Alex Skolnick: Defying Expectation

November 16, 2018

To many, Alex Skolnick is the deft-fingered, melodic leader of the critically acclaimed NYC-based trio that bears his name. For many others, he’s the virtuoso lead guitarist for Bay Area thrash metal pioneers, Testament.

JAZZed recently sat down with Skolnick to discuss his unique evolution as a player and artist, what attracts him to jazz, and lessons learned as both a scholar and teacher across two wildly distinct musical genres.

Before we talk about the unorthodox arc of your professional career, let’s start at the beginning: when did you first get into music? What bands, players, and styles first spoke to you?

I discovered The Beatles as a very young child. Even though some tunes were quite sophisticated, others were easy for a kid to tune into, such as “Yellow Submarine.” Also “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be.” To this day, I’m a big Beatles fan. Also, when I was around eight or nine years old, I got drawn to ‘50’s rock, which had been having 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.” There was also a film calledAmerican Hot Wax” that starred some great ‘50s rock artists playing themselves, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and the one who just completely knocked me out: Chuck Berry. That was the first time I’d been excited watching someone play guitar.

Following that, what was the catalyst for you to pick up your first instrument?

My first instrument was the piano. I liked a lot of theme songs I’d heard on piano on TV and in movies, especially Scott Joplin, who’d been having a resurgence thanks to the Hollywood film, “The Sting.” I was very young, maybe seven or eight years old. Unfortunately, it didn’t feel like it was going well and I quit after just a few lessons. I suppose I just wasn’t ready and, to be fair, I hadn’t practiced hard enough. At the same time, I’d been quite put off by my piano teacher’s negative reaction. I think if she’d shown a little patience and given me some incentive, it might have helped, but I was too discouraged to forge on. At the same time, those Scott Joplin rags were quite advanced and I didn’t have the discipline required, nor see a path towards learning them.

A few years later, I was getting the bug to learn music again. My older brother played bass by that time and was playing in some local bands. I also discovered KISS, who, at age 10, seemed like a band of comic book superheroes with guitars. That was a tipping point. So between The Beatles, KISS, and Chuck Berry, and the fact that they were all guitar-driven – although The Beatles had some great piano parts and Chuck Berry had terrific piano accompaniment – as well as watching my brother play local gigs, that was a tipping that made me ready to give guitar a shot. This time, I was determined not to screw it up.

Once you started playing guitar, who were some of your early teachers?

Once I took up guitar, I was very fortunate to have a great teacher, whom I’m convinced helped me stick with it. His name was Gary Lapow – a true Berkeley individual who wrote and performed folk songs at anti-nuclear protests. Later, he developed a successful career as a children’s artist. Gary was very good at communicating with kids and was also patient, which was what I needed at 10 years old. He’d actually had to be away the week of after my first lesson, so I had a full two weeks to practice. My piano lessons had ended after I’d had two weeks to practice and the teacher told me it “Sounds like sh_t.” This time, I worked extra hard, mastered all the chords he’d shown me. When he came back, he was in shock how far along I was and [was] incredibly encouraging. I studied with him until around age 12, when I was intrigued by the electric licks of players such as Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Angus Young. Gary had been fantastic for learning the basics, but he agreed it was time for me to move to electric guitar to learn to solo, which was out of his area of expertise. By being so understanding and encouraging, he also set a great example of being a pro and not taking things personally. So I bounced around between two hotshot players on the local music scene who were considered some of the best up-and-coming players. One was an Eddie Van Halen fanatic and the other was a big fan of Al DiMeola. Each of them inspired to be a more technical player. Yet, as great as they both were, even at my young age, I’d sensed limitations as far as what they could teach me, particularly in terms of theory, composition, and diversity. I also knew each of them had studied with the same teacher, who was a bit of a mysterious figure. All I knew about him were three things: He was very serious – so much that some discouraged me from going to him; he had a waiting list a month or two long; he was Italian-American.

Fortunately, I chose not to listen to the naysayers – mostly local, “best on the block” players who’d been made aware of their weaknesses in the lessons. This gentleman would be my last regular teacher. I’d study with him for two years and would develop more in that period than my entire time playing up to then. His name – which many, of course, know by now: Joe Satriani.

Wow. Well, can’t ask for a better “shredder”-style teacher. Let’s talk a little about the early years with Testament. How did you end up joining the band?

I’d been hoping to put a band together while in high school and tried a few times. However, it was really difficult to find young players on a similar level. It wasn’t like today when you can search YouTube and find young musicians (many of whom sound further along than I was back then!). So it felt like the best thing for me would be to play with musicians a few years older and no longer in high school and, if possible, an existing band looking for a guitarist. As if on cue, there was an opening with a band, Legacy, who’d later become Testament. I didn’t necessarily set out to join a thrash band. It seemed the most exciting lead guitar playing was coming from glam bands. While I liked the guitar playing in all those bands, the music had a silly, hedonistic quality I didn’t quite relate to. Also, I just couldn’t see myself [doing] the hair-spray and tight, colorful clothes of the glam bands, which was more of a Southern California thing. I preferred the solo music of Ozzy Osbourne and Dio, which was then new and had a dark intensity. I’d been most excited by Eddie Van Halen as a player, as well as the late Randy Rhoads and as Yngwie Malmsteen who was then the new virtuoso in the hard rock guitar scene. So I was originally hoping for a hard rock group with one guitar that wasn’t overly image-focused. At the same time, the local scene that was happening seemed to be building, featuring many bands that blended hard rock and metal with punk energy. Metallica and Anthrax were nationally known by then and the guitar stars seemed to be the riff guys, like James Hetfield and Scott Ian, more so than the soloists – with all due respect. So when the call came to try out for Legacy/Testament, it seemed like a great opportunity to try to put some of that VH/Rhoads/Malmsteen lead guitar virtuosity into a thrash band – not that I was on any of their levels, but for a 16 year-old, people seemed to think I was quite far along for my age and this was a chance to develop. I asked Satriani – also a big influence at the time – about it and he felt it would be a great opportunity, whether it lasted a month or many years. He was right. All of a sudden, I’d gone from mostly playing alone in my room to rehearsing at least once a week with this established band and, now and then, performing with them on stage in front of an audience at one of the same rock clubs I’d been frequenting as a young fan – and since I was underage, often sneaking in by carrying amplifiers. 

This all sounds like straight out of a Hollywood “and this is how he became a heavy metal icon” story, but how and when did you become passionately interested in jazz? It doesn’t seem part of the narrative at all, so far.

I think the seeds may have been planted by my early love of Scott Joplin and, later, The Blues Brothers soundtrack, which wasn’t jazz, but had horn arrangements, piano, and Matt Murphy on guitar, whom we lost this year, and had a jazzy sound. So I always appreciated jazz and would listen occasionally, but just didn’t feel it on a strong enough level to take a deep dive into it. That all changed when I was around 18 and in the middle of recording Testament’s second album. One night I was flipping channels in the hotel and saw a concert on television by Miles Davis. It was one of his ‘80s electric bands and it knocked me out. I’m not sure who was in the band, but would guess it was might have been John Scofield, Mike Stern or Robben Ford on guitar, with Darryl Jones or Marcus Miller on bass, and probably Adam Holzman on keys – who is someone I’d later study with at the New School and go on to perform with in the jazz/rock project, Jane Getter Premonition. The music didn’t strike me as “jazz,” per se, as there was funk bass, Latin percussion, the most sophisticated blues progressions I’d ever heard, and screaming guitar that wasn’t metal but had an energy that wasn’t too far off. Through Miles, I discovered so many other musicians: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter – which, of course, led to Weather Report. I’d been able to figure out some of the most challenging rock guitar licks, but now found myself completely baffled whenever I’d try to learn licks based on a jazz vocabulary.

Then, as if by fate, I was in Fantasy Studios, which I just heard, sadly, is about to close, recording Testament’s third album. Down the hall, I heard the greatest saxophone playing I’d ever heard – the first piece of music that affected me like hearing Van Halen’s “Eruption” solo for the first time. I asked the engineers who on earth that was in there, and they explained that the soloist wasn’t actually in the room – it was the late, great John Coltrane playing from the grave. As it turned out, Fantasy Records had just purchased the catalogue of the then defunct label, IMPULSE! Many out of print albums were then being remastered for CD for the first time, including Coltrane’s Live at Birdland, which I overheard and it sounded like he was right there in the room. The studio staff were kind enough to set me up with all the promo CDs I wanted, since I was a “client” of the studio, most free, a few for a dollar each. I got hundreds of classic jazz albums on CD, including some that would greatly influence me.

So between those incidents and having great venues like Yoshi’s and Kimball’s East nearby, where I’d hear artists including McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, and so many others, I was inspired to shift gears and focus most of my practice on jazz guitar and other improvisation, such as world music, which was inspired by Chick Corea’s Spanish influences and especially the acoustic projects of John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola. Whenever I wasn’t touring, I’d seek out various Bay Area jazz educators, including Mark Levine – who wrote The Jazz Piano Book and The Jazz Theory Book – guitarist Steve Erquiaga, studio keyboardist Frank Martin, and others. They’d all made clear that in order to learn this electric jazz I’d been so into, I would basically have to start over and develop a foundation in straight-ahead jazz. So I began learning standards, studying guitarists such as Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Tal Farlow, and others, learning to sight read and follow a chart. It was out of necessity at first, but soon I really grew to enjoy this process and the sound of straight-ahead jazz really grew on me. As incentive, I bought myself a beautiful vintage ’76 Gibson L5 hollow-body – blonde, just like the one Wes is playing on the cover of Live at the Tsubo (in my hometown of Berkeley, before I was born), with a promise to myself that I would use it to develop professional-level jazz guitar skills, or it would go back to the store. I still have that L5 – one of my most prized possessions. 

Testament reached the top of the thrash-metal heap, so to speak, and then you… left and moved to New York to study at The New School. What prompted that decision?

At first, I just needed a good excuse to move to New York! By my mid-twenties I’d become disillusioned with the San Francisco Bay Area. It was becoming less a place for artists and more for tech entrepreneurs and software developers. Yes, it’s a beautiful region with nice climate and many perks, but I felt stuck being constantly surrounded by the same scenery and people I’d grown up around. Meanwhile, I’d been making occasional trips to New York to visit family and friends and found that, more and more, I really liked the city, and being on the East Coast in general. There was an intense energy I hadn’t felt in California and it fueled my creative spark and drive. I went to many jazz clubs, which were all over the Village, meeting top-level players. Somehow, I found it much easier to meet and hang with other musicians in New York. I found many much more welcoming and less judgmental about my metal background. It really was the complete opposite impression of what I’d heard. I can’t recommend enough the process of uprooting oneself and changing surroundings to a new city – not that it has to be New York, but anywhere that inspires and takes you out of your comfort zone. 

One friend I made, a guitarist named Nat Janoff, told me about Charlie Banacos, this great educator in Boston who’d taught Mike Stern and many others via correspondence. I’d end up studying with him for ten years, until he passed away in 2009, and the first year I was still in California. Studies with Charlie helped fueled my desire to be in an environment where I was surrounded by musicians and could get honest feedback, advice, and questions answered. The New School seemed like the perfect place for that. I also appreciated The New School’s non-musical departments and studied creative writing and philosophy as well. So, attending The New School meant moving to New York, furthering my jazz skills, and getting an education – pleasing my Ivy League-educated folks in the process. It was a win/win all the way around.

Who were the instructors at The New School who impacted you most?

I had several great ensemble teachers – including Cecil McBee, Charles Tolliver, Billy Harper, and Joanne Brackeen – all of whom had decades of experience and serious resumes. They gave honest, but encouraging, feedback. All of them seemed appreciative of my interest in this music and not at all discouraging that I hadn’t exactly come from a “jazz purist” background. Charles even had a son who listened to hard rock and knew who I was! Some of my favorite class teachers were better-known in jazz education circles than in the world of live performance and recording, although most had a discography as well. One favorite example was Bill Kirchner, who taught jazz history and arranging. His specialty was the big bands of Fletcher Henderson, Thad Jones, and Mel Lewis, but he could appreciate Return to Forever and Weather Report on an equal level and describe them with equal authority. Also Gerard D’Angelo – a great pianist who taught theory and ear training classes. He was very aware of the level of each students’ interest and interactions, always making sure everyone was grasping the material before moving on, careful not to lose the room, which can happen with heady theoretical concepts. For individual lessons, my favorite was Vic Juris. Vic is also pretty well known as a performer and recording artist, especially among jazz guitarists. Incidentally, both Vic and Gerard had been Charlie Banacos’ students and continued to study with him – it was quite inspirational to see my teachers continuing to learn and show that the learning process never ends.

A good lesson, for sure. After graduating and forming the successful Alex Skolnick Trio, you eventually rejoined Testament. What was behind that move?

By 2005, I’d had spent over a half a decade focusing almost exclusively on jazz guitar. I’d been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to AST and, after a few albums, felt comfortable branching out and bringing back my rock playing while continuing my improvisational focus. I’d also developed a career as “guitarist for hire,” from local jazz gigs to touring with various artists, from backing singers (Debbie Freidman, the late Jewish folk artist and Ishtar an Israeli world/pop singer) to playing with symphonic rock projects (Jekyll & Hyde: The Concert, Trans-Siberian Orchestra). So when Testament called with the idea of doing a few shows for old times’ sake, I said, “Why not?” As much as diving into jazz improv had shocked onlookers, it felt like returning to the metal fold on some level would do the same and liked this idea. I suppose defying expectation had become part of my modus operandi. 

Now you balance your work with Testament, AST, and a number of other projects and collaborations. How do you keep it all straight when you’re that busy?

It takes a lot of focus, energy, and organization with plenty of checking of calendars. I usually have a good idea of my open windows, six months to a year ahead of time, in terms of Testament’s schedule, and I’ll start with booking other projects around that, starting with AST, since that’s my main baby. Then I squeeze in other instrumental projects where I’m a “for hire” guitarist, such as bassist Stu Hamm, guitarist/vocalist Jane Getter, and others. I keep hearing about how the music business is in turmoil and how artists are wrestling with the “gig economy” et cetera, but I’ve never been busier, so I feel very fortunate. I also think it’s important to turn down work that isn’t a good representation of you, if you can afford to.

As far as what formats I find most artistically and personally satisfying, no question it is improvisational, instrumental music. My listening mostly consists of the ECM Records catalogue (old and new), classical piano, jazz, and jazz rock/records that I often buy on vinyl, often out of print, and the music I practice to and get inspired by comes from those sources. I get in trouble sometimes and have been misquoted to sound as though I don’t like to play metal anymore, which is far from the truth – if you see me at a metal concert, I’m playing my heart out, which can’t be faked. Yet, I have so much more to say with different dynamics. For example, I love it when in an improvised piece the volume level gets so quiet you can hear a pin drop – different tones, different modes, various instruments and pedals as well as working with serious musicians from non-rock based genres. Don’t get me wrong: metal is a hugely important and meaningful genre with room for instrumental virtuosity that has enabled me to become the musician I am. At the same time, as an artist and a passionate listener who is multidimensional, it can be limiting.

Absolutely makes sense. Can you talk about your own experiences as an educator? What formats do you prefer: one-on-one, master classes, traditional classroom?

I’d say my work as an educator really started in my early 20s, when both Guitar World and Guitar for the Practicing Musician magazines offered me instruction columns in the ‘90s. Being thrown into teaching by magazine to a national audience was great on-the-job training. I’ve always been one of those musicians who really likes teaching as well as performing. I could have been happy being primarily a full-time educator and even anticipated that in my future when I finished my degree at The New School and was entertaining preparing for graduate school and focusing on education and literature. I also figured I’d give it my best shot as an artist and, within a few years, I was a full time touring and recording musician on my own terms. Meanwhile, I’ve been fortunate to have some great opportunities as an educator. For example, the most recent Warwick Bass Camp, in which I got to work with some of my musical heroes – the only non-bass playing instructors were myself and Dennis Chambers. Dennis and I backed the ensembles of Alphonso Johnson and Tetsuo Sakurai, as well as playing for other instructors in the live jam, including Steve Bailey, Felix Pastorious, Ralph Armstrong, and others. In 2016, I also taught at the G4 Experience, alongside my old teacher Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Mike Keneally, and Steve Vai – very humbling company to be among. I think I most prefer the classroom format, simply because you get to know the class and the individual students and there is more time to give one-on-one attention. But I also enjoy giving master classes.

Do you teach both jazz and metal?

I do, yes. It really depends on the student. With some, I’ve gotten into territory I encountered at The New School and from Charlie Banacos, such as triad extensions, chord alterations, chromatic approaches, II-V-I patterns, comping techniques, approaching a standard, and such. Others, the more metal leaning students, want to know more strictly guitar-based technique such as hammer-ons, legato, sweep arpeggios, or riff writing. One thing I’ve found in common is that in both cases, timing, rhythm, and feel cannot be emphasized enough. In both genres, I’ve seen students that seem to have an extensive vocabulary, but are unable to use it because they haven’t focused enough on the basics. There are students that try to play beyond their abilities and it is up to the teacher to let them know, hopefully in a way that gets through to them. One thing both genres have is roots in the blues and I use the blues as a link between them and as a common building block in either direction.

What do you like most about teaching? What do you find least enjoyable?

Most enjoyable is feeling the joy conveyed by a student as some concept they’ve never understood before is unlocked, thanks to your teaching approach. Also, seeing a student develop from “struggling” to “competent” is very gratifying. I often relate the degrees and modes to songs students have grown up hearing and it tends to resonate more than just seeing a bunch of patterns with funny names written on paper. Students who might not be ready to dive into the chord sequences of Bill Evans can still learn the modal degrees with help from songs by The Beatles, Rush, Prince, or David Bowie, for example. Modes and patterns to those songs help prepare them for more advanced music. I’ve had students that never understood what the hell “melodic minor” is all about, yet when I play them Pink Floyd’s “Us & Them” and they recognize that really strange chord in measure five, it begins to make sense.

What I find least enjoyable is occasionally having to have a “come to Jesus” talk with a student who hasn’t yet realized that he or she has been attempting to play far beyond their abilities. Many are trying to “blow” in jazz or “shred” in metal, but they’re not making music and need to return to the basics. I’ve had to let jazz students know they need to study the most basic solos of Charlie Christian and Django Rheinhardt before taking on Pat Metheny playing over Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Studying music can be very humbling and those who go places are the ones who are honest with themselves.

Any words of advice for your fellow players and educators out there?

Based on my answer above, I’d encourage all students and educators to use familiar music as a device for learning. You should also never lose sight of the music that first inspired you. I remember Kenny Werner telling a group of students that if you were inspired by The Monkees more than, say, Duke Ellington, you shouldn’t stop listening to those Monkees records. Also, a great piece advice comes from a New School teacher I had, Richie Beirach, who barged into class one day, announced that he had something for us to remember if we take one thing from his class, then wrote out “EXPRESSION IS EVERYTHING!” in giant letters on the blackboard, then said it out loud and bashed an atonal cluster on the piano. That’s a good one. And one the most important thing I learned came from pianist Hal Galper, who was very forceful about rhythm and timing. He’d go around the class one-by-one and you’d have you play while a bassist and drummer accompanied. If were the slightest bit out of time, he’d stop you, make you put down your instrument and sometimes humiliate you in front of the class. To be honest, I’m not a fan of that type of teaching style – not that Hal was like J.K. Simmons’ character in “Whiplash,” but he was certainly closer to that than any of the other teachers I had. So while I’d urge educators to consider a more nurturing approach, on the other hand, Hal got us all to increase our listening of the other instruments. He also triggered the process of editing out ideas that don’t lock into time. This was incredibly useful and applies to any kind of music. I’ve tried to pass on this wisdom in a more nurturing manner. So while I’d had some misgivings about that type of intense, forceful teaching, I had to admit that what he’d instilled about rhythm was among the most valuable learning experiences I’d ever had.

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