Randy Rhoads: Shedding Light on a Dark Sound

Randy Rhoads: Reflections of a Guitar Icon director Andre Relis and narrator Tracii Guns continue our musical education.

Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhodes (1956 - 1982) perform at the Rosemont Horizon, Rosemont, Illinois, January 24, 1982
Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Like a comet, Randy Rhoads only blazed through the sonic atmosphere for a short time, but musicologists, guitar geeks, and fans continue to study the lingering tail of each of his solos. Tragically killed in a plane crash on March 19, 1982 at the age of 25, his work is most clearly captured on studio recordings as the lead guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne. The new documentary Randy Rhoads: Reflections of a Guitar Icon continues the star gaze, and director Andre Relis (NWA & Eazy-E: Kings of Compton) examines the influence with academic glee. Rhoads was, at heart, heavy metal’s most transparent guitar teacher.

As the documentary makes clear, Rhoads was still giving lessons when he got the gig with Black Sabbath’s former singer, who hired the young string-master after hearing only a few warmup arpeggios on a practice amp. Rhoads grew up in his mother Dee’s music school, and when he surpassed his guitar teachers, he studied music theory and piano, and gave everybody lessons. He and future co-founding Quiet Riot! bassist Kelly Garni started a group called The Whore while still in middle school. Randy gave drag fashion tips as part of the Katzenjammer Kids by the time he was 16. Rhoads was showing budding metal masters how to play Eddie Van Halen licks while he stepped on his crosstown rival’s image taped to the Wah Wah pedal at every Quiet Riot! show.

Randy Rhoads: Reflections of a Guitar Icon is narrated by Tracii Guns, who could also write a thesis on Rhoads’ techniques. Best known as the co-founder of L.A. Guns, and supergroups Brides of Destruction and Contraband, Tracii was a founding member of Guns N’ Roses, before Slash shredded to Axl Rose.

Relis and Guns sat down with Den of Geek to compare notes about the documentary, the LA Strip, and the guitarist who still contributes heavily to music education.

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Den of Geek: Randy Rhoads: Reflections of a Guitar Icon is a real tear-jerker. Did you know at the beginning of making this that Randy would be the light at the end?

Andre Relis: No, I did not. It just so happened to come together that way, man, just total points.

You capture a full picture of a really sweet guy who loves guitars and his mom. The piece “Dee” is short and sweet, and he was on the plane to take aerial pictures for his mom. Rhoads could have been marketed as a heartthrob, but you show him as really metal’s Mr. Rogers.

Tracii Guns: When I was a teenager, 16, Randy really came across to me as this super-angelic guy with a great image, but his sound was super-demonic, and evil and dark and heavy. I was just obsessed with that blend. That a human being is those two things, that huge balance swing.

There was a documentary begun on Randy back in 2000. What were you able to do that Ron Sobol couldn’t?

Andre Relis: It’s interesting because the Ron Sobol documentary is exactly what inspired me to do this. I met Ron and I saw that documentary. First off, it never really got a real release, just on DVD and not very wide. But he didn’t really delve so much into the later years, after Randy joined Ozzy. He just kind of cuts it with the death. One thing I really got into, a lot, was the audition that took place. What an odd experience that was. How it was just kind of fate that brought him into the Ozzy world.

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I love the audition story, how he was just playing arpeggios to tune up, and was pissed off he didn’t even get to start playing.

Andre Relis: The other thing is, I really wanted to get more into how he influenced so many amazing guitarists, as well as the general public, and what an influence he’s had that goes on, even today. There are so many people influenced in picking up guitar because of him.

Were you asked to narrate this or did you just have so much to say you couldn’t help but be part of it?

Tracii Guns: Well, after I was asked, there was no way I wasn’t going to do it. The thing about our favorite heroes and rockstars is: we feel like we have this entitlement [to them]. When I got the call from an agent saying Andre wants you to do this I was like: Yeah! There’s no way anybody else is doing this. I’m such an obsessed human being with Randy Rhoads – as a writer, as a person, everything he had to offer – that had someone else done it, I would have been heartbroken, livid.

So, it’s the biggest honor. It’s like coming full circle in my life, from being a teenage guitarist to being able to narrate Randy’s story. And we had a really good time doing it. I cried a couple times, watching it, and even toward the end of doing my narration. There were three people in the room with me and I couldn’t turn around and look at him for my eyes. It is just a really touching story.

There’s some fantastic footage of “Laughing Gas” live, and Brian Reason’s explanation makes it even better. Should every guitarist have a guitar tech, and can you explain how reverb settings can be as important to the composition of a song as notes?

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Tracii Guns: Absolutely. First of all, any experimental guitarist should have a guitar tech helping them while they’re playing live. What, specifically, Randy was using, was an Echoplex tape delay. Now we have these fancy echoes, where you can actually tap your foot in time on the delay and it’s the tempo of the song you’re playing, and there are divisions of time that you can set it to, like The Edge from U2, he has multiple delays. But back then, no one had them. 

On an Echoplex, you have a lever, and you have some numbers that don’t really correspond to anything. It’s kind of like, maybe, milliseconds? I don’t know and I’ve been using them my whole life. But because the motors are so inconsistent and the voltage is so inconsistent you can’t possibly say “this is 350 milliseconds at this spot,” because every machine is different. 

So, what Randy, in essence, did was say “Hey, this song is this tempo, and I’m going to mark it down. And when I play this song, this is about the right tempo,” [chugs a slow beat], and he made those marks. If you have a song like “Killer Girls,” for example, where there’s a tempo change, you have to have someone to change that delay. You can’t be playing and then reach down to the lever.

I found that fascinating too. It was like, wow, this guy really is one of the guys that did that. Other famous people, obviously Eddie Van Halen and Brian May, use tape delays live as well. They had multiple tape delays. They would have one set to this speed, one set to this speed, and set the on-off switches. But when you’re a young guitar player playing clubs in Hollywood, you can’t afford four Echoplexes. Even back then, they were like 700 bucks. It’s a big appliance. Yeah, when I saw that in the documentary, I said, “yeah, that’s how he did ‘em.”

The documentary explores the “crosstown” rivalry between Eddie Van Halen and Randy, and I love the Wah-Wah pedal story.

Andre Relis: Obviously I wasn’t there, I can’t tell you 100% it happened. But his guitar tech says there was major competition, it seemed, between the two of them. But I wasn’t there. So, it’s hard for me to say.

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Tracii Guns: To be really frank about it, I think more than anything, Eddie was irritated with Randy to some point. I really do. I was friends with Eddie. And you know, the guitarist ego is fragile. Eddie is God, as far as I’m concerned, as a guitarist. However, Randy came along, basically in the same neighborhood, playing that heavy rock. 

Randy, I think, was so unaffected by everything. He had to teach Van Halen stuff because the record came out, and he was happily teaching it. But with Eddie, I think it was a little bit more of a thorn in his side. Just on a purely, young man’s ego level. I don’t think he disliked Randy at all. I know that Eddie saw Randy often. I’m not sure if Randy ever saw Eddie play more than once, as far as I know, as far as I’ve been told.

I love the tapes of him playing Van Halen licks. How hard was the footage to come by?

Andre Relis: I think one thing that really was unique about this particular documentary is there was an underlying documentary from his years with Quiet Riot! that really helped. That was the foundation of where I started, that footage, but we searched all over the place. Thank God, in this day and age, you have all these digital outlets where you can find material. Finding the owners of it was really tough. It was a major research process.

You were both a part of the L.A. Strip scene. The film makes it sound like a cutthroat community, but weren’t there friendly jams in rehearsal spaces and shit?

Tracii Guns: To really sum it up, Quiet Riot!, Van Halen, our invasion, these bands were playing while I was in junior high school and high school. I didn’t go see anything like that until I saw Mötley Crüe when I was 16. Slash had come to my electronics class, first period. He had seen Randy play with Ozzy the night before at The Forum in L.A. He told me, “Hey, you know that guy, there’s a picture of him on the side of the Starwood? The Quiet Riot! guy?” I go, “no.” He says “the blond one?” I go, “oh that guy, yeah, I know him, why?” “Because that’s Randy Rhoads, and he’s going to be your favorite guitarist.” I went, “yeah, okay, whatever.” But that weekend I went surfing with my dad, and “Crazy Train” came on the radio. Before I even knew who it was, I knew who it was. Because of the description that Slash had given me.

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He was right. You know? There was that. But, as far as that cutthroat thing, it just amplified from that particular late ‘70s thing, because punk rock happened, New Wave happened. That created a lot of animosity between the misogynistic, guitar-hero types. Then once Mötley Crüe and Lost and Ratt came out, it really got back into the “my guitar makes my dick bigger than everybody else’s” kind of an attitude. Right? And yeah, I was there. I was part of it. I saw it. It’s quite embarrassing now, but yeah, it was weird.

Andre Relis: My experience on the Strip was in the ‘90s. We were a Southern California punk band. We played the Roxy. That was our home. We played there every month. When we rehearsed, we had this horrible studio in the industrial section of LA where all these bands were, and it was horrible. But we also wrote a lot of good music there.

Tracii Guns: During the early ‘80s there was some camaraderie, but it wasn’t musical. It’s more “Hey, who’s going to the Rainbow tonight. Let’s go hang out.”

Andre Relis: I think the way it worked, at least in the punk scene, the camaraderie was extremely important because if you could find a band that was a touring band that had a good following, they’d take you on tour with them, and vice versa. We had that happen. There was a lot of competition, but camaraderie was extremely important in being able to come up as a young band, and get on tours.

Tracii, your story mirrors Randy’s. You put the Guns in Roses before the record deal. What can you say about that whole dynamic?

Tracii Guns: It’s just that some people have a knack for creation, bringing something to the party that makes the party better. Whatever that party is. In my case, it’s been connecting with people who bring out the best in me and who I bring out the best in. Then we create amazing things for music listeners. Obviously, Randy had that chameleon-esque quality. Because Quiet Riot!, when he was in it, they were a pop rock band. They were trying to write radio songs, and all of a sudden, he’s the greatest metal guitar player to ever influence generations of metal guitar.

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That transformation is very chameleon-like. He was a feeling, moving voice. Depending on what party he was at, was the voice that came out, and thank God he got with Ozzy. Ozzy was so kooky and so nuts, and so chaotic, that Randy seemed to find some way to turn all those ingredients into the best tasting soup at the time. To me, it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle. It’s just amazing.

Is the reason Randy’s playing was so original because he never had a specific guitar idol?

Tracii Guns: Yeah, I think so. You know, I put a lot of thought into that, my whole life. Why is his stuff so original? And one of the things that I came to learn later was that Randy approached songwriter music composition from a major key point of view. Where 99.9 percent of every other rock guitar player plays a standard blues scale, which is a minor scale. It sounds dark, it sounds evil, it sounds wicked.

Randy approached it the opposite way. Minor scales and major scales are the same thing. It’s just that they’re flipped around. When he’s playing a solo or composing something, he’s thinking in this, dare I say, Christmas music, country, happy kind of thing, but it came across as so dark. That’s really where that really unique, original sound comes from. The only other person I feel was really doing that before was Richie Blackmore. He had the same approach, pseudo-classical. Because Randy wasn’t a classical guitar player until the end of his career. He loved classical music, but he wasn’t educated classically.

Do you think Randy Rhoads would’ve gone prog?

Tracii Guns: Yes, I do. I believe that, had Randy really left Ozzy and considered not being on the big, giant stage, he would have gone, not necessarily prog, but he would have been a very progressive writer, using a lot of classical influence. Perhaps as he got older, getting more into jazz and incorporating those things, just because he was so interested in music. That’s all I can say.

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How is the upcoming Lemmy biopic going?

Andre Relis: Well, I wish I could tell you we had an exact start date, but there’s just been a lot of discussions on budget and different locations. Like we need to shoot the movie in the U.K., but the director really wants to shoot some stuff in the Rainbow Room right here in L.A.

So I don’t really have much to tell you at this moment, I’m afraid, but it is an amazing script.  That script about Lemmy? It’s incredible because it’s not just about Lemmy, but it’s about the birth of metal told through the story of Lemmy and Motorhead. It’s awesome. 

L.A. Guns recorded over COVID. What are the ups and downsides of virtual bandmanship?

Tracii Guns: It’s great. We reunited in 2017. I think the first record came out at the end of 2017. Our third record is out now. We’ve made two records during the COVID period. Me being in Denmark and them being back in the states, and going on our first tour in two years, on June 1st. I had a baby since then. I moved to Denmark. COVID happened. So many things changed. The world got millions of people lighter, so many people died. And everybody had to adapt to their profession, for example.

I hate to sound this way, but it was convenient for me, because my youngest son was born one month before the worldwide lockdown and I was forced to stay in Denmark for five months with my baby and my wife. It ended up being a really good thing. We really were safe and did everything. And then, just in January, when I got here, my two-year-old was in day care, and he brought COVID home, and we all got COVID. We’re all vaccinated, everything, but everybody in this little city here got COVID.

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What are some of the music documentaries that influenced you?

Andre Relis: Being a musician, and then getting in the film world, and not being able to play anymore because I have a full-time job, 12 hours a day, it was really a necessity. I couldn’t play music anymore. I loved it, and I was at a desk all day. So, I convinced my partner at the time to launch this music division that we could release music documentaries, and produce them.

I love music docs. I think Behind the Music, the VH-1 series, really inspired me. I thought that was the best series. I just love watching it and learning so much. If I’m going to read a book, nine times out of 10, it’s a biography or autobiography about a band. So, making a documentary about the story of a band was perfect. Welcome to Death Row, some of the early ‘90s, a lot of the hip hop docs inspired me. There was a Sex Pistols doc, I’m a big Sex Pistols fan, The Filth and the Fury. More or less, what inspired me was just a necessity to get the creative music side out of me

You end with the sequence of young guitarists playing Randy licks. Do you see this as a continuing education?

Andre Relis: 100%. The idea of having the young musicians playing along was something that I came up with halfway through. We had to show how Randy Rhoads…I feel like his legacy, it’s there, but a lot of people don’t know about it. How it’s affected so many guitarists along the way. I think we demonstrate that with all the successful musicians, or those who are in great bands. How many people he influences on a given day to pick up a guitar and play it. It’s absolutely something that’s going to continue forever.

Randy Rhoads: Reflections of a Guitar Icon will be available on Video on Demand on Friday, May 6.

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