Ax Men: Zakk Wylde and Joe Satriani Riff on Their Craziest Concert Moments, Jimmy Page and the State of Rock Guitar

by Alan di Perna
Posted Apr 1, 2014 at 3:52pm

This is an excerpt from the May 2014 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this story, plus features on Death Angel, John Frusciante, how to build a pedal board, a complete finger picking lesson, columns, tabs and reviews of new gear from Line 6, Ibanez, Strymon, G&L, Ernie Ball and Orange, check out the May 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.

Ax-Men: Guitar superheroes Zakk Wylde and Joe Satriani team up to riff on their craziest concert moments, Jimmy Page and the state of rock guitar in 2014.

It’s difficult to imagine two human beings more different than Joe Satriani and Zakk Wylde, even just in terms of physical appearance.

Satriani is slight and slender, with a clean-shaven face and head. Wylde is big and hairy, with full beard and black-leather biker garb encasing his paunchy frame.

As the two men stand side by side before a white backdrop inside a San Francisco area photo studio, the contrast is even more dramatic. To a stranger viewing the scene, the guitars they’re holding would be the only clue to why the hell they’re posing together.

Not surprisingly, the inner man matches the outer in both cases. Satriani has always been an introspective guitar hero. He broods long and hard on the creative processes behind the records and concerts that have placed him at the vanguard of virtuoso rock guitar playing for the past three decades.

On the other hand, it’s hard to conceive of Zakk Wylde ever experiencing anything like moments of introspection, let alone being familiar with the term. His abundant store of energy is direct outward, mostly in the frenzied flurry of rapid-fire guitar notes that have made him a metal guitar icon. His conversation is, oddly, like his guitar playing: it comes in nonstop verbal torrents heavily peppered with off-color jokes and personal references that only a Wylde fan could understand.

Riffing on his Catholicism, he rattles off the names of his guitar heroes as if they belonged to some ecclesiastical hierarchy—Saint Rhoads, Pope Page, Father Vai… And like all true rock and roller outsiders—especially one from New Jersey—Wylde is an advanced master of the fine art of inserting the f-word into every sentence whether it fits or not.

And while Satriani and Wylde seem so different as people, they are nonetheless brothers-in-shred and good friends of many years. So when Guitar World suggested that they meet up to share stories and insights from their many years of fretboard glory, they were happy to oblige. Wylde paused en route to a business meeting with iTunes to make the date, and Satriani valiantly rose from a sickbed, where he’d been battling an exceptionally nasty cold recently.

At the end of day, all agreed that it was well worth the effort to get together and compare notes on life at the pinnacle of rock guitar mastery.

Can you remember the first time you heard one another’s playing?

ZAKK WYLDE I’d just gotten my gig with Ozzy when I first heard Surfing with the Alien. And I thought, Wow…great melodies, great chops. Just awesome songs. Whenever I hear Joe playing, it kind of sounds like Billy Gibbons if Billy Gibbons had Al Di Meola’s f---ing technique. ’Cause it grooves like Billy, but it’s got this insane technique. But aside from how ripping it is technically, there’s that blues in there all the time. And that’s what it’s like with a real player, like Joe. You know where they’re coming from, but they put their own unique spin on it and make it their own thing.

JOE SATRIANI I first heard Zakk probably around the same time, when he started playing with Ozzy. What a shock! The years between 1978 and 1987 were a decade of solid teaching and club work for me. So I was getting exposed to the next generation of guitar players who were starting at a higher level than I did. Higher expectations. Zakk was one of the first players I heard where I was like, “Wow, this bumps it up to a new level.” That was exciting, because the musicianship and the showmanship were both there. You have to have that, because it’s rock and roll.

And what a tough gig Zakk had! He had to follow the legend of Randy Rhoads and Ozzy’s history with Black Sabbath. Zakk’s a multi-instrumentalist as well, and his technique on electric guitar translates beautifully to acoustic. That’s a very important indicator of the power he has, which I noticed right away.

Joe mentioned teaching guitar, which you did as well, Zakk, right?

WYLDE Yeah, before I started playing with Ozzy. Teaching’s great, man. But I also had normal jobs like working in a gas station and in a [supermarket] produce department. I didn’t plan on doing that for the rest of my life, but I had no problems with it because I was doing it to save up for a Marshall amp or a Les Paul or some other piece of gear. But when I taught, it was definitely cool when there were students who would practice and had a passion for the instrument. Not all of them did. But when you had a student who’d come to a lesson and could play all the scales you taught them last time, it was really rewarding.

How did teaching feed into your own playing?

WYLDE It pushes you—especially with the advanced students. They learn all the s--- and you gotta have something new to show them the next week. They know all the diatonics and all the pentatonics, so now we start breaking out the diminished scales.

SATRIANI And your job is to crystallize musical concepts—put them into a couple of sentences. ’Cause maybe the kid’s showing up for 30 minutes or something.

WYLDE But then, Jimmy Page always used to say, “The reason I love the guitar is because they didn’t teach it in school.” And I get that. But I always say, if you get a car with a stick shift, eventually you’re going to learn to drive it by yourself. But before you blow through about three transmissions, usually it would be pretty cool if somebody just showed you how to do it. Eventually, sure, you can learn how to play “Stairway to Heaven” by yourself. But you’ll learn it a lot quicker if somebody shows you where to put your fingers.

Apart from obvious names like Hendrix and Page, do you have any guitar heroes in common?

SATRIANI Pete Townshend is one of my heroes, because he’s another guy who brings it all. He can play great, write great songs, and he puts on an amazing show. Quite crazy. I was just reading Pete’s autobiography [2012’s ] and I learned something I never knew before, and that was that he used a G string that was the same gauge as his B string. So when he did his double-stop bends, both strings would move at the same degree. That hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s an old blues player’s trick, but no one had suggested it to me before.

Photo: Kevin Scanlon

For the rest of this story, plus features on Death Angel, John Frusciante, how to build a pedal board, a complete finger picking lesson, columns, tabs and reviews of new gear from Line 6, Ibanez, Strymon, G&L, Ernie Ball and Orange, check out the May 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.

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