I had the honour of interviewing Alex Skolnick recently. Whilst Alex only had around a 20 minute slot available we covered a great deal including his early influences, the Bay area thrash metal scene, Testament, his progression to Jazz and the signature Heritage guitar that he plays.
1. What were your early influences and was there that defining moment where you
knew playing the guitar was going to be huge part of your life?
Alex Skolnick: I often mention that I wasn’t good at anything else. I wasn’t particularly athletic, I wasn’t smart. Guitar was the only thing I could do. I discovered kiss at a very early age. So I became a kiss fan and it gave my life meaning and also gave me an identity. After that I had to play guitar!
2. Is there a single guitar player that has been an overwhelming influence on
your playing over the years?
Alex Skolnick: Well I think as I got older my influences changed. I started out only liking Kiss and the Beatles. I was a fan of Kiss’s early music. The early albums are still really good although it got really bad in the eighties [laughs]. But I was always a big beatle fan, I still am.
In terms of guitar, Eddie Van Halen made me want to be a lead guitarist. That was a few years after I discovered Kiss, and Eddie van Halen spoke about Eric Clapton so I started listening to him and then through studying Eric Clapton I discovered Jimie Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Every influence sort of led to another.
I think the one player that really made me focus on metal guitar was Randy Rhoads, Ozzy Osborne’s guitarist. Years later my big jazz influences became Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, John Scholfield who are still big influences.
3. Testament are obviously an iconic thrash metal group. What was it like being
part of the Bay Area thrash metal scene?
Alex Skolnick: It was interesting. It was a bunch of misfits from all the different areas. The other guys in my band came from a little further away. I came from Berklee, university town. Had academic parents. However some of the other guys came from about 40 mins away in the suburbs and we’d play with bands like Death Angel and other groups that came from all over the area.
Death Angel came from South San Fransisco and others from Sacramento so there was this really interesting mix of people that found themselves together in the same scene. From the very beginning I really wanted to do something different. I really liked the high standards of guitar playing by the guys I listened to. Most of the thrash guys at the time however were listening to Motorhead and Venom and stuff like that which was great but it had garage style guitar playing and I refused to do that. I saw no reason why I couldn’t include the musicianship of somebody like Randy Rhoads in thrash metal.
Fretpoint: Sure, and I think that really shines through with testaments material.
Thank you, it was just really different. I don’t think I reinvented guitar playing or anything. Most of the guys I knew were trying to form bands like The Scorpians, or IronMaiden. If it was bands from South California then there was a trend towards glam rock. Some of these bands had great guitar players but with thrash it wasn’t about the guitar solos and I was determined to change that.
4. Jazz appears to be a huge passion for you. What inspired this departure from
your metal roots?
Alex Skolnick: Well I had these jazz experiences. There were several of them. During the making of the second Testament album I saw Miles Davis on television playing in one of his eighties bands and it blew me away. I also started going to Jazz concerts and saw everybody from McCoy Tyner to Herbie Hancock.
I found myself thinking that there were moments here that metal fans could relate to. I just loved the music and I felt such a connection to it but I knew that it would take me years and years to get to a point where I could play even remotely competently.
There were other incidents as well. During the recording of the third Testament album, ‘Practice What You Preach’ at Fantasy Studios, the record label Fantasy was in the same building and they were remastering jazz albums. I remember them remastering a John Coltrane album called ‘Live In Birdland’ and it sounded like the band was in the room. So the playing just really took my head off and I just had to get more into the music.
5. Was your aim to bring together metal with jazz with the Alex Skolnick Trio or was it a natural evolution?
Alex Skolnick: I think it was about 10 years since I discovered Jazz before I could move to New York and feel comfortable playing with profesional jazz musicians. That’s when I felt ready to make a record. But I didn’t want to just make another jazz record and I remember thinking there was certain artists that really framed personality in their music.
Herbie Hancock is as great a funk artist as he is a jazz artist. He could have a full time career as a funk artist. His first album ‘Taking Off’ you could hear his funk influence. Another guitarist would be, in the seventies, Pat Metheny who was a big fan of folk music and was influenced by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor which he brought into to his music. So I thought â€œok, where do I come from? I come from metalâ€ and how can I bring that into this music? Thats how the concept of the trio came about.
6. You covered some absolute classics like Metallica’s Fade to Black & Detroit Rock City. Do you have any plans to cover any Testament tracks.
Alex Skolnick: Well we have in the past, in our first album Goodbye to romance, which was named after Ozzy Osborne’s album, we had two Scorpions songs and a Testament track on the ‘Last days in Paradise’ album. But with each album we’ve had less and less covers and I think there a good chance that ‘Fade to Black’ will be our last one. Simply because we have more than we needed and we’ve really found ourselves. I think that original compositions are the way to go for now. Maybe we’ll bring it back one day when it’s interesting, when it feels right.
7. Can you tell us more about your signature Heritage model?
Alex Skolnick: Yeah, Heritage are based in a factory in Kalamazoo in Michigan which was originally a Gibson factory that was scheduled for demolition. Some of the original workers left Gibson due to them becoming more mass produced and assembly line orientated. They started their own company, reclaimed the factory and have been making these great guitars ever since.
They are hand crafted. When you play them you feel like you are in a vintage guitar shop from somwhere in Nashville or even Denmark Street in London). These guitars feel like that, they have that quality and I can’t think of many other new guitar companies that have that.
Because they are handcrafted they are back ordered and you won’t find them in any of the big retail stores in the US. So having a signature Heritage is kind of like having a signature Les Paul from the original Gibson makers to my spec. I chose the wood, I chose the neck size and I can play almost anything on this guitar. I can use it for the Alex Skolnick trio although I mostly use a Heritage hollow body 575, but for all the metal guitar playing I use the signature guitar.
8. Can you talk us through your current rig for recording and performing live?
Alex Skolnick: Yeah I have a Buddha signature amp based on their 40 superdrive series model which will be commercially available later in the year. I use a couple of pedals, a Jum Dunlop carbon copy, I use a volume pedal to decompress a little and seymour Duncan pickups. On Bollywood Jam from the new album there’s a layer of acoustic guitars and that’s a Yamaha JSX series. The song ‘Alone in Brookyln’ also features a Yamaha Nylon strung acoustic TX 2000.
9. Can you tell us more about what you have planned for 2011?
Alex Skolnick: We are seeing how things shape up, the record just came out a couple of days ago and we are very surprised, as I speak to you we are number 7 in the iTunes top jazz albums in the US, one ahead of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and behind two Esperanza Spalding albums which is really exciting and a statement! So we are in talks with booking agencies and we want to play everywhere, we want to take this world wide. It’s like a mission!
Testament fans needn’t worry though I’ve been working with the guys on a new album which will be out later in the year.
Fretpoint: It looks like it’s going to be a big year for you?
Alex Skolnick: It’s shaping up really well! With these two projects I think I bring a little bit of my jazz influence to Testament at least aesthetically and in terms of the standard of musicianship and I certainly bring my metal influence to the jazz scene. The guys in metal bands traditionally don’t do this and they are all metal, all the time. However I feel that it’s all connected and I’m really excited about it. The next few months are devoted to the trio’s album but then there is going to be the Testament album cycle later in the year and I feel that there is a good balance between the projects
Fretpoint: I imagine it must be incredibly rewareding as a guitar player?
Alex Skolnick: It really is, I mean it’s taken long enough [laughs], like I imagined this decades ago! However I think to do something meaningful and worthwhile it takes a long time and a lot of determination.
Fretpoint: Alex, thanks fo much for your time and I hope we’ll get to see you play in the UK at some point?
Alex Skolnick: Yeah you will, absolutely! Thanks a lot.
You can purchase Alex’s new album Veritas via his website
Check out Veritas album preview below.