With a new album out – I Am The Fire – and a European tour with Marty Friedman, Gus G is riding high. The Firewind and Ozzy Osbourne guitarist speaks to Levi Clay about his extraordinary rise to international guitar hero fame and delves into his style and gear choices. Richard Morgan offers our ‘story so far’ overview.
LOOKING BACK NOW, it’s hard to forgive the 80s. This musical dog of a decade was responsible for the popularisation of many of music’s greatest abominations: synth pop, hair metal, and techno. It also brought us spandex, the mullet, and vomit-inducing groups like Wham!, Europe and Culture Club, all of whom time and the general public have fought long and hard to forget!
Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s not all bad. World-beating powerhouses like AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses were in their awe-inspiring pomp in the years up to 1990, and superstar guitar heroes – like the aforementioned groups’ Angus Young and Slash – abounded. In the Heavy Metal arena, great things were also happening, with an outrageous Brummie at the forefront of the genre. Having been unceremoniously jettisoned from Black Sabbath in 1979, Ozzy Osbourne unleashed his debut solo record, Blizzard Of Ozz, on September 20th 1980. Featuring iconic tracks like Crazy Train and Mr. Crowley, and boosted by the guitar mastery of the late, great, Randy Rhoads, the album has gone on to become something of a hard Rock classic, selling more than six million copies to date.
This seminal release most likely meant nothing to Kostas Karamitroudis of Thessaloniki, Greece. He was, after all, a mere eight days old at the time. Fastforward 33 years, though, and little Kostas – whose name was anglicised to Gus G somewhere along the way – is now Ozzy’s main axe slinger, leader of the much- admired Firewind power metal quartet and an idol of hirsute guitarists everywhere.
In some ways, it’s difficult to imagine a less likely guitar hero. A far cry from your typical lead six-string extrovert, Gus has never really been prone to ridiculous onstage posturing or the offstage debauchery associated with those coke guzzling rockstars of the ‘80s.
But perhaps that’s precisely why we all love a bit of Gus G these days. This is a down-to-earth, everyday sort of bloke who’s just like most of us ‘normal’ guitar players out there, and yet he’s living the dream, at the top of his game playing lead for one of the rock world’s most legendary figures. It’s not easy to follow on from the likes of Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde, but Gus has done it in style – and that’s a huge inspiration for the rest of us budding guitarists.
…he got his first classical instrument aged 10. Four years later, a Fender Stratocaster began Gus’s love affair w ith the electric guitar world..
A heady combination of natural talent, hard work and luck – yes, even the best need a bit of that last one – has led Gus to where he is today. Growing up in Thessaloniki, he was introduced to the world of Rock through his music-loving (and Greek Folk music singing) father’s record collection. The likes of Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive captivated the young Gus – he first thought Frampton’s talkbox was a robot, having no idea that a guitar could manage such tones – and he got his first classical instrument aged 10. Four years later, a Fender Stratocaster began Gus’s love affair with the electric guitar world.
Music took over from there, and Gus began honing his skills, learning a lot by ear, but also with the help of a number of local music teachers who showed him chords, scales and how to read music. Heavy metal and early ‘70s hard Rock were his big loves, with the likes of Gary Moore, Michael Schenker and Led Zeppelin informing and influencing his fluent playing style.
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At the age of 18, Gus was offered a scholarship at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He jumped at the opportunity to head to the USA, where he imagined he could make a name for himself on the burgeoning guitar scene. Berklee turned out to be a huge disappointment, and a bored Gus – who didn’t take well to the academic side of the course – quit within weeks. Before he left, though, he met and started taking lessons from Joe Stump, who would go on to greatly impact his approach to the instrument. Among other things, Gus credits Stump with showing him how to play well cleanly, and how to control his distortion.
By 1998, the first Firewind demo – titled Nocturnal Symphony and designed to be a showcase for Gus’s fretboard mastery – had surfaced.
It attracted the attention of record labels, but touring and recording commitments with bands like Dream Evil, Nightrage and Mystic Prophecy meant the first Firewind record proper, Between Heaven And Hell, wouldn’t see the light of day until 2002. Since then, Gus has remained the band’s focal point and only constant member across a total of seven studio cuts and two live albums. He’s also worked with the likes of Swedish death metallers Arch Enemy, and continues to play on records for the likes of Nightrage.
Oh, and there’s the small matter of the Ozzy gig too. So the story goes, Gus received an email from Ozzy’s management one day in 2009, asking him to come down to LA and jam a few songs. As it turned out, the Prince of Darkness had just parted company with Zakk Wylde, fearing his material was starting to sound too similar to Wylde’s own Black Label Society project. He wanted fresh new blood that could look and play the part. After playing through a few songs with Gus, he knew he’d found his man, and hired him on the spot.
The past five years have seen Gus touring and playing the world’s biggest stages with Ozzy and band, filling the rather large shoes of some of the greatest guitar players to have ever stalked the earth. It hasn’t all been plain sailing – look around a bit online and you’ll find all sorts of criticisms of Gus’s tone (too gainy and distorted, apparently), his personality (too introverted), and even his chops (he doesn’t play the solos exactly as Randy and co. did) – but then that’s life in the spotlight these days.
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Of course, those anonymous Internet critics have possibly overlooked the fact that Gus’s laid-back persona, which doesn’t require him to be at the forefront of every stage, is perfect for such a limelight-craving figure as Ozzy. And, from Gus’s point of view, he’s just loving being a part of something huge, saying:
“I still don’t believe all this stuff is happening! Every moment I’ve been in that camp has been so precious, and I just make sure I enjoy every minute of that ride.”
It might even be said that Gus’s modern tones and playing have also helped inject a more contemporary edge into some of the more timeworn Ozzy tunes. Some oldschool fans might not like the extra dollop of gain Gus brings courtesy of his signature ESP guitars and Blackstar amps – you can watch Gus explaining his rig in detail in our accompanying videos, by the way – but it’s testament to his importance and skills that Ozzy has not asked him to back off the distortion a bit. And, fussy detractors aside, most genuine fans seem to love the PoD’s choice of lead axeman.
A catchy mix of hard Rock and power Metal that features a range of guest vocalists alongside Gus’s chunky riffs and lightspeed solos, it’s a release that sees the career of this pleasant and unassuming chap from Thessaloniki come full circle. And how did he do it? “The key to success is patience,” he says. “Believing in your music and yourself, and having patience. There are no shortcuts in this business. It’s all about sticking to your guns!”
Not that there’s nothing left for him to achieve, of course. In fact, if you know of any babies born recently who look like they’ve got the aptitude for guitar, come back to Guitar Interactive in about 2047 and we may well be writing about the hot new player who’s bagged a gig with the world’s biggest Greek guitar god. Just don’t expect an ageing Gus to be out of his mind on crystal meth and pulling the heads off sheep…