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.
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