Allan Holdsworth: One Of A Kind (Guitar Shop 1995)

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Summmary: The interview focuses solely on gear, and Allan talks about Steinbergers, DeLap, studio gear and amps, in particular Mesa Boogie, in conjunction with the recording of "Hard Hat Area".

Allan Holdsworth: One of a Kind

From his early records with Tempest, Gong, Tony Williams, and Soft Machine to the groundbreaking work with Bruford and U.K., and further to his noted solo career, Allan Holdsworth has remained an enigmatic and singular soloist who has always been years ahead of his time. Nearly a decade back, the jazz-rocker also made major inroads into the world of guitar synthesizers, but due to 90’s economics and a new musical wind, he’s back to standard electric, as is amply demonstrated on his superb new disc, Hard Hat Area. Along with his monster bassist, Skuli Sverrisson, Holdsworth is playing at near-peak form these days, often on custom equipment he’s designed himself. So if his solos and knuckle-stretching extended chords haven’t already fried your mind, wait til you hear him verbally tear his rig apart top to bottom. It’s truly a virtuoso performance.

Originally identified in the 70s with the Gibson SG and the Fender Stratocaster fitted with a humbucker (a radical move for the time), Holdsworth has largely been seen holding one of two instruments during the past decade: a SynthAxe or a Steinberger. Today, he virtually uses neither. As he explains, guitar synthesis is no longer an affordable option for the working musician – even one as gifted as Holdsworth – while the Steinberger has changed corporate hands, causing the guitarist to look for headless guitars elsewhere.

“I love the Steinberger design, but ever since they merged with Gibson, I’ve had trouble communicating with them. Fortunately I met this guy named Bill DeLap who made me two Steinberger-styled guitars that use their hardware, but have wood bodies instead of plastic. We took the best things of a Steinberger and just tried to get more out of that design. They’re full-sized instruments – 25 – ½” – and like a violin, have a maple neck, ebony fingerboard, spruce top and a maple back. Bill also made me some baritone ones that are just really long-scaled guitars – there are 34”, 36”, 38” scale versions. I didn’t use them on the new album, but I did on my last one, Wardenclyffe Tower. I played the 34” on “Zarabeth” and the 38” on “Sphere of Innocence”. And now he’s making me a piccolo guitar. But they all work like a regular guitar with regular strings, partially because the Steinberger bridge system doesn’t need a lot of winds to get in tune. I use LaBella strings – the company has been really amazing to me, too, and helped out whenever they could. My action is pretty low, and I don’t use the tremolo bar much anymore, either. About five years ago when all the heavy metal guys were using them, I sort of stopped, because it started looking like a new toy that everybody got. It was like when the wah-wah and the fuzz box came out and all of a sudden you heard them on every record. So I basically stopped using it.

“You won’t find me playing SynthAxes much anymore, either. I quit playing one because the company went bust and I worried about owning a dinosaur that I could never get fixed. So I sold everything, including two SynthAxes and a bunch of synthesizers. But then a few months ago, I started missing it, so I traded a guy I know two guitars for his one. It has some problems, though. I also don’t use guitar synth live anymore. It was getting more expensive to tour, and the biggest expense of all was transporting equipment, especially if we were going to a different country. We’d spend more money on that than we’d make at the gig. Plus, at one point I was using the SynthAxe for 50 percent of the material, and if it didn’t work for some reason, there went half the show. So it became a liability, even though I love the instrument. On Hard Hat Area, I only used it on the title cut and a solo in “Postlude”. I haven’t tried any other guitar synthesizers, either, like the Roland. I think that making pitch control a synthesizer is completely wrong. I’ve heard people do really great things with that approach, but it’s just not for me. I like the SynthAxe because it’s a controller that I can drive a synthesizer with, but when you stick a pickup on a guitar, the synth responds to all the tuning problems, and that gets to be a real pain. And overall guitar players seem to look at guitar synthesizers as a novelty, whereas for me – who never wanted to play the guitar in the first place – it was like a way to escape from it. And with the SynthAxe I could hook up to a wind patch and play chords on it, which was really great. I really love the instrument, but unfortunately, it didn’t last. People even used to leave notes on my amps between sets telling me to go back to playing regular guitar. Now I get notes asking me to go back to guitar synth!” (laughs)

Although Holdsworth is back to conventional electrics, one listen to Hard Hat Area precludes the notion that he’s jumping onboard the “just plug in ‘n’ crank it” school that is blossoming today. The richness of his lead tone and shimmering layers of chordal texture all point out the extensive use of delays and chorus, two effects that are essential to the “Allan Holdsworth Sound”. Not surprisingly, he’s had a hand in designing some of his outboard gear, as he explains while describing his studio and live rigs: “In the studio I don’t use a clean amp – I just DI out through the mixer in my rack and go right into the tape machine, which I feel gives a truer tone. My real rack is in England now. I left it there to save money and so I’d have it when we toured Europe, but unfortunately, I never put another one together, so my effects in the U.S. aren’t nearly as good as when we play over there. But I’m working with a guy from Carvin named Gary Johnson on a processor that will be ready in about a month, and it will make my rack only about two spaces high. Each unit will have eight delay lines, which I can use for chorus. To me, a good chorus is really just a bunch of single mono delay lines, but it takes a lot of them chained together to get that effect. So this is eight delays in one box.

“In fact my English rack is based on this: it has two Lexicon PCM 41s, two Yamaha 1500s, two Roland 3000s, and two DeltaLab Effectrons, which is eight total. And it sounds better when you use units from different manufacturers, because each company has its own sound; when you blend them, you get the best tone. If you used eight delays from the same company, it wouldn’t sound nearly as good. I don’t use MIDI, either, because I like real-time control over it. Plus I just set the units and pretty much leave them, if I do change anything I like to do it myself manually.”

Being a British expatriate in California, Holdsworth also avails himself of a classic West Coast tube amp – the Mesa/Boogie. With only a little prodding, he gives away his amp settings and why he doesn’t have to crank it to achieve the thick, luscious soloing tone that has made him one of the most-respected “guitarist’s guitarists” alive. “I’ve been using Boogie amps for three or four years, and I’ve been very happy with them“, says the fusion virtuoso. “I mean, most manufacturers make amps that sound just one way, but Boogie makes a lot of different-sounding amps to choose from. For example, the difference between a Mark IV and a Rectifier is huge. Right now onstage, I just use a 1x12 Mark I combo for the clean sounds and a Dual Rectifier for solos, with 2x12 Rectifier cabinets. I set the Gain on that amp at around 2’o’clock, Treble and Middle at about 2’o’clock, the Bass all the way off. Presence at 10 o’clock, and the Master wherever it sounds good, because I don’t run the amplifier into a speaker cabinet – I run it into one of my own little load boxes. Then I take the line output from that and feed it into a power amp that drives the speakers. That way, I can play really soft and still get a sound that I like. I don’t want to have to play loud to get a sound I like. Actually, at the volume I use, I could easily play electric guitar with an acoustic band.”