Alex Skolnick's Jazz-Metal Passion

June 14, 2011

imgJazz and rock. Each of these distinctly American musical idioms has roots in the blues and in dance music. But, with each subsequent generation of new players and new listeners, both factions have evolved far beyond their original archetypes. They’ve come so far, in fact, that the two now may appear wholly unrelated. Tune in a rock radio station and you’ll be hard pressed to hear any hint of jazz—no extended improvisation, no group interplay, no feeling of taking a leap into the unknown. By the same token, spin a modern jazz disc and see if you can find any of the building blocks of rock—visceral riffing, swaggering attitude, payoff choruses.

There are musicians, however, who embrace both jazz and rock with equal passion. These players know that jazz doesn’t have to be purely academic, and that rock can be so much more than power chords and relentless boom-thwack beats. Alex Skolnick is one such player. He was a core member of the Bay Area metal band, Testament, from the early 1980s into the early ’90s (returning briefly in 2001 and then as an ongoing member in 2005). Even back in his early Testament days, jazz piqued Skolnick’s interest. He regularly frequented Yoshi’s—an Oakland jazz venue that has long hosted top-shelf talent. When he was ready to dive headlong into the music, Skolnick moved to New York City, enrolled in The New School’s well-respected jazz program, and also began taking correspondence courses with Charlie Banacos—the late New England pianist whose impressive list of past students also included guitarists Mike Stern, Wayne Krantz, and Vic Juris.

Nowadays—with the aesthetics of a well-tempered jazzbo, and a metal-head’s chops—Skolnick is enjoying making music on his own terms. It’s music that’s hard to pigeonhole but easy to dig, regardless of listeners’ musical allegiances. His trio’s latest album, Veritas [Palmetto], is the group’s fourth and Skolnick’s most focused as a leader. Where earlier records have featured classics from the canons of rock and metal, the tunes on Veritas are all original— with the exception of “Fade to Black.” But even this Metallica number, the guitarist says, is meant to signal a fade from his past covers-based approach into complete musical vision all his own.

One of the first things that struck me about Veritas was your rich tone. Are you playing flatwound strings?

Semi-flat strings, with a wound G. It’s a D’Addario set called EHR350, gauged .012-.052.

And what’s your main guitar?

A Heritage H-575, which is sort of their version of a Gibson ES-175.

You can play a hollowbody loud, without feedback problems?

That’s one of the reasons I gravitated towards that guitar. I’ve tried other jazz guitars, and they don’t measure up in terms of being able to play loud, or being able to sneak in rock ideas. There are also a couple of songs where I switch to my solidbody Heritage signature H-150—which is like a custom-built Les Paul. I’m able to switch back and forth, because the neck on my signature model has a similar shape and they’re strung the same. The two guitars are not that different.

“Panna,” the first track on Veritas, is so short. Was it composed that way or improvised?

It’s a total improvisation, wide open. We recorded a few like that, and chose the best take.

What made that one the keeper?

The interaction. On other takes, there might be a great bass moment, or I might really like something that I played—but that take was the one where all the instruments worked together.

Veritas has a lot of interplay throughout. Was the album tracked live with the three of you in one room?

It was all recorded live, though I’ll confess to fixing a few things. As far as the setup, the drums were in the main room, and I was in the mixing booth listening through monitors and headphones with just one earpiece on. Both the drummer and I had good sight lines with the bassist, who was in an isolation booth. My amps were in another iso booth.

Is that the most comfortable way for you to record—in the booth, away from your amps?

You get used to it. That’s part of the deal of recording music. You have to get used to hearing it a lot of different ways and find a sound that’s comfortable for you—whether it’s headphones or monitors, or whatever. It’s never as comfortable as your living room.

Some songs—such as “Path of Least Resistance” and “Song of the Open Road”—have layered parts that sound like loops. How did you achieve those?

When we play live, I use the Line 6 DL4 pedal for loops. We tried to record the same way we play it on gigs—using the Line 6— but the sound just wasn’t that good. In the interest of sonic quality, we had to take some liberties. I recorded the loop parts by actually playing them before we tracked the band. It was tricky, because, in a few of those songs, we pause and then the loop comes in. In the studio, the band would have to totally pause, cue the engineer to start the loop part, and then we’d play along, and finally bring it all together in editing. Live, I can do it whenever I want with the DL4.

Nice nylon-string work on “Alone in Brooklyn.” Do you use traditional classical guitar technique?

It’s hybrid picking, with pick and fingers. It’s hard for me to play without a pick. I’ve tried, but there’s always something that comes up where I need the pick. I’m planning to do more acoustic stuff in the future, however, and I don’t want to be limited by holding the pick. Also, some of my favorite British rock guitarists, such as Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler, play with their fingers.

However you are brought up as a player, you work with that. I never studied classical guitar formally, though I kind of wish I had. I think my technique would be better. Then again, the technique I do have helps me create the music I’m doing. Did you see the movie It Might Get Loud, with Jimmy Page, Jack White, and the Edge?


The Edge is so creative. I love listening to what he does. Technique-wise, he considers himself very limited, but he doesn’t let that stop him from creating music.

The song “99/09” has a funky, Prince-like feel. Is the “99” in the title a reference to his album 1999?

Definitely, and ’09 is the year I wrote the song. It is dedicated to Prince, and also to John Scofield. In the liner notes to Veritas, you’ll see each song has a dedication to a particular musician—not all guitarists.

You get a great funk tone for that. Were you using a compressor pedal?

No. I used two amps on the record—a Budda and a Fender Vibrolux—with a bunch of mics up close and in the room. We chose different mics for different things. We went with the tight mics on that song, for a more compressed feel.

You have really remarkable chops, but it never sounds like shred for shred’s sake. What do you practice?

It differs. It’s always connected to whatever’s coming up. If I’m preparing for a recording session, or a gig, I’ll work on that music. I haven’t had a regular practice pattern for a long time. I used to have a routine— I’d work on chords for a while, and then I’d work on chromaticism for a while. I haven’t done that in a long time, and I actually feel my playing is better now. I mean, it was important to do that, but at a certain point you have to graduate. When I do practice now, I always look for things that challenge me—like certain licks. There are a few licks that I’ve been practicing for years, and they always challenge me.

What kind of licks?

There’s a Chick Corea lick from the song “Spain,” from an album he made with Bobby McFerrin. There are a couple of Scofield licks from the song “Joshua,” from a record he made with Joe Henderson. I’ve got a book full of them. It’s like a diary.

What do you get from going back to these phrases, over time?

It’s always different. It still takes me a little time to get into each lick to the point where I can play along with the original recording. But they’re always part of my vocabulary. I’ve also spent a lot of time composing solos, which came from studying with Charlie Banacos for over ten years. He often had me compose a solo over a jazz standard, using material from our lessons, or licks I’d transcribed, or whatever. I’ve also done that with my own music. Before going into the studio, I’ll compose one chorus of a solo on one of my tunes.

Is that usually the solo that ends up on the record?

No, it’s just for reference, and then I forget about it. I’ve found it really helps to have some melodic basis for improvisation— rather than going into a solo with a completely blank slate.

After first staking your claim in a metal band, you’ve been releasing your own jazz-oriented albums for a decade now. Have the metal fans— and jazz fans—caught up with you?

When I first started this trio, a lot of people thought I was crazy, and some people still do. There are these assumptions, on the rock side, that it’s okay to like jazz but you’re not supposed to play it. And then there are people on the jazz side saying things like, “He must think he’s as good as Metheny— and he’s gonna get his ass kicked.” That’s stupid. That’s not why I do it. I’m not claimin g to reinvent jazz guitar. I don’t think anybody is—even the guys who have played the music their whole lives. The only reason I’m doing this is because I’m compelled to. I want to play music that reflects my listening tastes. I realized a long time ago that my listening was more than 50 percent jazz. Why would I not attempt to cultivate that in my own music?

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