Castles Made Of Sand (Guitarist 1987)
Summary: Guitarist Allan Holdsworth discusses his album 'Sand' in a 1987 interview. He talks about his musical evolution using the SynthAxe, the challenges of integrating synthesizers into his music, and his desire to prioritize synthesis over guitar solos. Holdsworth also shares frustrations with record labels and his interest in music engineering. He then discusses difficulties faced during performances due to anxiety and nervousness and how alcohol was used to cope with this issue. This emotional state affected their ability to recall chords and keys during live shows, leading to a distressing experience. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]
CASTLES MADE OF SAND
Guitarist, November 1987
One of the most revered musicians of our time and probably most talked about guitarist in these pages, Allan Holdsworth, has recorded a new album 'Sand' Because he refuses to either compromise his music or bow to commercial pressures Allan is again facing the prospect of 'no deal' Neville Marten asked about 'Sand'…
Basically it's a big leap forward for me with the SynthAxe. For the previous album 'Atavachron' I'd only had the SynthAxe a short time before we started recording. In fact, we actually came back off the road and I was waiting at home for it to arrive so that I could start working on the album and I didn't write anything until I got it. So I was thrown in at the deep end in a lot of ways, because I was dealing with the Axe, dealing with the synthesisers and trying to write at the same time. I'm not saying it turned out to be a bad album because there are things about it that I like, but generally speaking I made a lot more progress on the new album, because I've had the Axe for so much longer.
When I had the first one, I think that was even before the step on days. (Step on is the pedal system which allows the player to 'step on' or back through pre-programmed I patches stored in the SynthAxe console. Ed). That was fine in the studio but I came unstuck numerous times on stage trying to recall patches by number. Also, as you know, I always wanted to play a horn - the guitar was pretty much an accident - and I've started using this breath controller which a friend found in a junk store in LA.
Is that the Yamaha model?
Oh, no! It's not a controller which works in conjunction with any synthesiser; it's a totally separate unit. This one can be connected to the MIDI controls, but I've been using it on the audio - it's a voltage controlled filter, basically. It's wonderful because it's given me all this expression, which I didn't think was possible out of it. For example, the second track on the album, called Distance Versus Desire, is like a ballad, and I just solo over the top the chords. I think the kind of expression that can be got with it, kind of surprised myself: you'd always expect to get more from a real instrument. I'm not saying it's not real and eventually those barriers will break down and there will be no definition between real and unreal, because no instrument is real really. I've been using almost exclusively Oberheim stuff and I've got a lot better at it. I didn't want to bring in programmers or anything because I like to know how everything works, even if it's sad. I'd rather get a sad soun d and be responsible for it than have somebody else make me a brilliant one and not know how he got it. So I've gradually been progressing in that department and there's a solo on the title track Sand where I used a Kursweil (sic) 250 Expander and an Oberheim Xpander mixed together. I'd created an oboe-like sound on the Xpander and I used the bassoon patch on the Kursweil (sic) and mixed them both through the breath controller. It was great because the bassoon patch ran out half-way up the range and the Oberheim kind of takes over and it's almost undetectable - it's hard to know where one ran out and the other one took over. But I actually forgot, when I was recording it, that I was playing anything that was anything to do with the guitar at all. I was in the studio and it was almost like I had an oboe in my chops. It's a great feeling because it's closer to what I want to do than I've ever got from the guitar. I've always attempted to get sounds out of the guitar that didn't really want to come out. Plus it' s taken me into a whole new thing; I'm not just dealing with things relating to the guitar.
Was the barrier into the synths the big barrier?
It was kind of confusing because I got the synthesiser before the SynthAxe arrived and I had to look at all these pages in the manual and I was totally clueless. Nothing meant anything at all until I got the SynthAxe and could figure out what was going on - I think I drove Marcus Ryle crazy. (Marcus Ryle was a co-designer or the Oberheim Xpander and Matrix 12 synths and was SynthAxe's service agent in the us. Ed) I think he had his phone number changed by the time I'd finished! But the most important thing was that I had the desire to know. I felt about that like I felt when I first got a guitar or when I first got involved in music; you really want to have a go.
Has it made you very familiar with other synths?
It has helped. I can get around on other synthesisers because I know basically what I'm doing, say when you modulate this with that and you're assigning this to that. It's basically what I've learnt from the Xpander, and it's fairly awesome. The amount of internal patchwork you can do on that machine is pretty incredible. I'm obviously slower on other synths, but it has helped.
There are only two guitar solos on the LP…
Yeah. I don't know whether it will alienate a lot of people, or not. But that was all I felt I wanted to do on it: I really wanted to further my playing on the SynthAxe. Right now I guess the guitar is prominent, from the onlooker's point of view, but eventually I'd like that role to be reversed so that I would just become a synthesist. I'd like people to be more aware of what the music is about, rather than just the fact that I play the guitar. What's so wonderful about the SynthAxe is that it's taken me out of that thing. All these things that I dreamed about I can try and have a go at. It's just unfortunate that I didn't find out about it twenty years ago - but that's life!
The two tracks where I did use the guitar are the two tracks I really felt it should be played on. There's one track which I wrote with Chad Wackerman, which is depicting the train ride from London to Bradford - I used to catch this train from King's Cross to Bradford called the Bradford Executive. I wanted to write something which depicted the changing scenery as you ride by on a train, so the chord sequence doesn't repeat; there's a little motif at the beginning and the end, but the actual structure doesn't change. It's quite a long piece, about seven minutes, so even though there are only two guitar solos, at least this is a long one.
Have you got a record deal over here this time?
No. As usual, for anything I've ever done in my life, England has been just a waste of time - never been able to get anything happening at all. Even though we've got four albums out in the States - five, if you include that sad Warner Brothers album 'Road Games' -none of them are out over here. They're just imports and I'm trying to do something about that, actually. I'm trying to get the company who took the rights to Europe, to make England separate so I can work on a deal releasing albums over here. It wouldn't be like we'd need any money; it would just be a licensing deal. We're not looking for an advance, as such, just an outlet for the album because I know there's a market for it. For instance I went up to see my family in Bradford and there were some guys up there at some record place selling six quid, bootleg cassettes of a gig we did in London, which I was really sick about. Number one it's a sad thing to bootleg things, and number two I think of the music as being for that particular point in time so you go away with whatever feeling you got from it, rather than analysing some cassette or whatever. Apart from the fact that the recording was absolutely abysmal, it made me think that if people are buying these then surely they'd buy a real record, that the people involved in the music would be happy to put out, rather than a recording of some sad gig somewhere.
But no company's interested?
No! In fact we can never get anybody - even in the States - to be interested in the music. I know people at various record companies and they'll actually say to my manager 'Let me know when Allan decides to do something we can sell . . .', so it's sad. The only way anything's happening at all now is that when I was signed to Warner Brothers for that short, sad excursion with them and the 'Road Games' episode, I had a kind of a run-in with Ted Templeman who is their senior vice president - might even be vice president - might even be president. I guess we just didn't hit it off. I mean, I like the guy but he wanted me to do something I just didn't want to do and it seemed ridiculous to have been trying to do something I wanted to do musically, and then be signed to a label that wanted me to do something else.
It was a guaranteed two album deal. We only did one album and Ted wanted us off the label, so they sacked us off the label. But fortunately, because the contract was good, they had to pay me to get rid of me, so I took the money and put it towards 'Metal Fatigue' which put us at a point where we could license the album instead of going to a label and signing away everything. Otherwise you never see any money from it at all.
Why was it so bad; did you hate the album itself?
I hated the album. I hated the way it was done because they wouldn't let me mix it where I wanted to. I had a guy who was engineering it who was under direct control of Ted Templeman. He wasn't like a guy who was working for the band, he was working for the producer - who wasn't there. The other sad thing was that he wanted to change the personnel of the band which caused terrible problems, and I put myself in a lot of trouble because of it, by trying to keep it the way it was originally. For example, they wanted to use a different drummer and a different singer - Geddy Lee or someone - and I wanted to use Paul Williams. But they said there was no way -
they weren't putting the album out if we used Paul. So I went ahead and used him anyway and we remixed some of the tracks ourselves with the money that we'd made selling the first IOU album, by mail order.
Then Ted said 'Go ahead and approve the album yourself'. He was never there; he used to listen to singers over the telephone and never came in the studio, never heard a note. But listening to guys over the phone is pretty hilarious! So he told me to approve it myself- so I did - and Paul was on one of the tracks. I made a personal decision at that point that I couldn't afford to just put Paul on all the tracks and have the album never come out, so I stuck him on just the title track. Then Templeman spotted it and said 'We're not putting the album out'. So I called him and talked to him and he said 'Do you really want this thing out?' and the reason I did was that we'd put so much work into it, so much aggravation. I still liked some of the music even though it hadn't been recorded properly and could have been done a lot better, but he said 'If you really want it out, we'll just let it go'.
So that was the last conversation I had with Ted Templeman and he let the album go. Apparently he told my manager that he felt sorry for me and just put it out because of that. So when they paid me off, I was very happy to be able to make a record how I wanted to make it and that's what started me off on engineering.
I'd always been interested in engineering, I've learnt a lot from it and I try to make each album sound better, through what I've learnt each time.
Speaking of recorded sound, tell us about this electronic box you've been working on...
Well, I've been working on it for a couple of years in its different forms and I've got it to a stage now where I think I'm going to get a company to market it. I'm sure every guitar player has got an amp that they just plug Into and love the sound of- except that it's three hundred times louder than they want it. Or they can't use the processing on it, because the effects send and returns are pretty sad on tube amps, because they're a voltage device. You have to have transformers knocking the level down to get it into your pedal and then another transformer to get it back out, and consequently the sound of the amp's all screwed up. Anybody who's even just used the reverb on an amp that's distorting will know that generally you won't hear the reverb too much while you're playing, but it jumps in when you stop. So basically I made this box which you just plug into the output of any amp. It has an output with a volume and a tone control on it. It's a totally isolated output and it plugs into stereo proce ssing or a mono power amp so you can control the volume from zero to whatever. And it captures all of the sound of the original amplifier. In fact, it sounds better to me. I've played it to quite a lot of people and every amp we've tried it with sounded better with the box than without it. It's not like a power attenuator (sic) or a power-soak, as such, because that's just like a load resistor and it also involves the speaker, whereas this has no speaker involvement at all. But it does have a simulator inside it because a speaker is like an inductor as well, which changes with different frequencies. I've been using this thing on and off for a couple of years and the version I've got is the final one. I've got a lot more gadgets on mine, like A/B tests of various components so I can switch between them and see which one actually works better in live use.
So you've road tested it yourself?
Yeah and I've got a couple of final tests to make - one of which is to decide between a rotary eq or just a variable tone control . . . I haven't decided which yet.
Well, Tom Scholtz has probably made more money out of the Rockman than out of Boston.
He probably did, yeah! He's a bit of a genius that guy. I mean, that's a pretty amazing machine. The sad thing about them to me - I've obviously used them and they're handy and everything - but unless you're really clever with the eq they're kind of hard to disguise. And they cover up a multitude of sins! There's a few guys I know that have used them for some time; they get plugged into an amp and it's like they can't live without it. They get hooked! So I don't use it too much!
You've built an interesting speaker box as well, haven't you?
Yeah. I've had quite a lot of experience with miking and I know exactly what kind of speakers I like and how far away the mike's going to be. But it's very subtle and sometimes you can go to a certain room and not be able to get a sound at all. So I started experimenting with it on 'Atavachron', but I finally approved the design on the new album.
Any guitar player knows about trying to get a consistent sound in the studio but it can be so time consuming - you can go in and move the speaker cabinet and the microphone around for a while and still not be happy with it. So I thought 'This is grim!' So what I did was I made a totally enclosed box that has the microphone and the speaker in it and you can totally change any of the speakers. The baffle slides in and out and I've got loads of different speakers I can put in it - 10's, 15's, 8's, Celestions, Jensons, JBLs or whatever I want to use for a specific sound. I've got a microphone inside the box on a rail, so it can move around, and once you find something you like you just lock it there. So when you go to the studio, you just pick the box up and stick it in the car, plug the amplifier in at one end and plug the other end into the recording console -and you're there!
So the sound will remain identical - from your living room to the studio...
Yeah. You just cart it down to the studio and, providing the microphone stays in exactly the same position, the sound will stay consistent. I've got three different versions of it; a portable one, a slightly bigger one and a very big one. The very big one sounds the best because it's reduced the resonant frequency of the box to below the guitar's audible register, so it's easy to eq out. I've had great results recording guitar at home with that box, in conjunction with the line level box. That way I can get the sound that eventually goes into the speaker box at a minimal level, but still the same 'happening' sound as it would be if I'd plugged it into the speaker fully cranked, except it's making half the noise and you can eq it after the amp and before the speaker.
I also built a room inside my garage so there's like the outside garage and the inside garage - just made of two-by-fours and hardboard - just basic but it is a room and it's the first time in my life I've actually had somewhere I could work, let alone record.
What happened was, with each consecutive record I got further and further in debt with the studio, so I decided that I needed to do some recording at home. When we do the basic tracks in the studio they're always done really fast because the guys - Jimmy Johnson, Gary Husband and Chad Wackerman are so fast - and the basic tracks are done in just two or three days. So I checked around and tried a few machines and decided to get the Akai 1214. Actually it's called the 14D, I think! It's the rack mount version with no board. What we did was mix the basic studio tracks down to two tracks on the Akai and then did the rest of the overdubs at home. It worked out great because even though I couldn't get the same quality on the Akai as using a 24 track Studer, I could make up for the difference by the fact that I was able to spend more time on it - more time fine tuning the sound, rather than just having to go in there and record it because we were out of time. Everybody knows what that's like! So that worke d out pretty good with both the guitar and the synth.
One guitar sound I was pretty pleased with was the one I used on 4.15 Bradford Executive. I used two amplifiers on that, a 50 watt Marshall and a 15 watt Gibson and each of them was going into its respective 'tweak' box. I had the Marshall panned hard left and the Gibson panned hard right and it worked out really good because each amplifier would reproduce different frequencies, slightly more or slightly less all the time, so you would get this nice fluctuation between left and right. It's something I've never done before and I wouldn't have been able to do it without the boxes.
I hear you're getting a special neck - or necks - made for your SynthAxe...
Well, as you know, I love the SynthAxe and it's opened up a whole new world for me - taken me out of the little guitar world - and in conjunction with that breath controller it's just great. The only thing I ever felt that was wrong with it - and it wasn't wrong in concept, because I think the idea is still a good one - was that the frets were too big. I think Bill Aitken originally specified how the frets were going to be and the idea of having the frets linearly spaced, as opposed to like they are on an acoustic instrument, is great because there's no reason for them to be any size at all. But I do think the only mistake was that they were too big, because I could play certain chords and things on the guitar that I can't even reach on the SynthAxe so it's kind of limited my vocabulary in some ways, taking out those things which I could do on the guitar but cannot do on the Axe.
Now I'm trying to have two custom necks made with the same linear spacing, in as much as they won't be spaced how they are on a guitar, but they'll be spaced like they are on a regular SynthAxe only 21% smaller.
How did you arrive at 21%?
Well, what happened was Alec Stansfield from SynthAxe, came out to the States and worked with us when we were doing some SynthAxe demos and I talked to him in detail about it. They kept having people saying 'It doesn't feel like this', 'It doesn't feel like that', and I thought although it's silly to have it exactly like a guitar - because there's no reason for it to be - it still shouldn't be any harder to play than a real guitar. And it was!
So I just said why don't they make it easier, so that I can play I things that I couldn't play on the I guitar, as opposed to the other way around. So I figured that 25% would be a really good reduction in length, because that would make the neck really small, like rabbiting around on a violin. But obviously there's a minimum space between the frets before it starts causing problems electrically, so what Alec did was he figured out the closest you could get the 23rd and 24th frets without getting problems, and it turned out that it was 21% smaller than the existing Axe. So that's what I'm going for.
And you're trying to get a few of your SynthAxe playing mates to come in with you?
Yeah, I'm going to do it anyway, even if I have to scrape up the money myself, because it's something I need to do in order to be able to do all the things I want to do on it. Obviously the cost is high, because it's custom and not just like a regular wood guitar neck. There's a lot of circuitry involved in the neck, so to make it smaller is a big chore and the more you make, the cheaper they become. I'm going to talk to some other SynthAxe chaps and see If we can get at least four or maybe five necks ordered. I would like to have one for each of my Axes, because I've got a spare one and I'd like to have one for that. If I got used to the small one and something went wrong, I'd be in all sorts of trouble when I went back to the original!
Oh, the other interesting thing which I must tell you is that, you know people always come up and ask about the SynthAxe 'Can It sound like a guitar?', and I thought well, let's have a go. I mean it's pretty stupid really to want to control a synthesiser and make it sound like a two hundred and fifty buck Strat plugged into an old Marshall or something. It's kind of weird and I can't imagine anyone wanting the SynthAxe to do that but I thought I'd have a go. So I waffled about on the Matrix 12 and came up with this patch, stuck it through a fifty watt Marshall and recorded it just like you would a guitar. It's really clean and controllable and even though the
sound's distorted, there are no sounds of your hands on the fretboard, like you have on a guitar. So the notes stop in a really neat way; they're not cluttered with all this white noise crud of your hand moving around, which I hate and try and control on the guitar. But it's pretty much eliminated with this. Also that track Mac Man was recorded on a sequencer, using the Mackintosh, except for the solo, which I had to record on my Akai, at home. The rest of it, including Chad's percussion parts, the drum machine and bass, were recorded on the sequencer down at the studio. Mac Man is this chap who has more command of the computer than I've seen from most anybody and he was manipulating it while we were waffling.
The melody part is played with the SynthAxe through a Roland digital piano. It's funny because the first part is like a pseudo acoustic piano and the solo's like pseudo electric guitar. It's an interesting track - a fun track. There are no keyboard controlled synthesisers on the album whatsoever, except for the solo on Pud Wud which is Alan Pasqua. The rest of the sounds - the accompaniment sounds behind the guitar - are just the SynthAxe.
A lot of your music seems to be very much with some sort of image in mind.
I like to see something and then think of something that it conjours (sic) up musically. I've always done that. Most of the tunes have had some kind of meaning even though it hasn't been overly apparent from the title. I think if people could have seen visually what I meant, it would make a whole lot more sense. Sometimes people have to see something visual to be able to relate to it and that's why I would particularly like to get involved in writing for films. I'm sure some of it is tedious and I'm sure it would be really hard work, but it's just the feeling of seeing things change. Generally a tune will have certain sections to it, which I try to avoid - tweak them around a little bit - but with a film it would be perfect, because you could write something for one section and you'd never have to go back there again. You'd just have this one theme that would happen during this one scene and then it would move on. I would really like that.
So, if you had control over it, would you like to do a video of some description?
It would be nice, actually. I would like to do one because I think a video might help us reach more people - people who've never heard us before. Sometimes musicians -guitar players, specifically - have such a dosed mind about certain things and they'll see me playing a SynthAxe and say 'When's he going to put that bloody thing down and play the guitar'. But sometimes you'll get some cleaner at the gig who will come in and be really knocked out with it, asking you great questions 'What do the keys do" and 'What's that you're blowing'. But so many guitarists have this fixation about their little ukulele...
One of the things I want to talk the record company into doing is a video of Mac Man. I'd like that because I think the general punter might be more interested, even if the guitar players don't care about it. Ultimately I never set out to play music for guitar players and even though there are lots of guitar players who hate what I do, there are some who like it and I'm very flattered by that. But that's not important - it's the music that's important.
What do you think of the new wave of speed merchant, rock guitarists?
Well it's funny. It's great! Some of them are like "chops up the ying yang" but there's only a few guys that I like and they're generally not those guys because there's something about the music that I don't particularly like. It's harmonically totally uninventive and if one guy is rabbiting around at a million miles an hour on one chord, it doesn't exactly turn me on. But, for example, I love Scott Henderson's playing and I really like Eric Johnson. To me he's the only guy in the rock vein who's come around who makes a different sound and plays in a different way. Most of them are slightly derivative of Eddie and are into the two handed thing. But there are a few guys who don't use that technique at all, and that's great.
You have said to me before that, whenever you hear players using playing devices that you've been at least partially responsible for - like the vibrato arm slurring and some two handed stuff - you tend to ditch them pretty quick.
Well, for soloing I've never really done any two handed stuff. I've used two hands for chords in a very limited fashion, just to get to notes that I couldn't get to under normal conditions, but I very rarely used it on solos. In fact, I don't use it at all how because I found that the more I started to do that, the more lazy my left hand became and I don't want that to happen.
When people do something, inevitably someone comes along and cops it and that's part of the way music is - people just take things. It's kind of a normal thing but if it's done to the 'nth degree it's absolutely disgusting, and they're like invisible men to me. I mean, I don't know who it was but whoever played the guitar solo on that Mike and the Mechanics thing - I just didn't hear it! It didn't exist! That guitar player doesn't exist. I don't know what else he plays - he might be a 'who do you do' kind of guy -maybe he just does a who do you do of everybody. It's like Bill Connors, who used to sound completely different - it's now Bill who?. I can't imagine how a guy who had a style so much his own can get so lost in something else.
I think it's a healthy thing to take something and move it and use it in a different way. Like Ollie Halsall was responsible for a lot of those tremolo things, but the thing was I didn't sit down and learn the notes he'd played or anything. I see a whammy bar as like the phase pedal - everybody's got one now but when I was looking for whammy bars on guitars in 1972, they all thought you were insane. Now you can't even sell a guitar if it doesn't have one on. So to me it's a superficial thing, bound to have a fleeting use. It's the notes that are the important thing. They're the thing that's not transitory. It's embarrassing when I listen back to how I used to play three or four years ago - it's horrible. It's absolutely horrendous and I can't figure out what I was doing because it sounds so lame. So over the last few years I've decided to place more emphasis on the sound and the notes rather than the 'toy' aspect of it - like a whammy bar or anything else.
I stopped using the whammy bar in the normal sense - like down. I only use it to take things up in pitch, which is one thing I like about the Steinberger.
Do you use the transposing trem?
I use it but not actually to transpose. I don't lock it into the next key and then play something there. What I do like about it is that all the strings change uniformly so that if I'm playing something and I want to bend up to something on the D string, I know that if I move the arm the same amount for a note I'm going to play on the G string, I'll get a tone - if I want to get a tone. Because I've figured out that a certain movement gets you a tone, whereas with a normal one, you might get a semi-tone on the high E string and an octave on the bottom one. It's a great machine, although it took me a long time to get used to It.
Unlike most players you seem to play four notes on each string rather than the more conventional three.
When I practise scales I will play four notes on one string. If I'm playing a C major scale, starting on F, I'll play the F, G, A, and B on one string and the C will be on the A string etc, etc. Because I found not only was it good for my hands but it was really good for interconnecting things. Because I didn't want to end up playing in positions - like you'd see guys playing, and every time it was a different chord their hand would be in a completely different position and I wanted to eliminate that completely. So I always practised playing scales in every position and I looked at four notes per string as a way of connecting positions together. Because If you want to get from one end of the neck to the other you can use that, rather than actually changing positions, which seemed a little bit awkward to me. But it was good for my hands because it makes you reach a bit further. But now I try not to play more than two or three notes consecutively in one direction - try and juggle them around a little bit .
You have a very snappy left hand; your pull-offs can sound like picked notes.
Well, I never use pull-offs because I don't like the sort of 'meow' sound they make with the string being deflected sideways. So I kind of tap the finger on and lift it directly off the string . I practise trying to make all the notes play the same volume or even some of the notes I've hammered, louder than the notes I've picked. So you can place an accent anywhere you normally would if you were using a pick. I've got better at it now and when I listen to it I can pick up what's going on and I think it's harder to tell, now, what's picked and what isn't. But basically I wanted to make a note I'd hammered, louder than a note I'd picked.
Are you playing well at the moment, by your own standards?
I don't know! I'm always trying. I learn things all the time it's a constant learning process. I'll find out new things - like learning more about harmony - generally trying to improve my knowledge of music and hopefully that keeps changing and will never end. It's like anything else; the more you learn about it, the more you realise you don't know. You just have to absorb as much as you can and try to use it in the best way possible.
How is your music theory; do you read for instance?
No I don't. But I don't think that would affect your theoretical knowledge. For example, my father helped me a lot with regard to that, because I understand chords and scales and that changes from day to day and hopefully grows from time to time. So I think it's possible for people to know a lot about harmony, for example, without having to read. But I've never been able to read, although when I first started playing I was dabbling around on wind instruments - but I used to perforate my ears all the time - and I found it incredibly easy to read on a wind instrument. When I saw Eb, there was only one place I could play Eb in that octave. But I could never get it together on the guitar; I could never decide where I wanted to play a given note. I'd see a phrase on a piece of paper and just get completely confused as to where I wanted to play it - which may or may not have been practice and may or may not have been that I didn't pursue it enough. But you're still thinking about the notes, but you're thinki ng about them from the inside instead of the outside. Like superimposing things. I like to superimpose two or three different chords over the top of one chord. A very simple example is playing a G major triad, starting on the low E string, and then an octave above that play an F sharp triad and the octave above that play an F triad. So when you play them the actual harmony is going down but the notes are going up. I like those kinds of things.
It's like there was a thing Pat Martino used to do where he played a chromatic scale but every interval would be in a different octave. You'd never get two consecutive notes together and it's incredibly difficult to do and he used to do it really fast. It's an amazing thing to play because it's not something that you can just practise and play the same way every time. If you get great at it, like he did, you can use a simple little device like that.
It must be quite difficult, initially, to recognise it as a chromatic scale
Well it would be, yeah. But it's something you can use when you're passing from one change to another. I like to experiment with all those kinds of things but, as I said, I don't think not being able to read impairs your theory at all. It can slow down your intake of it - like Nicolas Slonimsky's 'Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns', for example. It was harder for me to go to that than it might have been for some other guys, but at least it was written enharmonically - not written in any key - and all the accidentals are added. Funnily enough I can read that, but if it's got a key signature I'm completely baffled. If I see a Bb every time I know it's a Bb.
Your closely voiced chords, were they something you hit early on; I know you hate certain inversions, like the root, third, fifth, seventh of a standard major seven chord
Yeah, the basic major seven chord -the first one you probably learn on the guitar - is absolutely offensive to me. It's horrible and I've always felt that about chords even before I started playing and knew what they were. I'd hear a certain chord and go 'Yuk!' So I just started experimenting by taking three or four notes and I'd take a triad and go through all the inversions I could get on the lower three strings, then do the same on the next three, and so on. Then I'd take a four note chord and do the same, then five and so on. Obviously when you get to six note chords there are not too many six note chords for guitar
…without doubling up…
Yeah. Generally the guitar only plays four note chords and that's how I did it - mathematically, really. Then I'd write them all out and play them, find the ones I liked and discard the ones I didn't. So I always ended up playing a different inversion than was normal. So, when someone says to me 'Oh, just play a C major seventh', I'd probably automatically play something different to someone else. I'm not saying no one else would do something better, it's just that I would go to the ones that I like the sound of.
I don't like altered dominant chords (C7, for example, with a b5 and an added b9 is an altered dominant - it speaks far itself really. Ed). I don't like the way they sound and obviously there are more of them than any other type of chord so I always try to substitute them or put the notes in an order where the sound you hear isn't so easily recognisable as just a nasty old altered dominant chord. Of course that gets hard on a guitar because of all the notes that should be in it -there's quite a lot and it's not that easy to play that amount. So on guitar they leave out certain notes and I used to say to my dad 'How come this chord's got three names?' And he'd tell me that if you use this bass note it's this chord and if you use that bass note it's that chord. Then you realise that you don't see things the same way as a piano player, where they see everything from the root. After a while I realised what was happening and that the guitar was only playing a minimum amount of notes at any one time.
Then it was easy to go from that on to the next step of putting all the chords between the chords, like chord scales. Taking the next group of notes that you've got in a four note chord up to the next position, taking all the notes that would be in the scale, not only the notes that would be in the chord. Like I could explain it using a C major seven chord. I would just work out all the inversions of all the chords in between - even the ones that didn't constitute real major seven chords at all - and I've done that ever since. So if someone shouts out a particular chord I might not play a chord that has any of the necessary relevant notes in it, but it will have all or some of the relevant notes that are in that scale in it. That was something I noticed piano players did all the time and which guitar players didn't do very much.
You seem to have broken down a lot of the barriers that the guitar puts in the way and there are quite a lot of musical barriers on the guitar really.
Yeah. I'm amazed at how great some guitar players have got over the years because it's definitely not an easy instrument to play. But everybody and his brother plays guitar and so the barriers are flying down.
When you're soloing you're generally soloing over your own changes, so you know them inside out.
You'd automatically assume that because I've written the thing it would be easier for me to do that, but it's not. In actual fact some of the tunes that I've written I find incredibly difficult to solo over, and sometimes I have to sit down for a long time. Because it's one thing to harmonically create something and it's another thing to blow like crazy over it. So I have tremendous problems with some of my own tunes, unless they're particularly simple. I like to put chords in orders that they wouldn't necessarily come in and I've seen other guys have a little bit of trouble with them, so that always makes me feel a lot better.
Are you thinking musically or arithmetically that this scale or this arpeggio will fit that chord?
I try to think of improvisation as being an unconscious release of everything you've learnt in the past. But you don't particularly want to be so concentrated on it that your creativity's bunged up. You know what the chords are and what the scales are that constitute the chord progression, and what I try to do is to solo over them as inventively as I can at the time. That might mean superimposing different things - chords on top of other chords, in a scalic way - because I like things that kind of tweak your ear and make you want to hear that bit again. I just try to be as inventive as I can, which is not that Inventive, but it's the best I can do at the time.
But you must be one of the most inventive guitarists…
I don't know what other people think; It's hard to analyse. It's harder to relate to what other people think about it.
You must listen to music generally and realise what you do is radically different to the majority.
I realise it's different. I've basically got goals set for myself in as much as how I'd like to play eventually, which is where the SynthAxe comes in, and hopefully one day I can bury the guitar. I can see a point in the future where people who learn to play instruments may not necessarily have ever played the acoustic version of that instrument. Even now, I know guys who play keyboards who have never played a piano - apart from tinkling on one. Assuming there isn't another world war that blitzes everything, who knows, in maybe just a few years you'll get kids coming up playing instruments that don't bear much resemblance to the electric guitar.
The electric guitar's a pretty cheesy thing when you think about it; still working on those bits of wire and magnets for its sound. It's all of the things that are wrong with it that have made it the unique instrument it is. Because it still works by a vibrating string, it's much more of an acoustic instrument than people would have given it credit for, initially.
To me, I don't see any difference between a synthesiser and an acoustic instrument. It's what's done on it that counts. If it's a dog pile then it's a dog pile no matter what it's done on.
Do you practise very much?
Sometimes a lot, sometimes not. I don't have a set schedule but I usually end up playing at least once a day. Generally if I come back off the road I'm too wasted to do anything. But at the same time I always come back feeling really disappointed in my performance, and kind of look to make the things I did that sounded lame, sound better.
But you're your own worst critic. I've seen you play when I and everybody else in the audience have thought it stupendous and you've come off stage really disappointed.
Well, that's generally how I feel. It's very rare and I kind of get scared when anything happens that I liked: I think 'What went wrong?'. I'd say about once or twice a year I have a gig that I think was OK and they're usually like those gigs where it almost feels like something else took over, but generally it feels like I'm labouring like crazy over it and can't make sense out of anything and I end up playing a load of crud.
About three years ago I started getting really distressed before we played: I'd get so anxious and so nervous I'd literally have complete blanks. I wouldn't even be able to remember what key or what chord was happening In the first song. Somebody would count the song in and I'd really not know what to do - It was really horrendous. It scared me! All the guys in the band tried to help me relax and at that time the only way I could relax was to pound a few more ales. It got to the stage where it didn't matter how many ales I had, I was still trembling. So I realised I had to do something about it and I stopped drinking before I played and that's something I'd never done before. I've never been able to play without having a drink. I've actually had recordings and I know it's true - I'm not saying getting plastered or anything - but, you know, a couple of pints and I'd feel a lot more relaxed. Sometimes I'd play and I'd be so nervous that my playing would be erratic and you can hear it on the tape, even months later.
Do you analyse them?
I record gig tapes from two or three tours ago and listen to them and get a truer perspective of what's happening. When I listen to them after the gig I hate them because you are really close to it and you know what you were trying to do. You know what happened and what didn't happen, but six months or a year later you've kind of forgotten what you were trying to do on a specific gig and you can listen to it from outside it. It's surprising sometimes; something I thought was really horrible doesn't sound as horrible and vice versa, something that I thought was quite a good gig can sound horrendous!