Allan played acoustic guitar occasionally up to around 1985. Some highlights (not complete) of his acoustic playing are:
"Gone Sailing", a solo piece for (detuned) 12-string on Soft Machine's "Bundles".
"Floppy Hat", "Kinder" and "Last May" on "Velvet Darkness".
"Shadows Of" with Gong on "Gazeuse".
"Nevermore" on UK's album.
Several tracks on "The Things I See" with Gordon Beck.
"Home" on "Metal Fatigue"
These are quotes where Allan talks about acoustic guitar.
- 1 Sad scene say Softs (Melody Maker 1974)
- 2 Player Of The Month (Beat Instrumental 1978)
- 3 Allan Holdsworth (Beat Instrumental 1979)
- 4 Holdsworth & Co. A New Side Of Allan’s Music. (Guitar 1980)
- 5 Allan Holdsworth (Guitar Player 1982)
- 6 Reaching For The Uncommon Chord
- 7 The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)
- 8 Allan Holdsworth’s Untold Secrets + Worthy Quotes (Guitar Player 1990)
- 9 No Secret (Guitar Extra 1992)
- 10 Allan Holdsworth: An interview (Atavachron 1994)
- 11 Med Siktet Innställt På Total Kontroll (MusikerMagasinet 1996, Swedish language)
- 12 Don’t you know? The Lost Words (Oneiric Moor 2003)
- 13 A Conversation With Allan Holdsworth (Abstract Logix 2005)
- 14 Interview with Allan Holdsworth (Jazz Italia 2005)
"He also plays violin and hopefully, acoustic guitar and he sings a little, We do one thing at the moment which is like a wordless tune, just using the voice as an instrument, just a written melody which he sings. We may do more things like that."
Personally, I don’t care how the album was made. Although it hurts Allan even to talk about it, even though the sound is admittedly thin, and the balance is a bit lopsided on several tracks, it stands out in terms of pure playing. Forget everything else and listen to the notes. The material was written in two weeks. The acoustic tracks were played on a cracked guitar that he borrowed from Tony Williams’ girlfriend. But if you like to hear guitar playing, it doesn’t matter two hoots. Sorry, Allan!
Of course, in addition to being a very fine electric guitarist, Allan is quite at home on acoustic. Here he favours an Ibanez.
"The Ibanez Cello was my first really good acoustic guitar and I really do like it. I also have an old Gibson now, a 1938 Kalamazoo but it was a cheap one when it was made and although it’s still in absolutely perfect condition I have to admit that I prefer the sound of the Ibanez."
Is the way your guitar is set-up very important to play the way you do?
Not really, because I’ve always tried to do what I do with acoustic guitars. It depends on how you set them up, but it’s the same for any instrument. If you play saxophone you use the kind of reeds you like. But those things are never as important as what comes out in the end. I use thin strings, and I’ve experimented with all weights of strings. Sometimes thin strings are worse to play than thicker strings. There’s an optimum balance for playing and a similar balance for sound, and I’ve always gone for the one that sounded right, even if it might not have felt quite right. Sometimes the string set-up feels a bit funny, a bit weightless in the middle, and when other people play it they go out of tune. It’s a matter of getting used to them, and I like them because like the sound to really sing, like John McLaughlin on acoustic guitars - a beautiful singing sound from thin strings. Other guys do it with different gauge strings, but it’s all relative to how you play the guitar, the natural balance between your right and left hands, the sound you hear in your head and the one you produce. I’ve had problems with acoustic guitars because I’ve never really owned a good one. The only time I play them is on records, and it’s never been a priority to own one. I have a nice Ibanez acoustic cello guitar, and I liked the sound of it, but it has no volume. The top is so thick round the outside I suppose. Dick was explaining to me that it doesn’t matter how thick it is in the belly of the guitar as long as it gets thinner towards the edge, so the top vibrates like a speaker. The Ibanez doesn’t moνe, and when I put thin strings on it, it just doesn’t operate. Other guitars, classical guitars for instance, put out an incredible volume. I’d like to find out the steel-string weights that are relative to the top of the guitar. I’ve searched for a long time with electric guitars to get the sound as near as possible to the sound in my head and it’s hard. I’ve come close to it with acoustics on records when the engineer has been hip to all the problems, but I’d really like someone to make me a cello guitar with a very thin top, something that would probably collapse if you put telegraph poles on it. A guitar that would respond to the strings I like.
I have an old Gibson cello guitar, a Kalamazoo I think, made in 1938, and it’s very loud for a cello guitar. It’s in beautiful condition and has a very nice sound, and the Ibanez only puts out about half the sound yet is twice the size. I know that size doesn’t make any difference anyway, because some over-size guitars sound terrible. I’d really like someone to make a lightly built guitar. Maybe something like a Maccaferri would do, because that was almost like a classical guitar. They feel quite light and put out a lot of volume, even those CSL ones. I find though that if someone is making something like a guitar or an amplifier they have to think about making it for everybody, and that’s the thing that never seems to work out for people like me. The standard one is never quite right, there’s always something I’d like to have done to it, which is why I’d like someone to make me an acoustic guitar.
Are you planning to use acoustic guitar with the trio?
Yes, I’d like to. I used to have one of those amplifiable Ovations, but I just didn’t like the sound of it when it was plugged in. There was something nasty in the sound, and I hear something of the same character in that Yamaha electric piano. It’s as though there’s no sag or give in the sound, it’s not elastic or woody . . . I don’t really know how to describe it. A very hard sound. It sounded quite nice when I mixed the electric sound and a microphone sound, but when I tried that live a couple of times with UK it never worked, simply because I hated the electric sound so much and couldn’t get the mike sound loud enough. With this band Gary will probably be using acoustic piano, so I won’t be competing with huge amounts of volume.
Have you ever thought of just chucking the electric and going solely on into acoustic guitar?
No, because if someone had ever told me that if I wanted to play an instrument that it had to be an acoustic guitar, I would have never started to play guitar at all. I really wanted to play the saxophone, and the only reason I like acoustic guitar now is through electric. I started on acoustic, but that was accidental.
And that wasn’t as enjoyable as the electric?
Well, I wanted something I could blow on. I wanted to be able to make a note loud or long or soft or short; play things legato or play them staccato. Whatever I felt like. But it seemed that the guitar was only capable of a few of the things that I really wanted to do at the time. I guess I fell in love with it later. I mean, I didn’t really dig electric guitar that much at first. I’ve always been more in love with music than instruments. I’m not overly concerned with what instrument. If I had been presented with another instrument at the same time as the guitar, I may have gone with that. It just happened to be the guitar. And I’ve always listened to all kinds of instruments -- I’m not just a guitar freak. I love the guitar, and there are so many fantastic players that I always get enjoyment listening to them play. But it’s the same for other instruments too.
I started out with a cheap acoustic guitar, and later my Dad bought me an f-hole cello guitar. A friend of ours put a pickup on it for me.
I've never really owned a good acoustic guitar. I've got this Macaferri acoustic that's made by Ibanez. It's a lovely guitar. I'd really like an f-hole cello guitar. I don't like the sound of flat tops. The Macaferri is a half-breed. It's like a cross between a classical guitar and a flat top. It's got a bridge like that of a cello guitar, where the strings are lying on the bridge. I like the sound of it for solo work because it's really full in the mid-range, unlike flat tops which are very nasal. I'd like to play a Gibson L-7 – once in a store I played one that somebody else bought. I was completely blown away with that instrument.
I wish I could go back and do ‘em all again [laughs].
GW: Velvet Darkness included?
HOLDSWORTH:: [Groans] That whole thing was just a rip-off and an embarrassment; I don’t even like talking about it.
GW: If nothing else, the acoustic work on the record was very memorable. You’ve said that the performances they recorded were live rehearsals, and you were denied the opportunity for overdubs. How did you accompany yourself "Kinder" and "Floppy Hat?"
HOLDSWORTH:: They were done a different day, and I wasn’t happy with them. It was one of those things where you think that they’re going to let you listen to what you did, let you choose and maybe even do some of it again. But it wasn’t the case. We rehearsed, and they recorded it. Everybody was trying to figure out what was going to happen during the tunes, and then we were to try and record them, but it just didn’t happen like that. The guy put us in the red zone while we were just running through things, and consequently it came out sounding like shit. Sometimes, really cool things can happen like that, but generally, that would be far more likely if the guys knew everything and were then thrown into the studio playing pieces they were familiar with, rather than going in and struggling. It was a struggle, it sounds like a struggle and I really felt bad for all the other guys involved because nobody really got a chance on it.
GW: The guitar line from "Wish" is identical to the melody Paul Williams sings on
"The Things You See (When You Haven’t Got your Gun)" [IOU].
HOLDSWORTH: That’s because I counted nothing we did on that album. Usually, if I record something and feel that was the right place for it, I’ll leave it to rest and never do another version of it again. I think that can only be said of that album; I can’t remember anything else. The only time I ever did that was when it was unfinished - for example, on that Gordon Beck thing, we did a tune that turned out to be "The Things You See," or part of it, but that was before it was really finished. When we did the I.O.U. thing, I put it to rest.
GW: Throughout the years, you’ve played SG’s, Strats, Charvels. What about acoustics? What did you use on your really early work?
HOLDSWORTH: Actually; I didn’t have an acoustic guitar; I borrowed one from Tony Williams’ girlfriend at the time, Tequila, who sang on some of those older albums he did right before Believe It. She had an old acoustic guitar and I used that.
I never really owned an acoustic guitar. For a while, I had an Ibanez copy of a Gibson L5 that I used on the UK album. I love F-hole guitars; the only acoustic guitar I’d ever really like to own would be a really really great acoustic F-hole - you know, no pickups, just a really nice one, but they’re so expensive, and for someone who has such limited use of that instrument, it doesn’t warrant the amount of money that I’d have to spend on it. For three or four thousand dollars, I could buy another synthesizer [laughs very loudly].
GW: So you don’t presently own an acoustic?
HOLDSWORTH: Yeah, I do. I own one custom - made guitar built by Bill DeLap, which is beautiful. It’s a five-string guitar, tuned in fifths. I like that tuning [C,G,D,A,E, low to high]; it’s a really logical tuning to me. The guitar’s standard tuning is really illogical, and if I were starting again… if I hadn’t had so much trouble trying to figure out how to get round the B string, I’d probably have learned to tune like Stanley Jordan, in fourths, to C and F [for the two highest strings]. That’s the most logical tuning.
GW: Did you start experimenting with tunings on the acoustic guitar?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, I started working on it with the SynthAxe, just because it has very great limitations on acoustic instruments; you can only really effectively get four strings tuned in fifths to sound good. You can get five to sound borderline, but six - impossible. Well, nothing’s impossible, is it? But it’s much more difficult with an acoustic instrument, because you’d have to have an instrument as small as a violin and as big as a bass. With the SynthAxe, you don’t have that problem, because you’re just reaming little synthesizers and oscillators.
I was considering an acoustic solo on this one. I tried recording it in my room, and it was just too noisy. If a car drove by, you’d hear it, because I’d have to have the mike really cranked. I guess I don’t really have any technique on the acoustic anymore; I was getting all these noises with my hands, so I just bailed on it and went for something unusually percussive with the SynthAxe: a sampled mixture of steel-string guitar, harp, and synthesized guitar. Jimmy Johnson plays a great, really beautiful solo after Pasqua’s solo, and then I do the short solo at the end. It was kind of a strange feeling, playing with that sound.
Q: How were you affected by John McLaughlin’s music?
Allan: I’ve always liked John McLaughlin’s playing, because he always sounded like an individual, a strong individual. That’s one of the things I appreciate the most. Pat Metheny, I feel the same way about him. Absolutely incredible, and I kind of thrive on the difference. The thing that makes them different is the exciting thing. I was always a big fan of John McLaughlin, I like everything he does, because there’s nobody that sounds like John McLaughlin. I see him as one of those guys whose head sticks out way above everyone. I like all the Mahavishnu albums-I loved Billy Cobham, he was absolutely unbelievable. I dug Billy Cobham before that band, when he had the band Dreams, with Michael Brecker. So when John came out with his first album, with Billy Cobham on it, it was great just to hear Billy Cobham again. An absolute monster. Actually, I have to say that my favorite stuff john McLaughlin has done is on acoustic guitar. To me, with all those musicians, it really wouldn’t matter what they played. It wo uldn’t matter to me if John McLaughlin played saxophone, he’d still be who he is, and I feel that way about all those guys. Keith Jarrett, it doesn’t matter that he plays the piano, the piano is totally unimportant. I’m not a big piano fan, and it’s not an instrument I go out and seek. I don’t just like John McLaughlin, the guitarist, I dig him as a musician because of the music that he’s written, and the things he’s played. And I do like it more when he plays acoustic guitar. He just seems unbelievably strong on that.
CH: Alright. The first question was regarding the acoustic guitar. Several people out there on the Internet contend that you’re a great master of the instrument even though it’s been very rare and seldom that you’ve ever played it.
AH: Well, the re’s a good reason that I’ve never played it. It’s not because I don’t like the instrument; I saw that one question from that one guy... you know, who said, you know, "Why doesn’t this musician play the most beautiful instrument in the world,"-that’s not the truth for me. See, that may be the truth for him, but as far as I’m concerned the acoustic guitar is not, by a long way, the most beautiful instrument to me.
AH: Because it’s a percussive instrument, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I got kind of trapped with the guitar, the last thing in the world that I would ever want to play is a percussive instrument. I would like to play a horn. So for example, if my dream came true-if I could play the oboe or the English horn or the coronet-now then I would play an acoustic instrument. But for me, the difference between that and the acoustic guitar is so radical and so different that I’m not really interested in acoustic guitar period, but that doesn’t mean-and you gotta tell this that doesn’t mean that I don’t like the instrument when I hear someone else play it. I love to hear the acoustic guitar played really well, it’s just that...
CH: Would you say you just kind of rule out using it in future projects?
AH: I have no interest in it-it doesn’t make the sound I want to hear. Why should I use it?
CH: Fair enough.
AH: Why would you want to do that? You know, why would you want to ride a bike with 24-inch wheels?
You know, why would you want to do that? I mean, it’s his opinion... it’s all his opinion that it was the most beautiful instrument. Which is very nice... and it is, but for me... sorry.
Ever the perfectionist, he has refined his technique and sound over the years. He knows the guitar building process well, and is aware of the importance of each link in the audio chain. He talks about the recording process in such a way that Eric Johnson appears to be a slacker - it is about maintaining total control.
- I have been experimenting so much over the years. I play with a distorted sound, and then you have to see the amplifier and the guitar together as one instrument, they are inseparable. I do not use the amplifier only to raise the volume of the guitar. Put it this way; it’s not just something you add when the sound is already fully formed. The way horn instruments are able to control and shape the tone has always been my ideal, and working with distortion is my way of compensating the guitar’s deficiencies in that area. That’s why I’ve completely abandoned acoustic guitar, which has a percussive quality and little sustain. In my studio, The Brewery, I have been able to try things out, and now I think the pieces have fallen into place.
OF: And... what about an acoustic guitar album ?
AH: No, I can’t play acoustic guitar.
Bill: Do you currently own an acoustic guitar?
Allan: No, I’ve been trying to get one from this guy in San Diego who makes replicas of the original Selmer Maccaferri, like the one Django Reinhardt played. It’s got an oval D-hole...absolutely beautiful. It’s called a Del’ Arte. It’s like a cross between an f-hole guitar and a flattop guitar. Flattops always sounded a little too nasal -- lots of high end, lots of low end and nothing in the middle. And the Maccaferris are the opposite -- really big in the mid-range. Plus, they’re comfortable to play because they have more of an electric setup. Instead of a pin bridge, the strings are pressing down much like they would on an archtop. It just feels more comfortable and it sounds so beautiful. I would definitely play one if I could get one. But the problem with me is everytime I need to buy a piece of gear I always end buying a piece of gear that’s associated with either the studio or the electric guitar rather than the acoustic guitar, because I’m not sure how much I’d use it.
Bill: I wonder how you would deal with the fact that your acoustic wouldn’t be giving you that sustain quality that is so much a signature of your electric sound.
Allan: Yeah, well, that’s true. I love to hear other people play acoustic guitar. I’m not very fond of hearing myself play it. But I think when I really quit playing acoustic guitar was when I got the SynthAxe, because that just opened up this other door and I was like, ‘Well, I guess I can leave that other guitar behind completely.’ Because there was a period after I had been playing the SynthAxe for about a year, I was even getting frustrated with electric guitar. There was a point where I was actually close to making a decision to just play the SynthAxe and forget about the guitar.
ALEX: "Floppy Hat" and "Kinder": do you remember these two wonderful songs? Will it be possible to hear you playing an acoustic guitar?
ALLAN: Yes, it would be really nice. I'd like to do it ... but I do not have an acoustic guitar right now. There is a company in San Diego that produces replicas of Maccaferri like that of Django. I love that sound. I had a copy but I sold it. Nothing comes close to the sound of a Maccaferri. On those tracks if I was not mistaken I used an old Guild. I've owned 2-3 acoustic guitars in my life and I've normally sold them since when I need money I try to sell what I need less, namely acoustic guitars ... A person I know, who plays in a band that’s using Django Reinhardt's material, let me try his guitar and it was amazing! It sounded awesome. They do not sound like an acoustic guitar with metal strings. Flat tops play clear and full-bodied ... highs and lows, no middle. The Maccaferri is really big in the central range and also in the lower range ... it's round and regular ...Taylor, another company in San Diego, has produced a new and nice electrified acoustic guitar. It sounds very different from the flat tops. Yes ... I would like to do something with an acoustic guitar but I just have to figure out how to get one since they are very expensive. [Machine back translated.]