- 1 No Secret (Guitar Extra 1992)
- 2 Blinded By Science (Guitar Player 1993)
- 3 Unrewarded Geniuses (Guitar Player 1993, reader's letter regarding 1993 article)
- 4 Creating Imaginary Backdrops (Innerviews 1993)
- 5 No Secrets (Facelift 1994)
- 6 Allan Holdsworth: An interview (Atavachron 1994)
- 7 Allan Holdsworth: One Of A Kind (Guitar Shop 1995)
- 8 A Conversation With Allan Holdsworth (Abstract Logix 2005)
- 9 The Allan Holdsworth Interview! (Jazz Houston 2006)
- 10 Harnessing momentum (Innerviews 2008)
- 11 The Allan Holdsworth Interview (Musoscribe 2017)
Q: Tell me about the new guitars you’re using with the super-long necks.
Allan: It’s a baritone guitar, made by Bill DeLap from Monterey. They’re kind of like Steinbergers. They have to be made of wood though, because we can’t get a mold done, it’s too expensive a process.
Q: And it’s a six string instrument?
Allan: It’s just a normal guitar, but unbelievably long. There’s one with a 36-inch scale, the other one’s 38, one of them’s 34. Basically, one of them is like a long scale bass length, the other one is longer than a full size bass, and the big one is four inches longer than that.
Q: What are the tunings?
Allan: They vary. The smallest one is tuned down to C, the medium one is tuned to Bb, and the huge one is tuned down to A. They’re all a 25 1/2 inch scale length from the low E, so the tone is as close to a normal guitar as I could get. I didn’t want to have a short bass tuned down with thick strings on it. So they’ve all got the same gauge strings on it that I use on a normal guitar.
Q: Oh really?
Allan: Yeah, that’s why they’re so long. But the thing that I wasn’t expecting was the extra bonus in the tone. It’s not only the low end, which really sounds great, like a big cello or something. The midrange is different as well, it has a totally different color. I’m really loving it. It’s a more nasal sound in the midrange, like an oboe or an English horn, beautiful. They did something that I didn’t expect, but something that I could have only dreamed of. It’s a beautiful tone, but the instruments are unbelievably hard to play.
Q: What do the tensions feel like?
Allan: The tension feels a little looser, but I don’t bend strings very much. If you wanted to bend the string, you’d have to bend it a mile to get a tone. I use more of a classical vibrato, and you have to do that less because that kind of vibrato puts more of a pitch. Ever if you play in the middle of the neck or high up, it’s kind of hard to control because you’ve got so much string behind your hand, and that makes it more difficult to play cleanly.
Q: How about the balance factor, having that giant neck sticking out?
Allan: They all feel perfectly balanced, with the exception of the difficulty in having a first fret you can fit your whole hand in (laughs). It’s bigger than two inches at the first fret. You can fit a normal barred F right in there! So trying to play certain chords on there is pretty gnarly. But I only wanted it for the sound. It might not become something that I use all the time, but I really like that C one because it’s playable, and it does have some of the depth that I was looking for.
Holdsworth plans to record an album of multi-tracked, orchestrated guitars using several custom 6-string baritone and tenor guitars he developed with luthier Bill DeLap. Unlike most baritone guitars, which utilize heavier-than-normal strings, Holdsworth’s instruments have regular-gauge strings but extended scale lengths. The baritone guitars come in three sizes - the largest has a 38" scale.
It was great to see the photos and mention of my work in the recent Allan Holdsworth article (Feb.’93), but some clarifications are in order. The guitar on page 65 is actually a Steinberger with a spruce wood top I made as an experiment. After noticing how different in sound two apparently identical stock plastic tops were, we decided to try a few different woods for the top. Allan’s regular 25½" scale DeLap hollowbody can be seen in the ads for his new instruction and performance video from REH. The two baritone guitars pictured on page 68 are a blonde 38.2" scale hollowbody and grey 36" scale solidbody. The last few years have produced a dozen prototype instruments ranging from a 19"-scale soprano guitar to the 38" baritone, all of them headless designs featuring Steinberger tremolo bridges. Allan knows the qualities he wants to hear and feel in an instrument, so it can be demanding but rewarding to work with him. He is a constant experimenter, a true innovator with music and the tools he uses to create it.
The Guitar Lab
Let’s talk about "Oneiric Moor." Is that piece indicative of the solo guitar album you want to do next?
Partially. That was just an improvisation with two parts. I just recorded 15 minutes of improvisation. I listened to them and picked one I liked and then I played another part along with it spontaneously and that was that piece. The idea I have for the next album wasn’t so much spontaneity, but compositions, and also to use all these big guitars I’ve got at the moment. I’ve been experimenting with extending the range of the guitar. I have a little piccolo one and three baritone guitars.
Explain what’s special about baritone guitars for a non-musician.
The difference between a bass guitar and a guitar is that a bass guitar is much smaller for the notes it produces than a guitar for the notes it produces physically. The baritone guitars for me, have an extremely long scale. They’re two to four inches longer than the biggest bass guitar. One is a 36-inch scale, the other is a 38-inch scale. It’s like if you can imagine a normal guitar and you extend the neck downwards from that note—E, the lowest note. In other words, when you play an E on the baritone guitar, the string will be the same length as it is as on E on a regular guitar. I didn’t want it to sound like a bass guitar. I wanted it to sound like guitar, but extend the range and that’s exactly what it sounds like. Having a really long string like that adds all these overtones and harmonics and obviously I use the same gauge strings, because you’re just taking that scale and making it longer. It’s not like you’re trying to take a short scale and tuning the note down low by putting on a thick string or something. This is using the same concept as the 25.5-inch scale guitar—just extended downward. - How will that allow you to expand your realm of musical possibilities?
It gives me more range. It just extends the range outside normal for the guitar. That’s all I can get from it really. They’re very difficult to play, the biggest one is anyway. The first fret is almost two inches wide! [laughs] It’s not the easiest thing to get around, but it sounds so good it’s worth it. They really have a good sound. I used the B-flat one on "Sphere of Innocence." It goes down low—that whole solo is the baritone guitar. I used the short baritone guitar, that only goes down to C on "Zarabeth." That one is actually quite playable because it’s only a few more inches longer than a regular guitar, so you can hear a difference in sound in the bottom of the instrument. But it hasn’t reached the point of uncomfortableness to play, so it’s a usable instrument.
"And in fact that’s what happened. But luckily for me I’d started getting back into using guitar again. I had a lot of experimental guitars then, from a really small one to a couple of really huge baritone guitars, so that I could get at least on record get the kind of range that I could get with the Synthaxe. So miss that."
CH: Would you ever consider playing a seven-string guitar?
AH: Ah, no.
CH: Why? I’m just curious.
AH: Well, because the whole principle of making the baritone guitars was to extend the range of the guitar. But if you put seven strings on a guitar, you really falsely extend the range of the guitar. What you do is you put this big, thick string on the bottom of the guitar, with a scale length that’s far too low for it to go. It’s like the relative scale length between that and the... it’s like putting the low C on a violin.
CH: So how does that affect the sound of the instrument, by doing that?
AH: It can never sound... good. It can never sound... I mean, it won’t` stop anyone playing... playing music on it and being good at it. But to me, the sound is really important, and it can’t possibly ever sound right. That’s why we made the big guitars [the DeLap baritone guitars-JP]; because the big guitar has the string length to go down that low... I mean, relative to 25-1/2" scale. Because a bass is actually a much shorter scale than the guitar relative to its pitch.
CH: How important an experiment, in your recent body of work, has that been-developing the baritone instruments?
AH: Oh, it’s been real important. You know, unfortunately I ran into a few... fell into a few holes, just simply because Bill [DeLap], the guitar builder-I never really am able to pay him a load of money to just work for me. You know, it’s a pain to build an instrument. So he makes everything... [but] he’s basically a repair guy. He makes beautiful instruments, but he can’t...
CH: He can’t afford to support your habit all the time, huh?
AH: No. And the thing is, with the big guitars, an unfortunate problem with them is, the two guitars I really played-or that I like to play -- is that he took one of them back to work on it. And that was over a year ago, and I haven’t seen it since. So it’s really a problem, you know, because he lives so far away, and I only get to see him once a year. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t play a baritone guitar on this new album, ‘cause I didn’t have it. I mean, I have "Gonan," but I think the way they were, there was a 34", a 36" and a 38" [scale]. And the 38" one, which is the only one that I have right now, is too big for me-I can’t play it. It actually sounds great, but it is beyond... [pause]
CH: Your technical ability...? [beyond his technical ability-suppose that’s the mental equivalent of being denser than a black hole...]
AH: My capability to play it.
MP: Just because of its size?
AH: Yeah. It’s too big.
MP: Could a big person play it?
AH: Ah, no, probably not. It’s like the size of a human hand.
CH: So we’re not likely to see you play a baritone guitar on a tour?
AH: Yeah, you are! But not that one. Not the 38" scale one. The 36" scale one was a good compromise.. it was a compromise, ‘cause it wasn’t truly 25-1/2", uh... [to] E. But it was the only way to do it.
CH: What was the factor... I mean, why pursue the hollowbody?
AH: Well because Steinberger got me back on that, because Steinbergers are hollow. If you take the top off it... if you look at a plastic Steinberger-a little G2, or whatever it’s called... the plastic one; I never know the numbers-but you take the top off it and it’s like a little archtop. This little plastic body, you take it off-it’s hollow! It’s completely hollow.
And the neck comes down in the mold, and then goes down, and a ridge runs down the back, and up to the bridge. And the ridge down the back is about that much higher than the actual back of the guitar. I’m not sure-I guess it’s a reinforcing thing, you know. ‘Cause that material’s so strong, and then the top just fits on it. So Bill...
MP: Is it graphite, or something?
AH: Yeah, it’s some kind of plastic compound.
CH: So, what were you trying to do with Bill?
AH: Well what I was trying to do is that he knew I liked that guitar a lot, so he took that as a place to start. So, he basically copied it-in wood. Only instead of making a little square body, he made the body a little bigger. But he took a piece of alder, and hollowed it out, in exactly the same ways it was hollowed out in the Steinberger. And I really liked it. It sounded really good. And essentially I wasn’t trying to make a guitar; it was the baritone guitars that were that way first, because he wasn’t trying to make me a guitar-I was totally happy with the Steinberger. But I was so happy with the baritones, that then he decided to make a regular one. So he made a regular one and I loved that. Even more. So then, I started off on this thing, so now we’ve been working on changing the inner portion. I’ve got some ideas of my own now about how the wood should be on the inside of the guitar, to free up the back-what I’ve decided to do with the top and the back, is to make the top and the back free. Instead of having a piece that runs along the rib at the back, which it would have to, when you poured it into a mold, for the plastic. With a wood guitar, that’s made of separate pieces-a neck and a body- it doesn’t have to be. So if you took a piece of alder that was hollowed out, you could put your hand right through it, you know... but then down the back , where the backbone was, if it came away from the back like it comes away from the front, so neither the back nor the top-touch the guitar. And then it’s slotted... that piece of wood is slotted, because if it was a thin piece of wood, it’d be too weak. It’s like taking a two-by-four and turning it on its side. The thin piece of wood has a lot of strength this way, but not this way [gestures]. So you lose weight, but you gain rigidity; you cut wood away but the guitar would be stronger because of it.
KK: Was "Boris" and "Natasha" [Allan’s nicknames for two of the DeLap baritone guitars-JP] supposed to be for commercial production, ultimately, or just one-off for you?
AH: No. No, they were just exclusively for me, yeah. - KK: Is there a commercial... I mean, do you think... I’m just interested because of all these exotic guitars... and the tunings that you use. Do you feel that you’re operating in a world that the average guitarist [could make use of this]?
AH: Yeah, I do. I do. For example, because I...
KK: Is there anything beyond it? Because you hear these things in a very special way, and you have these special instruments tuned to your sensibility. Do you think there’s a larger audience...?
AH: Yeah, there is.
MP: Is there something to offer more musicians about it, other than just your little "nook" that you’re...
AH: Yeah, I think there is. Like for example, like one of the first C-guitars I had, that was tuned originally to C, was actually too short for the way I wanted it. I wanted it to be-I can’t remember the scale length-it was a little short. And I sold the guitar to Carl Verheyen, and he loves the guitar, and he’s using it-a lot, apparently. And he tunes it lower than I did; he tunes it down to a low-A, where for me the concept of the design was that it had to be correct at 25-1/2" to play an E. So in other words, that guitar, for me, was no good beyond C. But he tuned it down to A. So, I mean... there you go. You can take that as a good example of it; for me, the scale length was too short to tune to A, ‘cause I would have to put big, thick strings on it, and then I would have lost the character of the tone that I was trying to get. But for him, he didn’t. It was enough, you know... ‘cause each guy’s different-it’s a personal thing. So I’m not saying that they would be of any use to anybody used in the same way, but I think for example like, a C guitar? A C guitar could be used by someone else, tuned a lot lower, you know, instead of an A guitar.
“I love the Steinberger design, but ever since they merged with Gibson, I’ve had trouble communicating with them. Fortunately I met this guy named Bill DeLap who made me two Steinberger-styled guitars that use their hardware, but have wood bodies instead of plastic. We took the best things of a Steinberger and just tried to get more out of that design. They’re full-sized instruments – 25 – ½” – and like a violin, have a maple neck, ebony fingerboard, spruce top and a maple back. Bill also made me some baritone ones that are just really long-scaled guitars – there are 34”, 36”, 38” scale versions. I didn’t use them on the new album, but I did on my last one, Wardenclyffe Tower. I played the 34” on “Zarabeth” and the 38” on “Sphere of Innocence”. And now he’s making me a piccolo guitar. But they all work like a regular guitar with regular strings, partially because the Steinberger bridge system doesn’t need a lot of winds to get in tune. I use LaBella strings – the company has been really amazing to me, too, and helped out whenever they could. My action is pretty low, and I don’t use the tremolo bar much anymore, either. About five years ago when all the heavy metal guys were using them, I sort of stopped, because it started looking like a new toy that everybody got. It was like when the wah-wah and the fuzz box came out and all of a sudden you heard them on every record. So I basically stopped using it.
Bill: Well, you’ve gone through so many instruments through the years. Do you still have your long neck baritone guitars?
Allan: No, those are gone. Although Bill DeLap, the guy who built those baritone guitars for me, has made me another baritone guitar with a 34 inch scale that goes down to a C. The other baritone guitar I had, which I named Boris, was 36 inches and went down to B flat. And then I also had Gonan, which was the biggest one of all -- it was 38 inches long and went down to an A. And he made me a piccolo guitar too that was tuned up to a high A. I was trying to get a guitar orchestra going.
MM: What gear are you currently using?
AH: Well I’ve been playing on a bunch of Carvin guitars, prototypes and my productions models. I’ve also got a bunch of custom made guitars. Bill DeLap guitars, the baritone guitars, although I’ve kind of abandoned those things. You know a lot of speed metal bands started using them and drop down tunings so I just left them and moved on. I used them extensively on a couple of albums then I just figured it became more and more difficult logistically to travel with them. That’s why I like the Steinberger guitars. They’re easy to travel with…and they don’t get messed up by the airlines. Most airlines don’t let you take your guitars on the plane with you, they make you put them in the (cargo)hold which can really mess them up. I usually only take one, maybe two, guitars. It’s a convenience thing and also the condition of the guitar staying in the cabin, not the hold.
The last time we did an interview, you were heavily into baritone guitars. What’s your guitar of choice these days?
I quit playing the Steinberger-based baritone guitars because I had to carry around too much stuff. In recent years, it became impractical to carry two or three guitars when flying. Unfortunately, that means we don’t really play much Wardenclyffe Tower music, which heavily featured the baritone guitars. I can transpose the tunes but they don’t sound the same. So, I put those tunes on the back burner and hardly use the guitars anymore. I might pull them out for a recording project if someone wants me to play on a song and I think one might fit that track. These days, I typically use a Bill DeLap wood-bodied, headless guitar. I’m totally hooked on headless guitars. It’s hard for me to go back to a headstock and big body guitar. They don’t feel comfortable at all anymore. The DeLap is totally custom, but still all-Steinberger based. It has the Steinberger TransTrem and headpiece.
In recent years you’ve also been performing and recording with a baritone guitar. From your point of view, what is the appeal of that instrument?
When I was playing violin, I used to love the sound of the viola. There was just something about that, just having a little bit lower range. That different sound appealed to me. It’s the same as the difference between an oboe and and English horn, or an alto clarinet to a regular clarinet; it’s in a different register.