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Bouncing from one band to another, album by album, was once the rule rather than the exception for Allan Holdsworth. Moments of brilliance left in his wake on LPs by jazz and progressive rock artists including Tony Williams Lifetime, Gong, U.K., Jean-Luc Ponty, Soft Machine, and Bruford created for Holdsworth a reputation almost exclusively as a soloist. His presence on some of the recordings was by and large similar to that of a saxophonist: sitting out and waiting until it was time to fill a certain number of bars with a flurry of creativity. Holdsworth's chordal abilities were rarely showcased, and because strict limits often governed his approach, he grew tired of his role as a mercenary soloist.
Allan's renown was fairly limited as well: With the exception of Ponty and U.K., few of the musical amalgams in which he participated ever received much attention in the U.S. Despite virtual invisibility in the pop music world at large, Allan, through his unique sound and strongly independent approach, became a touchstone for many guitarists. Among lead players, "Allan Holdsworth" had elevated to a buzz word -- if you wanted to perk your ears up, he was the one to listen to.
Regarding his sheer individuality, one might conceivably categorize Allan Holdsworth with the likes of Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, or John McLaughlin. Although no artist is utterly without influences, these guitarists infused their work with so much originality that they created whole new styles. While Holdsworth has certainly not yet achieved the worldwide commercial success of the others, his musical voice is so unique that it may be best defined in terms of itself: More than just a gifted artist popular among his fellow musicians, he originated what has become the Allan Holdsworth school.
Neither a rock guitar wildman nor a limelight-seeking stage strutter, 34-year-old Holdsworth is instead an intense devotee of the guitar. His lead style is immediately striking as fast, fluid, vibrant, and deadly accurate. Upon closer examination, enigmatic melodies with large intervallic leaps and rhythmic syncopations and ambiguity emerge. Hand tremolo plays a strong part in his style as well, lending a shimmer to passages to add depth and immediacy to even seemingly inconsequential passing tones, rather than acting as a tool for creating half-octave bends and squealing feedback.
As a soloist, this English guitarist is certainly unique. However, as his abilities to play lead became better and better known and exploited, he found himself trapped into a one-dimensional mode; his chordal and melodic talents were lying fallow. This musician, who has drawn praise from Eddie Van Halen, Steve Morse, and many other well-known exponents of the electric guitar, felt that he had more to offer that just flashy embellishment to other people's songs. And in order to vent his ideas, he decided to form his own band.
In 1980, Allan teamed with bassist Paul Carmichael and drummer/pianist Gary Husband to form a trio in London known as False alarm. Expanded later to include vocalist Paul Williams (formerly of Juicy Lucy and Tempest, a band in which he and Holdsworth had worked together in 1973), the group became known as I.O.U. In a Guitar Player interview in the December 1980 issue, Holdsworth originally described the music as having "some elements of jazz and rock, but we try not to be overly tricky."
Given the freedom to pursue his chordal, melodic, and soloing abilities with the new band, Holdsworth developed material he had written over the previous few years, and with I.O.U. began performing in England. According to Allan, though, the climate wasn't quite right for the type of music the band was performing. Punk and new wave were the rage, making I.O.U.'s music less desirable to the general public. Holdsworth and company recorded in early 1981, and found their music met with less than enthusiastic response by record companies.
By 1982, the band decided to try their luck in the United States, and released their LP, I.O.U., independently. It showcased for the first time the side of Allan Holdsworth's guitar playing that had only been hinted at on previous works: complex, densely voiced chord melodies including unusual harmonic arrangements that sounded as if they came from neither guitar nor keyboard. Ambient, shimmering, and at times ghostly chordal swells, rather than harsh rhythm chopping guided the songs. Solos were sharply focused, the rhythm section of Husband and Carmichael pumped like a powerful machine, and Paul Williams' vocals provided a familiar reference point for the songs. Accentuated by the band's aggressive, jazz-influenced-but-rock-rooted arrangements, the music indeed captured a different side of the guitarist.
For several months Allan and I.O.U. played gigs mostly on the West Coast, and in August a dramatic upheaval in the band found Gary Husband and Paul Carmichael out, and bassist Jeff Berlin and Drummer Chad Wackerman (who accompanied Frank Zappa on a few tours) in. After a few weeks of working together, the new lineup went out on the road, hitting major cities on the West Coast -- mostly in California. New material by Jeff Berlin and Holdsworth combined with new approaches to the older songs yields a hard-charging, spellbinding concert for guitarists as well bassists. Currently, I.O.U. plans to record a new album this month for Warner Bros.
As self-effacing as he is unconventional, Allan Holdsworth doesn't believe he has tapped his full potential as a guitarist, nor does he feel there will come a time when he has. Constantly changing and updating his equipment, he is a perfectionist who loves to experiment, and finds music the most rewarding pursuit he can imagine.
Why did you choose to record an independent album?
I didn't choose. We just couldn't get anybody interested in our music. In fact, we tried for about three years to get a record deal -- with no luck. We had to borrow the money to do the album because we couldn't get anybody interested. And rather than disappear -- just wilt away -- I figured it might be worth a shot to do it on our own. The album's almost two years old now, and it's taken more than that amount of time to get anybody interested.
How long did it take to record the album?
I think we took about five days to record it, and it was mixed in two evenings. Rather quick. It was recorded on The Barge, a studio in England, which is actually a real boat. It floats, but it doesn't move much because it's very heavy. And luckily, the water where it's docked is usually very still.
What kind of guitars did you use?
I just used my old faithful Strat that I had back then. It had two humbuckers on it: one by the bridge and one by the neck. I changed them a lot. For a long time I had a couple of old Gibson Patent Applied Fors that I took off of some old '60s SG Customs that I owned previously. I didn't like the middle pickups on the SGs -- they always got in the way -- so I took them out and saved them. I used them for a long time, and then I changed to the old DiMarzio PAFs, and then I finally changed to a pair of Seymour Duncan 59s. I found that there was a little bit of difference between the Seymour Duncans and the PAFs. So I sold all the PAFs from the SGs and just bought Seymour Duncans.
Did you leave the original Fender single-coil in the middle?
No. Because I used to use pretty thin strings, and I didn't like pickups like those, which had a lot of [magnetic] string pull, because they took away a lot of the vibration.
How was your guitar recorded? Did you mike it or go direct into the board?
I just miked it, out in the room where the whole band was. It was actually a tiny place, so we couldn't get much isolation. The drums were in the middle of the room, the guitar amp was tucked away in one corner, and the bass was practically in the toilet at the other end of the boat. It probably would have sounded better if we had recorded it in a bigger place, but we didn't have the money to do it anywhere else.
Actually, it sounds as if it were recorded in a much bigger place.
That was just the help of Trident [studio, were the album was mixed]. And we probably could have gotten it to sound a lot better if we had had more time to mix. But we didn't.
What kind of mikes did you select for your amps?
I'm always experimenting, but for the most part I used Neumann U-87s, because they "hear" the way I hear. You know sometimes you put a certain microphone on a guitar, and when you hear it in the control room, it's got every single part of the sound that you didn't want to hear and none of the part you did. Now, that would be different for every person, because everybody's ears are different. But I quite like those microphones. I've tired a lot of other ones, but the Neumann gives the sound that's close to what I'm doing. And that's important, because the idea is to try to capture the sound you're actually making.
Did you use your usual stage setup to record I.O.U.?
Actually, since then I've gotten different equipment, because I had to sell the guitar and amps I used on the album in order to pay for it. I used two Hartley Thompson amplifiers and two Lab series L-5 amps. With the Hartley Thompsons I used two cabinets, each with two Goodman GP-12 speakers. They're the best speakers, but they're hard to get in America.
How do they compare to other speakers?
I prefer them to Celestions -- I use Celestions in my Marshall 4x12 cabinet. But they have a sound that is somewhere in between a Celestion and maybe one of the old Jensens -- like the ones you find in some old Fender cabinets. They have a warm sound, but with a lot of highs. Not quite as chewed up at the top end. They also have a small voice coil.
Does anything else distinguish the Goodmans?
I had a silver dust cap removed and had paper caps put in their place. I just can't stand speakers with silver dust caps because they distort all the frequencies; to my ears they're really offensive. I have yet to hear a silver dust-cap speaker that doesn't make my teeth grind. You can get a lot of bottom and a lot of top with a big hole in the middle. It just kind of radiates all this top. The Goodmans don't go quite as hard on the top as the Celestions. They sound sweeter.
Did you use mikes to capture all of the guitar parts on the I.O.U. album?
Well, actually I went DI [direct input into the mixing console] on one song, "Temporary Fault." I did that one DI just to see how it would come out, and I was quite pleased with the results. I could have probably gone DI on more. The Hartley Thompson works well for miking and DI. It does everything. The reason I didn't use DI more in the studio was that chords and the solos would have been coming down on the same track. At that time I didn't own enough Hartley Thompsons to set them up like one for the solo and one for the chords.
Did you set the mikes very close to the amps, or did you go for more of an ambient sound?
On some of the tracks I just used one mike, because there wasn't really enough room to get ambient miking. On "Checking Out" I overdubbed the solo, and was able to put up an ambient mike because no one else was in the room at the time. Pretty much, all the other tracks were done live.
But when you mixed the album, didn't you have to add reverb to give everything more space?
I guess so, but I always had good results with one mike before. The way my amp setup is now, I can make the mike hear something that it thinks sounds ambient.
Even though each of the albums you have played on showcases a difference in tone and a stylistic evolution, there's a common thread that holds the sound together -- one that is a sort of audible personality. Did you originally envision that sound and try to create it with your gear, or was it something inherent in the equipment that you were able to put to a good use?
I kind of visualized a sound like that, but it changes, and it continues to change. And that's why I look so forward to doing this next album, because the I.O.U. album is almost two years old, and the last thing I did before that was the Bruford album [One Of A Kind], about two years before that again. A lot of time has gone by, and for that reason I wish that we could have been able to use a better studio so that I could have made more use of the room and get the sound I was really after. It was kind of a compromise; the drums got the benefit of the room. After all, they were set up right in the middle of the room. Hopefully, when we do this next album, we can do it properly. And because we've moved on quite a bit since the last one was recorded. It will be interesting to see what people think of the sound now.
How much guitar overdubbing did you do?
Not much at all. There were a couple of tracks where I added some extra guitar parts, but most of it was done as live basic tracks. For instance, on "Checking Out" I added an extra solo.
Why did you switch from Stratocasters to Charvel guitars?
I was really lucky, because just before I sold my Stratocaster, I met [Charvel Luthier/designer] Grover Jackson in London. We went out for a few beers and he was willing to listen to ideas I had about certain woods, whereas a lot of other people wouldn't. They'd say "you can't make a guitar from this wood or that wood." But Grover listened to everything, and made three Strat-style guitars from various woods. Also I had the necks made wider at the fingerboard end. I hate the Fender string spacing.
Fender's overall string spacing is wider than Gibson's, but at the same time Gibson's necks are wider than Fender's. It's absolute madness. I had Grover make the necks wide at the top [near the headstock] like Gibsons, and about 2 1/4" wide at the body end of the neck. So that means there's a good 1/8" on either side of the outer strings, which is really nice. The strings used to really fly off the edges of the Stratocasters. I'm really happy with the guitars Grover made. They're the best guitars I've ever owned.
What kinds of woods were employed in their construction?
All three are different. The red one has a maple neck with an ebony fingerboard and a basswood body. The white one has a maple neck, ebony fingerboard, and a body made of jelutong [a Malaysian and Indonesian softwood]. Then there's the one that I was most interested in: a maple neck and fingerboard -- one piece -- and a spruce body with a clear finish. They all sound different from each other, which is really great, because I've learned so much about what to do about two more guitars that Grover's going to make. He's going to use a combination of all the best ideas in these three.
Is the spruce a lot lighter than the others?
No, actually the basswood's the lightest. The Jelutong and the spruce are about the same, which is probably about the same as alder or something like that. The spruce one sounds stiffer, or harder. Very quick. I wanted to find a real resonant wood, and spruce is often used for the tops of acoustic guitars. I didn't believe the normal stories that said, "the heavier the better for a solid guitar." And I've never believed that. Most of the old guitars I've ever played -- the good ones -- have been at least half the weight of their modern equivalents. If you feel the weight of an old Strat or an old Les Paul, it seems to weigh much less than a new one. The wood gives so much to the sound, just like in an acoustic guitar, whereas if the body is really heavy, it just sort of soaks the sound up, and you're left with a string talking down to the pickup. Then you'd might as well have a concrete body or build it into the ground. I really like when a guitar feels as if it's got some sort of acoustic thing going for it.
Have you ever considered installing a contact pickup in the guitar in order to infuse more of the body's resonance into the sound?
No, I'm still trying to get the sound I want just through the combinations of the wood. It's getting pretty close now. And Seymour Duncan made me a pickup a few months ago that I'm currently using, and I've fallen in love with it. I just hope I have a chance to get together with him to take it to the nth degree; that is, the right combination of the right pickup and the right woods.
Why do you only have one pickup in the bridge position and no pick up at all near the neck?
I found that I hardly ever used the other pickup, anyway. I've always favored the treble pickup. So when Grover made the first prototype for me, we just tried it with one. And it seems that I've never missed it at all. So I decided to have them all made with single pickups. It's really basic. Each of the guitars has a different pickup on it The red basswood one has the specially made Seymour Duncan pickup, the white one has a Seymour Duncan 59N, and the spruce one has a specially wound DiMarzio on it.
Are there any fancy switches such as coil taps?
No. I don't have any extra wiring. Just one volume and one tone. And I would have just one for volume, except that I still prefer the tone I get from the guitar's control. There's a difference between the tone when you have the volume up full on the guitar and you back the treble up on the amp and turn down the tone on the guitar just a bit. It sounds wetter or something -- I just prefer it.
You also have a new Epiphone Spirit-I solidbody.
Yeah. I just got it in L.A. It needed a different pickup, so I had Grover put on a custom-wound DiMarzio. The Epiphone didn't come with a vibrato, but I think I may have one put on. I have to test it some more.
How does switching over from, say, an SG to a Stratocaster affect your playing?
Well, I've always had more difficulty playing a Strat than a Gibson: The scale length is slightly longer, and originally I didn't have flat fingerboards on my Strats, so they just felt generally more cumbersome. Also, it seems that because the strings on the old Gibson just sort of lay on the bridge, you could have an extremely low action, and if you had string rattle it wouldn't show up through the amp. On the Fender, though, because the bridge situation is so precise and so clean, any rattles you've got show up through the amps.
What made you leave the SG behind for the Strat?
The big difference for me in changing from the SG to the Start was putting humbuckers on the Strat. From then on, I couldn't go back. I've tried a couple of times, because I love SGs -- they're definitely my favorite guitars. I love the way they play and look. But there was just something in the sound that I missed after playing the Strat -- some of the heart, the upper harmonics. I think that it's partially because of the bridge. That's part of why I don't like most of the new locking tremolo units like the Floyd Rose, where the strings are attached right on top. It seems that if the strings don't actually pass through the block, they don't sound as good. When the strings are just on top. Well, it seems that most of this mysterious Strat sound has been coming from the block, where the strings pass through the tubes in the blockpiece. I also found that the lighter the block, the better it sounds. I hate brass blocks; they just seem to absorb. It's like if you have a practice mute on a violin. You stick a piece of brass or lead on the bridge and all the sound goes; it's absorbed. And that's what I think happens with brass. There's a tremolo being designed by a guy named Dave Story in Southern California, and it's got a totally different design than anything I've ever seen. It has a locking nut, but the bridge has fine-tuning adjusters.
What sort of tremolo units do you have?
DiMarzios with Gibson-spaced blocks. The new ones. The old ones have a lot of mass on top, and I had a bit of trouble keeping them in tune. This new on is almost like the old Fender one: It's very small and very basic. And it works really well.
How many springs do you use?
Three, but they'll hold up to five. I've tried four or five at different times to compensate for the tension of the strings. If I use like a .012 for the top E string, I will use four or five springs. But if I use that many, it feels a lot stiffer, and it doesn't give a good relationship between the springs and the strings. You have to experiment and find a balance between the type of strings you use and the number of springs.
You've used solidbody after solidbody and yet you strive for a more resonant instrument. Have you ever considered a semi-hollowbody such as an ES-335?
I used a 335 years and years ago. After the SG, I used one for a while. And I found it very difficult indeed to play a solidbody after playing that 335. I got so used to that hollow, wet response -- that sort of spring where the tone sort of goes into the guitar and then it goes "whack" out through the amp. It seemed that on a solid guitar the note would come out through the speakers almost before you even played it, and I had difficulty adjusting to that. But that appears to be over since I found these lighter woods for my solidbodies. They respond almost like the 335.
How was the feel of the 335?
I loved the feel of 335s; they were pretty nasty to play sitting down, but the way they hung on a strap made them about the most comfortable guitars to play. The balance was perfect. My 335 didn't hang neckheavy like the SG and didn't lean toward the body. And 335s were a reasonable weight, so you didn't get dents in your shoulder. Unfortunately, the sound was a little bit honky for me -- hollow in the middle, frequency-wise.
You seem to go through a lot of guitars.
Not really. The Strat I sold to make the I.O.U. album I had since I was with Tony Williams back in '76. I never played another guitar -- it changed color a few times, but it was the same guitar. From about 1972 until '76 I played the SG Custom consistently. Just prior to that, I was starting out on guitar and experimenting with all kinds. But the experiments now are to find the one guitar. And once that guitar is there, then that'll be the one I'll play nearly all the time. It's happening already, really. I play the red basswood one the most. But in order to experience something, you have to try more than one thing. And once we have that one guitar, I expect to stick with it practically forever.
Do you perform many modifications yourself?
I used to until Grover came along, because if I was going to take a chisel to it, He'd say, "On, no. Let me do it." And [luthier/repairman] Dick Knight was the same way in England. He and his son-in-law, Gordon, were always helpful. They did so much work for me there. As far as wiring goes, I always liked to do my own, though.
Was this because you trusted your own work more than other people's?
Only in certain departments. But usually as far as chiseling a hole in a guitar, it was so spontaneous. I'd get an idea and have to do it right away. And to go over to Dick's house meant getting in the car or jumping on my bike and pedaling over there. So sometimes it was just easier to take the chisel to it myself. And since I pawned the SG in '76, I lost a lot of respect for guitars. It didn't bother me to take a chisel to one if I felt I was doing something good for the guitar. I couldn't believe that the guy I sold my good Strat to back in England immediately took the humbuckers off of it and put on some regular Fender-style single-coil pickups. He didn't know what it was capable of.
Have you ever thought of just chucking the electric and going solely on into acoustic guitar?
No, because if someone had ever told me that if I wanted to play an instrument that it had to be an acoustic guitar, I would have never started to play guitar at all. I really wanted to play the saxophone, and the only reason I like acoustic guitar now is through electric. I started on acoustic, but that was accidental.
And that wasn't as enjoyable as the electric?
Well, I wanted something I could blow on. I wanted to be able to make a note loud or long or soft or short; play things legato or play them staccato. Whatever I felt like. But it seemed that the guitar was only capable of a few of the things that I really wanted to do at the time. I guess I fell in love with it later. I mean, I didn't really dig electric guitar that much at first. I've always been more in love with music than instruments. I'm not overly concerned with what instrument. If I had been presented with another instrument at the same time as the guitar, I may have gone with that. It just happened to be the guitar. And I've always listened to all kinds of instruments -- I'm not just a guitar freak. I love the guitar, and there are so many fantastic players that I always get enjoyment listening to them play. But it's the same for other instruments too.
In your equipment rack is a box with no labeling for control functions on it.
Yeah. That's a custom routing box made about five years ago by Pete Cornish. The box it was in kind of fell apart, so Hartley Thompson built a new case for it, and I stuck one of their stickers on it. I know what all the knobs are, so they aren't labeled. It's basically a routing box that allows me to patch anything that I want in any sequence. You see, I have two channels on each Hartley Thompson amp, and each has its own tone equalization. That box sends different signals at different times to whichever amplifier I want. Usually, I only use effects on the chord channels: a real short delay, or A/DA Stereo Tapped Delay. On the lead channel -- the red channel -- I usually go directly into it.
How do you designate your amp channels?
Each channel has a red channel and a green channel. I set the red channels for lead and the green channels for rhythm. It's super-flexible. I can play chords louder and cleaner than I've ever heard from any other amplifier, especially a tube amplifier. Because if you drive a tube amp hard -- the only way to get a good lead sound -- you have to really kick the output level. And if you start kicking the output to get the sound, there's no way in hell that you can get clean chords coming out of there at the same volume. The only way around that is to compromise and get a progressively worse lead sound as the volume goes down and a progressively nastier chord sound as the volume goes up.
Do you use any other guitar amps? You used to have Norlin Lab Series L-5s.
I've been using a couple of Fender Twin Reverbs for the chords as well. I also have two new Fender Princeton IIs and a Super Champ. I'm really knocked out by them. They're amazing. In fact all the new Fender amps seem to be really good. And because I sold most of my equipment back in England, except for the Hartley Thompson amps, I had to kind of piece everything back together. Grover got two Marshall 4x12 cabinets, which worked fine for the solos, but the speakers couldn't handle the chords. The Hartley Thompsons would just kind of blow them up. So I had to stop using the Hartley Thompson clean channel, and I started using the Fenders for the chords. Since then, Jeff Berlin has showed me his stuff, which is Yamaha. I was very impressed with it, and have since obtained one of their 200-watt power amps. It works fantastically. It has two channels, and I run the DI outputs of the Fenders into it. It's hyper-clean. I've arranged to get more Hartley Thompson equipment, and change the speakers. Everything w ill get simpler once I'm able to select the speakers I want that will do both jobs. Then the Hartley Thompson will actually do everything, and the amps wont have to accommodate the types of speakers. It's fine, because I love to experiment, and I've found a lot of different ways to do things.
Do you think you will ever be totally satisfied?
I think when I get the two Hartley Thompsons and the speakers sorted out, I'll be as close to satisfied as anybody could be. They're the best amplifiers in the world.
Did their transistor circuitry put you off initially?
The fact that it's a transistor amplifier totally devastated me, because I said, "Oh, no. Not a transistor amplifier." I had used transistor amps for chords, but never for solo things. After I tried the amp, I wouldn't let the guy out of the house. He said, "This is the only one I've got. It's the prototype." I told him I don't care, and if he took it away, I wouldn't buy one, because I didn't believe that the sound could be duplicated. I thought that they had come across an absolute fluke -- some sort of miracle in this little box. I told him to leave it. He reluctantly did, and as it turned out, I was in for even a bigger shock. A couple of months down the road, he came over with a second amp, which proceeded to destroy the first one. Then I knew they knew exactly what they're doing. And since then, everything they have made has done nothing short of blown me away.
You have a volume pedal on the floor and another box.
That's a switch box that controls the routing box. It tells it what to do. I have a Korg stereo volume control patched between the outputs of the A/DA Tapped Delay and the amps. That turns both of the chord channels on the amps up and down simultaneously. I have another mono volume pedal, a Steelmaster, which turns the volume up or down before the signal goes from my guitar to the A/DA. I use it mainly for noise reasons.
How does your signal chain patch together?
My guitar plugs into the switch box on the floor. From that little switch, the signal goes either directly to the lead channel of the Hartley Thompson or to the chord system. Because the two amplifiers have different settings, I can also route the signal to the red channel of either amp. To do this, I have to manually switch it; there's a switch right on the routing box just for this. Either way, the lead signal goes straight in.
There are two more Tapped Delays in your rack. What are they for?
I occasionally use one between the two red channels, just to turn them on and off. And I plan to use an independent A/DA unit for each green channel. That way I can drive a couple more amplifiers and speakers somewhere else and create additional madness.
Do you have any equipment that will give you more pronounced echoes rather than just ambience effects?
I have a Yamaha E-1010 analog delay, which I switch in and out for special effects. I can put it on anywhere I want by way of patch cords on the back of the switcher. The reason I use that is because the A/DA only goes up to the maximum of 55 milliseconds delay, so you can't actually get an echo out of it. And that's what I really like about it. That was one of the things I initially wanted a delay system for -- I didn't really want an echo. But I found the Yamaha was really useful if I wanted an echo of any description. So I can switch that in and out before the A/Ds.
Are you particular about what kinds of guitar cords you use?
I was using these things called EZ Locks, where there's no solder joint between the cord and the plug. You just cut off the end of the cord and stick it in the plug. They work really well when you're using them yourself, but when you get other people moving your gear, it gets dangerous, because leads tend to get torn out by pulling on the cable instead of the plug. After a couple of days of somebody pulling on the cables, they don't work. So they're good leads if you're responsible for setting up your own stuff.
Because some brass plugs tend to corrode, making an occasional unreliable contact, do you have a preference for chrome-plated ones?
No. I never worried about brass plugs. Brass blocks, yes, but brass plugs, no. It doesn't worry me. They can be as green as they like, just as long as they work.
Does a bassist such as Jeff, who plays lots of chords, free you up to do more solo work?
Well it's really great in this trio situation because he sounds like three guys. It's great; Jeff's perfect. I love his playing anyway. We're toying with the idea of adding someone else, but someone who's not going to fulfill the normal keyboard role, because the last thing I want it to turn into is just another jazz-rock band. I just hope there's enough in this band for everyone to keep them happy.
How does a drummer affect the way you play?
Everybody has been in a band with a bad drummer, and a good drummer is very important. I like drummers who play; I don't like drummers who are plodders. It's important to have a balance. That's why I liked Gary initially: he had a good balance. And Chad has a great balance as well. Some drummers are just into a groove, and it makes me want to tear my hair out.
Does Jeff's melodic, active playing make you more aggressive or less aggressive?
I find it inspiring and helpful, because he's such a great soloist. He's fantastic. I like what he does. His playing is changing -- I can hear it, and I'm overjoyed that we could all find something in the music together.
How do you work out parts for the band?
Very basically: Because I don't write, I have to just play things for people. I mean, I can write the chords down, but I can't write where they come in the bar. They just basically have to do it by memory or take notes on their own.
Were any solos spliced on I.O.U.?
We didn't do any splicing. In fact, most of the album was done straight in one take. I don't like cutting. I'd rather do it again from the top then cut it. I just don't like editing.
It doesn't feel right?
I don't know, but I'm always waiting for it when it comes around. I can hear it when I've done it before -- on other people's records. I go, "Oh, God." It usually stands out like someone poking you in the eye halfway through the track.
Did you release the I.O.U. album in England?
No. They probably don't know about it -- two years later [laughs]. England is definitely on its knees as far as music and almost everything else, it seems.
Are you more enchanted with the music environment in America?
Absolutely. It's a much more happening place. The struggle is everywhere -- no matter where in the world you live. You end up banging your head against the wall. It's been easier in the States for me than England. No one -- absolutely no one--was interested in anything that I did. We couldn't get any gigs, which is why we called the band I.O.U.: The few gigs that we did do there always ended up costing us more money than we'd get. We almost finished up phoning people by saying, "How much do you want for us to play." It's definitely better for me in America, although it may be different for somebody else. It seems that English musicians don't get any respect in their own country until they've been somewhere else. People used to tell me about John McLaughlin -- how he wasn't accepted at all in England. Then after he played in the States and returned, they were all like down on their hands and knees. England's such a fickle place, and the music's so much monopolized by the BBC, which plays such crap all d ay long. And the record companies are only interested in fashion. And if it's fashionable, then that's it. They'll spend a little money on three bands and hope that they'll make it by being fashionable, rather than spending maybe the same amount or less on one band that may turn out to be long-term. It's really nuts.
How does it affect you working in a band thousands of miles from home?
Well, you see, it really does. You try to keep it to yourself and not trouble the other guys in the band. I look forward to every performance, and try not to let it bother me. Once I get on the stand it may be a total disaster. But I always try to look forward to it so much that my mind is clear and free.
Do you find much time to practice?
Yeah. I usually find time in the hotel room when we are on the road. I practice scales, fingerings, chords, exercises. I just generally try to help myself get out of the hole. Recently it hasn't been so easy to find time because we've had so much to do. I try hard to find the time. It usually works out the opposite way: When I haven't got time, I'm desperately trying to find the time to practice. And when I have the time, I'll do things like sit around and drink Coors.
When did you compose the material for the I.O.U. album?
Originally, I had a backlog of material from when I left Bill Bruford, and I knew what direction I wanted to go in. So, that's why it turned out that most of the tunes were mine. It wasn't that we didn't particularly want to play anybody else's. It's just that those tunes were there from the beginning, and those were the things that I wanted to try to do. So we did them at the gigs and recorded them in England. When Chad and Jeff joined, I just gave them copies of the album, and they listened to it and worked out the parts for themselves. And now I've got some songs and Jeff's got some songs. So we're on the way.
Do you think that your playing is constantly progressing?
I hope so. I mean, I think so, because it seems to me that I've learned a lot in the last two or three years. It seems to be escalating at the moment. But I don't know. I could be vastly wrong and actually be playing a lot of rubbish now. I'm trying, though.
Do you listen to your old material on records to gauge your progress?
Oh, no! That's why I'm pretty confident about my progress, because when I listen to my old stuff, I just die. I can't believe it. It sounds like a caveman or a baby -- just so primitive and so long ago and unbearable.
That must be a good sign.
I guess so. It's just that you know so much more about yourself. I just hate to hear them because I cringe. I just can't listen; I have to leave.
Do you ever fall into slumps and lose interest?
Not lose interest. I fall into slumps, and I'm sure everybody falls into slumps where the creativity just cant seem to start and no matter how hard you try you just seem to fall back on things that you've already learned -- as opposed to trying to improvise or whatever. Keep going. You have to persist, and out of sheer frustration of what you've been doing or you haven't been doing you just come out the other side. Of course, when you come out the other side, you find that there's an even bigger hill to climb than the last one. And that's always the way. I'm really glad, though.
Do you ever tape your rehearsals to give you an indication of what you're doing right or wrong?
Oh, yeah. I listen to them a lot. It's very helpful, but it usually makes me depressed -- only about myself, though. Who could be depressed listening to those other guys? So, I get a little depressed. And that's good, because it makes you say, "Oh God, I've got to do something about that." And off you go again.
Do you think that you might be too self-critical?
I don't think so. Maybe I am. Maybe. But I don't think so. But that's the way I am, and I cant do anything about it.
How do you use your tremolo?
Sometimes I use my fingers, and other times I sort of use the palm of my hand. Mostly I use my little finger.
How about left hand-finger vibrato and bends?
Well, I don't think I bend notes anymore. I used to, but I don't think I still do it. If I want a vibrato, I use a classical vibrato technique along the length of the string like a violin. The top two strings and higher up the neck, I change to a classical vibrato, and lower down the neck I go more from side to side. I physically pull the string. Up high I apply more tension and sort of squeeze the string.
Where did your wide hand stretches come from?
Basically, if you know you want to play over a certain chord or a certain scale, most of the time guitarists play the scale so that the notes are played consecutively. I wanted to avoid that by playing intervals that were spaced further apart. They're the same scales and chords, it's just that I wanted them to be juggled around more. I'm just juggling, really.
Do you ever find that your hands just wont stretch that way sometimes?
They usually stretch okay. I think my stretch has gotten a little worse as I've gotten a little older. I keep notes of the things I used to play, and sometimes I have trouble with them.
Will you take, say, an F# chord, and experiment with various ways to spread it out?
Yeah. I'll just experiment with different voicings. What I usually do is just try to find the kind of voicings of particular chords that I like. Turn them around. I don't like the sound of conventional guitar voicings. I love listening to jazz guitar; I listened to it a lot when I was younger, because my father introduced me to it. But I very quickly tired of the sound of the chord voicings. Whereas with a piano player I hear much more chordal inventiveness, not in terms of shuffling around with the chords, but with the inventiveness of voicings. I just decided that if I was going to get some chord things together that I might as well play some other voicings, instead of the kind of Jazz Book One or Jazz Book Two or Jazz Book Ten types of chords. I just searched for different voicings.
Do you think that different voicings evoke certain types of moods?
Oh, yeah. Sometimes you can use a simple chord and come up with a nice voicing. It's all important, because it's music.
Do you use two hands to fret very often? On "Shallow Seas," for instance, you use a right-hand finger to hit a bass note.
I use it very rarely: mostly for chords. I can do it much more than I do it, but I just don't like to do it because it's almost become such a fashionable thing. And there are still a lot of things I can't do using what I've got already. I still want to work a lot on that before I decide I've had enough of my left hand.
Do you ever locate chords on certain groups of strings to change their mood or impact?
I wouldn't favor any particular one over any other, unless it was called for in a specific piece. Then I would. I just try to look for interesting ways to play around some simple things and make them sound like they're not. Or the other way around: Make something simple seem much more involved.
Do you approach the use of the tremolo bar differently for solo and chords?
I guess so. Obviously, I try to get that steel guitar-like sound when I'm playing chords. It sounds more like floating between chords.
Do you have to be careful while bending chords not to clash with the bass?
No. I never bend chords that extremely. I just use it to sound like a slur, so it doesn't really upset your ears.
How do you relate your solos to the chord changes? Do you consciously try to cover those chords?
Yeah. I break it down to find out what the chord structure is, what scales I can use, if I can superimpose things over the top such as triad. I generally experiment with it. There's no set way. I don't go about each tune thinking, "This is what I have to do." For me to be able to play it I have to be able to see it in my mind's eye. I can't play off a piece of paper. If I do, I've had it.
Have you ever tried recording a rhythm part on a cassette and working out a solo to the playback?
I have done that, but I usually don't. I usually just study the chords and make a few notes for myself.
Do you think the register that a solo is played in has an important bearing on it?
No. The solo itself has an important bearing on it. I don't say it has to be slow and low. I don't think being one way makes it any more of one thing than another. I don't make any rules about it. If it's a solo that starts out low, I'll think about the notes in that area, but I don't divide the neck up. It's all one.
Do you use hammer-ons or do you try to pick every note?
I use a mixture with a lot of hammer-ons. I don't use conventional pull-offs, though. I never pull my finger sideways, because I find that when you pull the strings off, you get a kind of meowing sound as you deflect it sideways. And I detest that sound. In the past, I have practiced quite hard to not play like that. I don't think my fingers come off sideways at all. They just drop on and off directly over the top like I'm tapping the strings.
As you play faster, do you find that you are less conscious of your actual technique?
I don't consciously make any transition between playing slower and faster. Sure you might be likely to make more mistakes as you start waffling around, but you try not to. Because if you continually do that, you obviously can't play that way anyway. Each has its own set of problems.
When you use a volume pedal to swell each chord in a series, does it seem cumbersome?
Not particularly. Using a volume pedal with echo is not the greatest way to get that effect, but at the moment that's the way I do it.
Some guitarists wrap their right-hand little finder around their volume knob to swell notes and chords.
I couldn't do that effectively because of some of the chords that I want to play; there would then be too much going on elsewhere. And I don't like the volume control so near my little finger. I've displaced the volume control on each of my guitars further south that it would be on a normal Strat. On a normal Strat, you can turn the volume control with your little finger, but that used to get in the way of my wrist. So, I moved it further away. I find it easier to do that and switching on the floor than with my hands, so I can concentrate more on my playing.
Do you ever mute your strings with your right hand?
No, I don't like the sound. Al Di Meola's done it to death. It's not something that particularly grabs me by the ear or anywhere else, although it's pretty easy to do. It's just not a very attractive sound to me.
When you fingerpick, what do you do with your pick?
I just tuck it in and hold it with my 1st finger, and then use the thumb and the other three fingers. I play most chords that way. I can strike all the notes at the same time, because I don't like that "droing" -- the strum sound across the strings.
On some of your songs, particularly "Out From Under," you play the melody while holding chord forms. Is this for organization or an audible effect?
It depends on whether I want it to sound like a chord or not. Usually when I do that, I want the notes to ring into each other -- hit more than one note at a time.
How do you execute artificial harmonics?
I just hold the pick and lightly tough the string with my middle [right-hand] finger, but I don't use them very often.
Do you find the technique to be awkward?
It's not awkward, but I've heard some people do it so well that it almost makes it not worth doing for me. Some people do it amazingly well. For me to play it as well as some of the people, it would probably take me as long as I've got left.
How did you come to jam with Eddie Van Halen?
That was at the Roxy [in Los Angeles]. I met Edward a few years ago when I was working with U.K.; I didn't know him then, but we said hello to each other. He came down to our first gig at the Roxy, and I was trembling in my shoes at the thought of all the people being out there. At any rate, he came to the gig, and I was talking to him afterwards, and I said we're coming down in the afternoon to do another soundcheck. Why don't you bring your guitar? I talked to Jeff, too, and told him to come down. So we had a bit of a blow in the afternoon. We thought it would be a good idea to do a jam together at the end of the night. So we worked out one of Edward's tunes. We finished our set, came back on and played this tune together. It was great. It was fun -- kind of a nice contrast to the rest of the gig.
What do you think is good or bad about the current state of the guitar?
I don't think anything's wrong with it.
Do you think that the guitar is taking a back seat to vocals in music?
Oh, no. Everybody in the world plays a guitar. That's why there are so many good guitar players. Everywhere you go, someone plays the guitar.
Do you purposely avoid playing common rock licks or blues licks?
In a word, yes. I occasionally use them if I'm in a particularly jovial mood. Sometimes I'll be caught doing it just for fun. Usually I try to avoid them; I try to avoid everything. I'm still looking, basically.
When you're just sitting around at home, do you fall in them just for entertainment?
No. I just keep looking for something else.
Do you think to a large extent playing guitar should be more of a science that an emotional outlet?
Oh, no! It's got to be emotional. That's the only reason I'm a musician -- because I love music. If I had wanted to get into science, I would have been a mathematician. It's got to make you laugh or cry, or both. If I wasn't moved by it, I can think of a lot of things that I could have spent the last four years doing rather than this.
Transcribed by Per Stornes
Updated: February 1, 2001
Scheduled update: None
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