Heavy metal thrasher/jazz improviser/world music enthusiast Alex Skolnick is one of the industry's most talented and genre-bending guitarists. Best known for his searing leads with legendary metal act Testament, Skolnick's playing abilities go beyond metal. Way beyond!
Over ten years ago, Skolnick launched the Alex Skolnick Trio, a jazz group known equally for their mind-blowing versions of classic rock and metal songs as for their inventive original compositions. The Trio has toured worldwide, garnering praise everywhere they go.
More recently, Skolnick introduced Planetary Coalition, which he describes as "a world music project, an international collective and a global movement." This group gives Skolnick the opportunity to dive into his love of music from all over the world and collaborate with a stellar array of artists.
We caught up with Skolnick to talk about his extensive musical ambitions, and of course, his new signature amplifier, the Budda AS Preceptor.
Tell us about your project, Planetary Coalition.
I've officially launched the project through ArtistShare, a unique crowd-sourcing platform that is very selective. We're aiming to do a recording by next spring, which is a little ambitious but we'll pull it off!
Who is in the group?
There's Rachel Golub, who is one of the most in-demand classical violinists in New York. Max ZT is the santoor player. The santoor is better known as the hammer dulcimer in the United States. Max has been on tour with Victor Wooten and studied with some of the greats in India. Luke Notary is our percussionist and our bassist is Moto Fukushima. That's the core group, based in New York.
I'm involving a lot of special guests too, including Rodrigo y Gabriela. I'd like to involve some other guests as well. I'm meeting with artists individually and we're also filming the process. I'm writing a lot of tunes on my own and eventually there's going to be a whole social component to this project. It's a bit of an ambitious project! At the core, I play mostly acoustic with this group, but I'll play some electric too depending on who I collaborate with.
Tell us about the gear you're using for the project.
I'm using a Trace Elliot - the TA-200. It's just great for amplifying the acoustics and it sounds amazing. At home, I'll practice with it and use a loop pedal, and I'll come up with some great ideas. The built-in effects on it are great, too. It suddenly sounds like you have studio-quality acoustic sounds.
Tell us about the Battle of San Bernardino event Testament is playing this month.
Yeah, it's called the "Iron Maiden's Battle of San Bernardino." We got invited to play along with Anthrax and Megadeth. It's like a mini festival in San Bernardino.
After that, I have just about a week before I fly to the UK with Alex Skolnick Trio. We have a short tour of Ireland and the UK, which I'm very excited about. We'll be wrapping up at London's Jazz Cafe on my birthday.
Let's talk about your new Budda signature amp, the AS Preceptor. Can you talk a little about the philosophy behind it?
Well, I definitely wanted to create an amp that I would use myself. If I had to do all my gigs on one rig, this is the amp that could pull that off. At NAMM, I used it with my Trio and plugged my hollow body guitar into it. It sounded great. I also used it for the All Star Jam with Alphonse Mouzon. We did all of his '70s stuff and I got to play Tommy Bolin's guitar part, which was really awesome. Later I played another jam with guys from Mastodon, The Cult and Anthrax, and it worked great. I've also taken it out on the road with Testament. So all of those styles work with this amp.
The most important thing is when it's clean, you can play as loud as you want and it stays clean. When it's dirty, you can play crunchy rhythms with definition. I've often found with amps, there's a very thin line between too much distortion, not enough distortion, and the sound breaking up. This amp has this quality that lets me play the crunchiest metal riff and it just sounds clear and crisp. Or you can use Channel 2, the regular overdrive channel, and get a great classic rock sound.
So I really think it's going to be an amp that anybody can appreciate. It's also got a combination of tube and solid state technology. You know, over the past few years, I've fluctuated back and forth between tube and solid state heads. This amp has a little of both. It has a knob in the back called the Power Pad where you can alternate back and forth. It allows you to not ride the tubes as hard, which is great because tubes tend to wear out fast especially if you're doing dozens of shows in a row.
So what's the story behind the name of the amp?
We tried so hard to find a name. It's as hard or harder than finding a good band name! The good names are already taken.
I really wanted to avoid pigeon-holing it. You know, it would be so easy to give it some kind of name to try to sound powerful. Because my name is Skolnick, some friends of mine were saying, "Oh, you should call it the 'Skull' and you can get little skulls for the knobs." That's just not me. I don't want to lock it into one thing. I wanted something that sounded like it implied thinking. 'Preceptor' is perfect because is sounds very cool and it means a teacher or a professor, or one who teaches apprentices.
Or 'shares knowledge.'
'Shares knowledge,' exactly. And that's what it is. It's knowledge. It's knowledge of what I've gained from years of experience onstage and in the studio. The amp feels great and the name feels right. It would be such a shame to go with a name that didn't feel right.
How long did it take altogether to create the AS Preceptor?
Well it happened over the course of probably two or three years. If we were less busy, if I was less busy, it could've happened much quicker. But based on when we could align our schedules, it ended up being about three years!
Is there anything else coming up that you'd like to share?
I also wrote a book during this time called Geek to Guitar Hero. It came out early this year and it's been getting a great response. I talk a lot about gear in it and the experience of working with gear. You can find out more at geektoguitarhero.com.