With his trusty ESP AS-1FR in hand, as far as ’80s shred goes (and sinfully delightful jazz fusion), few do it better than California native Alex Skolnick. Best known for lending his gargantuan riffs, soaring solos, exotic scales, and legendary stage presence to Bay Area thrashers, Testament, Skolnick was an outlier amongst the thrash scene and ’80s rock scene, in general, as he was more interested in injecting his inquisitiveness into his music rather than remaining cookie-cutter, and stale.
In a world filled with heavy metal sameness, Skolnick and a brave few others flipped the script and redefined the genre outside the confines of The Big Four. And to be fair, if Skolnick’s exploits stopped there, to be sure, his status among the faithful would have been cemented. But as per his nature, Skolnick moved beyond the ranks of heavy metal, departed Testament in 1992 (though he did join Savatage in’ 94), and dug deeply into the world of jazz through the ’90s and early 2000s.
Thankfully, Testament fans got their wish, and Skolnick returned to Testament in 2005 and has remained since, leading to new music, epic tours, and more six-string fire than you can shake a stick at. But when he’s not busy melting faces, Skolnick remains active with his jazz outfit, The Alex Skolnick Trio, and has even dabbled in art alongside Nader Sadek for her “Faceless” project, and literature via his memoir, the aptly titled Geek to Guitar Hero.
All told, few do it better and in a more authentic fashion than Alex Skolnick. But talented as he is, that level of idiosyncrasy must come from somewhere. To that end, Skolnick was kind enough to peel back the onion with ClassicRockHistory.com and reveal the eleven albums that changed his life.
Alex Skolnick of Testament: 11 Albums That Changed My Life
# 11 – The Original Soundtrack from the Paramount Motion Picture American Hot Wax by Various Artists (1978)
The movie American Hot Wax came out when I was nine or ten. It was a last gasp of ’50s nostalgia, which had been quite popular from the mid to late ’70s. It’s a crash course in early rock ‘n’ roll, which I just loved as a kid. Many of the artists heard on the soundtrack appear in the film, playing themselves. This was my introduction to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and many others.
The one who steals the show is unquestionably Berry, who brings the house down during a live concert sequence filmed for the movie. A short time later, I wanted to play guitar. Chuck Berry’s performance in this film had a lot to do with that. The first songs I learned were from the soundtrack, which I had on double vinyl. The movie tells an important story of the pioneering radio personality and champion of rock ‘n’ roll, Alan Freed, and his battles with the gatekeepers of American “polite society” during a time of race-based segregation.
As a work of cinema, it doesn’t quite live up to the music (apologies to costars Jay Leno and Fran Drescher). However, the live performances and reissued singles included on this soundtrack more than make up for it.
# 10 –The White Album – The Beatles (1968)
Along with the early rock of the ’50s, The Beatles were my favorite music as a child. Like so many other Beatle fans, I never outgrew them. It is difficult to pick a favorite Beatles album, but this is one I remember listening to the most. On the one hand, The White Album was a “back to basics” return to form, with the emphasis on the chemistry of John, Paul, George, and Ringo captured live in the studio with less of the grandiosity that had reached its zenith on the previous album, Magical Mystery Tour.
Even the cover and title (or lack thereof) were reflective of this. I also liked this release because, in addition to being a double album with more material, it seemed to capture many sides of the group. There’s a bit of everything, from high energy rock (“Back in the USSR”) to folk (“Blackbird”) to psychedelia (“Glass Onion”) to avant-garde experimentalism (“Revolution 9”) and even an arguable precursor of heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”).
Of course, it was one of George Harrison’s finest moments, with help from Eric Clapton (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). While I sometimes fluctuate between Abby Road, Sgt Pepper, and Revolver, I always come back to The White Album.
# 9 – Van Halen – Van Halen (1978)
I’m obviously not alone among guitarists for whom this record absolutely lit a fire under our you-know-what’s. I discovered it after Van Halen had been around for a few years. I was a preteen and had heard the single “Dance the Night Away” (Van Halen II) on the radio. Yet I had no idea what else the band, and especially Edward Van Halen, were fully capable of until I heard this disc top to bottom.
Sure, David Lee Roth’s lyrics were not exactly as substantive as say, John Lennon or Joni Mitchell for example, but it wasn’t about that. It was fun, party music that just happened to be propelled by guitar playing and tone so serious as to be no laughing matter. This caused me to work much harder on focus on being a lead guitarist and all-around musician.
To this day, Van Halen’s debut album never fails to bring a sense of fun and musical inspiration. Of course, EVH completely changed the game of guitar here, but let’s not overlook Alex Van Halen’s drumming, Michael Anthony’s bass and vocals, the group vocal harmonies, Roth’s persona, and a band chemistry that doesn’t come around very often. I still get fired up hearing it today.
# 8 – Live at Cook County Jail – B.B. King (1971)
This album captures a peak performance of B.B.’s guitar and vocals, set in the tense atmosphere of Cook Country Jail, then one of the country’s most notorious lockup facilities. It holds its own among the greatest live prison recordings, a template made famous by Johnny Cash, and similarly, has prison announcements coming through on an intercom along with the music.
Like Cash, King recognized that despite owing debts to society, prisoners were still people. Moreover, they were folks for whom music (particularly the blues) could be a source of redemption and rehabilitation. Besides B.B.’s stellar playing and singing, this recording captures the extra magic of its hardened audience opening up to a sermon by a high priest of the blues.
In addition to simply being a great listening experience, this music was great to transcribe. Playing my guitar along with BB on this disc helped develop my vibrato, blues deep, and sense of dynamics. It was a perfect entry into lead guitar without getting over my skies into the faster stuff I’d develop later. While there are plenty of fantastic B.B. King albums to choose from, if I had to choose just one, it’s Live at Cook County Jail.
# 7 – Blizzard of Oz – Ozzy Osbourne
One of two albums of Ozzy with Randy Rhoads that I discovered when I was in the eighth grade. This was a year or two after Ozzy’s profile had become reignited and within months of Randy’s untimely passing. Diary of a Madman has similarly timeless tunes and arguably stronger production value, yet there is no denying Blizzard and songs such as “I Don’t Know,” Crazy Train,” and especially “Mr. Crowley.”
This last song (“Mr. Crowley”), in particular, managed to combine modern guitar tone and technique that felt “post Van Halen,” but with the dark and heavy template, Ozzy had helped establish years earlier with Black Sabbath. Blizzard inspired me to one day find a band where I could hopefully do some guitar playing inspired by Randy.
# 6 – Land of the Midnight Sun – Al Di Meola (1976)
Both this and Di Meola’s follow-up Elegant Gypsy were my gateways into not just electric jazz but international-flavored acoustic guitar playing. By the time I discovered them, Al had since done several subsequent releases, yet these discs drew me in like no others. Each album included one incredible acoustic duo, “Mediterranean Sundance” (Elegant Gypsy) with Paco De Lucia and this album’s closer “Short Tales of the Black Forest” with Chick Corea.
Both duets are spellbinding, not just for the technique but for the beauty and supportive dynamics. In fact, I personally prefer them to the more famous guitar trio versions (Friday Night in San Francisco), as great as those are. On the electric side, the songs of Land of the Midnight Sun were quite impactful. They captured the Latin street vibe of early Santana but with the high-end technique of Weather Report, even featuring Jaco Pastorius.
Also, the criminally under-discussed keyboardist Barry Miles plays some lines that are just incredible and marked the first time I noticed “outside” jazz harmony. It is fun to go back as an experienced player and learn licks, lines, and grooves from this record.
# 5 – Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (1959)
This tends to be a universally agreed upon pick whenever it comes to lists of top Miles Davis albums and jazz albums overall. So, while a predictable choice, the fact is, Kind of Blue was my gateway to becoming a serious listener of jazz and eventually a player as well. Whenever it comes on, my headspace seems to change for the better.
Miles and his band at the time—all giants on their own (Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jo Jones) were captured on tape in a moment of relaxed intensity that perfectly embodies the term “lightning in a bottle.”
By introducing “modal” song forms to a wide audience, Kind of Blue broke from convention, impacting rock as well as jazz. Despite having studied it and listened inside and out over the years, there is always something new to discover. Kind of Blue manages to feel fresh and modern despite being released in the era of “Mad Men.”
# 4 – Colonel Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit by Colonel Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit (1991)
This self-titled live disc represented new possibilities of virtuoso musicianship as well as the embracing of multiple genres and defying of categorization. Guitarist Jimmy Herring was one of the first players I heard that could play over rock, funk, and country with proper character, feel, and searing tone, yet could also blend in advanced concepts from the world of jazz improv.
Matt Mundy was right there with him, playing angular lines previously unimaginable on a Mandolin. I first discovered these guys at a time when my ears were opening up, and I was yearning to get beyond just the label of “thrash guitarist.” Ultimately the music industry didn’t know what to do with ARU and the key players started getting picked off by more established names.
Oteil Burbridge was drafted by the Allman Bros Band and later, Dead & Co. Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sype (drums) found their way to Widespread Panic. There was a brief reunion period a few years back. It looked like it would continue, but sadly. Col. Bruce passed away a short time later. All the players sound fantastic in their later homes, but this live ARU disc remains one of those “If you know, you know” albums.
# 3 – Naked City – John Zorn (1988)
I can’t say enough about John Zorn, one of the most prolific composers, producers (whose credits include Mr. Bungle), and instrumentalists with enough albums to span several lifetimes. I first discovered him through this late ’80s project (with Bill Frisell on guitar), in which a single track might segue from authentic bebop to extreme punk to calypso, country, and more, all honored with peak musicianship.
A first-rate saxophonist, it’s not unusual for Zorn to sit out on his own records and assume the role of musical director/composer (Filmworks XIX is one such album and one of my current favorites).
Naked City’s liner notes include a vast list of seemingly incompatible influences, among them Charlie Parker and Slayer, cited without a hint of irony or jest. Reading that, I suddenly felt I wasn’t alone in having wildly diverse musical interests. John Zorn and this album, in particular, inspired me to not be bound by conventions or expectations.
# 2 – Imaginary Day – Pat Metheny Group (1997)
Pat Metheny is someone whose prolific output seems to be matched only by John Zorn. Like others on this list, it is difficult to pick just one life-changing recording. Imaginary Day comes to mind for a few reasons. When it comes to Pat, it checks many boxes.
Inventive compositions that take the listener on a journey? Check. High-level jazz improvisation? Check. Ambient, ethereal acoustic moments? Check. Bold experimentation unafraid of alienating some listeners? Check.
Yet despite its diversity, the songs seem to form a cohesive statement as a whole, bound together by stellar production quality. Unlike some of my guitar heroes who seemed to lose focus as they aged, this album demonstrated that someone who had debuted in the ’70s and was no longer an “up-and-comer” could still reach new heights as a creative artist. Pat’s latest releases are no exception.
# 1 – From Gagarin’s Point of View – EST (Esbjörn Svensson Trio) (1999)
I was fortunate enough to catch these guys on a visit to Israel in the late ’90s. They were mostly unknown, the backing band of vocalist Victoria Tolstoy (descendent of Leo). While her performance of standards was excellent, it was during her breaks when she allowed the band to play some original instrumental music that grabbed my attention. I’d never heard anything like it.
Their sound was, at times, atmospheric; other times, groovy. It didn’t conform to any of the strict preconceptions of “jazz piano” in the US. It inspired me to think more independently and not worry about labels and expectations. In true indie fashion, the band sold CDs from the stage, and I bought this one straight from Esbjörn himself.
The title track, inspired by his passion for scuba diving, is still a favorite. Within a few years, EST would be headlining major fests, charting high, and gracing the cover of music mags. Sadly, the band would come to an abrupt end in the late ’00s after Esbjörn passed away in a freak diving accident.
Alex Skolnick of Testament: 11 Albums That Changed My Life article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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