Avantgarde Figur (Musiker 1988)
Summary: Allan Holdsworth, an avant-garde guitar legend, discusses his unique playing style, fascination with guitar synthesizers, and equipment preferences. He values the SynthAxe for its tuning stability, striving to create music rather than adhere to traditional guitar patterns. Holdsworth's unorthodox fingerings are driven by his pursuit of desired sounds, emphasizing playing melodically over specific scales. He prefers Steinberger guitars due to their construction. Holdsworth's musical journey led him from the UK to the US, where he found greater artistic freedom, despite the financial challenges he sometimes faced in pursuing his passion for music. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]
Allan Holdsworth, Avant-garde Figure
MUSIKER Magazin, undated, ca. 1987/88.
By Andreas Vahsen
[Note: This story is auto-translated from the German source (Avantgarde Figur (Original)), which was again transcribed by an OCR scan from a somewhat fuzzy (presumably cellphone) photograph. Therefore, there are errors in the original scan, which are carried through to the translation. As the editor is neither a German nor English speaker, I have only edited some very obvious mistakes. The syntax is sometimes very strange, for the reasons already given. Nevertheless, the basic meaning comes through in most cases.]
[The story is undated in the source, but the interview is carried out on tour in Frankfurt, somewhere around the time of the release of the “Sand” album, as Allan makes comparison to the SynthAxe work on the previous album, when he had just bought his first SynthAxe. This would suggest the date is somewhere in 1987 or 1988. The date has been to January 1 1988 for sorting purposes.]
Large poses are not his thing. Where others like to put themselves in the right light, he considers himself more back. Still, he is one of the greats. If his name is heard, the so-called Guitar Heroes go pale. His innovative playing techniques, his speed and courage for unconventional sound creations have made Allan Holdsworth the leading avant-garde figure in the guitar scene. About his penchant for perfection and the difficulties involved, he reports the following conversation with MUSIKER.
MM: Allan, you're one of the few who have been concerned for some time with the theme guitar synthesizer. What made you decide to work with the SynthAxe?
AH: Well, I have always been interested in guitar synthesizer, it just never works slightly. The way former guitar controller was designed, occurs a really crazy. Who built all their comical pitch-to-voltage guitars, or Pitch to glitch , as I call them. There would be in the world no synthesizer player when keyboards were designed according to the pitch-to-voltage principle. This way of playing is pretty strange. There are many guitarists who just want an additional pickup, with which they can control a synthesizer. Who want to play her guitar, and then are deploying the synth as an effect. I've never seen it that way. I see them as two separate things, just like a grand piano and a synthesizer. For me an electric guitar in a way, is a very acoustic instrument - the connection of vibrating strings with a sound box etc. You still based on these properties, whereas the SynthAxe does not. It is an entirely different matter.
MM: I'm sure you know the idea to put high E strings on all of these voltage units (Pitch to Voltage) raise.
AH: Sure, but this will rob the ability to play guitar normally. One then has it a guitar with six B-strings, or whatever, and is logically can not use the actual guitar sound because the guitar just has six B-strings. Furthermore, it has still this voice problem, and I think that's a terrible torment. You know, to tune guitars is already tedious, but to calibrate the guitar on a synthesizer, is a joke. It would be the same if a keyboard player would have to agree any sound and intonation. I think if you use a MIDI controller that should not happen. When SynthAxe which is well resolved, it remains always in the mood. When we came the last time to Frankfurt, I had just gotten the SynthAxe and got a lot problems with it. Not so many problems with the device itself, but problems to control them in a live situation. I had to get all the patches manually, and it was really difficult. Something you do not want to think about when you play live. Next came SynthAxe out a development.
MM: Step-on-Automation ...
AH: This is now considered everything, because before it was a nightmare. Live anyway. In the studio, she worked well because I used only one sound simultaneously. At first I played a chord background, and then a solo. Now I can also make use of it live, because it is much easier to control.
MM: How did you come to your style of play? When I see them, I have no standard fingering or anything at all again. She appeared to you suddenly, or developed it gradually?
AH: It developed gradually, because I never really wanted to play guitar. Of course, I like the guitar today, for that reason because it is the only instrument that I really dominant. Originally, but I wanted to play a wind instrument.
MM: And your style arose because you wanted to play horn-like?
AH: Well, I did just that the synthesizer is as a variable instrument - just like a wind instrument. I believe that these things can be controlled generally with such good controllers so that they are perfectly acceptable as musical instruments. What I wanted is music-making, be able to approach me what I can really hear in my head, music ... could more than me on the guitar. As I said, I originally wanted to be a saxophonist, but I could then get none. Those things were very expensive, my father then bought a guitar from my uncle and let them just lying around. He did not attempt the slightest effort to arouse my interest. After six months or more I started saying to care for it. I began to practice, rather than playing. Then grabbed my curiosity, and I began to work with it. I think since then I have only thought about music. I respect not really on the guitar, or how it works, what you would normally do. For example, my father was a great music teacher who had seen through without special training, the principle of the guitar with their chord structures, documents, etc. fast and could even give lessons after a short time. But I just wanted to do different things. Ultimately, everything was what I wanted, the ability to improvise. Improvisation is the largest and most difficult for me. It is something I want to dominate. That's why I wanted to find different ways to play over any chord progression without using any formula. Without saying if you follow this chord, you have to follow that, or, if you use this substitution, you have to make it in this way. I wanted to be able everywhere to play the same chords.
MM: You really are using unusual fingerings, with an immense number of over-stretching.
AH: I play so named because of the sound. I do not achieve the desired sound when I move to a different string and limit stops, the central question to her. That's why I play the same note on the previous string. Instead of looking at the guitar as a pattern from one side of the neck to the other, I look at the guitar neck as a whole. More from top to bottom. If chords change, I try to imagine how to shift the positions of the notes. It seems as if the whole fretboard would change. I try from certain directions or positions on the guitar to get away, but in some ways this is very difficult, because the guitar is visually ...
MM: It actually looks quite different, and some sounds I hear not play you. You use a lot of altered sounds, but they all have one major quality. For example, you do not use seemingly the standard modes of melodic minor scale.
AH: When I play a chord progression, I try to play melodically, rather than to think of a scale that matches the chords. I think about what scale I can superimpose these. It's like adding one color to another to make a new color from it.
MM: You play an Ibanez Allan Holdsworth model?
AH: Yes, until recently when I discovered the Steinberger, I had problems with Ibanez. The Ibanez guitar that they built me was really fantastic. I asked them to build me another. They built five or six prototypes and did not get it down right. It changed again and again. Finally, they wanted the guitar that I played. And then I watched this Allan Holdsworth guitar. She was not at all like mine. She was like a completely different guitar. I suspect that I've played maybe 15 or 20 different Ibanez AH-models, and not one was as mine.
MM: In the way as they were built?
AH: Yes, in construction and in certain things that I find very important. For example, I stress to keep the string spacing Gibson excessively, which was not the case with the models that I tried. The distances and the pickups were slightly wider, and the gripping boards were slightly narrower. All the things in which I tried to achieve a balance - as with my guitar. She is great. Also important was the weight. My guitar is very light. The body weighs less than three pounds. All the Ibanez guitars that I found in stores, were heavier. Last year, when I was at the NAMM show in Chicago, I played the Steinberger for the first time. I did not think I would like. She was made of plastic and I had always placed great emphasis on certain types of wood. But she was fantastic. Since then I play the Steinberger,
MM: What equipment do you use currently? What kind of amplifiers?
AH: The equipment that I use is leased. I use two Roland Jazz Chorus amplifier for clear sound, and two Marshall 1 x 12 Cabinet for the lead sound. I have also brought a guitar rack, with Pearce - amplifiers. They are from Buffalo and really excellent amplifier. Solid state so to speak. The SynthAxe and the rhythm guitar run over the same part, which is a bit unfortunate. The SynthAxe sounds really good on full-range equipment. So it is more of a compromise In fact, the guitar sounds. not as good as it should and the synth not as good as he could. I think about it, maybe to make later a tour where I do not play the guitar and just use only the SynthAxe with the right equipment. I get it to sound with the SynthAxe alone, then I use completely different things. so it's really a problem to find something that works with both. then I would not have three plants, one for lead, one for rhythm and one for the SynthAxe.
MM: Where do you live now?
AH: South of Los Angeles, Orange County, Justin.
MM: What made you to go to the United States?
AH: In England I was not able to survive as a musician. A lot of people are not. This is nothing new. My wife supported me. It was really bad. I had to decide if I would accept a permanent job - such. As in a music store repair amplifier or assemble guitars - or if I would just try to keep playing. Well, I saw constantly article about me in American music magazines, and we decided it easy to try. It ended up that we sold everything to pay for the crossing. I did not even have a guitar. When we arrived in America, we went to work and were able to keep us just above water. It was not great, but it was OK, because the people there were much more receptive to the way we played. I could do what I wanted to do in that respect it was good. I played what I wanted to play and could live on it. It was again hard in the last year. We sold a lot of equipment back. If I have money, I buy equipment and when I have none, I sell everything again. Here's always' round and round. "
I do not know what will happen. I'm at a strange point in my life. I feel kind of lost. I do not know if I should continue with my music, or whether I not yet accept another job, perhaps a guitar company for four or five years, I mainly play with the same band - the accompanist changed in part:.. Gary Husband on drums and Chad and Jimmy Johnson. Although I know exactly what I wants to make music, but that it is difficult to finance his living. the last album for example, I loved, but no one will ever know that there is this record. with the new, the same will happen. Actually, I'm with my development in relation to the SynthAxe very satisfied compared to the first record I am very much further, but I'm afraid that it will go down again because of course you ask yourself...? Does it ever make sense sense to do something if no one can hear it? Especially not if you do not even manage to feed your family or to pay the rent.
Translation performed by ChatGPT in September 2023
Great poses are not his thing. Where others like to strike a pose, he tends to stay in the background. Nevertheless, he belongs to the greats. When his name is mentioned, the so-called guitar heroes pale in comparison. His innovative playing techniques, speed, and a penchant for unconventional sound creations have made Allan Holdsworth a leading avant-garde figure in the guitar scene. He talks about his pursuit of perfection and the associated challenges in the following interview with MUSIKER.
MM: Allan, you are one of the few who have been dealing with the topic of guitar synthesizers for some time now. What led you to work with the SynthAxe?
AH: Well, I've always been interested in guitar synthesizers; it's just that it had never worked before. The way previous guitar controllers were designed seemed downright crazy to me. They built all these weird pitch-to-voltage guitars, or "pitch to glitch" as I call them. There would be no synthesizer players in the world if keyboards were constructed based on the pitch-to-voltage principle. This way of playing is quite strange. There are many guitarists who just want an additional pickup to control a synthesizer now and then as an effect while playing their guitar. They see it as two separate things, just like a piano and a synthesizer. To me, an electric guitar is, in a way, a very acoustic instrument, with vibrating strings connected to a soundboard, etc. It's still based on those characteristics, whereas the SynthAxe is not. It's an entirely different thing.
MM: I'm sure you're familiar with the idea of putting high E-strings on all these pitch-to-voltage units.
AH: Sure, but doing that would deprive you of the ability to play guitar. You'd have a guitar with six high E-strings on it or whatever, and naturally, you wouldn't be able to use the guitar's original sound anymore because it now has six high E-strings. Plus, you'd have this tuning problem, which I think is a terrible hassle. Tuning guitars is already a pain, but calibrating a guitar to a synthesizer is a joke. It's like asking a keyboard player to tune and intonate every note. I believe that when using a MIDI controller, this shouldn't be an issue. With the SynthAxe, this is well solved, as it always stays in tune. The last time we came to Frankfurt, I had just received the SynthAxe and had a lot of problems with it. Not so much with the device itself but with controlling it in a live situation. I had to manually recall all the patches, and that was really difficult. It's something you don't want to think about when playing live. After that, SynthAxe came out with an upgrade.
MM: Step-on automation...
AH: That took care of everything because before, it was a nightmare, especially live. In the studio, it worked fine because I was only using one sound at a time. I would play chord pads first, and then do a solo. Now, I can use it live as well because it's much easier to control.
MM: How did you develop your playing style? When I see you play, I don't recognize any standard fingerings or anything like that. Did it suddenly appear to you, or did it develop gradually?
AH: It developed quite gradually because I never really wanted to play the guitar. Of course, I like the guitar now, partly because it's the only instrument I really master. But originally, I wanted to play a wind instrument.
MM: And your style emerged because you wanted to play like a wind instrument?
AH: Well, I just believed that the synthesizer is like a variable instrument, like a wind instrument. I think, in general, these devices can be controlled with such good controllers that they are fully acceptable as musical instruments. What I wanted to do is make music, be able to approach what I can really hear in my head, music... more than I could on the guitar. As I said, originally, I wanted to be a saxophonist, but I couldn't get one back then. They were very expensive. My father then bought a guitar from my uncle and just let it lie around. He didn't make the slightest effort to spark my interest. After six months or more, I started getting interested on my own. I began practicing rather than playing. Then, curiosity got the best of me, and I started working with it. I think ever since, I've only thought about music. I don't really pay attention to the guitar or how it works, which is what you would normally do. For example, my father was a great music teacher who quickly grasped the principle of the guitar with its chord structures, positions, etc., even without special prior knowledge, and after a short time, he could even give lessons. But I just wanted to do things differently. Ultimately, all I wanted was the ability to improvise. Improvisation is the greatest and at the same time the most difficult thing for me. It's something I want to master. That's why I wanted to find different ways to play over any chord sequence without using any formulas. Without saying, if you follow this chord, you have to follow that one, or if you use this substitution, you have to do it this way. I wanted to be able to play the same chords anywhere.
MM: You use really unusual fingerings with an immense number of stretches.
AH: I play like that because of the sound. I don't get the desired sound if I switch to another string and pluck the note there. That's why I play the same note on the previous string. Instead of looking at the guitar as a pattern from one side of the neck to the other, I see the guitar neck as a whole. More from top to bottom. When chords change, I try to imagine how the positions of the notes shift. It seems to me as if the entire fretboard is changing. I try to move away from certain directions or positions on the guitar, but in a way, that's very difficult because the guitar is visual...
MM: It looks completely different, and I don't hear you play certain sounds at all. You use a lot of altered sounds, but they all have a major quality. For example, it seems like you don't use the standard modes of the melodic minor scale.
AH: When I play over a chord progression, I try to play melodically rather than thinking of a scale that fits the chords. I think about what scales I can overlay on top of it. It's like adding one color to another to create a new color.
MM: You play an Ibanez Allan Holdsworth model?
AH: Yes, until recently when I discovered the Steinbergers. I had issues with Ibanez. The Ibanez guitar they built for me was really fantastic. I asked them to build me another one. They built five or six prototypes and couldn't get them right. They kept changing them. Finally, they wanted the guitar I was playing. And then I looked at this Allan Holdsworth guitar. It was nothing like mine. It was like a completely different guitar. I guess I've played maybe 15 or 20 different Ibanez A.H. models, and not a single one was like mine.
MM: In terms of how they were built?
AH: Yes, in the construction and certain things that I consider very important. For example, I emphasize keeping the string spacing Gibson-style, which wasn't the case with the models I tried. The spacings and the pickups were slightly wider, and the fretboards were slightly narrower. All the things where I tried to achieve balance, like with my guitar. It's great. Weight was also important. My guitar is very light. The body weighs less than three pounds. All the Ibanez guitars I found in stores were heavier. Last year, when I was at the NAMM Show in Chicago, I played the Steinberger for the first time. I didn't think I would like it. It was all plastic, and I had always placed a lot of value on certain types of wood. But it was fantastic. Since then, I've been playing the Steinberger.
MM: What equipment are you currently using? What kind of amplifiers?
AH: The equipment I use is rented. I use two Roland Jazz Chorus amplifiers for the clean sound and two Marshall 1x12 cabinets for the lead sound. I also brought a guitar rack with 'Pearce' amplifiers. They're from Buffalo and really excellent amplifiers. Solid-state, so to speak. The SynthAxe and the rhythm guitar run through the same unit, which is somewhat unfortunate. The SynthAxe sounds really good through full-range equipment. So it's more of a compromise. In fact, the guitar doesn't sound as good as it should, and the synth doesn't sound as good as it could. I'm thinking about maybe doing a tour later where I don't play the guitar at all and just use the SynthAxe with the right equipment. I get the sound I want with the SynthAxe alone because I use completely different things then. So it's really a problem to find something that works with both. Then I wouldn't have three setups, one for lead, one for rhythm, and one for the SynthAxe.
MM: Where are you currently living?
AH: South of Los Angeles, in Orange County, Justin.
MM: What made you decide to go to the United States?
AH: In England, I wasn't able to survive as a musician. A lot of people weren't. That's nothing new. My wife supported me. It got really bad. I had to decide whether I would take a permanent job—like repairing amplifiers or building guitars in a music store—or whether I would just try to keep playing. Well, I kept seeing articles about me in American music magazines, and we decided to give it a try. It ended up with us selling everything just to be able to afford the passage. I didn't even have a guitar. When we arrived in America, we started working and barely managed to get by. It wasn't great, but it was okay because people there were much more receptive to the way we played. I could do what I wanted to do, so in that respect, it was good. I played what I wanted to play and could make a living from it. It got tough again last year. We sold a lot of equipment again. When I have money, I buy equipment, and when I don't have any, I sell everything again. It's always going 'round and round. I don't know what will happen. I'm at a strange point in my life. I feel kind of lost. I don't know if I should continue with my music or if I should take another job, maybe with a guitar company. For the past four or five years, I've been mainly playing with the same band, although the supporting musicians have partly changed: Gary Husband on drums and Chad and Jimmy Johnson. I know exactly what I want to do musically, but it's difficult to make a living doing it. For example, I really liked the last album, but nobody even knows it exists. The same will happen with the new one. I'm actually very satisfied with my development with the SynthAxe. Compared to the first record, I've come a long way. But I'm afraid it will go under again. So you wonder: why? Does it even make sense to do something if nobody can hear it? Especially if you can't even manage to feed your family or pay the rent.