A Disturbingly Normal Genius (Boston Phenix 1976)

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Summary: Allan Holdsworth, a highly skilled guitarist in rock and jazz, is known for his extraordinary speed and thoughtful note choices. Despite being shy and modest, he's recognized for his native talent. He played with Soft Machine and joined Tony Williams' new Lifetime band. Holdsworth has limited available recordings in the US, but he's gaining recognition. In this interview, he discusses his musical journey, equipment, practice habits, improvisation, and the challenges of recording a solo album he's not satisfied with. He emphasizes that music, not the instrument, is paramount, and he appreciates both improvised and composed music. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]

A Disturbingly Normal Genius: An interview with Allan Holdsworth


By Michael Bloom

The Boston Phoenix, July 13, 1976,

Allan Holdsworth may be the best guitarist in the rock and jazz fields, despite his relative youth and obscurity. He's fast as the dickens (we clocked one recorded solo at somewhere between 11 and 12 notes a second, awfully close to the maximum reaction time of the human nervous system) and, more important, he never uses sheer speed as his excuse: his choice of notes is just as interesting and intelligent at high speeds as in slow, lyrical passages.

Such a player, we reasoned, would have to be a mercurial genius, full of pithy wisdom and outright venom, and also a dedicated technician, able to provide chapter and verse on guitar technique and exercises to finetune every finger muscle. We were wrong. Holdsworth is

shy, modest and disturbingly normal, unlike either Robert Fripp, the prototype mercurial genius who practices up to eight hours every day, or Robin Trower, the moody guitar worshiper type. Holdsworth is that rare phenomenon - a true native talent, which is not to be little the work he has done honing his talent.

I first met Holdsworth when he was a member of Soft Machine, with whom he played for a year and recorded the album Bundles. Holdsworth met up with legendary jazz drummer Tony Williams last winter in Europe and was persuaded to sit in on some sessions in Switzerland (so far unreleased). He became one of the mainstays of Williams's new Lifetime, a group that features bassist Tony Newton and pianist Alan Pasqua.

The new Lifetime has released one album, Believe It, on Columbia; another album is finished and awaiting release. This is the only Holdsworth recording generally available in this country: all his others are imports, including his debut with an offensive power rock outfit called Tempest and one session with British jazz journeyman lan Carr, called Belladonna. These are not the only recordings on which he appears, but they are the only ones he will admit to.

Pundits and fans are just beginning to notice Holdsworth's skills. He caught some of the glory when the Lifetime played at New York's Bottom Line last January and on a subsequent nationwide tour. Michael Davis wrote in a Creem review of Believe It: "The man who formed the first metallic jazz-rock band has discovered another super talented English guitarist and is back to take over the field."

But such critical acclaim has hardly reached Holdsworth. We questioned him at the apartment he rents in a Manhattan neighborhood for which "squalid" is not too strong a word - certainly a part of town one would not amble through carelessly after dark. He was packing for England, where he planned to rest before an upcoming tour. Part of the packing procedure was to disassemble his favorite guitar in hopes that customs wouldn't recognize it as a fine old instrument and charge him a heavy import duty. He said he was selling his other guitar because of the higher re- sale value American instruments fetch in England. Hardly the actions of a rock tycoon, wot?

Q: When did you start playing?

A: I started with the guitar after I left school, when I was about 17 or so. A long time ago.

Q: Were you exposed to music in your home?

A: Yeah, I was exposed to a lot of music from really little. My father was a piano player, and he always had lots of records around - Benny Goodman, Nat Shore, from that time. Charlie Christian was on all those records, and I didn't know until later that I had been listening to an electric guitar. It was great.

Q: Did you start on an electric guitar?

A: No, I started on an acoustic. The first guitar I ever got cost about 10 shillings--that's about a dollar. Then I had maybe two or three that were a little bit better, that I'd got from my friends for nothing.

I got my first electric a year or two after I started playing. My father gave me a cello guitar, the sort with the F-holes. It was actually an acoustic, but I knew this guy who was into electronics and he made me this pickup which I stuck at the bottom of the neck. I had that a few months and then I wanted something better.

The first good guitar I got was a Fender Stratocaster; I had to have a Stratocaster at that time. Then everything happened real quick, I saw this little Gibson, an SG just like the guitar I use now, no more than six months after I got the Fender. I tried this guitar and fell in love with it instantly. I got rid of the Fender and I've used more or less that same guitar since.

Q: What was your band history?

A: Well, just after I started play. ing I worked with little semi-pro. bands that grew up in the town I lived in. Really tiny groups that might work little gigs maybe on weekends. After that I formed my own group with another guitar player. I'd gotten interested in a certain kind of music and I wanted to try it. The band only lasted six months or a year because we couldn't get any gigs. Nobody liked what we were playing.

Q: When was this?

A: 1968

Q: That was in the aftermath of Pink Floyd, when experimental music was at its peak. Clubs like the UFO were booking all sorts of crazed people.

A: Yeah, but we were in the North. We got this chance to play at Ronnie Scott's. The guy who was trying to manage us went to Ronnie Scott and said I've got this band from Bradford, will you listen to them, and they were really nice about it and said yeah. And they really liked it, but they couldn't get us any gigs either. We did play there - he'd bill a couple of bands and we'd play between them, just to try and get us happening, but it didn't happen. And after that I really got poor and I sold the guitar.

Then I decided that I wanted to make some money because I was tired of being skinned, so I - worked with a Mecca band. The Mecca circuit is like a whole chain of dance halls. We'd play the usual dance band fare. I was with that band for three years, until I couldn't stand it anymore. The only time I could play what I wanted was to myself. And then I met this fantastic alto player from London, Ray Warleigh. He said I could stay at his place in London and that was a golden opportunity for me-1 didn't have any money and I wouldn't have gotten there under any other circumstances. So I just told the Mecca band I was leaving and I went to live with him, which was great. And I started playing the clubs around London.

Q: How did you get the gig with lan Carr? As near as we can determine, that was your first recording.

A: Yes, unfortunately. I was hoping you hadn't heard that one. (Laughs.] I usually leave that one out because I don't really like it, I really hate myself on it. It was the first album I'd ever been in the studio on and I didn't know anything about it and I got a horrible sound. I think a piano player called Pat Smiley told Ian Carr about me. He called me for an audition. During that time I had the offer from Jon Hiseman to join Tempest.

Q: What kind of equipment are you using now?

A: A 50-watt Marshall. It's all Marshall

Q: And what guitars do you own?

A: An SG Custom, a white one. That's my guitar, really. It's really a Les Paul from 1960, the year before they started calling it the SG. I also have a Stratocaster.

Q: Why? Some people don't like Strats.

A: I've felt like that at times about Fenders but then I've found certain things about the design of the Fender that I really like. I think it has a unique sound. It's a rare guitar that's individual enough that you can tell what kind of guitar it is just by hearing it, and you usually can with a Stratocaster.

Q: Which is not necessarily in its favor.

A: Maybe. We just finished a new album and I used it on some tracks on there, and I really like it. It sounds - well, it doesn't sound like a Strat. And I like the tremolo. I like to use it for effects and that's the best tremolo ever made.

Q: Do you own an acoustic guitar?

A: No, unfortunately. I did have one a few years ago but I had to pawn it.

Q: What kind of strings do you use?

A: I've used everything, I'm continually trading off.

Q: Do you find there's any real difference between them?

A: Yeah, there's a lot of difference. You can get two strings the same size in thousandths of an inch and they'll feel completely different because one of them will have a thin core and a heavy wind, and one will have a lighter wind and a heavier core. It makes a lot of difference in the tension of the string. So I just try and experiment.

Q: Do you use a particular kind of pick?

A: I do, actually. In fact, you can't buy them here but you can buy similar ones. They're thin, sturdy, nylon. I just sort of got used to them.

Q: What electronic devices do you use, if any?

A: I use an equalizer, just for extra tone control. It's not extra,

really, because if you use the tone controls on the amplifier, you get a lot of noise. So I use the equalizer to add treble before it goes into the amplifier, just as a way of reducing the noise. And I use a phase shifter.

Q: Have you ever had any equipment failures?

A: Yes

Q: Major or minor?

A: Both. I've had amps go out completely. I've had everything from a shorted lead up to a large explosion.

Q: Where was that?

A: That was in Italy, where they've got real troubles with the power supply. There's wide fluctuations in the voltage unless you've got a voltage regulator, which we got after that.

Q: What did you play on the Tempest album?

A: I used an ES-335 on that. That belonged to the singer Paul Williams - he just lent me the guitar one day for a rehearsal and I really liked it. Since the time I first started with the cello guitar I'd never played a semisolid guitar, I'd always played a solid one. And I liked the sound of it. It had something extra.

Q: Did you take lessons?

A: No.

Q: Do you finger pick at all?

A: No, I've always flat picked. I've used my fingers to play chords and things, but I've never actually used a finger picking technique.. .

Q: I was wondering if the acoustic solo on Bundles, "Gone Sailing," was finger picked. Was that a de-tuned 12-string guitar?

A: Yes. The inside strings were the same, but I re-tuned some of the octave strings.

Q: Do you position your thumb below the neck?

A: Most of the time. I bring my thumb over sometimes to get extra strength for my finger tremolo, It's hard to do that with your thumb behind the neck. Because there's a lot of different ways of doing the finger tremolo, and the way I do it, I want to move my thumb up over, to get the extra leverage.

Q: How do you get your legato sound? You seem to have a very light touch with the pick.

A: I like the way you can play completely legato on a violin, but on a guitar it's a lot harder. It demands a certain kind of strength in your left arm. And I do pick very lightly because I noticed, not too long ago, especially on an electric guitar, you get a terrible clunk from your pick if you use it too hard. Now I use it at times as a deliberate effect. I noticed after I'd been playing for about three years that I was playing in a legato way. I guess I got into that, as well as the violin, very unconsciously. I found that I'd been liking the solos of other instruments more than the guitar solos on the ori

ginal records. When I realized it, I started to try and change, but I decided I liked the way you can get the thing to flow like a hom, and not have it sounding like a submachine gun.

Q: I would have thought you went to the guitar from the violin.

A: No. I really liked the violin as an instrument, but I didn't really intend to play it. I just found it in a junk shop for about three quid. I just started messing around about four years ago.

Q: Within a year you were playing it on the Tempest album with what sounded like fairly good technique.

A: I kind of got into it very quickly. I found I could get a reasonable sound out of it. I got some books, but I haven't done anything since then; I hardly touch it now. After that I started to realize how much time it would take away from my practicing the guitar.

Q: Is there any chance that you might pick up the violin again and use it on an album?

A: I want to do that, when I get together with it again.

Q: How much do you practice?

A: Well, I pick it up and play it every day. I don't have any set routine. I play about an hour a day on average, sometimes more. Some days I'll play for four or five hours, and some days not at all.

Q: When you started out, were you practicing a lot more?

A: No. When I first started I had no intention of becoming a musician; it was just accidental. I just picked up the basics very quickly. After that period of not really knowing whether I wanted to play or not - when I got over that period, which lasted about a year, then I started to practice hard.

Q: When you practice, do you do any particular scales or chords or exercises, or do you just play what you feel like playing?

A: Sometimes I pick up and just improvise. Sometimes I'll set myself something to do, something that I feel I need to work on, whatever it might be, and I try and create my own problem. I wouldn't sit down and do a half hour of scales. I always try and work out my own experiment.

Q: When you take a guitar solo, do you have an idea in your head of what you're going to play or do you just start playing and see where it goes?

A: It depends. If it's something I've heard, that will give me a picture of something, so I may have an idea of what kind of thing I should do and where it should be. It's never planned. I never work out what I'm going to play.

Q: Some of your solos on record seem to be products of some very well thought-out notion: the "Fred" solo from Believe It, the "Hazard Profile" solo from Bundles

A: Actually, "Hazard Profile", I hated that one. That was the first thing we did when we went in. "Fred"? That was really wild. We didn't do that at the same time we made the album; we ran out of time. About three weeks before that, to check out the studio, we did like a demo tape. We went once through each song, and that was the "Fred" take. I was disappointed that they used that one because I didn't like it. I guess it has a fresh kind of thing about it, but I didn't like what I played, that's all I'm saying, although I love what everybody else played.

Q: Do you think you're well represented by any of the solos on the album? Is there anything you hear and say "Boy, I'm glad I played that?"

A: There's moments when you play a thing and you don't really realize just how it sounds till you play it back. Sometimes you think you played really well and you hear it and it's dreadful. Sometimes you may think you haven't made it and you play it back and it sounds all right. I'm usually more conscious about things that I don't like - that's the thing that worries me. There may be some solos that I think are all right, but I'm much more concerned about the ones that I don't like, if you know what I'm saying. That reflects on the things that I'm not doing, or doing wrong.

Q: Do you ever think you're playing very fast?

A: No. Sometimes ... I don't think of it in terms of speed. I think the music is the most important thing.

Q: Right, it's not just speed. You tend to be more scale-oriented, you tend to get around the guitar neck more. Your lines are always cogent.

A: I made a conscious effort at that a long time ago, when I was first getting into that stuff, at trying not to waste anything. I guess there was a time when I didn't have any control over it, when I was concentrating on just steaming around. I guess everyone goes through that. I try not to do that now. I did make another discovery a long time ago. In the very beginning, when I first started playing guitar, I'd only been using three fingers. Even as bad as I was at that time I could see that it was a waste of energy. So I made a conscious effort to try and use everything.

Q: Do you ever find that your fingers come between what's in your head and what you want to play?

A: Sometimes if you don't play what you're trying to play. If you try to do something and it comes out all messed up, then it didn't happen. It's a continuous effort to get in communication, you and your guitar or you and your fingers, I guess. Is that understandable? Ask me again.

Q: Well, the problem is that you might have a great idea in your head and want to try and represent it musically, but sometimes technical difficulties keep you from representing that idea the way you'd like to..

A: That happens all the time. That's the frustrating thing everybody has to go through. You try and get closer and closer to yourself so the barrier between you and the music you want to make becomes less.

Q: Do you feel that the barriers are getting lower for you?

A: No, each time you get over one, there's a bigger one, forever. I gave up a long time ago thinking that I'd get there. Just to try.

Q: What do you think of the guitar as an instrument?

A: I think music is the first thing, really. I think the only reason that I play the guitar is that it was presented to me. If it had been something else, I would have played something else. Sometimes I wish that I had been presented with the violin. I really like all musical instruments equally, except for things like bagpipes. About electrical instruments, I find that most are just as beautiful as anything else. I've read things by certain musicians that they're unnatural, like they didn't grow out of the ground. That doesn't mean anything to me.

Q: The battle is to keep the electric instrument from causing you to treat it like a mechanism, which a lot of the electric players are doing.

A: I don't really like synthesizers, because the sound is synthesized. An electric guitar sound is not like that.

Q: Do you think you might do a solo album?

A: I just finished a new album of my own things for CTI, but it turned out really awful ... The whole thing was trundled out in two days without any rehearsal. While we were playing a thing in rehearsal the man with the tape recorder would say you don't have to do any more - that's cool, why don't we move on to the next tune. I didn't see what was happening; I was just trying to go along with it. But after wards I realized I should not even have started it. I had no control over any. thing. Before I went in I was told studio time would be no problem. As it worked out, I couldn't get it done quick enough, and they just didn't seem to care. And they'd have things like tea break at 10, lunch hour, take five at two o'clock and if you're in the middle of a tune, well, too bad. It was really painful. After what happened with Tony it had given me a new goal, something to look forward to, to see if I could get myself together for it. But this album was just bringdown, it was like taking two steps forward and ten back.

Q: This is kind of a strange question, but are you hopeful that people would not buy the album?

A: Yeah, I hope they don't. It's worse than not doing anything at all. I wish it had never happened. Good or bad, everything on that album is first take. Everything. They wouldn't let me do any more soloing. Real nitty gritty.

Q: Did you play with anyone you'd really wanted to play with on that album?

A: I played with the people ! really wanted - Alphonso Johnson (ex-Weather Report), who plays bass, and Michael Walden [ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra), who plays drums, and Alan Pasqua played keyboards. But with the limited time to get it together, it doesn't sound like a band, it sounds like Allan Holdsworth and Rent-a-session.

Q: What would be your ideal band?

A: Tony's band, definitely. I think it's a unique combination of people from different places, musical areas, I really like.

Q: What do you listen to when you're not playing or writing!

Q: What do you listen to when you're not playing or writing?

A: When I want to sit down and just listen to a thing, I play classical music because everything seems to be contained in there. I always look upon that as being an improvisation in the mind of the composer. I listen to quite a wide variety of things.

Q: How do you feel about improvised vs. composed music?

A: No, I think there's really amazing things in both. I'd like to be able, whenever I get the opportunity to combine both things.

Q: Did you want to do anything in particular before you took up the guitar?

A: Oh yeah, basket weaving. I left school and I did an apprenticeship as a basket weaver. Why don't you laugh? Everybody else laughs.