Testament's Alex Skolnick Went From Geek to Guitar God

'Hero' worship

Late last month on our music blog, Sound of the City, we ran a handy chart to help readers determine whether something is "metal as fuck," a highly contentious designation.

A pile of leaves is not metal as fuck. A pile of skulls, though? Metal as fuck.

Two peanut M&Ms are not MAF. But 666 peanut M&Ms are, indeed, MAF.

Face time: Alex Skolnick shreds.
Courtesy Tom Couture
Face time: Alex Skolnick shreds.

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78 Below Benefit show:

Thurs 12.20, Music & Arts USA Fundraiser, Performers include Rex Brown (Pantera), Bobby Rondinelli (Rainbow & Black Sabbath), Alex Skolnick (Testament), Alex Skolnick Trio, Steve Augeri (Journey), Dogz of Zeus. Tickets, $35, Funds provide music programs to inner city schools.

Cheese? Nope. Shredded imitation cheddar? You guessed it: MAF.

So what of jazz guitar? Metal as fuck. Duh. Clearly, unapologetically, inarguably so.

Exhibit A: Alex Skolnick, who became the lead guitarist of thrash metal band Testament at age 16. (MAF.) He was the band's youngest member, and by the time he was 18, they had their first record deal. By age 19, he was touring the world. Today, naturally, he fronts a titular jazz trio. He tells the wild, MAF tales of his MAF transition to jazz in his new biography, Geek to Guitar Hero, which he wrote without a co-author, which is, well, you know.

"I always wanted to do a book," Skolnick says, "write it myself and reflect my influences as a reader." In 2008, he began writing SkolNotes, a blog that has since acquired a following. (There are so many readers that, in May, a post about "inappropriate wedding songs" inspired a Twitter hashtag that quickly became the number two worldwide trending topic.) Some of the blog posts turned into chapters in the book, which Skolnick penned over the past four years.

About the book's title: Onstage, Skolnick shreds with confidence. Offstage, he has struggled his whole life with feeling out of place and socially awkward. Alex Skolnick, revered the world over as one of the greatest living guitar players, is painfully shy. "Personality," he writes in the first chapter of Geek, "it seemed like everybody was born with it except me."

A New Yorker originally from Berkeley, California, Skolnick grew up with emotionally detached, old-school Ivy League scholars for parents, both Jewish, in a town of burned-out hippies. His father, a preeminent figure in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, was a textbook narcissist with an explosive temper. His mother, once a frustrated photographer, holds a Ph.D. in psychology but failed to recognize her son as artistic and introverted. Skolnick was bused to an inner-city school, where he was picked on for being an oddball.

"It was a confusing city, confusing school system, confusing family," he says. "And the only thing that made sense to me was music."

He joined Testament, but instead of opening up to the carnal delights you'd expect a teenager on the road to jump into headfirst, he retreated to the guitar, spending every waking hour with it. Among his rowdy bandmates, that made him the misfit. "It was like a traveling circus," says Chris Kelly of Testament's early tours. Kelly was head of artist relations for Ibanez guitars in the mid-'80s and observed a young Skolnick working studiously to improve his playing and immerse himself in jazz while Caligula unfolded all around him backstage and on the tour bus. Testament on tour, recalls Kelly, was "a crazy pit of humanity," yet "Alex would always be sitting in the corner, practicing scales."

In 1993, Skolnick left Testament (they reunited in the mid-2000s) and five years later moved to New York to study jazz performance at the New School. Ironically, fans of metal have accused him of selling out, to which he responds in his autobiography, "How do you sell out to the least commercially successful genre of music?"

Skolnick's choice not to work with a co-writer is similar both to his independent pursuit of guitar and to his entry into the jazz world. He risks being perceived as arrogant for going it alone, and there's always the possibility that he'll be over-scrutinized by critics who have spent their careers in a field (whether jazz or writing) that he's only now daring to approach for the first time.

"It's an insular world," says Niall Fordyce, a friend of Skolnick's who holds two music degrees, of jazz and its fans' skepticism toward his pal. "And to have a guy like him, who has some real street cred—but as a metal guy—come and break in, it's like, 'What are you doing in our world, dude?' If these people just stop and listen, they'll hear a very, very deep and wonderful jazz guitar player."

By the same token, there might be writers who look at a guitarist who writes his own book with a jaundiced eye. However, Skolnick's words are eloquent and insightful—and frequently entertaining. Geek is an engaging read, and, in the context of the author's dutiful, DIY personality, it makes a whole hell of a lot of sense that he chose not to use a co-writer. The story is his, after all. And for someone who has battled insecurities for as long as he can remember, it's fearless.

"Part of being metal is putting it out there, honest, shameless, self-expression, regardless of what the reaction is," writes Skolnick.

Geek to Guitar Hero, by that measure, is metal as fuck.

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