When Ozzy Osbourne parted ways with his longtime guitarist and collaborator Zakk Wylde last year, millions of fans around the world cried, "WTF?!" Then, when Osbourne announced Wylde's replacement as Gus G, guitarist with the Greek metal band Firewind, those same fans were left speechless. Had Ozzy lost it? Why was he throwing a dear friend and certified guitar god under the bus for a relative unknown?
For a time, Wylde himself was at a loss for words. At first he fired off angry Tweets, demanding to know what was going on. But after a sitdown with the man he still calls "the boss," during which Osbourne explained that it was simply time for a change and that Wylde should devote his time to his own band, Black Label Society, both Wylde and his devoted followers came to understand that it was indeed time for all to move on.
As for Gus G, he made his official debut with Osbourne at BlizzCon last August. A trial-by-fire experience, to be sure, but the affable guitarist describes the show as a "total success. There were doubters there, of course, but I think they saw and heard that I had the right skills for the job."
Gus fully admits that still he has millions of Zakk Wylde devotees across the globe to convert, but if his playing on Osbourne's new album Scream is any indication, he's got the battle halfway won. The disc, co-written and produced by Kevin Churko, is Osboune's strongest effort in years, full of raging, heavier-than-hell tunes and rife with powerful riffery and solos that should have air guitarists air-guitaring like there's no tomorrow. Even Osbourne himself sounds revitalized: his singing is by turns impassioned, energetic, sneering and playful. "I think Ozzy was having a lot of fun making this record," says Gus. "I'm not saying that had anything to do with me. I just think he was really feeling the songs."
While Gus remains fully committed to Firewind, which he's led since 1998, he relishes the opportunity to step into the guitar hero spotlight. In an exclusive interview with MusicRadar, Gus discussed how he came to join Osbourne's band, the challenges he faces, the recording of Scream and his admiration for Zakk Wylde, whom he describes as "a really cool guy and a gentleman."
Through the years, Ozzy Osbourne has worked with so many guitar legends: Tony Iommi, Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde. Do you consider it to be every hard rock guitarist's dream to play with Ozzy?
"Yeah, I do. In my book, it's the biggest of all honors. Playing with Ozzy's a dream job, man. It's the ultimate. It's the best gig any rock or heavy metal guitar player could have. Who wouldn't want to play with Ozzy? Nobody I know." [laughs]
When you hear those names, can you believe that you're now part of that lineage?
"Uh, nope! [laughs] No, I can't believe it. I'm living every guitar player's fantasy. To hear you say those names and then know that I'm the next in line…No, this is still taking some getting used to. I don't know if you ever get used to it."
Was there any hesitation on your part to joining Ozzy's band? Either because A) you have your own band, or because B) Ozzy isn't 25 anymore - for all anybody knows, he could retire after this album and tour.
"I really don't know. I never sat down and analyzed it. All I know is, I got the call that they felt I was the right person, and it felt right on my part to go with it. For me, there wasn't a lot of thinking involved. If Ozzy Osbourne calls you and says he wants you to play in his band, what are you gonna say? Come on, you're going to say yes! [laughs]
"Beyond all that, I don't know what Ozzy's thinking as far as his career and how long he wants to keeping going. We don't have those kinds of conversations. We're more thinking about what's happening right now."
Ostensibly, Ozzy parted ways with Zakk because he thought Zakk was spending too much time on Black Label Society and that his own records were even starting to sound like BLS a bit.
"Is that what he said?"
That's what he's said in the press, yes. Did he express similar concerns to you, like, "Hey, I don't want my record to sound too much like Firewind"?
"No, no. I've never heard anything like that, at least while we were cutting the record. I should point out that when I went into the studio with Ozzy, all the tunes were written. I didn't have a chance to put any of my own songs on the album. Everything was done except for the guitar playing. So I went in, gave my input and did the best I could, given the situation.
"At the end of the day, though, Ozzy should sound like Ozzy. He's earned that right. It's not up to me or anybody else to try to change what it is he wants to do. I just wanted to given him what he wanted, and I think I did. The record's strong, man."
So Ozzy never talked to you about why Zakk wasn't in the band anymore?
"No, and it's not really any of my business. Ozzy's talked about it in he press. He said that he needed a change in the band and that Zakk had his own thing going. I guess it is what it is. But he never sat down with me and went through the whole thing, like, 'This is why Zak's out,' and all that. Plus, it's not really in my nature to ask those kinds of things. I figure, if Ozzy feels it's important to talk to me about what went down, he'll tell me."
Gus G making his official debut with Ozzy Osbourne in August 2009 at BlizzCon
After you joined up with Ozzy, were you nervous about facing any anti-Gus/pro-Zakk backlash from the fans?
"Well, yeah, I knew that was a possibility going in, and I kind of prepared myself for that. Zakk is an established name; he's been with Ozzy for over 20 years, and he has fans all over the world. Hey, I'm one of them.
"The first couple of gigs that we did, I was hoping that there would be people with open minds who would be like, 'Let's see what this guy is all about and give him a chance.' At the same time, I knew there might be some haters who would be like, 'Who the fuck is this guy? What the hell is he doing on stage instead of Zakk?' You have to expect both sorts of reactions.
"But you do what you have to do, you know? I know what I'm doing on stage; Ozzy knows what I'm doing on stage; and the rest of it, you just can't concern yourself with. You'd go crazy! I can't worry about the haters. They'll be out there no matter how great I play."
How are you going to work being in Ozzy's band while continuing with Firewind at the same time? Ozzy's said that he's going to be on the road for upwards of 18 months. Obviously, that puts Firewind on ice for a while.
"Yeah, it does, at least as far as the touring aspect goes. Firewind are going to do a couple of shows this summer, but we won't be able to do any kind of extensive touring until next year, probably next summer when Ozzy takes a break.
"Firewind are very much a band, though. People ask me that a lot, so I feel I should stress that. We're definitely still together. In fact, we're putting out a new album this fall. It's been ready for quite some time."
How did the guys in Firewind react when you were asked to join Ozzy's band? Were they supportive, or did they think that you might leave them behind?
"Oh, no, they were very supportive. They know this is a great thing for me, sure, but it helps them, too. The exposure I get with Ozzy is only going to help give Firewind more of a name. Firewind, we're a family. Leaving them would be like killing my own baby."
Tell me how to actually came to land the Ozzy gig. Did he contact you? And what was the audition process like?
"It was pretty simple, really. Somebody from the management company sent me an e-mail and said that Ozzy might be looking for a new guitar player, and would I mind coming down? So I said yeah. Fucking great, you know? [laughs] I was shocked, of course, but I said to myself, 'Hey, I'll take the chance. What have I got to lose?' So I learned a bunch of Ozzy's songs, flew out to LA and the audition went great."
What songs did you learn for the audition?
"I learned Crazy Train, Bark At The Moon, I Don't Know, Suicide Solution…I think those were the ones."
Legend has it that Ozzy hired Randy Rhoads when Randy was just tuning up. No such luck in your case, huh?
"No. I wish! [laughs] No, I actually had to play for Ozzy for him to pick me. But it was cool. I jammed with the band for a couple of hours, kind of got familiar with them. Then Ozzy and Sharon came down to watch us play. Everything went beautifully. Here I am!" [laughs]
Do you know how many other guitarists were considered before you?
"No, I don't. There was probably a shortlist of guys, but how many and who they were, I really couldn't say. I was just happy to be there. I thought, Hey, if nothing comes from this, at least I got to do a private gig with Ozzy and I have something to tell my kids one day. But they loved what I did and they asked me right there on the spot if I wanted to play with Ozzy at BlizzCon, which was my first gig with him last year."
Did Ozzy tell you specifically what it was about your playing that made him pick you?
"Not really. But I've read him say in interviews that he got a good vibe from me; that it wasn't just about my guitar playing, but he had a feeling about me as a person. I can understand that. You can't be in a band with somebody if you don't click. There has to be some sort of chemistry there."
Speaking of chemistry, Ozzy and Zakk have been very close for many years…
"Yeah, they're family, man."
What kind of relationship have you forged with Ozzy so far?
"We have a very good relationship. He's been really, really cool to me, and to the rest of the band, as well. We're friends. We have great times."
Zakk has been very complimentary towards you in the press. Have you met him yet?
"No, I haven't met him yet, but I'm looking forward to it. Obviously, we'll meet sometime this summer since he's going to be on Ozzfest with Black Label Society. I'm sure we'll get along just fine.
"One thing I should say on the subject of Zakk: I'm really honored that he's said so many nice things about me. I look up to him and consider him to be one of my guitar heroes. He's a really cool guy and a gentleman. To have his blessings, that means a lot to me."
I read an interview with you in which you discussed being influenced by Black Sabbath, The Scorpions, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Did any blues or blues-rock guitarists figure into your development?
"Well, I would say there's some blues in Black Sabbath, especially their early stuff."
True. Other than Tony Iommi, did you listen to guitarists who had something of a blues base?
"I was never really into the blues-rock thing. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great. It just didn't…Actually, now that I think of it, there's guys like Gary Moore and Michael Schenker who I listened to a lot as a kid. Gary Moore's definitely blues-rock. Let's see…I also like David Gilmour, Peter Frampton - I love Peter Frampton! So even though I'm probably more influenced by metal guitarists, there were some bluesy players who made an impression on me.
"You know who else influenced me a lot? Yngwie Malmsteen. When I first heard him, I was like, 'Wow! That's incredible.' So I immediately wanted to get into his style of playing. I try to keep an open mind. There's a lot of people I still have to check out."
Going back to Ozzy, there's been other changes to his band. Tommy Clufetos is now drumming in place of Mike Bordin. Do you know the reason for the switch?
"I think it's because Mike went back to Faith No More. If there was another reason, I don't know. By the way, Tommy is half-Greek!" [laughs]
What kind of direction did Ozzy and Kevin Churko give you when it came to your guitar solos? Since the songs were already written, I would assume they had some pretty firm ideas as to what they wanted.
"They might have, but they were pretty easy-going about everything. I think Ozzy knew that I was coming into a very high-pressure situation, so he basically said, 'Do you thing, man.' He was very gracious. He said, 'Gus, you have to be 100 percent happy with whatever you put down on tape, because once it's done, it's there for the whole world to hear.' And he's right. So I made sure that I got all my parts and solos perfect. It took a while, a lot of fixing things and going over everything. In the end, it was all worth the time and effort."
What about riffs? Again, since the songs were already written, were there times where you might have changed a riff or two?
"I did change some around a bit, because a few of the parts I thought weren't really things that a guitar player would do. Kevin was very receptive to my ideas He's an amazing producer, and I such a good time working with him. He encouraged me a lot. I never felt like he was holding me back in any way."
On a few of the cuts you do pinch harmonics, which are, of course, part of Zakk's signature style.
"That's true. But one thing we have to make clear is that Zakk didn't invent pinch harmonics." [laughs]
No, of course not. But he has made them a very recognizable part of his sound.
"Yes, he has. But that wouldn't stop me from doing pinch harmonics. I've love playing them and I've put them on my records for years."
What I'm getting at is, was there any temptation on your part to emulate Zakk or even Randy Rhoads?
"I definitely wanted to achieve and maintain the classic Ozzy Osbourne sound and keep the vibe of his past guitar players alive. At the same time, I wanted to put my own sound on the record, as well. That was my thought process the entire time. You can't change the sound completely; that's not what the gig is about. But you can throw a few surprises in there if you do it tastefully."
What's your approach to soloing? Do you plot them out beforehand and demo them, or do you go into the studio and wing 'em?
"I usually go in, get a feel for the song and jam over it. Then I'll sit down and actually construct the solo, part by part. The whole process starts out loose but gradually it gets more methodical. It all starts from jamming, though. As I jam, I hear certain things that work over the rest of the music. The biggest thing is to keep your ears open - you don't want to do something cool and miss it."
The solo in Let Me Hear You Scream is pretty gonzo. How many passes did you do on that?
"Let Me Hear You Scream was written quite a few times. The lyrics kept changing, the riffs kept changing, the arrangement changed back and forth. Originally, I did a whammy pedal solo, only I don't really know how to use a whammy pedal. So I did some crazy shit with high octaves, which sounded OK. But then the lyrics changed again, so I had to think of another type of solo - that's the one that ended up on the final recording."
In that song and on Soul Sucker, you do some classic hammer-on and pull-offs. Regarding that technique, who was a bigger influence, Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhoads?
"I listened to both of them. Everybody has influenced me a little bit. Michael Schenker, Yngwie Malmsteen, Uli Roth, Gary Moore, Tony Iommi - those are probably the main guys."
What key is Soul Sucker in? The guitars are turned down quite low on that one.
"I think it's in B, very low, yeah. It was one of the last songs we did. I went in and heard the riff; it was an OK riff, not a great one. So Kevin and I discussed what could be done to make it better. Suddenly, an idea hit me and I said, 'You know, I'm a big Peter Frampton fan. What if I did a talk box thing on the riff?' We tried it and it sounded fantastic. Then Kevin said, 'Why don't you try saying "Soul Sucker" on the riff through the talk box?' I tried that and it sounded even better. That was a lot of fun putting that song together. Definitely one of the coolest times in the studio."
On the song Diggin' Me Down you play a classical-sounding acoustic guitar intro. There's also some nice acoustic rhythm sounds on Life Won't Wait. What kind of acoustics do you use?
"'m glad you liked those. Truth is, I suck at acoustic guitar player. [laughs] Really, I'm not good at all. I do like to play chords with a lot of open strings, so that's kind of what I do when it comes to playing the acoustic. Really, though, I just copied what you hear on classic rock songs. If you listen to classic rock, there's lots of acoustic guitar playing going on underneath the electrics."
"As far as what kind of guitar I used, I have no idea. [laughs] Whatever was in the studio was what I used. Kudos to Kevin for making what I did sound great."
Let's talk about your signature line of ESP guitars. When and how did your involvement with the company come about?
"I met the vice president of ESP in Japan in 2003 while I was on a promotional tour with Firewind. He told me that if I ever needed a custom guitar to let him know. So I thought about it and called him and said, 'Yeah, can ESP make me a custom guitar?' That's how the whole signature model started. Originally, it was available only in Japan. Then, in 2005, it was introduced to the European market. Two years later, my first signature models came out in America. They're a great company to work with, and they make killer guitars."
What are some of the specifications you had in designing your own models?
"I was very involved in the whole process, from the type of wood [alder] to the fretboard [rosewood] to the types of tuners [Sperzel] to having just a volume knob and no tone knob. Basically, the company helped me make my dream guitar.
"For years I've been using the same pickups - Seymour Duncan Distortion [bridge] and Duncan '59s [neck]. I've always used passive pickups, but lately I've been getting into the active thing. Duncan came out with these new active pickups called Blackouts, and they're amazing. They just might be the best pickups I've ever used. I'm putting them on all my guitars now. I think I'm going to have a hard time going back to passive pickups. The Blackouts really sound incredible.
How's it feel to be gearing up to hit the road with Ozzy? Is the band jelling?
"It feels great, man. Can't wait. I'd say we're definitely jelling. We've been rehearsing for three or four weeks now, and it sounds really good, really tight. They're fantastic players, too. We're all on the same page, and that goes for us as people and as musicians."
You came out of the first couple of gigs with Ozzy unscathed. Starting this summer, however, you're going to be facing thousands of people every night - a lot of them Zakk Wylde supporters. Are you ready for the backlash? It will happen, you know.
"Oh, sure, I understand that. Hopefully, everybody will come to the shows to have a good time and to see Ozzy Osbourne. If they want to fucking get mad at the guitar player and throw beer cans, you know…I try to be a positive guy. There's been some shit said on the internet about me, but I try not to pay any attention to that. At the same time, I've gotten a lot of encouragement from fans and people who are rooting for me. All I can do is go up there on stage and try my best."