Guitar Messenger’s NAMM 2015 interview with Zakk Wylde began with a long black car with tinted windows pulling into the 7-11 parking lot where we’d been told to wait. After being whisked away from the convention grounds, we were welcomed as friends by Zakk in a spacious hotel room filled with unfamiliar gear bearing his trademark bullseye. After making himself a household name by destroying arenas with Ozzy Osbourne, charting his own path with Black Label Society, and partnering with numerous high-profile companies for signature guitar gear, Zakk has finally taken his star power to the logical conclusion – his very own line of audio products. Read on as he reveals the story behind his development of Wylde Audio, explains his writing process, and encourages young musicians to play every chance they get.
IC: Tell me a little bit about Wylde Audio and how you got the idea to come up with this new line of gear.
ZW: To me it’s just a natural progression. You’re a player, then you’re a coach, then you’re general manager for the team, and then the next logical step for me and you would be [to become] team owners. Being with Marshall, Gibson, and Dunlop for all these years, I couldn’t ask for anything more. The reason why I’m with them, is because I think they’re the best. Now starting my own thing, that’s basically like moving out of your parent’s house. That’s pretty much what it is. I’ve always wanted to do it, so now is the time.
IC: How does this gear differ compared to your Gibson, Dunlop, and Marshall gear that you’ve had over the years?
ZW: Like you said, the quality has to be stellar. I’m not going to sit here and play anything inferior. It’s not like with Gibson my signature Les Pauls are inferior to other Les Pauls. You have to make stuff that’s got to be slamming. It’s the same thing with the Marshalls. Making a signature head, [it’s not like] ‘No, you don’t want that one. It’s the worst of the batch.’ No. Everything’s got to kick ass.
I designed it all myself, and we gave it the Black Label Pepsi Challenge [blind listening test] over at the Black Vatican [Zakk’s studio] with the little speakers in the studio, the sound of it just cranking in there. You can really hear the difference of what has the best fidelity. From the shimmering highs, to the bottom, [whether] it’s a really tight bottom, and the mids and everything… you can hear it with the little speakers. I can be cranking these things in here, and after about three minutes, you’re not gonna know – your ears are gone, man. They don’t know what’s good or what’s bad. They know it’s loud, but that’s about it.
So I’ll check everything myself, and that’s always been that way – whether we were doing signature Marshalls or guitars, or whatever. You can tell what it needs, and what needs to be tweaked and what sounds good and what doesn’t.
IC: You’ve had the bullseye for some time as a part of your image – it’s on [most of your gear]. How did that first come into the equation?
ZW: I thought most of my image was of having large breasts, and I’m very curvy, and my J.Lo. power rump… [laughs] But I guess there’s a bullseye in there somewhere. Originally, I wanted it to be the vertigo from the Alfred Hitchcock thing, and my buddy Max had painted it. I had a photo session that day, I opened it up I went, ‘Max this is a bullseye, man.’ He goes, ‘Yeah. I thought that’s what you wanted.’ I go, ‘No. I wanted the vertigo thing.’ He goes, ‘Oh. Well, I fucked up.’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ Anyway, so I did a photo shoot that day and the rest is history, man.
IC: So you’ve got guitars, amps, pedals… you’ve pretty much got the entire line-up with your own company now, right?
ZW: Yeah, but we’re going to do everything now. It’s Wylde Audio, so it’s going to be everything. We’re also going to be into refrigeration, air conditioning, kitchen goods, utensils, you name it… No seriously, like the kitchen sink, anything we could think of. It would be like you and me being in the studio and going, ‘Man, you know what would be great? If somebody had a pedal that did this or whatever.’ Even out to outboard gear, Pro Tools studio stuff, mics – everything.
It could be something that we’re using, that we could improve upon. Whether it would be like an Echoplex and going, ‘Man, this thing breaks all the time. It would be great if somebody built one sturdy enough where you could take it on the road.’ Then it’s like, ‘Yeah. Well, then let’s do that. We’ll make our own version of it, and we’ll just tweak it and make it ours.’
It’s like I said, it’s a dream come true because now whatever it is me and you want to make, we’ll just make it.
IC: What’s it like for you when you get into the studio to write something new and lay it down? How much of it is worked out, how much of it just happens when you’re jamming on something and you hit the record button?
ZW: Like with everybody, it just depends on what side of the bed you woke up that day. Whether you get inspired by… you could hear ‘Whole Lotta Love’ on the radio and go, ‘Man, it would be cool if we just had something that basic where it’s just the main riff and then the vocal comes in or whatever.’ Or you could hear ‘Heart Of Gold’ by Neil Young and just go, ‘It would be killer if we had something like that.’ Then you pick up an acoustic and you do something.
Now after it’s done you go, ‘Zakk, I was listening to ‘Heart of Gold’ and I got the idea for that song.’ I go, ‘If you hadn’t told me that, I would have never gotten that.’ Because the song sounds completely different than ‘Heart Of Gold’ or whatever. Or ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ or something. I was just like, ‘I would have never got that, unless you told me that’s where you got inspired to write that song.’ That’s the cool thing about music.
Usually, when we make the record, like with Catacombs Of The Black Vatican, I’m like, ‘How much time do we have before the fellas get out here?’ My wife Barbaranne is like, ‘You’ve got about twenty-five days.’ I go, ‘All right, I‘ve got twenty-five days to make a record.’ So you go out there every day and just start jamming riffs and you go, ‘there’s one, there’s another one.’ If you don’t come out with anything you dig, you wake up tomorrow and you just sniff some more glue, do some more steroids and you’ll come up with something. [laughs]
IC: You’ve reached so many milestones in your career which many people can only dream of. Obviously, it’s exciting when it happens, but then you wake up the next day and you’re always keeping busy and moving on to the next thing. What’s something excites you these days? What gets you out of bed?
ZW: Right now, obviously starting Wylde Audio, but every record and every tour. Every night I get up on stage, I love it. I never get like, ‘Oh, I’m bored, I want to go home.’ I never, ever get like that. I got buddies that are just like, ‘Dude, I couldn’t stand touring anymore.’ Or it’s the other way around, ‘I can’t stand making records, but I like touring.’ I like the whole thing. Even when I played football, I dug the tour days, I dug lifting weights, I dug running plays. There wasn’t anything about it that I didn’t like. It’s the whole process.
As I always tell kids, ‘When you’re playing video games, you’re having a good time. You’re not practicing playing video games, are you? You want to get to that next level. You’re not practicing, though. You’re enjoying doing it.’ Obviously, as a guitarist or on pianos or drums, any instrument, you practice triplets until you can get them smooth. It’s just repetition. I just always think it’s funny when people ask me, they’re like, ‘Oh, do you still practice?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’
Michael Jordan and Larry Bird still practice free throws everyday. It’s part of your routine. You wake up, you have a cup of Valhalla Java [Coffee], you make sure you’re still breathing – that’s usually first – and then I just run scales. It’s the morning ‘running of the scales,’ but it’s just like shooting free throws. It’s part of what you do every day and that’s that. Then you fondle your genitals like the wonderland that it is. That’s after the running of the scales. [laughs]
IC: Looking back on your career, if you could give a piece of advice to someone coming up in the business now, what’s something you could offer them?
ZW: Well, do like Uncle Zakk… buy a lot of stock in Anal-Ese – that’s helped me tremendously. Actually otherwise, without it, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Literally sitting… because I’m so gapingly massive. It’s prevented a lot of leakage, let’s put it that way. [laughs]
No, the whole thing is like anything – if you have passion for what you want to do and that’s what you want to do, you’ve just got to bust your balls and go for it if you want to play music. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby. If you’re like, ‘No. This is what I’m going to do with my life.’ Then, you do it.
That’s how it is with every musician I know, all my buddies. They’re just like, ‘No, Zakk, I refuse to get a crap job that I can’t stand. I’m going to play music and that’s that.’ Whether you’re playing Madison Square Garden for three nights or me and you are playing in a cover band and a wedding band on weekends, we’re still playing music, and that’s what we’re going to do. That would be the advice I would give – just work. And like I said, it’s not work if you’re doing something you love, man. You’re playing music, so it’s really never work, because you’re doing what you love. Like fondling your body like the wonderland that it is. That ain’t work, either. That’s just pure love – for yourself. [laughs]
IC: You’ve done a couple of interviews in your career. What’s something you’ve never mentioned before?
ZW: That I don’t like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I liked them when I was five and I’m forty-eight now, and I still thoroughly enjoy them.
ZW: Exactly. There was a rumor going around that I didn’t like them, and that’s false.
IC: You’ve mentioned you have [upcoming Wylde Audio gear in the works], but for right now can you tell us about some of these pedals and guitars in the room, and just give us a brief overview?
ZW: Obviously, we’re working on some Wylde Audio pedals. These are my signature Dunlop pedals – the Black Label Chorus and the Berzerker Overdrive. Right here you’ve got the Wylde Audio Master 100 in cream and gold, and then obviously you’ve got the silver and black over there. The whole thing is what I would always do with Marshall, too, which was awesome – make it as basic and as bare-bones as possible.
The same thing with these Wylde Audio Master 100’s. You just plug in and it either sounds good or it doesn’t. You shouldn’t have to read a manual from NASA to figure out how to make the thing sound good. I just never understood that. It should just – you plug it in, you turn it on, turn it up and then whatever it is you don’t want in there that’s killing you, you just turn it down and there’s your guitar tone. We’ve got the Master 100, and then we’ve got the Master 50, Master 25, Master 15 – whatever the wattage is.
I just love stuff as basic as you can get it. We’ve got the little mini stacks, the practice amps, and everything like that. Obviously, everything here is a prototype, but I’m really stoked with the way everything is turning out.
[Special thanks to Chris Dingman and Alexander Pierce for their fantastic video work, and Chris’ additional editing assistance!]