I happen to think he's really great. But ask Eddie Van Halen, ask Neal Schon, ask Carlos Santana or Andy Summers. They say he's great, in print, right in their interviews. Ask all the people who stood in line for his shows in New York and L.A. Allan Holdsworth is a legend, and he's been gone for three years.
Allan Holdsworth wasn't Stateside for long. But he had a new band this tour, his own. The vocalist, Paul Williams, first appeared with Allan ten years ago in a heavy metal band, Tempest, on the same bill as the old Fleetwood Mac at the Fillmore East. Tempest didn't make it big, and the next time Holdsworth appeared in the U.S. he was filling the chair formerly occupied by another British guitarist, John McLaughlin, in drummer Tony Williams' Lifetime. Holdsworth was already a guitar legend, having recorded in Europe with Soft Machine, the prototypical jazz-rock fusion outfit. Guitar fans strained to hear Allan's outrageous lines, which were buried in a muddy stage mix. After all, it was the drummer's gig!
Gone almost as soon as he'd arrived, Allan returned to England to become a touring and recording member (for one lp) of UK, the supergroup formed by Roxy Music's Eddie Jobson, Yes' Bill Bruford and King Crimson's John Wetton. Everywhere they played, more and more listeners looked up in amazement at what they heard. When Bruford left UK to go on his own, Allan went with him, and cut the first Bruford lp. Along the way, Allan recorded with the progressive Continental ensemble Gong - and his solos stand out, unique. Then he was featured with Jean-Luc Ponty, and guitar lovers waited through all the other music, just to hear Allan play.
Holdsworth, unlike, say, Tony Mottola, isn't even a contender for the Most Recorded Guitarist award. But his fans held out for every note. After Ponty, there was silence.
Silence, that is, until last spring, when he returned to the States with his band I.O.U. He repaid the fans who'd kept the faith and waited, fans who'd kept his name from disappearing entirely. Allan's achievements had become obvious - so obvious that guitar king Eddie Van Halen asked to jam with Allan during his gigs at New York's Roxy. What? Eddie asking for a guest spot? Yes, and it was like a student asking to sit in with his teacher. News of the apocryphal encounter spread far and wide.
Because Holdsworth has redefined his ax, turning it into a smooth, agile singing voice, and to play the melodies and flurries of a saxophone. When Allan walked onstage at a New York concert club, from his first chord we knew that a master was in the house. The only unhappy person might have been Larry Coryell, who had to follow Holdsworth. Too bad.
Allan's guitar sound was beautiful, and his band I.O.U. played music designed to showcase what he does best: improvise, expanding the' vocabulary of the guitar. For those who have saved his scant recordings, it was obvious how influential he's been. He actually preceded Van Halen's technique of liberating the vibrato arm from its Hawaiian implications by several years. His use of wide melodic intervals preceded the currently popular use of the right hand for fretting to obtain a similar effect. During his tour, he transcended all that; maybe that's why Fast Eddie gave him the "winner and still champion" sign at the Roxy while droves of guitar players strained to see how the hell he did it.
The greatest paradox is that success has eluded such a very much alive and kicking guitar hero. Clues lie in the uncompromising nature of Holdsworth's music, and perhaps in luck itself. What happened during his three year absence from the scene? Things were a bit rough in England for Allan, and he's very candid about them.
"I was just about to give up playing altogether," he says, "so I'm glad that eventually we did get over. For the last three years I haven't worked as a musician, as such. I was repairing amplifiers and I'd fix guitars. So when the opportunity came to tour and play here, it was fantastic! I was seeing magazines with people like Ed [Van Halen] in them. saying they liked my playing a good deal. But back in England those mentions didn't help at all."
The regard that even big stars had for Holdsworth didn't translate into recording contracts for him. Yet there's little bitterness in the voice of this musician passed over for less talented, yet trendier, musicians signed by major labels lately. "It's a similar situation in England as in the United States: a lot of people know me, but one can't always interest those in the business who have got to know. And with England being such a' small place, it you do a tour there, that's it. You can't do another for a year. As far as being a musician then, I didn't do any sessions - I can't read - and the kind of sessions that were available I wouldn't have done, anyway. I would have rather worked at a factory. But if we hadn't made it this time I don't know what I would do."
What kept Allan's momentum alive was unsolicited loyalty of fans at every level. I asked him how he felt when he saw crowds at his shows.
"Well," he answered, "it's flattering! It's really nice, you know. When we got to Los Angeles I couldn't believe all these people. I'm glad to be able to continue that even further, eventually. It's great."
Guitar history was made in Los Angeles. where Van Halen jammed with Holdsworth at one of his shows, and acknowledged the Englishman as a champion of the guitar. Allan didn't brag about it; rather, he concentrated on his appreciation of such a gracious gesture. He explained to me how it came about: "Jeff Berlin and his band were playing with us that night, and we just thought it would be nice if Eddie would play with us. I met Ed originally about three or four years ago while I was working with UK. Just briefly. you know, I didn't get to know him that well then. At my first Roxy gig we talked, and Ed - he's really a great guy. I said, 'Come on down in the afternoon when we're playing,' and he and Jeff came down and we had a bit of a fertile afternoon session. Then we came up with the idea that we should all get up and play a bit at the end of the show. Eddie worked out this tune, and we did it that night in L.A."
Since he's now touring under his own name. I asked Holdsworth to reflect on past ensembles, Where he was a featured sideman. What he now enjoys is a certain freedom and impact that some previous configurations would not allow.
For example, what I did with UK was a total disaster as far as I was concerned - I should have never done it in the first place except for the fact that maybe a few more people got to hear me. But I hated it! Because I really had no space in it, I had no being in the band. They wanted me to play the same solo, and there was no way that whatever I did would affect what went on. I couldn't play something and then add another chorus or it would go off and do something else - I couldn't do anything like that. I had to do it just as I was playing on a record. It made me sick. But that was the way the music was written, in bits and pieces, not real compositions, composed like violin variations, but bits and pieces thrown together. It made the music kind of non-organic and sterile to me, and I was miserable most of the time. I used to just get drunk. Half the time I couldn't remember which tune we were playing! Basically, I enjoyed making the album with Bill, and I hated UK! I just
wanted to escape the 'Tricky Di ck,' to try and find a musical thing, where I had more of substance to do rather than parts, because anybody can learn parts.
"That's my feeling, anyway. I was becoming so despondent about the whole thing that I didn't care whether I was doing the job well - which is why I knew I had to leave, because it was really self-destructive. I knew I had to go."
Not every previous experience was negative. There were two much more positive ones he recalled.
"I loved playing with Tony Williams. I loved playing with Jean-Luc Ponty. All of Ponty's albums were done pretty much live - as far as I can remember they all were. Live, with everybody playing together, as opposed to people playing off on their own. The UK album was done one guy at a time. What I mean by live is that we played together in the studio rather than in different months!"
The Roxy and Los Angeles gigs weren't Allan's only u.s. Appearances; in an uncharacteristic move he appeared at the guitar institute of technology and opened himself to scrutiny by student fans.
I never thought I'd ever do things like that before. I couldn't believe what someone would ask me. I couldn't possibly be any good at teaching anything right. They were really good about it, in as much as all I had to do was play, and I kind of answered things. They asked all the usual questions; you know, the usual 'Which scales do you use?' I use the Richter scale in the attack mode! No, they were great, they were really fantastic." To lay out his approach was a surprising step for this usually introverted guitarist, whose perfectionism is evident in the high standards he sets for himself.
Striving toward some self-ordained goal makes Allan view his work differently than does a listener. Perhaps we, on the outside. don't see the arch that the arrow makes towards its target.
"I feel that to put myself down is a real positive thing to do," says Holdsworth. "It would be really negative for me to think I was really doing something at this point. It's much more constructive for me to chew myself to bits. Hopefully, then, I'll keep moving. I don't particularly want to stay where I am now. I want to develop something and I honestly feel that I've only just started. Before I was floundering, looking. Now I'm still floundering, but unlike before I've actually gotten to square one and now I can start. I've got lots of ideas I've been trying to get together. I wouldn't have thought I'm so influential, but then again, I don't know. I'm not the guy to know. I know what I'm trying to do, but I wouldn't know how to explain it."
But as he was on the subject. I urged him to try.
"Single notes I hear like a long note. Then if it's a flurry of notes, I tend to hear them not as one note after another but as a whole, from beginning to end, like seeing a color. If you play over one chord and superimpose another one over it, just to move it around a bit - I do that 'cause I always like those things that are harmonically interesting, where you want to go, 'What was that? Gotta hear that again!' I'm trying to find that feeling. It's slightly different from a 'sheet of sound,' in that most of the notes are important. I hear it like a line over a particular chord change."
He then began to discuss the relation of idea and execution. For someone with such dexterity, Holdsworth's facility is only a means, not an end.
"I'm gonna try to keep developing my musical technique, not physical technique. And if it's required that my physical technique change, it's going to be a perfectly natural evolution. I do want to keep changing. I'm fed up, basically. I don't use the tremelo (sic) arm so much now as I used to. I've done that. and when I listen to it, it almost sounds silly - kind of childish. I can't stand listening to what I did in the past.
"I was trying to play something that I heard in my head. I've realized that I've been doing things a different way because I always wanted to develop my playing logically. For example, when I first started playing I saw guys using two fingers, and though they could play twice as good using two fingers, I knew there was something wrong - it's a waste of energy. So from the very beginning I practiced using all four fingers on my left hand, and I practiced doing things with silly fingerings to strengthen my last two fingers.
"Even though my musical knowledge was as limited as the others' back then, I wanted to continue that approach. I was to be limited only by myself, not by my hands. The intervals are there for anybody. The choice of notes is not the same thing- anybody could play the same notes-in a totally different way. The only thing I'm interested in is the notes-it doesn't really interest me how it's done. I'm only interested in the music and how to play better. I'm not concerned with any kind of gymnastics, except to make sure that my hands are going to work, that I'm not going to be limited by them. I wish I had eight fingers on my left hand - I could do some stuff then!"
In both live performance and on his recordings, there are several areas where Allan's playing is immediately distinguishable. Phrasing, chording and scalar fingering are all parts of his personal style. The notes of his melodies and improvisations flow seamlessly, an uncharacteristic way for the often percussive guitar to behave. Many players approximate that phrasing style with hammer-ons, or the fretting technique with the right hand almost universally known as "Van Halening," which, however, had its roots in Tal Farlow's playing of twenty years ago.
"It's a perfectly legitimate way to play logically. The only thing is, I've never been a two-handed player like a lot of guys, like Ed, with two hands on the guitar neck. I mean both right and left hands on the fingerboard, prodding. I don't prod. I've seen thousands of guys do that. I guess there must be something to it. Guys do it in a limited way, not too many in a more extended way. Guys do it like the odd thing; I've done the odd thing like for a chord, but it's not something I do the whole time. I've always tried instinctively to stay away from that. Who knows... maybe I'll be doing that soon. Ha ha.
"I don't know why they do it. I've always used one hand. It has a lot of possibilities because then you could extend it even further. You can see even further than that, perhaps: two voices, and playing things other than triplets. And when you get into playing using all four fingers on the right hand you could probably come up with something interesting.'
What you can't see by hearing a record, but which is obvious watching Holdsworth live is Allan's ability to stretch his left hand to reach intervals with unusual fingerings. This also facilitates his unbroken phrasing. The genesis of his hand positioning, most noticeably the three- and sometimes four fret stretch between his first and second fingers, is from his treatment of the scales.
"I practiced scales," he explained, "and realized that I liked that kind of sound. To play more notes on a String, rather than to play them on the next string didn't necessarily mean that I had to limit myself to playing scalarly up one way, or down one way. I practiced playing scales using all four fingers, starting on F on the low string and finishing up on F on the thirteenth fret without moving my hand position, things like that, and changing positions. I practiced that and started to experiment. The stretching was hard at first, but it's perfectly natural now."
"There were a couple of guys I met, classical guitar players, who asked me if I'd been taught, because my left hand was very legitimate, as a classical player's. I didn't do it like that- nobody told me about it. I just looked at the problem and said, 'Well, logically it would be better for your hand to be in this position."
Part and parcel of his smooth articulation is the way he uses his right hand. With a standard flat pick he employs just enough energy to set the string in motion, and picks only the requisite number of times to keep the momentum during the run. It's easier said than done:
"It's been really laborious, that part of it, because one of the big problems I had was trying to make notes sound even. So that you couldn't tell the difference between them, or making the ones I didn't pick sound louder than the ones I did. That's gradually gotten better over the years. When I heard some of the old things, they're so primitive to me. The new record, even that's starting to sound old - it's a year old now - but at least it doesn't hurt as much as listening to some of the other older things."
Allan Holdsworth stands somewhere between jazz and rock, yet he refuses to be considered a fusion player - or a jazzman for that matter. He exhibits strong opinions when asked to place himself on the spectrum.
"I consider myself just an adventurous sort of rock player; just a bit sick of rock in the past, basically. I started out as a pop guitar player, because that's all I could play. Then I got involved with rock, early - the blues thing, I couldn't do that, really. Well, I did it for a while. It was just part of a development and I was unhappy the whole time. I wanted to move on. But as far as I can see I am a rock guitar player who's unhappy with staying a rock guitar player.
"At the same time I've no desire whatsoever to be what someone would call a jazz player who just plays the same shit- excuse the language - as I've been hearing for years.
"It drives me bats to hear that same old bebop approach to things. There was nothing wrong with it then, but it seems weird for people to do that now. 'Cause there are just so many things they could be doing. In essence, sometimes people who are supposed to be 'jazz' players are actually less jazz players than I am! At least I'm not trying to play something that I've heard a lot before, or go through the motions. These musicians are actually fantastic, but something I've seen quite a lot of in the past few years is people trying to play like other people, old. When those guys were doing it originally, when Charlie Parker was doing it, that was new!
"There are people playing jazz now who are supposed to be improvising - really, they're not, because they're just applying the formulas to every piece of music they do. That's not jazz to me; jazz means to really really try to improvise. To approach each song in the same way is over. So it means music has become formulated, that everybody plays the same cliched things over the changes and they play them the same way. That can't be jazz anymore, because people are just playing what they've learned, what they've practiced. I feel like a rock guitar player, which is what I am, really, rather than somebody going through the motions. I'm playing to further things."
Holdsworth also refuses to be put in that nether region called fusion, though his music has elements of rock and post-Coltrane jazz. "A lot of fusion players sound the same because they're trying to squeeze bebop into a rock context," he insists. "They start out playing the usual old tired rock phrases then they go on to the tired jazz phrases over the rock .There's got to be something else!"
Though for Allan it's "all in the hands", his hardware setup facilitates his playing style. His single-humbucker, Strat-like guitars are set to play easily, to offer almost no resistance with extra-super-light gauge strings and a very low action. He speaks of equipment with precise glee, and since he maintains his own guitars, he knows what he likes: "At the moment I'm using two Charvel Strats that Grover Jackson, of Charvel, did especially for me - they're made out of slightly different wood and the neck dimensions vary slightly. They're wider at the top of the neck, I think it's two and a quarter inches, than at the body end, which is nice 'cause normally Fenders are very narrow there, and the strings pop off the end. So there's an eighth of an inch on either side of each E string all the way up the neck. I hate it when you go off the fingerboard, which is easy to do when you use thin strings."
And Allan is very particular about his strings: "I use singles, custom gauged strings, not packets 'cause I never get a packet of strings that feels right. I use D'Addario strings 'cause I think they're the best. I like the thin core and the flexible feel they have. The reason for the lightness is the sound. Actually, for the most comfort I'd probably have to go with at. least one gauge higher to get the strings to feel as I'd like them to. The most comfortable strings for me to use for chords and balance are .009s, but I prefer the sound of the .008s - they've got that zing, that little ping."
Allan has settled on DiMarzio's replacement pickups. The electronic guts of his guitars are fashionably sparse:
"Single humbuckers with volume and tone. DiMarzio is making a prototype, testing some things out on me. I want a pickup that's not the fashionable heavy output-high magnet. I'm looking for almost the opposite of that, which is probably the original that they selected for the original humbucker. Because that takes some beating, the balance between the magnet, the string pull and the natural output of the pickup. I've been using the PAF-type pickups."
While Allan was with Tony Williams he used the vibrato arm on his ax - an SG back then - and it became his trademark, extending his legato runs by changing pitch within a note. Things have changed since then: "Most of the time I leave it alone. I'll first find one that works real well, that can do anything, really, and I'll not use it too much at all, because it's the fashion now and I don't want to know about fashion. It's like looking over my shoulder, if you know what I mean, because my sound's changing."
The amps he prefers are solid state amps that sound like tubes. Made in England, unlike most setups they reside in a rack with the rest of Allans' electronic gear: "I've got two Hartley-Thompson amplifiers, they're in the rack. They make combo's normally, but I was trying to make a rack up, and I thought I could incorporate them, so I did. 'Cause originally I was going to use them for chords as well as solos. But we had some problems with the power supply and I wasn't able to get the amount of wattage that I needed for the chords. So I finished up using what I could for that, the two Twins."
Allan plans an album of solo guitar, too. His choice to tour with a new band fulfilled his desire to play in a trio, where he could carry the entire weight of soloist and accompanist. From his reception, he appreciated the loyalty of his fans: they kept his memory alive during the hard times, and without them Allan Holdsworth might still be fixing other people's instruments, rather than defining how they'll be used in the future. So here's gratitude for you: 'I'd like to thank all those people who've said all those things about me. It's really nice of them, and to go play for them is an incredible experience. Because I was just about ready to go under. Thanks, people! I'm still doing it!"
A style apart