June 15, 2016

FTV: Changing Guitarists

  Call it “band musical chairs” if you wish or “out with the old, in with the new”,  but however you  label it, it is something that happens from the grassroots local scene to the upper echelons of music.  All bands will find themselves changing players from time to time and the guitar chair is usually the one that garners the most attention.  Since he was given the boot from Black Sabbath and established himself as a highly successful solo artist, Ozzy Osbourne has become the king of the “find a new (hot, young, innovative) guitarist” movement.  Let’s take a closer look at this impressive list that begins with the late Randy Rhoads and as of this writing, has the name Gus G. emblazoned on the top or bottom, depending on which way one wants to view it.   Chronologically,  we shall start in the past and work our way to the present:

    Randy Rhoads – Most are already acquainted with the tragic plane crash that killed Rhoads on March 19, 1982.  Less familiar is the story of how he came to be Ozzy’s first (and some still say the best) guitar slinger.  Rhoads guitar education started around age 7 when he began taking classical and flamenco lessons at his mother’s music studio in Santa Monica, CA.  He soon gravitated to the electric guitar and it wasn’t long before his teacher informed his mother that he could no longer teach her son electric guitar as he had already surpassed his teacher’s skill level.    Rhoads taught his middle school buddy Kelly Garni to play bass (Garni says, “We weren’t nerds, dopers, or jocks so we just didn’t fit in anywhere else”) and they began playing in a series of bands together.  Rhoads musician brother Kelle (nee: Doug) said Randy got his first glimpse of what his future could be attending an Alice Cooper show in 1971.  That show inspired him to take a fast track to graduation so he could begin his music career.   

    One of their bands eventually hooked up with vocalist Kevin DuBrow and after a name change to Quiet Riot, they began to establish themselves on the LA club circuit and in Japan.  By 1979, both of their albums on CBS/Sony had only been released in Japan and Rhoads was disillusioned by their inability to land an American record contract.  Osbourne, in LA trying to form a his new band, was introduced to Rhoads by future Slaughter bassist Dana Strum.  After hearing him play in his hotel room with only a small  practice amp, Osbourne offered Rhoads the job and they (along with drummer Frankie Banali and Strum on bass) jammed for a few days before Osbourne returned to England.  When he brought up the prospect of Rhoads becoming his guitarist, his label tried to talk him out of it to keep the unit “all British” but in the end, Ozzy was dissatisfied with the guitarists put forth by his English management team and finally brought Rhoads into the band.

    Two albums later (The Blizzard of Ozz & Diary of a Madman),  Ozzy’s career arc was on a decided upswing and Rhoads was redefining rock guitar though some critics described his playing style as “lightweight Eddie Van Halen”.  Rumour had Rhoads contemplating leaving the band to return to school to study music theory, but his untimely death made this a moot point.  His death stunned his band mates and began Ozzy’s version of “guitar player musical chairs”.

    Once the tour resumed, guitarist Berne Torme (from the band Gillan) took over Rhoads spot for a month and eventually Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis was auditioned and taken aboard to finish the tour.  Gillis may or may not have been offered the permanent gig, but Gillis chose to remain with Night Ranger after they secured a record deal with Boardwalk Records.

    Jake E. Lee formerly of Ratt and Rough Cut assumed guitar dutie in 1983 and like Rhoads, Dana Strum recommended him to Osbourne.   On board for both Bark at the Moon and The Ultimate Sin albums, Lee was the connecting thread as both albums were recorded with different drummers, bassists and keyboard players.  Osbourne, torn between hiring Dokken’s George Lynch and Lee,  had decided on Lynch, before doing an about face and hiring Lee.  Lee wrote most of the music for The Ultimate Sin album while Ozzy was drying out at the Betty Ford Clinic.  Despite his successful five year run with the band, he was surprised to get his 1987 termination notice from Sharon Osbourne delivered while he was at home working on his muscle cars.  Lee’s most visible post Ozzy project Badlands was formed in 1988.   Lee has kept a pretty low profile until he formed his current band Red Dragon Cartel in 2014.

    On the heels of Lee’s departure, Osbourne again pulled a gem from the guitarist mine when he hired Jeffrey Phillip Wielandt, a 20 year old New Jersey guitarist better known as Zakk Wylde.  Wylde became one of Ozzy’s longest tenured guitar players even though he was replaced by Joe Holmes in the touring band between 1995 and 2001.  Wylde’s numerous side projects and partying took a toll on his health to the point where Sharon Osbourne asked him to go into a treatment program (which he did not complete).  It took a serious bout with a blood clotting disorder in 2009 to get him sober and he remains so today.  His days with Ozzy seemed numbered when auditions were held for a guitarist in 2004 and 2005.  Ozzy felt that his sound was beginning to resemble Wylde’s other band (Black Label Society) too much and pulled the trigger to change once again in 2009.  The parting was an amicable one with both sides having only good things to say about their time together:  At least I got to spend 23 years with the boss. And he knows I’ll always be there with him. Gus, who’s playing with him, he’s  awesome. So I hope he has a millisecond of the good time I had – that’s a  lifetime. Gus will have a blast, you know what I mean?”  As of 2014, Wylde has developed a line of guitars and amps that are being marketed under his Wylde Audio brand name.

    This brings us up to the current guitar slinger who joined up in 2009.  Known simply as Gus G., he hails from Greece and his given name is Kostas Karamitroudis.  Unlike many heavy metal guitarists, he credits his folk singing father’s rock records by the Eagles, Santana, and Peter Frampton as being the foundation of his interest in guitar.  He later heard both Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and Yngvie Malmsteen and decided he would  play like both of them.  Like Wylde, he is involved in multiple musical projects and he continues to work with his original band Firewind.  He professes to prefer short form songs with lyrics and memorable riffs as opposed to instrumental albums of endless shredding.

    When he received an e-mail invitation to audition for Ozzy’s band in 2009, he flew to Los Angeles and was offered the job after jamming with the band.  He played his first show a couple of months later and has not looked back since.  He favors an irregularly star shaped ESP guitar and early on was asked if he had any Les Paul type guitars.  In a recent Guitar World magazine interview, he acknowledge switching to a Les Paul shaped guitar for a while because he wanted Osbourne to feel comfortable with him in the band.  “It is my job to make him shine,” Gus G. said while acknowledging that it did not take very long for Ozzy to accept his switch back to his signature ESP model.

    Will Gus G. be the last in line for Ozzy Osbourne?  That is an interesting question and I am pretty sure even Ozzy doesn’t know for sure.  Ozzy’s penchant for changing his backup band members may make it necessary to revisit this topic in a future FTV.

Top Piece Video – Gus G and friends pay tribute to the late Randy Rhoads.