ALLAN HOLDSWORTH Tribute in music and words
We analyse what made Allan such a special musician, with our ‘Holdsworth For Mortals’ lesson and heartfelt tributes from top players.
He heard music from another dimension. He didn’t play like a ‘ guitar player’ or think like one. I think the guitar was just a way for him to get what was in his head out to the world. He had an astounding way of playing such beautiful music: those chord clusters... and just the right note after a jaw-dropping legato flurry that defied the human hand’s ability to play such a thing! He was also a kind and very funny man. His kindness and gentle spirit touched everyone he met yet he always thought
he was not playing well, or was not happy with anything he played, which was insane to me and everyone else that heard him. History will remember him like we remember Coltrane. A unique and original voice. I only wish he would have realised it himself. Maybe now he does looking down at all the musicians he touched who revered him. It is a sad day for music. I was honoured to know Allan. We had a few laughs along the way as well. I will cherish those moments!
I got to know Allan in the ’70s and would occasionally get together to play at his house. That was already intimidating enough, but one day we decided to play his song Three Sheets To The Wind. I was instantly humbled when he showed me the chords he used for the blowing changes because my left hand couldn’t reach these voicings! The next morning I locked myself in a room and refused to come out until I could go from a first position C chord to each of these chords. That was step one. But step two, actually blowing over those changes was much harder. I’m still working on that 40 years later!
The first thing that attracted me to Allan was not only his technique, that was second to none, but the emotion he could put into one note as well as the emotion he could put in one of his ‘sheet of sound’ fast flurries. He just has a beautiful touch. He made ‘outside’ guitar playing sound good. And you knew it was Allan after hearing one note. Before slow down software, YouTube or even home computers, I remember sitting for hours, cross-legged with the hi-fi at 16 and 1/2 speed, trying to figure out what he was playing. Growing up in Alabama, I heard a lot of country inspired music but never harmonically as dense as his music. He made it approachable, at least to my ears. I never came close to him harmonically but I owe a lot of how I approach and hear things to Allan. The Tony Williams recordings, and the Jean-Luc Ponty stuff were my first real exposure with chord progressions that were relatively digestible. Then I got Velvet Darkness and Road Games. I wore out Metal Fatigue when it came out. Then years later, his playing with Level 42, he brought so much class to that band.
Allan’s body of work is so profound that it’s very hard to choose just one song to highlight. That said, I have listened to Low Levels, High Stakes from Hard Hat Area a lot! I’m mainly speaking about the solo here as it’s the best example of unbelievable technique and heart-wrenching emotion that I’ve ever heard. I’m convinced that if Robert Johnson himself heard that solo he’d recognise it as the blues. Or, to paraphrase Mr Spock (I think Allan would approve!) ,”It’s the blues Jim, but not as we know it.” And sadly, we shall never know his like again. The harmonic density and technical capability required to just get close to it definitely puts his canon in the same realm as the great classical composers. I’ve often thought he should have been wearing a tux and playing his music in the grandest auditoriums for royalty!
It’s safe to say that Allan’s fluid legato single lines are what sets him apart from us mere mortals. But I find his harmony equally, if not more, fascinating. Many of his compositions are orchestrated with rich harmonies played simultaneously along with the melody. Often his voicings are built with either very wide intervals or clusters with plenty of 2nds rubbing beautifully. Major and Minor 3rds tend to be rare, creating a beautifully ambiguous soundscape. A great example of this is Looking Glass. The opening voicing is particularly widely spread with 1 and 5 on the bottom two strings and 11 and 9 on the top two strings followed by a similar voicing a whole step lower using 1 and 5, and #11 and 9. The next few voicings have just slightly less of a spread. Allan continues with this harmonic architecture for the rest of the tune - the great Ted Greene classified these voicings as V-10 and V-5). The overall effect is quite lovely and ethereal.
Like many permed early ’80s Van Halenites, I first heard about Allan Holdworth when Eddie Van Halen mentioned him in interviews. So I bought One Of A Kind by Bruford, and the first U.K. album, and I really liked them both. But when Allan released I.O.U. it was my first unfiltered dose of his harmonically challenging writing style. Each spin of the album took my ears further into new musical territory. The words ‘jazz’ or ‘fusion’ never seemed anywhere close to what Allan was doing.
i’m convinced that if robert johnson himself heard allan holdsworth soloing he’d recognise it as the blues Brett Garsed
It certainly wasn’t music that would fit alongside Autumn Leaves in a hotel lounge. It was emotional, authentic, and weird in the most positive sense. And the guitar playing had moments of effortless and thrilling athleticism. I was inspired to stretch my left hand further, and make my legato playing stronger. I was too young to get into the club where Allan played when he toured in the early ’80s. But my friends bootlegged the show, and gave me the cassette. Allan’s live solo on Road Games was outrageously ‘outside’, and opened my ear to sounds that I haven’t heard anywhere else. I still don’t know how he did that. I’ve got to find that tape. And I should mention that his vibrato was beautiful.
Allan and I did a show together in Baltimore and we shared a dressing room. He was friendly and we got to talking music pretty deeply. He brought up the concept of referring to chords as ‘families’ and notes as ‘family members’. I was familiar with that way of thinking already, as I have my own ‘note/ family’ concept. Different from his, as it turns out. So just as I thought I had a firm grasp on what he was basing his unorthodox style around, he says “Let me show you what I mean” and takes out a piece of old school yellow lined notebook paper. On it was what looked like trigonometry (whatever that looks like) with plus and minus signs, numbers, letters, various geometrical shapes and the like. When he started to explain all this, I acted like I knew what the hell he was talking about for about a minute, then I said, “I gotta call Ron (Jarzombek who was playing guitar in my band at the time) because he is a mathematical theory monster, He will probably understand this way better than I will.” So Ron came over (you can see the pic of this very moment on my FB fan page) and those two got along like gangbusters. What I got from it was that it was basic jazz improv concepts, but strictly avoiding any ‘mainstream’ chord voicings like the plague and following these unorthodox chords with the system of hieroglyphics written on his yellow paper.
Holdsworth was the greatest guitar player to ever lived! His musical concept and playing was out of this world, he created a whole language that never existed before in music and he was the only one to really use it. In a weird way to me he wasn’t really playing guitar, it was something else that was just transporting his music. He didn’t seem to come from blues or be-bop or classical music, it was all in his playing in some kind of way but his music really came from out of this world, from some other planet. My favourite record of his is Metal Fatigue and my favourite solo is Devil Take The Hindmost from that record. To me that’s a perfect solo that shows all the elements of his style and musicality; I’ve been trying to play that solo for 30 years with no success and will probably keep trying for 30 years more!
If anyone deserves to be called ’the John Coltrane of the guitar,’ it’s Allan Holdsworth. Revered by so many great guitarists, his technical prowess was staggering. It wasn’t just his hyper-fast, fluid, legato lines that impressed, it was his sophisticated harmonic sensibilities and a tone that was closer to reed players and synthesisers than straight guitar. His chord work could be just as impressive as his lead lines, wide stretches as well as close ‘cluster’ chords that at times approached an abstract, avant-garde sound akin to some of Derek Bailey’s atonality.
There seemed to be no limits to his musical expression. Tokyo Dream from his Road Games mini-album is a great example of his more lyrical side. It begins with a relatively simple sounding chord melody, the guitar through a chorus pedal, reverb and possibly an Eventide Harmoniser to achieve a sound not unlike an electric piano or keyboard. If you watch the live in Japan performance of this piece, you can see Allan using a combination of picking and tapping to achieve this effect. It looks effortless, but is far from easy. When the lead lines kick in we’re treated to gorgeous, liquid sustain and an endless stream of notes that twist and turn with beautiful harmonic complexity. It’s a perfect work of art.
The first attention-getting thing about Holdsworth in the ’70s was of course his lead lines, which seemed simply impossible. It was his playing on Bruford’s Feels Good To Me album that first knocked my head sideways; but it was Abingdon Chasp on the second Bruford album (composed by Holdsworth) which gave me a taste of the breadth and width defined by his infinitely rich chord progressions, which I can only describe as cosmic in scope. Both his composing and his improvising take my breath away, and still strike me as impossible. And yet, there he was - he did it.
The first time I heard Allan was around 1985. His tone, phrasing, super human legato technique with a tremendous reach that he used for four finger per string runs and unreachable chords was just out of this world. Devil Take The Hindmost from Metal Fatigue is stunning. The solo encompasses a lot of the things that I love about his playing. His use of the bar for fluid vibrato around 1:35 is beautiful and quirky at the same time and at 2:26 the super legato note flurry left the young me shaking my head!
One of my all-time favourite Holdsworth licks is at 2:45, I believe it’s augmented in nature but not really sure what he’s doing there! When I listen to Allan I really don’t listen as a musician but more as a fan, I just enjoy it. I don’t try to analyse or grab my guitar, I just listen and I don’t think any other guitar player has had that effect on me. There will only be one Allan Holdsworth that’s for sure and he will be greatly missed.
Allan Holdsworth was self-critical on a level that confounded his devotees, particularly of the period of his work that included his stint in Tony Williams’ New Lifetime. With respect to Mr Holdsworth, many of us considered him profoundly wrong in this respect and as evidence, look no further than the solo on Red Alert (from TWNL Believe It).
As is the case throughout his work, Holdsworth demonstrates a duality of traveling to lofty heights yet seamlessly returning, never losing his place in the music. A tune like this is an especially great way to
i don’t listen to allan as a musician, but more as a fan. i just enjoy it. i don’t try to analyse it or grab my guitar Rusty Cooley
everything i want to hear is there: touch, tone, note choice, phrasing, technique and huge heart and soul Andy Timmons
hear Allan, since unlike his later solo work - filled with polyrhythms and post-Coltrane chord movement that can sometimes come across as a musical equivalent of calculus or trigonometry - Red Alert has an easy-to-follow groove, a bit like Led Zeppelin’s The Immigrant Song with odd metres and virtuoso precision, as well as a tone is far more ‘rock’ than Holdsworth’s later work, in which his perfectionist dreams were manifest in a tone that was far more synth- like (including the SynthAxe hybrid). Throughout, Allan weaves between adventurous runs that most guitarists (including this one) would consider the musical equivalent of jumping off a cliff yet - with a cat-like grace - he always lands on his feet, and resolves with beautiful, heartfelt easy-to-follow melodic lines.
One can clearly hear him as a source of influence for Van Halen (an unknown youth prodigy at the time), particularly in his wide intervalic patterns that flow symmetrically across the fretboard in 4ths, as conventional scale-chord relationships are tossed to the wind. Though there is plenty of repetition in the patterns it never gets boring, partially because he never stays on one idea for too long, partially because there is such a sense of excitement and beauty as well as the fact that it is all balanced by a sense of control - the sign of a very deep musical sense.
One can also hear the whammy-bar used as an embellishment on a level previously unheard of. Yet for all that this solo includes, it is equally noteworthy and astonishing for what is not there: no lick that would ever overlap with Hendrix, Beck, Clapton, Page, Green, Gilmour, Blackmore or any other towering guitarist of the time.
My introduction to Allan Holdsworth was his playing on Jean Luc Ponty’s Enigmatic Ocean. The track Enigmatic Ocean Part 2 features the whole band trading solos and Allan plays twice. The first solo at 1:50 is truly killing, but his statement at 2:38 is the moment I will always imagine when I think about Allan’s playing. Everything I want to hear from an artist is in there: touch, tone, note choice, impeccable phrasing, amazing technique and huge heart and soul. My favourite track from his solo career is Tokyo Dream from the Road Games record. It takes an extremely special soul to write and play like that. Of course, the playing is always jaw dropping, but it’s his mind that intimidates me the most. Lots of practice and study might get you close to the technical aspect of what’s happening, but you’ll never ‘think’ or ‘hear’ the music as he did and I suppose that’s true of any great artist that achieves that level of identifiability. Rest In Peace beautiful soul...We will forever be in admiration and awe.
Allan’s lyricism and soulful delivery are two of my favourite aspects of his music. Distance vs Desire from Sand is a sublime composition with one of Allan’s most lyrical improvisations. It’s a beautiful example of his lush chordal textures, combined with endlessly inventive melodic passages and supreme dynamic sensibility. I am also particularly fond of Allan’s playing on the SynthAxe, and this piece is a great example of what he achieved on the instrument.
Allan Holdsworth is widely acknowledged for introducing a legato approach to guitar whereby the bulk of the notes are created by the fretting hand using a combination of hammer-ons and pull-offs. By listening to him, I learned to think of groups of notes as moving holistically and organically like a shoal of fish or a flock of starlings; focusing more on destination points rather than rigid rhythmic denominations. Apart from the fluid, free-flowing and intuitive note-sequences that resulted from his legato technique, the lack of pick attack also introduced a form of fragile expression that was unique to the guitar, and utterly enchanting to my young ears. Coupled with a subtle use of the vibrato bar, it gave Allan’s playing a plaintive and vocal-sounding sense of melancholy that was both sensitive and beautiful. This wasn’t his only contribution. Allan expanded rock guitar’s tonality in several ways: he used esoteric scales such as Harmonic Major and Diminished which he delivered with the virtuosic flair of a master jazz improviser, and would create accompanying chords by linking notes from those scales to form extended harmonies normally associated with modern classical music; he also introduced a completely atonal approach that stemmed from freeform jazz, a style with its roots in the avant-garde serialism of Arnold Schoenberg. As a result, Allan’s music wasn’t for the faint-hearted. It was challenging. His style also wasn’t without its limitations: although a master of playing in odd time signatures, his playing could never be termed rhythmic, percussive or aggressive: elements that many listeners would consider vital to a wellbalanced musical diet; however, the colours that he did choose to use in his palette totally bewitched legions of guitarists, engendering a fanatical devotion that explains such a genuine sense of loss in the guitar community since his death. For me, my biggest musical influence has gone, and life won’t ever be quite the same again.
Devil Take The Hindmost is one of my favourite Allan Holdsworth tracks. Featuring the incredible rhythm section of Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Johnson, Allan is just blazing... his tone, timing and legato technique are utterly flawless (as always), but I particularly loved how he could solo over a static (G Minor in this case) vamp and make it sound so interesting!! I remember transcribing some bits at the time, and realised that he was using a scale that I hadn’t come across before, something which he later referred to in his 1992 instructional video as the ‘Symmetrical’ scale (1/2 - 1/2 - whole - 1/2 - 1/2 - whole - 1/2 - 1/2 - whole), a nine-note scale which he further spiced up with string skipping, and his wonderfully vocal and unique use of the whammy bar. Unusually for Allan, there are even some pinched harmonics and blues licks during the solo. As he typically avoided such licks I always imagined him playing this solo with a cheeky grin on his face.