Axes Of God (Guitar World 1989)
Holdsworth at The Brewery: AXES OF GOD
Guitar World, May 1989
Somewhere within the quaint repose of The Brewery lurk the lurid secrets Of Allan Holdsworth's magic. "Sometimes I just dread going in there, he confides, "for fear of what I might hear when I start playing."
Until Allan decides to devote full-time attention to vatting his own condiments, the Brewery metaphor will apply to that place where ingredients are carefully sifted and his ideas age to perfection. A fully equipped twelve-track studio with remarkable sound and a highly efficient design, the room houses all the harmonic, sonic and technological variables that inform Allan's work.
One of the least constant factors in the equation has been Allan's preference in the characteristics of the guitar itself. Since the early seventies, when he acquired his first Fender Stratocaster, he persistently sought to break the instrument down to an elemental form - moving on to the thinner Gibson SG, another chiselled Strat, several hollowed-out Charvel and Ibanez solidbodies and, most recently, to the deceptively resonant, stripped down plastic Steinbergers - ultimately using MIDI as the basis for its restructure. With two SynthAxes and their corresponding analog Oberheim Matrix 12 and X5B synth modules and disk player, some Yamaha DX 7's and an Akai S-900 sampler, Allan feels that the dream has been finally realized. "For years, I've been trying to get the guitar to do things it simply didn't want to do," he explains. "I never have to fight the SynthAxe to make it respond, and, in a surprising sense, it's really the most expressive instrument I've ever played through"
After years of struggle with the tonal inconsistencies of wooden instruments, Allan today waxes ecstatic in praise of Ned Steinberger's synthetic creations. "I was so floored by the thing that I couldn't believe it," he recalls. "I haven't felt that way about a guitar since I started playing, it's really the most significant development in the last fifty years. Everything else has just been kind of a little tweak on something older guys like Leo Fender or Les Paul did."
Allan finds that, despite its size, the Steinberger cleverly embodies the tonal consistency, uniformity of feel and sleek playability he'd sought in guitars for years. "It's unbelievably even," he says. "It has a kind of resonance, though not the kind induced by the various pieces of wood you've ordinarily got connected together. When I started playing the Steinberger, I was taken by its really scientific approach. The materials used were all the same; you could consistently operate under a formula that works. You're not worrying about how far up the tree this piece of wood came from, how it was cut, how it was dried or how long the tree had been dead. It seemed that every single thing on the guitar just contributed, so you were left with either a really great guitar or a little junk pile. And for some reason, the Steinberger has a great sound. Between that guitar and the SynthAxe, I can't imagine wanting another guitar - except to own another Steinberger. I actually had one stolen from the studio [Fron t Page Recorders, Costa Mesa, CA]; If anybody finds a black Steinberger with serial no. 2660, and when you take the top plate off, it's got my name written on it in gold pen - it's mine."
Although certain of his older instruments have been sold due to space limitations, the disregarded relics of Allan's guitar-development heyday pepper areas of the Holdsworth homestead in and around the Brewery. A mutated prototype of Allan's signature Ibanez model leans, forgotten, behind the patio door, while other parts and portions of guitars, amplifiers and innovations-in-progress can be found just about anywhere else one glances. Beside a dormant Battle Zone arcade machine sits one of Allan's latest and proudest, a soundproof enclosure containing sliding speaker rigs and microphone fixtures, designed to provide a clinical, sonically consistent recording environment for live guitar tracks.
To create the tones customized for the specific tracks on Secrets, Allan cross-matched ideas, ingenuity and his inventions until he struck on a tasteful variety. Using his Steinberger GM2T, loaded with two custom Seymour Duncan Allan Holdsworth humbuckers and refretted by luthier Bill DeLap with Dunlop 6000 wire, Allan created "City Nights" by running a Boogie Mark III
head through the Extractor prototype, into an equalizer, and back into a Boogie Simulclass 295 power amp, using only one side of the unit to drive his speaker box. There, the signal from a Celestion KS speaker was brought to tape via a Neumann TLM 170 microphone. The inline processing for his lead tone included an ADA Stereo Tapped Delay, two ADA mono delay lines and a Lexicon PCM60. Formulas differ on each track; there are few constants. "I used that power amp and the speaker box on all the tracks, with different variables," Allan reports. "On 'Peril Premonition,' for instance, I substituted a Boogie Quad preamp, and used a combination of a Shure SM58 and an AKG 460 on the same Celestion I'm very flexible, because it's all a big experiment to me. If I thought that I'd gotten a really good guitar tone and just left the mike and everything in the same position and used it, I know I'd die after-wards. I wanted to get back to using tube amps. Since I started using the Juice Extractor with the Boogies, I've fo und that I can get more flexible variations of tone than ever before. I find myself customizing the amp from the outside."
Two different versions of the same home-built effects rack that served Allan faithfully for fifteen years have been used recently in conjunction with two set-ups:
one for SynthAxe transmissions and rhythm guitar, and one for his lead tone. "It's pretty modular," he points out. "What I'm trying to set up at the moment is something where I don't have a rack anyone. I'd just take pieces I want to use, and that way I'm not locked in. But for my live sound, I use that T.C. Electronic Spatial Expander, the ADA Stereo Tapped Delay and a Rocktron Pro Chorus - those are my three main chorusing units. I return the effected signal to a small Ramsa twelve-channel mixer and then, right before it goes to the power amp, it goes through the Hush IIC. And I use the RX, which is like a new Hush Exciter, on DX7 synthesizers, because it makes them sound a lot better."
Cluttered, cramped and shimmering with a warm, inspirational magic, The Brewery remains a warehouse of ideas and dreams yet to be realized. "I'm intrigued with electronics and amplifiers and I've experimented a lot," the maestro muses. "I've still got quite a lot of thoughts about what can be done to allow the electric guitar to do more, but that sort of thing is almost as difficult to get someone to execute as it is to get someone to create a SynthAxe. In a way, the creation of the SynthAxe was like a dream come true - something I might have dreamt up that somebody else actually made. A lot of the other dreams I have about guitar amplifiers - 'if only I could do this' kind of syndromes - are much less likely to happen, and probably won't."