Alex Skolnick: “Going from metal to jazz is like going from tackle football to figure skating”

Testament legend Alex Skolnick on discovering his inner jazz cat, different rigs for different moods and the influence of Eddie Van Halen.

As has been the case with every working musician on the planet, Alex Skolnick’s gigging schedule came to an immediate halt when the COVID pandemic hit last spring. Since then, the guitar virtuoso has staying close to his home in Brooklyn, but he’s hardly been staring at the walls.

“In a weird way, I’ve been busier than ever,” he says. “When you adhere to the strict kind of touring that I usually do, your schedule is more of less planned out for you – you’re traveling to a show, playing the show, then heading to the next one. There’s not a lot of time for much. Being home for much of this year has forced me to explore new avenues of creativity, and I’m really enjoying it.”

Skolnick has taken part in “quarantine-style” recordings with his pals Charlie Benante and Ra Diaz – the three recently tracked a crackling version of Rush’s YYZ from separate locations. He’s also hooked up with the Patreon membership platform; on his Skol Team page, users can access performances and tutorials that aren’t available to the general public. And he’s now a fully fledged podcaster: on his ‘Moods & Modes’ talker is a highly entertaining, freewheeling music commentary show that has been a consistent audience favourite since it debuted over the summer.

In addition, he’s performed a few livestreamed jazz gigs at Brooklyn’s ShapeShifter Lab. Since the mid-90s, jazz has been Skolnick’s passion – even while maintaining membership in the Bay Area-based metal titans Testament, he’s pursued a dual career as leader of his own jazz-oriented group, the Alex Skolnick Trio. Over the years, the outfit (which also includes drummer Matt Zebroski and bassist Nathan Peck) have toured the world and have released a string of stellar recording.

“At this point, I think of myself as an all-around guitarist, or maybe I should say I’m an improvisational player, because jazz can be such a loaded term,” he says. “Some guitarists are happy to categorise themselves – blues guitarist, country guitarist, metal guitarist, whatever – but for myself, it feels limiting. I’ve always wanted a career that reflects my listening tastes, which includes metal, jazz and a lot of music that is unclassifiable.”

He thinks, then adds, “A good part of me is eyeing the rest of my career – I won’t be the guy with his foot on the monitor; I’ll be the older guy playing in a chair. But that doesn’t mean I won’t ever play with a distortion pedal. I like doing it all.”

As a teenager getting into the guitar, you were first turned on by rock and metal guys.

“Oh, absolutely. At a certain point in my life, for sure. Originally, I was thinking of being a singer and guitarist, but then I segued into being a solo guitarist. The people who made the most impact on me were definitely on the hard rock and heavy metal side of things, specifically Eddie Van Halen. He was the main guy. After him, then we go to Randy Rhoads, Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker – those guys.

Jeff Beck was pretty much an influence on everybody – and still is. Discovering him opened up the door to other types of music. Suddenly, I was like, ‘Who’s this drummer on the Jeff Beck album? Oh, Narada Michael Walden. What else has he done? Oh, he’s played for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and so has Jan Hammer… ‘ That starts to lead you down a trail. See, I never got the memo that said metal guitarists had to stay in one lane.”

So it wasn’t just one moment that made you discover jazz. It was a journey.

“Right. I followed a path. But there were a couple of moments I remember; one of them was seeing Miles Davis on TV with one of his late 80s bands. I can’t remember which guitarist it was – it was either John Scofield, Mike Stern or Robin Ford – but he was just screaming on the guitar. It seemed way more rock than jazz. It hit me really viscerally, not in a sort of a…”

Eggheaded way?

“Exactly. I was already trying to get a better understanding of music, but I was unsure if I could play jazz. There were these jazz purists who seemed to have so many rules. That was a little intimidating.

“But there came another sort of a-ha moment; it was during the making of the third Testament album. The studio we were at, Fantasy Studios, had a record label that had just purchased a number of funk and jazz catalogues.

“One day I heard them remastering an album in another room; it was John Coltrane’s Live At Birdland. I heard this unaccompanied saxophone solo blasting out, and it sounded like he was right in the room with me, like he was alive. It was extraordinary. I had sort of lost interest in unaccompanied solos after Van Halen’s Eruption, but hearing John Coltrane all by himself… I was in shock. That was a real pivotal moment.”

By the way, let’s talk about Eddie Van Halen for a second. In the wake of his passing, what are your thoughts on him?

“Like a lot of people, the passing of Eddie Van Halen hit me very hard, more than most well-known artists. It felt like a death in the family. There are very few like him. I didn’t know Eddie; I met him once and we said a quick ‘hello.’ But having spent so much time with his music, I feel like I know him.

“It’s hard to summarise just how important he was. Even if you took away what he’s most famous for – that brilliant, keyboard-like tapping technique – there would still be so much there. Nobody bent notes like he did. Nobody used harmonics like he did. The construction of his licks was sometimes in defiance of conventional music theory. And clearly, the way he created sound and changed guitar sounds, along with the design of guitars altogether. His creativity was ferocious and so stunning. There’s been nobody like him since, and I don’t know if there ever will be.”

Alex Skolnick
Image: Tom Couture

How did some of your metal friends, or even some of your bandmates, react when you started dipping your toes in the jazz world?

“There was some head-scratching going on. I think it just had to do with the normal dynamics of peer groups – it could be music or sports. There’s this group mentality that forms, and people try to be like each other. They get matching jackets, and everybody tries to look the same. I remember we were doing an in-store, and the other guys were picking up bootlegs of Judas Priest and Tygers Of Pan Tang. I was picking up Bill Evans’ Live at the Village Vanguard and Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. I got some odd looks.”

Who are some of the jazz guitarists who really had an impact on you?

“There’s a few. Definitely John Scofield – he was one of the first guys I checked out. I loved him on Miles Davis records like Decoy. And then there’s Mike Stern. His playing on We Want Miles is incredible. Hearing those records made me go, ‘Oh, these guys have their own albums.’ So I checked them out, and I saw those guys live. But also there Wes Montgomery – he became my big traditional jazz guy. You can’t understand jazz guitar without checking him out. What phrasing! What a touch, what a sound…”

In your attempt to emulate jazz players, did you have to ‘de-metal’ yourself in some way?

“Oh, definitely. It was really like starting all over. The rhythmic feel and the placement of notes was so different from what I was used to. It took the better part of 10 years just to get a grip on it, and even then there was so much to learn. As I found out, a lot of the players that I liked never stopped being students. One of my favourite guitarists is Pat Metheny. I read an interview in which he talked about how he was always studying. I was like, ‘Well, if he’s always studying, then I should be, too.’ And the thing is, if you enjoy it, it’s not work.”

Alex Skolnick
Image: Evelyn Steinweg

Can you break down how jazz chords differ from what you might play in metal?

“There’s a whole different vocabulary of voicings, but before I talk about that I should mention touch. If you’ve ever played rock or metal for a while, you’re used to hitting hard. It’s very intense. So going from metal to jazz is like going from tackle football to figure skating. They’re both athletic, but one is kind of brutal, whereas the other is more elegant.

“The content of the chords is very different, for sure. In metal, the root and the fifth make up the main chord. That’s called a power chord, and it’s given that name for a reason – you know it when you hear it. In jazz, you usually have a third or any other extension – a seventh, say – and a root isn’t even necessary. The bass or piano might be covering the root, so you can go for other extensions. A lot of times in jazz chords, what’s not played is just as important as what you do play.”

How is your approach to soloing different in jazz than in rock and metal?

“In rock, you have your pentatonic shapes, and then you have some more modern shapes based on your arpeggios, your triads, or two-note-per-string, three-note-per string patterns. There’s a big vocabulary of rock, hard rock and metal guitar licks, and they generally look very different from jazz licks.

“You could take a three-note-per string pattern that moves up a scale, and it would work great for screaming hard rock. But it would be really hard to play that with jazz changes underneath you. It’s hard to describe without a guitar in my hands, but the shapes that you solo with are vastly different. There’s different pull-offs that are made possible by more jazzy shapes. Also, the changes you’re playing over are very different, so that will affect your choice of notes, your touch, your whole mindset.”

Did you ever find that jazz was permeating your metal playing, or vice versa? How have you tried to keep the two styles separated?

“I figured out early on that I was having a hard time picking up on jazz because I was using the same rig and same instrument as I used for metal. So I got myself a hollowbody guitar, a Gibson L-5, which at the time was the most expensive instrument I’d ever purchased, and I told myself, ‘You’re going to get your jazz playing to a professional level, or the guitar goes back.’

“I didn’t want to part with the guitar, so it was a good incentive. And playing that guitar through a combo amp, as opposed to the type of rig I was used to – a thin Ibanez solid body through a lot of processing – made me play differently right away. So it’s funny how a different guitar and setup can affect the way you approach your playing. Sometimes you just need the right tools for a certain job.”

I’m curious about something. If you had heard John Coltrane instead of Eddie Van Halen when you were 15, would he have affected you the same as when you were an adult?

“That’s a really good question. Huh… I think in the same situation it might have. Keep in mind, I heard Coltrane the right way. I heard that record blasting in a studio with pictures of all these jazz greats who had recorded there over the years. It was an overwhelming, visceral experience. But would it have hit me in the same sort of testosterone-y way as when I heard Eruption? I don’t know.

“I think I heard Eddie when I needed to, and I heard Coltrane at the right time in my life. When I heard Eruption, I could understand it. I couldn’t play it, but it made sense to me at a time when I was looking for something new. Perhaps I needed a certain level of experience to get to that place where I needed something new again, and Coltrane came into my life at precisely that moment. I’m glad it happened, and I’m glad I discovered Van Halen and all of the other rock music I love. One isn’t better than the other; they’re just different.

“It’s like anything, really. As you get older and experience more things, you appreciate different movies, TV shows, different art, different food. But I know I can still hear Eruption and be just as moved by it as when I was 15, just the same as hearing Live At Birdland moves me in its own way. The fact that they can stir such high emotions in the same guy is pretty interesting. I’m just glad that I have both in my life.”

Alex Skolnick
Image: Evelyn Steinweg

Let’s talk about your gear. Do you have specific setups for metal and jazz?

“I do. I have a signature ESP guitar, which is based on the ESP Eclipse and a classic sunburst Les Paul. It’s got my own pickup setup from Seymour Duncan, but you can also buy the pickups separately. It’s got three knobs and a coil tap, so you can make the pickups out-of-phase and sound more like a Strat. But the overall tone is that of a great Les Paul. I have a couple different versions of it, but with Testament I tend to use the Silver Burst and the Black Aqua Burst. The Aqua Burst has a Floyd Rose tremolo. I also use the Lemon Burst version a lot. This is my main guitar for metal, although I have used it for jazz.

“My main guitar for jazz has been a Godin Montreal Premiere. I was never a fan of semi-hollow body guitars, but in recent years I’ve come around. This one has resonance like archtops with the ease of playability. I use the Godin often.

“Last year, I discovered an older Gibson guitar called the ES-347. It’s one of their first production models to feature a coil-tap switch. It’s a dream guitar. I was at Replay Guitars in Tampa, and I found it while browsing. It’s an incredible guitar, and it’s found its way into my repertoire.

“For metal, I’ve had a couple of different stack amps. There’s classic Marshalls and, more recently, Budda amps. I use the Budda in the studio a lot, but for touring I like the Kemper profiler. I was never a fan of amp-modelling units – friends have tried to get me interested in various things – but I really think Kemper did it right. I use it for recording at home a lot.

Alex Skolnick
Image: Roy Rochlin / Getty Images

“I like combo amps for jazz. I was using a Peavey Classic 50 that I discovered by accident on tour. For recording, I use a Fender Vibrolux – it’s terrific. I recently purchased a 1968 Vibrolux that sounds incredible. The Baked Potato in LA has a house amp that I’ve always loved, a brownface Super. I looked around for one, and my friends at RetroFret Vintage Guitars in Brooklyn got one in, and it happened to be from the estate sale of one Walter Becker.

“It’s got his cigarette burns on it, some studio markings. So I own that one now, and it’s been a constant. When I plug in at home, I always go for it. It’s going to be my main amp when I play with my trio.”

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