by Jason Ramaley
I’ve been aware of Alex Skolnick for about 25 years, and his biography “Geek To Guitar Hero” is not another autobiography that was co-authored, or in many cases “ghost written” which is common in the world of entertainment and music. I must confess that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book; my curiosity was strictly in how Alex developed as a musician, and the unbelievable road stories from the touring that he did his band Testament. But I had no idea what devotion and work Alex had already accomplished toward writing, especially as a respected blogger as he mentioned when I briefly met with him before Testament’s concert at The Masquerade music club in Atlanta, Georgia. The guitarist/blogger has contributed to several publications and media outlets like Guitar Player Magazine, MTV, and a popular blog of his own titled “SkolNotes.”
In the definitive book on the birth of the San Francisco Bay area thrash metal movement – Murder in the Front Row, Alex Skolnick is described as “a criminally underrated guitarist who stomps all over certain “Big Four” lead players. I couldn’t agree more; in fact Alex’s band Testament not being included in the “Big Four” is just wrong; but who cares – it’s just overcomplicated category in this narcissistic society anyway.
Alex Skolnick didn’t grow up poor, but had an upbringing that was damaged by those he needed the most. He confesses that he had actually wished that he had a simple explanation like his dad is in jail or his mother was an alcoholic for the loneliness, shame and confusion that he felt. His parents were Ivy League scholars; in fact his father is highly respected in the world of criminal sociology, while his mother had a career in social psychology. His parents chose Berkeley , California when the University of California Berkley offered a tenured professorship to his father in 1968, which was the counter culture epicenter; or as Alex describes as “the weirdest place on Earth, among hippies, homeless, hippies turned yuppies and Hare-Krishnas.” As you keep reading through the future guitar virtuoso’s formative years, and his parents could not have been more emotionally detached from Alex and his older brother.
Despite the dysfunctional upbringing, Alex Skolnick accomplished some amazing feats as a guitarist and as human being. Aside from having a recording and touring career with the band Testament from the age of seventeen, the virtuoso has made some musical u-turns out of the need to expand musically. Skolnick spent some time away from the heavy metal scene and dedicated some of his life to jazz music, and graduated with a BFA in jazz performance at The New School in New York City. And you can’t get any heavier than that. Alex was a touring member of Trans Siberian Orchestra from 2000 – 2009, and recorded and toured the world with the Florida power metal band Savatage. Other diverse career credits include leading his own jazz band, Alex Skolnick Trio, composed “a big band jazz piece” for the USA Network’s Westminster Dog Show, MTV’s series “Makin’ The Band,” performed music for NBC’s television commercial for the 2012 NHL Winter Classic.
Through some uplifting and other disappointing experiences, Alex describes his rare trips to the movie theater as a child with his parents, which for many children is a joyous occasion; but the few movies the pre-teen did get to see with his parents were bizarre like horrifically trippy Vietnam war drama Apocalypse Now when he was around the age of eleven; I saw that movie at the age of 28 and had a hard time watching it. Imagine the anticipation of realizing your dreams of sharing the stage with rock and metal heavyweights like Iron Maiden, Kiss, David Lee Roth, and Anthrax, being in front of 60,000 people in Germany, but when it’s all said and done you consider it to be the biggest letdown of your life.
I found Alex’s chapter on being a student of the legendary guitarist Joe Satriani chock full of life lessons that I can use immediately. Skolnick had clear vision to continue to learn, and not let failure get the best of him as the guitarist remembers “I was learning the art of perseverance: try, try again, take a break – get some air and inspiration, come back and try some more.” That compelling chapter concludes with some insight on a strong work ethic he developed studying with Joe Satriani, and his eventual escape from the “Berkeley Work Ethic,” which Skolnick describes as “an invisible toxic fume spewing forth from a UC laboratory infecting the entire Bay Area, causing people to slow down and, in many cases, aspire to do nothing.” There are three words that I would never say to the author; “just chill man”, as the guitarist fumed “Whenever a memory pops up of a Berkeley deadbeat saying “just chill man” makes him want to take his guitar and smash it over his head.” Alex now plays an extremely heavy Heritage “Les Paul” style guitar, so you’ve been warned.
Alex Skolnick is a very thoughtful writer, and that is what immediately hits you when you begin reading his words. As Alex travels through periods of his life, I was frequently moved with Alex’s way of explaining his confusing and painful situations that he encountered with people that meant most to him. Alex Skolnick doesn’t look back in anger or with vengeance; but with wisdom and a forgiving heart. What the reader will recognize immediately Alex is a sincere person; and has a very bright future as an author. You can find more information on Alex Skolnick’s “Geek To Guitar Hero” at mcnallyjackson.com and Amazon.com.