INTERVIEW: Testament’s Alex Skolnick

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Alex SkolnickAlex Skolnick is one of metal’s great enigmas: he’s ridiculously intelligent, well-read and well-spoken, and he’s a virtuoso of jazz guitar, yet he also plays in Testament, one of the most brutal bands ever to pick up instruments and dish out thrash metal power. There are many who feel that the name ‘Testament’ should be spoken in the same breath as ‘Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax,’ thrash’s ‘Big Four,’ but Testament is about much more than thrash, always pushing their sound onward and into genres such as death metal and extreme metal. Skolnick’s lead guitar is a key ingredient of the classic Testament sound, veering from traditional metal aggression to fusion-influenced intricacy and back again, often within a single phrase. With Testament heading to Australia for the Soundwave festival in February and March (and with a new DVD, Dark Roots Of Thrash, out now), I caught up with Skolnick for a chat about what he’s been up to.

Testament recently released a new live DVD, and something that really stands out is the fact that you guys really perform – you’re not just standing there playing. And it takes a certain kind of mindset to be able to let go and do that. 

I came to terms with that. I used to be one of those players that was so militant about the art and being an artist. It was not about a show, it was not about image. That was such a part of how I thought. But I think over the years I’ve reconciled with that somewhat because I realised that I want to see a show! I want to be entertained. And having become immersed over the years in music that is considered ‘serious’ music – not that rock and metal can’t have serious musicians, because it does – but in the world of improvised music there are a lot of serious musicians and I’ve seen some where it feels so closed off and intellectual that it’s not exciting. And then there are other ones where it’s a show and it is exciting. So I think I’m at a point now which I guess I came to over the last ten years, and especially when I would perform with Trans Siberian Orchestra, and if somebody at the back of the arena out of 15,000 people is going to have a good show you really have to perform, y’know what I mean? That changes you! That experience affected how I perform now with Testament.

Well you look at a guy like Steve Vai who can play while spinning the guitar around his body while doing a cartwheel – he’s not great because he can do that, but he’s great and he can do that. And that makes you have more fun in the audience.

Yeah! That’s part of his presentation. And y’know what? Some situations might not call for a presentation. I also think it has to be natural. And I think when it works, whether it’s him or anybody else, it is natural, it’s not forced. And it comes with experience. It’s very rare to just put yourself out there and the performing skills and musical skills are there and you’re comfortable live. It really takes a lot of repetition. There’s a theory that you need 10,000 hours to be good at anything, whether it’s chess or rugby or a musical instrument. And I think that’s true of performing as well.

I’ve become really fascinated with Marc Maron’s WTF podcast lately. Whether he’s interviewing a comedian or a musician or whatever, he really gets to the heart of what creativity is. And the amount of work that goes into being a comedian is something I can relate to as a guitarist, because there’s lots of sucking in front of people before you get good. 

Yeah. I mean, I have some friends that are in comedy professionally and I have so much respect for what they do. And I see parallels there. That doesn’t always go well! There was a great documentary by Jerry Seinfeld called Comedian and I got a lot of respect for him. I already respected him but now even more so because he shows himself really struggling and bombing. He would go to these comedy clubs unannounced and work out new material, and some of it just did not work. But when you see him on TV he’s already been through that process and he’s found the jokes that work, but you have to find the things that don’t work.

Let’s go to the guitar nerd portion of the interview. You do a lot of clinics – what questions are guitarists asking you, and how does that reflect the current state of guitar? 

There are some common questions that come up. One question today was ‘What’s your favourite scale?’ And I don’t really have a favourite scale, but it gives me an opportunity to talk about Diminished, which is something I’ve used a lot lately in jazz and rock. Not the Diminished arpeggio but the actual symmetrical diminished scale. And I sometimes get a little technical when talking about it but there are so many possibilities, and it’s such a unique sound. Of course I use all the other modes and scales regularly but that’s one I’m fascinated about. And I often get asked about warm-ups, what I’m doing to warm up, which is usually whatever I’m working on. There are always a few new licks that I’m learning by other players, or songs I’m working on myself. I combine that with the warm-up. I never pick up the guitar and sound like I do when I’m onstage. I think your hands have to wake up. Your muscles have to wake up just like you have to wake up.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there are less places for local bands to play, so players are missing out on the chance to play for other people, and that’s an aspect of playing that you have to get out there and learn for yourself – it can’t be taught. 

I think that’s true. That’s something that comes up a bit too. I think the first tour, it’s such a requirement in a way. Even when you’ve been doing it for years, when you’re a seasoned pro, stuff goes wrong! When you’re first starting out that can really throw you. When you get your first tour under your belt – when gigging isn’t just an occasional thing where it’s like being thrown into a boxing ring and you’re just completely overwhelmed – when suddenly you’re doing that every night, you know what to expect and your senses get more attuned to it. It’s never going to sound like it does in the rehearsal. Sometimes you’re not gonna hear yourself at all or you’re not gonna hear someone else. Maybe it’s hard to keep the guitar in tune, or maybe you’re playing a part that’s very delicate but you get too excited. Playing regularly, you get to work on all those thing. And yeah, we are in this strange era of music because recording technology makes it possible for anyone to sound perfect. Vocalists can be auto tuned, guitar parts can be cut and pasted. So much music that’s heard on popular albums is done that way but the groups can’t play that way live. It’s just very strange and I feel fortunate to have come of age before that all started.

Alex Skolnick ESP

You recently switched from Heritage Guitars to ESP, where you’ve developed a signature model.

Well, I’m excited about it. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t that familiar with ESP before. Obviously I knew the name. I knew Metallica used them, and I associated them more with 80s players like Bruce Kulick and George Lynch, and newer guys like Lamb of God and Children of Bodom. But I’ve become more of a ‘classic’ player. My last guitar was Heritage, who built guitars for guys like Gary Moore and Roy Clark. So when ESP came to me I was a little skeptical. I’m not gonna play an Aleksi Laiho or George Lynch guitar – will all due respect, because those guys are friends and I like their playing. But it’s this whole other world. They understood where I was coming from and they said “Just let us build you a guitar. If you don’t like it…” and they really went out of their way. I liked it, and I let friends of mine play it, including professional players and some up-and-coming students. They all liked it, and our front-of-house people liked it. For me it’s a combination of the ESP Eclipse – it has elements of that – but it also has elements of my 60s Les Paul, which is what I was playing before I played Heritage guitars. I also wanted something that was available. There’s a misconception that when you change brands after promoting one instrument, it doesn’t mean that the instrument you were promoting wasn’t good any more. It’s like when I moved to Heritage after playing my vintage Les Paul: it’s not like my vintage Les Paul wasn’t good any more! But here was a guitar [the ESP] where I could get more units, and it’s gotten to the point where I’m now so busy touring on a level where I need more instruments than I’ve got, and ESP is a very global company and I value these guitars, I don’t want anything to happen to them, but I know that if an airline destroys one of them, which can happen, I can get another one. And it’ll be available for fans as well. There’ll be an LTD version that will be more affordable, and you’ll be able to get the exact version I play, which will be the ESP version. I’ve been working on signature Seymour Duncan pickups [for the ESP model], and it’ll also be available with the JB and ’59 [on the LTD version] because that’s what I’ve always used. There are certain classic elements that I like to have. I don’t need to use all classic gear – it’s a very tricky thing because gear evolves every few years and the question is how much can it evolve and improve without losing what was great about it in the first place? And with the gear I have now I feel like it has that. I think anybody that appreciates a classic Gibson will appreciate this guitar. Anyone that appreciates a classic Marshall or Fender amp will appreciate the Budda.

Testament will be at Soundwave 2014 in February and March 2014. 

SATURDAY 22 FEBRUARY – BRISBANE, RNA SHOWGROUNDS

SUNDAY 23 FEBRUARY – SYDNEY, OLYMPIC PARK

FRIDAY 28 FEBRUARY – MELBOURNE, FLEMINGTON RACECOURSE

SATURDAY 1 MARCH – ADELAIDE, BONYTHON PARK

MONDAY 3 MARCH – PERTH, CLAREMONT SHOWGROUNDS