Allan Holdsworth obituary (The Guardian)
Allan Holdsworth obituary
Spellbinding jazz, funk and fusion guitarist dedicated to the art of improvisation who played with Soft Machine and Gong in the 1970s
Allan Holdsworth, who has died aged 70, was a contrary kind of guitar hero – one given to implying that he would rather have played the saxophone, who disliked the sound of much of his own work and who chose anonymity for much of his long career over star status. But if Holdsworth, a stern-faced, tentacle-fingered and all-but-motionless onstage performer, was a private and self-critical individual, some of the world’s leading guitarists in rock, pop and jazz held different opinions about him, and often expressed them in terms closer to declarations of devotion than simply technical admiration.
Frank Zappa regarded Holdsworth as a gamechanger for the electric guitar, a player who perfected blazingly fast techniques without sacrificing character, naturalness or emotion. The smooth-jazz hitmaker George Benson, ostensibly the edgy Holdsworth’s musical opposite, said: “He’s not trying new things, he’s mastering them.” The hard-rock virtuoso Eddie Van Halen revered him, and the former Deep Purple guitarist Joe Satriani told Guitar Player magazine that “his brilliant approach to harmony is completely original, beautiful and spellbinding”. The guitarist John McLaughlin has wryly admitted he would have been happy to borrow just about anything his fellow Yorkshireman invented, if only he could have figured out how it was done.
Holdsworth played in some of the most original hybrid bands drawing on jazz, prog rock and early electronica in the 1970s. He preceded those achievements by devoting three years of his early 20s to the exhaustive personal reappraisal of scales, intervals and chords (he once said his notes from the process wound up “five phonebooks high”) that made his improvising sound so mysteriously different, and his unusually large hands and long fingers allowed him to bridge intervals more acrobatically than most guitarists could.
He was creative designer of original instruments for the California company Kiesel Guitars, issued a sparing but distinctive catalogue of self-written albums, and co-wrote a book of guitar masterclasses, transcriptions and anecdotes – some of them reveries on the subject of cask beer, for which he invented his own brewing system – with the apposite title Reaching for the Uncommon Chord (1985, 1988). And although Holdsworth was a talented composer of both pithy and graceful original themes, he never veered from the conviction that improvisation was the name of the game, and that the best bands he worked in understood it.
Allan was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, the son of Vera Holdsworth and Joshua Hollins. Joshua returned to his native Canada a year after Allan’s birth, and Allan was raised by his grandparents, Sam and Elsie Holdsworth. In his teens he wanted to play the saxophone, captivated by the sounds of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane – but saxophones were expensive, and though as a 14-year-old he was initially indifferent when Sam, a pianist, acquired a guitar, it was a turning point. His grandfather taught him the rudiments of harmony and by his late teens Holdsworth was playing professionally.
The seamless intensity of Coltrane’s sax improvisations influenced Holdsworth’s musical development more than other guitarists did, and his tastes were never sectarian. When he co-founded the genre-bending Barnsley quartet Igginbottom in 1969, the perspicacious Ronnie Scott wrote the liner notes for the group’s only album, Igginbottom’s Wrench, declaring that they had “completely naturally and unselfconsciously … evolved out of the ever converging directions of good pop and jazz”.
Holdsworth moved to London, rooming with the saxophonist Ray Warleigh, who introduced him both to new musical influences and useful contacts. He became a member of the trumpeter Ian Carr’s jazz-rock band Nucleus in 1972, then the drummer Jon Hiseman’s powerful sax-led band Colosseum and its shortlived successor. Tempest. He also became a key figure in the cult underground band Soft Machine’s shift from trippy avant-rock to a more edgily improvisational jazz sound during his period with the group from 1973 to 1975.
He then moved to the US to join the drummer Tony Williams’s Lifetime - his remarkable guitar version of the Coltrane saxophone outpourings that the critic Ira Gitler had dubbed “sheets of sound” being exactly what Williams needed for this fierce new concept group. For the rest of the decade, Holdsworth commuted between Britain and the US, performing in bands as different as the psychedelic rock outfit Gong, the drummer Bill Bruford’s fusion band (1978-80), John Stevens’s the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty’s group. Holdsworth also released an album under his own name, Velvet Darkness (1976), but, typically, he later disowned it, maintaining that the label had issued rehearsal tracks and not final versions, without his permission. With Bruford, the former Roxy Music sideman Eddie Jobson and the singer/bassist John Wetton, Holdsworth co-founded the prog-jazz ensemble UK in 1977, and he reworked some of the Velvet Darkness material for the album IOU (1982).
He settled in the US, but frequently toured outside the country, playing in 1990 with the pop-fusion stars Level 42. He moved to Vista, California, in 1992, embracing the hilly locality’s challenge to his enthusiasm for cycling. He made six studio albums between 1992 and 2003, often playing the electronic SynthAxe guitar as well as conventional instruments, in styles embracing hard fusion sounds and the postboppish feel of None Too Soon (1996), a rare excursion into covers-playing.
In 2001, Holdsworth unveiled a torrent of labyrinthine guitar jams over hard funk undertows to a mesmerised crowd at Ronnie Scott’s club, London, while sometimes veering into bugged-guitar electronic tone-poetry and elegiac violin-like passages of an orchestral complexity and richness. But he issued no more recordings after 2003, preferring the immediacy of live performance.
His last live performance, in San Diego on 10 April, heralded the release of a 12-CD box set of all his studio recordings, many long deleted, by Manifesto Records. In true Holdsworth fashion, he hated the title they had given it – The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
Holdsworth may well have felt torn in his creative life between being an icon for prog-rock buffs and guitar-kit geeks, an entertainer for funk fans who wanted to groove, and a soaring improviser who could make sounds that seemed to belong to no form of prior musical knowledge. But his deepest beliefs were plain in his statement to the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1987: “My music is written with one goal in mind: to improvise. It’s like explaining a great story in words, but without words, much faster than you could with words. It’s like a direct line of instantaneous communication where you don’t have to wait for the end.”
Holdsworth is survived by a daughter, Lynne, from his first marriage, to Angela Slater, which ended in divorce; by two daughters, Emily and Louise, and a son, Sam, from his second marriage to Claire Wallace, which also ended in divorce; and by his granddaughter, Rori.
• Allan Holdsworth, guitarist, born 6 August 1946; died 16 April 2017
• This article was amended on 28 April 2017, to correct details of Allan Holdsworth’s family. He was raised by his grandparents, not his parents, as originally stated, and he was twice married. We also omitted mention of his daughter Lynne.