You don't often hear KISS and Miles Davis mentioned in the same conversation, unless it's Alex Skolnick doing the talking.
The former lead guitarist for the late-'80s metal band, Testament, Skolnick took a musical detour in the 1990s after becoming enthralled with the music of Davis and other jazz legends. Skolnick immersed himself in the study of the music, earning a BFA in jazz performance from New School University.
Skolnick presently performs in a variety of improvisational outfits, including The Alex Skolnick Trio and the Skol Patrol. In 2002, The Alex Skolnick Trio released the acclaimed Goodbye to Romance: Standards for a New Generation; the album re-interpreted arena-rock classics by The Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, and others-in jazz and swing fashion. Skolnick has also toured with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and composed music for Electronic Arts, MTV, and even the Westminster Dog Show.
Before a recent show with The Alex Skolnick Trio, Skolnick sat down with Guitar.com for a round of Ten Questions:
Guitar.com: What's your first guitar-related memory?
Alex Skolnick: I think it was seeing KISS on TV. It wasn't necessarily the guitar itself as [the fact that] they looked like superheroes to me.
Guitar.com: What was the best thing about playing hard rock/metal music?
Skolnick: It forced me to develop technique and presence. I think that stage presence translates to any type of music, so, even though what I'm playing now is very different [from his metal days with Testament], I think that the initial experience of having to be onstage and having to be confident was very helpful. Also, heavy metal requires a lot of guitar techniques. [In the 1980s], it was acceptable to play guitar solos that were developed. Playing metal at that time and being influenced by great metal players such as Randy Rhoads, [Eddie] Van Halen, and Michael Schenker [UFO, Scorpions] did wonders for my technique.
Guitar.com: What was the worst thing about playing metal?
Skolnick: The worst thing was the lack of dynamics, the lack of expression [in the music]. The music was great for what it was, but it just wasn't about dynamics and expression.
Guitar.com: What's the best way for a rock or metal guitarist who's curious about jazz to get into playing the music?
Skolnick: The first thing to do is accept the fact that it's going to be like starting over. Also, you need to hear a lot of live music. Live is the way to learn the music-it's inspiring and not the same as listening to albums. Also, [it's important to] start simple. Don't try to do the most complicated arrangements. Don't try to be as proficient as you are with rock or metal. Learn the earlier versions from the jazz repertoire. For example, listen to Django Reinhardt playing "All The Things You Are" instead of John Scofield or Pat Metheny doing it.
Guitar.com: Is it possible to learn to improvise or do you just have to have a knack for it?
Skolnick: You can definitely learn, but it takes a loooong time. It [also] depends on the level that you're improvising at. [Keep in mind that] you're improvising all the time when you speak-your spoken words are like improvisation. It's just a matter of working music to the point where you're comfortable enough that musical phrases are like words. I think a lot more people can learn to do [improvisation] than think they can.
Guitar.com: Is there a preferred gear setup for jazz?
Skolnick: Everybody should develop their own setup, sound, and gear, but you can start with a basic jazz setup, like the Heritage guitar that I play [Heritage H575 hollow-body], which is similar to a classic Gibson ES-175. For me at least, it was important to play a hollow-body instrument because it supports the style better. Now, jazz can be played on a solid-body, but it's much more challenging, I think. For me, I had to get as far away from the solid-body as I could. I also suggest an amplifier that supports the sound. A good one is the basic Polytone amp. I wouldn't use that for my Trio, as it's not a very original sound, but, when you're just starting out, it can work very well...
There really isn't stock jazz gear as there is in rock. In rock, you have the Marshall setup-Van Halen, Angus Young, and Jimi Hendrix all used Marshalls-in jazz, there really isn't that kind of overlap. Like, George Benson plays with a completely different setup than Pat Metheny, who plays with a completely different setup than Pat Martino. So, if you're just starting out, a nice, decent hollow-body and an amp-Fender or Polytone-[will do].
Guitar.com: Do you use a lot of effects?
Skolnick: For the [Alex Skolnick] Trio, yeah. I'm using a lot of effects, probably more pedals than I've ever used, including a Jim Dunlop volume pedal, a Prescription Electronics Experience pedal, an ADA Flange, a Lexicon JamMan for loops, an Eventide harmonizer for delay, and a Tube Screamer for light distortion.
Guitar.com: What's the first word that comes to your mind when I say "jazz"?
Guitar.com: Miles Davis?
Skolnick: Makeup [laughs].
Guitar.com: What was it like playing with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
Skolnick: It was a lot of fun. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a great show. It was nice to play in front of really large audiences again. The fans are very dedicated-we were playing for between 5,000 and 10,000 people a night. There's a lot of lead guitar, too. It's not what I would want to do all the time because it's not improvised, but I enjoy it and I hope to keep doing it.
Guitar.com: Have you heard from any of the original artists about your interpretations of their music on Goodbye to Romance?
Skolnick: Not yet, but I'm waiting. Ozzy [Osbourne] has a copy, but I haven't heard from him-I know he's very busy-but his guitar player Zakk Wylde chose [the album] as his "Pick of the Month" in the November issue of Guitar World, which was really exciting. Also, David Krebs [former manager of Aerosmith and The Scorpions, who now manages the Trans-Siberian Orchestra] has been very supportive of it and thinks what we're doing is great. Hopefully, we'll get it to the original artists. We're very curious to know what they think.
Guitar.com: What kind of folks would you encourage to come to your show?
Skolnick: Any jazz fan and rock fan. So far, we've had people at our shows who are serious jazz listeners and who don't listen to much else. We've also had rock fans that have never gone to a jazz venue before and experienced sitting at a table and just listening. For a lot of these people, it's a new experience, and to share that experience is a real gift.