Guitar Synths in Jazz (Music Technology 1987)

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Summary: Allan Holdsworth, a renowned guitarist, initially aspired to play the saxophone but began with a guitar due to affordability. His music career led him to influential jazz-rock groups, including Soft Machine and collaborations with musicians like Tony Williams and Jean-Luc Ponty. Holdsworth embraced the SynthAxe, creating unique textures, and experimenting with synthesizers on his album "Sand." He discussed the creative freedom the SynthAxe provided and how it helped him transcend the traditional guitar, seeking to achieve his musical vision. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]

Guitar Synths in Jazz

Music Technology, May 1987 By Rick Davies

(Photos uncredited in source, but presumably by Peter Figen. See

I NEVER REALLY WANTED to play guitar in the first place, it was just an accident." (I can't believe I'm hearing this.) "I wanted to play saxophone. I wouldn't have been a musician at all, except my dad bought a guitar from an uncle, and left it lying around. At the time, saxophones were very expensive and not very easily come by, so l started messing around with it.'

So begins the story of one of the most influential guitarists of the past decade. A story which also involves many of Europe's most influential jazz-rock groups, as well as a few on this side of the pond.

Starting his musical career in a Mecca dance club in Sunderland, England, Allan finally made the move to London after alto flute player Ray Rollie (sic, Warleigh) asked him to sit in at a jam session. This led to Allan to join Jon Hiseman's band, and eventually to the ground-breaking jazz-rock band, Soft Machine. Since then, he has performed and recorded with Tony Williams, Jean-Luc Ponty, Gong, UK, Bill Bruford, and his own band, IOU, with Jeff Berlin.

His last solo album, Atavachron, marked a turning point in Allan's career, featuring much more synthesizer than is generally expected on a 'guitarist' album. His involvement with the SynthAxe is largely responsible for this development, since it has allowed him to step into a role generally reserved for keyboard players. But the changes in his music are not merely in the tonalities of the lead and backing instruments; the character of his compositions has definitely evolved in new directions since his plunge into synthesizers without forsaking the nuances of his playing style altogether.

I met Allan at Bernie Grundman’s Mastering Studios, where he was mastering his forthcoming album, Sand, for the Relativity label. The two cuts I heard indicated that, yet again, Allan Holdsworth would be setting new standards for guitarists, even though synthesizers are the main components in his new textures. This album will certainly give guitarists food for thought...

"The line-up on this album is a trio. Jimmy Johnson played bass on the whole album, Chad Wackerman played drums on one side, and Gary Husband played on the other side. So it's basically a trio. We did have a guest soloist, Alan Pasqua, who is my favorite piano player. He always has been since we worked together in the Tony Williams band. I really like to work with him... He's great, a lovely guy. He played a solo on one cut. That's the only keyboard-controlled racket on the album. I'd love to get him to go on the road; he's a very busy chap, and it's difficult to get him away for any length of time. But if we did some local gigs, or some short tours, two week spans, we'd hook him up, somehow. When I work with Alan, he always seems incredibly focused. The music never changes, it grows. He always manages to take something I've written and make more of it in a way in which I would hear it. That to me is a magic thing, it rarely happens. I'm sure other people have that rapport with other, different musicians. It's almost like I want to stay as a trio unless I can get Alan to go out with us...

"I'm interested in what people think about it. I think it's going to be immediately obvious that you wouldn't be able to do that on any other kind of controller. Some of the textures and the controllability would be impossible on something else. Who knows? They might hate it. "Where's the guitar, where's the guitar? Allan's not playing guitar anymore!"

I am amazed to find out that there was, in fact, no guitar on either of the two tracks heard in the mastering studio...

"That was the SynthAxe through a Marshall. The first track was guitar, but the last track was the SynthAxe. Most of the other sounds I used on the SynthAxe were guitar-like sounds, or horn-like sounds, because that's the instrument I hear in my head. I've always tried to get the guitar to sound like a horn. It's easier for me to get the SynthAxe to sound like a horn than it was the guitar.

"One tune we did, a piece called "Distance vs. Desire', which is a ballad, is like a duet with myself. I think I was able to get as much expressiveness out of the synthesizer as I've ever been able to get out of a guitar. So that was a revelation to me, something to get totally excited about, seeing as I'm still new at it.

“On the last piece, where I did the guitar sound, I wanted to see if I could do that. I just did it as a challenge. It's really amazing that you thought it was guitar.'

Holdsworth seems to pattern a lot of his playing after wind instruments. Is this intentional?

“I guess it's just a natural thing because I always wanted to play a horn. Always wanting to play a horn and shape a note, have it get loud and then quiet and soft, and then bend it and straighten it, make it loud and then mellow again. All after you've played a note, which are things very difficult to do on guitar. And I tried to do them on guitar, the way you hit the string with either hand, the way you can shape the note with a pick...'

So if he's primarily using the SynthAxe, does he record his performances as MIDI data into a sequencer?

“I've considered it; I might even do something like that on another album. I'd like to do an album like that. And because it would all be synthesized, I could just record it into the computer, like we did on the last track on the album. Everything was recorded on the computer except the solo; that was recorded to tape, because I used the guitar amplifier and all that. It would have been more complicated to record it and then process it, because I wouldn't have been able to get the same feel without hearing that sound.'

As it turns out, one of the tracks I heard, entitled 'Mac Man', featured some stunning sequences created using Mark of the Unicorn's Performer program and a Roland digital piano. Allan points out that he used the SynthAxe's Poly mode 3 rather than Poly mode 1. From there, Macintosh ace John England (MacMan, himself) edited the sequenced track with Performer. Chad Wackerman played live to the track, and his performance was recorded as MIDI data into the sequencer, leaving the leadline the only part not sequenced. Allan says he's looking forward to getting into an Atari ST to run the Steinberg sequencer program, which is apparently ideally suited for recording MIDI data output by the SynthAxe in Poly mode 3.

ON ONE TRACK on Sand, Holdsworth took advantage of the multitrack recording process to enhance his composition.

“We did that piece in a really bizarre way. I wanted to describe a train ride. I used to catch this train called the Bradford Executive from London to Bradford, and I wanted to try to musically depict the changes from south to north on that train. So we just set up the drum machine to get the chug-a-lug kind of feel, and then I improvised some chords. Then we added real drums and guitar, just improvising over the chords, myself and Chad.

“Then I took the tape home, stripped everything off it again, and just left Chad's real drums there, and wrote the whole piece around the drums. Instead of just writing a chord sequence, I wrote it around what I heard him play. The chord sequence never repeats; there's a little motif at the beginning and at the end, but the rest of it never repeats at all, for eight minutes or so.

“I just wanted to do that track like that. I'll probably never do it again, but it was an interesting experience. It was like writing to a picture-film music, in a way.'

Running a home studio obviously affords Allan the luxury of such experimentation. What is his home studio like?

“I have a place where I can work, but I don't have a board as such. You really don't need one except for monitoring. I use an Akai 1214, and I recently started using the 14D, which is the rack-mount Akai tape deck. It's a nice-sounding machine and it really worked out well. I did all of the solos on it. I didn't do any of the solos in the studio.

“We used to go in the studio and spend hours miking up. I learned quite a bit about miking techniques, so I decided it would be a good idea to make a totally enclosed box. So I did, and it works great. It's probably about 5' long, 3' high and 3' wide, and that contains a speaker cabinet design with totally exchangeable baffles. I can take baffles out and change speakers really quick. It's got a Neumann U87, and a specially constructed stand which I can move, but once I find a sound I like, it's permanently located.'

Allan drives the box with a Pearce amp head, and listens to it over studio monitors when he's recording, though he has found this system to be equally indispensable in live performance.

“I started out with the road version, which was much more primitive. I was fed up with getting a different sound every night, and I wanted to make it consistent. Almost everywhere I go, the guitar sound is consistent. The only thing that changes is the PA maybe, or the room sound, but the sound that comes out of the cabinets is always the same. For convenience sake, I've just been using a couple of single-12 cabinets with those new JBL guitar series speakers, though I really should monitor it on more fullrange speakers.'

OVER THE LAST couple of years, Allan Holdsworth has become one of the SynthAxe's most vocal supporters. In 1986, he released Atavachron, proving that there is, now more than ever, a difference between ‘keyboard' and 'synthesizer' music. Yet as Allan explains, there is much more to his favorite axe than the sounds to which he now has access.

“In a way, the SynthAxe has kind of taken over for me, because I can reach what I want to do musically more with the SynthAxe than I could with the guitar. It seems like I've been waiting all my life for this instrument, because it allows me to do all the things I could never do with guitar. Like the last track on the album; it sounds pretty much like guitar, and I did that by creating a sound using the Oberheim Matrix 12, and then combining two separate sounds and putting them into a little 15-Watt Marshall.

“That was my first attempt, and I did that solo really fast. Usually, I'll spend time making a solo, getting a sound. I might spend five or six hours on a sound. At home, that is - I wouldn't do that in the studio. At home it's great, because I just say, oh, this sounds pretty good, go out and have a beer, and comeback next day and listen to it. And if it doesn't sound good to me, I can change it until it does. If that was studio time, I'd be paying a lot of money for experimenting, and I'm such an experimenter, really. So using the Akai has just been fantastic, because with the noise-reduction system on it, it hasn't impaired the guitar sound at all, and I think I've been able to achieve as good a sound, if not the best sound, as I've had so far.

And speaking of sounds, are there any samplers on the new album?

'I've got a Kurzweil 250 Expander I used on some of the things. But the only synthesizers I used on the whole thing are Oberheim. I'm an Oberheim freak. I've got an Oberheim Xpander and two Matrix 12s. They're really flexible, just great.

“I started off in the deep end, really, because the first synthesizer I got was a Matrix 12, and it isn't the easiest synthesizer for a beginner. But it helped me, I think. I've had a lot of help from Marcus Ryle, who's one of the designers. He must have been fed up with me calling, Marcus, Marcus! How can I do this?

“But I've got a reasonable understanding of it now. I've created a lot of my own patches from scratch and it's getting closer. No cigar perhaps, but it's getting closer.'

Getting back to guitars, what's it like translating all of Holdsworth's guitar technique to an instrument like the SynthAxe?

“The only limitations are in your ability to control the synthesizer and make it understand what you want it to do. That's really opened up to me in the last year. When we did the first album with the SynthAxe, Atavachron, I was still pretty new at it. It's been a year and a half now. I’ve learned a lot about synthesis since then, and have used a lot of different things.

“I use the breath controller a lot on it, because I always wanted to play a horn. Breath controllers have been around for a long time, but keyboard players generally don't like them. But for me, it seems so natural, because I really think I should have played a horn. So when I play the SynthAxe with a breath controller, I am playing a horn; I feel like I've actually achieved what I wanted to do.

“There are a lot of things on the last track on the album that I did with the SynthAxe simulating the guitar sound that were very reminiscent of things that I would do on guitar if I could do them almost the same way.

'Plus the fact that l could even use the breath controller to control the guitar sound, or a SynthAxe guitar sound. That’s one of the things about the SynthAxe as well that, to me, is so superior to all other kinds of guitar synthesizers or controllers. A guitar's not a really good way to control a synthesizer. When you play a note and the string dies, then the note's going to die, unless you’ve got a hold pedal, and you're constantly fighting with another pedal on the floor, whereas with the SynthAxe, I can program it to sustain that note until I mute it. 'So to me, to put hexaphonic pickups on the guitar, the way Roland does it, is silly; besides, I think the pitch-to-voltage - or pitch-to-glitch technology, as I call it - is coming to an end. They've gotten just about as far as they can go. It's a glorified guitar tuner. You play a note, it has to decide what the note is, and then figure out if it made any mistakes. There would be no keyboard player in the world who would play a pitch-to voltage keyboard, so why do they expect guitar players to do that?

“To me, the SynthAxe is the birth of the next generation of controllers, and the improvements and advancements that they've made since I got the first one have been astounding. Every week, they've got something else that does something it didn't do before. You can write your own law tables for velocity - the way the keys work and everything. It's awesome. Nobody really appreciates it yet, but I've found the SynthAxe is the only way to get total control over everything.

“...I always think of sounds as a uniform thing. If I'd been a piano player, I wouldn't be a guy that would want to play and accompany myself. I like playing with other people, I like the interaction. I can't play bass - I like to play with somebody like Jimmy who's fantastic. It's a whole different way of looking at it; they're “low note“ men. It's fantastic, because there's no way I'd be able to think like that.

“I've mixed more than one sound, obviously, a lot of times, but always on every string. The EQ might change from one string to the next, or the filter might change as it goes up because of the way the sound was programmed. It wouldn't be one sound on one string, and one sound on another. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that I've never bad the desire to do that.

“It's really difficult for me to say enough about the SynthAxe, because in some ways it's gone against me with SynthAxe themselves. They see me as a person who already loves the thing-which I do-so they may be less likely to listen to me than to another guitar player who isn't convinced by it. There are certain aspects of things that I would really like to stress to them that they should always keep, like I think they should always have 24 frets, because to me that would be like taking the EWI, the Electric Wind Instrument, and putting only one octave key on it just because the saxophone only has one octave key. When you're dealing with a synthesizer, you don't have those range problems anymore, it can go from DC to VHF. So you've got eight octave keys on it, and that's great! Why restrict yourself to these silly things that apply only to acoustic instruments because there's a law of physics involved? So to take frets off your guitar is silly, especially when even a modern guitar like a Steinberger has 24 frets. It's got to have 24 frets!

“There are some things you can do with the SynthAxe's trigger keys for soloing that would be incredibly difficult with a pick. I don't use a pick with it anymore - I'm trying to develop a technique to play on it with my fingers. You see, on a guitar you use a pick for the sound, but on the SynthAxe it makes no difference.'

So Holdsworth is not terribly worried about giving up the feel of a real guitar?

“Oh no. Why? If I'm playing a guitar and I'm hearing a flute, I'm not hearing a guitar anymore anyway. So for me, hear the SynthAxe, I'm able to respond and get inside the sound I'm using more than I could with a guitar. When I play a guitar with any conversion system on it, I'm still thinking “guitar“. Whereas, while I'm playing the SynthAxe, I'm totally engrossed and lost in that sound, with what I'm doing at the moment. It's still new to me, and I'm still growing and learning about it, but it's totally rejuvenated my way of thinking about music. I think that eventually, I'm going to be able to get closer musically to what I can hear in my head than I could with the guitar. I'll try.'