Allan Holdsworth (Guitarist 1985)
Summary: Allan Holdsworth discusses his current activities, including the release of the album 'Metal Fatigue' in the United States. He reflects on his decision to move from the UK to the US to pursue his musical vision. Holdsworth emphasizes that technical proficiency was never his primary goal but rather a means to express his musical ideas. He advocates for aspiring musicians to prioritize the music they want to play and develop their unique style rather than cloning others. Holdsworth also describes his custom-made Ibanez guitar and his preference for Pearce Electronics amplifiers. He expresses admiration for various guitarists and musicians across different genres. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]
Guitarist, May 1985
What are you doing at the moment?
Well, we've got a new album coming out soon in the States, called 'Metal Fatigue', on the Enigma label. I understand it's going to be released over here, unlike the last one, Road Games', which was on Warner Brothers, but I don't know which label it will be on. Warner Brothers took an awful tong time to decide whether they wanted us to do another album or not, which is why this one's taken such a long time to come out. The majority of the recording was actually done quite a while ago, and there are two different sets of personnel. On side one it was Chad Wackerman on drums, Jimmy Johnson on bass, Paul Williams on vocals and myself on guitar. On side two Gary Husband, (an original member of the IOU band) played drums, Gary Willis was on bass and Alan Pasqua played some keyboards. The first line up is the one we're touring with at the moment, and we're just off to Japan. Hopefully, we're going back to the States to record the next album, which I'm really hoping will feature the SynthAxe.
Why did you leave the UK. to go to America?
Basically, it was because I thought I had tried as hard as I could to play what I wanted to play in England, and couldn't really get anywhere. It had actually got to a point where I decided that I wasn't going to be a musician any more. I was just going to get a job, like my father had, in a factory or a music store or something and just play for my own amusement. I'd never stop playing, because I would always have the interest to play, but I don't want to play pop music and I don't want to be a session player; selfishly, I just want to play what I want.
I really didn't expect anything to happen though which is why, before I left England, I was quite prepared to drop out of music completely. Luckily, the bass player in the band at that time, Paul Carmichael, went over to the States and met a girl there who said she could get us some gigs, because people knew who we were. We went over there and were absolutely astounded at the response. Basically, I've never looked back.
It was like a last chance for me, because I definitely knew what would happen to me if I stayed here, which was absolutely zero, so why not try. I did, and this is our third album since we left, so I'm really quite pleased. I love England, I always will, but for me it's just not the place to be for music. It's great for certain people and certain kinds of pop music, but for me it was just impossible.
What about your phenomenal technique, did you make a conscious effort to learn to play fast?
Absolutely not. I can understand how it might have seemed that way to some people at a certain point in my life, but it's certainly never been an important thing. I suppose when you're young, you tend to waffle more, you know, eventually trying to get it together. But I think my playing has improved over the years, as most people's does.
It's just that I understood, when I first started playing, that if I wanted to be able to play what I wanted to hear I needed a certain amount of technique in order to be able to achieve that, otherwise I would only become frustrated. Of course, as the years go by, your technique develops but so does your use of musical language, and they seem to merge more. At some point I might have been more involved in the physical aspects of it, whereas it's not so physical any more, it's more of a mental thing. I find that my playing has developed more from thinking about it than playing. The more you have, in terms of physical technique, the more things you are able to do on the spur of the moment - without actually having to practice them.
One of the things I've noticed about practicing is that, if you practice, you tend to become good at practicing and I didn't ever want to do that. I wanted to have the freedom whereby, if I was playing a solo on a certain set of chord changes, I might be able to come up with something new on it each time. Quite often it's not like that, and you find yourself falling over the same things, which is when I get really depressed. So, basically, the technique is a way of being able to connect my brain to my hands. You don't start out that way, it's a far more frenzied thing, and there's a lot of waffling involved, butt don't think I've been like that for a while now.
Your style is very unique, did you arrive at it by listening to other players, or was it purely what you heard in your own head?
No, no, I listened to lots of different things, but I tried just to draw from the things which I found particularly moving, and which made me feel something. Sometimes I will be in awe of something I hear which is amazing in a technical sense but, usually, it's how emotively it connects with me; like listening to Michael Brecker or Keith Jarrett when you get that feeling up your back and your hair stands on end. That's the feeling that I try to extract.
When I first started playing I tried to copy people, but soon realised that it didn't get me anywhere; I didn't seem to be learning anything at all. So I decided I had to try to find out what the essence, the core or the motivation behind those people was, and that's the kind of thing I'm looking for; just a way to express myself through an instrument. It could have been anything. It just turned out that it was the guitar.
I didn't really want to play the guitar, I wanted to play Saxophone, but it just so happened that I didn't get a Saxophone, I got a guitar and that's where it all started. That is why this SynthAxe thing is so interesting to me, because for a long time now I've been very interested in the compositional side of things. One of the things I'd really love to do is get an amazing band together but not be a player in it at all, just a writer. I'd love to write a piece of music that a set of musicians could embellish. The themes and the chord structures would be fixed, but the rest of it would be very open to interpretation. In the framework of a band you can tell the players roughly how it is, they know what the bar lengths are and they can take it from there, without ever getting lost or the music becoming something else.
One of the things that drove me crazy when I used to work with UK, was that everything was always superficially organised, but it wasn't organised at all really. It's like an insect that's got the skeleton on the outside, and I prefer it when the skeleton is on the inside. Not that there's anything wrong with insects, bugs are great!
I hear you've got a rather interesting new guitar, would you like to tell us something about it?
Well, until about a year ago I was using a Charvel guitar, very similar to a Stratocaster, which was built for me by Graver Jackson of the Charvel manufacturing company out in California.
Then, about a year ago, Ibanez said they would be interested in making a guitar to my specific design. So, we took all the things that I'd learned over the years, including the time in England, when my 'main man' was Dick Knight, along with his son-in-law Gordon, and they were marvellous to me. They gave me greatly reduced bills when I wasn't working, and Dick helped me experiment with different woods. One of the things I found was that I loved the sound of light guitars.
Grover had made me some guitars out of Basswood, which is a really lightweight, resonant wood used for making furniture - drawers and things. It's very unaffected and doesn't absorb moisture easily, so it's ideal for painting. It's a very sonorous wood and I love the sound of it.
We used a quarter-sawn Maple neck with Ebony fingerboard, an inch and eleven sixteenths at the nut to two and a quarter inches at the body, with a seventeen inch radius on the fingerboard -so it's very flat. I've been using Jim Dunlop 60/J 00 frets, which are very high; I like them to go right to the very edge of the fingerboard and cut quite steeply. Ibanez made about six different guitars and each one was progressively better than the one before until, about six months ago, when they gave me a guitar which was absolutely marvellous, the best guitar I've ever owned.
They then decided that they were actually going to produce this guitar, which is great. The funniest thing was that at the NAMM show, when they brought one of the first production models for me to have a look at, it was so good, I managed to blag them into letting me have it. They tell me that they're weighing the individual bodies and, if they are over or under a certain weight they are not getting through. I think it's marvellous for such a big company to go to those extremes.
One of the original prototypes didn't have a scratchplate and the pickup was mounted directly onto the body. We took that very same guitar, hollowed out a cavity down the middle and put a scratchplate on it, with a single humbucker. It improved the sound by at least 60%! The other great thing is that, because there's a cavity, you can use any pickup configuration you like, mounted on a scratchplate and don't have to do any hacking!
Do you prefer any particular amplifier?
The amps I'm using at the moment are made by a small and fairly new company called Pearce Electronics, out in New York. They are all solid-state with independent effects send and return loops for each channel, so you can set two of them up for stereo lead and stereo rhythm. The other great thing is that they are so portable; they only take up a single rack mounting space. They're great!
What advice would you give to anybody starting out playing jazz, or even to someone who is quite proficient at rock guitar, but would like to extend their horizons?
As I mentioned before, I didn't really want to play the guitar, I wanted to be a saxophonist and what has come to light for me is that the music is the most 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 happens to be the guitar, because I've played that particular instrument longer than anything else and am able to express myself more easily on it, than say on piano. It's only as time has evolved that I've got to a certain stage -however grim, or good doesn't matter- it's just better now than it was a few years ago.
If you want to play a particular sort of music, it's that music which has to be the most important thing.
I don't think anyone should want to play like another guy, because I know that very few of the people who have really influenced me have been guitar players. One thing they have all been, though, is great musicians. The most important thing is to 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, try to absorb it, but don't over-analyse things.
For me, one of the saddest things of all is that you can go out and see clones of everybody; John McLaughlin clones, John Coltrane clones; Michael Brecker clones. The thing is that clones don't count - and it's such a waste of energy. So, the only recommendation I can give is, admire somebody, like them for what they do, but find another way of trying to achieve it. Don't just do it the way they do it.
I once saw a clone in Boston... it was extremely flattering in one way, although terribly saddening in another. It seemed such a waste of energy on his part; he could have put all that energy into figuring out his own way of doing things, because he'll never be given credit for it.
So, just go for the music that you want to play, no matter how simple or complicated it might be. It doesn't matter really, as long as it's good!
How can people improve their playing?
How to get better is to find out what's wrong with your own playing and give yourself a kick in the pants! Each night you have to note the points where it was particularly gruesome, or where you did something wrong and just try to rectify all the things that you keep messing up. At the same time try to develop the things that you might be on the right track with.
Are there any guitarists you especially like?
Oh yeah, thousands - ranging from Jimmy Rainey to John McLaughlin or, Pat Metheny to Gary Moore. If it's good, it doesn't matter what kind of music it is!