Alex Skolnick: 'When I First Heard Music and Saw Musical Performers on Television and Live, I Was Completely Transfixed'

artist: testament date: 05/29/2014 category: interviews
I like this
30
voted: 3
Alex Skolnick: 'When I First Heard Music and Saw Musical Performers on Television and Live, I Was Completely Transfixed'
The title of Alex Skolnick's book - "Geek to Guitar Hero" - really just about says it all. The Berkeley, CA-born guitarist grew up beneath the shadow of highly educated and liberal parents who wanted their son to follow in their academic pursuits. Lacking self-confidence and feeling totally isolated, Skolnick had no desire to pursue a life of higher learning. He eventually tuned into the world of music and his life changed. "When I first heard music and when I first saw musical performers on television and then later live, I was completely transfixed," he says. "Mainly because these people were incredibly expressive and they could express emotions. It's funny because years later when I heard heavy metal, I think it captured how I felt being trapped by this monotone, unexpressive world." Skolnick picked up a guitar, devoted every waking moment to mastering the instrument and within a short time frame joined a local band called Legacy. Here, the guitarist talks us through his life from gawky adolescent to highly-regarded rock and jazz instrumentalist.

UG: When you were much younger you felt like this neurotic outside until you found music. Was the guitar your saving grace in a way?

AS: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. There were a number of reasons for it. I grew up in a very academic, scholarly background. I didn't hear a lot of music growing up. It was mostly public affairs programming and just seeing these guys in drab suits and talking in monotones. I grew up around that and it was little bit like the teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Nothing expressive.

Metal really spoke to you?

Especially the vocals. Yeah, it was the growl, rrrrrrrrr. That was what I wanted to express. First it was the riff and it was definitely hard rock that first drew me in. First it was Kiss for a number of years and then Ozzy and Van Halen. When it came to the metal stuff, I think that's partly why I had a connection to it. It really represented the complete opposite of what I had grown up surrounded by.

That's strange your parents really never had music in the house because they seemed like the type of people who would have been listening to the Summer of Love music happening in San Francisco.

Yeah, I just missed that. My parents were like one generation older. A lot of my friends had parents who listened to "Summer of Love" bands and some of them even attended Woodstock. In my family, music was just something to have in the background and something put on for dinner parties.

What kind of music would they play for these dinner parties?

Mozart. Which was great music and I have an appreciation for but there no rock and roll sensibility. We had nothing in common. I had friends who would bond with their parents over the Doors or Jimi Hendrix and it wasn't like that.

You mentioned Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix but you were also listening to Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and later Randy Rhoads?

At first it was more the three kings of rock. In blues they have the three kings: Freddie, Albert and B.B. King. In hard rock it's Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and maybe Jimmy Page is in the extended network. More for the band than his guitar playing but some of his guitar playing is really great.

How did you make the leap from those types of players to the metal thing?

It's interesting because those guitar players I just mentioned, their music was associated with hippie culture. So the same people that listened to Bob Dylan and the Mamas and the Papas would listen to Cream and Hendrix. Jeff Beck was part of the seminal groups and I think those three artists were like a gateway into harder rock. Every hard rock band that came out from 1970 on would talk about the influence of Cream. Eddie Van Halen would talk about learning the "Crossroads" solo.

Right.

Right? Hendrix inspired everybody.

You mentioned KISS as an early influence?

The first thing was KISS. I saw an ad for a KISS concert on TV and also I stumbled upon the KISS baseball cards. I never related to sports in any way so at first I thought, "Another set of baseball cards. What is the big deal? I don't get it." Then I saw it and it was these masked creatures with these wild looking instruments so right away I was hooked. I got my first KISS album because of the image. I genuinely liked the music. It was the first music I discovered on my own and it gave me a good feeling. I was really young too. I think I was like nine years old and I didn't know anybody else that liked Kiss. I found out there were all these other people around the world that liked Kiss but at the time it was this personal discovery.

It's really amazing how many bands cite KISS or Ace Frehley in particular as a big influence.

KISS was a very influential hard rock band. Every metal band will profess to having some KISS influence.

What happened after Kiss?

When I was in seventh and eighth grade, Ozzy Osbourne was doing his solo records and they really caught on. They're really great songs. It's easy to forget in the period with Randy Rhoads, how great those songs are. I played at a Randy Rhoads tribute recently - "Randy Rhoads Remembered" - and I was thinking that, "These are just so well-written." You would hear them occasionally on the radio especially "Crazy Train" and a couple of the others. Suddenly it was kind of cool to like Ozzy but it was a trend. The kids in school would go through these trends.

What were the trends?

It was Ozzy for about a year and then the very next year, it was the English Beat and Madness. Everybody was listening and ska and pop music and if you still listened to Ozzy you were so last year. But to me it was always about music and it wasn't because of what everybody else was listening to.

Did you listen to the ska music?

I didn't mind that '80s ska bands but it just didn't resonate with me like Ozzy did. So I kept listening to Ozzy and I was an outcast. One day I would play a gig with Ozzy, which I had no idea at the time.

Were there any local bands you listened to?

Around this time I started going to see local bands. There were a lot of metal bands although there were other kinds of bands too. It was a very open scene so you could hear a band that would sound like the English Beat and some of the same fans would be up at the shows for these bands that were listening to Motorhead.

Any groups in particular?

Groups like Exodus and Slayer came to town and did their first shows. They would always have local openers and there many local and visiting bands. Too many to name.

You're leading up to Legacy?

Yeah, one of the bands called Legacy needed a guitar player at one point. I had a friend who knew them and tossed my name in the hat. I was only 16 at the time and in 11th grade and this all happened very fast. It was like Kiss in the sixth grade, Ozzy in junior high school and Metallica and Slayer in high school and then the next thing I'm in one of these bands. And it was only two years until we did our first recording.

What were those early days like for you playing in Legacy?

It was now suddenly like stepping into adulthood. I had a very unusual life experience in many ways and part of it was growing up in this strict academic background and yet being surrounded by hippie culture in Berkeley. Also I was never one of those guys that looked young. I looked like one of the older kids so when I joined the band, it was funny because most of the guys were of legal drinking age at 21. But a couple of the other guys would always get asked for ID's at the clubs and I wouldn't. So I always looked older and I was thought to be older yet I was always younger.

Were you born with an old soul?

I think so. I never really got youth culture with all the things that were marketed to teens. It always just seemed so ridiculous, hah hah hah.

In those early days, did learning the guitar come pretty easily for you?

I talked about it in my book. I really felt like I wasn't good at anything. It's not a plea for sympathy - it's just a fact. I just wasn't confident in any way. With the guitar it wasn't like today where you turn eight years old and you're basically issued a guitar. There's lots of kids playing guitar but very few kids played guitar at that time. Electric guitar was something people took up in their teens usually.

No other kids your age were playing electric guitar?

I was one of the first kids so I felt, "Oh, this is a unique thing. Not many kids are doing this and maybe it's something I could get good at." I think also because I enjoyed it and was so connected to finding a place in the world and discovering Kiss on my own before I knew how popular they were. The first time I heard "Rock Around the Clock," I was so connected with that.

You were listening to music from the '50?

Yeah, and I loved the Beatles. The Beatles were the group I never outgrew in any way. I think it was tied in with so many things, I just had such an appreciation for it. I guess you could say it came naturally though I did have to work at it like anyone else. I had to stick with it.

You took lessons from Joe Satriani?

Not right away. I started out with a folk teacher named Gary Lapow who was really good. When I started learning hard rock, there were a couple local guys in bands that were considered the best on the block and I studied with each of them. It got to the point where I felt like I should be learning more. I wouldn't say I was catching up on a performance level. I wasn't able to jump onstage and perform the way those guys did but I was learning stuff really fast. I was even bringing in music for them to teach me.

You were teaching the teacher?

They didn't really know how to show me and then I was learning on my own, hah hah hah. They'd ask, "How did you do that?" So I decided to seek out this mythical teacher who was the guy these guys studied with. All I knew about him was his name was Joe and they all said, "Oh, don't study with him. You don't wanna do that." I said, "Why?" They said, "He's really strict and he'll make you practice your lessons. He'll get mad if you don't practice." I said, "Well that sounds great. It totally makes sense."

You sought out Joe Satriani?

Yeah, and that was one of the first key decisions I made on my own. It was a fork in the road - either to listen to these guys I liked who were really good players at the time or to go with my instinct, which was to study with Joe. Obviously today you'd be crazy not to study with Joe Satriani but it was one of these really interesting situations and of course I'm so glad I made that decision.

How long did you study with Joe?

I studied for two years with Joe and I got to see what a real serious musician was like.

Can you sense Satriani's influence on your guitar playing today?

I never wanted to sound like him. I followed his advice about never trying to sound too much like another person. When I first went in, I had my stock of licks. I was still very much into Van Halen and Randy Rhoads and Yngwie had recently been making a big splash so I was learning his arpeggios. There was a couple things I did - there was a signature Yngwie arpeggio I played for Joe on the first day I got in. And of course the classic Eddie Van Halen two-handed triplet - diddle it diddle it diddle it. He sat there and said, "You shouldn't do that." I said, "What are you talking about?" And I'm thinking to myself, "It's rad."

Some licks are so identified with certain players.

Yeah, what he meant was certain licks are such signature licks and you have to be careful of those types of licks.

Exactly.

He said, "Sure, learn from them but try to expand them into your own licks," which was really great advice. It goes one step further too 'cause then there's copying somebody's vibrato and copying the way they dress. It's funny because much later I would hear about guys I knew from the Austin music scene and apparently there was a whole team of Eric Johnson clones that dressed like him and played a Strat. I think that was really good advice about finding your own thing and never getting too caught up in who the latest most popular player is because there always be that one player. The funny thing is a few years later, Joe was the one guy that was on all the magazines and people were copying.

In 1987, you recorded The Legacy, Testament's first album on which you had written music for "Apocalyptic City" and "Alone in the Dark.'

I wrote out of necessity. They had a pretty big set because the band had been around a couple years I think by the time I joined so they had some songs. They had enough to do a gig but as soon as an album was on the horizon, they needed more material. So I started bringing in what I had and that included those songs and "Burnt Offerings." You can kind of hear a difference in it if you take the ideas I had such as "Burnt Offerings," "Apocalyptic City" and "Do or Die," all of a sudden there are harmonies and different keys. You'll notice a lot of the other songs were mostly in E and they're mostly riff-based. I was coming from a place where my guys were Rhoads, Van Halen and some of the glam guys even though I never thought once about being a glam rocker. But Warren DeMartini's playing at the time was…

Amazing.

Astounding. And George Lynch.

Also incredible.

Right? So that's where I was coming from. I wanted to play like that but I wanted to find a way to do it in the context of the heavier music. I also thought musically it would be so much more interesting to throw in some different keys and don't have the guitars do the same thing all the time. I was getting in a lot arguments and there was a lot of resistance.

You already had problems on that first album?

Already. Oh yeah, they did not want that but the fans reacted. The fans said, "Guys, this is great. Do more stuff like this."

What was that like recording guitars with Eric Peterson on "The Legacy?"

The first record I think was tough for everybody because there's no instruction manual. You know how they have pregnancy handbooks? "What to Expect When You're Expecting?" There was nothing like, "What to expect when you go into the studio for the first time doing your first album." You know what I mean?

There were no rules for making first albums.

Now it's such a different time with the Internet and the explosion of information, you can look up videos. There's videos of me in the studio recording and describing the process. But back then we had nothing like that and I didn't know anybody who had gone to that level. All the musicians I knew in my circle maybe they'd gone to record a demo but nobody had actually gone to that point of recording a professional album in a professional studio.

Was it a positive experience?

We were all terribly nervous. The technology was such that you had to scratch tracks, which were tracks you'd get rid of just to get the bass and drums recorded. Because the technology wasn't there to play that stuff with good tones. Now it's so different because you can play through a plug in.

Is this the beginning of digital recording?

No, this is the end of analog. So we would record these tracks with this god awful sound - like painful - and it's amazing we even got the drums recorded. How do you play to sounds that bad? Then we recorded over that once we had the drums recorded and that would be better 'cause you would at least have your sound.

Were you recording live?

We'd each record rhythm parts separately and we'd sort of build it. I'd do my rhythm parts and back then Eric wasn't doing any solos and he does some now. Back then it was just me and I wouldn't want anybody else in the room when I was doing solos.

Jimmy Page was the same way.

I was terrified. It's so funny how things change because now I can do it and have somebody in there filming and I can talk about it. Say, "OK, I liked what I played here. I didn't like here so now I'm gonna fix it." I'm very calm about it but it was a very nerve-wracking experience.

But you slowly became more comfortable doing solos?

It got a little easier each time around.

By the time you did "The New Order" did you feel more at ease?

I sort of knew what to expect, yeah. It was the same process but definitely no comparison. It was like the difference between getting onstage for the first time and then having a few gigs under your belt.

Whose idea was it to cover Aerosmith's "Nobodys Fault"?

I'm trying to remember. We had a discussion with the label and it might have come from Jonny Z [Jon Zazula, Megaforce Records founder]. I could be wrong. I don't feel like it came from the band.

Were you an Aerosmith band?

In all honesty, I kind of missed the Aerosmith boat. I discovered them later when we would tour and would listen to cassettes in the car. Somebody brought a cassette of "Rocks" and "Draw the Line." I had gone straight from Kiss to Ozzy and Van Halen and I felt like I had some catching up to do. I think even though it's great music, I was a little too guitar obsessed at the time. So if I wasn't listening to Van Halen or Randy Rhoads, I was listening to the Yardbirds, right? Or Robert Johnson who had done the original "Crossroads." It was just all about guitar.

There wasn't enough guitar in Aerosmith?

I loved the tunes and I loved Steven Tyler's voice but it wasn't the type of thing where I wanted to learn the solos. Except for "Walk This Way" interestingly. I like that solo. And the live version of "Train Kept A-Rollin'" but then I heard rumors that's Steve Hunter on there.

I heard that same rumor.

I think it is documented. It's kind of interesting that the stuff I did gravitate towards and, "I think I'd like to learn these licks," that was all the session guys.

You brought in Tony Platt (AC/DC) to work on "The Ritual" album in 1992. Was that different than working with Alex Perialas?

It was an interesting situation. There was no doubt we had outgrown Alex with all due respect. He was great for recording bands in Ithaca where he had a studio and the occasional band that would come from elsewhere such as us and Anthrax. But he'd never been outside of that. If you look at the most influential metal albums, the majority have been produced by guys that have a foot in other music.

Tony Platt had done everything from Iron Maiden to Foreigner.

Rick Rubin doing "Reign in Blood," I think he'd probably come from recording Public Enemy and the Red Hot Chili Peppers but it doesn't matter. Today he can record Kanye and then go into the studio with Ozzy, Geezer and Tony. His metal credibility is sealed and it doesn't matter what he does. He's the prime example of that. Tony had done very successful rock albums and I really liked working with him.

You thought he brought out great stuff in the band?

I don't think the band related to him as much and it might be because he was very British. He had a British wit and a bit of a disciplinarian which I liked. That worked for me. Me and the other guys were coming from very different places but to me it represented a whole new way of working. I think if he'd been there on some of the earlier records, they probably would have sounded better.

Do you think there was a change in the band's sound with cleaner guitar tones and more lyrical playing from you on "The Ritual?"

Yeah, I think so. It was a very difficult time for the band and I think that comes through and it definitely affected the album. I was talking about this in my book but sometimes I get blamed for that album, which is kind of funny. I'm pretty proud of it and I think there's some great ideas on it.

"Return to Serenity" was a great song.

I think that's our best ballad and a lot of people seem to think so. "Electric Crown" is our best mid-tempo song and "So Many Lies" is one of the more musically interesting riffs. I think if we had just had a few fast tunes in there, it wouldn't have any backlash. But at the time, I didn't make the decision not to have fast tunes but it was almost a kneejerk reaction because the previous album was the first record that sold less than the one before it.

Which probably caused some panic within the band.

I'd been pushing for just a more balanced record. Not a mainstream record but some balance. My whole thing was keeping it musically interesting and that's where fans some fans don't get it. They think I want things to be more commercial. There's a huge difference between commercial and musically interesting. I was pushing for that and I basically got overridden on "Souls of Black."

"Souls of Black" was the record you referred to prior to "The Ritual," which had sold less than "Practice What You Preach."

I'd read these reviews and you're supposed to disagree with the critics but a lot of these critics were speaking for me. I was just thinking, "Yeah, it's too same sounding and it doesn't really go anywhere. There were a few good ideas but it needs more variety. It hints at variety a couple of times." So then that next record, they wanted to try a very different direction and I think it was too drastic. I think if we found a balance between those two albums - "Souls of Black" and "The Ritual" - I think we would have had one really amazing album.

At this point you leave Testament because of all these things you'd just mentioned?

Yeah, I mean that's part of it. Anytime I do a big move like, I usually have at least three really good reasons, hah had. And any one of those reasons would probably be good enough. It's almost like the three strikes principle. The personal dynamic in the band had gotten unbearable and it's no coincidence I left and then the drummer who had been the other guitarist's best friend and co-founder left within a few months of my leaving.

Nobody was happy in the band.

I would get asked by guys who came in and played in the band, "How could you leave this great band?" Then I would be asked, "How did you last?" So it was partially disagreements with how things were going with the band and part of it was the whole personal dynamic had eroded.

You wanting to bring in more melodic music and that type of thing probably didn't help.

I wanted it to be a diverse band and didn't want to be limited to one thing.

You must have been discouraged when Testament broke up?

It's a tough thing because that was a big chunk of my life. I started at a very young and precocious age so yeah, it was tough. It took a lot of courage. The guys now would admit this that things were not always handled professionally or with dignity and maturity. But I knew leaving, I wanted to handle it with maturity. I didn't cause a war in the press and I actually told 'em straight up when I was leaving and offered to help find a replacement and finish the rest of the tour dates. I wanted to handle things in the right way.

You talk about wanting to do different things musically - did you know what you wanted to do?

I had no idea. I think it's worked out in a way because if you look at some of the recent things I've done in the last few years, I've been able to do some respected jazz albums with my own project and others. Last night I sat in with Robert Randolph, this great Southern blues slide player. I played with Rodrigo Y Gabriela and guested on their album and am about to do my own world music album.

Ultimately you just wanted to try playing all types of different music.

Back then I had a love of all these kinds of music but if you put on the stage with any of those people, I wouldn't have know what to play and that drove me nuts. Even aside from everything that was going on in the band, I would have needed that space to explore and become a musician outside the bubble of heavy metal.

But you still loved heavy metal when you left?

It's a great bubble and I loved the music. It was my entrance into guitar and being serious about music but it is a bubble.

In 1994 after leaving Testament you went out and toured with Savatage?

Yeah, that was an accident. The last thing I wanted to do was join another established rock band. I had been a fan of Savatage before I joined my first band. Everybody in my circle in high school had the first Savatage album, which you couldn't get because it suffered from bad distribution. So everybody had second- and third-generation cassettes. They had a rough time and had done a record that was far too commercial and really got caught up in the record label/management decision and it affected him. But they'd come back and they had a great resurgence. Out of nowhere, the guitar Chris Oliva passes away and it was horrible.

You replaced Criss Oliva?

It wasn't what I had in mind was playing in another band that was in a similar genre. His brother, Jon Oliva, the keyboardist/founder of the band told me, "I know my brother and we have this album recorded except for his parts. I know the only guy he would be comfortable with coming in and doing the solos is you."

You played the solos on "Handful of Rain?"

How do you say no to that? That was how that started and the album led to a tour. I toyed with the idea of continuing but it started to get a little too busy. I think that would have become my thing - I would have become Savatage's guitarist. It just wasn't what was right for me at the time.

What did you do at that point?

A couple other odd things happened. I got a call from the Spin Doctors of all things to try out and I came in second.

Who could have been a better player than you?

I forget the guy's name [Anthony Krizan] 0but he was good. He was a guy from New York and I think what really did it was slide guitar. I was very new to slide and this guy slide was his main thing. There were a couple of new tunes they had at the time that were very slide oriented.

That could have been interesting.

It could have been really interesting, yeah.

The Spin Doctors embodied all kinds of different styles and textures.

Oh absolutely. I've actually bumped into a couple of those guys and we kinda talked about it. I guess it was a blessing in disguise because they pretty much imploded after that and lost their record deal.

Didn't you play with Ozzy around this time?

I got the call for the Ozzy Osbourne thing. It was weird - I came in first and I was chosen but then I was sort of unchosen by the real decision maker. So basically Ozzy said yes but I don't need to say who makes the decisions in that camp. But I did get to do a show and that was a really great experience.

Joe Holmes got that gig.

Yeah, he was the one that was picked.

Joe Holmes is an amazing guitar player.

Absolutely.

He has a new band called Farmikos that is incredible. I spoke with Jake E. Lee recently and he talked about playing with Ozzy was a curse and it pigeonholed him.

I'm friends with Gus G and he's starting to spread his wings and doing his own thing. Yeah, he knows that can happen. At the same time how bad is that being known as Ozzy's guitar player? I don't have sympathy for that because I think you're gonna get that anywhere. No matter what music I'm doing, I'm always gonna have somebody that wants to hear "Practice What You Preach."

You did a couple of albums with Attention Deficit. That was insane instrumental stuff lurking inside you?

Some. That was really spontaneous when we were together. I'd be curious if we had more time and more live gigs together because it was really as experimental as possible. But it had some great moments and it was a good experience. I think it helped me get where I was going. And also Michael Manring did a couple albums of his own I played on. He did an album called "Thonk" produced by John Cuniberti who had done all the early Satriani bass.

Michael Manring took bass lessons from Jaco Pastorius.

Yeah, he's a phenomenal musician. I also toured with Stu Hamm and that was my first time playing instrumental music on a professional level. Interestingly after many years, I'll be playing with Stu again at the Iridium next month in New York. I'm excited about that.

In 2001 you returned to Testament to record the "First Strike Still Deadly" album?

At that point it was like, "Alright, we're out of the pressure cooker now. Whatever happens is what happens." They'd sort of gone in their death metal direction, which I didn't really relate to at the time. I was doing jazz fulltime and studying with Charlie Benackos who is a legendary educator in Boston and was getting a university at the New School in New York studying philosophy and creative writing.

In other words you weren't sitting around playing death metal licks.

I'm in this whole other place and I'm learning and I've discovered education is really cool.

You're saying, "Maybe my parents weren't so wrong."

Yeah, that was a crazy thing. I started appreciating that side of it and I could appreciate academics and scholarly interests on my own terms. That's where I was and as far as music, I was playing my Gibson L5 [hollowbody jazz guitar] and pretty much that was it.

What was that like having to play metal guitar again?

I stepped back into the metal stuff for that record and I had to warm up to it and I had to relearn stuff. It was interesting because at that time I had such a different vocabulary going on with all these chromatic ideas and II-V-I shapes and super impositions. But it was, "OK, let's get back to the basics."

Did you enjoy the making of the album?

It was cool. It was only a few years later we got this offer to do a reunion gig, which led to the reunion album, which led to tours with Motorhead, Slayer, Judas Priest and Megadeth. So suddenly this resurrection happened.

But you were still doing outside projects?

I'm able to go back and forth now, which I never used to do. Also I would never do a Testament gig on my jazz guitar. Right now I play Godin guitars and Budda amps and I wouldn't play that music with that guitar and I wouldn't try to play jazz with my solidbody guitar and wall of stacked amplifiers with overdrive.

Your solidbody guitar is ESP?

I am as of last year. It's working out great. They really came through and I'd sort of gotten to this place where I became a vintage guitar snob. So I thought, "Whatever guitar we do together has to work a vintage guitar snob." I've let a lot of skeptics play it and everybody agrees, "This is a great guitar." Also you know what you're getting.

ESP make great guitars.

ESP is a solid company, unlike the original classic guitar makers who have gone through so many shifts with different owners, different divisions, good years and bad years. If somebody buys a Strat or a Les Paul, they don't always know what they're getting unless they're really experienced and know what to look for. But you can grab one of my Alex Skolnick Signature model ESP's [AS-1 SSB] and it's going to be good.

You've referenced your jazz music several times. In 2002 you recorded the first Alex Skolnick Trio album "Goodbye to Romance: Standards for a New Generation." Where did the idea come from to interpret rock songs in a jazz mode?

It was between doing that or doing a stock jazz guitar album. There were just so many stock jazz guitar albums and some of them are really good but some of them are just not that interesting. You do a few standards and you do a few originals and you have that same tone and hope it sounds like the Jim Hall Trio. I realized the musicians that seemed to impact me the most are able to combine jazz improvisation with some flavor of where they come from.

Which musicians?

Chick Corea has the Spanish roots and you listen to tunes like "La Fiesta" or "Steps - What Was" and you hear Flamenco influence. Herbie Hancock came from the R& B background and you hear that. It was very sophisticated jazz music but there was a funk underlying current. Then of course later he got into real pure funk. Pat Metheny comes from the Midwest and folk influences. I liked these guys that sort of bring something about themselves to the table.

You had to figure out what you could bring stylistically?

I thought, "Where do I come from? I'm a kid from Berkeley and the son of Jewish intellectuals that got into hard rock and heavy metal." I figured, "OK, when I do my jazz album, that's what I'm gonna do."

In 2008, Testament reunited for "The Formation of Damnation" record.

It was really cool. Coming at it from a whole new vantage point because I already had an identity outside of the group. I think being able to those Trio albums and even though they're not huge sellers - not many jazz guitar recordings are - they're respected. Guys in very exclusive jazz circles and guys in huge metal bands whether it's an innovative band like Dillinger Escape Plan or even Munky from Korn, had the Trio albums. There's a satisfaction in that so when I came back, I came back with this identity and a sense of self that I was able to bring to the table. When I left I was searching for an identity and I didn't know who I was.

Four years later you recorded the "Dark Roots of Earth" album with Gene Hoglan on drums.

That was cool because I think for the first time it was almost like an new band. With all due respect to Louie Clemente, our original drummer, but Louie had grown up on hard rock and adjusted to thrash metal. He never played much during his off time. If he wasn't in Testament, he wouldn't be playing drums. All those years he was out of the band and when he came back to the band, he had to relearn how to play.

Gene Hoglan is a monster player.

That's what he does. If he's not playing with Testament, he's playing for Dethklok. If he's not playing with Dethklok, he's playing for Death to All or Fear Factory. I think working with somebody like that opens up a lot of musical possibilities that weren't there before.

You're now recognized as a truly respected jazz and metal guitar player. What would this version of Alex Skolnick say to the younger unsure Alex?

"I did it." It wasn't some mystical thing. There was very logical reasons. I think a lot of is was understanding why things were the way they were because it makes sense. The fact that my family was from the East Coast and old school New York and yet I'm being raised in this super-Liberal, hippieish place and my parents really didn't fit in there at all. I went to a school named after the head of the Nation of Islam.

That sounds intimidating.

No wonder I was gonna have a tough time. Everything that happened makes sense. I think if I could go back and talk to that kid, I'd tell him, "Relax. Everything's gonna be OK." But you can't do that. Also if I had the knowledge then that I have now, there were many things I wouldn't have taken as seriously as I did.

We all wish that.

I realized the world is full of pretenders. It's the truth. There are pretenders everywhere. It's a surprise when our fallen heroes like Lance Armstrong turns out he was lying. And how he's sorry and he's going on Oprah. He's sorry he threatened to destroy everybody that questioned his credibility, hah hah. He's one of the ones we know about. I see people like that as a metaphor of what you encounter in life.

You don't think you were a pretender?

I was very unconfident but I was also very honest. I think in life you're surrounded by people that are really no better than you but they present themselves as such. They're just good at pretending. I wish I had known that but as you get older you learn to spot who's real and who's not. Every now and then you get surprised and somebody you think is total phony might actually turn out to be true and honest and vice versa - somebody that seems to have a lot of credibility really doesn't know what they're doing and what they're talking about. I'm just glad I figured out a lot of this stuff and developed a thick skin in the process.

What are your plans right now?

I'm going into the studio next month to record my first acoustic World Music album called "Planetary Coalition," which I'm really excited about. I'm playing with some great traditional artists.

That's all acoustic?

All acoustic guitar. I'm playing with the Stu Hamm band. I've been doing a three-guitar group in New York with these great guitarists - Bruce Arnold and Jane Getter who are very eclectic improvisers. I'm doing a guitar camp with them as well and also Stu Hamm and Mimi Fox who this is this great solo jazz guitarist signed to Steve Vai's label is involved. It's called the Guitar Intensive Workshop that takes place in late June. Testament is going back on the road in August overseas and working on material for a new record. And I start plans for a new Alex Skolnick Trio album that I'm gonna work on late in the year.

Other than that you're not too busy.

Yeah, yeah. I'm writing for the Talkhouse, which is a great music journal for musicians who review new releases.

You actually review records?

I've reviewed two so far. I've reviewed the new Dianne Reeves record, "Beautiful Life." I heard from her who was one of my idols and that was exciting. I just reviewed the new Transatlantic album and I don't know how they'll like it because it's not totally positive. I'm respectful of their playing but I wasn't crazy about some of the vocals and lyrics. I have to be honest.

That's the fine line of being honest in a review and trying to be mindful of how that artist might feel after reading what you've written.

A writer from the New York Times actually reached out and let me know how much he loved the review and boasted about it and agrees with it. It's also about my feelings on prog, which is a genre I have mixed feelings about.

It seems like you would be attracted to Robert Fripp and Genesis and that type of music.

That stuff, yes. Some of the stuff influenced by it, I'm not sure about. Kind of like fusion - I'm very attracted to the original "Return to Forever" and "Mahavishnu" and "Witches Brew" but where it went developed in smooth jazz.

Thank you and play all the good notes.

You got it. Alright, bye.

Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2014
More testament interviews:
+ Alex Skolnick: 'Jazz Outings Make It Possible To Play In Testament' Interviews 05/20/2010
+ Testament: 'Being Musicians, We'll Experiment With New Things' Hit The Lights 08/08/2009
+ Testament: 'There Is Ten Years Worth Of Writing On New Album' Interviews 12/26/2007
Comments
Your captcha is incorrect