Holdsworth in 2007
6 August 1946 |
|Genres||Jazz fusion, jazz, instrumental rock, progressive rock|
|Occupation(s)||Musician, composer, producer|
|Associated acts||'Igginbottom, Tempest, Bill Bruford, U.K., The New Tony Williams Lifetime, Gordon Beck, Chad Wackerman, HoBoLeMa, Soft Machine, Gong, Gary Husband, Nucleus, Jean-Luc Ponty, John Stevens, Planet X|
|Oral History, Allan Holdsworth reflects on his worry that he'll some day wake up without new ideas. Interview date June 3, 2011, NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Oral History Library|
Allan Holdsworth (born 6 August 1946) is a British guitarist and composer. He has released twelve studio albums as a solo artist and played a variety of musical styles spanning a period of more than four decades, but is best known for his work in jazz fusion.
Holdsworth is noted for his advanced knowledge of music, through which he incorporates a vast array of complex chord progressions and intricate solos; the latter comprising myriad scale forms often derived from those such as the diminished, augmented, whole tone, chromatic and altered scales, among others, resulting in an unpredictable and "outside" sound. His unique legato soloing technique stems from his desire to originally play the saxophone, but having been unable to afford one he thus intentionally utilised the guitar in order to make it sound like a different instrument. He has also become associated with playing an early form of guitar synthesizer called the SynthAxe, a company which he endorsed in the 1980s.
Holdsworth has been cited as an influence by such renowned rock, metal and jazz guitarists as Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, Greg Howe, Shawn Lane, Richie Kotzen, John Petrucci, Alex Lifeson, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Romeo, and Tom Morello. Frank Zappa once lauded him as "one of the most interesting guys on guitar on the planet", while Robben Ford has said: "I think Allan Holdsworth is the John Coltrane of the guitar. I don't think anyone can do as much with the guitar as Allan Holdsworth can."
Early career and 1970s
Holdsworth first recorded in 1969 with the band 'Igginbottom on their lone release, 'Igginbottom's Wrench (later reissued under the group name of "Allan Holdsworth & Friends"). In 1971 he joined Sunship, an improvisational band featuring keyboardist Alan Gowen, future King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir and bassist Laurie Baker. They played live but would never release any recorded material. Next came a brief stint with jazz rock band Nucleus, with whom Holdsworth played on their 1972 album, Belladonna; likewise with progressive rock band Tempest, on their self-titled first studio album in 1973. His playing can also be heard on a live BBC Radio concert from that year, which was released several decades later in 2005 as part of Under the Blossom: The Anthology, a Tempest compilation album. There has been an urban myth, propagated in part by the singer Donovan, that Holdsworth played the fuzztone solo on Donovan's 1968 hit "Hurdy Gurdy Man"; however it has since been established that Alan Parker was the session guitarist responsible.
During the middle part of the decade, Holdsworth went on to work with various well-known progressive rock and jazz fusion artists. These included Soft Machine (Bundles), The New Tony Williams Lifetime (Believe It and Million Dollar Legs), Pierre Moerlen's Gong (Gazeuse! and Expresso II) and Jean-Luc Ponty (Enigmatic Ocean). He has often since expressed his enjoyment of the experience gained with all of these groups, in particular his time spent with drummer Tony Williams. 1976 brought about the first of Holdsworth's many frustrations with the music industry, when CTI Records released a recording of a rehearsal session with which he was involved, passing it off as an official studio album entitled Velvet Darkness. This angered Holdsworth, who says he still loathes the album intensely and wishes it was never made public.
As the 1970s wore on, Holdsworth was recruited by drummer and Yes founder Bill Bruford to play on his 1978 debut album, Feels Good to Me. Shortly afterwards, Bruford formed the progressive rock supergroup U.K. with keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson and bassist John Wetton; Holdsworth was brought in on the recommendation of Bruford. Despite getting along well with them personally and enjoying the recording of their 1978 self-titled album, Holdsworth claims that he "detested" his time spent with the group, and that it was "miserable" due to numerous musical differences whilst on tour, namely Jobson and Wetton's desire for Holdsworth play his solos to an organised structure for each show; something to which he vehemently objected.
Whilst U.K. continued with different musicians, Bruford returned to the core line-up of his solo band now simply named Bruford, with Holdsworth retained as guitarist. Their second album, One of a Kind, was released in 1979 and featured extensive contributions by Holdsworth, but by this point he wished to pursue his own musical aspirations and soon left the group, albeit with some reluctance.
Holdsworth's first significant collaborator was jazz pianist Gordon Beck, with whom he first played on Beck's Sunbird album in 1979. Their first collaborative release, The Things You See, followed in 1980, and was a largely similar effort but without percussion or bass. Soon afterwards, Holdsworth joined up with drummer Gary Husband and bassist Paul Carmichael in a trio that became known as False Alarm. This was to be Holdsworth's first outing as a bandleader and, after the acquisition of former Tempest singer Paul Williams, the band was renamed I.O.U. Their self-titled debut album was released independently in 1982, followed by a mainstream reissue through Enigma Records in 1985.
Immediately after I.O.U.'s release, guitarist Eddie Van Halen brought Holdsworth to the attention of Warner Bros. Records executive Mo Ostin. Van Halen had previously enthused about Holdsworth in a 1980 issue of Guitar Player magazine, saying "That guy is bad! He's fantastic; I love him", and that Holdsworth was "the best, in my book". Furthermore, in a 1981 interview for Guitar World magazine, he said that "To me Allan Holdsworth is number one".
This resulted in the Warner Bros. release of Road Games in 1983. It was produced by longtime Van Halen executive producer Ted Templeman, and received a nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the 1984 Grammy Awards. Holdsworth, however, has always disliked the EP because of creative issues which arose with Templeman. Former Cream singer Jack Bruce provided vocal duties on Road Games (Holdsworth and Bruce had played together with Billy Cobham, Didier Lockwood and David Sancious under the name A Gathering of Minds at Montreux in 1982), whilst the latest incarnation of the I.O.U. band consisted of Paul Williams, drummer Chad Wackerman (who, along with Husband, would become a regular Holdsworth bandmember for the next three decades) and bassist Jeff Berlin.
Having relocated permanently to Southern California and acrimoniously parted ways with Warner Bros., Holdsworth signed to Enigma for the 1985 release of Metal Fatigue (along with the aforementioned I.O.U. reissue). It was during this time that Flim & the BB's bassist Jimmy Johnson joined the band and, like Husband and Wackerman, has remained a regular member of Holdsworth's touring bands to this day. Making his last appearance on vocals was Paul Williams, with whom Holdsworth claims to have fallen out due to the selling of live bootlegs by the former.
The Atavachron album in 1986 was a landmark, in that it was the first to feature Holdsworth's work with a brand new instrument named the SynthAxe. This unusually designed MIDI controller (different to that of a guitar synthesizer) would become a staple of Holdsworth's playing for the next fifteen years, during which he would effectively become the public face of the instrument. The next year saw the release of a fourth album, Sand, which featured no vocals and showcased further SynthAxe experimentation. A second collaboration with Gordon Beck, With a Heart in My Song, followed in 1988.
In the late 1980s, Holdsworth set up his own recording studio named The Brewery in North County, San Diego, which would become one of the main recording locations for all of his studio albums beginning with Secrets in 1989, and throughout the 1990s. In a 2005 interview, he stated that he no longer owned the studio following his divorce in 1999. Secrets introduced pianist Steve Hunt, who went on to play keyboard as a member of Holdsworth's touring band, and for two further albums.
A collaboration in 1990 with fusion guitarist Frank Gambale came about in the form of Truth in Shredding, an ambitious collaborative project put together by Mark Varney (brother of Shrapnel Records founder Mike Varney) through his Legato Records label. In December of that year, following the death of Level 42 guitarist Alan Murphy in 1989, Holdsworth was recruited by the band to play as a guest musician during a series of concerts at London's Hammersmith Odeon. With former I.O.U. partner Gary Husband now being the drummer for Level 42, these factors all led to Holdsworth contributing guitar work on five tracks for their 1991 album, Guaranteed. Holdsworth would also play on Chad Wackerman's first two studio albums, Forty Reasons (1991) and The View (1993).
Holdsworth's first solo album of the decade was 1992's Wardenclyffe Tower, which continued to feature the SynthAxe but also displayed his newfound interest in self-designed baritone guitars built by luthier Bill DeLap. With the 1994 release of Hard Hat Area, Holdsworth's touring band for that and the following year was composed of Steve Hunt, Husband and bassist Skúli Sverrisson. A collaboration in 1996 with brothers Anders and Jens Johansson resulted in Heavy Machinery, an album which featured considerably more hard-edged playing from Holdsworth than was usual. In the same year, he was once again joined by Gordon Beck on None Too Soon, which comprised interpretations of some of Holdsworth's favourite jazz standards.
The decade began positively with the release of The Sixteen Men of Tain in 2000, but it would turn out to be Holdsworth's last album recorded at The Brewery. Immediately afterwards he abruptly slowed down his solo output due to events within his personal life. A pair of official live albums, All Night Wrong and Then!, were released in 2002 and 2003 respectively, along with a double compilation album, The Best of Allan Holdsworth: Against the Clock, in 2005.
His eleventh album, Flat Tire: Music for a Non-Existent Movie, was released in 2001 and remains his most recent studio effort. In a 2008 interview Holdsworth mentioned that a new studio album entitled Snakes and Ladders was slated for release in the same year through guitarist Steve Vai's Favored Nations label, but as of 2013 this has not come about. Further new material with Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Johnson was also said to be in the works. In a 2010 interview he claimed to have enough material for two albums, which he planned to begin recording after a show in Tel Aviv.
Throughout the latter half of the 2000s he extensively toured both North America and Europe, and played as a guest on albums by numerous artists. Notably, he was featured on keyboardist Derek Sherinian's 2004 album Mythology, as well as with the latter's progressive metal supergroup Planet X, on their 2007 album Quantum. Also in 2007, Holdsworth played on one track of Jean-Luc Ponty's The Atacama Experience.
In 2006 he performed with pianist Alan Pasqua, Wackerman and bassist Jimmy Haslip as part of a live tribute act in honour of the late Tony Williams; a DVD (Live at Yoshi's) and double album (Blues for Tony) of this tour were released in 2007 and 2009 respectively. Throughout 2008–10 he toured with drummers Terry Bozzio and Pat Mastelotto, and bassist Tony Levin as HoBoLeMa, a supergroup playing improvised experimental music. On 3 November 2011, Holdsworth performed in Mumbai as part of drummer Virgil Donati's touring band. He then toured Europe and the U.S. as a trio with Donati and Haslip in March–May 2012.
Holdsworth joined Chad Wackerman for a third time on a studio album by the latter, for Dreams Nightmares and Improvisations (2012).
Compositions and style
Holdsworth's solo compositions are primarily instrumental, but vocals were prominent on all his 1980s albums except Sand. Two of his most recurring singers were Paul Williams (featured on I.O.U., Road Games and Metal Fatigue) and Rowanne Mark (Atavachron and Secrets). Additionally, he himself sang lead vocals on 'Igginbottom's Wrench and The Things You See, something which he has not done since. Early in his career he occasionally played violin (Velvet Darkness, Sunbird, The Things You See and I.O.U.) and acoustic guitar (Velvet Darkness, U.K., Gazeuse! and Metal Fatigue), but claims not to be proficient at the latter; this being due to its percussive tonal quality, and hence a lack of desire to play an instrument not optimised for legato playing, as explained below.
Holdsworth is noted for his advanced knowledge of music, and has a distinctive playing style that involves a strong scalar sense, combining elements of jazz and progressive rock. He incorporates a vast array of complex chord progressions and intricate solos, the latter comprising myriad scale forms often derived from those such as the diminished, augmented, whole tone, chromatic and altered scales. In his instructional video for example he mentioned that he often plays altered scales which are unusual to the average player, such as F minor major 7th with a raised 4th, also displaying an ability to recognize such complex scales in chord form with voicings up and down the neck, with each note being a member of a "family". The harmonic structure of his pieces can be highly abstruse, with frequently shifting tonal centres, and his soloing follows from a self-taught advanced modal framework derived directly from his unusually-voiced chords. His phrasing almost always features striking yet subtle transitions between notes that often work contrary to the listener's expectations of consonance and dissonance, with wide and unpredictable intervallic leaps. In his solos he extensively uses various fast legato techniques such as slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs (the latter being a personalised method which works more akin to a 'reversed' hammer-on); all of which result in an extremely fluid lead sound. One of the reasons for his renowned emphasis on legato, as opposed to picking, stems from a desire to make the sound between picked and legato notes indistinguishable.
Another of his most identifiable traits is the use of rich, fingerpicked chords (often awash with delay, chorus and other complex effects), which are articulated and sustained using volume swells to create sounds reminiscent of the horn and saxophone. He has said that he prefers both of these instruments to the guitar, the latter of which was not his first choice of instrument upon receiving one from his father when beginning to play music. It was because of this unfamiliarity with the guitar, combined with attempting to make it sound more like a saxophone, that he originally began to use legato without realising that it was not a common method of playing at the time. Furthermore, he was influenced greatly by such saxophonists as John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Michael Brecker and Charlie Parker, while some of his favourite guitarists were Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Raney, Charlie Christian and Hank Marvin.
Influence and reception
Holdsworth has become a highly influential guitarist among advanced guitarists and is considered to be one of the most technically accomplished and most unusual players in history; according to Guitar World magazine he is "as influential as Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen". Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Shawn Lane, Neal Schon and Gary Moore have proclaimed Holdsworth to be one of the most advanced guitarists of his time.
However, Holdsworth remains "not well known outside musicians' circles", and musically, even by guitarists, he has been criticized for not being musical enough and being too technical for the average listener. Holdsworth himself understands that his music does not gel with the majority of people and has said "I don't think everybody would like it, for sure. But if people got to hear it, if even 20% liked it, I would be really happy with that." He once approached a major record label and was told by its producer that his music was "completely directionless", and how he did not approve of anything Holdsworth had ever done since he started making his own albums. Guthrie Govan has said of guitarists who aspire to play like Holdsworth: "I think it's potentially dangerous when a rock type player hears a bit of Allan Holdsworth or Frank Gambale and then dives straight into that style of playing; not only is the technical aspect daunting, there's also all that musical knowledge and understanding going on behind the scenes, and it's really hard to absorb both of those aspects at once without your playing just starting to sound worse."
Holdsworth has worked with many different guitar manufacturers in a lifelong quest to evolve his unique sound, which he feels he has never been able to perfect. From the late 1960s through to his time spent with Tony Williams in the mid-1970s, his main instrument was the Gibson SG. He then switched to playing custom Fender Stratocaster guitars that were modified with humbucker pickups, whilst also endorsing DiMarzio pickups; during this time he was pictured in a contemporary DiMarzio catalogue (around 1981) playing one of his modified Stratocasters. He continued to play this type of design in the early 1980s, developing custom models with Charvel and Jackson that feature on I.O.U. and Road Games.
In 1984 he developed his first signature guitars with Ibanez, known as the AH-10 and AH-20. These instruments have a semi-hollow body made from basswood with a hollow cavity underneath the pickguard, and can be heard on Metal Fatigue and Atavachron. His long association with Steinberger guitars began in 1987: these are made from graphite and carbon fibre, and distinctively have no headstock. With designer Ned Steinberger, he developed the GL2TA-AH signature model. He started playing customised headless guitars made by luthier Bill DeLap in the 1990s, which included an extended-range baritone model with a 38-inch scale length. However, he has since said that he only owns one of the latter instruments (with a 34-inch scale). He has also developed a line of signature guitars with Carvin Guitars, including the semi-hollow H2 in 1996, the completely hollow HF2 Fatboy in 1999, and the headless HH1 and HH2 models in 2013.
On Atavachron, Holdsworth first recorded with the SynthAxe—a fretted, guitar-like MIDI controller with keys, string triggers, and an additional tube-like input device named 'Masters Touch' (designed by Nyle Steiner, inventor of the EWI) which dynamically alters volume and tone using breath velocity. Sound-wise, he uses patches which are mainly Oberheim synthesizers, as he considers them to have "great sounds". Although he has used the SynthAxe on all his solo releases since Atavachron and still enjoys using his two remaining ones in the studio, he says he no longer wishes to make it such an integral part of his playing—especially live—mainly because of it being so rare (less than 100 units are said to still exist), and difficult to maintain and repair as a result.
Holdsworth has lived in California since the early 1980s.
Cycling is one of his favourite pastimes. He is also a keen aficionado of beer, with a particular fondness for Northern English cask ale. He experimented with brewing his own beer in the 1990s and inventing a specialised beer pump named "The Fizzbuster" which, in his own words, creates "a beautiful creamy head".
Holdsworth became a grandfather in December 2010 when his daughter Louise gave birth to a baby girl named Rori.
- 1976: Velvet Darkness
- 1982: I.O.U.
- 1983: Road Games (EP)
- 1985: Metal Fatigue
- 1986: Atavachron
- 1987: Sand
- 1989: Secrets
- 1992: Wardenclyffe Tower
- 1993: Hard Hat Area
- 1996: None Too Soon
- 2000: The Sixteen Men of Tain
- 2001: Flat Tire: Music for a Non-Existent Movie
- 2005: The Best of Allan Holdsworth: Against the Clock (compilation)
- 2015: Tales from the Vault (previously unreleased material)
- 1980: The Things You See, with Gordon Beck
- 1988: With a Heart in My Song, with Gordon Beck
- 1990: Truth in Shredding, with Frank Gambale/The Mark Varney Project
- 1996: Heavy Machinery, with Jens Johansson and Anders Johansson
- 2009: Blues for Tony, with Alan Pasqua, Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip (live double album)
With other artists
- 1969: 'Igginbottom's Wrench
- 1972: Belladonna (released as a solo album by Ian Carr)
- Soft Machine
- The New Tony Williams Lifetime
- Pierre Moerlen's Gong
- Jean-Luc Ponty
- 1978: U.K.
- 1978: Concert Classics Volume 4 (live; reissued variously as Live in America and Live in Boston)
- Stanley Clarke
- Chad Wackerman
- Level 42
- 1991: Guaranteed
- 1992: REH Video: Allan Holdsworth (VHS, reissued on DVD in 2007)
- 2002: Live at the Galaxy Theatre (DVD)
- 2007: Live at Yoshi's (DVD)
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- 1994: Just for the Curious. Warner Bros. ISBN 978-0-7692-2015-4.
- 1997: Melody Chords for Guitar. Centerstream Publications. ISBN 978-1-57424-051-1.
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