Mike Pachelli Show (video transcript 1991)
Summary: In this interview with Allan Holdsworth, he discusses his early influences, musical background, and career. He talks about his first instruments, including guitars and the SynthAxe. Holdsworth shares insights into his compositional process and sound preferences. He touches on working with various bands and musicians, including Soft Machine, Tony Williams, and more. The interview concludes with a discussion of his guitar setup, string gauges, vibrato technique, and whammy bar approach. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]
Ed Chang has transcribed the interview with Mike Pachelli he posted previously. The Archives did a little proofreading and editing, and the results are posted here with Ed's permission. Fabulous work, Ed!
Mike Pachelli Show
Oct 13, 1991 (video transcript)
AH: …Well I never understood why, it’s just in the last couple of years I’ve come to understand why he did.
MP: What was your early musical influences?
AH: Well, all of the people really that my Dad use to listen to which is jazz from the period, which would go back as far as Django, Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman, and right way up through Miles…
MP: I understand at a real early age you had a major affinity with a record player, like at 2 or 3 you were just uh…
AH: Well I was absolutely enthralled with music, music was everything, I mean I had no desire whatsoever to play an instrument – I wasn’t really interested in an instrument, I was just interested in music.
MP: Were you formally trained?
AH: No, in fact most of the things I learned, I learned in the beginning anyway, since then I’ve just worked on my own, but most of the things I learned in the beginning were from my father.
MP: What was your schooling like?
AH: Regular schooling, oh, pretty imbecilic…the usual secondary model schools, they were called in England at that time... at 14 or 15 I got a job at a bike shop… then I got a job making baskets…there were a lot of day jobs (laughs)
MP: I understand that when you were young you wanted to be a saxophone player.
AH: Yeah, well after I’d been listening to music for a long time, I got to be about 10 or 11. I was really interested in saxophone, the breathing thing seemed so alive, you could do more with it than a voice. But it was on that connection like a vocal thing.
MP: And why didn’t you pursue that?
AH: Well, at the time saxophones were very expensive things to buy so my Dad got, we I had an uncle who played guitar and my Dad got a guitar from him and just left it lying around, I just started in front of the mirror (laughs) I had no real interest in it at all, and he just left it there and I just noodled on it from time to time, try it on listening to music but still had no real desire to play anything and I guess over a period of time I realized I was playing a few chords on it and my Dad sort of took over because he knew all the notes on the guitar being the musician that he was…so as soon as he saw I had any interest in it he started trying to help me out. But I was very stubborn, I didn’t really like the help, though I needed it, but I wanted to do it on my own.
MP: You mentioned Charlie Christian, did you memorize Charlie Christian’s solos?
AH: I learned a few Charlie Christian solos from albums that he was on, but that was one of the things that I realized was that I wasn’t really learning anything from copying anything and I realized I needed to figure out what were a person, what they were thinking or how they were going about it, it was more important than actually what they played from the copying point of view. If I copied something and I was to do two solos from the same piece of music I realized that when I played the one I’d copied that was fine but when it came up to my own it was nowhere, so I realized early in the beginning I needed to find out a way to use whatever I had to play the kind of music that I wanted to play, and I been struggling with it ever since.
MP: Your guitar always sounds as if you’re blowing it, like you’re not plucking it. Is that intentional?
AH: Yeah, I mean I really don’t like guitar very much – I mean I love to hear other people play it, I don’t mean I don’t like the instrument, period, it’s just that for me
MP: In 1970 you started playing with the Glen South Band, what was that like, what kind of band?
AH: It was basically like a Top 40 band, they just played - he had a dance band playing mostly foxtrots, [quick?]steps, all the dance things, and a couple of nights a week they played Top 40 stuff. I think he liked my playing and tried to get me into the band and I was really interested in doing that because I was working during the day and I thought it would be an opportunity to practice during the day so I could do the gig with the band and then kind of get some practice in there…
MP: And I guess your first recording contract was with a group Tempest, which originally contained Paul Williams, right?
AH: Yeah well, it wasn’t MY record, the recording contract, but that was the first band I like to think I did anything with...
MP: How do you feel about that first recording?
AH: I think it was alright, you have to take them for what they were, some albums, if they were OK when they were done that’s the best you could do, but if something happens where you do an album under great duress where everything is completely wrong, like I did an album for CTI and the whole band was completely ripped off, like the whole thing – that is never valid to me, because it wasn’t even valid at the time, so it most certainly isn’t now. But the Tempest album, I’d probably cringe if I heard it, but that was what it was…
MP: I understand that after that you had some lean years and you owe a lot to Ray Warleigh and Brian Blaine.
AH: Yeah Brian Blaine was a guy who works for the musician’s union and he really helped me a lot that guy, he tried to get me hooked up with various musicians in London. And Ray Warleigh, probably without him I would have never have been able to make the move from the Top 40 band to move to London. He just had a room where I could stay in so… you know if you want to do that – it’s there, so about 6 months after he told me that I decided I wanted to get out of the Top 40 thing and try it, so I called him up and he remembered me and he said, sure, come on, so that’s how it started...
MP: And in 1975 you got with Soft Machine – that was a band which used a lot of different time signatures – was it a learning process for you?
AH: Yeah, yeah, I really enjoyed working with that band, they’re all great musicians and like the drummer in the band at the time, John Marshall, I played with him in different people, I used to work with a piano player, an English piano player, a jazz piano player, he’s really a wonderful musician, his name is Pat Smythe, he died a few years ago but he used to have John play in his band, and so I met John through that, and John told the band Soft Machine and then they invited me out to do some guest shows with that band and then after we’d done those they asked me if I’d like to join the band, so I said, yeah, yeah, it was great. I really enjoyed working with them.
MP: And the album Bundles has a tune on it, it’s called Hazard Profile, it has a very long solo on it. Is that like the longest of yours to date.
AH: Haha, I don’t know I’m scared to listen to it now, that’s a long time ago, I don’t know. I think it was pretty long. I remember I tried afterwards I hated the solo, I remember, and I tried to overdub on it and it was worse so I just left it – had to leave it as it was.
MP: You went on to work with Tony Williams in his New Lifetime, you did an album Million Dollar Legs, any recollections of that?
AH: Yeah it was wonderful, apart from some of the financial hazards. It was a wonderful experience obviously such an amazing musician. I learned such a lot from him I know all of the guys in the band that’s how I got to meet Alan Pasqua who’s still one of my favorite musicians on the planet. He was great…
MP: And you also got to work with some great bands, Gong, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Billy Bruford, how’d all that come about?
AH: Well Bill used to hang out at some of the local jazz gig in London – I think he saw us maybe doing that, I’m not exactly sure, and then we made contact and I guess that thing started and then he was doing a solo album and after that he was involved with UK and he suggested to them if they needed a guitar player they might ask me so…so that’s how that happened.
MP: And did I read this correctly, that you and Bruford were actually dismissed from the band?
AH: Yeah we were fired!
MP: Why was that?
AH: We were fired by the management but basically it wasn’t the management, I think, I saw that band was essentially as being Eddie’s band, because he was the most involved with the writing of it, and it really was his thing I think, I don’t know, it was kind of getting out. It wouldn’t have worked - I mean If Bill, I’m sure Bill would have left on his own anyway, but I was sure wouldn’t been able to take it anymore so it was like, being fired was pretty OK – but they were great guys, I really liked all of the guys, good, great musicians - I enjoyed it at the time, well I enjoyed making the record but doing the gigs was hell, but other than that yeah…
MP: In 1980 you started a trio called False Alarm, with Gary Husband and Paul Carmichael – was it time for you to become a leader?
AH: Well I – during the time that I – most of my life worked – well after I moved to London I been just another guy in someone else’s band, I just decided myself – I had a backlog of material I’d been working on and I wanted to try and play with different people and I met Gary Husband, cause I met all these musicians who had been saying Hey you should listen to this drummer friend I mean it he’s like unbelievable and I had an opportunity to play with Gary and it was like really special, the guys really an unbelievable musician. And I really liked working with him, he really understood – probably understood more where I wanted than I could understand what he was really wanted but it was the beginning of a really great kind of relationship and we just tried to get this band off to the road and we couldn’t – we had a friend worked for Virgin Records and he gave us some free studio time – a guy called Nicholas Powell, and we did some tracks -in fact we finished doing the whole album on this little boat on a canal in London.
MP: What’s it called, the Barge?
AH: Yeah the Barge (laughs)
MP: Was it really a barge?
AH: Yeah! It was just a little floating barge and when the boats would go by the whole studio would go like (waves hands up and down) – it was great! Then we tried to give the album away and we couldn’t – we sent tapes to like 5 major labels in England and – nobody was interested in it free – we didn’t want anything, we just said could you just put this album out and they said No, so that’s essentially why I tried to get over to the States.
MP: So IOU was released independently then by yourself?
AH: Well I had the tape, since we recorded the album in a couple of days on this boat and then I paid for the mixing by selling like the last two guitars that I had and we mixed Side 1 in one evening from 8 o’clock till 6 in the morning and then Side2 the same, you know, 8 till 6 the following day (shrugs) and then at the end of it all I had the album but nobody interested in it so it was just a tape…but when we came to the States the people seemed to be much more receptive, then we decided to try and press ‘em up on our own – and we did, and we just started selling them at the gigs. That’s kind of how it all started – it hasn’t gone very far from then but...(smirks)
MP: I understand Sharon Sudos, is that the person who first brought you over for the first Roxy gigs?
AH: She was great, we couldn’t have done it without her.
MP: And when you came to the Roxy did the Americans know you?
AH: Yeah we were amazed, I mean the first place we played was in San Francisco there was a guy named Mark Varney (Mike Varney) [ Editor’s note: Allan is probably referring to MIKE Varney here, who did have a column in Guitar Player. MARK Varney is Mike’s brother, who would later release “Truth In Shredding”] who writes the column for Guitar Player magazine, so he talked the guys at the Keystone who owned the three Keystone clubs – there was Keystone Berkeley, Keystone Corner and Keystone Palo Alto, into giving us a gig and we couldn’t believe it, you know we went from a pub in London with 13 people in there, to playing in this place, well it was like a 500 seat club – it was packed! So it was like a shock. Then we went to the Roxy it was the same thing, the guy who owned the clubs up in San Francisco called the guy who owned the Roxy and said take a chance man, and the same thing happened … we just got lucky I guess.
MP: I understand Edward Van Halen got involved with your career around that time
AH: Yeah, he’s a really great guy, he’s got a big heart and really helped us out but it just wasn’t to be – the situation that came from it just wasn’t – as much as I would have liked it to happen, and I’m sure Edward wanted it to happen you know but, there was too many problems with the whole thing, you know the record company – I think the record company were only interested in it because of him, and then they wanted me to get rid of the guys in the band and start a new band – you know – basically stop doing – I saw it as stop they wanted me to stop doing what I was doing, which seemed pointless. Why get a deal with a major label if they don’t want you to do what you do? Might as well stay where you are.
MP: Then you worked with Ted Templeman. What was that like?
AH: Well that was part of the whole thing, well obviously he’s a great producer but we just didn’t see eye to eye (laughs).
MP: You did some things with CTI you mentioned, the Velvet Darkness album…
AH: Yeah that was a big rip off, a big disaster in my whole – and it haunts me to this day – the guy basically said I could record with whoever I wanted to and I got Alan Pasqua, Alphonso Johnson, Michael Walden and I thought wow, this going to be great, but we were rehearsing in this studio and they just recorded the rehearsing, we never actually got to record the tracks – they just recorded the rehearsals and that was it. When we said like, Isn’t it time we did those tracks? Again, you know? No that was it. So it was a real disaster album then and it’s an even bigger disaster now because the new album Secrets, the last album, was on Enigma, which was bought by Capitol, and now that album is no longer available, but- ! Of course you can find the old CTI album on Sony CBS which is, makes me want to give it, just quit on the spot. How do you deal with that?
MP: We need to take a break, we’ll be back in a second.
MP: We’re back with Allan Holdsworth. Let’s talk about the Metal Fatigue album (like we’ve done this once haha). It seems to distinguish you as a force to be reckoned with. How is it accepted by the fans?
AH: Well I think it was pretty good because Enigma was a new, well Enigma was going through a particularly good period for us with them, because they did a lot of promotion. Later on we became a small fish in a big pond but… but the interesting thing about that album was that, that album was actually a demo for Warner Brothers after Road Games. When we were dropped for Road Games we did Metal Fatigue and it was a demo for Warner Brothers and they didn’t like it, so we gave it to Enigma, happily, and my relationship with Enigma has been really good, they just let me do what I want, so…I’m a happy guy.
MP: There’s some amazing tunes on there, I always thought that if Metal Fatigue if it got airplay it could have been a great FM crossover hit. There was Devil Take the Hindmost, all I can say about that is “whew!” and then the tune I was REALLY interested in is The Un-Merry-Go-Round. Where’d that come from?
AH: Well it’s kind of a… basically I wrote that for my Dad, you know, because my Dad died during that year that I was doing the album. He used to have all these… he was a really great artist, he used to draw this merry go round with all these famous English politicians on it, like you’d have Ronald Reagan and all these guys on it, and he’d have them with their slogans, and he used to call it the UN Merry go round, so I got the title from him.
MP: The solo in there, which by the way is Phil Keaggy’s all-time favorite electric guitar solo, the soprano – which is quite a compliment in itself – the soprano sax solo that you sort of do – how, where’s that coming from, I mean what’s the inspiration, it sounds nearly exactly like a soprano!
(laughs) For a period of time I guess I was – I go through these periods that change and I was really trying to get like that soprano kind of tone. I guess that was about as close I got. I couldn’t get any closer so I gave up, started on something else.
MP: Well it’s a brilliant solo. In ‘85 you got into SynthAxe. I’m not that familiar with it but I know it doesn’t work from pitch to voltage, it works how?
AH: It works like a mechanical contact – just like a keyboard. So it’s extremely accurate you know, and it was the only one for me that worked. I just wanted to really accurately control synthesizers. I didn’t want to have to deal with a glitch guitar, to have like a guitar with a glitching sound underneath – I had no desire to do that at all, I just wanted something that I could play synthesizers and program my own sounds and get into that world, because you know it also freed me from the guitar - I started using the SynthAxe with a breath controller, and I was actually getting more pleasure out of playing that than from the guitar, it kind of freed me, I kind of escaped from the guitar a little – which I liked. But unfortunately I wasn’t really able to get any real assistance from, you know, I guess nobody else liked it but me – well maybe there’s a couple other guys out there who really love it but…
MP: How is the neck spacing on it?
AH: Fret spacing is linear, you know. It does get smaller but not like the same as guitar. And that was one of the problems I had, I wanted them to make a smaller neck, but it wasn’t going to happen.
MP: Did you sample all of your sounds by yourself?
AH: No I never really used samples. I felt I was going to do that in the beginning but I just used synthesis, I never really used any samples I just used mostly Oberheim stuff because I really love them.
MP: Is that what you use on Atavachron? Oberheims and stuff?
MP: (?) great tune on Atavachron, you got to work with Tony Williams again on Looking Glass, great music, Non-brewed Condiment, Funnels with an amazing solo – what synthesizers did you incorporate in that, just Oberheim?
AH: Well the solo on Funnels was on guitar, I only played guitar on that track.
MP: Well, in general was that all Oberheims on that?
AH: Yeah mostly, I had a couple of DX modules, mostly everything I’ve done on all of the albums is Oberheim. I was an Oberheim nut.
MP: Did you ever travel with it?
AH: Yeah, we took it on the road lot, to Japan a few times, but it just became too much of a liability because of the – I have 4 consoles and only one of them works at the moment so it gets a bit scary if you don’t know if it’s going to work.
MP: And you did for Intima in 1989 the album, Secrets. What was the inspiration there?
AH: Well it’s just the same, I just keep trying to learn just learn more about music and continue to write tunes and play ’em. I enjoyed that album, that was my favorite album so far, just because it’s the last one.
MP: Compositionally, do you hear compositions like start to finish, do you start finding chords that you – what is your approach basically to composition? Do you hear complete entities, or do you hear parts?
AH: No, I usually have parts, you know if I’m not with an instrument then I’ll have an idea, but I usually come across them by improvising with chords or whatever, then I’ll find something that I like, and I just work on it, try and modulate it – I like to experiment – I like to modulate through different keys.
MP: You seem to have a really different approach to scalar relation between chords, like most guitar players sometimes it’s linear in the fact that it’s very scalar but your jumps are extremely large.
AH: They’re just the same notes, they’re just in a different order!
MP: Same thing with chords basically, your chords are – we watched you tonight and we didn’t see one – we’ll call it – normal - guitar chord all night long – is that on purpose?
AH: Yeah! (laughs) No… Yeah, I guess so…
MP: Let’s talk about some of your instruments, basically. What was your first guitar then?
AH: First guitar was this old, it was kind of like an old classical guitar, but it did have steel strings on it, and then after that my Dad got me an f-hole guitar which is a guitar I played a year or so - it was a Hofner, and then I put a pickup on it and I spent it my Dad who was into building amplifiers just started getting interested in amplifiers then. He built that, then I saw this guy who had this Fender Stratocaster which I fell in love with so I tried this Fender Strat, my Dad got it – well signed for it – so I could make the payments on it. And then about 2 months later I saw, I played an SG and that was it from then on, I was completely in love with this SG. I got this SG Standard, later I traded it for an SG Custom. I basically stayed with that guitar right the way through until…Tony Williams.
MP: Did you ever try any semi-hollow bodies like the 335.
AH: Yeah I did, I had a period of that, a short one, when I was working with Tempest because Paul Williams, the singer, he had a 335 and I tried it and I really liked it and then it started me off on this hollow thing so I played a 175 for awhile. I even played some tunes with Tempest on a 175 which is kind of funny!
MP: You did a lot of things with light wood and the norm was to have a heavy Les Paul for sustain but you kind of turned that around having some guitars built with basswood…
AH: Well the thing is if you make a guitar from a really heavy wood, brass bridge and all that stuff, what you get is a lot of sustain but no sounds, no tone cause it’s just like a plank, there’s no response in the instrument because it’s already at maximum, and I like the string to have a relationship with the wood and you can get light dynamics out of it. One of the things I found with a real heavy guitar is – when it was plugged into an amp, no matter how hard or soft you hit the string, the volume is always almost the same, whereas if you use a lighter wood or something it just seems more responsive, you know you can play that note softer and it’s soft, and harder and it’s a little harder. You can just shape it more. So that is why I started experimenting with that. But I can never get it real consistent and then I discovered the Steinberger and that kind of turned my whole life around.
MP: And before getting into that you went through a period with Charvel Strats, your chisel period, explain how that was...
AH: Well it was just basically, before I met Grover Jackson – who is an unbelievable guy, he really helped us out a lot in the beginning with IOU when I first came into the States I didn’t have a guitar or anything, he gave me 3 or 4 really great guitars, and uh, basically the chisel thing was just taking an old Strat and chiseling a hole so you could put a humbucker on it. It was before you could get humbuckers on Strats, you know. And then, like I said, I met Grover and he made these guitars for us. Those were some of the best guitars – I had a red one he made that was actually one of the best guitars I ever owned.
MP: What was the neck configuration? Was it maple or
AH: It was maple with ebony fingerboard and a basswood body
MP: And Seymour Duncan 59…
AH: Seymour Duncan, it was essentially a 59.
MP: Great-sounding guitar…And then you got into Steinberger, recently how did that come about?
AH: Well this guy kept saying Hey have you checked out those little plastic things you know and I go I don’t think I’m gonna like that, and a friend of mine just took me up to the booth at one of those NAMM shows and I played one and I just fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe it. It was totally unexpected. And turned me inside out with the guitar. It was so consistent, had the right neck width, everything about it was great. And now when I go back to playing wood guitar they feel kind of dinosaur-like. I think it was the only significant thing that anybody did with electric guitar for like 20 years.
MP: What sort of pickup is on there?
AH: It’s the same one, a Seymour Duncan.
MP: How about string gauge? What sort of string gauge do you use?
AH: Well I do vary those but for the last, well I do use very thin strings, 8, I usually go from anywhere between a 10 and an 8 …at the moment I’m using 8’s.
MP: What’s the low E?
MP: Wow that is light. What do you practice when you practice?
AH: Well usually I have a lot of things I’ve worked out away from the guitar, you know I work out a lot of stuff off of the guitar and when I get some time, and I’m not feeling too lazy I like riding my bike or drinking beer I don’t practice… (?)
MP: What do you feel your strengths are?
AH: I don’t know if I have any yet.
MP: How about your weaknesses?
AH: Everything. (smiles)
MP: Tell us about your vibrato technique.
AH: Well it’s more or less like a classical guitar or a violin, I bend the string linearly along its length (gestures), though I do use the wrist motion for the low strings, but on the high strings I use that. Because you can stretch the string more and I think it gives more inflection in the sound – I like it more than a bend, because a bend is always sharp, but when you grab a string and bend it this way, you can make it flat, you know. It’s more expressive I think.
MP: How about your whammy bar approach?
AH: Well I gave up using it because everybody else does, you know…