Allan Holdsworth (Music UK 1983)
Music U.K., November 1983
When I saw Allan Holdsworth on a very grey day in Kingston Surrey in the middle of 1981 he was feeling well shall we say not at his best? He'd grown tired of the fight and intimated that it wouldn't take an awful lot more before he threw in the towel. He'd become disillusioned with the business to the point of thinking about taking a job in a factory, leaving free his evenings to play what he liked. Allan refuses point blank to play music he doesn't feel, hence his dilemma. The last straw was an album he recorded in England called IOU, which featured singer Paul Williams who is now the only person from that band that's currently playing with Allan. Allan Holdsworth's troubles were not yet over, and he ended up having to press the album himself, and sell it on the door at his own gigs and by mail order. So far he's sold an astonishing 14,000! None of the major UK record companies were interested enough to pick up the album, although that situation is about to change.
Earlier this year he played a series of gigs in New York and Los Angeles, and he confided at the time, 'I may move and take my family out there to live.' Things at last were beginning to look good for Allan Holdsworth, and he finally decided to make the move to LA. When we met recently in his new home in California, situated about 15 miles from the Fullerton Fender factory, he was in a cheery mood and he told me why. 'I got the chance of some gigs here in the States, and I hadn't worked in England as a musician for about three years.'
The first IOU band split after a series of gigs in the New York area and the East Coast because of internal problems within the band.
'It all got too much, one of the band thought everything that went wrong was my fault, and I just didn't need that pressure. With the old band I'd get on stage and not even want to play, I'd feel this evil vibe on stage. Paul is the only guy with me from the old band, and I recruited Chad Wackerman on drums, and Jeff Berlin on bass for the current line-up.'
Atlantic Records have expressed an interest in releasing Allan's next record, which Holdsworth plans to record very soon. The Atlantic tie-up came about in an odd sort of way.
'Edward Van Halen brought a guy from his record company to see us when we played at the Country Club in Reseda, and he liked it and from that we managed to get a record deal.'
As you'll know if you read September's issue, Eddie Van Halen is the self-confessed number one Allan Holdsworth freak, and it's obvious that Allan appreciated the way in which Edward, as he likes to call him, put himself out for the band's sake. He also appreciates his new band. 'Jeff Berlin is such a strong player, especially in the trio context, he's so harmonically happening, it makes my job a lot easier. Having Chad Wackerman is great - he plays fantastically, they're both really nice guys, and they don't particularly give me a hard time you know, which is really important . . . I don't get any headaches, and they're not continuously complaining at me all day making me feel bad. So I'm a lot happier about it now, and I feel freer to play the guitar and get on with that rather than worry about what somebody's thinking.'
'Atlantic won't be releasing Allan Holdsworth's IOU because that's an old album,' states Allan, 'about two years old now. I want to record a new one anyway, and get it out straight away, because it was two years previous to IOU that I played with Bill Bruford in UK, and a lot of progression has gone down since then. I feel that my music and playing have developed. It's really important that we do this new album and get it out quick, so that when people hear it, it's not secondhand not old.'
Had Allan become disillusioned with his Great British Public?
'No, no, a lot of people know who I am in England, but the people who counted in the record companies didn't want to know about anything I might want to do, or people like me. The musical fashions change so quickly in England, it's such a fickle thing that people who play music, they don't have room for, that's the way I think of it anyway. They only have room for fashion. To get a record deal in England now, I would almost have thought is a bad thing, because they'll probably give you all they've got for a year, and then just kind of like drop you, whereas over here in the States the musical spectrum is far wider You've got crap and you've got good things and it covers everything whereas England is mostly crap. I got used to [it] in fact and I didn't find it frustrating any more The only thing I found really frustrating wasn't the record companies but the work situation. We knew there were people who would come and see the band play but we couldn't get anybody to find a way of getting us to play anywhere in the first place if you see what I mean (chuckles). It was just like a vicious circle, the chicken and egg situation. I' d like to go back and play in England, not to prove anything to the public, they re not at fault The main reason I d like to go back is to give people who work in record companies and agencies and so on a kick up the arse, as if to say 'Don't turn your back on everything'. There's lots of good things in England the record companies don't even know exist, the public know about them though'
'Steve Topping is a fine player and so is Eric Johnson.'
When the new album is in the can Allan Holdsworth's IOU will play a string of dates in the US and I queried Allan whether we might see the Halen/Holdsworth partnership on the same bill?
'I don't think so, I don't think it would be a particularly good combination, but that's only my opinion,' he replies.
Do you, I ventured, see yourself as a latter day Mahavishnu, whose music is not as accessible as some of today's three chord wonders?
'I don't believe that people have to understand anything to enjoy it. Even guys I know who don't know anything about music, will hear maybe John Coltrane and go 'God, what is that?' But at the same time they know something is happening, but they don't have to understand anything. All they have to do is be touched by it, and hopefully the better I get, the more I'll be able to communicate with people. I might not have been able to do that before, and there's a lot of different reasons. One of them is that I probably didn't wanna do that a few years ago anyway. I was probably happier trying to reach some goal to satisfy myself, whereas now I'd like to do both, which is even more of a challenge . . What I'm not prepared to do is to go out and do something just to make money in music, because if I do that then all my life will have been a waste of time. See that's what I was saying before, I'd rather go out and get a job doing something else . . driving a truck . . . and then come home and play the shit out of the guitar rather than go and play the guitar half-heartedly to a million people, and make a lot of money.
'In the beginning when I started playing, I wanted an instrument that I could blow on and I've now found a way of getting something that I want out of the guitar. About 2 or 3 years ago I basically rediscovered the guitar, if you know what I mean, because I started to find a way of expressing myself through the guitar. In a way the instrument doesn't matter, it doesn't matter what it is really, whether it's a saxophone, a violin, anything, there's always a way of trying to find something from it. What I didn't want to do is sound like somebody else.'
Although Allan doesn't see himself as a jazz guitarist, in his youth he listened to a lot of jazz records belonging to his father, which featured Charlie Christian and Joe Pass. 'I'd heard a lot of jazz guitar before I'd even seen a guitar. I listened to Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix too, but what I always tried to catch from people, was the essence of what they were saying, rather than the way they were doing it. The last thing I wanted was to sit down and calculate what they did, just so I could do it like them. What I wanted to do was find a way to get something that was as good as that musically, and that's my aim. To continuously try and play better, without deliberately playing like someone else.' Allan Holdsworth's morals were firmly planted when I quizzed him about the offer of a job with Miles Davis, should the offer ever arise?
'I don't know, it depends on what I'd be asked to do (laughs).'
In Allan Holdsworth's career, which spans 15 years, he's gone from cello guitar, to Fender Stratocaster, to Gibson SGs, and today he plays Charvel guitars.
'When I first played the SG I fell in love with it instantly and I took the Fender which I'd bought on HP back to the shop, and traded it for the Gibson SG Standard they had. I stuck with that for a couple of years while I was a semi-pro, and then I got a job in a Mecca houseband, and that's when I started messing about with guitars and experimenting with 335s and whatever. That was a real experimental thing, I changed the lot, different amps, different strings, different guitars. I still like trying everything and each one of these Charvel guitars I have is an experiment, but they're getting closer and closer to what I want. All the necks are 2 ¼" wide at the top of the fretboard which is a lot wider than a Fender, and I really like that. I've always been anti heavy guitars, and all of these guitars are light. They're made of spruce or Bass (as in ass) wood. Most of the older Strats were light.' Allan Holdsworth had, at the date of our meeting, four Stratocaster type Charvels which included a blonde one w ith a pair of custom wound Dimarzio humbuckers, a red one with a single custom wound Seymour Duncan humbucker, and a white one with two more custom wound Seymour Duncan humbuckers in the middle and rear positions for a certain sound Allan was after. The fourth one is blue, also with a pair of custom wound Seymour Duncan pickups. All of these guitars feature one tone and one volume control plus pickup selector and brightness switches. Another guitar of Allan's is a Charvel prototype that looks not a million miles from an Ovation Viper, also with Seymour Duncan pickups.
One of these instruments carries a Dave Storey (Kahler) tremelo (sic) which loads from the top, with no tremolo block in sight. Before he emigrated to the USA, Dave was England's answer to Floyd Rose, and his unique tremolo system. Ah well, England's loss, America's gain.
'Dick Knight was the first guy to modify a Stratocaster type guitar for me, but what I love about the Charvels is the neck dimensions which make it an incredibly comfortable guitar for me to play. I play the Yamaha 335 type guitar over in the corner, I don't know what it's called, but it's a pretty good guitar.
Allan's collection of instruments has grown since he left old Blighty, and he's added an old 1956 Gibson Super 300 to his stash. 'It needs a new bridge and needs refretting, it's unbelievable it's so light. I met a guy selling a D'Angelico at the time I bought this and the sound of this one was far superior. It needs bigger strings, I put these light gauge strings on because they were all I had.
'I was endorsing two products but I've stopped doing it because I was getting terrible ear bendings from both companies and it seemed like I was losing my freedom and I couldn't use what I wanted. Being a man of contradictions, Allan does actually endorse A/DA stereo delay units. These form part of his stage rack, coupled with another pair of delay lines to get a longer delay, namely a Lexicon PCM41 and a Dynacord DDL 12. A Yamaha E1010 analogue delay completes his set of five delay lines which Allan needs to use with his set up. For solos he has a pair of Hartley Thompson 100 watt amps (shortly to be replaced by a pair of the 200 watt variety), and for chords a pair of Yamaha PI2200s, which are 200 watts a side, plus a pair of Yamaha PGI pre amps.
'The Hartley Thompson is a solid state amp and in my opinion it's the best guitar amplifier in the world, they're insane! To me it sounds better than any tube amp I've ever heard. It's infinitely better than a Boogie, it does things a Boogie can't even come close to, they're so . . .000 QUIET! I put them through four Yamaha 4x12 cabinets, two of them have the original speakers, and two of them contain Celestion Gl2s. With a Boogie set up I had to run the amp so hard that the output tubes couldn't cope with the clean signal, and there was no way I could get the clean chords that loud. 'The Hartley Thompson has two entirely separate channels that give a sustain on the red channel that leaves every other amp I've tried, in the dust. On the green channel you can play chords twice as loud and twice as clean as the red channel with individual EQ and separate reverbs. They're light years ahead of anybody else, I don't think anybody else even comes close.
I ask Allan if he considers there to be anything special about his technique, and his reply has me in stitches. 'You'd think there was, because I get tapes every day from people trying to sound like me. They're wasting their time, they could be sounding like them. Who wants to see a load of little robots walking around with the same coloured pants on, and plastic surgery to try and look as ugly as me?'
Allan Holdsworth is an acutely human being who seeks to make music, rather than amass a million pounds and retire into his own reverence. To illustrate this point, he was setting up his own equipment at a gig recently when a fan said to him, Hey, are you setting up Allan Holdsworth's gear?' Being a touch on the normal side, Allan simply gave the reply, 'Yes,' .
By the way, you can buy the last IOU album by mail order from 'IOU, 14802 Newport Ave, Appt 10a, Tustin, California, USA. Just send an International Money Order for $10,50.