Alex Skolnick of Savatage  

from Guitar For The Practising Musician 12/94
by John Stix
transcribed by Nathan Bradley

   

"I wish I didn't have the opportunity to do this," says ex-Testament guitarist (and GFTPM "Metal Edge" columnist) Alex Skolnick on his "special guest" status recording and performing with Savatage. "I wish Criss [Oliva, the band's late lead guitarist] was still around. He is meant to be a guitar player. But it's very interesting what I chrashed my dad's car while I was listening to Savatage. I was 16 and had just joined Testament. Me and a couple other guys had "Sirens" on in the car. We saw our singer at the other stoplight of an intersection. He turned and I followed him, making a right hand turn from the left-hand lane. Luckily nobody got hurt. Needless to say, I was into Savatage from way back then. In fact, a lot of the octave melodies I did in Testament -- songs like 'Apocalyptic City' and 'So Many Lies' -- came from Savatage. Anyway, it's kind of weird that years later here I am playing with Savatage and Criss was in a car wreck."

While the circumstances that led Alex to record Handful of Rain with Savatage were tragic, it is not at all weird that he received the call. As one of the true melodic metallists, this student of Joe Satriani's is currently fronting his own band, Exhibit A, who are just as likely to break into a Bryan Adams cover to warm up as they are tunes by Soundgarden or Thelonius Monk. So while his chops and musical knowledge make him a player's player, his aggressive approach and background in Testament make him a hero in the mosh pit as well. this is exactly the combination of talents Savatage needed to record their best album in years.

The recording process reminded Alex of anything but a metal band. "the songs were written by Jon Oliva [brother of Criss] and Paul O'Neil, who doubled as the producer," he explains. "They are not being photographed, they are not part of the band, but they wrote everything. It really [reminded me of] Steely Dan. In the studio it was just me and the singer [Zachary Stevens] trading off. All the other tracks were laid down. In a situation like this, my only responsibility was guitar solos. In some ways it was liberating."

Rhythm parts were played by both Jon and Alex using Criss Oliva's old Charvel Jackson guitar, dubbed "the Gargoyle." According to Alex, this guitar has the distinct sound of Savatage. "We had six rhythm tracks for each song, all with different guitars. Usually we ended up going for a track of the Gargoyle and a track of my Ibanez in the background," he recounts. "The Gargoyle sounded best each time for the rhythm tone, but the lead sound was my guitar and tone. A lot of rhythms were going straight through an amp Jon gave me, one of the best sounding Marshalls I've ever heard. When I ran my gear through it, we got a wide variety of tone. Depending on the dynamics, it reminded me of quiet Beck or when cranked up, like early Van Halen, which is my favorite tone in the world. This 50-watt JCM 900 from Thoroughbred Music was a dream amp. When Jon gave it to me I was speechless. I don't know if I want to take it out on the road because it sounds so good. It might just be a studio head."

"The result is that this record has some of the best tone I've ever gotten," Alex claims. "We ran it through the ADA MP-1 preamp, which I've used for years. Running through the ADA added a richer sustain sound, which is better for solos. In fact all I brought for this trip was a guitar and preamp -- there was my sound. I like a little dirt. I mean, I love Allan Holdsworth's playing -- he is a revolutionary player -- but he is so clean it's almost non-human. I apprecaite what Steve Vai does as well, but it's perfect. That's cool, but somehow Eddie Van Halen -- especially the early stuff -- there's this touch of dirt. There's a touch of slop that makes it more human. It sounds like it's on the edge. I like that."

My favorite guitarist is Jimmy Herring from Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarian Resuce Unit. This guy plays with the power and diversity of Jeff Beck and Micheal Schenker, only with the speed of Steve Morse. My favorite is when he does licks like Scofield and Mike Stern. It's outside, interesting stuff, only with a hard rock tone. He gets a warm rich sound. A lot of their music is open and funky. With 'So What' [from Guitar's Practicing Musicians Vol III ] That's what I was trying to achieve. It's funky and it's really open."

Alex's decision to leave Testament is better understood in the light of the musical differences between his former band and Savatage. He has particularly enjoyed playing over sustained chords instead of synchronized power-rhythms where the drums, bass and guitar play as one voice. "It was a thick voice that didn't leave much room for lead guitar," he says of much of Testament's music. "That was one of the reasons for the split. With Savatage there are a lot of very open sections where the drums and bass were independent of the rhythm guitars."

"Another thing I enjoyed about this album is I got to play rock'n roll like The Who or Queen. A lot of Savatage music has a theatrical quality. There are several spots on this album that remind me of Tommy and Night at the Opera. I actually pulled a 'Baba O'Riley' I-V-IV riff in the song 'Alone I Breathe.'

"It was also a pleasant surprise to be able to get out of E minor. One of my biggest problems with Testament was we had the same dynamics the whole time. I love heavy music, but it becomes heavier when you have a situation of contrast. On several of the Savatage songs, the music quiets down and it can breathe. I like NIN a lot for that reason. It goes from the heaviest thing in the world to quiet and silence."

To be the master of his own dynamics, Alex formed Exhibit A, which if all goes well will open shows on the Savatage tour. His vision is to maintain the big guitar sound, blending muscular chops, dark textures and driving grooves while drawing from funk, progressive and metal influences. "Everybody in this band [Alan Lucchesi, drums; Amir Zitro, bass/vocals; Phil Bennett,keyboard/vocals] has influences that have as much of a range as mine," he says of Exhibit A. "We could be the best cover band in the world. We like Prince, Sly, James Brown, Yes, Rush, Genesis, Judas Priest, and Scorpions -- we play their 'The Zoo' all the time --Michael Schenker, UFO, and Metallica. We do 'Sins of Omission' by Testament live."

When asked what band he would use as a role model, Alex quickly answers: Faith No More. "Sometimes I hear them and go, 'Wow! That sounds like us,' even though the truth is we sound like them. More and more we are getting our own sound and identity. A lot of what we are doing now is deja vu. The whole development stage is what I went through with testament. People who were expecting more of a progressive direction are going to be surprised how heavy it is. At the same time, people who think I'm going to do Testament Part II are also going to be surprised."

Right now Alex is out cheerleading for his work with Savatage. It's a job he finds easy. "I think it is a great album. It's some of the best playing I've done on record. I'm glad to be doing it, but at the same time I've busted my ass for years to be able to have my own band. Even though I am the captain of the ship, the co-pilots are really important. I still feel like Exhibit A is me; in Savatage I am a passenger, which is cool. There are very few ships I'd like to be a passenger on. But right now I'm not going to give up my position as captain of a small ship that has the potential to develop into a big one."

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