Guitarist Unbound: In Conversation with Alex Skolnick on Metal and Jazz

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Skolnick

  • Alex Skolnick must be one of the hardest-working, most versatile musicians in metal. Best known to metal fans as the lead guitarist in legendary thrash band Testament, Skolnick is also a driving force behind super-group Metal Allegiance, he produces regular instructional columns for Guitar World, and has completed countless side projects with Savatage, Ozzy Osbourne, Lamb of God and others. However he has also carved a parallel and highly successful career as a jazz guitarist; the Alex Skolnick Trio have released five acclaimed albums and just completed a European tour.

    Metal and jazz are two musical genres which are generally regarded as ‘niche’, or outside of conventional music. They both have passionate, protective fans, a proud heritage, and an ideological suspicion of the mainstream. But there has been very little debate about whether they share any fundamental links. 1 The general polarised opinions seem to be either: yes, they are similar because of their curious harmonic worlds, modal chord structure, their playing with tempo and meter, and requirement for active listening; or no, they are completely different because jazz is subtle, complex and improvised, whereas metal is in-your-face, oft-considered simplistic and tightly-structured.

    So is there something about the two genres that is similar? And in these days of ever-expanding subgenres in both metal and jazz – some of which would seem to cross over – what can jazz teach us about metal and vice versa? Alex Skolnick is one of metal’s intellectuals; through his book contributions, blogging, and educational projects, he has made valiant attempts to raise the level of scholarly debate within metal. And this, combined with his unique career path spanning musical genres, makes him the perfect (and possibly the only) person to ask.

    Alex Skolnick

    Photo Credit: Tom Couture

    While Skolnick agrees that the two genres differentiate from other musical styles, “they are in general radically different from each other. Yes, one may hear chordal or melodic structures that are free from the constraints of popular music within each. However, there is very little overlap, particularly when it comes to timbre, dynamics, syncopation, instrumentation and other elements. Therefore, they almost always exist in very different sonic territory.” And it was definitely the difference, the change, that Skolnick was drawn to: “particularly the improvisational process and the fact that jazz improv could be open to influences largely off-limits in metal – traditional blues, funk, Latin and other ethnic rhythms etc.

    Alex Skolnick grew up in Berkeley, California to academic parents, and took guitar lessons as a child, one of several successful metal guitarists to have studied with Joe Satriani. He grew up surrounded by the burgeoning Bay Area thrash scene, but there was also a busy jazz scene in Berkeley. Was he was destined to take up one of those musics – does he think people are born, or conditioned, to like certain types of music?

    That’s interesting to think about. As you know, there are many debates about human development and how much of a factor environment is versus heredity and other factors. I believe some of it is conditioning. In my case, as a child, I was drawn to energy captured in music. And I remember Chuck Berry’s licks that kicked off ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘Johnny B Goode’ immediately getting my attention and making me feel excited, like a drug. At that time (9 or 10 years old) I needed that energy. Yet when I discovered jazz, it was after a year of travelling the world playing heavy metal music and I was craving something textural, dynamic and intellectually stimulating. For some reason, I hadn’t needed that before and it suddenly opened up.

    Having idolised guitar virtuosi Randy Rhoads, Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen, Skolnick chose to go in the direction of metal, and found himself a member of Testament at the age of just sixteen. One could almost say that he became a thrash guitarist by accident.

    To be perfectly honest, that’s probably fair to say, simply because it wasn’t planned. Yet the opportunity came up and I decided to give it a shot. I knew I needed to join an established group, preferably of older musicians because it just wasn’t working with anyone my age that I’d tried playing with. I didn’t want to do glam, even though I liked some of the guitar work (eg. Ratt and Dokken). I was hoping an Ozzy or Dio type situation would come along, but the first opportunity was a thrash group and I decided to give it my best shot. It’s easy to say I could’ve waited and maybe some other opportunity would’ve come along but who knows? I think at that time, I just needed that experience of being thrown into playing professionally, thrash or otherwise.

    Through the 1980s and early 90s Testament had a lot of success – usually considered just outside the ‘Big Four’ thrash bands of Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer – they nonetheless released seminal albums and played the world’s biggest stages. But Skolnick wasn’t completely happy and had a strong sense that something was missing musically from his life. He eventually took the decision to leave Testament, and after a number of diverse musical projects through the 90s he relocated to New York City and enrolled at The New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music, graduating with a BFA in jazz performance. This was a brave move from both metal and jazz perspectives. Despite being one of the most famous metal musicians in the world, Skolnick’s thrash pedigree counted for nothing in the world of jazz and he had to start at the bottom; meanwhile, he risked being shunned by the metal community for doing something so completely off the metal radar.

    Jazz began as a (perceived) primitive art, performed in smoky nightclubs by shady characters, but then it captured the attention of the critics and became considered high-brow and sophisticated, almost America’s ‘classical music’. Something similar could have happened with metal in the 1980s, with the rise of the virtuoso and a general professionalization of guitar playing. So why it is that metal continues to have such a low-brow reputation with outsiders? For Alex, the key is this: jazz has long been embraced by and integrated with other art forms, such as literature (Kerouac and the beatnik movement for example), painting, film and dance.

    Metal, meanwhile, is more of an exclusive club – it has never had the type of interaction with these other art forms that jazz has. The visual art connected to metal is primarily T-shirts, album covers and tattoos; the films are usually intense action movies (or films about metal itself) and its dance seems to be crowdsurfing and moshpits. At the same time, I think the majority of metalheads wouldn’t have it any other way.”

    Skolnick cites Metallica’s collaboration with Lou Reed, which seemed like a genuine attempt at a metal/art project on a massive scale. “Lulu was perplexing to many, extremely difficult to listen to and as a result, the vast majority of metal fans would be overjoyed if such a project were to never happen again.” He admired the attempt but acknowledges that “perhaps it wasn’t the best vehicle to introduce metalheads to expressionist art and kick off a new merging of metal with the art world, as nice as that would have been to see. I realised that had I been a youthful Metallica fan, I’d have been confused and pissed off. So fairly or not, metal’s isolationist status likely contributes to its reputation.

    It could also be argued that metal’s low-brow image was set in stone during the 1980s with movies such as This Is Spinal Tap and Wayne’s World which, while affectionate, have left any metal musicians who try to break the mould open to accusations of pretension. Having said that, metal’s collaborations with classical music tend to be better received. For example Deep Purple and Metallica have both recorded live albums with full orchestras, 2 and more recently Metallica has performed live with pianist Lang Lang. Then of course there is the whole subgenre of symphonic metal which is rooted in classical forms. So perhaps classical music is in fact a better bedfellow for metal than jazz, and indeed, metal’s first and foremost scholar Robert Walser was very clear on metal’s classical basis, whereas he hardly mentioned jazz at all.

    Now Skolnick manages his metal and jazz careers simultaneously; he rejoined Testament full-time in 2005, and they have been enjoying renewed worldwide success. And occasionally he manages to weave the two genres together. Although thrash metal tends to stick to fairly standard (although rapid) chord progressions, Skolnick’s solos bring in jazz influences while maintaining an authentic metal sound. There are jazz licks to be found throughout – he cites one from early in his solo on ‘Dark Roots of Earth’, “that if it were taken out of context and played with a thick clean tone or on a semi-acoustic, would be considered jazz guitar. Yet when snuck into a metal song and played over a riff with a screaming distorted tone, it doesn’t sound out of place. I think as long as the energy is there, then it’s no problem if the solo has those elements. Another solo of mine that comes to mind is from the tune ‘Native Blood’ which kicks off with wide intervals that are straight out of jazz saxophone vocabulary. But as long as the overall solo fits the song, has good energy and doesn’t sound forced, then I can get away with it.

    Equally, Skolnick weaves metal into his jazz performances; AST has made cover versions of ‘War Pigs’, ‘Highway Star’, and ‘The Trooper’ amongst others. What does he think these covers can illustrate about both genres? “I hadn’t thought about it before but I think it probably shows that there is room to combine elements of both and in some surprising ways. For example, if you’re not familiar with the original versions and you just hear our arrangements, you probably wouldn’t guess that the source is heavy metal, especially with the strong melodies (and of course, we’re selective about which songs will work in an improvisational setting). And if you do know the originals and aren’t a big jazz listener, you may be surprised by the excitement and energy that happens within a successful and improvisational jam session (especially live in concert).”

    Scroll to the top and click the tab for the second half of our interview!

  • Skolnick thrives on the contrast between his Testament and AST touring experiences. At a Testament show almost everyone is wearing metal shirts and there are only a few ‘civilians’ scattered about, whereas at AST concerts metalheads are in the minority. “It’s mainly solid jazz or blues fans, including older folks who are entirely unfamiliar with my metal work, as well as general guitar and instrumental fans. It’s a nice mix and I always enjoy seeing folks together who wouldn’t otherwise be at the same show. It’s also gratifying that one’s appreciation for my instrumental music is not dependent on being a fan of my metal work which is quite unrelated.

    Testament travels on a large tour bus with a crew of six, and their crowds are so big that Skolnick has to stay hidden much of the time, whereas AST travels in one van with one crew, and after the show he can go out and meet people. With AST, Alex is the main focal point for the whole show, whereas in Testament he is only the focal point in the solos. “Both situations are easier in some ways, more challenging in others. AST requires far more mental energy, while Testament requires much more physical energy.

    Gear fans will be interested to know how his set-up differs between metal and jazz guitar, and the answer is – radically. The one overlap is his signature ESP AS model electric guitar, which he uses for all of Testament and as a secondary sound for AST. But the main sound for AST is a hollowbody acoustic suited for jazz, currently a Godin Montreal Premier. With Testament Skolnick plays through a large stack amplifier, with the three basic sounds of rhythm, lead and clean. Whereas for AST he uses a small combo amp, perfect for smaller venues, and he has a multitude of sounds and an ever-evolving board of footpedals. “It’s fun to indulge in this stuff, try new sounds and bond with fellow gearheads and pedal junkies.

     

    Alex Skolnick

    There are now lots of well-known metal bands that bring in jazz elements, Meshuggah and Dream Theater being notable examples. There are also the more obscure subgenres of ‘jazz metal’, ‘avant-garde metal’- for example Cynic, Atheist and Exivious. These bands range from serious to pastiche – there is even a metal swing band from Sweden called Diablo Swing Orchestra. To a certain extent, any genres of music or art can be combined, even if it’s just parody, so what does Skolnick think about this genre-blending? He is cautious about describing so-called jazz-metal as ‘jazz’ per se, and thinks it’s important to distinguish between progressive and jazz. “I’m a fan of some of those bands, especially Meshuggah, who are incredibly sophisticated with rhythms. Cynic has always been very unique and virtuosic in their approach. That said I probably wouldn’t use the word ‘jazz’ to describe their elements, though it’s debatable. Respectfully, I would consider all these bands to have more in common with progressive rock music or prog. Prog uses a few elements found in jazz – odd meters, unusual chord structures etc. – but most often doesn’t have a connection to blues, funk or any African-American element (or Latin or international for that matter).

    Skolnick is wary of echoing the jazz critic Stanley Crouch who said some polarising things based around the notions of ‘white music’ and ‘black music’- which shouldn’t be relevant to metal given its blues roots. “But I do think it’s safe to say prog tends to be rooted in European classical and folk, and ‘jazz’ as I think of it has some connection to African-American sensibility, whether through blues or otherwise. A great example is ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’ as recorded by Jeff Beck and written by Charles Mingus. Prog fans probably enjoy it, but it is much jazzier than most ‘prog’ since it has a strong blues sense and jazz dynamics and harmony.”

    Despite his loyalty to metal, Skolnick does not listen to metal in his spare time. “It might sound strange coming from someone who plays metal professionally, but metal is not reflective of my listening tastes and almost never what I want to hear in my spare time. I originally listened to it because it gave me an experience out of the ordinary, but when you play metal concerts for several nights a week and weeks at a time, it doesn’t give you that same break from the routine (it IS the routine!).” However he does listen to it when he needs inspiration to write riffs. “In those cases, I gravitate towards newer groups like Gojira, Mastodon, Meshuggah and even Rammstein (great riffs!).”

    Jazz and metal can both seem unbreakable fortresses for those on the outside. And since there is very little overlap between jazz and metal fans, for those metal fans who are interested in getting into jazz, I asked Skolnick what he would recommend. ‘I would at first steer them towards music that has an intensity, particularly from the 1960s. Here are my top 10 jazz albums, and any of these apply, especially Joe Henderson’s ‘Inner Urge’. I would also mention ‘The Real McCoy’ by McCoy Tyner and the other ‘Unity’ by Larry Young. Then I’d play them some electric jazz albums, including Miles Davis’ music from the 80s, frowned upon by jazz purists, but excellent nonetheless.”

    And what about jazz fans wishing to get into metal? ‘I’d probably start with Deep Purple’s ‘Made in Japan’, partially because it is an early album in the canon of metal, partially because it is hugely influential but also because the musicianship is stellar, including Jon Lord’s organ playing, in which we can hear the influence of jazz organists such as Larry Young and Jimmy Smith. I’d also play them the first Black Sabbath album, which includes ‘Wicked World’, a track that kicks off with a groove straight out of big band swing. From there I’d steer them straight to 1980: AC/DC Back in Black, with great blues guitar influences, and Ozzy with the great guitar of Randy Rhoads. If they get that far and are still interested, they’re probably ready for anything!’.

    So what have we learned? In the past metal musicians who have ‘crossed over’ to other genres have been accused of ‘selling out’, diluting metal, being inauthentic… but nobody could accuse Alex Skolnick of any of those things. The truth is that there’s nothing more authentic than playing, and listening to, the music that you love. And whether it’s inventive thrash solos, metal-inspired jazz compositions, guitar pedagogy, or engagement in scholarly musical debate, Alex Skolnick will continue to push the boundaries of what a metal musician can achieve.

Thanks to Alex Skolnick for his time. He is currently touring the US with Testament; for upcoming dates as a guest artist and with Alex Skolnick Trio, here are his BandsInTown profiles here and here. Click here for his website, Facebook and Twitter accounts respectively. And finally, his GuitarWorld articles can be found here.

Footnotes:

1 Harris Berger’s ethnomusicology book Metal, Rock and Jazz was the first to deal with the genres in the same study, although he kept them fairly separate musicologically.

2 Deep Purple ‘Concerto For Group and Orchestra’, composed by Jon Lord and performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969; Metallica ‘S&M’, recorded with the San Francisco Orchestra in 1999.

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