including classic interview + soloing lesson
The guitar world is still in shock from the death of Allan Holdsworth. Following on from fellow Soft Machine guitarist John Etheridge’s touching obituary in last month’s issue, we talked to four guitarists who knew Holdsworth. They share their memories of his stunning playing and try to quantify his legacy – and we also present a classic interview with Allan himself. Finally, Richard Barrett takes a look at Holdsworth’s formidable chops and shows how some of his soloing techniques can be woven into your own style.
“I was out at Summer NAMM in Chicago with Allan in June 1986. I was working for SynthAxe at the time and Allan was out there playing on our stand during the day. One evening, we all went out for a meal at an Indian restaurant. Allan ordered a ‘ring of fire’ curry and a bottle of Czech Budweiser: he stressed it was to be Czech as opposed to the US brew as he insisted it was better – he also ordered two glasses. When the drinks arrived, he said, ‘Watch this…’ and carefully poured the beer into one of the glasses, let it settle, then poured it into the other glass, telling me that this was to remove enough fizz from the brew to make it to his taste!
“Our conversation then turned to music. I asked him how it was that he could make any note from the chromatic scale sound ‘right’, whereas if I were to play the same note it would be seen as ‘wrong’. He told me that it was all about conviction and went on to give a rare insight to the working of his musical mind. He said that if we took the C major scale, every note could be the starting point for another scale – although not once did he mention the word ‘mode’ – and that every note in those scales could be yet another starting place. In that way, he insisted, every note in the chromatic scale would somehow be related to C major. The rest was down to the conviction of the player concerned.
“Allan was a lovely guy: funny, natural, warm and great company. He was totally unfazed by all the acclaim and treated all around him as equals.”
“I first met Allan in the early 70s when everybody used to hang around Denmark Street in Top Gear, along with the Marsdens, Moores, Clempsons and Moodys of this world. We virtually lived in there. I used to go around his house sometimes and you’d always find a guitar on the kitchen table, being disembowelled. I don’t know where the Holdsworth family used to eat, but I don’t think it was ever on the kitchen table, because it always had bits of Strat on it and soldering irons. He was a great tinkerer and he probably invented the Superstrat, to be honest – a Strat with humbuckers on – it was the first I ever saw with one on. He’d do this for a couple of hours and then say, ‘Right, gentlemen; the pub, I think!’ and off we’d troop and that would be the end of your day.
“I remember going to see him once – at a jazz club somewhere in the West End – and he actually walked off after about half and hour and he said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t go on, I can’t play,’ and I thought, ‘I wish I could ‘not play’ like that!’ He was fantastic, but he wasn’t happy and he just walked off. He was playing with a jazz quartet; it wasn’t fusion, but he didn’t like the sound, didn’t like the music he was playing, knocked it on the head and just walked off. We just went out for another beer – quelle surprise. He was just a marvellous man.
“A lot of musicians are obsessed by music and he was far from that. I don’t think it was all-consuming to him at all, and if it was, he kept it very much to himself. But he was great, really experimental, really innovative. A lovely man, I loved him to bits.”
“When I was a teenager, I was pretty obsessed with King Crimson and so my first big guitar hero was Robert Fripp. I remember reading an interview around 1973 where Fripp said that the only two guitar players worth listening to were John McLaughlin, who I was already aware of, and this bloke called Allan Holdsworth, who I’d never heard of. So I tried to seek him out, but there wasn’t much available back then – but then he joined Soft Machine. So I went to see Soft Machine in 1974 at The Rainbow and this guy came out with this white three-pickup SG and it was absolutely mind-boggling. I’d never seen or heard anything like it – nobody played guitar like that. This relentless stream of notes, but with this beautiful sound.
“So I became really enamoured of him; I bought as much as I could and whenever I saw his name anywhere I’d go and see him. Then he played on an album by Gong called Gazeuse!. I’d been in the National Youth Theatre and so I had a bit of an acting background and I phoned Virgin Records and pretended to be from Yorkshire: ‘An old pal of mine has joined a band on your label and I’m trying to get hold of him, he’s from Bradford, like me… it’s Allan Holdsworth in Gong.’ Much to my amazement, they gave me his phone number! So I phoned him up and I said, ‘Hello, Mr Holdsworth. You don’t know me, but I’m a big fan and I wondered if you give lessons?’ He said, ‘Oh, no… I don’t give lessons. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. How can I teach anybody?’ Then he said, ‘You can come round if you like,’ so I went round there and I used to go round there most Thursdays for I don’t know how long. He would make me a cup of tea, we’d sit there and I would take my guitar and strum these chords and he’d solo over the top. I sat there slack-jawed, just watching this thing up close and I remember him talking to me about sound, about amplifiers, ‘Oh, you don’t want to overdrive that ’cos it’ll sound horrible,’ or, ‘Listen to this, it’s got too much compression on it,’ and he’d play a record and say, ‘Now listen to this one, it’s far more open.’
“I learnt a lot of stuff just by being in close proximity to him. I had to have a white SG and I had to have whatever amp he had – and he kept changing and so I had to keep buying amps! I got into my 20s and it suddenly dawned on me: you see him in a pub and he’s playing a borrowed Telecaster, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute… it’s to do with his brain and his fingers. It’s got fuck all to do with the equipment.‘”
“We first met when I joined Chick Corea’s Elektric Band in summer of ’86. We did a tour and Allan’s trio with Jimmy Johnson and Chad Wackerman opened for us every night on the US tour. It was really incredible to watch. I was an unknown at that point. I mean, I was playing with Chick, but I was only 26 at the time and having to go on after Allan every night was a trial by fire. It made me pull up my socks and play the best I could.
“The biggest connection I had with Allan was back in 1990 when we recorded Truth In Shredding. Allan was the most self-deprecating person I ever met; he was such a monster player, innovator and giant that whenever you said, ‘Oh man, that was fantastic!’ the first thing he would say was, ‘I’m sorry you had to hear that…’ That was his famous quote. Because he didn’t read music in the traditional sense, he always felt ‘less than’, which is insanity in my book. He could play anything: any chord, any harmony and he could solo over anything. He was light years ahead of most guys.
“When it came to doing this project, he didn’t want to record live with us because he felt that he needed time to learn the tunes. The cool part was that we spent three or four days mixing together on that record and I’ve never seen anybody that meticulous about tone. I thought I was meticulous until I came up against him; he would quite happily spend a whole day just trying EQs and he’d bring Massenburgs and all these different kinds of serious high-quality EQ devices into the studio – this is when it was all outboard gear. So he’d set up all this stuff and run his guitar through it until he was satisfied and it took a lot longer than I thought it would take. I loved his sound when he finally got it where he liked it, but I’ve never seen that level of meticulousness.
“The beautiful part was sitting down with him, just with his guitar in his hand. I was literally a foot away from him, just looking at his hands as he played and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what he was doing! He had such an original approach to the instrument, with incredibly light strings so that he could do his legato thing. His chords always fascinated me. I would watch him and he would play four-note voicings, but the way he would pluck them was bizarre. Sometimes, he’d pluck the low two strings and maybe the G string and E string together – or these odd combinations and he would just do one after another where his right hand would manipulate the strings in incredible combinations and that was pretty staggering to me, just to watch it close hand.”