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Allan Holdsworth has emerged over the years as a master of jazz with a rock sound. Neither a rock guitar wildman nor a limelight-seeking stage strutter, Holdsworth is instead an intense devotee of the guitar. His solos are marked by unorthodox fingerings and phrasings, and they're immediately striking as fast, fluid, vibrant, and deadly accurate. He's primarily known - and often exploited - for his abilities to play lead, yet his chordal and melodic talents are remarkable too. A creator of electronic textures, Allan Holdsworth is currently among the new wave of guitar synthesists. Guitar Player first interviewed Holdsworth for its December 1980 issue.
TYPECASTING ENGLAND'S ALLAN Holdsworth as a jazz-rock soloist extraordinaire is easy for anyone who has heard his spellbinding and complex lines, which abound with wide-interval melodies, singing harmonies, and high-speed picking. But his electrifying solos on albums by Jean-Luc Ponty, Tony Williams Lifetime, Soft Machine, U.K., Bruford, and Gong have inspired players in several different styles, not just fusion. For example, in the April '80 issue of Guitar Player, Eddie van Halen described one of the things that makes Allan so appealing to him: "He's got a rock sound."
Holdsworth's musical persona is created by the melding of many elements, and no single facet is easily extracted for examination without consideration of the other traits. His vibrato is directly related to his tone; his tone tends to vary depending on the register in which he is playing, gingerly picked acoustic chording is as much a part of his style as his incendiary electric lead work; and so on. Although best known for his solos rather than his ensemble work, the 32-year-old guitarist is discontent with what he feels is a stereotyped role, and he is trying to change that image to one of an all-around player. To this end Holdsworth is currently working with a guitar/bass/drums trio called False Alarm, creating original music that he feels adequately showcases his many facets.
A native of Bradford, Yorkshire, Allan Holdsworth was born on August 6, 1948. Although his father was a skilled pianist, a love for the 88 keys never bloomed in young Allan. His early interest in music never went beyond listening to jazz records, and it wasn't until he was 16 that he even tried playing a guitar. At that time his father bought him an acoustic for about ten shillings. The instrument sat around for awhile until Allan's interest in playing was sparked by hearing the local guitarists play in the neighborhood pub. Soon thereafter he joined a band that covered pop songs, in which he played two guitar solos per song: "One was supposed to be an impersonation of the one on the record," he explains, "and the other was something of my own."
Allan's second guitar was a Hofner f-hole acoustic, which he played through a 15-watt amp. In a year's time he progressed beyond that guitar's capabilities and talked his parents into buying him a Fender Stratocaster. Within six months he sold the Strat and bought a cherry Gibson SG Standard, which he later replaced with a SG custom played through a Vox AC-30.
Holdsworth quickly tired of playing other guitarists' solos, and early in his musical development, he began to concentrate on defining a style of his own. In 1971 he moved to London and met up with drummer Jon Hiseman who was putting together a heavy-metal rock quartet called Tempest. After recording one album with that band called Tempest (out of print) for Bronze Records in 1972, he left the group because of a dispute with Hiseman over their musical direction. "I had envisioned it as something that would progress," Allan recalls, adding, "I believed that there was room for the music to grow, but Jon wanted it to go the other way."
Allan's first experience outside of rock and roll was with the jazz-rock aggregate Soft Machine. "It was really interesting," he says. "because I'd never played in odd time signatures before." After recording one album with them called Bundles, he left Soft Machine and through a series of encounters met drummer Tony Williams. Along with Williams, bassist Tony Newton and keyboardist Alan Pasqua, he recorded two albums - Believe It and Million Dollar Legs - and toured in 1975 and '76. After bad management drove him away from that ensemble (at one point during a tour he ended up stranded in San Francisco with neither money nor a place to stay and had to pawn his guitar to get back to England), Allan recorded his first solo album, Velvet Darkness. "That was the biggest mistake of my life," he rues. "We didn't have a chance to adequately rehearse the music, and we were given only nine hours in the studio," he explains, adding "many of the songs don't even have endings, so on the reco rd, they just sort of peter out!"
Over the next few years Holdsworth recorded on several albums, including drummer Bill Bruford's first solo LP Feels Good To Me, and Jean-Luc Ponty's Enigmatic Ocean. By this point touted primarily as a soloist, Holdsworth found himself trapped into a one-dimensional mode, feeling he had more to offer than just flashy embellishment to other people's songs.
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How did you happen to play with Bill Bruford?
Bill asked me if I would play on his album, Feels Good To Me. Afterwards, I started to really get sick of soloing. I couldn't stand it any longer, so I just killed myself with alcohol. When Bill asked me to work on his second album, One Of A Kind, I expected things to be different, especially since he had Jeff Berlin on bass. Jeff's a very good player.
Had things become better?
Not much. With Bill and U.K. the rehearsals had almost nothing to do with what ultimately went on the records. We just played bits and pieces of songs, and they would shake them up and record them. Then we had to try to reproduce those parts live. And I just don't feel at home doing that. I'd 'rather play something first, and then record it. Now, I'm not against overdubbing - it's great. It's nice to embellish things, but I think that the important things should go down on the tracks so that when you play the songs onstage, nine times out of ten they'll sound better. With U.K., particularly, we had millions of overdubs, and then we had to try to decide who could play what parts live because one guy doesn't have four hands, and so on. Again it comes back to the magical quality of interplay between band members.
How did U.K. form?
Bill said that he had an idea of working with [keyboardist] Eddie Johnson and [bassist] John Wetton. He asked me if I would like to go to a rehearsal and play. I agreed, and it looked promising. But the closer we came to recording, the more sterile the music sounded. Just before I left the band, I used to daydream an awful lot while we were playing all those bits onstage; you know, thinking about a nice pint of beer or something. I was easily distracted. And because I couldn't associate all those bits - they didn't form any kind of cohesive picture in my mind - I wouldn't know if it was tune three or tune six or what.
Didn't you feel that your declining interest would be detrimental to the group?
Well, some musicians are very efficient in that they can wade through things and not get upset. Unfortunately, I can't do that. As soon as something like that starts to affect me, I lose all heart. And once I've lost the heart of it, I don't even try anymore. It's wrong; it's a bad thing. But because I just couldn't fight it, I left. I started complaining a lot and as a result, on Bill's One Of A Kind I was able to play quite a few of the solos live. I really liked the solo at the end of "In Five G."
How did you get such a massive sound in your solos on "Hells Bells" [from One Of A Kind] and "In The Dead Of Night" [from U.K.].
I used my Strat's wobble arm [hand vibrato] to get that wobbly kind of sound. I didn't use any effects at all, but I did crank my 50-watt Marshall pretty hard. Then we used a couple mikes - one close and one distant.
Did you try to duplicate your album solos onstage?
No.1 just try to be spontaneous. I mean, that was one of the silly things that U.K. wanted me to do: They wanted me to play the same solos. I said, "Sorry, no can do." Once a solo is done, try something else. In fact I really get worried if my live solos sound like the ones on the records.
When you aren't employing the vibrato on your Strat, do you keep holding on to it?
No. I just let the thing hang, and I go for it when I need it. I also tend to rest my hand on the bridge, but that's more easily accomplished on my SG.
Do you still have the original pickups on your Stratocaster?
I just have two DiMarzio humbuckers on it - one in the front and one in the back. And I just have one volume and one tone control because I like simple guitars. The selector switch allows me to choose which pickup I want.
Do you ever use both pickups together?
No. I've never used both at once - even on the SG Standard. And on my SG Custom, the middle pickup doesn't work. I normally use the bridge pickup for leads, and the neck pickup for chording. I usually leave my volume control set between 8 and 10 on the guitar, and the treble pickup's tone is adjusted to about 5 or 6 - enough to roll off some of the top end.
Which guitar do you use most of the time now?
I'm back to my SG Standard at the moment. It seems as if nobody likes them, but I love them. It has a vibrato on it, but the nicest thing about it is that it's not a very good vibrato - not as good as the Fender's. And that's perfect, because I'm not as tempted to use it. I know that if I do, the guitar will most likely go out of tune. I was using the Strat's vibrato a lot, and I'll probably use the SG's once in a while, but not on such a grand scale. It's a gadget like a phaser or bass pedals - here today, gone tomorrow.
A prominent part of your style has been your use of vibrato.
Yeah, but you'd be surprised. Obviously, on "In The Dead Of Night" I used the mechanical vibrato, but on many other songs I do it with my fingers. The effect I most like to create using vibrato is a slur between notes, like a pedal steel guitar. And I love the sound of pedal steel. Slurring like that can give the instrument a very vocal sound. But I'm always terrified of putting the guitar out of tune. Luckily, I've gotten to where I can feel when I'm going to do some harm to the tuning, so I avoid pushing down too hard.
Do you prefer a low action on your guitars?
Not on the Fender. I've found that I can get a good action on the Gibson, but if I set the action too close on my Strat, all the rattles show up. Maybe this is because of the bridge setup, or the very crisp, clean sound that is inherent in the Fender. In general, I prefer ebony fingerboards, too, because they help to improve the overall feel of the guitar by quite a bit.
Do you ever fingerpick?
I use a flatpick for just about all of my soloing, but for chords I use a type of fingerpicking in which I grab all the strings at once. I can't perform gymnastics with my right hand like most people who fingerpick. So I strike all the strings at once, much like a pianist would do when playing a chord. I always use the flesh of my fingers, too - never the nails, because that feels uncomfortable.
What kind of amps are you using now?
I had Marshalls all the way up through U.K. and with Bill Bruford. Since then, I've gotten two [Norlin] Lab Series amps and a British amp called a Hartley-Thompson. The trouble with the Marshalls was that they only gave a suitable sound for single-note solo stuff. They always distorted the chords; if I wanted to get a clean sound for chords, I had to push the amps too hard. I often ended up with a horrible square-wave, fuzzbox sound.
What functions are assigned to each amp?
I use the Labs for chording with a Dynacord digital delay between them to add some depth. The Labs are very clinical sounding - extremely clean. The Hartley-Thompson is a bit warmer, even though that and my other amps are 100% transistorized. And that's really unusual. Normally, transistor amps are clean up to a certain point, and after that they go into a horrendous type of distortion. The Hartley-Thompson doesn't do that. All my amps have 12" speakers, too.
How do you switch between the amps onstage?
I have a routing box with three transformers that prevent me from electrocuting myself. A patch bay is also included so that I can add effects if I want to. It's really flexible. The footswitches for turning the amps on and off are completely silent - there's no popping whatsoever. All three channels have separate MXR Noise Gate/Line Drivers, and I have two volume pedals - a mono one for the level of the signal going to the digital delay, and a stereo one for the chording amps. I've also been experimenting with chorus units and limiters for the chording channel, but I don't use any effects for my leads.
When you solo, do you organize runs in terms of scales, or chords, or whether you're high or low on the neck?
I try to just play naturally. I don't analyze what I'm playing - I follow my instincts. I suppose some people are very conscious of what they're doing. "Oh no! I played a high note; now I've got to play a low one." I try to hear something that makes sense and sounds reasonable, and I play it.
When did you form the group with which you are currently playing?
Early this year. It's called False Alarm, and it's a trio that we're now trying to get management for. We have Gary Husband on drums - he's also very good on piano - and Paul Carmichael on bass. Besides playing guitar, I also sing a little. We had a terrible time finding a bass player because so many of them are interested in sounding like Jaco [Pastorius]. We wanted someone who sounded like they were doing something of their own. Our music has some elements of jazz and rock, but we try not be overly tricky.
Having been through many ups and downs in your career, are there any shortcuts or tips that you could suggest to aspiring guitarists?
I don't think so, because I don't know if there really is an easy way. I think that it means more to learn something on your own. The lesson is more valuable, because rather than just following someone else's path without much insight, you can understand how you did things. Really search yourself out. Go for the essence of things, and don't really worry about what others are up to. Try to look at it like, "This is a certain standard, so I should try to be more than that," but without going the same way. You can get to the point you want to reach by following many different paths. I know it sounds ambiguous, but like most people I guess it's not always easy to explain exactly what I'm thinking. The things that I'd like to do, I've barely started.
Transcribed by Per Stornes
Updated: February 1, 2001
Scheduled update: None
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