After achieving fame in the late 1980s with Testament, one of the leading groups of the San Francisco Bay Area’s influential thrash-metal scene, the guitarist took an abrupt turn, decamping for New York City and enrolling in the New School’s Jazz and Contemporary Music program, where he earned a BFA. His jazz combo, the Alex Skolnick Trio, gradually won an audience, and Skolnick eventually become one of the few players equally admired in metal and jazz.

But now Skolnick has a new surprise: His recent release, Alex Skolnick’s Planetary Coalition, is neither metal nor jazz, but an acoustic album that explores the guitarist’s longstanding fascination with world music. The ambitious sonic travelogue features a large cast of master musicians steeped in styles from China to the Caribbean and Africa to Eastern Europe.


Skolnick doesn’t find it odd that his musical pursuits are quite literally all over the map. “If you’re fortunate enough to get to a professional level as a musician, there’s no set path any more,” he says. “Everybody’s path is different. Mine happened to be with a band I joined in high school.  I’m proud to have found a significant role there, but it's also important for me to have an outlet like this, where I'm the main composer and arranger, in charge of selecting the musicians, producing and have a final say.”

How long have you been interested in world music?

The interest has always been there. And whatever music I’m drawn to, I’m usually not satisfied just listening to it. For a long time I’ve secretly been devoting much of my guitar practice to world music.

alex-smallWhat sorts of things inspired you?

In some cases, it was music that truly falls into the “world music” category, and sometimes it was jazz with a world-music quality, like Weather Report with their Caribbean and African influences, or Chick Corea with his strong Spanish influence. Another inspiration was [international acoustic duo] Rodrigo y Gabriela, who I played with a few years ago. They helped inspire me to do my own acoustic world music album, and they appear on it. I found I was just as inspired by international acoustic improvisation as I was by electric guitar or heavy metal.

How would you characterize the international acoustic genre?

Well, it’s definitely not American-sounding. For example, I love James Taylor’s rootsy acoustic playing, but it’s not international. Instead, I think of Rodrigo y Gabriela. Or John McLaughlin on acoustic, capturing sounds of India. Strunz and Farah. Al Di Meola with his World Sinfonia and his duets with Chick Corea. And Paco de Lucia, of course.

How did you find common ground with musicians from so many contrasting traditions?

Well, take the Chinese track, “Return of the Yi People.” That’s one of the few pieces I didn’t write—it’s an arrangement of an existing piece for the pipa [a traditional Chinese lute]. Instead of me telling a great player like Yihan Chen what notes to play, my approach to her was, “Hey, let’s take this thing you already know how to play, and I’ll play around it, adding additional harmonies and licks that I think will work.” I wasn’t sure it would work, but she and I hit it off right away. Another example like that was the Indian track, “Passage to Pranayama.”

You play a lot of nylon-string guitar on the record.

Yes, I used a Yamaha NCX2000R on a lot of the tunes. It’s got a nice sound that cuts through really well. Some instruments may play really nicely, but you have to dig in to for the sound to carry forward. But on the NCX, you don’t have to work too hard to get a great tone. It has such a nice, natural acoustic resonance that we used a mic on it in the studio, but live, the electronic system works great.

Are you still playing much metal?

Absolutely. Testament is on tour now, performing our first two records. It's really fun.  I’m also part of a new all-star project called Metal Allegiance with [Dream Theater’s] Mike Portnoy and [Megadeth’s] David Ellefson. We've just signed with Nuclear Blast records and completed an album of originals that we're all proud of, with an amazing lineup of guest vocalists I can't reveal yet. It's also the first metal album that truly captures my individual electric guitar sound. It comes out this fall.

Will your world music experience affect the way you play metal?

It already has! When I work on electric music, I’m playing a lot more ethnic ideas. I was on VH-1’s That Metal Show recently, and I played a very ethnic thing, but with a heavy, distorted, Van Halen-esque tone—though the note choices and chords followed an Eastern European gypsy/klezmer melodic pattern. You know, to play heavy metal, you put a lot of work into building up your instrumental chops. But I don’t want to limit those chops to just one style!