Allan Holdsworth (Guitarist 100 Guitar Heroes 2000)
Guitarist (100 Greatest Guitar Heroes) Interview 2000
Taking a break from a recording project, the legendary Allan Holdsworth chats to Guitarist about his music and career.
There are few musicians, let alone guitar players, with a style as original and distinctive as that of Allan Holdsworth. For years the quiet Yorkshireman has been exciting guitarists and music lovers alike with spectacular chord voicings and smooth, yet often angular solo lines. Although embellished with lightning speed runs, his style exudes a warmth and depth of expression that is missing in the soloing of many other 'technically orientated' guitar players. We caught up with him in 2000 when he was working on a West Coast trio project...
"We've just started the new album. I spent two days last week recording six tracks with Dave Carpenter (bass) and Gary Novak (drums), and I'm just about to do another three tunes with a different drummer called Joel Taylor. He was playing most of the American gigs with us, so I thought it would be fair to get him in for the last three numbers."
"One of the main reasons for choosing local musicians was that my previous band was scattered all over the world. At first I was doing it that way just to survive, but it turned out that the new musicians were really awesome. So it has worked out good both ways!"
Other things have not worked out so well...
"We just sorted out some UK gigs, and would you believe we could only get two concerts in the whole of the country? That's a real shame, because we usually get a good turnout whenever and wherever we've played in England. The days of touring across America are long gone too, because a lot of the places are not jazz clubs any more. We'll probably only end up playing in New York, Chicago and LA this year. It also doesn't help when your record label does no promotion whatsoever. In fact, when you guys review the albums in the guitar magazines, that's the only way we get an advert. That's the biggest advert we ever get!
"We've also had problems with some of the promoters who set the gigs up. On one occasion, one guy was earning twice as much as anyone in the band, which is just criminal. I'd rather not do the gig than work with a guy like that!"
Allan's last album, None Too Soon, uncharacteristically featured a lot of jazz standards. So has he adopted the same approach for the new project, or has he gone back to doing original numbers?
"They're all originals this time. We've kept this one simple too - just guitar, bass and drums. There's hardly any SynthAxe on it at all. In fact, the few bits of SynthAxe on it are just like wallpaper. I haven't gone off the SynthAxe, or anything, but I was just going for a live vibe with this project. There are also a couple of tracks that have a trumpet and an acoustic piano."
In the past we've seen Allan play a number of different guitars. Is he still playing the Carvin Allan Holdsworth signature instrument?
"I've been using the Carvin guitar for the past 18 months or so, but it has been through some changes during that time. They're a really great company, because if ever I've wanted it modified in any way whatsoever, they've just done it. It's a two-octave guitar with a humbucker. I told them that I was unhappy about putting my name on something I wasn't going to use, but they came up with something that I still want to play!"
"As far as amps are concerned, well, things are different: because of my touring situation I end up just using whatever I can get. I'll probably end up with two Marshall 4x12s and two Twin Reverbs, because everybody's got them! I've just started using a Yamaha digital pre-amp, which I really like, and I've spoken to Roland a lot and used their V-guitar on the last tour. Since then I've used the Yamaha pre-amp, but I still need the other amplifiers provided."
Allan has worked with loads of people during the past 25 years, but are there any musicians he'd particularly like to work with?
"There's lots of musicians who it would be nice to play with, but I'm quite happy just doing what I do. I just feel privileged to have worked with some of the musicians who I have worked with. Gary Husband (drummer), for example, is just unbelievable, although not too many people know who the hell he is."
Allan is well known for his distinctive, self-taught style, so what does he think of the technique schools that encourage students to analyze the works of famous guitar players?
"Dreadful. We've got this whole thing now, like the shrinking world syndrome, where you've got a million guys who can play Giant Steps (John Coltrane). It's a really spooky thing. When I was growing up, people just learnt how to do it in their own way. They weren't necessarily concerned with the way that other people were doing it. But what you've got with the schools now, all that really happens in the end is that it just homogenizes everything to a point that you hear it and think, "Well the guy played that pretty good, but I've heard it all before a thousand times, a thousand years ago.
"Every time I've listened to something that's really good, it was done at a time when nobody had ever heard that sort of thing before. You only have to go back to Charlie Parker: a lot of people at that time thought it was horrendous. They we're going "What the hell is that?" But now it's just like another form of traditional jazz; all that time's passed by and people have now figured out what they were doing. But by the time they've finished analyzing it, it’s not valuable anymore because its already been done. I feel that the best thing for a musician to do is to figure out a way to do something that nobody's done. Otherwise, what's the point?
"It would be pointless trying the rest of my life to become a bebop musician, because there's no point. As far as I'm concerned, that's all over, and it's time for something else. The problem is that so many musicians end up just trying to survive and they end up doing different things to what they're supposed to be doing."
"There's no substitute for learning how to do something of your own, because it's yours, and the only thing you can try to do is make it better musically in every way. When I started out I had no interest in becoming a musician. I just loved music and the last thing on my mind was to become a musician. So I'm amazed that I ended up as one. A lot of guys are determined to be professional musicians. They just learn how to do this and this, and they're off. It’s the 'everything you've heard before, again' syndrome.
"If people copy what I do, then I tend to not do it anymore. When I used to use the whammy bar, and a lot of other players started doing that, the first thing I dropped was the whammy bar. I don't use it at all now.
"Having said that, there are other changes in your playing, when things just naturally move along. You don't know why - it just changes, and that's it. But if it all starts to stagnate, and I feel that I can't go forward any further, then I'll probably just stop completely."
Born: 6 August 1946, Bradford, England.
Bands: Tempest, Soft Machine, Tony Williams Lifetime, Jean-Luc Ponty, Gong, UK, Bruford, Level 42, solo artist.
Guitars: Gibson SG, Fender Strat, Carvin Allan Holdsworth model and other guitars.
Did you know? Allan originally didn't want to be a guitarist - he wanted to be a sax player!
Classic Albums: Secrets (1989) and Hard Hat Area (1993) are perhaps Allan's best albums, but IOU (1982) and Road Games (1983) are well worth a listen. Also check out Believe It (1975, with Tony Williams), Enigmatic Ocean (1977, with Jean Luc Ponty), and UK (1978, with UK).