Holdsworth for mor­tals

As the mu­sic world mourns the loss of a gui­tar ge­nius, Mil­ton Mer­mikides pays trib­ute to Al­lan Holdsworth with an ac­ces­si­ble ex­am­i­na­tion of his chord and solo­ing style.

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The gui­tar and jazz world was sad­dened to hear of the pass­ing of Al­lan Holdsworth on the April 15, 2017, aged 70. While ar­gu­ments about who is ‘the best’ in mu­sic are gen­er­ally un­help­ful and mean­ing­less, Holdsworth must rank as one of the most uni­ver­sally re­spected gui­tarists by fel­low gui­tarists. He re­ceived su­perla­tive praise from mas­ters of the gui­tar of ev­ery style from Frank Zappa (who claimed that Holdsworth “sin­gle-hand­edly rein­vented the elec­tric gui­tar”) to Car­los San­tana to Joe Sa­tri­ani to John McLaugh­lin to Guthrie Go­van to George Ben­son to Tom Morello and Ed­die Van Halen (“the best in my book”). De­spite his in­flu­ence and in­spi­ra­tion to so many gui­tarists he never reached the house­hold-gui­tarist-name sta­tus of play­ers like Hen­drix, Clap­ton, Beck, Van Halen, Jimmy Page and Brian May, prob­a­bly due to the chal­leng­ing na­ture of his mu­sic, mis­for­tune with man­age­ment and in­suf­fi­cient as­so­ci­a­tions with ‘big acts’.

This ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tion be­tween enor­mous re­spect within his field and his pop­u­lar ‘suc­cess’ is just one of many other con­tra­dic­tions in the man; a re­luc­tant gui­tarist who mas­tered and then rev­o­lu­tionised the in­stru­ment, a tra­di­tion­al­ist York­shire brewer with a fu­tur­is­tic mu­si­cal vi­sion and cos­mic sound. A laid-back con­ver­sa­tional per­sona, with the un­lazi­est at­ti­tude imag­in­able to the de­vel­op­ment of the­ory, im­pro­vi­sa­tion, rhythm and tech­nique. A jazz gui­tarist with­out an f-hole, head­stock or blues lick. A lauded mu­si­cian who humbly shrugged off any sug­ges­tions of his pro­fi­ciency. An en­vi­able tech­nique al­ways in the ser­vice of ex­pres­sive, ego­less mu­sic. A pub mu­si­cian light years from Mus­tang Sally.

There is plenty of great tu­to­rial and tran­scrip­tion ma­te­rial on Holdsworth’s mu­sic (and much by the man him­self), so this ar­ti­cle has two spe­cific aims: 1) as an ac­ces­si­ble (and hope­fully in­spir­ing) in­tro­duc­tion to Holdsworth’s gui­tar style and mu­sic to the unini­ti­ated – and even those who might feel alien­ated or even in­tim­i­dated by the mu­sic or tech­ni­cal level, and 2) a suc­cinct over­view and, hope­fully, a fresh per­spec­tive of his the­o­ret­i­cal and mu­si­cal ideas for those who know and ad­mire his play­ing but are look­ing for a deeper un­der­stand­ing be­yond tran­scrip­tion and tech­ni­cal ex­er­cises. I’ve struc­tured the ar­ti­cle by scale and cre­ated some pro­gres­sive stud­ies based on each scale. Fi­nally, a short study piece is pre­sented that uses all of th­ese con­cepts. The very least (and per­haps most im­por­tant) thing I hope you’ll learn from this ar­ti­cle – and by Holdsworth’s ex­am­ple – is an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the end­less po­ten­tial that can be achieved by the ded­i­cated and hum­ble pur­suit of a per­sonal mu­si­cal vi­sion.

tHe Huge re­spect witHin His field and tHe lack of pop­u­lar suc­cess is just one of many con­tra­dic­tions in tHe man

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