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Beyond Boundaries, The Two Sides Of Testament's Alex Skolnick – www.guitarcenter.com
April 2009: "I was the black sheep when I started doing all this stuff, you know what I mean?"

Alex Skolnick isn't talking about his truly terrifying playing with Bay Area thrash pioneers Testament. He's talking about jazz, specifically his jazz arrangements of classic hard rock tunes like Rush's "Tom Sawyer" and the Kiss anthem "Detriot Rock City". If you haven't kept up with Skolnick since his departure from Testament in 1992, this might seem surprising. But it's actually par for the course for a guitarist who has made a career out of taking risks, pushing boundaries and defying expectations.

Alex Skolnick gets back to basics in the acoustic room. – www.guitarcenter.com

Skolnick first caught the ears of guitarists and fans around the world with his fiery and adventurous playing on Testament classics like The Legacy, Practice What You Preach, and Souls of Black. From the beginning, Alex stood out among his thrash metal peers with an unusually eclectic and subtle musicality. So it's not surprising that he was first drawn to jazz while still in Testament, after seeing a live Miles Davis performance on television in the late '80s. "I'd never been a big jazz fan previous to that," he remembers, "but I just loved that music and a lot of the energy reminded me of heavy metal. It also had screaming guitar. But it had all these things that I wasn't used to hearing in rock music... the jazz influence, but also funk grooves and world music percussion. I just fell in love with it right away."

"Jazz seemed to be the top level of musicianship," says Alex. "There was an interaction among the musicians that was incredible. And there was also a sense of dynamics. At times it would get really quiet, to the point where you could hear a pin drop. And then it would get really loud. But when it got loud, it was extra powerful because it wasn't loud all the time."

Eager to expand his musical horizons, Skolnick left Testament in 1993. A few years later he pulled up roots, re-located to the East Coast and enrolled full-time in the jazz program at The New School in New York's Greenwich Village. "I just realized I would never be satisfied just being a jazz hobbyist - I had to do whatever it took to be able to do it on a professional level."

"It was really like starting over, but it was worth it," says Skolnick, "because the whole time I was studying music, really studying music on a level and with a dedication that I'd never had before. And it's not like I wasn't dedicated when I was playing metal. I was very devoted to it and diligent about practice. But doing improvisation, it requires so much more knowledge and a whole different set of skills."

Not surprisingly, completely reinventing himself was not without its setbacks. "Several times I thought... this is too difficult. I can't achieve this. You know, it's rocket science or something. You have to have been a prodigy since you were a kid - you know, all these false beliefs."

To help keep himself on track, Alex came up with an effective and enviable form of self-motivation. "To make sure I got serious about jazz I got myself a gift. It was the most expensive guitar I'd ever bought at the time, which was a Gibson L5 from 1976. And I told myself if I don't pull my jazz guitar playing together with this, I'm going to sell it. And I couldn't bear to do that."

Skolnick was already armed with the kind of monster chops any rock or metal player would sell their soul for, but what he lacked was a deep grounding in the conventions of jazz. "Because you can have the most versatile rock technique," he insists, "but then you try to use it in a jazz setting and it's not going to work unless you've put in countless hours just feeling the time, feel, and dynamics of playing jazz. And the only way that happens is by putting in hours and hours of practice, and listening to the masters."

Alex explores the possibilities at Guitar Center San Francisco. – www.guitarcenter.com

"I think one of the reasons I didn't get the jazz bug early on," Skolnick muses, "and I think probably other people as well, is because a lot of the standard repertoire is from a different time period. It's these popular songs from bygone eras and unless you grew up around people that appreciated jazz or those songs, you're probably not going to be familiar with them."

That lack of familiarity can be a stumbling block not only to musicians who want to explore jazz, but also to potential listeners as well. Combining his passion for jazz with his love of classic hard rock and metal songs, Alex soon found a way around this hurdle; "When I started doing my own jazz, I thought, well, I'd like to do the songs that I grew up hearing. And for me that was The Scorpions, Ozzy, Kiss. And it seemed like a crazy idea, but after researching, going through, scanning my brain and finding some of the most melodic of those songs, I found a bunch that made sense to do jazz improvisation to."

The result was a new group, The Alex Skolnick Trio, and a set rich with recognizable 'new standards' like The Scorpions' "There's No One Like You" and Dio's "Don't Talk To Strangers". The trio recorded their first album, Goodbye To Romance: Standards For A New Generation, in 2002. Two other albums followed, as did enthusiastic praise from Skolnick's fellow musicians, including Metallica's Kirk Hammett and acclaimed Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela, who invited Skolnick to play with them on several East Coast dates. "They've been really great," Alex says, "and they were big metal fans. They had me sit in with them in New York and then they had my trio open for them on a few shows. And then during their set I would come out with my Yamaha CPX acoustic and sit in with them. I really like that the CPX sounds good all the way up and down the neck. The high notes ring out as much as the low notes. It has a good neck that makes it easy to execute demanding parts. Also, I like the A.R.T. pick up system, which gives you a lot of options as far as equalization."

"It just goes to show, if you have a good feeling about something, you should just go with it, even if it makes no sense to anybody else." – Alex Skolnick

Despite leaving Testament, Alex still kept in touch with his former band. He even played on 2001's First Strike Still Deadly, an album featuring re-recordings of early Testament classics. "The guys and I had become friends again and they'd been coming to my trio shows whenever we'd play in the Bay Area, which was about once a year. One night Chuck (vocalist) mentioned an offer to do a reunion show at a festival in Europe. It sounded like fun. It was a great show and the next thing you know, more offers started coming in. Within a year, we were up and running again, planning a new album. I don't think anyone realized how it would snowball into this whole rebirth of the band, MTV exposure, major tours etc."

Getting jazzy with the Yamaha CPX acoustic. – www.guitarcenter.com

Skolnick rejoined original members Chuck Billy (vocals), Eric Peterson (guitar) and Greg Christian (bass), with ex-Slayer/Exodus drummer Paul Bostaph taking over behind the kit. The newly energized lineup released The Formation of Damnation in April, 2008. It is the first album of new material from the band in almost ten years, and the first to feature Skolnick and Christian since 1992's The Ritual. Raw, aggressive and powerful, Formation proves that Testament is still a force to be reckoned with. The band has expanded on their signature thrash style, adding elements of death and black metal for a sound that is fresh and contemporary, yet still distinctly their own. Skolnick's playing slices through with ferocious energy, devastating technique and the thick, snarling tone he conjures from his Marshall JCM2000. For the tour, he's also been experimenting with a few Peavey heads.

"It's different now for a lot of reasons," Alex says. "Everyone is in a better headspace. It's totally understood that I do other music and it's no disrespect to the band or the genre of music. In fact it makes me a better metal player because when I'm there, I'm more focused on it. I have my other outlets for other styles but when I'm playing metal, it's pure metal. Also, everyone is a bit more open minded, myself included. My ideas get listened to and used often. But when they're not, I understand and I'm thankful that they were considered. It's a whole new place that we've come to. It all comes with maturity and experience on everyone's part."

With both Testament and his trio going strong, Alex Skolnick has achieved an unlikely balancing act – one foot rooted in the subtle intricacy of jazz and the other firmly planted on the blood-soaked ground of metal. It may seem like strange, uncharted territory, but there's no place he would rather be. "It just goes to show," laughs Skolnick, "if you have a good feeling about something, you should just go with it, even if it makes no sense to anybody else."

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