Spare a thought for Zakk Wylde right now. The frontman and shredder-in-chief of Black Label Society has taken on some tough gigs in his time – not least as sole guitarist in Ozzy’s band – but stepping in for the late Dimebag Darrell for the forthcoming Pantera reunion shows takes the cake.
Setting aside the controversy for a second, with naysayers arguing that Pantera without Dimebag and his brother Vinnie Paul on the drums is not a reunion – and Wylde would agree, framing it as a tribute – but there’s also the small matter of learning Dimebag’s parts front to back, and furthermore, replicating one of the most distinctive tones in metal guitar.
Speaking to Solar Guitars supremo and Haunted guitarist Ola Englund on his YouTube channel, Wylde outlined some of the challenges, and likened it to the times when he had to step up and learn Randy Rhoads’ parts when playing for Ozzy. This, he says, is no different.
But there are fundamental differences when it comes to tone and approach. Dimebag was a regular jockey of the Floyd Rose double-locking vibrato – Rhoads, like Wylde, was not. Also, Dimebag pedalboard setup was not like most players, and Wylde admits that his friend’s taste for super-saturated distortion has made him reconsider his rig.
“With Dime’s stuff, Dime would have two distortion pedals on at the same time!” said Wylde. “I remember, he goes, ‘Zakk, what pedals do you use?’ Like I said, one of my Berzerker pedals, one of my overdrives. He had one of those on his ‘board. I said, ‘Dime, it’s probably not even adding anything ‘cos you’ve got so much overdrive on there.’ But for him there wasn’t enough gain. He loved it.”
Wylde’s tone is hardly a reference for clean tone enthusiasts. No one is mistaking the sound of his Wylde Audio custom electric guitars through a Marshall stack for Hank Marvin or Cory Wong. But Dimebag was the gain extremist’s extremist. He took it that little bit further than anyone else.
His tone was pure chainsaw, and when talking power tools, safety measures need to be taken. And Wylde says for the first time in his career he has had to deploy a noise gate just as Dimebag did.
“I got my rig, and obviously Dime used stuff that I don’t use,” he said. “Obviously, his noise gate. If you’re gonna be going [hums Cowboys From Hell verse riff]. There is an art to controlling it. Ask any guitar player, if they’re not used to playing with a distortion pedal on – any of our buddies that just play without one – they’re like, ‘Bro, how do you play with that thing?’ Even with my rig, to me it’s not even that dirty but with Dime’s stuff you’ve got to have a noise gate on for sure. So now I am a proud owner of a noise gate as well! [Laughs]”
Wylde also revealed a little of what we can expect from the Pantera set. Cowboys From Hell, where the aforementioned noise gate is essential for the staccato rhythm figures, is a no-brainer, an ever-present in any Pantera set. Talking about other tracks he is looking forward to performing, Wylde mentioned Walk, A New Level, Fucking Hostile, and Goddamn Electric – “That solo is beyond. All the solos are blazing; they’re all awesome.”
He also said that he looked to YouTube’s roster of virtuoso players – including Englund himself – for pointers on how to nail specific songs. Becoming was one of those, and this, of course, required another addition to his ‘board in the shape of a DigiTech Whammy Pedal.
Dimebag was a pioneer of the Whammy Pedal, using it for the stepped-on-the-cat squawk in the Becoming verse riff, and for adding an extra pitch-shifting squeal in those big harmonics in his solos. As for electric guitars, Wylde will be using the Dean Dime signature models that the man himself gave to him.
In the meantime, what’s needed is practice, and lots of it. Once Wylde can play it without the record in the background, he’ll know he’s ready.
“Playing it with the record is one thing, but then you take the record away and say ‘play it for me,’” he says. “Playing it with the record is the guideline, it’s like colour-by-numbers; you know you’re going. [Without the record] is like taking the GPS off your car.”
Wylde also discussed the Berzerker Guitar Camp, a new online guitar lessons programme that he developed with Riffhard, in which he breaks down how to play some of the biggest tracks in the catalogue. As with learning Dimebag’s material, the devil is in the detail. You can read more about the Berzerker Guitar Camp here. And check out his full interview with Englund above.