Guitar like a saxophone
Guitar World, June 1987
Mr. Holdsworth has this dilemma. On the one hand, he's revered by nearly every aspiring six stringer m the free world, and a guru to guitar heroes like Ed Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Gary Moore and Neal Schon. And yet, this guitar hero's hero can't seem to get over with the record-buying public.
What seems to be the problem, Allan?
"One of the problems that we've had over the Last few years," he offers, "is that nobody can tell me what this music is. For example, a jazz radio station will be reluctant to play any tracks from any of my albums, which is a drag, because they're playing music that is, in my opinion, far less jazz than what we do. They play this funky processed stuff and these kind of easy-listening things, which to me have nothing to do with jazz. And adversely, the rock stations won't play my music because they think it's too jazzy. So we don't get either, which kind of leaves me in this noman's land in the middle. So I'm now trying to get away from that and see if we can get over more with the jazz audience by doing all-instrumental music."
Holdsworth's 1985 release on Enigma Records, Metal Fatigue, included two vocal cuts. His 1986 follow-up on that label, Atavachron, featured just one. His latest, Sand (on Relativity Records) is all all-instrumental effort. Call it rock, call it jazz, call it what you wanna. This is simply great music from one of tile world's greatest guitarists. Ax-lovers far and wide will be bowing down to His Highness Holdsworth after hearing this album, but the humble Brit takes all this adulation with a grain of salt.
"It's flattering in some ways," he confesses, "but in another way I don't like it because it makes me feel - . . like, sometimes I don't play too good when there's a lot of guitar players around. And the second and most important thing about it is I really want the music to reach people. Normal people, not just guitar players. I have no real desire whatsoever to be liked by guitar players. I'd really like to get to where either the music industry opens up to the point where it could be played on the radio, or where a record company would really get behind it and promote it. Like Enigma ... I did three albums for them [L 0. U, Metal Fatigue, Atavachron) and they did absolutely nothing to promote any one of those albums. I think that's real sad. Promotion is very important. I mean, obviously, there's a lot of people out there who might hate my music. But there's going to be somebody out there who would like it if only they'd have a chance to hear it. It's like, if you've never
had an orange, you never know whether you like one or not."
As a sideman during the seventies with such now-legendary rock and instrumental groups as Tony Williams Lifetime, Gong, Soft Machine, Bruford, Jean-Luc Ponty and U.K., Holdsworth established himself as one of the most expressive and emotional guitarists of the day. His patented smooth legato technique and scalar approach to the instrument has since been absorbed into the vocabulary of nearly every would-be gunslinger out there. Imitated, that is, but never really duplicated, as guitarist Scott Henderson explains:
"I teach at the Guitar Institute Of Technology in Los Angeles and I get all these students coming in who try to copy the Holdsworth thing. But most guys who cop Holdsworth tend to just take it off the surface. They don't get to the heart of the musician. They cop all the fast shit but they leave out the incredible musicality of what makes Holdsworth so great. Sure, it's a thrill for a younger guitarist to cop a line from Holdsworth that's really, really fast. But it's often a trap. That's the worst thing that can happen to you ... to be accused of sounding like somebody else, only not as good. And that's something that Allan Holdsworth will never be accused of. He doesn't sound like anybody else in the world." Miles Davis, Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea would heartily agree. All three jazz giants were reportedly considering Holdsworth for a featured spot in their bands. Perhaps after his disappointment with Enigma Records and the debacle that happened at Warner Bros. with his Ro
ad Games album, Holdswor th is ready to check back into the sideman situation. His brief stint with Warner Bros. was especially disheartening ... almost enough to make the beleaguered Brit chuck the whole music game and open a pub back home somewhere.
As Allan recalls, "That was a situation brought about by Edward Van Halen, who really was responsible for me being signed to Warner Bros. He got Ted Templeman to hear the band and sign us up. But I think most of it was just because they wanted to keep Eddie happy. And when they finally signed us, they wanted me to do something that I didn't want to. Then, they were really lame about it in the end. See, I kind of put my life on the line by sneaking Paul Williams on a couple of tracks to sing. They didn't want Paul Williams on any of the record. They didn't like him, they wanted me to use somebody else. But I snuck Paul on two tracks without them knowing it. And then, right before the album came out, they spotted it and were going to pull the album. It was like, 'You've done this… you've been a naughty boy.' I mean, it's nothing to Warner Bros. to shelve a record like that. But they finally put it out, then dropped us. That was it.
"But to me, it just seemed really sick to finally be signed to a major label after trying for 15 years, and then when the chance comes along they want me to do something that I don't do. It's silly. They wanted me to do something more commercial and I didn't want to do that.
'They should've asked me that before I signed the deal. They should've told me what they wanted. As far as I know, they might've wanted me to wear spray-on trousers and a wig."
Things have picked up considerably since those bleak days at Warner Bros., and now Holdsworth is hopeful that he can find happiness at his new home, Relativity Records. "The future looks much better," he says." We've reached a level through the dedication of the fans, which I'm really eternally grateful for. But I'm just hoping that the record company can do a little more in the way of promotion to make it possible for more people outside the realm of guitar players to hear the music."
Guitar fanatics showed up two hours early for his recent show at New York's Bottom Line, scrambling for front row seats in order to better trace the paths of his fingers flying tip and down the neck. They howled at the announcement of each number and nearly levitated off the floor during Holdsworth's solo excursions. Bassist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Chad Wackerman propelled things along as Allan switched modes from song to song - first the Steinberger, next the SynthAxe, back to the Steinberger and so on. Curiously, he never touched his patented Ibanez AH-I0 guitar. Backstage, Holdsworth talked about his recent conversion to Steinberger guitars.
"For the longest time I just didn't think the thing would work," he says. "And I was wrong. I picked it up at a NAMM show once and played it for about two seconds and ordered one immediately. I've never felt like that about a guitar since I was 20 years old.
"When I first played the Steinberger it felt kind of strange because it was so little and it kind of moved around, but after I got used to its size I started to like it more and more. There's something in the consistency of that instrument that I like. You can take two Steinbergers off the rack anywhere and play them and they sound the same. Whereas, a wooden machine you can't find two that sound alike. Every piece of wood varies so much. The first one that Ibanez made for me was a great guitar, but they've made eight or nine for me since, but they never found another piece of wood that was as good as that first one. But I'm not going to give op on wood because I'm still working with Ibanez. Now I'm trying to get them to make their guitars out of laminates. It just makes the thing so stable and, from that respect, very controllable."
After years of grappling with the possibilities of guitar synthesis, Holdsworth has finally gained control in the game by latching onto a SynthAxe, the sophisticated English MIDI guitar controller.
"The pitch-to-voltage principle, or pitch -to glitch as I call it, has some bad inherent problems that you can never really surmount, he maintains. "I tried the Roland guitar synthesizer and I've heard people play them and make nice sounds on them, but it's kind of like a trick. You have to learn what you can do and what you can't do. And I found that to be just a big pile, you know? I mean, you can learn how to manipulate it in some way and learn what its limitations are, so you avoid all the things it won't do and concentrate on the things it will do. And that, to me, is useless. I hate being dictated to by a machine. To me, the principle is wrong from the beginning. And that doesn't mean that John McLaughlin or Pat Metheny hasn't been doing wonderful things with it. It's just that, to me, it doesn't work. It's a disobedient machine, and I hate that. It takes a long time to decide what note you played, and the wavelength of a low note on that machine is bigger than a high n
ote, so all the low notes conic out slower than the high notes. And all those problems are eliminated with the SynthAxe.
"The SynthAxe doesn't make pitch mistakes. It can't. All the manipulation and frequency analysis has been eliminated. It's an obedient machine, at last. I love the thing. I'm still in awe of it. I see it as the birth of a totally new generation of machines."
Holdsworth has added a breath controller apparatus to his SynthAxe. Basically a piece of thin tubing that hooks up to the unit and runs to his mouth, this breath controller allows Allan to literally blow the notes out of his instrument. With this bit of tubing, the guitarist's guitar hero can finally become a saxophonist.
"I really never wanted to be a guitar player," he begins. "I'm a guitar player because I was given a guitar as a young boy and I began dabbling on it and eventually got into it. I always loved music as a kid, but the instrument I really wanted to play was the saxophone. I've always wanted to play a wind instrument of Some kind, be it a wind instrument that exists now or one that is played on some other planet somewhere . . . I dunno. So, I've begun experimenting with this breath controller to get that quality. It's an accessory that's been around for a long time. In fact, they don't really exist anymore. This one ... a friend of mine found it in a junk shop because he knew how interested I was in blowing. The way it works with the SynthAxe is the instrument won't make any sound until I blow. And the sound changes with the amount that I blow, both in volume and in tone. The voice box that Peter Frampton used in the seventies is quite different. That shaped the sounds. This act
ivates the sounds. All you're d oing is blowing into your instrument, like a sax player. It's a whole new ball game for me."
During intense moments of his set, Holdsworth resembled a sax player, blowing through his plastic tubing, grimacing, getting very physical and emotional with the instrument. At times, it was hard to imagine him as a guitar player at all. The sheets of sound pouring forth, the peaks of intensity, the total abandon and unswerving conviction… he reminded me of John Coltrane, blowing scales upon scales of pent-up passion.
It's hard to guess where Holdsworth might go with this stuff. Truly, he has evolved to higher ground. The Allan Holdsworth of Sand is "blowing" some different sounds. At this point in his career, he is to Chuck Berry on guitar what John Coltrane (circa Ascension) is to Clarence "Big Man" Clemons on tenor sax. Ever-probing, ever-changing, he's taking the six-string to new heights. Now, if only he can take some listeners and record-buyers with him.
This interview was conducted with assistance from Matt Resnikoff [sic]