old or so. Doc says, “No. Truck drivers get them, too. So do airplane pilots.” I guess if you’re sitting stationary for any length of time, you’re at risk. I thought, “I don’t sit around much. I work out, I lift, I’m always walking around, and I play shows.” But then I got to thinking about how I practice. When I’m sitting watching a Yankees game, running scales and noodling, there’s three hours in a chair right there. As soon as I wake up in the morning, I get a cup of hot java and I’m sitting there practicing. And when we’re in the studio tracking or mixing, and going to the club afterwards, that’s tons more hours of sitting down. The doctor said, “If clotting is a genetic tendency you’ve inherited from your parents, then all your years of drinking alcohol”—alcohol being a blood thinner—“ironically may have saved your life.”
What was it like to step out on stage sober for the first time in so long?
I remember talking to Alice Cooper once about my drinking days, and he told me, “Zakk, there are two entire records that I don’t even remember making.” [Laughs.] I was never that deep into it. But it did feel weird the first few times I went on stage without a few beers in me. I’d be looking at the guys going, “Bro, are we really about to play a rock show? Are we doing this?” But it’s just like playing football. The moment you hit somebody that first time, everything else goes out the window and it’s game on.
Either way, the drinking just was what it was—that was me back then. How would the Beatles or Hendrix have sounded if they came out in 1955 and never became engrossed in the ’60s culture of acid and weed and the hippie movement? Different, that’s for sure. Jimi was, at his core, a blues player—an amazing blues player. When you stuck all that psychedelia on top of his sound, well, that’s what made that soup.
Speaking of Jimi, you were featured on this year’s Experience Hendrix tour. That seems like a branching out of sorts for you.
It’s definitely cool to have had this opportunity to show people a different side of what I do. I was doing songs like “I Don’t Live Today,” “Purple Haze,” and, with Jonny Lang, “All Along the Watchtower.” One night we all closed with “Red House,” led by Billy Cox. And for “Are You Experienced,” I’d be on piano, accompanying Eric Johnson. The after-show hang was unbeatable. You’re sitting there trading war stories with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Gales, Rich Robinson, Dweezil Zappa, and Chris Layton from Double Trouble, and everyone’s laughing their balls off.
What’s most amazing, though, is hearing all these great players put their unique spin on somebody else’s music—in this case, the music of Jimi Hendrix. It makes me think of how Al Di Meola just put out a record of Beatles stuff [All Your Life: A Tribute to the Beatles].
What gear did you use on a Hendrix song like, say, “Purple Haze”?
I just used the same gear I use when I play with Ozzy or Black Label—two of my signature Marshall JCM 800 tops driving two Marshall 4x12 bottoms loaded with my EV 300-watt Black Label speakers. I love those speakers. They give me headroom like I’ve never had before, and have a great, automatic tightness about them. My pedals are all from my signature line at Dunlop. I designed it all with Dunlop, and use all of it every night, including my Dunlop Cry Baby Wah, my signature Rotovibe, and my MXR Wylde Phase and Overdrive. After the overdrive, I sometimes kick in a Dunlop Carbon Copy analog delay for some slap-back. I get a wide stereo sweep from my MXR Black Label Chorus pedal. I just go left and right out of that thing straight into the two heads
Wouldn’t it be cleaner to run the chorus through the effects loop?
The only reason I put effects loops on my signature heads is for all the guitar players out there who do like to use them. One reason the chorus works straight in for me is because my basic amp tone is not too distorted—it’s delivering an AC/DC-style “Back in Black” level of overdrive. I can hit it with the guitar full up and it doesn’t feed back. For solos or heavy rhythm parts—like if I’m doing “Miracle Man”—I kick in the overdrive. That pedal pushes things over the top and adds a ton of sustain. If I’m recording and want a wide spread, though, I don’t usually use chorus. I just double the parts, which results in a natural chorusing effect.
When did you first start using EMG 81/85 active humbuckers?
Ever since I started with Ozzy. I remember the day I got sold on EMGs. I was teaching at the time, and one of my students walked in with a Fender Jaguar with EMGs installed. We plugged it into my little Marshall combo, and I was stunned by the difference in tone between his skinny little guitar and my fat Les Paul Custom. With his guitar, it sounded like I had pulled a moving blanket off the speakers. I was like, “Wow, so that’s what that amp really sounds like.” I was blown away and have used EMGs ever since.
Why did Nick Catanese leave the Black Label Society?
Nick’s doing his own thing right now, working his ass off with a bunch of guys he’s jamming with. It’s not that there was a fight, or that he got kicked out or was fired. There was none of that. We all love him and always will. He’s off writing new music and giving it 1,000 percent. That’s the beautiful thing about this band—the guys can always leave and always have a home to come back to. It’s all about having creative freedom, just as it is with me and Ozzy.
How has it been playing with Dario Lorina?
Great. He really throws down. Our first concert together was the big Schecter event at the NAMM show in January, and then we did the acoustic book tour together on the West Coast, East Coast, and in Canada—which I call the Polar Bear Run, because temperatures were hysterically cold, often 40 or 60 below with wind chill factor. It was just me and Dario, and when I’d switch to piano, he’d be shredding on the guitar solos.
I love talking with Dario about guitar players we dig, because when I say, “Are you an Al Di Meola guy?” he says, “Yeah, but I found out about Al through Paul Gilbert,” because he’s 24. I asked him, “Are you a Jaco Pastorius guy?” And he said, “No, I’m a Billy Sheehan guy, but I found out about Jaco through Billy.” It’s really interesting how we reference things. Ask a young guitarist today if he likes Jimmy Page, and he’ll probably say, “Yeah. I learned about him through Slash.”
Does Dario use different gear than you on stage with BLS?
No, he actually goes out of a complete copycat version of my rig—same Marshall heads, same Dunlop pedals. There’s no sense in lugging in a ton of outside sh*t when I have everything we need right here—the same gear we used on the album, pretty much. He does use different guitars than me, though—LAG guitars. He really digs those and has been playing them for years.
You often use dropped tunings. Do you ever lower strings other the sixth string?
I keep the top five strings normal, so that when I’m soloing on those strings, all the scale patterns are the same as when I learned them. If all six strings in are in standard, I’ll be using one of my signature Dunlop .010-.052 sets. But the lower you drop a string in pitch, the thicker the string gauge you’ll need to keep the tension up so that the string doesn’t start flopping around and you can’t tell what you’re playing. The lowest I’ll go is dropped-B, and for that I like to have at least a .060 on there—maybe even a .070—to keep the string tight. I actually didn’t use any dropped-B on the new record, but a good example of it would be “Crazy Horse,” the first song on our last studio album, Order of the Black.
The first time I interviewed you, years ago, we hung out on your tour bus at Ozzfest for a couple hours. You had a Marshall Mini Stack installed beneath the table in the front lounge, and I don’t think the guitar left your hands once.
Nothing’s gonna change that. I start practicing first thing in the morning, every day. And if you really love guitar, it hardly feels like practicing. It’s fun—you’re like a kid playing a video game all day, trying to get to the next level.
Seeing you play up close, people might be surprised to see how often, in the middle of fast picked lines, you throw in notes plucked on higher strings with your picking hand’s middle finger, Nashville style.
That’s the Albert Lee influence. I really got into that sort of hybrid picking just before I joined up with Ozzy. You can hear some of it on our first album together, No Rest for the Wicked, on solos like “Crazy Babies” and “Devil’s Daughter.” When I got the Ozzy gig, I thought, “Obviously, I’m not going in the classical guitar direction, because that was Randy’s thing. I have to have my own thing.” I had seen this video of Albert Lee, and I just loved the sound of what he was doing, so I bought it. I learned all the licks on it, and that’s where the hybrid stuff came from. Guitar is all about learning from other players. One day you cop some licks from a Joe Pass or Allan Holdsworth record, and then you try to incorporate those licks into your playing. That’s always a cool thing to do. We’re all cooks getting recipes from each other.
Have you actually incorporated Joe Pass stuff into your playing?
Yeah, without a doubt. I’ve got a bunch of Joe Pass on my iTunes. I have some Ted Greene books, too. So every now and then I’ll whip those things out and go through some different licks, arpeggios, scales, or—especially in the case of Ted Greene—chords, and figure out ways to use it all, not just in my playing, but also in my writing. It’s just limitless, man. That’s the beautiful thing about guitar.
What advice do you give young players who have seen you play and tell you, “Man, I want to do that”?
Well, it depends what you want to do with music. If it’s just going to be a hobby for you, that’s cool—but when I was 14, I said, ‘I’m going to dedicate my life to this. I’m doing this.’ Even if I had never been blessed with having Ozzy in my life and having our Black Label family, I’d still be doing music. I’d never be one to sell all my gear and try something else. Me and JD [BLS bassist John DeServio], who I’ve known since I was 17, would still be at it. We’re lifers. We’d have a music store, be teaching, or have a wedding band and maybe also a cover band devoted to the music we love—probably all of the above. And we’d be writing music and doing our own thing, too. I could never have some crummy job where I’m digging a ditch, wondering, “What am I doing with my life? I can’t stand this.” Everything would still revolve around music. I’d be cleaning the floors at a music studio right now if I had to.
EXTRA: An interview with Zakk’s new right-hand man, Dario.
Young Gun on the Gig
Dario Lorina Joins Black Label Society
In the early ’90s, when Dario Lorina was just a toddler, his parents noticed that he loved hearing Alice In Chains, Mötley Crüe, Metallica, and other heavy bands cranked loudly through the car stereo. That music would become the soundtrack of his childhood. “The one tape I could not get enough of was the first Van Halen album,” says Lorina. “I listened to that incessantly as a little kid. Eddie was my guy.”
In 1995, when Lorina was six years old, he took up the guitar. At age 16, four years after his family had relocated from Boston to Las Vegas, he landed a pro gig touring with Warrant frontman Jani Lane. Just three years later, he found himself in Los Angeles, invited to try out for every metal player’s dream gig—playing guitar for Ozzy Osbourne. This was the job that his future employer, Zakk Wylde, had held on and off (mostly on) since 1987, two years before Lorina was born. Although Osbourne ultimately chose Firewind’s Gus G to be his new guitarist, Lorina’s audition was by no means a failure. Just getting on the radar at Ozzquarters would prove a success in itself.
In the five years that followed, Lorina kept busy, playing shows in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, and Europe with Lizzy Borden. “The Ozzy audition went well, but I was just 19 at the time, and not that experienced yet,” says Lorina. “I learned a lot doing all that touring with Lizzy Borden—like how to set up your rig in three minutes and get your tone at a festival where there’s no soundcheck. I also learned basic but important stuff, like how to travel and be professional on the road. That was also when I first started learning to sing. And, of course, being in that band, I had to learn how to play solos by [former Lizzy Borden/Ozzy Osbourne/David Lee Roth guitarist] Joe Holmes, which wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. That sure got my chops up!”
One person who’d had an eye on Lorina since his Jani Lane days was Mike Varney, owner and founder of Shrapnel Records. Impressed with the demos Lorina had been sending, he signed Lorina last year and put out the guitarist’s debut album, Dario Lorina. “I am beyond humbled to be on the same label as Paul Gilbert, George Lynch, Richie Kotzen, and all the other great Shrapnel artists,” says Lorina.
Suddenly, late last year, there was industry buzz of another big audition in metaldom, as Nick Catanese had left Black Label Society after 17 years. “The days of doing the whole cattle-call, American Idol approach of sitting there trying out 500 guitar players are over,” says Wylde. “Instead of doing that, we simply had people who know us and work with us recommend players they thought might be a good fit.”
Osbourne’s bassist, Blasko—who is also Wylde’s manager—was immediately on the case. In addition to seeking out talented guitarists he’d never heard of, he thought of Lorina. He had kept in touch with the now 24-year-old guitarist ever since the Osbourne audition, and encouraged him to send “some links.” Lorina immediately got to work. He went into his home studio in Las Vegas, set up his go-to Marshall JCM 900 stack, grabbed two LAG guitars (including his new signature model LAG Arkanator), used a construction lamp from his garage to light the room in a cool way, set up his Canon video camera, and shot a few videos of himself performing BLS songs.
“I wanted it to look like I was on stage at a festival gig,” says Lorina. “Although each video was just one long, continuous shot, I did trim the beginnings and endings later in iMovie so that things started and stopped cleanly. With the P.A. speakers facing me, I started with ‘Funeral Bell,’ playing along with the song note for note, doing the rhythm parts and the solo.”
Lorina made sure to showcase his vocals, too, singing along with BLS’s “Sold My Soul” for the camera. Next, he grabbed a Crafter DV250 steel-string and sang the Bill Withers soul classic, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” à la Wylde’s version on BLS’s 2013 live and unplugged album, Unblackened.
Wylde watched the videos and liked what he saw, so he flew Lorina out to Los Angeles. “When I finally met with Zakk,” says Lorina, “we didn’t really even play. I guess he already knew what I could do on guitar, so he just wanted to make sure I was a halfway decent person.”
Lorina was hired. “It was his great tan,” says Wylde, laughing. “The first thing I asked him was, ‘Is that a spray tan or a real tan?’ He said, ‘Real.’ I looked at Blasko and said, ‘Obviously, he’s committed to the project. And he’s a monster player, too, who’s done a record with Father Varney. This is our guy!’”