Name: Alex Skolnick
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Bands(s): Testament, Alex Skolnick Trio, Planetary Coalition, Stu Hamm Band, Jane Getter Premonition, Metal Allegiance, various others
Link(s): alexskolnick.com | @alexskolnick (Twitter/Instagram)| facebook.com/AlexSkolnickFanPage | facebook.com/alexskolnick/
If we rewind to the very start, what first sparked your interest in music?
The first music that really spoke to me was 1950s rock’n’roll, back when I was a very young child in the mid-1970s. The airwaves were filled with disco, easy listening and what’s now called “yacht rock,” but ‘50s music was also big due to the 20 year cultural resurgence. There were ‘50s themed TV shows, such as the sitcom “Happy Days,” and the variety show “Sha Na Na,” as well as films, such as “American Graffiti,” all of which featured great ‘50s rock. Then Elvis Presley passed away which led to his music being heard more often and constant clips of him being shown on TV. There was also a film that was critically panned had a huge impact on me individually: “American Hot Wax,” which featured legendary ‘50s artists as themselves, including Chuck Berry, whose performance stole the show. I was also a huge Beatles fan (still am) and realized that they’d been Chuck Berry fans, even covering his music. By age ten, I discovered Kiss, who looked like a comic book all star team that played instruments. All of this sparked my drive to play guitar.
Was guitar always your first and only option?
My first instrument was piano when I was eight years old. I gave up after about a year but always had regrets. So a year later, when I started guitar, I was determined not to screw it up! I’ve since returned to piano and play often, mostly for songwriting. One day I aspire to the stage…
You broke onto the scene with Testament during mid- to late eighties when thrash metal was at its peak. How was that like, skyrocketing onto the scene, in your twenties, with a successful debut album to back it up?
Testament (called “Legacy” at the time) had been around a couple years before I joined in the mid ‘80s, while I was still in high school and were already an established band who’d opened up for Slayer (who was starting to pack the local clubs, although nowhere near as big as they’d become). I was sixteen and had been trying unsuccessfully to put a band together. So when I heard their guitarist quit and they were looking for a replacement, I jumped at the chance. Less then two years later, I’d finished high school and as most of my friends were headed to university; I was off to an East Coast recording studio to track Testament’s debut album (“The Legacy”) and shortly after, hitting the road with Anthrax, then Overkill. It was a bit overwhelming and also extremely educational. Looking back, it was all a huge move, as I’d been an extremely introverted, awkward kid who could barely talk to anyone. Joining this established band and hitting the road was just the jolt I needed to come out of my shell. It also sent a message to world playing guitar was no longer just some “hobby.” Later, I’d have the urge to define myself outside of being this thrash “whiz kid” or whatever, but at the time, it was a big crash course and on the job training for both the music world and life.
You’ve been in Testament since the first album in 1987, but left the band to pursue other avenues in 1992. Tell us about some of the things you did during this period of your career.
There is really too much to tell but I’ll do my best to keep it brief (wish me luck!). When I left, I was still in my early 20s, a time when many musicians are just starting to find themselves and I really wasn’t all that different. Ok, sure, on the one hand, I’d had all this touring and recording experience and built a bit of reputation as a “shredder.” On the other hand, I realized that my experiences so far had been limited to an area of music that was fairly isolated. There was this expectation that if you played “thrash,” you were limited to that style and playing with musicians in that scene. The problem was I loved many different types of music and played to many different types of records at home, you might not know I was in a thrash metal band. I had studied with Joe Satriani before joining Testament, and always admired his ability to incorporate influences from Holdsworth, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Van Halen, Hendrix or Wes Montgomery for example, and didn’t want to stop growing as an artist just because I was identified as the “guy from Testament”. I’d also had my first break outside of metal through Joe’s own bassist, Stu Hamm, which called for me to learn songs Stu had recorded with Joe, Holdworth, Eric Johnson, Vai and others, which completely forced me to up my game. I’d also discovered Miles Davis’ electric work, which opened me up to musicians from Scofield to Stern to Hancock, Corea, McLaughlin, Shorter…too many to name. Long story short, after about two or three years unsure what to do next, which included some interesting things – playing a concert with Ozzy Osbourne (which was a live audition, being hired by Ozzy and unhired by his “boss,”) auditioning for the Spin Doctors and coming in second, recording an album with Savatage that I’m proud of, “Handful of Rain” and recording with bass genius Michael Manring – I realized I needed to start over in a sense. So I enrolled in the New School which has a fantastic jazz program and gave me an excuse to relocate from the SF Bay Area to New York, where I felt more energized and inspired (still do!). There were musical ideas I was hearing in my head that I wasn’t able to retrieve. I also needed to hone some skills, like writing a chart, comping for different instruments etc… Within a few years, I was earning a living as NYC professional guitarist for hire. At some point, I got a call from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which would become one of the most successful concert tours in the US (competing with Taylor Swift and Springsteen). That became my tour activity every holiday season, going from a theatrical show to a massive arena rock project. By 2009, I was so busy with my trio, a resurrected Testament and numerous other projects that I decided to step away, but I left with stage performance skills far beyond what they’d been (and which I took to all my other projects). In the late 00’s, I was tracked down by Rodrigo y Gabriela, who’d become one of the world’s biggest instrumental acts. They’d been fans of my playing it turned out, and cited me as a major influence (which was crazy!). They had me play on an album and brought AST on tour as a guest which really boosted us. Incidentally, it was at the New School where I met Matt Zebroski, the drummer for what would become my trio and finally was able to put out music that I felt great about. Sure, I could’ve easily gotten a record deal doing some instrumental metal “shred” album but it wasn’t where I was coming from. The latest trio album, “Conundrum,” feels like a perfect representation of where I saw myself going all those years ago. Between a resurrected Testament, AST, reconnecting with Stu Hamm, doing music educational activity (such as Satriani’s G4 Experience, alongside Joe, Vai, Eric Johnson and Mike Keneally), so it’s now a great balance. So I’ve had an odd, unpredictable musical path yet somehow it all makes sense…
What finally made you return to the band again for the re-recording of old songs for the “First Strike, Still Deadly” album in 2001 and then permanently for the “Formation of Damnation” record in 2004?
After a few years mostly focused on improvisational, straight-ahead jazz guitar, I felt ready to step back into the screaming electric rock guitar side of things, while balancing the two. I’d already been touring with TSO, when Testament brought me in for the “First Strike” sessions. At that point, I saw no harm in re-recording some of the old songs, but I also had no interest in returning with the band and touring. Truth be told, there’d been plenty of “Behind The Music” type of drama unrelated to me that had apparently only gotten worse after I’d left. I was in one of those “cleanse out the negativity in your life” phases. However, by 2005, the remaining guys had admittedly grown up quite a lot. It was a much better situation in early middle age than early youth! And without all the pressure of those early years of the band, we were able to be friends. Suddenly, there was this great offer to come to Europe and play a few shows as the original lineup. It went very well. It also sounded so better than I remembered. After Metallica’s mainstream success and all the chart topping bands that had similarly crunchy sound, manufacturers had caught on and were designing amps and other equipment that could handle it, which made playing our music live so much better. Offers started coming in, so we continued. Soon, we got an offer to tour with Heaven & Hell, Judas Priest and Motörhead, on the condition that we record a new album, of course. It was too much for Louie, our original drummer, who we love like a brother but was done with touring. And with total respect to Louie, there were some “next level” drummers who’d come in after he’d left, starting with John Tempesta. I’d never played in Testament with drummers like this. Tempesta soon got busy with The Cult so Paul Bostaph did the first album cycle (“Formation”) before rejoining Slayer and Gene Hoglan has been with us ever since. So between being able to hear myself and the others on stage and playing with these fantastic drummers, the entire experience of playing in Testament changed for me – it was like rediscovering the joy of metal music all over again. That, along with everyone getting along better, was a big reason I decided to do that first reunion record and why I’ve stayed on since.
You have released successful records, played to massive crowds and toured every corner of the world. If you look back on your career today, what are some of the stand-out moments and events that you think you will remember and cherish forever?
Playing Japan for the very first time is something musicians always remember. Not only was there the rush of being on the other side of the world in a completely different culture, but the fans were really all about the music, not just the scene or the mosh pit (in fact, they were seated the first time we played there!). In the US, I was getting the sense that all the hard work I was putting in was like background music for hard drinking and partying, but playing Japan made it clear folks were really listening. Of course visiting other places such as Europe, Russia, South America, China and the Middle East. If you like to travel, which I do, that’s a serious perk of this gig. Outside of Testament, there’s been Playing Radio City Music Hall with AST supporting Rodrigo y Gabriela (then sitting in with RyG), playing Madison Square Garden with TSO, working closely with my musical heroes Dennis Chambers and Alphonso Johnson at Warwick’s annual Bass Camp, sitting in with Living Colour (several times!), playing Black Sabbath tunes at my one show with Ozzy and looking over to see Geezer on bass, performing on That Metal Show to Sammy Hagar for one episode and Lars Ulrich for the other, playing the jazz/rock album “Mind Transplant” with the late great Alphonse Mouzon, sitting in with Satch and Glenn Hughes at the most recent G3 concert, meeting heroes like John McLaughlin, Billy Gibbons and some, like Al DiMeola already knowing who I was. And so many more great moments, too many to name.
You’re currently working in new Testament material, right? Tell us more!
That is correct… After so much touring lately, including Slayer’s massive farewell dates with Lamb of God and Anthrax, it’s finally time to buckle down and focus on writing. Eric and I have each exchanged several song ideas and are very positive about what we’re contributing. The creative headspace is very different from the touring headspace, so it’s good to have time to focus. I also largely wrote produced two albums this year, AST Conundrum and Metal Allegiance “Vol.2 Power Drunk Majesty (co-produced with Mark Menghi and featuring many great guests including Satch) that came out in the Fall. But this Winter period is largely focused on writing for Testament and I’m really enjoying it, thanks partly to the new gear I have, including Logic ProX, the new AmpliTube (by IK MultiMedia) and especially Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 3!
On the subject of writing, how does your creative process work and how and where do Toontrack’s products come into play?
My initial musical ideas come about in different ways, sometimes when I’m warming up, sometimes after hearing an existing piece of music or attending a concert and just having a groove in my head and humming something new. Usually I play or sing into the phone or MP3 recorder just to capture the raw idea, later I’ll develop it on Garageband or move straight to Logic ProX with the help of Superior Drummer 3. Now, anyone who knows about me knows I don’t just plug products for the sake of it but Toontrack products are game changing and in terms of compositional productivity. It used to be very hard to work up a musical idea to the point I feel good enough about it to present it as a demo and the hardest part was the drums. Not being a drummer, creating a beat from scratch could be, depending on the part, excruciating. That’s all changed with Superior Drummer 3. Now, I’m able to find an existing drum part that I can jam to, develop my guitar and bass parts, adjust the tempo and meter if necessary and tweak some of the drum hits so it sounds built around my composition. I also come up with new parts that I wouldn’t have come up with otherwise. Toontrack also makes it easy to map out an arrangement and change it. Now instead of having to sell my idea and explain how much better it will sound with real drums, there is a very solid blueprint that sounds fantastic.
If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you’d do for a career?
I’d probably be a writer, preferably a novelist. I have a passion for writing prose and am a big reader, mainly of literary fiction. I imagine music would still play a part, much like the books of Nick Hornby or Chuck Klosterman.
Best studio or stage moment ever?
The best studio moment was tracking Testament’s “Practice What You Preach.” Unlike the previous albums, we were set up to record live as oppose to “scratch tracks” where you know you’re re-doing all your parts as you track drums. I’d fully expected to re-do or fix the guitar solo, but listening back, it was hands down the best solo I’d ever played. Thankfully, everyone else liked their parts as well. It helped define me as a guitarist and to this day, is one of my signature solos.
…and on the slip-side: Worst studio or stage moment ever?
The worst stage moment happened with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, during a song called “Old City Bar.” At that point in the show, everyone leaves the stage except for myself and a vocalist (at this time, my friend Steve Broderick). We’re doing the song, which is a slow acoustic song, yet for some reason, the audience doesn’t seem to be paying attention…heads are turning, fingers are pointing in the middle of the arena. We don’t know what else to do, se we keep playing. It turns out that someone in the audience has suffered a stroke, a seizure or a heart attack. The next thing you know, paramedics are coming in and attending to this audience member. This is happening only a few rows down from the front; we don’t dare ruin the show, so we keep playing. The song is a bit of a “feel good” ballad, which is quite odd to to play this as we watch this poor victim being carried out on a stretcher. At least we made it through the song.
What guitars do you own? And if you HAD to get rid of all of them but one, which one would you keep?
I have around 40 which is absolutely nuts, especially since live in New York, where we don’t have much space. However, they’re not all there, some live in Europe and some on the West Coast. I have several ESPs, in my signature model, as well as LTDs. My previous endorsement was Heritage guitars and I have a bunch, hollowbody and solidbody, that I don’t tour with anymore but still appreciate. I have several Godins, including the Montreal Premier that is my main jazz instrument On the vintage side, I have a blonde Gibson ‘76 L5, a ’68 SG, a wonderful reissue 1960 Goldtop Les Paul, an early 90’s Stratocaster made in the US and a ‘50s relic Telecaster that I got at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. On the acoustic side, I have a top notch Taylor, a Martin and a couple Yamahas. I also have a few Ibanezes from my early days with Testament. There are a few more, those are the main ones. If I had to keep just one, it would probably be the ’60 Les Paul reissue.
Your all-time top five list of albums!
Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”
The Beatles “Abby Road”
Pink Floyd “The Wall”
Jimi Hendrix “Electric Ladyland”
Tom Waits “Nighthawks at the Diner”
Studio computer: Apple Macbook Pro (Retina, 13-inch, Early 2015)
Main guitar: ESP Alex Skolnick Signature Model/Godin Montreal Premier
String gauge and tuning: D’Addario 11-49 Testament: Eb AST & everything else: standard.
Amp of choice: Budda Preceptor/Twinmaster, Kemper Profiler