By Steve Newton
On December 20, 1985, Ronnie James Dio called me up at home and we chatted for 20 minutes or so.
How cool was that?
The legendary heavy-metal artist was doing press promoting his Sacred Heart tour, which was scheduled to play Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum on December 28, with guest Yngwie Malmsteen.
We talked about his Hear ‘N Aid project, his love of sports and classical music, his favourite singers, and the dreaded PMRC–which was making headlines at the time for its attempts at censorship.
We also talked about magic (black and white), Ritchie Blackmore, and his work with Black Sabbath. At one point I made the mistake of asking Ronnie what it was like stepping into Ozzy’s Osbourne’s shoes, and that didn’t go over so well.
For some reason the interview was never actually published, so it’s just been sitting unheard on a cheap, 30-year-old cassette tape.
Here’s the complete transcription, from hello to goodbye.
DIO: Hello, could I speak to Steve.
This is Steve.
Steve this is Ronnie Dio.
How are you Ron?
How you doin’.
Are we all set to do this thing?
Where are you calling from?
I’m at home in Los Angeles.
Oh yeah. How’s the tour goin’?
Uh, we’ve got a little bit of a break now, which is a nice part of it I think, because we have been on the road since August the 10th, and we have only been off for about a week now, and we just have this brief little Christmas encounter, and then we’re gonna come to you straightaway, on the 28th.
Does the tour end on the 31st?
No, the tour doesn’t end until probably August again. We still have the dates in Canada to do, some more in the States, then we’re doing Australia, followed by a British tour, European tour, and then back for about three more months in the States.
Oh, pretty heavy tour there.
Yeah, it’s a long one.
Is it the longest one you’ve ever taken?
I think it is the longest one I’ve done. I think the next longest one was with Sabbath, we were out for about nine months. But this one, especially with the stage set that we’ve got, it seems kind of a shame to only use it for three months out of a year. May as well get all the mileage we can out of it, cause it’s such a great show. We want to take it as many places as possible.
From what I’ve been hearing about it it’s quite a mindblower there.
Oh yeah, it’s a real monster.
I’m actually quite a fan of yours Ronnie. I’ve been following ever since Elf, way back when.
That’s great, dude. I try to forget those days, thanks a lot. No, no, not at all. That’s great.
First off, I wanted to ask you what’s happening with Hear ‘N Aid?
Hear ‘N Aid should be released, if not in January, then the very beginning of February. We wanted to make it kind of after the fact–after a lot of the Live Aid and We Are the World, etcetera, etcetera. We wanted to have it–not so much more special–but just to remove it a little bit. The kind of music that we play and the people who are involved with it are always accused of being something other than what they are anyway–something awful–so we thought we may as well just take it all the way and we’ll just separate ourselves from everybody, ’cause I guess that’s what they’ll do to us anyway.
So, really the problem was in logistics. We have an album that will be released from this project as well, and the problem with time in that is everybody’s always working. Everybody who plays this kinda music is usually out on the road. So getting them all together and getting all the bits and pieces together for a one-time proper release is a little bit difficult. But it’ll be January for the single, end of January beginning of February for the single, which is called “Stars”, and a video as well which was done for “Stars” and with stars. That’ll be released as well, and then probably about a month after that should be the album.
Oh what songs are on the album, who plays ’em?
Well as of yet we haven’t yet got them all together. There’ll be as-yet-unreleased tracks by a lotta good people. Judas Priest are gonna give one. Maiden are gonna do one. We’re gonna do one. I think Dokken’s gonna do one. I think Quiet Riot are gonna do one. There’s quite a few people, and then a lot of others who we haven’t got the planning for yet. But those are some of the people involved.
Looking forward to that one.
Yeah, it’ll be great.
Do you still write songs while watching sports on TV?
I do yeah. I do. All the albums that I’ve done I think I’ve been watching some kind of sporting event. And only because it really relaxes me. There’s no music in the background, and I love athletics anyway. And it’s kind of my fantasy; i always wanted to be a great sports star. And so I’m writing about fantasy things while I’m watchin’ my fantasy, so it all works for me.
What’s your favourite sport to watch?
Well my favourite sport to write by is basketball. But I would say my favourite sport is football. I like anything.
Do you ever get time on the road to get out and play sports at all?
Well we toss the football around. We kick the soccer ball around. Throw a baseball around here and there. But there’s just so little time. The entire day is either taken up with traveling or with soundcheck, doing the show, or speaking to people before and after. This is just a full-time occupation out there. There’s not a lot of time left for fun things.
You started out as a trumpet player when you were five.
How’d you like that?
I didn’t care for it very much, to tell you the truth. I was one of those kids who had to be forced to practice. And all I wanted to do was play baseball and play football, or ride my bike–you know, when you’re five years old you want to do five-year-old things. I think it made me grow up a lot faster, maybe a little bit harder, because I had to do something that I really didn’t want to do, but did pursue, did go after it. My folks thought it was important, and after all they were bigger than me, and I had to do what they said.
It was great training for me–as a singer especially. It was great training as a musician too. I mean I learned how to read, how to write, how to compose in a proper manner. It introduced me to classical music, which is something I love a lot.
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. I interviewed Yngwie about a month ago, and he said he’s heavily into classical. Is that the same with you?
Well I think that, for a start, most guitar players are into classical music because a lot of the technique–especially violin technique–is the same as guitar technique. You find probably that a lot of guitar players will tell you that Vivaldi is one of their favourite composers–I imagine Yngwie probably told you that too–Vivaldi seems to be someone that they all love just because of the technique, the way he wrote seems guitarish in nature.
For me I’ve always been a Bach lover; I’ve always been into Bach and Beethoven–for their whole works, their whole pieces. I don’t just single out one instrument or one passage. I like all the things that they were able to conceive, especially Bach, who, to me, was like–if he had lived today, he’d be up on the stage with a guitar in his hand probably. Real rock and roller.
Do you listen to classical in your spare time?
Yeah, I do. That’s normally what I listen to if I’m home and off the road. And especially if I’m composing, if I’m doing something for an album. I’ll definitely be listening to classical music because I don’t want to listen to anything else that’s the same nature. I may unconsciously steal from it, or borrow from it–I wouldn’t do it purposely. But listening to classical music really cleanses my mind after a long tour, and after having to compose in a real hard-rock vein.
A lot of people can’t seem to believe that people that are into hard rock that’s bordering on heavy metal would be interested in classical.
Well I think those are pretty ignorant people who think that a janitor can’t like classical music, that you have to be a white-collar worker to like classical music, any more than a white-collar worker can’t love heavy metal, hard-rock music, or anything else. You know, music was given to us to colour our world. And some people like blue, some people like green, some people like the combination of both. It’s just a matter of personal taste. And I don’t think that it matters what you do or what you’re main interest is. I think music especially should be enjoyed and liked in its entirety by everyone.
So I guess it’s just because, as I said earlier in the conversation, we were always having stones thrown at us for being rebels or idiots or needing baths or haircuts or whatever. People don’t take the time to stop and look inside the package–they just look outside the package and make a judgment. And that’s completely and terribly wrong. That’s one of the problems of this world today.
Have you seen any exciting new bands lately that I should know about?
I haven’t seen any. There’s a few that I think are making some pretty good music. The Mr. Mister album is a great album; it’s just chock-a-block full of one commercial hit after the other. I just think it’s well done; it’s not what I’d go after or pursue in that kinda musical direction, but I think it’s a really good album; I think it’s a great band. I’m sure there are others. I don’t really have time to listen to them all.
What about singers? Which ones do you admire the most?
Me. I don’t really admire an awful lot of singers. No, I don’t really. I think it’s because I know what they’re doing, and what they’re either capable of or incapable of, and I don’t hear all that many great singers. I’ll tell you who is a good singer: a Canadian lad, Mike Reno. I think Mike’s a really good singer.
Oh yeah? Loverboy.
Yeah. The music is, you know, a lot softer and a lot more commercially oriented than the music that people like myself make, but he’s got great pipes. And a lotta control. Good technique. I think he’s a really good singer. As far as admiring or idolizing or learning or being influenced by others, no, I’m not really. And Mike Reno obviously is not the only good singer out there today, but just off the top of my head I think Mike’s a really good singer. And I’m not saying it because he’s Canadian, ’cause there happen to be a helluva lot of good American singers, and British singers.
You mention in one magazine story that you liked Barbra Streisand.
Yeah absolutely–I think she’s the best female vocalist ever. I mean nobody else can possibly touch the tools that she has. She’s just fabulous.
How is the new album doing?
It’s done very well. It’s done as well as the two prior to it. It’s very rapidly approaching platinum; I think it’s probably 900,000 now, in America. It’s done extremely well in the rest of the world. Very very well in Europe as a matter of fact.
So it might go to a million?
Oh it will, it will. It absolutely will. The problem at this particular moment is that there’s not very much radio play–especially in this country, because of all of the rating situations and again the occult situations, the PMRC all that, has really soured a lot of people from playing this music. That’s very stupid by the way, but it really has hurt. If your music can’t be heard, nobody’s gonna know that it’s available, or even know if they like it or dislike it, so then they won’t buy.
But in a climate where there’s not a lot of sales happening, our product always does well. We always have a very broad base of loyal supporters who are always gonna be there, and then our show and word-of-mouth converts the others. So I’m very pleased with what has happened with the LP.
Have those PMRC come down on Dio for having occult messages and that?
We’ve not nearly been attacked as much as some of the others have, but then again, we then again, we didn’t deserve to get attacked in the first place. I don’t write that kind of material. They have preconceived notions as to what someone is going to be because he or she is in heavy-metal music, and right away the stamp is on there. “You’re heavy-metal, you must be as bad as Blackie Lawless or as bad as Dee Snider” or whoever they think is bad–whom I don’t think are bad at all.
It’s not been nearly as vicious for us as it has been for a few, but then again, why should it be? We don’t write that kind of music.
Are you interested in the occult at all?
I have no interest in black magic whatsoever. I’ve always been a practitioner of white magic, which is for good. I know anything you’d want to know about the occult because I’ve studied it for a long time. Ignorance leads you down the wrong path. I don’t want to be ignorant about it. I learned long ago that you don’t meddle with spirits. You don’t meddle with good ones, you don’t meddle with bad ones, because once you open the door and let them in they never go away. You can’t say, “Well your time’s up, bye!” You know, you’re opening up something horrible there when that happens, so my advice to anyone is just to stay away from any kind of black magic. White magic is fine, it’s for the good. And that’s the only thing I’ve ever been interested in.
Didn’t you have any strange experiences while recording Rainbow’s Long Live Rock n Roll?
Yeah, we had some real weird devil experiences with a real bad spirit that was there posing as Baal, who is the earliest form of devil-worship by the primitive people. And we got someone who claimed to be Baal and created a lot of chaos up there at the studio. Tapes would stop, and we’d go into a locked room and machines would suddenly go on.
I heard that he tried to kill your wife or something?
Yeah he pushed her down the stairs.
We had a lot of problems with that, but we got over it. It was our own fault because we started dabbling again, and calling up something that we shouldn’t have deal with. But being strong believers in god–and by god I mean, I’m not talking about the god that perhaps everyone thinks of, my feelings of religion are a lot different than others. Mine is that god and the devil reside in both of us, in all of us, and you just walk that fine line, teetering on the brink. You can choose either the good way or the bad way. And again, the god I’m talking about, we believe in something good, not something bad. The good side, not the bad side. And because of that strong belief that all of us had in that band we were able to overcome any problems that might have arisen because of dabbling in the dark side. But yeah, we had some problems with that one.
Looking back, I just wanted to ask you, stepping into Black Sabbath, was that a challenge to step into Ozzy’s shoes?
Well as I said before it’s not very difficult to step into shoes of someone who’s been barefoot all his life. That really is not too much of a problem for me. I mean how could anyone possibly compare Ozzy Osbourne to Ronnie Dio–especially as a singer. Ozzy’s a character. That’s what Ozzy is. He doesn’t sing. He does something else. He has heart attacks on stage. He hurts animals–I guess that’s what Ozzy does.
I have no bone to pick with Ozzy, Ozzy happens to be a friend. But I just always make that statement when we’re talking about stepping into somebody’s shoes. There’s was no problem stepping into, again, someone’s shoes whose shoes don’t fit. They were too small for me. I make my own shoes.
It was a challenge to be into that whole situation. The challenge was to be in Black Sabbath, not to have anything to do with Ozzy; it had nothing to do with Ozzy at all. That band was a collection of Tony, Geezer, Bill, and Ozzy. It wasn’t Ozzy that made it go, as proof of the fact that when Ozzy was no longer in the band, we survived better than we did when Ozzy was in the band–especially within the last three albums that Ozzy did with the band and the three albums that I did with the band. The comparison is pretty staggering really. It’s not a problem for me at all to be inside that band. It was a great challenge, I enjoyed it very much, it was a chance for me to take a band that had gotten burned up and had nothing but ashes left and, you know, make ’em rise out of the ashes again, and give respectability to a band that deserves respectability and deserved it then.
I didn’t mean a challenge as far as…
Oh I know you didn’t. I’m not having a go at you. I’m not having a go at you, believe me I’m not. But the question has been asked a lot of times, and put that particular way. But there was a challenge. The challenge was to be in that band, to be in a band that was a legend, and to be more or less of an interloper in that situation–someone who had not grown up within Black Sabbath–and to now have to prove themself worthy of being in a band that a lot of people loved. That was the challenge.
I meant more or less fan-wise. People would shout “Where’s Ozzy?” and that.
Well that’s what I meant. The challenge was to be part of the band that they remembered was Tony, Ozzy, Geezer, and Bill and now was Tony, Geezer, Bill and… who? Ronnie James Dio. Well let’s see what he’s got to prove. That was the challenge then.
What do you think of Ozzy’s solo stuff? I like the stuff with Randy Rhoads.
Well I think he was pretty lucky that he had Randy for a start. And then when he lost Randy he lost most of it I guess. They were lucky he had Bob Daisley for two albums to write all the material for him, because Ozzy is notoriously a non-writer, even though you may see a credit there. Well we’ll just have to see who has written his material for him this time, because Bob is no longer in the band.
His material’s good, it’s well done, it’s interesting. Again, Ozzy’s got a lot of character, and I quite like the things he’s done.
I really liked the album you did with Sabbath, Heaven and Hell. I haven’t heard Mob Rules yet, but I think I’d probably like that one too.
I think Mob Rules is actually a better album than Heaven and Hell, but Heaven and Hell was the first of the two, and so therefore there was a lot more energy and a lot more love inside that album. After a while it got to be, you know, not quite so wonderful, personally, anymore, and I think it starts to show in albums you do. If you’re not happy that’s what you get–an unhappy album.
Do you think Heaven and Hell paved the way for the resurgence of heavy metal?
I think it was absolutely one of the pillars of the resurgence in that kind of music, yes. Absolutely.
What are your favourite tunes that you did with Sabbath?
“Heaven and Hell” is my favourite song that I did with the band. “Die Young” is another song I like very much from the LP.
I like “Neon Nights”.
“Neon Nights” is another of my favourites. “Mob Rules”, another one of my favourites. There are a lot of songs on those LPs I liked. Some I didn’t. There was a song called “Country Girl” that I did like very much. Some I didn’t care for. But then again I’m never pleased with anything I do, to any great degree. But there are some that stand out in my mind. “Heaven and Hell” of course because it said something I wanted to say. I thought it was played very very well. And it was the kind of song that nobody else had ever done before. I think of all the things I’ve done that’s my favourite song.
Have you ever thought of trying to produce other rock acts, like what happened with Roger Glover, what he did for Elf there.
Well I’ve dabbled in a lot of production. Of course I produce my own material; I produced all of my own albums. I did most of the production in Rainbow, most of the production in Sabbath–even though we weren’t able to take the credit for it, because of contractual obligations. I’ve always been involved in everything I’ve done; I’ve always produced myself as a singer.
I’ve had a lot of requests to do a lot of bands, I just haven’t had the time. It’s not fair for me to take that time away from this band, it’s not fair for me to give only a bit of myself to somebody I’m gonna produce. If you’re going to be a producer then go ahead and do it all the way. Don’t do it in bits and pieces. So when the time comes and there is more time I definitely will do it.
Is it true that you have a degree in pharmacy?
You’ve never actually used it?
Oh no. No. I’ve forgotten so much of it, believe me.
Are you still friends with Blackmore?
I haven’t seen Ritchie in two or three years. I don’t know if we’re friends or not. I don’t know. I don’t think so.
How do you rate him as a guitarist?
Mmm. These days: average. In the early days: brilliant. But he’s not doing anything different. He still is the same as he always was. I mean there are guitar players that I hear that are 15 years old that would blow him out the back door–I mean with their speed. The thing that Ritchie has is he’s got great technique and he plays with a lot of emotion, a lot of emotional ability. But I just don’t think that a guitar player who has the great tools that Ritchie has has done anything with it. He stays stuck in the same kind of music time after time after time. Every song begins with Ritchie, plays a solo in the middle, and ends with Ritchie. Maybe he’d be more appreciated if he played in smaller doses. I’ll always admire Ritchie for what he was, but when we’re talking about in today’s world, I just don’t think that he’s come up to the standards of the young kids that really care about their instruments.
I think a lot of people are depending on Yngwie Malmsteen to sort of take the torch from…
Well that’s a distinct possibility, it could happen. Yngwie has to learn how to write first, that’s his problem. He’s a great guitar player and he can play all the things that Ritchie can play–he probably plays most of them a lot faster–but Ritchie knows how to write, and he knows how to get the best out of his instrument. Whereas Yngwie at this particular moment is still learning, he’s still very young. He’s learning his craft. He’s got a lot more years to go before he’s going to be the one who can take that torch from Ritchie.
He’s the same age as your guitarist, isn’t he.
That’s right. No, I think he’s a little bit younger. How old is Yngwie, about 21?
22 I think.
Yeah, I think Viv‘s 23. So it’s very close.
How is Rising Force going over with your crowds?
Well we’ve not ever played with them before; this will be the first time he ever played with us. It’ll only be like 10 gigs, and then they go where they go–I think they’re gonna be doing another album. And then we carry on for the rest of the tour.
Great. Well I hope the tour goes well for ya.
Thank you Steve, I hope you enjoy the show. You’re gonna come aren’t you?
Oh yeah, of course.
Alright, great. You’ll love it.
Great. I was wondering, would it would be possible at all to get a backstage pass?
Sure, absolutely. Just yourself, or someone else?
Uh, plus one?
Plus one, you’ve got it. No problem.
Can I pick that up at the, uh…
Yeah, well I think… You’ve not spoken to anyone yet then about tickets or passes of any kind?
Okay, fine. Well I’ll have that for you, they’ll be at the Will Call window. Tickets and passes.
Wow. Thanks a lot Ronnie.
No problem, Steve. I want you to see the show ’cause I know you’ll like it. Then we’ll talk afterwards.
Okay. Thanks a lot Ronnie.
Okay, Steve, thank you my friend.
See ya, bye.
To hear the full audio of my 20-minute interview with Dio in 1985 subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 250 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:
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Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001
….with hundreds more to come