"...Where No Guitarist Has Gone Before..." (Cymbiosis 1986)
Summary: Allan Holdsworth, a pioneering and innovative guitarist, is known for his unique approach to music. His mastery of the SynthAxe, a synthesizer controller, adds a new dimension to his work. In this interview, Holdsworth reflects on his musical influences, the evolution of his sound, and his ongoing quest for originality. He shares insights into his creative process, the challenges he faces on stage, and his aspirations in music and synthesis, demonstrating his commitment to pushing boundaries in his art. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]
Cymbiosis Magazine July/Aug 1986
Allan Holdsworth: "...Where No Guitarist Has Gone Before..."
By Ric Levine
Originality is a term used to describe many artists, even when it doesn't necessarily apply. Thankfully, the word still has meaning when names like Coltrane, Reinhardt, Miles, McLaughlin, Hendrix, Metheny, and Fripp (and the scores of other musicians that fill your respective lists) are mentioned. Without doubt, Allan Holdsworth belongs on any list of "originals". Holdsworth's reputation as an innovative and influential guitarist is well-known in discerning circles. His uncommon chordal shadings and complex, linear solos have an enveloping quality. Those who own any of the albums on which he has contributed (see the Selected Discography at the end of this article) know what I'm saying: it is a very impressive body of work.
His new album, Atavachron, admirably adds to his achievements, and reveals Holdsworth's continuing quest for his own unique sound. Like any true pioneer, Holdsworth is never content with the typical tools of his trade. Indeed, synthesizers and more recently, the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), have opened up new avenues of musical exploration for him. You'd think with the myriad possibilities available through these technological little wonders, there'd be enough to keep anyone busy. This Englishman, as you already know (or will understand after reading the following interview), is not just anyone. Nor is his new instrument, the SynthAxe, just any musical instrument: there is the familiar fretboard that can be played by a guitarist, but it is a synthesizer controller, not a guitar.
Though uncomfortable and unusual to some, the SynthAxe has found a master worthy of its creative capabilities. [For more on the SynthAxe, pick up the June issue of Guitar Player]. I caught up with Allan at his home in Orange County, CA., where he lives with his wife, Claire, and their three children, Louise, Sam and Emily. One of the most striking characteristics about Holdsworth is that his honesty is only exceeded by his profound modesty, much like his fellow countryman, Peter Gabriel. I hope you find it as refreshing and enlightening as I did.
Cymbiosis: I understand if your family could have afforded it you would have had a saxophone instead of a guitar when you were younger?
Holdsworth: Yeah, that's what I really wanted—to play saxophone.
Cymbiosis: Why was that?
Holdsworth: Well, I just loved the saxophone. It was the sound. I think people are first attracted to music and then to specific sounds within it. I also liked violin later. But at the time I liked saxophone more, because it was on most of the records that my dad had. He was a jazz player and had a lot of jazz records.
Cymbiosis: So you had things like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw?
Holdsworth: Yeah, Dad played in the Air Force band during the war, and they played a lot of swing.
Cymbiosis: So that might account for why a lot of your riffs almost sound hornlike as opposed to how a "regular" guitarist might sound?
Holdsworth: I don't think any of that was deliberate, really. My parents bought me a guitar; it was real cheap. I think they paid 10 shillings for it, about a dollar at the time, I guess. I just left it lying around and had no interest in it.
Cymbiosis: Why did you finally pick it up?
Holdsworth: Curiosity, really. I gradually got interested in it, decided to play it, and once I got to a certain point, it was like a light switch went on, and I started to learn how to play the guitar. I think it's only after I'd been playing a few years that the kind of things I listened to a lot when I was younger started unconsciously coming out in my playing. I was trying to get more of a sound out of the guitar than it wanted to make at that time.
Cymbiosis: And that's what moved you into electric guitar?
Holdsworth: When I got my first electric (which was just an acoustic fitted with a pickup), I didn't start out trying to make the guitar sound like a saxophone, or anything like that. It just evolved over a number of years. It's only now that I realize that's what was happening subconsciously. All these years I've really wanted to make a different sound than I was making.
Cymbiosis: And then you started listening to people like Charlie Christian.
Holdsworth: He was on the records that my father had, so I went back and listened to those with new ears because I realized that this guy was playing guitar. Charlie Christian was the first real big major guitar influence. . . and Django [Reinhardt]. But mostly Charlie Christian, because I just love the sound that he got, and I still love it today. There's a lot of jazz guitar sounds. Guys like Jimmy Ramey, Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Jim Hall...I love the way they play. But there's something about the sound that I really don't like. It's kind of like a rubber bandy sound, a dead, short kind of guitar sound, [laughs] It's just not for me.
Cymbiosis: So Clapton's was more of a sound that you wanted?
Holdsworth: When I first heard Eric Clapton it was great. It was the first time I'd heard that kind of sound and the first time I'd heard the amplifier being used in that manner. Guys had done it before by accident, but this kind of thing was more deliberate. That sparked me off because it was kind of a horn, violin sound... just off in the right direction.
Cymbiosis: You apparently had a fascination with your parents' record player when you were very young and you've certainly carried on in your father's tradition about wanting to surround yourself with equipment. [That's about all that could be seen in the living room].
Holdsworth: Well, it's a curiosity. I'm curious about it all. I've always been interested in electronics, and I wanted to know why the guitar sounded like it did when using a certain amplifier. I had to analyze and find out why each amp sounded different, so I spent a lot of years modifying and messing with tube amplifiers.
Cymbiosis: That was when you had gotten your first guitar, when you were about 17 or 18?
Holdsworth: No, it was before that when I got it.
Cymbiosis: So you didn't start playing it until you were in your early 20s.
Holdsworth: Yeah. I think I would have gotten into it sooner, if I'd had the right instrument. I wish now somebody had given me a violin when I was little; I really think I would have taken to it. I still have an affinity with it, but I can't play it, because it's a ridiculously difficult instrument to play. But there was something about it that was more comfortable and easier than the guitar. It was just at that point in time it was too late, because I would have had to neglect the guitar in order to make any progress on the violin. I just didn't think I could do it, so I left it out.
Cymbiosis: Instead, you took up an instrument that you didn't really fancy and fashioned a whole new style of playing that Guitar Player has called "the Allan Holdsworth school of guitar playing."
Holdsworth: Yeah, it's weird. I don't understand that anyway. I'd like to think that an individual is an individual, so that he can be whatever he wants to be. That's one of the things that I like to stress to people. I have a stubbornness not to want to do anything the same as somebody else. If I see and hear something and I'm moved by it, I want to do something with that quality. It's only the quality that concerns me, not what it was. When Jaco [Pastorius] was doing all that stuff with the bass, people were so preoccupied with the sound he was making they totally ignored what he was actually doing. The most important part about Jaco was what he was playing on the bass. That was the thing! If I'd have been a bass player, I'd have been looking for that, and I'd have forgotten about the sound. The sound was just the sound that he made—it was his. Instead, what happened was you got a whole bunch of guys going around sounding like Jaco. In the end, it almost ruined a perfectly good sound because it became so common.
Cymbiosis: I understand that when you were auditioning bass players for one of your bands in England, if you saw a fretless bass being opened up, you said, "Fine, next."
Holdsworth: Yeah, we did. I know that sounds unfair; it was just that we'd been through so many guys trying to find a bass player, and it was pretty difficult. We found out that most of the guys who had fretless basses were just trying to play like Jaco. They made that tuba-like sound, but they couldn't play in tune. All we wanted was a guy with character; some personality of his own. The first bass player, Henry Thomas, was great. We had some personality problems, and it didn't work out for one reason or another, but he was great.
Cymbiosis: Now this was after your Soft Machine and Tony Williams days?
Holdsworth: Oh, yeah. This was way after that-and after Bruford and U.K. This was the beginning of this band now, the I.O.U. band. Then we found Paul Carmichael and we liked him because he didn't sound like he was trying to do anybody else. He was going for his own thing, and that, to me, counts ten times over.
Cymbiosis: Is that desire to go beyond the levels of prior musicianship what led you to the exploration of odd time signatures, like you did with the Soft Machine?
Holdsworth: Well, most of my music has odd bars here and there. The Soft Machine was my first example of playing constantly in one fixed odd time; it altered my thinking and phrasing. It was good for me. I enjoyed that band at the time as much as anything else I've ever done.
Cymbiosis: That's good to hear, because when we'd talked before, you gave the impression that you didn't like anything you'd ever done before.
Holdsworth: I didn't say I liked it! I just said I enjoyed it at the time. There's a difference. You have to hope that you still try to do your best at any point in history. It just sounds so old or so bad to me now. Not the rest of the guys, what I'm playing. It's just when I listen to those old things, it's like seeing yourself running around in diapers. I can't listen to it, it sounds so...unknowledgeable. But, I enjoyed it at the time. It was a good experience.
Cymbiosis: So when you conceive songs in different signatures, you're not necessarily transfixed on a specific time signature.
Holdsworth: Oh, I never write specifically in anything. I think I write in 1. [Laughs) No, it's just the way the music comes out. If the music is written in such a way and the structure warrants an odd bar or two, then that's what happens. Like "Water on the Brain," on the Road Games album, apart from the first bar, it's all in 4. It sounds like it's odd, but it isn't. It's just accents.
Cymbiosis: Now you've got a new toy for your composition—the SynthAxe. Can you tell us a little bit about it and how you became involved in it?
Holdsworth: Basically, I tried it through natural curiosity. I had tried using some of the other available guitar controllers and guitar synthesizers, or whatever they were called. It was totally hilarious; it was like a revelation and a frustration at the same time, because when you plugged a Roland guitar into a DX7, you'd be able to make some of the same sounds as a keyboard player or synthesists make. It was interesting for a guitar player, but I knew that the system didn't work because of the way that they have to track the pitch and then convert that to voltage. I think pitch to anything is like pitch to glitch, as I call it. It just has an inherent flaw in it somehow. So I don't think there would be a synthesizer player in the world if the keyboard was pitch to voltage. When I saw the first brochure on the SynthAxe, I read the way they were doing it and I knew that I had to see it. So I phoned anybody I knew at guitar magazines, like Tom Mulhern [associate editor] at Guitar Player and asked him if they had heard anything about it. I eventually tracked down Bill Aitken, the inventor; I saw him over at the NAMM Show a couple of years ago. He let me play this thing, and I was absolutely blown away with it. They've made a lot of improvements since then and that's one of the other incredible things about it. They just keep coming up with ways to make this thing better without changing its shape or the way it plays or feels. For example, the trigger strings on the first one I played were really insensitive compared to the way they are now. Now they've got a new set of trigger strings where the sensing can be adjusted from the console, so you can have them set up any way you want. If you make mistakes on it, it's your own fault. The machine doesn't make any. And that's what I was looking for. I wanted an instrument that was going to allow me to control the synthesizer the way a keyboard player would, and it seemed to me that this was the closest, or this was..."it". I think there is going to be a whole other generation of controllers that will use a similar principle to this. I personally believe that's the right way to go.
Cymbiosis: And in addition to the trigger strings, you have a keyboard on the SynthAxe.
Holdsworth: Each key corresponds to a string, so if you play this [first] key, you have to be playing on this [first] string, and so on.
Cymbiosis: How is the SynthAxe going to change your approach to composition?
Holdsworth: I've now got more sonic capability than I had before with the guitar, inasmuch as I can use synthesis and, in effect, that has sparked a whole other thing off in me. I was, in some ways, getting fed up, not with the guitar itself, but with the way that the guitar was sounding in some respects. It was reaching a point where, more or less, everybody started to sound a little like everybody. There's obviously some really great exceptions like Scott Henderson or Eric Johnson-all these guys who are doing their own thing.
Cymbiosis: Stanley Jordan.
Holdsworth: Stanley Jordan. And many more. But I was just generalizing. When I got the SynthAxe, it just sparked off this incredible interest in synthesis which I'd never thought of before. So I'm trying to get a deeper understanding of synthesis so I can create my own sounds and programs. And that is really exciting to me, because I'm so new at it. I've got all this energy again like I had when I first started playing. It's a different kind of energy than the one I have for just developing my musical knowledge. So one helps the other. It's a new inspiration for me.
Cymbiosis: Like a kid in a candy store all over again.
Holdsworth: In a way, yeah, because it's so new. I want to be able to make as Individual a sound on that as what people think I do on the guitar. It has to be possible. I guess if I could do that, it would prove something. [Laughs]
Cymbiosis: And leave your mark on the world?
Holdsworth: Not like that. Just for my own satisfaction. I would like to be able to create—like Jan Hammer or Joe Zawinul. There's not many synthesists you can say that about. They're recognizable through the music. When I hear Chick Corea play synthesizer, I can recognize the musician—I can hear the notes through the sound. It's still the music that's the most important thing. That's all I want to achieve. I can now make a lot more sounds, so it's more inspirational to me in the writing sense. Sometimes I find a sound and I'll go off on a whole other thing than I would have done If I'd just been trying to write a piece on guitar.
Cymbiosis: Well, your new album, Atavachron, because of the SynthAxe, has a distinctly different sound from Metal Fatigue, the one prior.
Holdsworth: Yeah, I think there's two reasons for that. One is because I've been thinking over the last couple of years that when I reviewed all the albums, I'd never feel quite so happy with the vocal tracks. Not because of the vocals, because Paul [Williams] sings great. It wasn't that. It's just because, musically, they seem to be more watered down or more fickle. They just didn't seem to be what I wanted. And I wanted to do an instrumental thing, so when I got the SynthAxe, I was thinking in those terms. So when I started to write the music, it just came out more instrumental. And, second, because I was playing some of the synth parts and playing guitar, I realized we should definitely get a keyboard player in the band.
Cymbiosis: You've gone away from keyboards in the past, especially after your U.K. and Bruford days.
Holdsworth: They were basically keyboard dominated situations, and I wanted to reverse the roles and use the guitar. For example, with Bill [Bruford], he'd always use the synthesizer above the guitar for a chordal section, just because he thought the synthesizer sounded better than the guitar. I needed to get that out of my system and escape from all the synth things. So we did the I.O.U., Road Games, and Metal Fatigue—three trio albums. So I've had four or five years of trio and I really felt that I wanted to do something else.
Cymbiosis: And so you recruited Billy Childs.
Holdsworth: Yeah. Originally, Alan Pasqua was the guy I first thought of in the band, because I just love the guy. I can't say enough good things about him. He's an incredible musician.
Cymbiosis: You've worked with him quite a bit in the past?
Holdsworth: No, I worked with him with Tony Williams, which is the only time. (I was definitely suffering from novice behavior in those days). And it was nice to get back together to play with him again. So I asked him to play on Metal Fatigue. He played a solo on " The Un-Merry- Go-Round". On "Atavachron", because I'd written and recorded most of the music on synthesizer, I wanted to get somebody else to come and play solos. So Gary Willis, the bass player on "The Un-Merry-Go- Round”, introduced me to the piano player, Billy Childs, and he sounded great. And through working Bunny Brunei, I met Kei Akagi, who's fantastic. He's the guy who's in the band now.
Cymbiosis: He's the one we saw you with at the Roxy [L.A., 14 March 1986].
Holdsworth: That's right, and Kei was actually going to play on some of the album, but he wasn't available at the time. We couldn't coordinate it, and so I asked Alan and he played on two tracks, "Atavachron" and "Mr. Berwell". Billy Childs played on "Funnels."
Cymbiosis: Who is Mr. Berwell?
Holdsworth: That's my son, Sam. It's a nickname that Gary Husband came up with. It's very involved and it would probably sound too ridiculous to even get into.
Cymbiosis: The very last track on the album, "All Our Yesterdays", is very different from the rest of the album. According to the title sheet, it's the only song in which there's any improvisation going on. . .
Holdsworth: There's improvisation on all of the tracks. I mean, all the solos are improvised. The only reason I wrote that down—the improvisation was it was total. We didn't have anything fixed. It was just absolutely, totally free.
Cymbiosis: And on vocals...
Holdsworth: Rowanne Mark.
Cymbiosis: Right. That's the first time you ever recorded with a female vocalist on arty of your songs.
Holdsworth: No, she sang on "Home" [from Metal Fatigue] originally, but I chose not to use it. Not because of her, I love the way she sings. She sang it beautifully and with no lyrics. But it started to remind me a little bit of too much of a Star Trek thing; because of the sound and the way that it worked out. But I always had in mind to use her because she's so talented. So when I wrote the melody for "All Our Yesterdays", I tried it on guitar, then tried it on synth, and I went, "Wait a minute, this is perfect for vocals, perfect for Rowanne," so I called her and she asked me how I wanted to do it. I told her to have a go and write some [lyrics]. I told her what I felt the music was about, and she phoned me back a few days later, sang these lyrics over the phone and knocked me out. They were perfect. It was exactly what I had in mind for the song. I was really pleased with the way that turned out.
Cymbiosis: It seems as though we are kindred spirits with Star Trek and that's where the title Atavachron comes from. Why that particular episode?
Holdsworth: It wasn't because of that episode so much. It was because of the machine, the Atavachron. They [Capt. Kirk and Co.] knew that this planet's sun is about to nova, and decide to check it out to see if they can do anything to help get the people off the planet. They find them all gone; they've all been processed through this machine that puts them back into their own planet's history. There's something intriguing about that. So much of history is forgotten in some ways. It was just the way I had to look back into my own past and the music I was listening to when I first started, trying to figure out if I'd missed anything on the way. And Atavachron is such a great word. I just love the name and the title. "All Our Yesterdays" encompassed the same thing. It was a reflective kind of thing, and that's what that song's about. It's like looking back over your own life.
Cymbiosis: And "Looking Glass?"
Holdsworth: No, "Looking Glass" was different. "Looking Glass" was because Tony Williams played on that track, and I always enjoyed working with him. It was just like having some of that again.
Cymbiosis: You've named Tony Williams as probably one of your biggest influences. How does he, as a drummer, influence you as a guitarist?
Holdsworth: Because of the way that he is, the way that he plays and the way that he does things. It's his person. People play like they are, I think. When I went to see him play with V.S.O.P., I felt I was going to burst into tears. It was Incredible. I can't describe it. He has such a grasp on whatever it is that's real. Like Michael Brecker. I feel the same thing when I hear him play now. And Keith Jarrett. It's just the whole of what Tony's doing, the way he's playing, experimenting, his timing, the whole thing. Whatever it is, he has It. And I'm totally inspired by all that. I just felt like I wanted to go and hug him after the gig because he's so great. It transcended just notes or anything. It's beyond. I don't know what it is, but it sure makes you feel good.
Cymbiosis: That's the key. Music should transcend everything.
Holdsworth: And the other thing is that it can also be really bad. I've played so bad sometimes, it makes me literally want to stop and just not do it anymore. I get so disturbed that it could even happen. Sometimes I'd be so distracted by something that was so minimal that I'd just completely screw up everything. I could get so nervous that I actually couldn't remember anything. I remember once at the Beverly Theater [L.A.]. It was horrendous. I was actually on stage and I could not remember any of the chords, the notes. . .anything. It's a fear. Then I can sit at home and play on my own when there is nobody watching or listening and I can really do something; then as soon as I have to do it in front of people, it changes me. This last year, I knew that I had to do something about it. I've been consciously trying to relieve that kind of pressure from myself by trying not to worry so much about It.
Cymbiosis: It sounds like you're awfully hard on yourself.
Holdsworth: Maybe I am. I don't mean to be. All I want to do is go out there and play, but the fear sometimes overrides everything. Then I started to feel like I could change it. I once had a really big argument with someone before we went on stage. It wasn't with a member of the band, it was with an outside person. And I remember, I felt like I had played reasonably well, and it really showed me: the anger had overridden the fear. So I wasn't scared anymore, because I wasn't thinking about that. I was able to relax and get inside the music because it was such a relief from what I'd just been dealing with, and playing was great. So that started me off. I feel you have to get to that point, at least, to be able to go on stage and even start to play, especially if you're going to be improvising and trying to create something.
Cymbiosis: And you, being such an individualist, it seems that the fear wouldn't be so much from being able to please the audience as much as pleasing yourself.
Holdsworth: I guess it is. Obviously you hope in your heart that people out there are going to like you. I think the main reason anybody does anything is because they have a desire to do it, so in that respect it's kind of selfish. But I'd like to go up on stage and be able to be easy enough with myself to play well, and sometimes I'm so uneasy that I just can't even start. And usually that's when everything goes out the window. It's a horrible feeling because it's like I know I'm going to make a mistake before I make it.
Cymbiosis: Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Holdsworth: Yeah, it's like I'm almost scared then to start thinking. I have to get more inside it somehow. So what I'm learning now is [to] ignore those things. If it doesn't sound quite right or whatever, I just ignore it, go through and do the music.
Cymbiosis: Perhaps one of the things you could do to relax yourself is come up with your Demon Ale. Are you still going to be brewing "Old Holdsworth's Demon Ale"?
Holdsworth: If I were rich, that's what I'd do: start a brewery in California. I'd just brew a beer that I think would appeal to Americans just as much as anybody else. I don't think you really have to know anything about beer to be able to tell if it's good. And I think it'd do incredible. I'd love to put up a pub somewhere in L.A.: a real pub, not one of those plastic ones that they have there now.
Cymbiosis: Maybe what you could do is midi the SynthAxe through a vat of it, or a "Non Brewed Condiment". [Laughter]
Holdsworth: Yeah, right. Well, non-brewed condiment is something that's used on fish and chips in England because it's cheaper than malt vinegar. It's just a substitute for malt vinegar, like you have, in America, mayonnaise that's not real mayonnaise. And the reason for that [title] was that it was a tune that I did entirely on the SynthAxe. It was my first real synthetic piece in a way and since my favorite food is still fish and chips, and my favorite drink is still ale, "Non Brewed Condiment" seemed like the perfect title for that piece. It's like I was saying, the fact that the SynthAxe is different from the guitar makes it better. Psychologically I can relate that to the synth and to the sound. I can look and see the sound, whereas on the guitar it's just made for something else, you know. And I can understand why there's going to be a lot of guitar players who may not like SynthAxe, because it's not like a guitar. It won't do some things that are very guitaristic.
Cymbiosis: Like what?
Holdsworth: Well, like harmonics and things like that.
Cymbiosis: Do you see moving from guitar almost exclusively...
Holdsworth: No, I'll never do that. I see it as an addition because I'm still searching for the guitar sound. It's getting closer. It's getting more horn-like, [laughs], so it must be getting closer. The SynthAxe guys, themselves, have no intention of it ever being a substitute. And the other thing is I don't particularly feel the need to get guitar sounds simultaneously with the synthesized sounds. So I feel happy to put that guitar sound aside for a while and see what else there is out there.
Cymbiosis: And when you come back to the guitar, you can have a fresh approach to it.
Holdsworth: Playing the SynthAxe has helped my guitar playing, because in a way it's difficult to play. It's taken me a while to get used to it. There's certain things about it that react differently or feel different. When you deflect the string with the picking hand, obviously you can't feel anything on your finger of the left hand, because the string's not being deflected. Little things. So when I go back to the guitar, it just enhances the guitar in some respects, without detracting from the SynthAxe at all.