Fastest guitarist to play at Charity's (Daily Gazette 1992)

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Fastest guitarist to play at Charity's


20 September 1992

By Michael Hochanadel For The Daily Gazette

Play other peoples' music? Play studio sessions or jingles? No thanks, declined British-born guitar wizard Allan Holdsworth. "I'd rather work at McDonald's," he said defiantly from his Manhattan hotel Saturday. He'd played the Bottom Line the night before, likely reducing a roomful of guitarists to drop-jawed wonderment -- just as he will the roomful of guitar fans at Charity's in Clifton Park tonight.

"People say I'm fast," said flash blues-riffer Gary Moore, "but he's the fastest I've seen." "Any guitarist will put him at the top of the list," Alex Lifeson of Rush said categorically. Eddie Van Halen simply said, "Holdsworth is the best in my book."

So how did Holdsworth wind up with a musicians' musician reputation as the fastest and most fluent axe-man around, and a possible fastfood future? By refusing to compromise his music.

"I never planned to be a musician," he said, "so I was never much orientated toward making money while playing, and always insisted on doing just what I wanted to do." Holdsworth was 17 (and in love with jazz saxophone) when he first picked up a guitar his jazz pianist father had left lying around. Within a year he was playing with bands. "I practiced all day, and worked at night," he said. "At about 25 I decided I actually wanted to do it; until then I'd just been carried along with it."

He moved to London at 27, his skills quickly earning slots in high profile jazz-rock groups. "I liked the Soft Machine because there was a lot of room for me to improvise," he said. "Tony Williams' Lifetime was the same way, but I didn't much like U.K. because there was no space at all. Jean-Luc Ponty - I really liked him, and I liked his playing."

By 1980, Holdsworth was ready to make his own music and formed I.O.U.; a later version of this band was discovered by Eddie Van Halen, and signed at his insistence by Warner Brothers in 1984. They didn't know what to make of Holdsworth's stubborn refusal to find a famous singer to front the band, his dogged insistence on long improvisations. Released after Holdsworth left the label – an experience he now dubs "a disaster - the album "Road Games" won a Grammy nomination as best rock instrumental.

Holdsworth's more recent albums, 1987's "Sand" and 1989's "Secrets", are on the small independent label Restless Records; 1985's "Metal Fatigue" and 1986's "Atavachron" were on the now-defunct Enigma label. These indies lack Warner Brothers' clout and distribution, but give Holdsworth the complete creative freedom he demands.

He's battled demons of doubt while developing a distinctive guitar vocabulary that is both the wonder of the fretted world, and largely derived from other instruments. "I tried viola, violin, clarinet, sax and oboe, just to see what it's like," he said. "The violin, especially, has elements I like; you can change a note after it's begun. Based on that idea, I try to squeeze something out of the guitar which is not in its nature." Consequently, he manages to produce sounds other guitarists can't imagine, let alone execute.

He found in the synthaxe - a guitar-based synthesizer controller - "something that was closer to what I heard in my head than the guitar could do." Emulating a violin or a reed instrument on guitar, "I like to use long notes, but the ordinary way to get those is to use distortion, and I don't want to use that," he said. "I feel trapped sometimes, trying to extract something from the sound that is pure."

He also feels trapped in the nether world between rock and jazz; and admits he's considered quitting guitar - as his father quit piano by age 50. "For 12 years I've done exactly the same thing and not gotten one inch further," Holdsworth said. "People don't really know what they like, and just think they like what they know," he said. "We can't get played on rock radio because programmers think it's not rock, and we can't get played on jazz radio because programmers think it's not jazz." To Holdsworth, it's definitely jazz. "It's the same as any normal jazz group: like my dad always said, there's a harmonic and rhythmic form and each guy is free to improvise within that form. It's using a harmonic vehicle for improvising."

"Music is geographical to the nth degree," he said. "Where people are from is what they are." His music grows from, and gives him, familiar sonic/visual landscapes to share with the listener. "It gives me pictures," he said, "and, I like to put music to pictures."

Holdsworth and his band - longtime drummer Gary Husband, bassist Skuli Sverrissen and keyboard player Steve Hunt - will paint sound pictures tonight at Charity's; Albany guitarist Chuck D'Aloia's group CD3 opens.

Tickets are available at Charity's, Records N' Such in Stuyvesant Plaza and Strawberries.