Allan's first guitar
Allan’s first guitar
This article covers the topic of Allan’s first guitar. It does so by gathering quotes from Allan on the topic from interview carried out from 1978 onwards.
How curious, then, that he didn’t even pick up anything with six strings on it until he was seventeen. "Originally I wanted to play saxaphone [sic], when I was a kid. My dad was a piano player. He was really good, but he gave it up. I don’t know why, I’ve never understood that. Anyway, he never got round to buying me a sax, and I didn’t have any money of my own at that time, so I couldn’t afford an instrument. So he bought an old Spanish guitar off an uncle of mine for a fiver, and he left it lying around, and I just picked it up."
"I liked quite a lot of classical music but was really more interested in people who could improvise. That was something that fascinated me. Luckily my father was a Jazz pianist and had quite a lot of records which gave me something to go on. When my Uncle gave me a Spanish guitar I dug those records out and listened to them."
A native of Bradford, Yorkshire, Allan Holdsworth was born on August 6, 1948 [Note: The correct year is 1946]. Although his father was a skilled pianist, a love for the 88 keys never bloomed in young Allan. His early interest in music never went beyond listening to jazz records, and it wasn’t until he was 16 that he even tried playing a guitar. At that time his father bought him an acoustic for about ten shillings. The instrument sat around for awhile until Allan’s interest in playing was sparked by hearing the local guitarists play in the neighborhood pub. Soon thereafter he joined a band that covered pop songs, in which he played two guitar solos per song: "One was supposed to be an impersonation of the one on the record," he explains, "and the other was something of my own."
What induced you to pick up the guitar?
When I was 16, my father bought an acoustic from an uncle of mine who played in various clubs—he paid about ten shillings for it. The guitar was always sitting around, so I started messing with it and gradually made progress, though I still wasn't that serious. Being very stubborn, I never took lessons. It's sort of my nature to not ask for information - even if I'm dying to find something out. I like to discover things. And even if I were screaming inside to ask, I just can't bring myself to do it. My father tried to help me, but I refused. That was a stupid thing to have done, since there was so much knowledge he could have given me. You know, I could have learned things three or four times faster from him than I did on my own.
How did you come to the realization that you wanted to pursue the guitar seriously?
Well, I used to sneak into a pub a few miles from where I lived with my brother-in-law - I wasn't old enough to drink legally yet. We watched the local bands. I really liked a lot of the guitarists - I just became more and more interested in it. I joined some bands that did note-for-note renderings of pop records. In each song, there were two guitar solos. One was supposed to be an impersonation of the one on the record, and the other was something of my own. And my solos were always so disgusting!
Why didn't you quit doing that?
I did. I realized that instead of learning, I was just calculating - copying something without any insight into what was going on in the mind of the guy who first played those parts. So I decided that wasn't the thing to do. I stopped copying, and for quite a long time afterwards I couldn't play solos that I felt were anywhere near as good as those I heard. I was trying to get something that was good in its essence—musically equal, but not the same.
As your skills increased, did you find a need for a better guitar?
Yes. My father purchased a Hofner f-hole acoustic for me. A friend of his who owned a hi-fi shop built a 15-watt amp for me and placed a pickup on my guitar. But in a year's time, I had progressed beyond that guitar's capabilities, too. So I talked my parents into buying me a Fender Stratocaster.
Did this satisfy your needs?
Oh, yeah. But only about six months later I sold it so that I could get a cherry Gibson SG Standard. I'd never seen an SG before, and I was interested in the way it looked - weird. So I tried it and instantly fell in love. I didn't want to put it down. Luckily the SG didn't cost as much as the Fender. Even back then, the Strat cost £200 - about $400 - which was pretty expensive. The Gibson was only about £165. I kept the SG until joined a group called the Glen South Band at a club called Sunderland, near Newcastle. Then I got an SG Custom and a new amp a Vox AC-30.
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.
Cymbiosis: So that might account for why a lot of your riffs almost sound hornlike as opposed to how a "regular" guitarist might sound?
Holdsworth: I don’t think any of that was deliberate, really. My parents bought me a guitar; it was real cheap. I think they paid 10 shillings for it, about a dollar at the time, I guess. I just left it lying around and had no interest in it.
Cymbiosis: Why did you finally pick it up?
Holdsworth: Curiosity, really. I gradually got interested in it, decided to play it, and once I got to a certain point, it was like a light switch went on, and I started to learn how to play the guitar. I think it’s only after I’d been playing a few years that the kind of things I listened to a lot when I was younger started unconsciously coming out in my playing. I was trying to get more of a sound out of the guitar than it wanted to make at that time.
Holdsworth’s first interest was the saxophone, and its a fascination that has stayed with him right up to the present day. "I loved the sound of it," he said, "and I still do. But we didn’t have the money to buy one. When I was about 15, my dad picked up an acoustic guitar from an uncle and just left it laying around. At first, I didn’t pay any attention to it. at all. But after it’d been around for a couple of years, I started noodling around on it. When my father saw there was some interest, he started to help me out with chords and stuff. He was such a fantastic natural teacher that he understood the guitar, even though he didn’t play the instrument. The funny thing is that he actually wound up teaching it to local students in Bradford.
MP: I understand that when you were young you wanted to be a saxophone player.
AH: Yeah, well after I’d been listening to music for a long time, I got to be about 10 or 11. I was really interested in saxophone, the breathing thing seemed so alive, you could do more with it than a voice. But it was on that connection like a vocal thing.
MP: And why didn’t you pursue that?
AH: Well, at the time saxophones were very expensive things to buy so my Dad got, we I had an uncle who played guitar and my Dad got a guitar from him and just left it lying around, I just started in front of the mirror (laughs) I had no real interest in it at all, and he just left it there and I just noodled on it from time to time, try it on listening to music but still had no real desire to play anything and I guess over a period of time I realized I was playing a few chords on it and my Dad sort of took over because he knew all the notes on the guitar being the musician that he was…so as soon as he saw I had any interest in it he started trying to help me out. But I was very stubborn, I didn’t really like the help, though I needed it, but I wanted to do it on my own.
MP: Let’s talk about some of your instruments, basically. What was your first guitar then?
AH: First guitar was this old, it was kind of like an old classical guitar, but it did have steel strings on it, and then after that my Dad got me an f-hole guitar which is a guitar I played a year or so - it was a Hofner, and then I put a pickup on it and I spent it my Dad who was into building amplifiers just started getting interested in amplifiers then. He built that, then I saw this guy who had this Fender Stratocaster which I fell in love with so I tried this Fender Strat, my Dad got it – well signed for it – so I could make the payments on it. And then about 2 months later I saw, I played an SG and that was it from then on, I was completely in love with this SG. I got this SG Standard, later I traded it for an SG Custom. I basically stayed with that guitar right the way through until…Tony Williams.
Q: Were you playing guitar at this point?
Allan: Yeah. I’d just started messing around with it, but I had no real interest in it. I wanted to play saxophone, but at the time, a saxophone was really expensive, and my mom and dad didn’t have the money for it. He got me a guitar from an uncle who played guitar, and he left it laying around. It was just an old roundhole acoustic guitar.
He began to take a serious interest in music in his late teens, while lie was working in factories and as a bike repairman. At first he wanted a saxophone, but it was then that Sam Holdsworth suggested a more modestly priced acoustic guitar. There followed lessons with Sam, an electric guitar and experiences with various local groups before an invitation from his friend Glen South led to three years or so in a Top 40 band on the Sunderland Mecca circuit. It was there that Holdsworth was first able to try his hand at the clarinet.
Oddly enough, Holdsworth became a musician almost by accident. "I had no desire to become a musician," he explains. "I was only interested in listening. When I started listening to saxophone players, I became interested in playing sax. My parents couldn’t afford to buy me one, so my father bought an acoustic guitar from my uncle. He left it lying around to see if I had any interest. Through time, I picked the thing up and tried to play it, and slowly I started to pick a few things up."
Holdsworth paints a picture of a fairly shambolic set-up. I presumed that this had maybe then been his first sortie into a band set-up. "No, it wasn’t, actually. I played with a lot of local Top 40 bands, club bands, working around in Bradford. Because I never wanted to be a musician, I was just a listener, and I used to just listen to my Dad’s records and spent most of my time as a kid just listening to the music. And I really wanted a saxophone but they were pretty expensive. And then he bought a guitar from my uncle and he left it lying around and I picked up a few things here and there, but had no real interest in it. And then I guess after a couple of years I started to learn a few things. When he saw me taking some interest in it, my dad, he tried to help me, and from that point on started to meet other people who were in bands and they started to ask me to play with them. So that’s how it started. But I never intended to be a professional musician - it wasn’t like a lot of young people when they first start learning an instrument.
His career as a guitarist has in many ways been a constant battle against the inherent limitations of the guitar. His parents were not so well off, and they could not afford a saxophone. Young Allan had to make do with his uncle’s guitar.
- I had no interest in it. You could not shape the tone very much afterwards, and I just picked it up from time to time.
Guitar.com: Your legato sax-type attack has always come through in your playing going back to Soft Machine. If you listen closely, it’s very much a Coltrane thing.
Holdsworth: He just completely turned my life upside down. I remember when I first heard those Miles Davis records that had Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane on them. It was fascinating to me, a major revelation. I loved Cannonball Adderley also but when I listened to Cannonball I could hear where it came from. I could hear the path that he had taken. But when I heard John Coltrane, I couldn’t. I couldn’t hear connections with anything else. It was almost like he had found a way to get to the truth somehow, to bypass all of the things that, as an improviser, you have to face. He found a way to be actually improvising and playing over the same material but in a very different way. That was the thing that really changed my life because I realized it was possible. His playing was just like a complete, total revelation to me. And I realized then that what I needed to do was to try and find a way to improvise over chord sequences without playing any bebop or without having it sound like it came from somewhere else. And it’s been an ongoing, everlasting quest.
Guitar.com: When did you have this epiphany?
Holdsworth: When I was probably about 18, 19.
Guitar.com: You were already playing guitar at that time?
Holdsworth: Yeah, I was just dabbling with it. I was still really interested in the horn. I had wanted a saxophone, I didn’t really want the guitar. But saxophones were pretty expensive in those days anyway, relative to a cheap acoustic guitar. There weren’t so many guitars around then, not compared to nowadays. But my uncle played guitar and when he had bought himself a new guitar, he sold his old one to my father, who then gave it to me. And that’s basically how it started.
At which age did you start to play and what kind of music did you listen to?
Well, that’s a good question because I started to listen to music when I was around three years old, but I didn’t want to be a musician, I just enjoyed listening to music. I couldn’t understand that there were some compositions that could make me cry and others that could make me feel happy. It was like something magical, something really fascinating. I took my parents’ records and, although I didn’t know how to read yet, I knew all of them and identified them by taking a look at the covers. I think that when I was 11 or 12 my dad tried to teach me to play piano, but I didn’t like piano. It is not that I don’t like to listen to others playing, simply I didn’t feel comfortable sitting there. I thought that I wanted to play a wind instrument, like a saxophone, for an example, but at that time they were very expensive and my parents couldn’t buy it. So my father bought an old guitar from my uncle, but the truth is that at the beginning it didn’t like a lot either. I put myself in front of a mirror and started to imitate Elvis. My father started to play guitar on his own, he was a pianist, so in the beginning he didn’t have a lot of technique but a lot of knowledge, so he played very attractive things, but not too fast. It wasn’t until 18 or 19 when I started to be interested, to take it seriously. I just wanted to listen to music, not to be a musician. I didn’t feel I had anything to offer as a musician. But, without knowing how, I changed. Unconsciously years went by and I started to like it.
Ironically, Holdsworth never intended to play guitar at all. "I was just dabbling with it," he recalls of his teenage years in the small town of Bradford in Yorkshire, England. "I had wanted a saxophone, I didn’t really want the guitar, but saxophones were pretty expensive in those days, relative to a cheap acoustic guitar. My uncle played guitar and when he had bought himself a new one he sold his old one to my father, who gave it to me. That’s basically how it started."
Allan Holdsworth: I actually never was interested in playing. I only wanted to listen to music.
TCG: How then did guitar come into your life?
AH: When I was about 15 or 16, I thought it might be interesting to try the horn, because I found myself listening to a lot of saxophone players. I was really drawn to the idea that you could shape the notes after they were sounded, as opposed to the guitar which was basically a percussive instrument. Saxophones were pretty expensive and we couldn’t afford one, so I ended up with a guitar that I got from my uncle. I wasn’t really that interested in this instrument. I wasn’t particularly drawn to it. I soon took an interest in some local Skiffle music which sort of lit the torch. My father realized this and started helping me with my musical education. Interestingly, even though he was a pianist, he realized that playing scales and such with open strings on the guitar was counterproductive to playing in different keys. So I learned and still use lots of fingers to accomplish my musical ideas.
Merlin Rhys Jones started by asking Allan about the influence of John Coltrane on his playing...
Allan Holdsworth: ... that’s when I started going out and buying tons of Coltrane records, everything I could find. My Dad had a lot of records and I started out copying Charlie Christian solos. By the time I discovered Coltrane I had learned to just absorb the (musical) experience. I never analysed or transcribed anything (Coltrane) did because it was very spirited, with a lot of heart but it was also heady. Coltarne Sounds was my favourite record.
I also listened to a lot of Chopin and Debussy. (My Dad) knew I wouldn’t get anywhere with the piano so he gave me a guitar, but the guitar wasn’t that much better! He used to sneak me into clubs to see electric players.
MRJ: How old were you then?
I’d like to go back even further into your past. What made you want to play guitar in the first place?
I didn’t want to play the guitar. I wanted a saxophone or a violin, but they weren’t easy to come by. My parents didn’t have much money, but my father bought a guitar from my uncle and he gave that to me. My father was a great piano player and he knew, even from when I was really tiny, that I was really interested in music.
The guitar just sat in a chair for a long time, and eventually I started picking it up and noodling around with it. One day it seemed like my dad thought I was making a little bit of progress, and I was getting more interested in it. Then he went out and bought a bunch of guitar books, and started trying to help me with the guitar. So the fact that I play guitar is actually a giant accident.
R.V.B. - I glad you made out ok. Thank you for taking this time to speak with me. The guitar... you brought it to a new level. Was there any incident in your youth that made you want to become a guitar player?
A.H. - Not really. I had always loved music way before I ever touched an actual instrument.
My dad played music all the time, as he was a really great pianist. I was surrounded by music. He had lots of great records... classical... jazz and other stuff. I wanted to play a horn - like a saxophone - but they were kind of expensive. My dad bought a guitar from my uncle and I started noodleing around on that. I wasn’t really interested in it at first but it kind of grew on me.
R.V.B. - Was it an acoustic guitar?
A.H. - Yes... my first one was acoustic.
R.V.B. - Was it playable? A lot of beginner guitars are hard to play.
A.H. - Yeah it was decent. It wasn’t great but very playable.
The Final Interview: Allan Holdsworth Talks SynthAxes, Jaw-Dropping Solos and More (Guitar World 2017)
I’ve read that you started out wanting to play saxophone, but couldn’t afford one and ultimately decided to play guitar. True? —Gordon Lee
I didn’t decide to play guitar, but that was the instrument which I was offered. I’ve always been interested in horn-type instruments, such as a saxophone; but those instruments are very expensive, so my dad bought me a guitar instead. I didn’t like the guitar at first, but after noodling on it for several months, I developed a feel for it. I was around 14 at the time. That was many years—and beers—ago.