The Reluctant Virtuoso
Guitar World, September 1981
Allan Holdsworth - cult shaman to contemporary flash guitar idols like Eddie Van Halen, principal (and most interesting) soloist for U K Gong, Bruford, Soft Machine Tony Williams Lifetime (second edition) and Jean-Luc Ponty, and the only player to successfully fuse the 'big guitar" timbre of seventies heavy rock with the melodic continuity and harmonic imagination of jazz - is not amused. He is sitting in his London flat with a bad cold doing yet another interview about his prodigious instrumental technique with an overawed American writer while his newish three-piece band, False Alarm goes absolutely nowhere slowly.
The transatlantic telephone conversation is punctuated with temporary pauses for some deep, basso-profundo coughing as Holdsworth relates the grinding frustration of his current situation. "Yeah, it's still called False Alarm, that's the name we're using in the U.K. It's my band but I don't like using my own name. Same band members, Paul Carmichael on bass and Gary Husband on drums. We're looking for management and a record label. It's hard [getting signed] everywhere, but it's really dreadful here. We can't get anybody interested."
Food for thought for those who think that instrumental expertise necessarily adds up to big time, big bucks. More precisely, another dreary economic indicator about the slim pickings in the record biz, especially if you're typecast as a "jazz rock" instrumentalist. Virtually a prisoner of his own passionate and distinctive guitar playing, Holdsworth understands the painful irony implicit in this kind of quick take on his music. For example, he says, there's the tape of False Alarm that is making the rounds among a small group of friends and supporters in the U.S.
"The funny thing about this band and the tape is that we do all songs. It's three pieces and we're going to be adding a singer. It's the usual story with this tape though, demos are demos. It's just bits of longer things. We didn't know what to put on the tape and we really didn't have the time to record it right. We've been doin' quite a few live gigs but we get stuck in a corner because we don't have a record deal which means we can't get the right kind of gigs. Just playing for nothin' man, we can't make a living."
The tape IS rough. Featuring a murky mix which blunts the edge of the instrumental interplay, the unsettling combo of Allan's tentative vocals and a female vocalist who sounds like a lower key version of Millie Small ("My Boy Lollipop') and fragments of material which don't add up to "songs" in the accepted form, the False Alarm demo can't be considered a major plus at this stage of the game. The painful part is that, even with the bright. shards of instrumental nirvana that bubble up through the mix from time to time, this tape literally shrieks NO COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL. Definitely not the kind of item that will bring record company a&r people running to his door.
Putting this rather dispiriting state of events aside for the moment, we make a desultory stab at the past. Was his first professional band, Tempest (Warner Brothers, now deleted from catalog), an attempt by British drummer Jon Hiseman to recreate his own version of Cream?
"It was really, that's why I left. He even wanted it to be more of a Cream than it was on the record. I couldn't stand it so I just left. My playing is so bad on that anyway, it's so old. That was a long time ago."
This exchange sets the tone of what is to follow in our conversation and tells us a lot about Holdsworth in general. First off, he literally dislikes, or in some cases detests, everything that he's recorded to date, False Alarm excepted. Not necessarily the overall music per se - in fact, he speaks very fondly of his association with Tony Williams - just his guitar parts. You know, the kind of stuff that has made him a hero to guitarists everywhere and the subject of prolonged scrutiny in magazines like this one. Added to this obsessive self-criticism is what one might call the "Jeff Beck-Disconnect" syndrome. When Holdsworth is in a band and the music isn't happening, he leaves; very often to the total surprise and amazement of his fellow bandmates. All of which makes for lots of bands and an eclectic discography but is a crying shame in the end because, his protestations notwithstanding, some of his playing on albums like Tony Williams' Believe It, Bruford's One Of A Kind,
Soft Machine's Bundles and Pont y's Enigmatic Ocean is absolutely awesome.
Holdsworth has the uncanny ability to create guitar parts characterized by a totally controlled, fat sustain sound with notes that flow in a smooth linear fashion much like those voiced on a saxophone.
He will pick one note; bend it, shape it, make it loud or soft or unleash a rapid-fire phrase of succeeding notes off of it that unwinds sinuously in a totally unexpected, but harmonically related, direction. Tightly controlled anarchy within a logical developmental and historical context-without forcing the analogy, the kind of thing that distinguished great instrumentalists like Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Hendrix and Ornette Coleman. Add to this a host of undecipherable (Allan isn't telling either) technical "tricks" performed with the left hand and the vibrato bar in tandem that can create a cavernous, "yawing" vibrato effect (e.g. "Hell's Bells" on One Of a Kind) reminiscent of a Himalayan mountain splitting apart to reveal the very bowels of the earth. So, purely from an instrumental standpoint, Holdsworth has created his very own distillation of the best in jazz and rock and roll, pointing the way to the future for many aspiring electronic guitarists. This ensures him at
least a footnote in any modern history of popular music but has also been the bane of his career and could affect his ultimate survival as a working musician.
Because his solos are so remarkable, many have called on him just for that one talent almost as an afterthought, to embellish their music. This seems particularly true of his work with Bill Bruford and U.K., bands dominated by a rigid and prescribed format.
Didn't this kind of 'isolated/overdub approach to making music tend to become fairly static after a while?
"For me, yeah. That's not to say the product is no good. But it was too sterile for me. Too cold. I'd like to think that you could do a good piece of music in the studio and take it to a gig and play it better. Those kind of bands are always chasin' the album. Everything is done in bits and pieces. And it drives me crazy. The only thing I felt reasonably happy about was that I got left to do the guitar pretty much at the end by myself, which was great. Everything was put together by then and I could just play along with the tape.
"As far as soloing in general. I've never been given the opportunity to do much else. But I didn't always mind that, I enjoyed it. But that band' [Bruford] was so sterile that when you'd play live gigs it would sound so plastic. I used to be really miserable and I couldn't concentrate on what I was doin' . . . my mind would wander off. It's bad when I'm not in there having to think, there's too much time to drift off."
Quotes like this tend to mislead people into typing Holdsworth's tyle (sic) as 'cerebral," but he actually thrives on the live interaction between instrumentalists, particularly drummers. This brings his brief but productive association with Tony Williams to mind. Personal disclaimers aside. he looks back fondly at that time.
"I don't like listening to those records [Believe It, Million Dollar Legs] only from the standpoint of my own playing. I feel like my own playing's improved so much that when I hear it, I just get depressed. But I really loved playing with Tony. The essence, the feeling. That was the best thing that ever happened to me as far as feelings and playing together. It was just such a pleasure. I'd look forward to every gig. Which is why I'm so happy about the band I'm playing with now. I get the same feeling I got when I was playing with Tony.
I like to play with a drummer who plays with you. I don't like playing with static rhythmical things. I'd rather play along where there is spontaneity happening. These guys [False Alarm] are fantastic and they inspire me. The important thing is playing with people."
All well and good, but doesn't the guitarist/front man in a three-piece have to play a lot more to fill in the spaces?
Rueful laughter. "Yeah, I'm playing all the time. If I'm playing a bad gig I get really depressed 'cause I can't lay it off on anyone now. But it's good for me, I really needed it. I'm just getting it out of my system."
Moving on to selected aspects of his celebrated technique, we discuss early influences and whether or not guitar style was influenced by his violin playing or vice versa.
"The guitar developed completely on its own. It had nothing to do with the violin 'cause that came along after the guitar. In fact, it's the other way around. My violin style is derived from the guitar. I developed a four finger left hand technique anyway.
"I listen to everything actually. I really like horn players because of that sensation of playing one note and making it long or short, or making it loud, or changing the tone. The saxophone thing always knocked me out, 'cause when they'd blow notes it would be like 'water.' But I mix it up. It gets monotonous picking every note, it's just like a sax player blowing every note."
The origin of his horizontal, up-and-down-the-neck fingering style aside, what about the odd interval single-note stuff that always managed to steer clear of the rock/blues cliché, even with the down and dirty style exhibited on that Tempest lp?
"I've always had a fairly logical approach to everything I do. After a year or so of playin' I'd look at it and think, 'If I'm going to improve, I'll have to do it more scientifically and get all of these fingers working. I just broke out of it slowly and ended up not playing off patterns or scales. I was always trying to get to the same point as everyone else by a different route."
Did he, like many of his peers, develop by copying solos off records note for note? "When I first started playing I did but I spotted it early and stopped doing it. I wasn't getting anything from it. When I played someone else's solo after that, I'd just try to get the spirit of the thing. On the same musical level as the original but going about it in a different way."
Having exhausted the always intriguing topic of Holdsworth's technique - a subject, by the way, that bores him to tears - we move on hurriedly to the area of guitars and related equipment. This also induces instant boredom for our protagonist and, skipping the genealogy of his guitars (which includes a Hofner acoustic, Gibson SG Standard, Gibson SG Custom and Fender Strat in roughly that order), we jump to the latest.
"I have two working Fender Strats and one that's just being finished off. They're all made from various combinations of necks and bodies which I can't remember at the moment, although one's made from all DiMarzio parts and pickups. I use DiMarzio PAF's on everything, in fact they just sent me some nice black ones, because I have a white guitar and the cream-colored ones didn't match. All my fingerboards are ebony [he has them flattened also] except for this last one which has a maple fingerboard. It's different but I'm gettin' used to it. I've been experimenting with different body woods and I've formed some definite theories about how they affect the sound but I want to check them out before I embarrass myself. I'm still using the same amps - [Norlin Lab Series for chording and Hartley-Thompson for soloing-the latter only available in U.K.] and the same basic effects [MXR Noise Gate/Line Driver, various volume pedals, discrete echo from the studio board]. It's just that ever
ything sounds so much better no w and I get so frustrated because I want to put some of these noises on tape."
Sensing that we are gravitating back to the uneasy matter that opened our conversation, profuse thanks and mutual encouragement are exchanged and we bid each other a hopefully temporary (pray that someone can underwrite a U.S. club tour for Holdsworth) adieu. The nagging thought about his predicament lingers after our conversation. Maybe he should do a quickie lp/tour with some aggregation of rock-fusion super heavy-weights to boost his saleability with record mavens, but that would probably send him spinning into the nearest madhouse within weeks. What has to happen is that, instead of copying his style and sound nuance-for-nuance so they can become the first Allan Holdsworth clones on the block, young admirers have to get off their collective derrieres and figure a way to support this man now when he needs it. His guitar is a voice that must be nurtured in the vocabulary of contemporary music.