Summary: In this promotional story, Allan discussed his unique playing style and equipment setup in an interview. He emphasized his desire for innovation in music and his use of signal processing and mixing equipment. Holdsworth described his preference for creating harmonic structures and his frustration with limited budgets for recording. He mentioned his early influences, including his father's piano playing and a variety of musicians from different genres. Holdsworth also explained his approach to using delay effects to create a stereo, natural sound, and discussed his equipment setup in detail, highlighting the flexibility of his signal processing approach. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]
ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: A DIFFERENT KIND OF GUITARIST
“Sample And Hold” - Yamaha promotional magazine, 1982.
[Ed. note: This article is a rare example of Allan explicitly promoting gear for pay. Allan does mention some Yamaha gear in other interviews at the time, but wether he used for actual recordings or gigs is hard to verify. After 1982, there is no mention of Yamaha gear until the late 80s, when he would talk about using Yamaha synth modules and some pieces of outboard gear. Allan never used the Yamaha guitar he is pictured with on any recording or gig, according to my available sources.]
Allan Holdsworth warmly ushered us into his Tustin apartment. Allan, who was pictured on the cover of the December, 1982, issue of "Guitar Player," was smiling warmly as he offered us tea. We conversed a while, and eventually asked him how he felt about his unique playing style. "There's always people who try to sound like other people." Allan said, "I want to move on. To change. There are so many endless thousands of things that haven't been done before. That's actually part of why I started getting into this...." The "this" was a rack cabinet full of signal processing and mixing equipment.
"It came about through my problems working with keyboard players. I wanted to be able to carry that kind of weight that kind of sound on the guitar. And all this setup came out of that."
We continued discussing the difficulty of achieving a particular sound... how Allan gets the sound he hears in his head. "That's the problem. I've had it there for such a very long time, but I never get a chance to do it. Every time I do get an opportunity to do something on my own, like with the record, it's on such a shoestring that it becomes almost impossible to do what I really want to do. The 'I.O.U: record, the last one, was the closest I could get with the finances that were available to me at the time.
"It represented a departure for me from what I was doing before into something I had always wanted to do, where the thing is structured harmonically, as opposed to physically, so the pieces are all very controlled like a composition, yet where there's room at the same time for people to experiment within the framework."
It seemed that Allan takes his art seriously. "Yeah. There's nothing else, really. The 'I.O.U.' record, for example. We borrowed the money to make the album, then we mixed it in two evenings. It was mixed by a friend of mine at Trident Studios, who is an excellent engineer, and he mixed one side on one night and side two on the other, which is pretty quick. It would have been nice to have spent more time on the record, but we still captured an important part of what we wanted to do, and it was a departure from what had been done before. The album we're about to do now is giving us a lot more freedom because we don't have to do it in ten minutes. We've a good budget to do it, and we can spend two weeks recording it, which would be a world for me. That's great."
On the question of the inevitable pulls toward "the commercial" by those who put up the money, Allan smiled and said, "We're trying not to take too much notice, but you have to. I listen to what everybody says. Everybody's got a point of view.' We went on to ask about the time that typically elapses between conception and execution of a project. Állan felt it can put some artists in a bind. "I find it very difficult to sit on ideas for a length of time. It will have been a year... finally they're saying I can produce it myself." Allan pointed out that there's still the higher authority of the executive producer, which concerns him somewhat. "I'm really fearful of making a record which I think is really good, and them shelving it or saying, 'we're not putting the album out unless you change it,' which puts me in a terrible position, especially if the album is good and I WANT IT to be out. But I understand why they do it, and I'm game to listen."
We asked a question about who Allan listens to, and learned a good deal about the early influences that brought up Allan Holdsworth, which explain the breadth of his musical style. "I listen to a great variety of people. I suppose one of the earliest things was my father being a really great piano player. We had this old windup record player and lots of records lying about. I really loved them, but I didn't have any desire to play an instrument. After a while I kind of wanted to play the saxophone, but my parents didn't have enough money to buy a saxophone at the time, and I had an uncle who played guitar and sang locally. He had an old guitar he was getting rid of, and he gave it to my dad, who bought a few books so he could understand at least how to tune... so it would always be in tune. I just picked up a few chords and started right from there. It just crept up on me, and then I really liked it, and started going back and listening to all the music I'd heard in the past, and I realized how great some of it was, and why. I just went back to all these old records, like Jimmy Rainey and Joe Pass. And after that, John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett. People like that. I was always more interested in MUSIC rather than the INSTRUMENT. I liked the way certain people played whatever instrument it was."
At the risk of putting Allan on the spot, another well known and influential guitarist who also makes extensive use of delay effects was mentioned. "Yes, I like Pat Metheny a lot. Again, he is somebody who came along and sounded like he was doing something different. It's true. He uses delay completely differently (than I do). But he does use it. He uses a more conventional 'straight ahead' sound, with delay to kind of enhance it. I feel the same way as him about delay things.
"No sound in nature is truly monophonic. It's stereo because we've got two ears. A lot of sounds you hear are reflections from surfaces. wherever you are. It would be totally unnatural to stand in the middle of an anechoic chamber and speak. And eventually that's what happens when you play the guitar into a lone amplifier. But when you hear an acoustic guitar, or an acoustic piano, the sound's coming out from underneath it, above it... everywhere. You get a mixture of all these things together, and that's basically the way I feel about delay things. But I didn't want to create something like a monster. I wanted to make it an electronic kind of instrument like a guitar, and place it into the world of real acoustics."
Given that he wants his electric guitar to sound like it comes from "the world of real acoustics," we wondered what a guitar synthesizer would have to be in order to satisfy his requirements for a musical instrument. He thought they already were musical instruments, "but there's still something unique about a string vibrating in the air. It's still not a thing I've heard from a synthesizer yet... though I've heard some incredible sounds from some of those synthesizers."
In listening to Allan's record, we notice no sense of "pick attack." The sound seems to begin as though a key had been pressed. It comes out full blown, texture and all. Is it "cleaned up" in the mix. By compression or in the delay units? "I don't use any effects on the solo at all. Only for chordally playing. The lead sound is straight into the amplifier." In other words, Allan Holdsworth has technique. "Because I still love the saxophone, I always wanted to make the sound of the guitar more as if BLEW, rather than picked it. And also to change the sound of it as well, like you can do with a saxophone or a violin, where you can play the note and make it go quiet... and then make it go loud again, and then vibrato it or not, or play it straight. All those things are not really in the nature of the guitar, which is why I might not have become a guitar player if I'd got hold of something else first. Like a violin, where I can actually get what I can hear (in my head). I hear a lot of things that I can't actually get out of the guitar."
On the "I.O.U." record, Allan's guitar often does sound "bowed." We also noticed the fine integration of the timbral qualities of the human voice with that of the instrumental sounds occurring with and around it. Allan agreed that he was happy with how that had turned out. "The way that happened was... I really wanted it to sound like the voice being part. of the music, and not like a 'real singer.' I mean, Paul Williams (vocal ist with 'I.O.U.') IS a real singer, but he wanted to be part of the chord. Usually what I'll have him do is sing the extra notes that are NOT in the chord, rather than just doubling something. He's nearly always singing a note that's not around IN there... which is pretty difficult. Beyond that, we didn't do anything deliberate. I just thought that Paul's voice was ideally suited to it. It was just something that I heard."
Allan noted that achieving the same effect in live performance is not always possible to his satisfaction, largely because of the necessary movements of a singer relative to the microphone, which don't have to happen in a studio. "Most of the musicians are in control of their own equipment, where Paul isn't. He's at the mercy of whoever's out there at the mix board, and sometimes that relative balance between the vocals and the guitar and the rest of the band is less than it should be. We're going to try and work on that for the stage, so we can achieve the same thing. Paul is really at the mercy of the guy who's running the board." Obviously, Allan appreciates the ability to "fine tune" the mix in the studio, something that is not available to the performer in a live show. We asked Allan about the setup he uses, and he pointed to his Yamaha M512 12 input x stereo output mixer. It's used just for a single guitar and its effects.
Is Allan satisfied with his equipment? Is it where he wants it to be? "Almost. There's a couple of more things that I would like."
Before getting into the empty slots on the rack, we'd better explore the filled ones first. Allan's effects chain is unusual. More so than might be apparent from a cursory examination of the accompanying block diagram. "All the units work independently of each other. If any effect fails, it doesn't affect anything else at all. It's got its own kind of fail safe... except if the power goes, or the preamps, which isn't likely. What I do is, I have a little device which sends the guitar off in two directions. Basically a signal splitter with an impedance converter (preamp) built in. The solo sound goes down the 'A,' or 'red' channel directly to the amps I use for just the solo sound. The 'B,' or 'green' side of the split goes through the effects and into the amps for the chords."
OK, so there's a "red" channel for "dry" solo sounds, and a "green" channel with effects for chords. What exactly is in that "green channel," we asked. "With the green channel, because the headroom varies a little bit on the various units, I use a dual limiter to put a ceiling on the sound so I won't distort or overload the front ends of any of the units. (The limiter comes in the "green" leg, right after the splitter). From there, the signal goes to a little box (another splitter) I made myself which feeds an independent signal to each one of the (effects) devices. And each of these devices, in turn is fed into the (Yamaha M512) mixer. Then the mixer just mixes the various effects down to stereo. It's as simple as that. If any one thing goes wrong, it doesn't affect anything else. It's also very flexible, because I've got the possibility of EQ'ing it before and after the effects are mixed."
We were impressed with Allan's parallel rather than "chain" approach to signal processing. "Yeah," he said, "it's basically like a little studio." It makes a lot of sense because the effects can be adjusted individually without interaction, so raising the level in one unit does not inadvertently cause distortion in the next... and one effect can be turned off, including its noise contribution, without killing the signal from the other effects. Allan also explained the somewhat unusual location of his two Yamaha PG1 guitar preamps, located between the mixer and the P2200 power amp. Originally, he had tried a single PG1 right at the guitar. However, he feels this setup gives him lower noise and greater flexibility (two channels with independent preamp settings). In order to keep from overdriving the preamps, and to ensure the signal out of the mixer is compatible with any amp, including a guitar amp in the event of normal power amp or speaker failure, Allan places a pair of attenuation pads between the mixer and the preamp input. He says the pads also "let me mix with the VU meters in the normal range." Obviously Allan had given a lot of thought to his setup.
We asked Allan about his Yamaha E1010 Analog Delay Unit. "I use the original ('dry' sound) on one side and the delay on the other. It works great, actually. Out of any of the units that I've used... and I mean it's not bull or anything, because it's to do with Yamaha... but if out of all those units up there, if I could only have one of them, that's the one I'd have. Besides, I like analog delay. It just sounds so much fatter."
We looked at Allan's control settings on the E1010 and noticed that the Feedback control was all the way down. We asked if Allan used much feedback? "Well, I used to use the E1010 for all the effects that I was using. Somewhere I used long delays, and somewhere I used short delays, and it's a great unit for that because it's real easy to change. That's what I used on the 'I.O.U.' album. I would just put in the long delay and stick in the feedback, and it was pretty quick. It was better than having a footswitch, because I don't like things on the floor. I do use a couple of volume pedals. For example, from the output of the mixer to the front of the amps, I use a stereo volume pedal. It helps with the signal to noise ratio. That's because if I want to play something quiet, I don't have the amp hearing the preamps wide open. The guitar will always be on maximum, which keeps it real quiet. Sometimes I've used it on the output of the preamps." Allan clearly understood the benefits of turning down the volume going into the amps, rather than at the guitar, a practice we'd recommend for almost any player.
We noticed two power amps, a dual channel Hartley Thompson and a dual channel Yamaha P2200, and we wondered what factors determine how they were used. The reason for two amps, in the first place, was "I don't like to have the sound in my ears, but (vocalist) Paul Williams likes to feel the guitar a bit more. So what I usually do is have the bottom power amp driving the bottom two speakers wide open. But I run the top at a lower power setting so that it's not (causing me) pain.... For the clean sound, that Yamaha's the best sound, probably, I've ever had."
All in all, the setup seemed to offer a lot of latitude. "Yeah, it's good. That's one of the things that made me decide to use the mixer. I didn't want to get interswitching devices. I didn't want to run anything open circuit. I thought, if I get a small mixer, I can just pipe everything off into the various channels, just like I would if I was in a studio, and I could keep the stuff off the floor."
We asked what advice Allan would give to developing guitarists whose directions lay along lines relevant to his own. Particularly, at what point in learning to play the instrument did he think they should integrate the electronics they're sure to be using?
"I think the desire for them to do that would be overwhelming. I can't really recommend the time." Allan chose to cite a particular example... "Jeff Berlin, the bass player. (See Jeff Berlin story in this issue of 'Sample & Hold") I showed him some things I was doing. He plugged into my setup, and he thought it was nice, so he did the same thing, basically. He was using just one E1010 with just a real short delay on it, without any regeneration (feedback), so he didn't get any funneling effect. He used it in stereo. It sounded great. I talked him into my basic thing, and I think it was the best sound I've heard him make. What he's got in his rack now is three E1010s. He just switches between the one E1010 and the two E1010s. Then he patches into the effects send/return loops."
Most of the time Allan uses a double coil (antihum) pickup. We asked if there were differences when using a single coil pickup in his elaborate setup. "Oh, sure. It still makes the same differences as when you put a single coil into a straight amp. You'll hear it through this. Exactly the same."
Allan's new Yamaha guitar was away being tailored with a tremolo bridge, because he wanted to hear what it sounded like, having had good results with it on a previous guitar, which he had liked but found too heavy. "It's an SBG shape that was custom made. It's on a 251⁄2" scale. It's a great guitar, but I've got this thing about really light wood. I'm into really light guitars. With everybody, for years, it's been the opposite."
Allan's comment suggested he was concerned about the acoustic qualities of his guitars. He nodded assent. "I can usually tell what a guitar will sound like before I even plug it in. If it feels right and sounds good acoustically, it'll be great plugged in. That's presuming a specific pickup that would be constant among all the guitars in question. I can say this guitar will sound better than that one, just because of what they sound like acoustically."
In terms of the other technical aspects of guitar design, such as string separation, neck width, and scaling in general, Allan finds these factors important as well. "Once I got used to the 251⁄2 inch scale, and then got a hold of a 241⁄2 inch, my ear could instantly perceive the short scale length. It was like someone had chopped off part of the frequencies the ear could perceive. Certain techs in certain studios have had that effect on me. It's like they're saying, 'Well, okay. People can only hear this high, so we'll put a ceiling on it... only dogs can hear above it. If they don't put a ceiling on it, it always sounds better. With the ceiling (limited high frequency response), I suppose what happens is that all the extra harmonics that are in, because of the extra string length, are cut out. Theoretically... there shouldn't be that much difference, but I can hear a lot of difference. When I get back to a 241⁄2 inch scale and play the string, it's like all the upper harmonics are gone, and I hear it. Immediately." We went on to discuss necks about which Allan said, "They didn't worry me too much at first, until I started getting into custom made necks. I went for a wider fingerboard." The conversation continued, and we got around to one of our favorite areas, a "wish list." Allan talked about the "ideal" delay line for him. "What if they took a delay unit further, and it had ten taps. That would really make it. You could get some fantastic chorusing effects. It would be pretty interesting reverb as well to be able to regulate all the different delay times and the regeneration." We won't speculate on what the factory has in the works, but that's not such a farout idea.. Allan also talked about his Yamaha M406 6 input x stereo output rack mounted mixer, which had been his main mixer until recently. "One of the things I liked about this small mixer, as opposed to the big one, was I didn't like groveling around, 20 minutes before the gig, figuring it all out and making sure it was all plugged up right." A musician getting lost in a tangle of patch cords and extra channels is certainly not conducive to calm, we could agree. "Whereas this way it's easy. I can even rely on someone else to do it." "I also wished they'd make a ten channel version of that. A lot of people would use it. It's useful to have a mixer in a rack, and they're much smaller than the separate board. You simply need more channels so you're not limited." We'll point out to Allan, and our readers, that you can have a 12 input version of the M406. Use two of them, and simply plug the outputs of one unit to the sub inputs of the next.
Allan plugged in a patch cord here and there, and sound was filling the room. We were treated to a demonstration. He used bare fingertips just to "give us the idea." It was a good "idea." We were overpowered at the sound which came from one person's fingertips, playing one guitar, in real time. Overpowered by the quality, not the volume. Had we been passersby outside the window, being told the source of the sound, I don't know if we would have believed it. You just can't do those things with a guitar. You can't, we thought, obviously contradicted by Allan's playing.