When you think thrash metal you’d think of aggressive, low-register guitar riffs and searing shred guitar solos. It’s a far cry from the elegance of jazz guitar, and we often find the guitarists of both camps staying inside the boundaries of their respective genres.
Alex Skolnick doesn’t fit this mould. At 16, he was a vital part of the legendary thrash metal band Testament – his lead guitar playing contributing to the classic Testament sound. He’s also the leader of the jazz-oriented Alex Skolnick Trio, a genre-busting blend of sophisticated and inventive jazz fused with the standards and conviction of hard rock and heavy metal.
We were extremely privileged recently to speak to this virtuoso of the guitar, who was recognised by Guitar World readers as the 66th best guitar player of all time, where to told us about his journey from thrash metal to jazz and his experience learning from the teacher of many prominent guitarists, Joe Satriani…
Tell us a little bit about how you got into music and picked up the guitar.
I got drawn to The Beatles’ music as a very young child. Even though some tunes were quite sophisticated, others were easy for a kid to latch onto, such as “Yellow Submarine,” and “Hey Jude.” They’re still my favorite band. Also, when I was very, very young, 50s rock had a resurgence with films like American Graffiti and the Sha Na Na television show as well as Happy Days, which, in early episodes, began with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock,” which I loved. Later, a film called “American Hot Wax” came out staring some of the 50s biggest rock artists, including Chuck Berry, who just blew me away with his guitar licks and overall performance. Then I discovered Kiss, who, at age ten, seemed like a band of comic book superheroes with guitars. That marked the tipping point from just enjoying songs to wanting/needing to learn to play guitar.
You’ve gone from metal with Testament to jazz with the Alex Skolnick Trio. How did you transition between those two genres?
It took many, many years to be able to move back and forth between genres. For my first few years with Testament, I was in my teens and entirely focused on metal playing. But soon I felt the need for musical (and personal) growth. I began studying jazz and attending jazz concerts whenever I wasn’t on the road. Then, in the early 90s, I left the band uncertain of what to do next. I hadn’t been happy. I tried putting various groups together – progressive metal, instrumental funk, probably about half a dozen projects, including a couple high profile auditions – before realizing none of it was working and I still wasn’t happy or creatively satisfied. There was only one thing for me to do: leave the West Coast, head to New York City and study music on at the university level. It finally started to come together after an intensive, almost exclusive focus on jazz guitar in New York, where I still live (Brooklyn). It just felt right, even though it made no sense and I didn’t know of anyone else who’d had a similar path, going from playing metal or hard rock to working with highly educated musicians and (hopefully) being able to hold my own. And by the time I began playing with Testament again in the mid-00s, I felt ready to balance more than one genre. It also helps to have the right musicians for each genre. The same is true of the equipment I’m using for each. I wouldn’t be able to do a metal gig on my jazz gear vice versa.
Did your interest in jazz start early on, or was it something you picked up later? Who are some of your jazz heroes?
I always appreciated jazz but didn’t feel it on a strong enough level to take a deep dive into it. That all changed when I was around eighteen and happened to catch a concert on television by Miles Davis with one of his 80s electric bands – it knocked me out. I was also baffled by the improvisation and couldn’t play any of the parts, which frustrated me. Then, some local music teachers explained that every one of those players has a foundation in straight-ahead jazz, which I began learning out of necessity but soon grew to love. A short time later, I was in a recording studio recording Testament’s third album when I heard the greatest saxophone playing I’d ever heard. It gave me goosebumps and affected me like no music had since Van Halen’s “Eruption.” It turned out to be John Coltrane playing from beyond the grave – his album “Live at Birdland,” was being remastered for CD and on this long open solo cadenza, but it sounded like he was right there in the room in the room. A good list of my jazz heroes can be made just by listing artists who’ve worked in the bands of Miles Davis. This includes John Coltrane of course, but also Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, John Scofield, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Mike Stern and many more. Other guitarists include Pat Metheny, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Pat Martino and George Benson (especially his early recordings).
Are there any aspects of metal that have changed the way you approach playing jazz, or vice versa?
Absolutely. I think the technique of metal soloing, especially if one has studied the more advanced players (Van Halen, Rhoads, Malmsteen, Blackmore etc..) can definitely come in handy when playing jazz guitar, particularly the use of arpeggios and sweeps as well as fast runs and picking. At the same time, the touch, dynamics, rhythmic feel and energy are completely different. Of course, there are some players who effectively use rock tone with a jazz sensibility and blend both influences well. They’re few and far between but I’d count Jimmy Herring and Scott Henderson among these types of players. As far as aspects of jazz affecting my metal approach, I think it’s opened a world of new ideas. I never want to sound like I’m forcing jazz into metal (which has happened occasionally), but there are plenty of patterns and note choices I’ve used in metal that wouldn’t have happened without my jazz background: To be technical for a moment, I’ve got some metal licks that incorporate suspended 4ths, Sus b9 patterns, half-whole and whole-half diminished sequences and chromaticism. These types of licks come from jazz, but in the right context and with the right tone and attitude, they sound completely metal.
Who are some of your biggest influences that have shaped your guitar playing?
As I mentioned earlier, hearing Van Halen for the first time had a huge impact. Eddie’s been a tremendous influence, not just in terms of his most famous licks, but also his overall musicianship, tone and character of his playing. I still draw inspiration from his early work. After Eddie, the late Randy Rhoads was my next a big heavy rock/metal influence. Al Di Meola was and is a big influence – on acoustic as much as electric- and also in terms of being open to international influences. Jimi Hendrix is always an influence – more for his deeper cuts, the Band of Gypsies period and especially his live blues recordings. And on the improv side, Pat Metheny and John Scofield just continue to amaze, not just as virtuoso players but as creators of incredible music.
What was it like learning from a guitarist like Joe Satriani? Were there any special moments?
I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this incredible player and teacher in my neck of the woods (Berkeley, Cal) as I was learning guitar and before he’d gone on to become a household name. I’m also glad I had the sense to study with him despite some misgivings from others (mainly disgruntled former students who couldn’t handle the rigors of studying with a serious musician like Joe). I don’t pretend to have been his best student – I was extremely young and still finding my way – but I hung in there and was much farther along after two years of lessons than I’d been. Some of the theoretical material was a bit over my head, but later, soon I was ready for it and learned it in my own time. Interestingly, I never borrowed too much from his own style, partially because of his emphasis on finding your own style. Also, he made it clear that you should never copy the “player of the moment.’ At the time it was Yngwie, whose licks I was a bit obsessed with, and looked like the next one would be his own former student, Steve Vai. He’d relayed that it hadn’t been long since students were constantly coming in trying to play like Stevie Ray Vaughn. Within a few years, that “player of the moment,” whom it seemed everyone was trying to sound like, was Joe himself!
You’ve worked with artists like Ozzy Osbourne and Stu Hamm. What are your most memorable collaborations and what did you learn from them?
Well, the Ozzy experience was a one-time situation. I was flown to the UK to audition and ended up rehearsing for about a week. Soon, Ozzy and Sharon decided to book an unannounced concert. After the concert, the band and crew seemed incredibly appreciative and Ozzy said I was hired. Yet a few weeks later I heard from Sharon that I wasn’t being hired after all. Of course, playing with Ozzy (and Geezer Butler who’d been on bass). was a dream while aftermath was incredibly disheartening. However, I learned to make the best of a difficult situation. Having come so close to the “ultimate” guitar gig made me reassess my life and focus on what I really wanted. I was pushed to focus on more serious composition and improvisation and eventually pursue a degree in music (inspired my hero Randy Rhoads – ironically – who’d been planning to leave Ozzy and study classical music). It also taught me a lot about the music industry and the culture of celebrity. I’d sensed a good amount of dysfunction – which became even more clear once they decided to put themselves on TV and become some of the first reality TV mega-stars just a few years later. I’d thought it was what I wanted, but suddenly I wasn’t sure I’d have been happy there. It was a matter of finding meaning within the situation.
Stu Hamm on the other hand, was a very positive musical experience that had a tremendous impact and helped me develop my instrumental side. We first played together on tour in the early 90s and reconnected just a few years ago, both of us now playing far beyond the levels we had been. Stu has had players ranging from Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson to even Allan Holdsworth on his albums, so it’s a thrill to play tunes those guys originally played and rise to the challenge of sounding like yourself without losing the excitement they they brought to the recordings. Stu and I are planning to finally buckle down and record some music of our own soon and are currently working on ideas for our first album together.
Speaking of Allan Holdsworth, last year I collaborated with his band and played a tribute concert along with several other guitarists (all fantastic players). This was one of my favorite collaborations, because it required playing at a level that at one time I hadn’t been sure I’d be able to – and in front of Allan’s musicians, family members, the press etc.. – but it went great.
One more favorite was collaborating with jazz/rock drum legend Alphonse Mouzan a few years ago, performing tracks from his 70s album “Mind Transplant,” which originally featured Tommy Bolan on guitar. It went so well we spoke of doing it again, possibly recording. Sadly, Alphonse himself passed away a short time later.
What’s next for yourself and Testament?
On the instrumental side, I’ve just finished recording the new studio album by Alex Skolnick Trio – all original material – with a variety of guitars including hollowbody and electric 12 string. The album, “Conundrum,” comes out in September with album launch shows in NYC, Chicago and LA. I’ve also mentioned that Stu Hamm and I are working on material for a future release and have a couple concerts in New York in July. There is also a short instrumental guitar duo tour being planned for July which I can’t announce yet. On the metal side, Testament is currently supporting Slayer on their farewell tour, which is a great honor. The tour, which also includes Lamb of God, Anthrax and Behemoth, is mostly sold out. While on tour, I’m also writing material for the next Testament album, due next year sometime. I’ve also finished a new album with Metal Allegiance, with an all-star line up of guests that will be announced in June. I co-wrote, co-produced, played all rhythms and most solos, so it’s a good chance to hear my metal playing in a different environment. So things are not boring these days…