Hands up all those who have heard any guitar player this year who's caused them to drop everything and just sit open-mouthed in front of the stereo. Yes Jenkins? Speak up, boy. Joe Strummer? Thank you, Jenkins, but I didn't mean open-mouthed with horror. I was referring to the sort of guitarist who grabs you by the short and curlies, a player who suddenly makes you realize that it's still possible, even after more than twenty years of rock guitar history, to expand the frontiers of this abused instrument. Well, since you're all sitting there without a clue, I'll tell you. His name is Holdsworth and he comes from Bradford.
How curious, then, that he didn't even pick up anything with six strings on it until he was seventeen. "Originally I wanted to play saxaphone [sic], when I was a kid. My dad was a piano player. He was really good, but he gave it up. I don't know why, I've never understood that. Anyway, he never got round to buying me a sax, and I didn't have any money of my own at that time, so I couldn't afford an instrument. So he bought an old Spanish guitar off an uncle of mine for a fiver, and he left it lying around, and I just picked it up."
The musical soil which was eventually to allow Allan's musical talent to sprout was therefore ripe and ready to be drawn on when the time came. "I listened to all the records my dad had, and he had a lot of classical records, he had those old Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw records, and that's when I first heard guitar - it was Charlie Christian on those records. But it wasn't till after I'd been playing the guitar a little bit that I realized what I'd been hearing all those years was this amazing player. It had gone right by me."
Pop music was easier to play, though, and it was the best way to get started. He soon got involved in the heady world of working men's clubs around Leeds and Bradford, toiling through the No.6 smoke and the spilled Newcastle Brown, learning all the time for the next three years he was with the band. "I realized then that to copy was pretty pointless. I used to play one solo that was copied off the record, and one that was mine, and mine were always terrible. So I tried to get into the essence of a solo, how it came to be that way, what motivated someone to play that. You have to go deeper than just copying, and try to find out where the music's coming from.
I started concentrating on my own improvisations rather than listening to anything else - I'd listen to people, but then I'd go away and just let it sink in."
To aid him in this search for his own musical identity Allan had already bought himself a Strat, which became his first proper guitar. After that he bought an SG Standard, and kept it until he moved down to London at the invitation of sax-player Ray Warleigh, who had come across Allan in a Mecca band working in Sunderland. "About six months passed, still doing the Mecca gig, until I couldn't stand it any more, and I called him and asked if his offer still stood. And he said yes. So that's when I moved to London, and just a few months after that I joined Tempest."
The Big Time had arrived very suddenly. It only lasted nine months, however. Holdsworth, according to everyone who knows him, learns at a frightening rate, and soon got a little bored with the traditional rock format of Tempest. It was also very much Hiseman's band. There wasn't a great deal of room for the new ideas that kept bubbling up in Holdsworth's mind, so he quit, along with singer Paul Williams, and Ollie Halsall took over, Tempest continuing as a three-piece for a while before plummeting into oblivion.
To keep his hand in while he looked for another gig, Allan played a number of small jazz dates with friends, and at one point was asked to take part in one of the Musicians' Union jazz-rock "clinics".
"They get the musicians to play somewhere in the afternoon, and the audience are allowed to ask questions about all the different instruments. At the end of that they have a tea-break, and then the band plays a short set. They called me and asked me if I wanted to do this clinic with the Soft Machine. So I said yeah, and I went to do it, and enjoyed myself, and they asked me if I wanted to do some gigs as a guest. And then they asked me if I wanted to join the band." Not unnaturally, he did. It proved to be a freer environment than Tempest, although only two members were writing material at that time. The result: an album for Harvest.
Once more fate intervened. A chance sit-in gig at Ronnie Scott's for a sick Chuck Mangione resulted in Alphonso Johnson, his bass-player, reporting back to Tony Williams in the States that he had discovered an amazing new
English guitarist. Tony, apparently on the strength of this recommendation alone, telephoned Allan and asked him to join Lifetime. No persuasion was required. Allan packed his guitar and his suitcase and headed west.
It was in Lifetime that he finally discovered what he wanted out of music. They recorded two albums for CBS, the first of which ("Believe It") he regards as some of his best work to date. "I felt freer in there than I'd felt before - not just free to play, I mean free to suggest things. It was a collective thing. But there were all sorts of problems with that band financially, so that in the end, through one thing and another, it petered out. Then I came back, and just got the gig with Gong. I'm not quite sure how it happened."
He had failed, however, to mention something that happened in New York just before he came home. As I mentioned this omission in his life's history, Allan's normally placid and amiable expression darkened in-to a scowl. The event? An invitation from Creed Taylor, boss of CTI Records, for Allan to record a solo album. He hates that album with a passion. It was recorded in nine hours; there were no rehearsals. "It's just a jam. The sound is disgusting. I mean, I'm really particular about my guitar sound, especially over the last two or three years, cuz I reckon I've now got that part of it together. We got into the studio, and we never had what you might call a balance check. None of that happened, man. They set the mikes up, and they had two mikes for a double drum kit. Really crazy. We'd play the tunes once, and that was it. Finished. Next tune. We'd just let one tune run down even if it didn't have an ending. And that's literally how that album was made."
Personally, I don't care how the album was made. Although it hurts Allan even to talk about it, even though the sound is admittedly thin, and the balance is a bit lopsided on several tracks, it stands out in terms of pure playing. Forget everything else and listen to the notes. The material was written in two weeks. The acoustic tracks were played on a cracked guitar that he borrowed from Tony Williams' girlfriend. But if you like to hear guitar playing, it doesn't matter two hoots. Sorry, Allan!
His playing style, nevertheless, is hard to pin down in words. It veers from almost heavy metal in the chords to light and ethereal in the solos, interspersed with runs so lightning fast he makes John McLaughlin look like a sleepwalker. But he can do that, and, knowing he can do it, doesn't feel constrained to demonstrate the ability at every opportunity, whether it's appropriate or not. So what is it that makes him different from the legions of other jazz-rock guitarists? Again, hard to say. But a lot of it has to do with his use of the tremolo arm on his customized Fender Strat.
There's nothing special about the arm itself, but Allan seems to have discovered a way of using it that lends expression to every run: fast runs usually get a tweak or two at the end, or get levered alarmingly into a different key. Slower passages find themselves sliding from note to note, pliant and liquid. The difference between Allan's playing and that of most other players is that he knows how to make a guitar sing rather than speak. The sound he achieves is closer to the cadences of the human voice than any guitarist I've ever come across.
"I've grown up with that sort of style, and I still love that sort of sound. But although I play in that way, I want the music itself to be different. I want to take it somewhere else, and I know it's possible because we just did it on Bill's album."
Bill Bruford's solo album (out this month) is the latest of Holdsworth's projects; the featured musicians also include Dave Stewart on keyboards and an American called Jeff Berlin on bass, whom Allan spent several minutes enthusing over ("He's a killer. He's gonna scare a lot of people. Really lethal." ) At the time of writing secret rehearsals are going on with a new band believed to include Bruford, Holdsworth, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton. Whether this will result in a touring band, or in an album, or in both, is not known yet. Allan had been sworn to silence even regarding band personnel, and this information came from "another source". Let's just hope it's accurate.
Meanwhile, he is very content with the guitar sound on the Bruford album. Having experimented for years with amp arrangements and different guitars, he has now settled down with a 50 watt Marshall top, a pair of 4 x l2ins and also a 50 watt Hiwatt top. The amps have been "bodged" to increase the stages of amplification to the level of, say, a Boogie, and the signal-to-noise ratio has been improved to the point where there is virtually no hiss at all. "But also I think a lot of it is to do with that guitar.
"I had work done on it by Dick Knight, who made a new neck for it. It's got a really flat finger-board with big frets. It's got a Gibson feel." The pick-ups are Gibson P.A.F.'s, and a 2-way toggle switch has been installed in place of the original Fender selector. "I've finally found a guitar that suits the way I play. It felt really weird to me at first because I was used to a Gibson. But now I wouldn't change it - and it's the cheapest guitar I've ever had!"
Pedals? "No. The only thing I've used is a noise gate. And an MXR phase shifter. But I don't use anything now at all. Everybody goes through these trends. You can almost hear what year a record was made in by the gadgets. So now I'm trying to get the best sound possible straight from the guitar."
Strings? "Well I like D'Addario the best, but I can't always get them. They're really good, but they don't last very long. The core is thinner, and the winding's thicker, so it vibrates more. But also because the core is thinner it stretches, and then you lose the tone." And picks even? "I always use the same ones. I don't know where they come from, but they're called Heriba. I like nylon picks because they're silent when you hit the string with them. Those plastics one clack something awful."
But, as every Beat reader knows, pedals, strings and picks don't make you a good player; And in Allan's case they still don't explain that astonishing technique with the tremolo. How does he do it?
"Practice," came the frustrating reply. "I love the effects you can get with it. The first person I heard who used it in an interesting way was Jimi Hendrix. Well, it seemed interesting at the time, but afterwards you realized that it was similar to the way most people used it. Then, when I was with Tempest, I heard Ollie Halsall use it, but in a more controlled way than Jimi Hendrix. So I started experimenting myself, and after a while I realized that I was doing things that I hadn't heard anybody do. Using a tremolo arm makes it very expressive - it takes it somewhere else from having just frets, where all the notes are laid out for you like a keyboard.
It's almost the same sort of freedom as people have got with synthesizers, y'know, with pitch bend. But a synthesizer sounds a bit clockwork - mostly because everyone uses it the same way. There's only been one or two really original synthesizer players."
The same, of course, applies to the exponents of any instrument, guitar included. The difference is that the synthesizer is a very new instrument, and few people have even started to explore its potential; but the electric guitar has been around for quite a while. For this reason alone, it's worth checking out anyone who has discovered a new way of playing. The Bruford album should surprise a lot of punters, and scare the hell out of any professional guitarist who has so far not heard Allan Holdsworth. As the man himself says, "You can capture ideas from everybody and anybody, especially if they've got a very personal approach. It's unintentional, but you can't help it. I'm learning the whole time. I never stop."