Metal. It’s loud, aggressive, sweaty, and above all, heavy. The brutality, sheer volume, and collapsed-star-weight has made metal a force to be reckoned with in popular music for over 40 years, from the first notes of Black Sabbath’s self-titled album to today’s mind-melting djent explorations.
At the forefront of this scene, ever since he began playing for Ozzy Osbourne at the ripe old age of 20, is Zakk Wylde.
The Key to Zakk Wylde’s Sound: Custom Guitar String Gauges
Zakk Wylde is known for his crushing, punishing down-tuned tones, lightning leads — both bluesy and heavy — and loads of squealing pinch harmonics. His love for Gibson Les Pauls, particularly with the iconic bull’s eye graphics, as well as Marshall amps, is well known.
However, at the core of this signature sound, even going all the way back to his Ozzy days and his now-famous 1988 guitar rig, are Zakk Wylde’s guitar string gauges.
The High End: Strings That Sing
Like the music he plays, Zakk Wylde’s guitar strings are heavy, or at least the low three are. The high three are actually fairly light, running 10, 13, 17, which is pretty standard for a light gauge string set. This allows him to break into those signature leads with little effort in the bends and an improved sustain, clarity, and get some bite compared with lighter guitar strings running from 9 down.
The Low End: Pure Heaviness
It’s on the low end that his guitar string gauges start to get seriously heavy. Zakk Wylde favors an unbelievable 36, 52, 60 in his bottom three guitar string gauges. The monstrous thickness all but guarantees that there will be zero fret buzz and string flab, even in tunings reaching down to a Sabbathian C#.
It also facilitates Zakk’s generous use of screaming pinch harmonics. The primary benefit, however, is a vastly improved punch and clarity from the meaty strings, giving those punishing riffs the proper strength they need to really stand out over the powerful drums and thick bass of today’s heavy metal.
Emulating Zakk Wylde’s Sound with Your Own Guitar String Gauges
If you want to incorporate Wylde’s sound into your own playing, first things first: practice. The man has been in the business for almost thirty years and he didn’t achieve his goals by wasting time on some rock and roll party lifestyle. But another step is to experiment with your own custom guitar strings. Before you do, there are a few elements to consider:
First, those extremely heavy low strings require some hand strength, so be prepared to put in the time building that up. Second, the high tension caused by the thick gauge is going to put stress on your bridge and neck, so make sure those things are on point before you set up your guitar. You may want to consider blocking your floating tremolo, or taking your axe to a tech to make the proper adjustments.
Still, if you often play in lower tunings, and are looking for a serious increase in attack, definition, and sustain from the lower strings, ultra-heavy custom guitar string gauges like Zakk’s are one way to get you there.