Gus G. is best known as the guitarist in Ozzy Osbourne’s band—the latest addition to an esteemed lineage that includes six-string legends like Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee and Zakk Wylde.
But prior to joining up with Ozzy in 2009, the Greek guitarist had already made a name for himself as the mastermind behind Firewind, a power-metal unit whose bracing and soaring anthems function as a platform for Gus’ over-the-top, acrobatic shredding.
Over the years, the 34-year-old has also played with Euro metal acts like Nightrage and Mystic Prophecy, and even did a short stint with Swedish technical death metallers Arch Enemy, standing in for Christopher Amott on the 2005 Ozzfest tour.
Needless to say, Gus is not one to take it easy for any length of time. And so, in 2014, while Osbourne was otherwise busy with the Black Sabbath reunion, the guitarist took the opportunity to launch a solo career, releasing his debut album under his own name, I Am the Fire.
The record saw Gus not only flexing his technical guitar muscles but also honing his songwriting chops. The album boasted a mix of hooky hard rockers and speedy metal anthems, on which Gus was joined by an array of guests that included vocalists like Mats Leven (Candlemass), Jeff Scott Soto (ex–Yngwie Malmsteen, Trans-Siberian Orchestra) and Ralph Saenz, a.k.a Michael Starr (Steel Panther) and bassists like Mr. Big’s Billy Sheehan and Megadeth’s David Ellefson.
Now, less than a year later, Gus is already back with his sophomore effort, Brand New Revolution.
As for why this record followed so quickly after I Am the Fire, he explains, “I just had the songs, really. On this album I wrote a lot with Jacob Bunton, the singer for Lynam and Steven Adler’s band, and the thing about Jacob is we did a song that ended up on the first record, and then after I mixed that record we just kept on writing. And the next song we came up with was ‘Brand New Revolution.’ I even wanted to include it on the first record but the label was like, ‘No, no, we have enough.’ But I thought it was a pretty killer song and so I said, ‘All right, there’s the title track of my second record!’ So we were on a roll and we kept on writing. Before I knew it, I had an album.”
On Brand New Revolution, Gus is once again joined by several guest vocalists, including Bunton, Levin and Soto. And, like I Am the Fire, the new album sports more than its fair share of guitar pyrotechnics.
But, first and foremost, it is a collection of songs; in fact, other than the opening number, a dazzling display of technical ferocity called “The Quest,” there are no instrumentals on the record. “That’s really what I was going for,” Gus says. “I’m actually getting a lot of pressure right now to put out an instrumental album, but I’m not the kind of guy who can write 10 or 12 of those. It’d probably take me 10 years to do a record like that. I like to write songs—I’m a band guy and I like to work with singers. I’m very old school. I just like three-minute, catchy songs. But they have to have cool guitar parts—that’s the difference. If you know how to write a great song and you can put a killer solo to it, to me, that’s it.”
Days before leaving for Germany for a string of dates as the support act for Hellyeah, Gus spoke to Guitar World from his home in Thessaloniki, Greece, about his influences, how he sees himself as a guitarist and creating Brand New Revolution.
He also took time to discuss the status of Firewind and how his solo work differs from his output with that band, as well as give a bit of insight into what it’s like to have “the most coveted guitar position in the world” with the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne.
How did Brand New Revolution come together?
It’s almost like two EPs in one, because it was done in two sessions. The first session was done in L.A. with a band in a live room, with Jay Ruston [Anthrax, Steel Panther] engineering, and we caught that live energy and atmosphere and vibe. The other half, I came back here to Greece and we did it the more traditional way for me, where the drummer lays down the tracks first and then I do the bass and the guitars. So it’s half and half.
Do the two halves sound distinct to you?
They do. I don’t know if other people can tell so much, but I can hear it. But overall I think this record actually sounds more cohesive than the last one. Because doing the L.A. sessions let me know the direction I wanted to go in with the record. So even though the second half was not done with the band all together in a room we tried to capture the same vibe.
You’ve said that you like to write songs, not instrumentals. But Brand New Revolution starts off with a pretty intense instrumental, “The Quest.” Is that type of thing more difficult for you to write?
Yeah, it is. That song is just me going apes--- on the guitar. Just really f---ing balls out on every aspect. And that stuff comes out of nowhere, really. Every time I write an instrumental I don’t know where the hell it comes from. Because I really don’t know how to develop an idea for an instrumental. It’s always in my mind that I’ll play a riff and I’ll hear a vocal melody over it. I’m always thinking, Where’s the chorus? The only guy I know who can write a proper instrumental is probably Joe Satriani. He’s very good with that.
Yeah, he uses his guitar as the voice. And he does it in a very normal songwriting way. But, I don’t know, when it came to “The Quest” I thought, first of all, it’s a good opening track. I needed something fast. But the song has an impact on the whole record. Because it’s the one instrumental, and it starts the album. So it’s almost like a trick. I can understand if some guitar fans might be like, “What the f---?” when they hear the rest of the record. [laughs] They might expect 10 songs like that but that’s not what they get. But that said, there is a lot of guitar work all over the album. There’s a lot of solos, a lot of cool stuff.
Do you work out your solos in advance or do you tend to improvise in the studio?
Both, really. It depends on the song. For example, the outro solo on “Behind Those Eyes” [from Brand New Revolution] which is kind of a ballady, Eighties type of thing, I improvised a few different ideas and then kept the best parts. But a lot of the other stuff, I like to plan it out. I’ll do some takes and see what ideas I like and then start building up from there.
What gear did you use to record Brand New Revolution?
I used my ESP signature guitars—the Random Star and the Eclipse models. And they’re loaded with my Seymour Duncan pickups, the FIRE Blackouts. The idea for them was basically taking a passive pickup and making it active. They’re pretty hot, and the output is insane. I also have a Washburn acoustic that I used on a couple things. For amps, I used my Blackstar Blackfire 200 signature head, and I also recorded some parts with a Blackstar HT Stage 100. For a lot of things I also went back and reamped my parts with an EVH 5150 III 50-watt head.
What about effects?
I never record with effects. I just go straight in and then we add stuff later. There’s chorus and flangers and delays, all that stuff, but those are things Mike Frazer added when he mixed the record. I didn’t use any of that stuff when I recorded my parts.
On both solo albums you’ve opted to use several different vocalists, rather than stick with one voice throughout. Why?
It just sort of happened like that. I’ve always made records with Firewind where we have one singer. But going solo it was like, you open this door of opportunities. It’s a new thing and it’s exciting again. On the last record there were a lot of guests, and maybe seven or eight singers. This record it’s a bit more pulled in to those few who are closer in my circle as musicians and friends and cowriters. I just really enjoy playing with them so that’s what I did. It’s a bit different from what a lot of other people are doing, but being different is good, I guess. [laughs]
Even though Firewind is a band, most people see it as your project, more or less. So why do a solo album?
Because with Firewind, we’ve made seven studio albums in 10 years. And we’ve been through a lot of lineup changes, especially singers. It became a bit frustrating for me. And I just happened to be very tired of the whole band thing and just doing the album-tour cycle again. At the same time, I had all these ideas that were a bit more hard rock rather than speed metal or power metal. So I wrote a couple songs with Mat, I wrote a track with Jeff, and I thought, Maybe this is a good time to do this…
What is the current status of Firewind?
Right now we’re on a hiatus. I have a few new demos and they sound pretty good but, to be honest, I haven’t really had all that much time to focus on them. I’ve been so busy the last year and a half with my solo thing. But that said, I’m not stopping Firewind. We are going to come back and do another record, maybe at the end of next year, or the year after, who knows.
How about Ozzy? Where do things stand at the moment?
He was supposed to do another Sabbath thing this year but I guess now it looks like it’ll be in 2016. So I think Ozzy is basically filling the gaps by doing some solo gigs. We just did a mini tour in South America—the Monsters of Rock with Judas Priest and Motörhead. And now we’re doing two shows in Mexico in August and then Ozzfest Japan in November. Other than that, we’ll have to wait and see.
When you were first invited to audition for Ozzy’s band, it was through an email, correct?
Yes. It was just one of those crazy things that never happens…but then it happened, you know? The person who emailed me, I knew he worked for Sharon because he had been at Ozzfest. I figure they had probably checked me out in 2005 when I was there with Arch Enemy. And I was also doing a lot of work with Firewind at the time, so I guess I was one of the younger-generation guys coming up.
Did you have any idea Ozzy’s camp was looking for you?
I had no idea. Originally I thought they were contacting me because maybe they wanted Firewind to be on Ozzfest. [laughs] But they were like, “No, we’re actually thinking of you for the guitar player position. Would you like to come out and audition?”
What songs did you play at the audition?
“Bark at the Moon,” “I Don’t Know,” “Suicide Solution,” “Crazy Train,” “Paranoid”…and one more that I’m forgetting [It was “I Don’t Want to Change the World”]. We did six songs—six of the “must haves” on his setlist. Ozzy came in the room and we played them all back to back with no breaks. The second that one song ended he would just call out the next one. It was like “Oh, s---!” But it was cool—at the end of it he turned around and said, “You’re f---in’ great!” Then they all went into a room next door for a few minutes, and I was sitting there all alone like, “What’s going on now?” Finally everybody came back in and they were all smiling. They asked if I wanted to come play a gig.
That gig was the 2009 BlizzCon video game convention in Anaheim.
Yeah. And that was f---ing nerve-wracking, man. Looking back now, I know I could have done way, way better. Because all I knew was how to do my band. I mean, okay, I did a thing with Arch Enemy, but I didn’t really know how to approach another gig. And all of a sudden I’m in Hollywood, you know? But it was a big change for them, too. I’m from Greece and I show up with my weird pointy guitars, and Ozzy looks at me like, “You’re great…but do you have any Les Pauls?” [laughs] I just said, “I don’t really play Les Pauls…” But that first show I played a Les Paul–shaped guitar because I thought it would probably make him feel better. It’s more familiar to him because of Zakk and Randy.
Of course! That’s my role, you know? It’s to make him shine. That’s what I’m there for. And if that dude’s happy, then I’m happy. That’s what the gig’s about.
With Ozzy you’re playing songs that originally featured iconic guitarists like Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee and Zakk Wylde. Who’s the most difficult to replicate?
I think all of them had difficult moments, really. I don’t think it would be fair to say, “Oh, that guy’s stuff is more difficult.” Randy had amazing modal playing and chordal work and detail. And Jake had his own tricks and licks and stuff. And then you have Zakk, who’s a beast on lead guitar. But I’m a different kind of shredder than that—I’m more from the Yngwie school than the Zakk school.
I still love Zakk’s licks, but I guess I have a bit more of a European sound. Then you also have Tony Iommi’s stuff, and he’s the master of riffs. You can’t get any heavier than that. So you take stuff from each guy and you kind of blend it all together. That’s how I’ve always looked at it—you have this big bag, and when you’re 10 years old you start putting all the licks that attract you inside of it. You keep collecting them, and then one day you open that bag and there you have it—your style.
The first Ozzy album you appeared on was 2010’s Scream. I recall hearing that Sharon Osbourne made you re-cut your guitar solo for the first single, “Let Me Hear You Scream.”
Yeah, that’s true. I did the whole record, and then I went back to Greece. But after that I got a call from Sharon and she said, “I want you to come back to L.A. and redo that one solo.” [laughs] She said, “Because that’s gonna be the first single and I want you to go out there with a big bang. That’s going to be the first thing Ozzy’s fans hear from you, so it had to be something really cool.” I was so stressed about it that I worked out the new solo before I even got on the plane to go back to L.A. But it was totally worth it. I flew back to LA and I spent a couple days in the studio and we nailed it.
In addition to the great players that preceded you in Ozzy’s band, in the last few years you’ve toured with guys like Marty Friedman and Uli Roth. Were they influences on you?
Yes. Of course. I grew up listening to their records and I told both of them, “I stole all your licks!” [laughs] These are guys who inspired me as a kid and still do. I think, really, if you dissect my playing you’ll hear a lot of the stuff those guys have been doing. I picked it up from them, straight out of their books. So it was mind-blowing to share stages with players like them. I especially didn’t expect it on my first solo touring cycle.
One guitarist you always point to as an early influence is Peter Frampton. He’s a player who you don’t hear much about in the metal world.
You’re right. I haven’t really heard any other recent metal guitarist say, “Oh, Peter Frampton…” But for me, Frampton Comes Alive! was just one of those records. My dad didn’t really listen to rock and roll but he had a handful of records he played from time to time. One was the Eagles’ Hotel California. The other was Frampton Comes Alive! And just hearing that talk-box effect blew my mind when I was nine years old.
Plus, you know, he can solo like a motherf---er. He’s an amazing musician. He’s not one of those guys who just plays standard blues licks. He can go beyond that—he can do modal playing, all those Dorians and Mixolydians, those kinds of sounds. He can get jazzy, he can play fast. And I just dug his tone. He was a very different guitar player compared to the cats that were out there at that time.
Are there any new guitarists out there that you like?
Well, even the newer players I listen to are pretty traditional. For example, a newer guy who is a good buddy of mine and who I really admire is Richie Faulkner of Judas Priest. Me and him, we’re both huge Michael Schenker fans. That’s the kind of style of player I like. I really love what Richie does. He breathes new life into Judas Priest but in a very traditional way.
You’re part of the vanguard of modern metal guitar, but in some ways you’re a traditionalist as well.
Yeah, definitely. I realized pretty early on I’m not gonna reinvent the wheel. So you have to see what your strengths and weaknesses are and then do what you’re comfortable with. And my style is really just a blend of all the guitar players I love. Obviously I hope I’m doing it with a bit more modern approach, but it’s like, I’m not creating anything new. I’m just doing my own thing.
Growing up in Greece, was mainstream hard rock and metal music easy to come by?
Back then, you didn’t hear American and British music on the radio. On TV, you might see a video by Alice Cooper or Guns N’ Roses on the Top-10 shows, and as a kid I loved that. That was probably my first exposure to heavy metal. And then, of course, there was MTV. But, yeah, it’s not like rock was too popular then. It became more of a thing later on.
But I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Doors, Frampton and the Eagles. Then I got into heavier stuff like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. At one point a friend of mine handed me a tape of Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, and that was a life-changing moment. And then a few months later I had another friend who gave me a tape of Yngwie Malmsteen’s Trilogy. That was like, “Whoa…” So as a kid I basically wanted to be Tony Iommi and Yngwie Malmsteen together. [laughs]
Between the music you make on your own and with Firewind, and then also playing with Ozzy, you’ve wound up pretty close to that.
[Laughs] Yeah, man, that’s true. I’m definitely a lucky bastard!
Photo by Travis Shinn