Allan Holdsworth: Synthaxe (Guitar Player 1985)

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Summary: Allan Holdsworth, a pioneer in using the SynthAxe, discusses his fascination with guitar synthesis. He found traditional synthesizers challenging but was captivated by the SynthAxe in January 1985. This instrument's extended scale length was initially challenging, but he adapted over time. Holdsworth uses custom string gauges to suit the SynthAxe, which allows for unique playing techniques. The instrument's pedal unit aids in live performances by simplifying patch changes. He also emphasizes that the SynthAxe opens up vast creative possibilities. Holdsworth sees a promising future for guitar synthesizers, predicting a SynthAxe revolution and the development of new systems. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]

Allan Holdsworth

Synth Axe

Guitar Player, June 1986

As told to Tom Mulhern

Among the first to use a SynthAxe, Allan Holdsworth has just released Atavachron [Enigma (dist. by Capitol), 72064-1], on which he uses the synthesizer controller extensively. A prominent display of the instrument under Holdsworth's control, "Non Brewed Condiment," from Atavachron, appeared as a SynthAxe demonstration on the flipside of Guitar Player's January 1986 Soundpage.

WHEN WE WERE recording Metal Fatigue [Enigma, 72002-1], a friend let me try his Roland synth. It was interesting because you could get some different sounds, but it was hopeless, as far as I was concerned, because everything else that you had ever learned about the guitar went out the window. It's like the instrument was playing you, instead of the other way around, and I hate that kind of situation. However, I got kind of stoked up about synthesis anyway.

I had ago on the SynthAxe in January '85, and I was blown away. Sometimes if I'm playing another instrument and I hear synthesized sounds coming out, it's psychologically strange. But on the SynthAxe, it seems very natural. I think, "This is the instrument I use to do that." A lot of stuff I did on the new album would have been impossible without the SynthAxe, or with a pitch-to-voltage synthesizer. And because it is a computer-controlled machine, all the improvements, all the updates they make, can be incorporated into the system without changing the physical makeup of the guitar. In a lot of respects, the SynthAxe is a quantum leap beyond the guitar. Each musician is going to find something different in it, and the actual instrument won't ever be outdated because it doesn't use pitch-to-voltage, and if you want new sounds, all you have to do is change the synthesizer you connect it to.

The extra-long scale length was the thing I had the most problem with. I see the reasons for it, and I think it's a really good idea, but I probably would have the neck really small instead. Being a guitar player himself, [SynthAxe co-designer] Bill Aitken wanted to be able to play barre chords all over the neck with equal ease. If I play low down, things are easier, but as I play higher up the neck, they become more difficult. Also, when you look at the neck, it's kind of bizarre. It threw me for a while. Say, if I was soloing above the 12th fret, I'd wonder what note I was playing. After nine months of using it continuously, though, I'm used to it.

The SynthAxe uses normal guitar strings, but I thought that since the string is just acting as an electrical contact, it seemed logical to have them all of one gauge. That way, the tension would be uniform. Strings of different diameters have to be hit in slightly different ways, especially with wrapped and plain strings. So I use .015s for the right hand and .013s for the left hand. I could have used a lighter string for the left, but I perspire quite a bit, and the strings wouldn't last any time at all. I change them less often than on my normal guitar. I can usually get a week out of the left-hand strings and a couple of weeks out of the others.

I tried adapting some of my existing pieces to SynthAxe, and it works really well for some. But there's really so much more I can do with it. I would like to stick mostly to new things because it has opened up so many doors for me, compositionally and sonically. I'm not too interested in sampling, but I like creating sounds from scratch.

At first it was a little hard for me to get into synthesis because, being a guitar player, I wasn't familiar with it. I didn't even know how synthesizers worked, except that the sound came from oscillators. My first synthesizer was the Oberheim Matrix 12, so I was kind of thrown in at the deep end. It's not the most basic machine you can get, but in a way it was good for me. It took me a while to even be able to find my way around. Luckily, my interest in studio signal processing and trying to find new sounds on the regular guitar really helped.

I didn't realize how great those synthesizers were until I started using them. I've always liked the Oberheim sound anyway. It seems that every synth manufacturer has its own voice. The Oberheim has a vocal quality or something. With the Matrix 12, you can assign two voices to each string. And you can pan them anywhere in the stereo image and get some really beautiful stuff.

For signal processing with my synth, I use my existing guitar system with wider-range speakers. I've been experimenting with JBL full-range monitors for the SynthAxe and using them for rhythm guitar, as well. I might finish up with some custom ones that are somewhere between a keyboard monitor and a guitar speaker. I don't really like the way high-frequency horns sound on guitar-or anything, for that matter-so I'd like to find some good smaller speakers like 8s or l0s for the high end. I've always been against the principle of splitting the sound by highs and lows anyway, even in the studio. It always sounds so unnatural to me to hear one part of the sound coming from one place and another part from another place. I grew up listening to 8" full-range speakers, and they were always beautiful without being shrill - the sound all came from the same space and didn't seem all chopped up.

I have the SynthAxe pedal unit, but I didn't have it for a short tour of Europe, so I had to recall all the patch changes and parameters from the SynthAxe console. For every patch change or different sound, I had to hit three buttons, which could get kind of confusing when you're trying to play. There's too much pressure on you. It's one thing to do that in the studio, but when you try to coordinate everything like that onstage, it becomes very difficult. Also, if I hit one wrong number onstage - like if I missed a button because I didn't have enough light to see - I could recall the wrong patch, and then I was really in trouble. By the time you get it, the solo's over. When we got back from England, they loaned me a new SynthAxe and gave me the new software, which lets you load into the console the name of each song, give that song a number, and place it in any order in the set. For example, I could pick up the SynthAxe, step on the pedal, and theoretically play all night without touching the console at a ll. You just program for each song, and then recall it from memory. It takes a while t o program it, but you do it at home, and then it's great on the gig. The unit has two pedals: One goes through the presets going up, and the other goes down. So if you make a mistake and jump up one too many, you can back-pedal.

For years I've used a delay, a Harmonizer, and a volume pedal to get my chordal sound. I tried the SynthAxe in the same way, and it sounded wonderful. One of the tracks on the album, "All Our Yesterdays," features that sound. I was pleased with how the piece turned out. Once I got into the synthesizers and their parameters, I tried to get all of the effects to happen automatically without using a volume pedal. Some have real slow attacks, so it's like fading-in sounds with a volume pedal. Now I can control the attack, the sustain, and the release all from the synthesizer. So I've created a number of patches that give like an automatic volume pedal effect. I still have one volume pedal at the end of my signal chain before the power amps to cut down on overall noise.

I use the keys on the guitar a lot. As I get better at it, I'll use them more and more, because I'm even using them for soloing. You can do some interesting things with them. For example, you can do a trill from the low E string to the high E string, playing a Bb on the low E and a B on the high E, and just trill on the first and sixth keys with the right hand. You could get the same effect easily on the strings with good classical right-hand technique, but it would be very difficult with a pick. Some things you can do make it an awesome experience. I'm really reveling in it.

I don't, however, use the vibrato bar very much. That's because the way a vibrato sounds on a guitar synthesizer is similar to the way a pitch-bend wheel sounds on a keyboard synthesizer. And I think those things should be taped over anyway. Whenever I see a keyboardist using one of those onstage, I want to jump up there and put some duct tape over the wheel. It drives me crazy. I'm quite happy with the way the SynthAxe works, in that I can get the finger vibrato and all those little subtleties from my fingers, which sound so much different from a pitch wheel or vibrato bar. You can also reassign the vibrato arm to control any function that you want, including volume swells or changing the tone through envelope shaping. I haven't experimented with it very much yet because there's so much else that I've been learning. It's great to have something to look forward to in an instrument.

I spend a lot of time dealing with the synthesizers, as well, because the more familiar I become with them - especially the Oberheims - the more amazed I am. I also have a little Yamaha TX7 module that's got some pre-tweaked patches of my own. For some reason, the TX7 and DX7 are much more limited, to me. I know it seems funny, but most DX7 sounds are so recognizable. They always seem to have that bell-like sound; it's kind of neat, but I'm tired of it. What knocks me out about the Oberheim is that you can still come up with all these new sounds out of an analog synth.

I haven't experimented with open tunings very much. The only ones I've worked with are regular guitar tuning and straight fourths across the neck - I always thought that was a good tuning for guitar, anyway - and I also use fifths because I used to play a little bit of violin and I liked that fingering. It's really logical and gives you a phenomenally wider range. It's incredible on the SynthAxe because unlike acoustic instruments, I can tune in fifths from the high E, giving the same top-end range as the guitar, but the low end goes down to F, next to the lowest note on the bass guitar. That's quite a range. Fifths are not that good for chords I unless you look at the tuning from the opposite point of view. [Ed. Note: A perfect fifth is the inversion of a perfect fourth.] There are lots of neat chords and voicings in that tuning waiting to be discovered, I'm sure. And I can store different tunings for recall in the SynthAxe console, so I can call up, for example, the fif ths tuning just for a solo.

I don't think it's a good idea to compare your approach with others who use your instrument, because one of the fantastic things about it is that it allows people to really grow in diverse directions. There are so many things you can do with it, it's just mind-boggling. I want to get on and do what I do with it. It's just an instrument to make music on. It's not that I'm not curious what Lee Ritenour and others are doing; it's just that I don't have any real interest in figuring out what someone else is doing with it. I'll be that much more knocked out with it when I see someone else playing. That's kind of the way I feel about the guitar.

I was tempted to do the whole album with the SynthAxe. I used it on every track in one way or another, but I also used the regular guitar for most of the solos. On the album and onstage, it's about 50-50 SynthAxe and guitar. There are only two major solos on the SynthAxe: "Non-Brewed Condiment" and "All Our Yesterdays." It works out well onstage, too. And it's really no bother to switch from SynthAxe to guitar: It's no different than for a keyboardist to walk from his synthesizers to a piano. It's no big deal. I just plan according to the song's needs. On "Looking Glass" I play everything on the SynthAxe live, but on the album the solo was done with a guitar. On the next album, I plan to use the SynthAxe more the way I'm using it live. Some of the pieces will be exclusively SynthAxe, while others will be exclusively guitar. All of the tracks on Atavachron are a mixture.

What do I think will happen with guitar synth in the next couple of years? I don't think it will fizzle out. I think there will be a kind of a SynthAxe revolution; they've started something -the digital guitar controller - that I think a lot of people will latch onto in one way or another, with a lot of different approaches. There will be guitar controllers that don't operate on the pitch-to- glitch approach; it's too complicated and too unreliable. And if you're playing a guitar synthesizer, why do you want to do harmonics or certain things that you can do best on a regular guitar? Use a guitar for those things. There are so many other things you can do on a synthesizer, so why do that? You can't do harmonics on a piano, either, but it's still a great instrument. I don't think MIDI will stay-at least the way it is now. MIDI isn't very bright for guitar. It was designed for transmitting keyboard information, which isn't nearly as complicated as what you need for a guitar. Pitch-bending can be a real problem, for example. So, new systems are bound to come up.