Allan Holdsworth (English Tour Program 1989)

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Tour Of England 1989

Tour Program, 1989

Uncredited (likely Neville Marten)


I tried to get an Allan Holdsworth tour off the ground a couple of years ago. I really couldn't believe that no-one wanted to know. So I phoned Nik Kershaw - an old mucker of mine and a Holdsworth fan if ever there was one - and asked whether between us we couldn't sort something out. Nik's attitude was the same as mine: "No problem!" Well, they say that as one door closes another one slams in your face... and that's more or less what happened to Nik and me... scuppered on our maiden voyage.

A couple of years went by and I was ruminating with Guitarist columnist Phil Hilborne on the same thorny subject. We agreed it was about time something was actually done and both Phil and I talked to Allan about it over the next few days. Fortunately Mr Holdsworth was of like mind and so, some months and one or two hiccups later, here we all are...

Allan's choice of musicians for the tour was easy... his favourite bassist of all time, Jimmy Johnson, a drummer who's worked alongside him for around ten years, Gary Husband, and keyboard player and co-writer of a couple of tracks on 'Secrets', Steve Hunt.

A Holdsworth concert is a rare and exciting event. Have a great evening...

Neville Marten


'Only the music is important!' That could be the maxim of Allan Holdsworth, one of the world's finest guitarists - world's finest musicians he might very well correct us, but for a complete lack of anything verging on the pompous or self-satisfied...

To try to sum up an artist as complex as Holdsworth is almost impossible. It's safe to say, though, that Yorkshireman Allan is recognised worldwide as a guitarist of the most phenomenal ability - not only in the technical sense, but harmonically, and also in the areas of touch, feeling and expression. Sure, you're unlikely to find anyone with greater technical prowess, but Holdsworth denies that that's what it's all about: "It's not important; only the music is important" he'll tell you, one more time.

Allan has never quite come to grips with the adulation that surrounds him - read any interview with almost any guitarist of note and Holdsworth's name is invariably mentioned - if not as an influence then as someone to look up to, to admire for his dedication or simply to say: "Well, he's obviously the best; I'll never be able to play like that! But as far as Allan's concerned, he simply writes and plays his music, and if people like it... then fine.

Born in Bradford in 1946, Allan didn't start playing the guitar until relatively late - he never wanted to play it anyway, he'd rather have learnt sax - but it was a guitar he was given and so it was the guitar he learnt to play. Guided by his father, apparently a gifted jazz pianist, Allan was a good pupil, always questioning and probing. He quickly realised that the way keyboard chords were arranged differed greatly from the musically limiting system which 'shape' guitarists seemed all too willing to adhere to. But, as Allan preferred the more musical sound of his father's piano chords, he set about the arduous task of transferring them to the guitar: "I started experimenting... taking a triad and going through all the inversions I could get on the lower three strings. Then I'd do the same on the next three, then take a four note chord and do the same... and so on. Then I'd write them all out, find the ones I liked and discard the ones I didn't." It was this approach that gave Allan his amazing chord vocabulary and led to those tendon-defying stretches - seven or eight frets sometimes - that still put his imitators to shame.

From school, Allan drifted into work at various local mills. His respite from the tedium of the mill was playing in 'Top 40' hands in the evenings. He then joined the Glen South band, who worked in the Mecca-owned ballrooms of Sunderland and, later on, Manchester. Although already thinking in his own musical way, Allan reckons his three years with Glen South were a good grounding. He recalls the times - a couple of decades but musical light years away - with fondness: "He gave me quite a lot of freedom in that band. There were generally two solos in every song - we had to eke them out back then - and I always played the first solo as it was on the record, but for the second solo Glen used to let me do my own thing. It was good also, because I had all that time during the day to practise...

Through the Glen South band Allan met alto sax player Ray Warleigh, who was playing around the north of England on a Musicians' Union tour. Quickly spotting an extraordinary spark, Ray promised there'd always be a place to stay, should Allan ever decide to make the break and move to London. About six months later the time was right and Allan called him:

"I asked if he remembered me and fortunately he did. So I got a lift down to London with a mate and took Ray up on that offer. He helped get me some gigs; I worked at Ronnie Scott's - they were good to me too - with pianist Pat Smythe, and Ray on sax. I tell you, man, without that guy, and without that room...

His next big step was when drummer John Marshall got him his first major gig, with Soft Machine: "It was all down to playing; if I hadn't just kept playing I wouldn't have got half the gigs I did. Derek Wadsworth, the trombone player, told John Hiseman about me and that got me the gig with Tempest. Another time I had to sit in for Chuck Mangione at Ronnie Scott's - Chuck was ill; it was after I'd come back from my first stint in America - and Alphonso Johnson was on bass. Alphonse new [sic] that Tony Williams was looking for a guitarist for his band Lifetime, and because of that stand-in session he put my name forward and Tony asked if I'd like to go back to the States and join his band." Allan moved to California in the early eighties and has remained a resident since.

The Holdsworth brand of music -uncompromising and enigmatic - has never really found favour with the record companies. He shrugs: "They say to my manager 'Let us know when he does something that we can sell'. And, you know, that IOU album we made... we couldn't even give it away; we actually tried to give it to record companies and they wouldn't accept it!"

Thinking of himself as a musician, rather than just a guitarist, Allan was a natural candidate for the guitar synthesiser. But the problems associated with such devices - inaccurate and delayed tracking, spurious or missing notes, etc. - meant nothing but frustration... until he met Bill Aitken and his new invention - the SynthAxe. Aitken had himself been frustrated by the inadequacy of the systems available in the late seventies and so had set about designing one himself.

It was a strange-looking beast though - a plastic hulk of a thing with the neck sticking up at an angle. It had two sets of strings and the frets weren't normally spaced; they hardly seemed to reduce as they progressed up the neck. Weird though it may have appeared, Allan saw the SynthAxe's musical potential right away and has been its foremost user to date. Almost all the synthesiser parts on his last three albums - 'Atavachron', 'Sand' and his latest release, 'Secrets' - have been played on the Axe and listening to Holdsworth's extraordinary accompaniments to his equally stunning soloing, you begin to realise the true extent of his knowledge, understanding and -maybe above all - musical intuition.

So, what is the musical philosophy of the man whose hands seem able to play whatever his head tells them to..? "Just that the music is the only important thing; the way you write it or the way you play it. I really don't think the instrument has anything to do with it at all. For me the instrument just happens to be the guitar because I am able to express myself more easily on that than, say, the piano."

Influences..?" Very few of the people who've influenced me have been guitar players. One thing they have all been though is great musicians. I think you should be influenced by the people or the things that make you feel the most, and try to find a way of expressing yourself without particularly wanting to sound like someone else. Listen to it, absorb it but don't over-analyse things."

On clones: "One of the saddest things for me is that you can go out and see clones of everybody. You can see John McLaughlin clones, John Coltrane clones, Michael Brecker clones... But the thing is that clones don't count, and what's more it's such a waste of energy. The only recommendation I can give is: admire somebody, like them for what they do but find another way of trying to achieve it." There can be no guitarist - no musician, in fact - who can so honestly claim to have done just that.

This is Allan Holdsworth's first English tour for four years... Enjoy it.