Jazz 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
Semi-flat strings, with a wound G. It’s
a D’Addario set called EHR350, gauged
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
You have really remarkable chops, but it never
sounds like shred for shred’s sake. What do you
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
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
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
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