|Alex Skolnick: Metal Defector||
from Guitar World, October 1994
Reluctant thasher Alex Skolnick left Testament to satisfy his jones for jazz. Now he's with Savatage - but only temporarily, he says. I mean, what gives?
Alex Skolnick was only 16 when he hit the scene with Testament in 1986, a prodigy with brilliant technique and a big musical appetite. Over the course of his eight-year/ five-album stint with the Bay Area thashers, Skolnick became celebrated for a fluid style that put him in the top ranks of shred. Yet, despite his and his band's success, the guitarist always seemed to want more. The fact is that he yearned to play jazz, for which he's developed a powerful attraction. His experiences outside Testament - touring with bassist extraordinaire Stu Hamm and teaming up with Primus'Les Claypool for Guitar World's 1991 compilation Guitars that Rule the World (Metal Blade) - only further whetted his appetite for new musical challenges.
Not that all was well within Testament. While Skolnick's sophisticated playing helped distinguish the band's music from the crude poundings of many of their speed metal counterparts, it also generated internal conflicts, - particularly between Skolnick and guitarist/co-founder Eric Peterson, whose more traditional heavy riffing approach often made Skolnick feel like the class outsider. Unlimitedly, the squabbling exhausted Skolnick, who decided to break from the band two years ago.
"Testament was basically someone else's band, and I was not comfortable trying to dictate what direction we should take," Skolnick told Guitar World after leaving the band. "I grew increasingly frustrated, and it was time for me to go my way."
That way was to form Exhibit A, a funk/ jazz/ rock-based groove band built to satisfy Skolnick's repressed jazz desires.
So it was a little surprising that, after more or less disappearing for over a year, the guitarist should resurface on the metal scene with one-time Testament touring companions Savatage, stepping into the deep chasm created by the tragic death of the band's talented guitarist and co-founder, Criss Oliva. On Handful of Rain (Atlantic), Skolnick displays his trademark modal chops and melodic sensibility, while also showcasing a growing sense of patient and restraint as a soloist. The new Alex develops his ideas more deliberately than in the past, often incorporating sustain in place of the rapid-fire runs he would have employed with Testament.
But questions remain: Does his reemergence on the metal scene in Savatage spell doom for Exhibit A? Is he really the metal guy he always said he wasn't?
On a stormy mid-summer afternoon, Skolnick met with Guitar World at Atlantic Records' Manhattan headquarters and offered this confession:
How'd you come to be in Savatage?
Saying I'm in Savatage gives the wrong impression. I love the band and I'm committed to this album, but I definitely have not joined Savatage. I just agreed to do the record. However, we are seriously talking about doing a tour with Savatage and my group, Exhibit A.
So Exhibit A exists.
Yes, it does, contrary to some rumours. We're writing a lot of music and talking to labels and playing shows in the [San Fransisco] Bay Area. I sing with the band. I've been working wit a voice instructor for over a year, my logic being that if guys like Michael Shencker and Ritchie Blackmore have trouble finding and holding on to singers, how the hell am I going to find one? The music is very heavy. It's really funny because my main thing with Testament was melody and harmony; I definitely wasn't the metal guy. Here, I am the metal guy. [laughs] I bring in a lot of the heaviest ideas. The bassist is Amir Zitro, a great funk player. I think he'll appeal to fans of Les Claypool and Flea - he's that type of player, only more of a hard rock version. He's also really good at two handed tapping, which works really well over heavy guitar rhythms.
My initial concept was along the lines of Living Colour. But now, the only well-known band we sound close to is Faith No More. We're definitely different, but I have heard some Faith No More - pieces of songs - and thought, "Wow, that sounds like us." When I first left Testament, I wanted to get a record deal immediately, to work off the momentum I still had from Testament. But now, I'm not ready to put out a record yet, but I think when I do, it's going to be some of the best work I've ever done.
A lot of our readers want to know about your departure from Testament.
I could talk for a long time about why I left. I sum, there basically was a musical battle going on. I wanted more harmony and melody, things which I think are very important in music. That applies to the rhythm guitar, the bass, the drums, the backup vocals, the songwriting - everything. I think somehow they translated that to mean "not heavy." I don't hear things that way. I think something you can understand, has melody and harmony and a strong focal point, is a lot heavier than something that doesn't have a good melody, which is kind of monotonous... and its only exciting quality is that it's fast.
For a while we made the two different ideas work together. But we had a funny political structure , which I guess happens often in bands. If Chuck [Billy, vocals] and Eric [Peterson] felt a certain way about something, Greg [Christian, bass] and Lou [Clemente, drums] didn't want to speak out against it. It's going to sound like I'm describing a soap opera here, but Eric would pressure Louie to agree with him and I think, more often than not, Louie really didn't. He agreed with me. I think that's one of the reasons Louie left right after me.
Did you leave to form Exhibit A, or were already starting to do side projects?
The side projects were great, but they didn't make me feel any more comfortable with Testament. I enjoyed working with Stu Hamm on his Urge tour in 1991 and recording my cut for Guitars that Rule the World with Les Claypool so much that I realised my life should be rotating around something I enjoy.
And I think that they knew it was coming too. There's a misconception that I was a founder on Testament. The founders were Eric and Louie and Eric's cousin, Derek Ramirez, on guitar. In fact, a lot of the early, really fast stuff was written by Eric and Derek around their style, which is more speed metal - Slayer-type stuff. So I can understand why it was frustrating when this new guy - this kid - started getting the majority of the press, which I never asked for. But I guess that I felt like if people were responding to my guitar playing we should make better use of it, make the music more accommodating, bring the music to the forefront. Instead, it was just the opposite. The instinct was to squash it. [laughs]
I also think Eric wanted to be more than a rhythm guitar player. You have your guitarists like [Anthrax's] Scotty Ian and [Metallica's] James Hetfield, who are really happy to get into the rhythm guitar. Eric was definitely into his rhythms - they were his babies - but I think he was a little frustrated because he wanted to play lead guitar. He wasn't bad. Guys like [Slayer's] Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman were getting all this attention, and not to put them down, but what they do is not advanced guitar playing. I'm sure Eric would have at least kept up with guys like that. But every time he did a solo it was always right next to one of my solos, and it just sounded... different. I think that was a problem.
I never had a problem with it. I always said, "Hey, why don't we give him more solos." But certain forces in the band were as outspoken against him playing solos as they were about certain melodic ideas of mine. So he wasn't happy either.
With Savatage, did you feel liberated by not being in a situation where you're fighting it out as an equal with another band member, as you did in Testament?
Yeah. With Savatage, basically all I had to do was present my guitar solos. It was a lot easier than having to present my ideas.
What's your approach to building a solo?
I usually don't plan too much - I'll run through it and listen back. Occasionally I'll get a good first take. Usually, there are bits and pieces I like. Then I play through it several times until I have a rough sketch. I never plan things out note for note. There always has to be some kind of improvisation. Some of my favourite guitar playing is early Eddie Van Halen - you can tell a lot of it is improvised, and it sounds like he's on the edge. I try to achieve that feeling of slight imperfection and improvisation.
On stage, I like to diverge slightly from the solo and surprise people. If they're expecting a note in a certain place. you can trick them and throw in a different note or a cool lick that they weren't expecting. Sometimes I've improved on the recorded solo because of it. And with Exhibit A, I hope to have enough live shows under my belt to do that kind of developing on the material before we go in the studio.
How easy was it to fit into Savatage's sound?
I think it's pretty natural because, anytime I play, I try to fit the song - no matter what it is. I try to make the solo sound as distinct as the song. With this music, I just played what I thought was best for them.
Describe the process of putting Handful of Rain together...
I had nothing to do with putting it together. I think it was put together very well, and I enjoy the style of writing, which is kind of theatrical. But everything was written and recorded before I came in.
Except for the guitar. You're credited on the promotional release as the only guitarist.
I played rhythm guitar... but Jon Oliva also played rhythm guitar. He had rough guitars on all the tracks. Some of them were erased, but some were kept. But I based most of my rhythms on Jon's rough guitars. He should be credited.
Did you feel bound to imitate Criss Oliva's style? It must have been hard to step in after someone in the band passed away...
It was very emotional. I knew Criss from when Savatage toured with Testament. I hadn't seen him since the accident happened. Being in the studio with Criss' guitars and all the guys in the band except for Criss, I knew he was gone. Right then it hit home. [pauses] I think it helped. Anything that goes on in life, you can vent it through your instrument. I just tried to use the whole Criss situation to enhance my guitar playing, to make me play better. I knew a lot was riding on it, because these guys lost their co-founder. So it really pushed me to do my best. But they're all really nice guys, so there's no pressure. Jon Oliva was very encouraging. He said, "Just play what you want."
So you were a hired gun...
When it comes down to brass tracks, I was a hired gun. I knew my limits. I made a couple of suggestions about chord progressions and stuff, but I never said "We're going to do it this way!!" and that applied to the rhythms underneath the solos as well. Jon and Paul [O'Neill] knew where they wanted the solos, and that's where I played them. However, I found their rhythms a lot more accommodating to my guitar solos.
Your playing on Handful of Rain seems more patient - like you're taking more time in allowing your solos to unfold.
I always wanted to do that Testament, but I couldn't because the rhythm took up too much space. There were so few gaps - the rhythm guitar, bass and drums were often synchronised. I like rhythms like that, but not for playing solos over. Unfortunately, Eric really had a problem with changing the style for the solos. I think I would have had a much better experience if they would have made the rhythms a little more accommodating. I worked so hard on those solos, I didn't think it was asking too much.
You're defined by your technique more than, say, a blues player, where the importance of technique is very strong, but more elusive to define. Is it a burden to be on the athletic side of the guitar?
No. Starting this new project, people have told me: play lots of guitar. Play more guitar than you'd like to play. But I like lots of guitar anyway. The athletic thing is only a very small part of it. And I've never thought of myself as an athletic guitar player. I just want to be able to play my favourite sings and solos and create my own music. I guess that in order to emulate my favourite players, I've had to practice a lot. But many of my favourite players are more simplistic, like Eric Clapton and B.B. King - blues players, whom I got into because of Michael Schenker, who's one of the most emotional players. I've always tried to put that in my music, and people tell me it's one of the main qualities that they like about my playing.
But I really don't want to get caught up in this "anti-technique" movement. Having technique means hearing Alice In Chains' "Down in a Hole" and knowing that it calls for the Dorian mode in both the vocal melody and the guitar licks. I can hear Testament's "The Ritual" and know that that calls for the Phrygian. I think that's important. And, I'm sorry, but I was never one of these guys who could do everything by ear. I have to somewhat know what I'm talking about. I don't think I get caught up in it, and it really bothers me when people tag me that way. One guy in particular was saying I'm more of a technician than emotional, and that's not true at all. And I shouldn't name him, but it was Diamond Darrell of Pantera.
So I guess he's not a big influence. Who is influencing you these days?
My favourite guitarist now is Jimmy Herring, with Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. They're considered to be part of this "neo-hippie, New Dead" movement, but they're nothing like the Grateful Dead, other than the fact that they jam a lot. If the Grateful Dead sounded like the Rescue Unit, I would have been wearing tie-dye a long time ago!! [laughs] Herring's style is how I've been trying to play for a long time. He's got all the emotional intensity of hard rock players like Neal Schon and Michael Schenker, he's got the blues thing down, he's got a Jeff Beck feel, only he changes his feel too - there's a lot of Steve Morse in there. he's also got chops and he uses these chops very well, with the feel. I also really like Candlebox, who've got the Seattle vibe, only the guitar player has a real sweet tone.
Do you think the alternative/ grunge scene has been good for guitarists?
It's been better for songwriters than for guitar players. It's kind of strange that people talk about a Seattle sound, because Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam all sound completely different. It's great because lables are looking for more original stuff, instead of putting all this pressure on everyone to sound like a commercial hard rock band.
At the same time, there's a lot of these groups like Sonic Youth. That guy is definitely creative and comes up with some great stuff, but I read somewhere that he doesn't practice and recommends not practicing. I'm hoping that a lot of young kids get into music because of these bands, but hopefully they won't feel it's cool to not practice just because someone like Thurston Moore says so. Then there's the guys like Blind Melon, who shredded several guitar players in an interview I read somewhere. I think that's ridiculous!! Whatever you do is fine, but don't shred other people. If you practice and you're fluent in a lot of styles, you'll always have a career. You'll always be able to do something. Maybe it's not what you want to do; maybe you can do a studio gig, or teach. I've actually been able to make a living for the past couple of years without having any kind of product out because I can teach and do workshops, and do studio work.
I think the pendulum has to go both ways. It got to the point where being a "legitimate guitar hero" had to have this classic L.A. Sunset Strip band, the hair, the million MPH arpeggios... and that's ridiculous. But now for somebody like Blind Melon... they were totally dogging Dream Theater, saying they probably have hair that sticks up real high, they probably have a rig that lights up when they play - I mean, give me a break. That's just stupid. I've been ripped on by a couple of people for being too fluent. Like I'm not a real player because I can play. Which is so stupid. Who's gonna have a career ten years from now?
There's a difference between people who are so committed to practicing scales that everything they play sounds like an exercise and...
See, they're just as bad. I hate those people as much as I hate the ones who rip on everybody.
I'll get skewered if I don't ask you about your rig.
I have a rig that lights up with a million lights when I play. [laughs]