Revelation: The Tone Secrets of Randy Rhoads
Randy Rhoads rose like a rocket to the zenith of heavy rock guitar in the course of less than four years and likely would have been at his apex had he not been killed in an airplane accident 29 years ago, on March 19, 1982, in Leeburg, Florida.
As it is, Rhoads’ imprint on the metal guitar scene remains intact today. Every player with a yen for blending the hard and the melodic with technical and tonal mastery needs to reckon with his legacy which is largely available for digestion on Ozzy Osbourne’s first two solo albums, Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of A Madman, and the live album Tribute.
After stints in the obscure LA outfit Violet Fox, largely a cover band, and his real metal club scene indoctrination in Quiet Riot, Rhoads joined Ozzy in November 1979. He walked into his audition with a 1974 off-white Gibson Les Paul Custom — a guitar since immortalized by the Gibson Custom Shop — and a practice amp, which was all Rhoads needed to ace it.
It’s obvious why Rhoads was special when one looks even casually at the framework of his playing style. Besides his endless vocabulary of scales and sweep arpeggios, his bag included a distinctive palm-muted sound, trills, a chromatic lead sensibility, insanely fast picking, and staggering dynamic control.
Rhoads used fundamental tools to deploy his arsenal of technique. His primary Gibson Les Pauls were his off-white ’74 Custom and a Black Beauty with gold hardware and three pickups. When he reached for an acoustic, it was a Gibson 12-string. His effects array was simple: a Vox wah-wah, an Echo-Plex and a Korg echo pedal, and the MXR basics — Distortion+, eq, flanger, and chorus. At the end of that chain was a modded Marshall JMP MKII with a 1960 cab.
When it came to playing scales, Rhoads had obviously listened to a lot of blues. He favored scale structure on a 1-flatted, 3-4-flatted, 5-5, and flatted 7 architecture and was especially enjoyed using a flatted 5. But he mixed blues scales with diatonic scales as well as modal and harmonic minor patterns. For a great example, check out his earth-shattering solo on Ozzy’s “Crazy Train,” where he welds F# blues and Aeolian scales together for an entirely fresh sound.
Rhoads was also a believer in the seamless warmth and tension building nature of chromatic playing. He often hit straight-up pentatonic scales, too, and used extended technique like pull-offs to spruce up the scales. And speaking of picking outside the box, Rhoads’ tapping and trills were far beyond the single-note variety. He would use triads or partial chords to outline the chord changes he soloed over, as in his solo on “Flying High Again.” He also enjoyed open string pull-offs for their dramatic flair and resonance.
Rhoads was unafraid to step outside of conventional key recognition. This aspect of his playing also supercharges passages of “Crazy Train” and “Flying High Again.”
Given the short span of his recording career, it’s easy to digest Rhoads’ key albums. During his time with Quiet Riot, before the band’s hit-making era, he was never happy with his guitar tone, since he couldn’t afford the gear he aspired to play through. Quiet Riot’s The Randy Rhoads Years, released after the six-string wizard’s death, compensated for this by remixing and re-amping his tracks. For unadulterated Rhoads, check out these Ozzy albums:
• Blizzard of Ozz (1980): “Crazy Train,” “Suicide Solution” and “Mr. Crowley” alone make this disc essential, and thanks to the string-slinger’s contributions, this solo disc extended Ozzy’s melodic inventions beyond the Black Sabbath cannon.
• Diary of a Madman (1981): Rhoads truly came into his own on Ozzy’s second solo album. His solos on “S.A.T.O.” and “Flying High Again”, with its tapping, trills and artificial harmonics, are extraordinary flights. And his classical guitar studies came to bear in the acoustic introductions to “You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll,” “S.A.T.O.” and “Tonight.”
• Tribute (1987): This album was originally set for release in 1982, but was shelved for five years due to Rhoads’ death. It captures the guitarist at full bloom on stage with Ozzy, blasting through Ozzy hits like “Suicide Solution” which features an unaccompanied solo by Rhoads and Sabbath classics including “Paranoid.” Rhoads’ improvisational courage and energy still sound extraordinarily fresh after all these years.