Interview with Allan Holdsworth (Jazz Italia 2005)
Summary: In this interview, Allan Holdsworth discusses his unique approach to the guitar, his musical influences, and experiences. He talks about how he developed his style by not emulating other guitarists, his harmonic studies influenced by his father's pianistic knowledge, and his view on the direction of fusion music. Holdsworth also mentions some guitarists he admires, his preferences for specific guitar setups, and his thoughts on living in the USA compared to England. He also shares his thoughts on teaching and reflects on his son's interest in music. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]
Original interview found at http://www.jazzitalia.net/articoli/Int_AllanHoldsworth.asp
Machine translated from Italian by Google translate. Human editing by Allan Holdsworth Archives and Ego Filotto. Thank you to Ego for his contributions! The original Italian version obviously translated Allan’s quotes from English to Italian, and now they have been back translated to English. The back translation is intelligible for the most part, but take note that these are not actually Allan’s verbatim quotes. Therefore, [Machine back translated] has been added to the end of every paragraph. Some contentious passages have the original Italian text added in brackets.
Big Mama - Rome, February 27, 2005
By Alex Milella
ALEX: You have revolutionized the harmonic and melodic world in the guitar field, more than any other guitarist, how come your style has never been close to that of another guitarist? How have you developed your own personal approach to how you play guitar? For example, did you deliberately decide not to study the guitar approach instead of following the sax?
ALLAN: I do not think I've revolutionized anything, but it's nice that people think so ... I've listened to many guitarists, but I've also listened to many other musicians. I never wanted to play the guitar, so I only did what I really wanted. I have never really copied anyone. I only tried to learn things from different instruments and I never thought of the guitar as a "guitar". I always imagined it as a means. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: But have you ever studied any guitarist in particular?
ALLAN: No, the only one that really struck me at the beginning was Charlie Christian. I really loved his solos and I realized that solos had to sound like a sax, but then I always tried to find my own path and not to copy someone. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: And your harmonic studies, how did you invent them?
ALLAN: I took a lot of cues from my father who is a pianist. He was truly an excellent pianist. He could not play the guitar, even if he was good! He knew where all the notes on the guitar were, but simply could not play it. So, he could tell me where to put his hands on the guitar, but he could not do it, so he did not have any preconceptions about how the guitarists do things. It was more open! I think it opened my mind a bit. Then I studied alone, working on scales, etc. ... As you know, all the necessary information is available, you just have to look for it. When you study music, you realize that there is a certain logic, therefore I have only tried to use my own logic in the study. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Can you study on the guitar constantly? How much time do you spend daily studying?
ALLAN: Well, sometimes I can play for hours and hours. Other times I do not play at all. I do not have a schedule. Sometimes I’ll spend six months without touching a guitar ... without wanting to see one! Other times, I play all the time I have. There are no rules. I play when I feel like it.. If I feel I want to do something else, I’ll do something else ... [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Where is fusion going nowadays? More towards Rock or towards Jazz?
ALLAN: (laughing) I do not know and I do not care! I have no idea! Rock continues to move forward. Maybe if there were any groups that could play rock, incorporating many other things, it would be a good thing, there would be a lot of energy .. I also thought about this for myself ... music is tending to become softer so I thought that I should do something harder before dying (laughing)! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: What was the first approach you took, did you immediately play jazz or did you find it difficult at first?
ALLAN: Well, it happened when I started playing. I played more rock because I could not play jazz. Then my father pointed out all these records so I started listening to all these amazing musicians and I thought it was wonderful! Great stuff. But now I think we can take some of that jazz material and revisit it in a rock style, discovering that it has a lot of energy and that it sounds different. The only problem with fusion, in my opinion, is that everything sounds the same. Like the music you listen to in an elevator ... you already know what you will listen to before listening to it, I do not like it. You can anticipate the lines even before the musicians play them. This is not improvisation ... Rather it is a series of stylistic patterns and I do not think that this is jazz ... at least not for me. Jazz has its own harmonic concept on which you really have to improvise ... Like Keith Jarrett, or Michael Brecker - they always sound different. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Are there any new young musicians you appreciate?
ALLAN: Oh, there are so many! The majority of musicians I listen to have been pointed out to me by other musicians ... I do not know where to start because there are so many! But everybody loves Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Scott Henderson, Jimmy Raney, Joe Pass ... [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Do you know Wayne Krantz?
ALLAN: Yes, I've heard some of his stuff, I think he's really great. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Kurt Rosenwinkel?
ALLAN: Oh, yes, he's really good, amazing. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Who would you like to record with?
ALLAN: With Michael Brecker! That would be great! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Did you tell him?
ALLAN: Well, he knows I'm interested! We'll see if it happens ... [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Could you describe the qualities of your guitars starting with the legendary Charvel, right up to the current Carvin?
ALLAN: Actually, before using the first Charvel, I bought a Fender Stratocaster during the time I was working with Tony Williams. I used a white Gibson SG Custom. It really was a great guitar! I lost it ... but I bought a Stratocaster that I used for a while with a single coil but I did not like it very much, so I redid the wiring so that the tone knob worked on the treble pickup. I connected the tone knob to the rear pickup so that it sounded a bit thicker ... then I played ... hell, I did not like it at all so I took some humbucking pickups and put them in. Since I had PAFs from SG - I owned 3 or 4 SGs - from which I always eliminated the middle pickup, I used 2 on this guitar and it sounded very good. It was a light body, as if it were alder... ... [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Do you prefer alder or ash?
ALLAN: I do not like ash. It's too hard. In my opinion, alder sounds much better. Then I realized that I did not really like the neck because it had Fender spacing. I needed the Gibson spacing and I wanted the neck to be wider ... On the Fender with the double strings [“Sulle Fender con le corde più doppie”] and the narrower neck I had the neck really bent and the strings tended to come out from both sides. So, I went to a luthier and I had a neck built, a maple neck with an inch and 11 / 16th up to 2 and ¼ ... it was practically the size of a Gibson neck ... then I got built a vibrato with Gibson spacing, and it was excellent. It sounded really good. A fantastic guitar. I used it on everything I did in England. With that guitar I made the album IOU. We had to mix the album and we did not have a penny. We had a deadline so I mixed side 1 in a day from midnight to 7 am and the next day still from midnight to 7 I mixed side 2! But I had to sell the guitar to pay for the recording so ... I did not have a guitar! When I moved to America, I contacted Grover Jackson who was the Charvel guy. He is a fantastic person. He built me 5 or 6 guitars, we talked about the type of wood to use and he took the size of the neck from inch and 11 / 16th to 2 and ¼ making it standard so that after making those guitars for me, the Charvel people liked it so much that they started doing all the Charvels with that dimension. They no longer made a guitar with the regular size neck! Jackson also introduced me to the American basswood which may be lighter than the alder. I had two or three made of this wood, a red one ... it was beautiful. I never wanted to sell it! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Tell me about the history of Ibanez ...
ALLAN: The funny thing is that they made a guitar for me by basically copying the Charvel ... the size of the neck and everything, but it was not built by Ibanez. It was built by a luthier in California ... it was a secret. It seemed like a great thing! In fact, once I met a guy at a concert that had come with his Ibanez and suggested he go back to the store and ask for the money back because the guitar was not good! The neck was horrible ... My guitar was good because it was not an Ibanez! Then I played a Steinberger at a show and I loved it! I love the Steinberger! I met Bill Delap who is a luthier and who built a series of guitars with Steinberger hardware. You know, after you play a guitar without a headstock, it's really hard to go back! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: What's the difference between your Seymour Duncan and Carvin pickups? Which you prefer?
ALLAN: Actually, the technical specifications are the same, but what's different is that ... well, they use the same winding, it's the old-fashioned enamel like the old PAF [“è quello smaltato in vecchio stile come il vecchio PAF”]. In the past an enamel cover was used on the winding [“In passato si utilizzava una copertura di smalto sull'avvolgimento”], so if you put something like 500 wraps around it takes up a certain space. Well, the new pickups use a plastic cover so that the 500 windings take up less space and the pickup's magnetic field is different. All the old pickups that had the wrapping covered with black enamel sounded really good. So the Seymour Duncan used the same winding. A couple of these pickups were built ... one was what I told you and the other is the one I use on my guitar. It has plastic wrapping ... if you look closely, you can see its pink color. If you look at the pickup on my guitar, it's black. They are both good, only different. The Carvin is a bit 'hotter' ... a little more full-bodied. In fact, on the Carvin, after making that pickup, everyone adopted it. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Why did you shorten the "Trans Trem" lever of your Steinberger at some point?
ALLAN: In the '80s and' 90s I used to use tremolo very much. I used it both ways (ascending and descending) and then everyone started using it ... all the electric guitarists used it in much the same way so I thought "forget it!". I thought that maybe it was a bit superficial, so I asked myself how not to use it so much anymore. I thought about how to get rid of it and ended up using it only in high positions ... in fact I do not use it that much now. I still have it but I decided to put it aside because if you move it to the back, it stops, so I removed it ... a friend of mine removed it with a machine. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Also the Carvin has no vibrato..
ALLAN: There's ... well, the Fatboy has no vibrato because of the construction of the guitar ... it's empty (hollow) so there's no way to mount a tremolo lever. There is however another version of a Carvin who has the tremolo. There are two versions ... a big one and a thin one that are both hollow. They are older. The first one had the tremolo, all the ones I own have tremolos but the Fatboys are not with tremolo but they have also made a thin version of those without tremolo. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: What is your current setup and why did you choose it? Don’t you think that tubes produce a better sound with more feeling?
ALLAN: Let me answer the second part of the question ... No, I do not think so. I played with very surprising tube amplifiers. One of my favorites was the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. It is my favorite tube amplifier of all time. They are very beautiful. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: When did you use it?
ALLAN: I've used it for years. I used the Boogie material for a long time, but I also played with really terrible, very bad, I mean, really bad tube amplifiers. Then I played with transistor amplifiers that sounded very good. I do not feel that the tubes are better just because someone tells me to use the tube amp or vice versa the one with transistors. Tube amps are not always better, but in some cases they are really great. I think that among all the tube amps I used the old Rectifier was my favorite ... You just had to insert the plug and it all sounded great! Exactly what I wanted to hear ... But they are very heavy to carry, so much that nobody has them. When Yamaha produced the DG series I immediately liked their sound. They were very similar. I could get a very similar sound with the advantage that I found them everywhere in the world ... I could call Italy, Spain, Germany ... everyone had them ... but now they don’t have them any more because they went out of production. Most of the times I'm on tour I ask to have something that I think is as generic as possible, like the two Marshall 4x12 and the two Fender twin reverbs, because many have them. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Do you prefer the Celestion Vintage 30?
ALLAN: I love Celestion speakers... Nothing comes close to them. I always use the same speakers but I do not like the Vintage. I like real ones. I have some cabinets that have G12 H but they don’t make them anymore. Then they reproduced the G12 M and all the Marshall cabinets I used in England had them, those were the speakers I used and those were the cabinets but they can not be found anymore. You should buy a very old cabinet and pray that it contains them in good condition. The speakers I currently use are the G12 90 or 80 85-90 watt, but not the Vintage. They are the same speakers that BOOGIE has called Black Shadow Celestion. I've never liked any other speakers. I tried them all ... EV, Jensen, Eminence ... Goodmans were pretty good but I know they do not make guitar speakers any more.. Bass cabinets sometimes have 12-inch Goodmans ... which are great speakers ... but Celestion is the top. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: In your opinion, why has no one else in the guitar synth world proposed a valid alternative to Roland's hexaphonic pickup, which is not very faithful, apart from SynthAxe and Yamaha, which have a virtually error-free system?
ALLAN: I do not know ... because probably many guitarists, when I did some clinics, they asked me: "well, can you make it sound like a Strat?" and I would answer "why do you want to make it sound like a Strat? Why take a guitar synth with all these sounds and then play it like a guitar? You already have a guitar!" But I think that most guitarists want to play the guitar so they do not want to waste time managing it from a technical point of view. The reason why nobody has done another is because it is very complex to make the sound of a guitar. As with a keyboard, driving a synthesizer is simple, you just have to switch on a switch or not, with the guitar it's hard. Yamaha has made a great system, the strings are very low. The problem, in this case, is that if you do bending you may have precision defects since it is calculated at the bridge level ... The SynthAxe was completely different. Each key was separated on each string and the sensors were inside the strings themselves - they are like microphones so it makes sense the movement of the string as well as knowing how long the string is and then know when bend is possible if you play more towards the neck and how much if you play more towards the bridge. It's all programmed, a great machine. But they are very delicate, I have one that works well and one that does not work. At the beginning they were very reliable but now I would fear to take another one. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: "Floppy Hat" and "Kinder": do you remember these two wonderful songs? Will it be possible to hear you playing an acoustic guitar?
ALLAN: Yes, it would be really nice. I'd like to do it ... but I do not have an acoustic guitar right now. There is a company in San Diego that produces replicas of Maccaferri like that of Django. I love that sound. I had a copy but I sold it. Nothing comes close to the sound of a Maccaferri. On those tracks if I was not mistaken I used an old Guild. I've owned 2-3 acoustic guitars in my life and I've normally sold them since when I need money I try to sell what I need less, namely acoustic guitars ... A person I know, who plays in a band that’s using Django Reinhardt's material, let me try his guitar and it was amazing! It sounded awesome. They do not sound like an acoustic guitar with metal strings. Flat tops play clear and full-bodied ... highs and lows, no middle. The Maccaferri is really big in the central range and also in the lower range ... it's round and regular ...Taylor, another company in San Diego, has produced a new and nice electrified acoustic guitar. It sounds very different from the flat tops. Yes ... I would like to do something with an acoustic guitar but I just have to figure out how to get one since they are very expensive. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: How do you play such wide intervals in "Spokes"? Do you use a particular tuning?
ALLAN: No ... Do you know the EWI that Michael Brecker also uses? With the Synthaxe it is possible to make an octave switch using the pedal ... it's not a secret ... it's simple. I experienced the thing with two tunings with the SynthAxe not applicable on the guitar. I created a tuning in fifths that obviously can not be done with the guitar because after lowering the G string, the C string would be too low and would sound really bad ... but with the SynthAxe, thanks to its control through the synthesizer, you can choose all the fifths you want. Also you can also have an octave up or down. It's nice. If I started now to learn the guitar again I would use another tuning. I would tune it as a bass, C and F instead of B and E. It's crazy ... I do not know why they did it. You spend many years dancing around the string of the B as it is the one that creates problems. But after trying to tune the SynthAxe in that way I could play it for a while and then make some mistakes so I've never experimented so much with different tunings on the guitar ... I use a regular tuning, but if I were young and a beginner, I would tune the guitar with the C and the F. It's logical ... everything is the same ... you do not have to change the fingering. Now it's okay because I have schematized how to do it ... but it would have been more logical. [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: How do you prepare yourself for a new tour? Since your pieces are complex, how do you remember all the chords that are not even so "catchy" and play them so easily? Is it the result of a long preparation?
ALLAN: No! Indeed, many times it is not possible to remember them!!! After a while, they come back to mind. Normally we do not prepare everything ... I'm always a bit tired of touring, I do not like being away, I prefer to stay at home. I liked it when I was young but now ... I do not like travelling on tour so I spend my time wishing to go home, which is not a good thing. I have a lot of fun with music but now I would not like to be here ... I mean, I like being here, being in Rome or any other place with my partner, but that's not possible, I'm here, she's there ... everyone is in a different place ... I feel like I'm in jail !! It's strange! Especially now that I'm older, I would never go away ... I watch the calendar and "ugh", I do not want to leave. I become crazy ... I seriously sadden on tour and so I drink! And then I get sick! I only drink beer and wine ... Rarely gin, but if I drink gin, then I have problems for days! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: After the tour, what do you do?
ALLAN: Normally I come home and try to recover! I'll be back and I'll go to bed! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: There's no better place than your own home ... Do you teach?
ALLAN: No ... I do not know anything so you can not teach if you do not know anything ... (ed. note: great act of modesty) [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Beyond "Countdown", is there any other piece of Coltrane that you'd like to play?
ALLAN: I'd like to play Satellite from the Coltrane's Sound album. It's similar to Giant Steps, but there's something in the Satellite that's really amazing. The solo Coltrane plays on that album is ... ridiculous (laughs)! It’s scary ! It's beautiful ... [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: How long has the "Brewery" existed? Do you renew your gear every so often? What do you use for your recordings instead?
ALLAN: The Brewery is actually just the name I gave to my home studio. 5 years ago I got divorced so I do not have my studio anymore ... It's in the other house ... I do not live there anymore, so the studio stayed there ... [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Did you create another Brewery?
ALLAN: No ... I have a house near San Juan Capistrano and I have a studio there, but you can not get a drum kit. You can record guitar, bass, keyboards, but not the drums. In my old studio I could record with the whole band. I do not have it anymore ... it's too bad for me ... [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Would you like to go back to England?
ALLAN: No! Absolutely! I like to go back there for a visit but not to live there! I do not know how you can afford to live in England! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Do you think it's better to live in the USA from a musical point of view?
ALLAN: Well, initially there was a musical reason for me but when I decided to come and live, I did not know what life was like here ... although I spent some time on the East Coast. Now, having lived here for 25 years, I really like it. California is very beautiful. I also really like Arizona ... but it's a little bit too hot! Here the climate is good more or less all year round and moreover I can afford to live here. In England, anything costs twice as much! From food to a car! If in America one thing costs 25 dollars, in England it costs 25 pounds which means about 50 dollars! If one thing in America costs 30,000 dollars in England what 30,000 pounds ... $ 60,000! How the hell can you live there? Also, the weather is horrible! I've been halfway through my life in England between rain and cold, sick like a dog for most of the time! I went to California and it was amazing! I think I haven’t got a cold or got sick for 5 - 6 years! I like it here ...everything is new ... many buildings are new and I like it ... it makes me feel good. If the sun is shining and the sky is blue, I feel good. Even if I do not go to the beach to sunbathe, its light and the blue sky make me feel good! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Is there anything you'd like to do that you have not done yet?
ALLAN: Nothing comes to mind. I feel okay! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: If I'm not mistaken, you have a son named Sam, like your father. Will there be another guitarist named Holdsworth?
ALLAN: I do not know why my son started playing the guitar for a while, at the age of 13-14 ... he has good hands ... he's fast ... but he likes engines ... so I think he's interested in something else so he decided not to play ... He's interested in motorcycles and jumping on the rocks with his bicycle! I lent him a guitar for about six months but he does not want to play it when I'm here ... He's 23 now and it's a bit late to start ... He should have already played, but I'm sure he will do something ... He likes "how I was "... He's a bit lost ... He does not know where he's going ... he floats ... He's also very good with computers and mechanical stuff ... But he's not very focused on one thing ... so I guess there will not be a another guitarist named Holdsworth !! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: When I have a child I would like him to want to play the guitar ... as a guitarist I could certainly give him so much ... I think it's one of the most beautiful things I could wish for ...
ALLAN: Many people do so with their children ... I do not think I've ever done it. I've probably been selfish, or I have not tried to increase his interest in music. Sometimes children think, "Well, if my father does this, it must be a terrible thing!" ... Hmmm ... maybe this is one of the things that I should have done differently in my life ... Maybe I should have put more effort into trying to bring him closer to the guitar, but I did not do it. I let him decide for himself. I do not know what's right ... Maybe if you try to bring someone closer to something, then he will not want to do it, they could then resent you for that. I was hoping he wanted to play, but it would be difficult for me to teach someone in my family. My youngest daughter, for example, is 19, but I do not teach her anything ... she goes to someone else to learn. She plays for fun ... She does a lot of things ... Scuba diving! [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: In your biography we read that when you were a young musician, you had a lot of difficulties. Where did you find the strength to go on with your career?
ALLAN: This is a good question, because nothing has changed! It's the same thing now as then ... When I was 25, I used to think things would be better at 40! But the only thing that has happened is that more people know who you are. No real change ... Well, I played because I loved music and I started to be a paid musician by chance ... You know, some guys want to be professional musicians as soon as they start. I never did... But later I realized that I was earning and traveling and that I could not do anything else. And then you feel like you're trapped. In the 80s I probably earned more money than today. Everyone paid more money for a record. For a record, you earned three times more in the 80s than today ... Earnings have gone down a lot and yet everything goes up in price. On the last tour in Japan we had more evenings but we earned less. Today it was good because we had a day off (editor's note: at the Big Mama concert). But the rest of the tour is really brutal, it's very hard! It is no longer worth it at all because when you are my age you ask "why am I not at home?" I could stay at home and just make records! It 's hard to be 10 hours on a bus, play... then 13 hours more on a bus etc. ... You do not sleep ... It' s pretty tough! But that's how it goes! [Machine back translated.]