On The Level (IM&RW 1991)

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Summary: Allan Holdsworth discusses his experience fitting into Level 42, highlighting the balance between adapting to their preferences and having creative freedom. He mentions his unique approach to guitar technique, which involves legato playing and a preference for memorizing music rather than reading it. Holdsworth also touches on his chord voicing and composition process, which relies on improvisation and recording to develop his music. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]

On the level ("Hold the front page")

International Musician & Recording World, March 1991

Mo Nazam

Of all the bands, in all the towns, in all the world, Allan Holdsworth walked into LEVEL 42. Mo Nazam finds out why.

The words innovative' and 'phenomenon' are overused in the Rock/Pop lexicon and have begun to lose their true meaning. Every Tom, Dick or Kylie that can programme (sic) a computer or loop a sample and put a beat to it is hailed a genius and thus the word is all too readily applied to mediocre talents. However, in a sea of minnows there is the occasional whale to whom those words genuinely apply. Allan Holdsworth is one such man. Almost every contempory (sic) guitar player will acknowledge a debt to him and his influence can be heard in the styles of players as diverse as Joe Satriani, Scott Henderson, Michael Lee Ferkins, Steve Vai and a host of others.

Holdsworth can best be described as a musical journeyman. From his earliest days in a Mecca function band to his forays into the world of synthesised guitar, he has involved himself in diverse projects, the most recent of which is his involvement with Bristish (sic) band LEVEL 42.

Jazzy roots

Inspired by the jazz explorations of JOHN Coltrane, CHARLIE Parker and ARTE SHORE [ed.: Artie Shaw?], Holdsworth was initially drawn to the saxophone, but when his father, pianist Sam Holdsworth, gave him an acoustic guitar it all changed.

A move from Bradford to London exposed him to the scene and before long he was with drummer Jon HEISMAN (sic) and his band Tempest, touring England and the US following the release of their debut LP. In 1975 he recorded Bundles with SOFT MACHINE but the real breakthrough occured (sic) when he joined TONY WILLIAMS' NEW LIFE TIME project. Williams, a revered jazz drummer, presented the New Life Time as a ground breaking Jazz/Rock ensemble and the LP Million Dollar Legs showcases Holdsworth's style in embryonic form. There followed stints with GONG, BILL BRUFORD, with whom he recorded two landmark LPs Feels Good To Me and One Of A Kind and the band UK, all at the vanguard of progressive jazz improvised music. In the early '80s Holdsworth felt a need to write and perform his own music and the album IOU was one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of 1982. Featuring eerik (sic) chordal progressions, ambient textures, odd time signatures and mould breaking soloing, it was an intense LP and consolidated Holds worth's position as a musician who was expanding the guitar's vocabulary. A move to America and subsequent releases such as Road Games and Metal Fatigue, showed his constant desire to improve his abilities.

With 1985's Atavachron, Holdsworth took a leap into the future by his extensive use of the Synthaxe controller. Always on the lookout for new sounds and textures, his use of Synthaxe yielded remarkable results even though it alienated some fans who viewed his move to synthesised guitar as a betrayal of his guitaristic tendencies. Yet he has continued his Synthaze (sic) explorations on Sand and Secrets, as well as showcasing his formidable guitar powers. The extended solos on tracks such as Peril Premonition, (Secrets) and 4:15, (Sand) go to show that he hasn't forgotten the guitar and indeed has evolved into a musican (sic) of considerable feel, taste and technique. The following conversation took place in his London hotel room in the middle of his two week residency at the Hammersmith Odeon with Level 42 and I began asking him how he became involved with them. 'They asked me to play on their new album, which I did and I really enjoyed it. Of course after Alan Murphy died I knew they were looking for a guy to be a permanent member so I said to Gary, 'if you guys get stuck and you can't find the right guy just call me up'. So they did.

Levelling off

IM - How did you find fitting in with Level 42 initially? Were they quite rigid or did they give you a lot of leeway?

"I tried to slot into what they had going previously. I don't really know if I'm doing a good job or not. It's alien territory for me. I have already heard a few things, like the way that my rig was setup. It was set up to do what I do. It wasn't really set up to do a lot of other things. So I had to change a few things around just to accommodate certain aspects of the guitar parts the way the guys wanted them."

IM - So have they been definite about the how they want guitar parts to be played?

"Well in some of them, yeah. And then in other places they would just say 'go, do whatever you want'. It's fine, it's great from that point of view."

IM - I noticed that you played the little guitar motif from Lessons in Love verbatim. How do you feel after having had so much freedom with your own band about sticking to something somebody else has done?

"They figured that people heard that not as a solo, but just as a melody, so they said 'play that melody'. So I do. But on all the other solos I do what I want. Mark was the only person I have ever done a session for who actually let me do what I do. He just said, 'play a solo there' and practically whatever I did was acceptable to him which was great and he didn't try to get me to do anything that would have alienated me from the music."

IM - I heard rumours of a live album that you were doing or that you had in the can.

"We did do one but I didn't like it. I'm gonna try another one. We did it in Japan and I was using these little tiny speaker boxes. There is a law of physics, if stuff gets too small it just sounds like that. It sort of interferred with my playing. It was alright but it wasn't what I wanted out of a live album. I just wanted it to be really happening."

IM - Does time heal wounds, like if you listen back to something that you didn't like, do you find that it grows on you after a few months?

"Well, usually the feeling that you get at the time that you do it always comes back."

IM - How much do you actually know about the harmony theory and scale theory. What's your background on that?

"Well my dad was a piano player and as far as I can tell I know quite a lot about scales. I could be wrong! So it is something that I have spent a lot of time on. I always study a piece of music from a harmonic point of view before I even play on it and I write it all down for myself then I just improvise on it."

IM - So do you actually know about the modes and their relationship to the chords in the harmonic minors and the melodic minor scales?

"Yeah, what I do is anlayse the code [sic] sequence and I break the codes down into scales. You know, on the guitar you can only play like four different notes so sometimes they don't even constitute a full chord like they would on the piano. So, whenever I see a chord symbol or something, if somebody shows me a basic Cmaj7 chord or something, I could play any four notes from that scale, it doesn't even have to constitute what anybody would think was a Cmaj7 because it doesn't matter. So I think of it like that. As they are the right notes in the scale that's all that counts."

IM - So when you are soloing do you actually think about resolving back to chord tones and that sort of stuff?

"Yeah, I am just superimposing things over the top of it. It's like you are superimposing things over the top of each other. You try and extend the harmony. It's nothing different other than the fact that I have tried to stay away from a normal kind of approach to it. Like, in the approach of playing over changes from a BeBop standpoint. What I want to do is be able to play over anything, any kind of chord sequence and not to be able to hear anything that came from BeBop because I didn't come from that. I don't think it's essential at all. In fact, I think it's slightly limiting because it's like you've already got blinkers on to a certain extent."

The improvisor (sic)

IM - Would it be true to say then that you don't consider yourself to be a Jazz player?

"People have different points of view. From my point of view I am because everything I write is a vehicle for improvisation and that is what Jazz is to me. However, I'm not involved in any form of the traditional aspect so that makes me not a Jazz musician to some people... many people think of it as a traditional thing so I always think you should clarify it, if it's mainstream or trad., etc. But in essence the word means to be to be an improvisor. To me to really be able to play over something I can't do it if I have to look over the paper, so the first thing I have to do is memorise it and then I've got a chance. I can't look at a piece of paper because I won't be seeing the whole thing. You can't really get inside it. You're just fluttering around outside the edge of it. You might come up with something but I usually have to memorise it which takes a while for me. When I write a piece I never think about how difficult it's gonna be to solo over, I'm just writing the music. I think about them separately . I try and write the music and then, when it's finished, I worry about how I am going to play over it."

IM - So, just going back to what you said about your writing things down, can you read music?


IM - So, do you have your own system of notating things,

"Yes, I do. Basically I have a way of breaking down chords into scales and I usually take them to the nearest relative minor and I work on it from there. I have my own symbols which symbolise what scales are. I don't use the names for the scales that other people use for them. They are exactly the same it's just that I name them differently. So what I do is, when I use my own symbols to represent scales or chords or whatever, the letter is only a way of indicating what it is, the letter doesn't indicate a route or anything. So it's like one of my symbols - like an AX or something - doesn't mean that A is the route, it's just a way of letting me know what that scale is and I think of it from end to end. I think of it more as a colour, like a linear thing and as the chords change then all of the notes change. Like when I look at the guitar neck as the chord change I see all the dots changing under my fingers and then all I have to do is improvise with them. Obviously you make mistakes like you're gonna do wh en you're improvising."

IM - So when you look at the guitar neck you see it as a unified whole rather than as loads of little box positions of shapes?

"I see it as a whole thing because that's how I started out learning it. When my dad started showing me scales, he would never let me use an open string. I started learning scales with full fingering so that opened up the neck immediately and I wasn't stuck with playing in the nut position. When he started showing me chords I'd always be more intrigued with closer voicings which were a little more unusual at that time on guitar. I didn't know what was normal on guitar, what it's supposed to be like. Whenever I practice a scale I never practice it in one position. Even when I first started, every scale I practiced would be from as high as I could get to as low as possible. Sometimes even now when people ask me to do things that use open strings, I have to really think hard before I can use an open string."

IM - So, are you totally self taught then apart from what your father taught you?

"Yeah, well then from what he had given me I started coming up with concepts of my own and I wanted to figure out how many combinations of notes there are. Just getting into permutations and creating scales by using mathematics. That was one of the simplest ways to do it because that way you can get every single one and you don't miss anything. Say you want a scale that stretches over three octaves so that if you're soloing over a couple of changes or whatever you could use this scale and it will go through three separate, independent key centres but in itself it is a complete unity. So you would start out and spread the notes out in such a way that if it started on say a C you could take any amount, say 10, 12, 15 notes over three octaves and just spread them out so that when you get to where you would think the next octave started on C it wouldn't be C and then on the octave above that it wouldn't be C, the octave above that it would be. By using numbers like that I could figure all that out so I did and I got reams of stuff and I will never be able to remember it all, but it was just like an exercise, so what I do is draw from that thing because it's like an endless supply. There's more information there by just sitting down and working it out first than I'll ever be able to absorb. Plus the fact that I then saw all the connections with the chords and scales, so I'm just trying to work on that. I'm not very good at it, but I'm trying."


IM - You use very little right hand picking in your soloing style so you evolved this very smooth legato approach. How did you come about that? Was it a continuous desire to develop something like that or did you just fall into it?

"It's actually both, because when I first started playing, I started doing it before I knew it wasn't supposed to be like that. Then afterwards I found out it wasn't supposed to be like that so then I tried to play normally. I used to I [sic] always record myself. I had a little tape recorder and whenever I was just doodling I'd record it and listen to it. You can find out so much by that. I went back and listened to some of the other stuff after a period of time and thought, 'What's going on!' Then I listened to this other stuff that I had done before and I really liked it, you know there was something about it that really appealed to me so I started doing it again and then I just stuck with it. Up until a couple of years ago I used to think that the technique had limitations in as much you might not be able to play everything that was demanded of you but I don't believe that anymore. I actually got misquoted on this subject before by Guitar Player Magazine because what I said was, 'I think you can play a nything that anybody can play using that technique', but they made it sound like it was me saying I could play anything that anyone else could play, so we're straight! But talking about the technique, using the legato technique now I actually believe that you could play anything. You know if somebody played a line to you using a different technique, you could play it back to them using that technique, it's just that you have to come up with funny fingerings for it in order to get it to work properly. Obviously continuing to record myself like that I wanted to get to a point where I could make the notes that I wasn't picking louder than the one that I was and vice versa and I can do that reasonably well - not as good as I want - but I think sometimes when I listen back after even something I felt, 'Well where was it then, which one of those was it?' So it's getting a little better."

IM - What has changed your mind?

"Well, because I have figured our different fingerings that I thought were totally out of order or impractical, but I don't now, I just think that you can do it. Again through looking at some numbers you can figure stuff out."

IM - I have always been amazed at how logical the guitar really is.

"Except for the B string. If I was starting again I would learn it differently, I'd tune it to C and F. The string transference is direct. Can you imagine a piano player that had the first octave normal and then there were a couple of extra key shapes in the middle there, but they only occurred at that one place so every time you got to that one place it completely screwed up the logic of the instrument. Because essentially any stringed instrument is logical, it's just the B string, I guess they did that so that they could unify the top and bottom strings so that people could play bar chords - but who wants to play bar chords!"

IM - There was also a double-necked Steinberger which I saw you using at a gig last year. Are you still using that?

"I used it on one gig as an experiment. I only did it once because I didn't like the guitar. Synthax (sic) loaned me that guitar because the expense of doing the tour was so much that I went home and lost money. It wasn't done like normal tours, we had to pay for our own hotels and transportation, so by the time it was over we lost money.

IM - That was the Guitarist Tour wasn't it?

"Yeah. That's why this year was a bit of a disaster as well because none of the guys who were normally in the band could do that tour and then I got this opportunity to do this thing

with Level 42, which was perfect, because I couldn't do a tour and then we had one gig to do, a guy asked if we could bail his out a little bit and help him with the finance thing which was the only reason that we would do it and I said yes. But obviously I would be doing it for free, but they wanted Gary to do it for free and I couldn't accept that so I said no you have to pay him and they were paying for the other two guys to come over from the States the day before the gig, meaning that they would get in totally jet lagged and then we would have to do the gig without a rehearsal and the guy said, 'oh well you can rehearse at the gig', but that never happens, even if we got there at like 10 a.m., those guys are not going to want to get up that early and it was a big gig, like a London gig with no rehearsal, so as far as I was concerned it had to be knocked on the head. But what really did it is he started threatening me with giving me a hard time in his magazine, so up until that point I had only decided in my mind that I didn't want to but I was hovering on it because I knew the reason why we had decided to do it in the first place was to help them out, but when he said that a release valve went and I said no, we're not doing it. It was the wrong thing for me, the exortationate expenses were such that I couldn't bring the Synthax. I brought my consul [sic] and Synthax supplied me with a Synthax. I brought one synthesizer and two TX7 modules which are emergency machines really. We couldn't afford to rent the Matrix 12, which was what I would normally use, because they were too expensive. I had this idea of having this double-neck made so I could play all of the music that I had done on Synthax on guitar. The problem was that although I really love the Steinberger I didn't like that one. Since then I have had another made but it had similar problems. But I found the regular guitar was suffering on the double neck so they made it longer to give it a bit more top, make it a little bit 'brighter' sounding. It's not really happened, I don't think it's going to be a success. The huge guitar that I was talking to you about is a complete success but it's just tuned like a regular guitar but really long."

IM - Are you going to use that on your next album?.

"Yes. It's really hard to play though, I can just reach the bottom fret with my arm fully extended and the fret is over two inches wide. It's really hard to play a little bar chard down there, but it sounds unbelievable."


IM - That brings me to an aspect of your playing which is very rarely talked about - your approach to chords. How did you arrive at that? Did you use a mathematical formula to arrive at the voicings that you use or again, was it some other approach?

"The only time I have used mathematics with regard to chords is when I was either finding ways to make unusual scales or just permetating (sic) them - inversions, it's good for that. But inversions you can do a lot of different ways. I will take a particular voicing because of what it sounds like rather than what it is. You can play certain inversions of chords and nobody would know what it was. You play a couple of chords and they say, 'What's that? Then you tell them and they go, 'Oh no it's not'. When I write things I just start with a melody and I just improvise with chords until I have some nice sequence going. I try work on it and extend it and change it. I usually record it then I go back. Sometimes after I have been working on something for a while I go back and listen to what I had been doing the day before and scrap. It's one of the nice things about recording stuff, when you're constantly expanding on something you can forget what it was in the beginning."

IM - Do you spend a lot of time honing a piece down or is it relatively quick?

"It's not the same for each piece. Sometimes its really fast and then with others its really slow. I did this one thing, I did the first part really fast and then the rest of I couldn't get at all"