The emergence of Allan Holdsworth as a force to be reckoned with in 'best guitar player' stakes has taken a lot of people (myself included) by surprise. Despite having been around the Jazz/Rock fringes of the business for several years this soft-spoken Yorkshireman first came to my attention relatively recently, on the release of Gong's Gazeuse album.
What characterises his playing, above all other attributes, is its sheer fluidity and feel. Despite playing mainly in Jazz orientated ways, Allan has chosen not to follow the stacatto (sic) machine-gun like approach of the equally creditable fellow Yorkshireman John McLaughlin.
Flowing more like synthesiser or wind notes than the essentially percussive sounds that the guitar normally produces, Holdsworth's notes are different from those of all his contemporaries. The reason? Well, as almost his first sentence to me illustrates, it lies in his very earliest influences.
"I really would have loved to have played the saxophone when I began. I actually didn't start guitar till I was about 17 which I suppose is pretty late really. Before that I'd always wanted to play but never really wanted to enough to make a nuisance about getting myself an instrument."
"I liked quite a lot of classical music but was really more interested in people who could improvise. That was something that fascinated me. Luckily my father was a Jazz pianist and had quite a lot of records which gave me something to go on. When my Uncle gave me a Spanish guitar I dug those records out and listened to them."
Like many of our finest home-grown musicians, Allen is totally self-taught. He has never even bothered to learn to read music.
"Like most people I went out and got a few chord books, Ivor Mairantz' 'Exercise A Day' and things like that, but I could never get on with them because I always found myself disatisfied (sic) with my progress. In the end I just used to follow my own nose."
The inability to read or write music has, he admits, caused a few problems when trying to master the highly complex music he plays and yet he feels that it has its bonuses. For example he frequently finds himself the first among a group of musicians who can play a piece without notation in front of them.
One thing that I always feel about self-taught players is that they have an individuality of style and approach that a trained musician frequently lacks. Holdsworth agrees that following someone else slavishly is a futile pursuit.
"It seems to me that there are an awful lot of good musicians around but very few of them are really individual. I get really annoyed with people like that. Obviously you're going to learn a bit from listening to people and you shouldn't stop listening, but you should never imitate."
>From early days spent playing his Spanish guitar Allan progressed to playing in local bands around Leeds, eventually starting to expand both his stylistic range and his equipment.
"After that first guitar I got a Hofner Cello guitar and put a pickup on it. That all came from seeing this guitarist in a pub who'd really impressed me with the idea of electric guitars.
"Eventually I went along for an audition with another local band whose guitarist was leaving. He offered to lend me his Strat for the audition. It was just love at first sight. Here was the guitar that could produce all those electric sounds I'd always wanted.
"Of course, I was immediately into hire purchase on one! Then people started mentioning this name 'Gibson' to me and one day I went into Kitchens in Leeds and saw this amazing looking cherry red S.G. I had to have it, it was such a beautiful guitar, such a lovely piece of wood. I got into even more H.P. debt on that!
Before coming down to London Allan played in a variety of fairly soul destroying outfits in working men's clubs and, eventually, in a Mecca club. This last gig lasted three years almost exactly and should have been enough to knock the creativity out of anyone. Allan admits that it was grim.
"The only good thing that I could say about it was that the money was stable and I learned a lot during the days just because I was at home playing during the day and listening to records."
The stroke of fortune which released him from his M.O.R. imprisonment, however, came through that most unlikely of sources, the Musician's Union. He'd been spotted during one of their local clinics and, when he decided to make the move, took advantage of an offer of somewhere to crash in the big city.
Eventually an introduction to Jon Hiseman followed and the rest, if not history, is fairly well known.
In the meantime, however, there had been problems with gear. Having run out of bread Allan had had to sell his Gibson and had foolishly let a friend accept responsibility for keeping up the payments on the Strat. When Allan sold his Gibson he was guitarless as the 'friend' had not kept his promise and the Fender had been repossessed!
Unlikely though it may sound the next guitar was a Hofner Colorama with a bent neck and a broken truss rod! But perhaps we should skip that and join him again when he's playing with Hiseman.
"After the Hofner I was able to get another S.G. but that one was made when Gibson were going through a rough patch and although it sounded nice it was rather badly made, a narrow nut and a pretty bad joint on the neck.
"Then I joined Hiseman and started going mad with guitars. It's funny, almost every guitar player, every musician in fact, that I know has gone through a phase like that. You just keep going out selling your guitar, chopping it in for something else then chopping that one in for yet another. Of course, all the time you do that you're losing money but maybe it's not such a bad thing because it does give you a chance to really suss out what instrument suits you best.
"For a while, when I was with Hiseman, I got into 335's very much. Once I'd got used to them, though, I found it very hard to get back into anything else solid, they seemed so unresponsive next to the semi-acoustic 335. Strangely, now I'm back with solids I can hardly play the semi-acoustics at all."
Those of you who've actually had the pleasure of seeing Allan's live performances could be forgiven for thinking that he has now totally changed brand alliegance (sic) back to Fender. Not at all.
"I'd always known that I could more or less get what I wanted out of a Fender and I actually like the mechanical modular formula that Leo Fender set all those years ago. I like their strength too. I'm always very careful with my guitars but I had to be super careful with the S.G. which was quite a fragile instrument.
"Another good thing about Fenders is that 25/1⁄2"scale as opposed to the 24" and also the sound, that pure tone that they have.
"Despite all those things that attracted me to them, I'd always wondered what a Strat with Gibson pickups on would sound like so I bought one when I was with Tony Williams in an attempt to see what it was like and with a mind to change the pickups at some later date.
The new Strat was, well, it was alright but it didn't really make it as a guitar for me, not like a good old one. The neck was pretty horrible, very narrow at the nut and the fingerboard was too cambered for me, it just felt really uncomfortable."
Not being able to find true hapiness (sic) with current Fender Strats (perhaps not an uncommon syndrome!) Allan resorted to having the basic Fender design principles re-executed for him by Dick Knight.
"I got Dick to make a decent neck for the body that I had and then I cut out a cardboard scratchplate and generally started work on turning it into the guitar that I wanted. Eventually I cut out the tone controls and reduced the Fender system to just one tone and one volume because I find simple guitars that much more effective.
"What I've got now is effectively a Strat with two humbuckers fitted and arranged so that I can have either pickup but not both.
"Those original pickups that I fitted were genuine Gibson P.A.F.'s which I'd taken off previous S.G's that I'd had. The sound really came up to expectations - it was a very bright guitar, just what I'd always hoped it would be."
The first appearance of the newly refurbished Strat was on that Gazeuse album where Allan found himself experimenting with the Strat at the expense of what had previously been his main guitar, a Gibson S.G.
"I've got three of these 'Fenders' now. The oldest one is the one with the genuine Fender body with a Dick Knight neck and the newer of the two Strats also has a Dick Knight neck but with a Boogie body, a Maple one, which is excellent. They've both got Di Marzio's fitted, P.A.F.'s and I honestly have to say that, having tried them with both Gibson and Di Marzio pickups I really can't tell the difference.
"There's a third guitar as well, which I've only recently got. That's a Boogie Telecaster body made out of Ash and fitted with a Jazzmaster neck. That really is a very heavy guitar, almost too heavy to be comfortable on a long gig but the sound it makes is amazing, it really holds on!
All three guitars are fitted with extra fat frets but Allan has more or less decided to stay with genuine Fender bridges, the only deviation from the norm being his use of Might Mite saddles. Another improvement over the original is the replacement of the standard Kluson machine heads with Schallers.
Of course, in addition to being a very fine electric guitarist, Allan is quite at home on acoustic. Here he favours an Ibanez.
"The Ibanez Cello was my first really good acoustic guitar and I really do like it. I also have an old Gibson now, a 1938 Kalamazoo but it was a cheap one when it was made and although it's still in absolutely perfect condition I have to admit that I prefer the sound of the Ibanez."
Strings fitted to the electrics, by the way, are D'addario 9-42 or 8-38 depending on which of the two Strats he's using.
Staying with equipment for a while, we find Allan a dedicated user of Marshall although he's currently playing around with Burman, but more of that later.
"I've always looked on amplification as being very important, an integral part of one's guitar sound rather than just as an afterthought. In fact I've looked quite closely into the subject at times.
"What has really amazed me is the extent to which speakers can totally change your sound which is why I stick everything through my Marshall 4 x 12 which gives me perhaps the perfect sound. I know readers and manufacturers will find this hard to believe but I can tell the difference in sound between the straight fronted and slope front Marshall 4 x 12's; cabinets and speakers make that much difference to me.
"What I've been using lately is a three amp setup giving me some sort of stereo effect. What I have is a Marshall 50 for lead lines, a Marshall head running through a 4 x 12. For chords I use two Marshall 100's with a Dynachord digital delay between them set to a very short time lag. The resulting effect is very subtle indeed, in fact if I turned the Dynachord off yoy (sic) may not even notice any difference but it does have an effect that I like, a sort of stero (sic) on the chords.
"The signal is switched between the three amps by a very simple routing box which I had Pete Cornish make for me, there's nothing much to it, it just let's me switch between the chords and lead lines.
"There's nothing really that clever about what I'm doing but it just enables me to have one amp set-up ready for chordal sounds and the other ready for lead, you can't really have the same two on one amp.
"I do use that Dynachord subtly though, hardly have it on at all. Having played around with it though I'd say that it's an extremely versatile unit, very capable indeed. About the only other effect that I ever use is a Roland Chorus unit which, again, I just use sometimes in a very low key way."
Like most professionals Allan is not a keen fan of transistorised guitar amps.
"I really do hope they keep producing valves because I can't get the sound I want out of solid state whatever they do to them. Mind you I'm not all that sure that modern valve amp makers have got the right idea. The emphasis today seems to be on having a hefty preamp but I find you get a better sound if it's the power amp valves that you're really kicking. If you do it with the pre-amp you send this deformed signal to the power amp and you might as well be using a fuzz box."
Like many of us, of course, Allan has recently found himself attracted to Greg Burman's little beauties and has actually gone as far as to shell out cash for one with which he's highly pleased.
"Yes, I wanted an amp that I could cart around without too much difficulty when I was playing in pubs and small clubs which I do quite a lot. The Burman 50 looked like an interesting amp and I'm really very impressed with it indeed. I'd say that it's got the best tone control of any amp I've ever tried but it had me fooled when I first started using it because the tone controls seem to work in a very unique sort of way.
"Recently I was doing a gig with the standard three Marshall setup that I use and the middle one, the one I use for solo lines, packed up. I put the Burman in its place and it sounded really fantastic. I'd have to say that the Burman is one of the best new amps I've ever played, certainly better than the Boogie for example. I've also used it in the studio and it's great there too.
>From someone who's as demanding as Allan Holdsworth Greg Burman should be feeling very pleased with himself at a quote like that!
Sound, as I'm forever saying in articles these days (which is another way of admitting that I'm trying to pump a party line to the point of fanaticism!) is a vital point in establishing yourself as a guitarist. It's all well and good being a fine stylist with a feel for good tasty solos, but you need to have an individualism pouring out of your speakers, individualism in the notes you play and the way that they sound. One of Allan's techniques, and one that I especially admire him for, is the way that he has tamed that wild beast, the Fender tremolo arm.
"I got interested in the possibilities of using tremolo arm through listening to Hendrix but he was doing it in a very uncontrolled way and I wanted to do it with control. Then, when I was working with Ollie Halsall he was playing about with the same sort of ideas as Hendrix but lie was doing it with control and that sort of fired me off."
"I honestly couldn't explain any more about how I do it, though. It's just one of those techniques that's built itself into my playing and which I couldn't honestly say that I've ever bothered to try and analyse."
"I suppose my style is probably a result of trying to get away from stacatto (sic) machine-gun-like playing. I like and admire players like McLaughlin who can do that but it's not for me."
Just a final pointer for anyone whose (sic) busy delving deeply into attempts to lift things from Allan's style is the fact that he uses Heriba nylon picks which are less sharply pointed than most plastic plectra and don't add a sharp clicking attack to the note.
"I suppose that I tend to play things outside the usual positions for playing them as well. Like, for example, I'll tend to play four notes together on one string rather than on two because that helps the overall fluidity. That can bring its problems too, of course, because I often have to play difficult passages and that need to keep it fluid can add complications."
"Actually I find it rather hard to talk about my technique to a great extent. I can't say that I sit and think that much about it although, of course, I do think about music. Like I'm fascinated by scales."
"Recently, for example, I sat down and played around with chords and scales trying to find as many different ways of running into chords using different scales as I could. Like I'll take two triads and play them against each other with as many different notes as I like the sound of between them. Then I tried mixed triads like a major and a minor in different keys so I did one set keeping one key as constant.
"One thing about my playing that I've been very disatisfied (sic) with in recent years is the amount that I've been allowed to play by the circumstances that I've been in.
"Like people would 'phone me up and ask me to do a session and all I'd do is put down a few solos rather than playing some chordal work as well. That's fun but I love playing chords and honestly don't want to solo all the time."
"Of chords, I suppose, I like the sound of clustered chords the best. They're very easy to play on piano but very difficult on guitar, chords where the notes are very close together. They sound great to me."
Speed too is another Holdsworth attribute but one which he refuses to take too seriously, it's something, he says, which you either have or you don't but it doesn't matter too much either way to him.
I have to admit a distinct partiality for the guitar playing of Allan Holdsworth. I've always liked the basic idea of what has been called Jazz Rock or Fusion music but, like many Beat readers who also come from a hard Rock background, I've found it very hard to accept the clinical approach of many of its exponents who seem to put ability in a pure technical sense well above feel.
Allan Holdsworth doesn't. Notes flow from his fingertips like fast running water packed with a highly emotional charge. At the time of writing there are rumours that he may be working with two other British Rock/Jazz players, Jon Hiseman and Jack Bruce -for me, as a listener, that could be the best thing that has happened since, well, I've forgotten when such an exciting idea last occurred. Keep your fingers crossed and your eyes open because I strongly suspect that Allan Holdsworth is going to be the British guitar player over the next five to ten years - beyond that, who can say?