Zakk Wylde

By Paul Rigg

 A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing? 

Zakk Wylde
looks like Thor - with his ripped muscles, a long blond beard and swathed in black leather - but he sings as sweetly as an angel. He plays piano beautifully, but has named his kids Hendrix, Rhoads and Page. He looks ferocious to many, but writes such touching songs that countless fans write to him on Youtube to say how much he has helped them cope with the death of their lovers, sons, sisters, mothers…

As one fan wrote: “You see Zakk with this beard and think ''that guy is brutal'', and then you see him playing the piano and singing with such warmth in his voice that it makes you reconsider. That man is blessed, and we're blessed to have him.”


But who is ‘that man’, and what drives him?     

Jeffrey Phillip Wielandt
was born in the American state of New Jersey on 14 January, 1967, but adapted his name to Zakk Wylde for the stage. His first guitar was a Gibson firebrand, which he started playing at the age of eight, and which he still owns. Perhaps surprisingly for a man who is so closely associated with all that is heavy, his earliest influences were soft rock. I remember listening to Elton John, I think it was Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on a Sonny & Cher show, and it was the first time that music gave me the chills,” he says. “After that I wanted to get every Elton John record -[until…Black] Sabbath made me shit my pants!”

At 14 Wylde got a job selling musical instruments at Silverton Music shop while he attended Jackson Memorial High School in New Jersey, but he was so obsessed with practising guitar that he could barely concentrate on his classes.I’d listen to Jimmy Page and Saint Rhoads and play at night, and then I’d have my music scores in my school books during the day,” he says in one interview. He emphasizes, however, that his bloody-minded commitment to music did not stop him from passing his exams.


Wylde played locally with his first band Stone Henge, then later with local New Jersey band Zyris. In those days you generally had to make your mark in music by playing live and/or by impressing record companies, and that hard work and dedication left an indelible stamp on Wylde’s philosophy, which he holds to this day. “When I was 18 if you didn’t have a record deal by the time you were 30 you might as well get a haircut and a job that you are miserable at, and that was it; whereas nowadays with social media you can just do it yourself, man,” he says. “Don’t look for handouts - do it yourself, plow ahead and fuck everybody else. You should be accountable and get on top of it… don’t assume anyone else is gong to do it for you because you are going to get fucked.”

Wylde auditioned as lead guitarist and co-writer for Ozzy Osbourne after they met at a gig. “He said ‘you play guitar?’ and I said ‘yes’ and he said ‘how about you give me a deal on your steroids and I’ll let you play in my band’ – and the rest is history,” as Wylde himself tells it. He was hired to replace Jake E. Lee, who replaced Brad Gillis, who in turn had replaced Randy Rhoads. Rhoads, who was killed in an aeroplane accident, and Dimebag Darell, who was shot while playing on stage in 2004, remain among the guitarist’s biggest guitar influences today, and he constantly pays homage to them in interviews. “There is no replacing Dimebag or Rhoads,” he says. “Everytime we are up there we are celebrating Randy’s greatness; [and neither] can you replace Dime, because he is unique and special.”


Around this time Wylde, in order to have something distinctive, asked a friend of his to paint the spiral image of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on his guitar, but when it was returned it had a bullseye motif on it instead, which gradually grew on the guitarist. However, in 2000 his bullseye-painted 1981
Gibson Les Paul Custom, or The Grail as it became known, fell out of the back of the truck that was carrying the band’s equipment between concerts in Texas and, despite Wylde doing everything in his power to locate it, was considered lost for good. Amazingly, years later, a fan was in a pawn shop in Dallas when he noticed Wylde’s initials carved into the humbuckers on the same model, and snapped it up for $250. The fan then returned it by contacting Wylde, who invited him and his family to his house and gave him one of his signature guitars as a thank you. It is here that it is appropriate to recall Brad Paisley’s saying on Guitars Exchange’s front page: “Sometimes guitars find their way home like a lost dog.”

Wylde had an enormously successful stint with the ex Black Sabbath until 1995 when his musical interests led to an amicable break with Ozzy’s band, until he rejoined him in 2001. In the meantime Joe Holmes played guitar for Ozzy while Wylde developed his own band, and also played guitar for
Guns N' Roses. It has been reported that the guitarist had “to audition” for Axl Rose’s band, but Wylde is emphatic that that is not how it works. “It wasn’t an audition, I got to know Slash when I first joined Ozzy… they just called me up and said ‘do you want to get together and jam?’[…] you don’t re-audition you are just playing with the band - we say ‘it’s good to see you again’ and ‘you’re back’”.


Wylde has partly satiated his desire to create his own sound, as well as to sing, by releasing solo albums Book of Shadows and Book of Shadows II, founding Pride & Glory in 1994, and the heavy metal and Southern blues band Black Label Society in 1998. Black Label have released 10 studio albums and toured extensively, sometimes alongside bands like Ozzy’s (on which he has ‘doubled up’ as guitarist), and Megadeth. He has also played extensively with Queens of the Stone Age’s Joey Castillo, Steve Vai, Buddy Guy and Nuno Bettencourt, but he clearly needs to have his own independent creative outlet. When asked if he ever has ‘writer’s block’ he replies that he finds inspiration practically everywhere. “The spark can be listening to something like Wild Horses by the Stones, for example, you can’t help but be inspired; I apply myself and make it happen. You just have to put in the work and just keep going […] until you find something you’re happy with... Just listen to Iommifor instance, every record he is just writing these masterpiece Bach Beethoven riffs – the band were left thinking ‘what is he going to pull out of his ass this time?’"

As can be seen, Wylde is known for his colourful language. When Black Label wanted to use the alcohol brand image on one of their album covers, for example, the company phoned him up and asked him not to do it. Wylde acknowledges that they were very polite but he nonetheless cannot help but wryly express their representative’s phone call in his own terms: “Our alcohol is high end, we are trying to run a brewing company… you are sub-septic scumbags, so get your balls off our shit,” he says, with a laugh.


In January 2006, Wylde was inducted into the Hollywood Rock Walk of Fame, in recognition of his contribution to the music industry. Wylde has also found time to write a regular column on his technique for a guitar magazine; act in a number of films; marry and have four children; and be a devoted Roman Catholic. He is self-assuming and admits his weaknesses, such as his struggles with alcohol, with humour: “I had a good run but when I had blood clots I ended it…” he says, “I just have a good black label cry from time to time.”

There is a lovely moment in one live performance that features Wylde playing his beautiful song In the River, dedicated to his deceased friend Dimebag, which provides a special insight into the Ozzy guitarist’s great soul. One of the Dean guitars in Wylde’s
collection is a Razorback with a bullseye image that was especially ordered for him by his friend shortly before his murder; and which Wylde only ever uses when he plays that song live. In the seventh minute of the video, which is included in our selection, Wylde - after playing a wonderful solo behind his back and with his teeth, and singing his heart out - looks up at the ceiling in what is clearly a personal tribute… and then gently hands his own beer to members of the audience.

This is a man who, in the nicest possible sense, might be described as ‘a sheep in wolf’s clothing’; and the love and devotion he creates among his fans is clear for all to see.