Allan Holdsworth’s New Horizons (Downbeat 1985)
Allan Holdsworth's New Horizons
Downbeat, November 1985
"There's a guy named Allan Holdsworth that probably won't get the recognition he deserves because he's too good. If you play guitar and think you're good, just listen to that guy.
-NEIL SCHON (JOURNEY)
"When it comes to putting all the elements together Allan Holdsworth has got it. I give him more credit than anyone for just pure expression in soloing. He has something totally beautiful."
"He plays so much, he covers everything. A totally comprehensive player. He's one of those revolutionary guitarists:'
"Holdsworth is the best in my book, He's' fantastic. I love him."
-EDDIE VAN HALEN
"For me, Allan Holdsworth is doing the most interesting things on electric guitar."
Just who is this guy Allan Holdsworth, and why are they saying such wonderful things about him?
A pioneer in the fusion movement of the '70s with such legendary instrumental groups as Soft Machine, Gong, U.K., Tony Williams' Lifetime, Bill Bruford's bands, and Jean-Luc Ponty, Holdsworth stands today as one of the most distinctive and innovative guitarists in the world. His incredibly fluid technique and his unique scalar approach to soloing ("I tend to hear flurries of notes as a whole, from beginning to end, rather than hearing one note after the other") have made him the envy of countless aspiring guitarists looking to break away from rock and blues cliches.
His seamless style of playing melody lines or improvising over a myriad of chord changes more closely resembles the legato approach of a saxophone player than the normally percussive attack of a guitarist. You rarely hear any picking sound or blunt attack when Holdsworth wails. Instead you get flowing lines that whoosh by so quickly and flawlessly that you simply can't begin to imagine what his right and left hands are doing.
But that's only the beginning. As if Holdsworth's astonishing technique weren't enough to digest on its own, now the guy has gone out and acquired a new piece of technology that adds a whole other befuddling aspect to his already awesome arsenal of effects.
On his latest Enigma album, Atavachron, the revolutionary guitarist takes one step further toward Mars with a new and revolutionary piece of hardware, the SynthAxe. The product of several years of painstaking research, the SynthAxe is England's answer to the guitar synthesizer. But unlike that popular Roland product, the SynthAxe makes no sound of its own. What it is, basically, is a controller for synthesizers, capable of interfacing with Fairlights, Synclaviers, or any MIDI-equipped synths. This thing is strictly high-tech to the max, and Holdsworth feels it positively renders all other guitar synthesizers obsolete.
"It's really in a field of its own. It's an amazing machine. I'm so in awe of the whole thing. I'm still trying to figure out why anyone would've gone through that amount of trouble; and believe me, they did go through an awful lot of trouble to do this. They're totally pioneering something in a certain direction that no one has ever done before. There isn't anything even close to it. There probably will be in a few years time when other companies start copying them, but they've laid the groundwork and therefore I think they deserve credit for that"
"They" are British inventors Bill Aitken, Mike Dixon, and Tony Sedivy, who began developing this revolutionary machine around 1980. Along the way they were aided in the design of the SynthAxe by Ian Dampney and Ken Steel. Take a bow, gentlemen.
Perhaps the most significant feature of the SynthAxe is the fact that it doesn't work on the pitch-to-voltage principle, as do most of the other guitar synthesizers currently available. Though many guitar synth users have waxed enthusiastic about the sounds available on their instruments, they sometimes express reservations about the tracking problems inherent in the system. That is, there is a 10th-of-a-second or so delay from the time a note is struck to when the sound is actually produced. This inevitably forces guitar players to alter their own techniques to suit the demands of the instrument. Some, like Pat Metheny and John McLaughlin, don't mind this too much, considering the synthesized guitar's other advantages.
According to Holdsworth, "The pitch-to-voltage principle has some inherent problems that you can never really surmount. When I first played a guitar synthesizer it kind of opened up one door and closed another one immediately. Like, all of a sudden I had all these sounds I could get, which was great, except I couldn't really use them in a way that I wanted to because I was limited by the way you have to use the machine. And I hate that. I hate being dictated to by a machine. It's just a very disobedient machine, if you will. It takes a long time to decide what note you played, and also the wave length of a low note is bigger than a high note, so all the low notes come out slower than the high notes. But when I played the SynthAxe for the first time, I knew it was definitely going to be the way to go. I felt like it was made for me. Now I have a controller of synthesis that is an obedient machine, at last."
The SynthAxe has a highly sophisticated series of sensors under the surface of the fingerboard to relay information to the synthesizers. These sensors detect such subtleties as string-bending, damping or muting with left and right hands, dynamics, and just about every normal function of a guitar except for harmonics. Other features of this incredible new instrument include automatic hold, which creates drone notes to play on top of, and an automatic trigger-mode which allows the player to sound notes by tapping the fingerboard with left hand only (a la Stanley Jordan or the Chapman Stick.)
"There's so many functions of the instrument that I haven't actually gotten into yet," says Holdsworth. "There's so much to learn, and I guess one of the interesting things about it is that everybody is going to find something different to do with it. As for me, I don't want it to sound like a keyboard or anything. I just want an instrument that I can play in such a way that my personality is still visible through it all. And now I've got a machine that will do that.
One drawback with the SynthAxe is the fact that the fret spacing is fairly even as you go up the neck, rather than getting narrow as you approach the bridge. This makes chording fairly difficult at that high end of the neck. "There are certain chords that I can't play on it. I just can't reach that far. Chords that I had been used to playing on the top third of the regular guitar neck were suddenly impossible for me to play on the SynthAxe. That was the only single problem I've had with it, and I understand that they're going to be offering a few more neck options as they begin marketing them to the general public. But there's such a lot of work involved in the circuitry of the neck itself that it would be a very expensive proposition at this point in time to make a different neck for me.
The SynthAxe has not completely taken over Holdsworth's music. He uses the machine about half the time both in concert and on his latest recordings. As he says, "I don't want it to completely wipe out everything else I've done on the guitar up to this point"
Originally an aspiring reed player, Holdsworth didn't pick up the guitar until he was 17 years old. "I played saxophone and clarinet and I wanted to play oboe, but I had problems with my ear. I kept popping it from blowing and getting ear infections, so I had to stop. It was some kind of peculiar physical thing where all the pressure would build up in one place. I don't know - I guess I wasn't supposed to play a wind instrument"
When he switched over to guitar he was still interested in getting a saxophone kind of sound, which led to all kinds of early experimenting with amplifiers and sustain. "I guess consciously since I've started on the instrument I've been trying to get the guitar to sound more like I was blowing it than plucking it, as such. I remember having this little 15-watt amplifier that my parents had bought me, and there'd be a certain volume I'd play at with this thing where it would feedback and sound really great, a more hornlike quality than anything I had heard before. Then I'd plug my guitar into somebody else's amplifier and it would sound completely different. That interested me very much, so I'd try and figure out how the whole electronics thing worked. My father had a friend who built amplifiers and I'd get some lessons with him, so I gradually became aware of what was happening with the sound once you'd pluck a note. From there I'd try to hone in on it - make an amplifier that did exactly what I wanted it to do!'
Today Holdsworth's rack of electronic gear does everything he wants it to do. His onstage setup consists of four amplifiers - a pair of amps for his rhythm guitar sound and another pair for his lead sound with a lot of different delay lines on each. "Basically, on the lead sound I use the regular guitar sound and add a bit of digital reverb and a long delay. And for the rhythm I use a 1ot of delay lines set up for multi-chorusing. I like to create a real random kind of situation so that you know it's stereo but 'you can't actually pinpoint at any time what's happening to it. It's all just kind of moving"
After a longstanding relationship with Charvel guitars, he's switched over to Ibanez. "They designed a guitar for me, the Ibanez AH-10, which we worked on together for over a year. They almost gave up on me in the end because I kept demanding so many changes. But I'm really pleased with what they eventually got. The guitars I've got now are the best instruments I've ever owned. It's very light wood for maximum sustain. It's more expressive than anything I've ever played before!'
Holdsworth credits much of his astounding technique to the fact that his first teacher, his father, the late Sam Holdsworth, was a piano player and not a guitar player. "He used to help me with chords and scales, and since he wasn't a guitar player he couldn't tell me how it was to be done on the guitar. But he could tell me about the music. So while I did learn the music from him, I had to apply my own logic to everything.
"I remember seeing other guitarists who were a lot better than me at the time, and I'd notice how they'd be using only two or three fingers on their left hand. They all had their pinkies curled up in a little knot there. And this was an incredible waste of energy to me. I thought I should use all the limbs I've got, so I started practicing seriously with all the fingers on my left hand!'
He adds, "People who have heard me think that I have very long fingers - [being] able to reach and stretch to all these odd chord voicings. But my hands are not big at all. I just acquired this dexterity through repetition and practice. I didn't know it wasn't supposed to be done. It just seemed perfectly logical to me at the time!'
At home he continues to practice "unusual scales or anything that I feel I'm really bad at. I practice playing over chord sequences, for example. I want to be able to reach a point where I can improvise without falling back on anything. Because sometimes when you play and you're in a gig situation, you kind of dry up and you fall back on the things that you've learned - all the things that you've practiced. And that's really when I feel bad, because then I'm just doing the parrot thing, I'm not really playing. I live for those few moments when I'm really playing and coming up with new things. "Some guys practice certain things so that they'll be able to play them on a gig. I never do that because I would feel that I only got good at practicing. That way, I really didn't learn anything new at all. So when I practice, I try and improvise and play something different on the same theme each time, as many variations as I can think of without ever repeating myself!'
Sounds like jazz to me. And yet, Holdsworth has always had trouble getting airplay on jazz radio stations. Rock stations too, for that matter. "A jazz station will be reluctant to play any tracks on an album like Metal Fatigue, even though there might be a few cuts that could legitimately fit into their programming. Because there are also some tracks that swing more toward the rock direction they think, 'Ohmigod! This is a rock record!' And conversely, the other thing that happens is the rock stations won't play it because it's not commercial enough and they think it's kind of jazzy. So we don't get either!'
He's hoping that unfortunate thinking will change with the release of Atavachron, his second album for Enigma Records. "I guess some people think that I play the rock thing just because it's more commercial and that it will help sell records. And that's actually not the reason at all. It's just that I love certain things about rock music and I want my music to be a combination of both things-rock and jazz. But instead of it being liked by both camps it scares people from both sides away from it, which leaves me in this no-man's land in the middle. So I'm trying to get away from that with this new album - see if we can get over with a jazz audience!'