See also Grover Jackson.
- 1 Allan Holdsworth (Guitar Player 1982)
- 2 No Record Contract, No Big Hoopla, But The Fans Have Kept The Faith For Allan Holdsworth (Guitar World 1982)
- 3 Allan Holdsworth (Music UK 1983)
- 4 The Innocent Abroad (Musician 1984)
- 5 Reaching For The Uncommon Chord
- 6 Allan Holdsworth (Guitarist 1985)
- 7 Allan Holdsworth’s New Horizons (Downbeat 1985)
- 8 Axes Of God (Guitar World 1989)
- 9 Mike Pachelli Show (video transcript 1991)
- 10 Med Siktet Innställt På Total Kontroll (MusikerMagasinet 1996, Swedish language)
- 11 Allan Holdsworth (steveadelson.com 2000)
- 12 The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever (Guitar Player 2008)
- 13 Interview with Allan Holdsworth (Jazz Italia 2005)
- 14 A Different kind of Guitar Hero (BAM 1983)
Why did you switch from Stratocasters to Charvel guitars?
I was really lucky, because just before I sold my Stratocaster, I met [Charvel Luthier/designer] Grover Jackson in London. We went out for a few beers and he was willing to listen to ideas I had about certain woods, whereas a lot of other people wouldn’t. They’d say "you can’t make a guitar from this wood or that wood." But Grover listened to everything, and made three Strat-style guitars from various woods. Also I had the necks made wider at the fingerboard end. I hate the Fender string spacing.
Fender’s overall string spacing is wider than Gibson’s, but at the same time Gibson’s necks are wider than Fender’s. It’s absolute madness. I had Grover make the necks wide at the top [near the headstock] like Gibsons, and about 2 1/4" wide at the body end of the neck. So that means there’s a good 1/8" on either side of the outer strings, which is really nice. The strings used to really fly off the edges of the Stratocasters. I’m really happy with the guitars Grover made. They’re the best guitars I’ve ever owned.
What kinds of woods were employed in their construction?
All three are different. The red one has a maple neck with an ebony fingerboard and a basswood body. The white one has a maple neck, ebony fingerboard, and a body made of jelutong [a Malaysian and Indonesian softwood]. Then there’s the one that I was most interested in: a maple neck and fingerboard -- one piece -- and a spruce body with a clear finish. They all sound different from each other, which is really great, because I’ve learned so much about what to do about two more guitars that Grover’s going to make. He’s going to use a combination of all the best ideas in these three.
Is the spruce a lot lighter than the others?
No, actually the basswood’s the lightest. The Jelutong and the spruce are about the same, which is probably about the same as alder or something like that. The spruce one sounds stiffer, or harder. Very quick. I wanted to find a real resonant wood, and spruce is often used for the tops of acoustic guitars. I didn’t believe the normal stories that said, "the heavier the better for a solid guitar." And I’ve never believed that. Most of the old guitars I’ve ever played -- the good ones -- have been at least half the weight of their modern equivalents. If you feel the weight of an old Strat or an old Les Paul, it seems to weigh much less than a new one. The wood gives so much to the sound, just like in an acoustic guitar, whereas if the body is really heavy, it just sort of soaks the sound up, and you’re left with a string talking down to the pickup. Then you’d might as well have a concrete body or build it into the ground. I really like when a guitar feels as if it’s got some sort of acoustic thing going for it.
No Record Contract, No Big Hoopla, But The Fans Have Kept The Faith For Allan Holdsworth (Guitar World 1982)
Though for Allan it’s "all in the hands", his hardware setup facilitates his playing style. His single-humbucker, Strat-like guitars are set to play easily, to offer almost no resistance with extra-super-light gauge strings and a very low action. He speaks of equipment with precise glee, and since he maintains his own guitars, he knows what he likes: "At the moment I’m using two Charvel Strats that Grover Jackson, of Charvel, did especially for me - they’re made out of slightly different wood and the neck dimensions vary slightly. They’re wider at the top of the neck, I think it’s two and a quarter inches, than at the body end, which is nice ‘cause normally Fenders are very narrow there, and the strings pop off the end. So there’s an eighth of an inch on either side of each E string all the way up the neck. I hate it when you go off the fingerboard, which is easy to do when you use thin strings."
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.
Holdsworth’s current lead work is especially unusual because although his tone is as fluid and nimble as a synthesizer, he uses virtually no signal processing at all (he did use a Scholz Rockman for the sax-like bite of "Three Sheets To The Wind"). "I’ve noticed for a long time that lighter bodied guitars always seemed to sound better. [Charvel’s] Grover Jackson was unbelievable, going to all lengths experimenting with different woods. We finished up using bass wood; it’s a little bit like alder, but it’s lighter, very resonant. Grover made four Charvel guitars for me. He also widened the neck dimensions, more like a Gibson. The bridge is an aluminium DiMarzio and the pickups are Seymour Duncans, similar to a PAF but with two rows of pole pieces so that both bobbins are absolutely symmetrical; it makes the magnetic field more uniform." For strings, Allan uses .009 Kaman Performers. His favorite amp for lead playing has been a Hartley-Thompson with an occasional Fender.
I met Grover Jackson in England. He was given my phone number by Steve Blucher, a friend of mine at DiMarzio. Grover and I met at a pub, and we started talking to each other about guitars, and I told him about how I felt about light wood and how I had found that really light wood worked great for me. I also told him my thoughts on neck dimensions - 11/16" to 214" (I think all Charvel necks are like that now). He told me that when I came over to the States, he was going to make me a guitar. When we came to California, I didn’t have a guitar (I had a guitar, but it was just a cricket bat). Then Grover made me two really fantastic ones - the one I preferred was made from basswood. But basswood varies in weight. Up to a point, the lighter the wood, the better the guitar sounded; but if they were too light, the sound regressed. He used the new neck dimensions - the top is actually a Fender measurement, and the bottom is a Gibson measurement. We used Gibson string spacing and Seymour Duncan pickups. Seymour Duncan worked with me on numerous custom wound pickups. I played the Charvel for about two years.
I hear you’ve got a rather interesting new guitar, would you like to tell us something about it?
Well, until about a year ago I was using a Charvel guitar, very similar to a Stratocaster, which was built for me by Graver Jackson of the Charvel manufacturing company out in California.
Then, about a year ago, Ibanez said they would be interested in making a guitar to my specific design. So, we took all the things that I’d learned over the years, including the time in England, when my ‘main man’ was Dick Knight, along with his son-in-law Gordon, and they were marvellous to me. They gave me greatly reduced bills when I wasn’t working, and Dick helped me experiment with different woods. One of the things I found was that I loved the sound of light guitars.
Grover had made me some guitars out of Basswood, which is a really lightweight, resonant wood used for making furniture - drawers and things. It’s very unaffected and doesn’t absorb moisture easily, so it’s ideal for painting. It’s a very sonorous wood and I love the sound of it.
We used a quarter-sawn Maple neck with Ebony fingerboard, an inch and eleven sixteenths at the nut to two and a quarter inches at the body, with a seventeen inch radius on the fingerboard -so it’s very flat. I’ve been using Jim Dunlop 60/J 00 frets, which are very high; I like them to go right to the very edge of the fingerboard and cut quite steeply. Ibanez made about six different guitars and each one was progressively better than the one before until, about six months ago, when they gave me a guitar which was absolutely marvellous, the best guitar I’ve ever owned.
They then decided that they were actually going to produce this guitar, which is great. The funniest thing was that at the NAMM show, when they brought one of the first production models for me to have a look at, it was so good, I managed to blag them into letting me have it. They tell me that they’re weighing the individual bodies and, if they are over or under a certain weight they are not getting through. I think it’s marvellous for such a big company to go to those extremes.
One of the original prototypes didn’t have a scratchplate and the pickup was mounted directly onto the body. We took that very same guitar, hollowed out a cavity down the middle and put a scratchplate on it, with a single humbucker. It improved the sound by at least 60%! The other great thing is that, because there’s a cavity, you can use any pickup configuration you like, mounted on a scratchplate and don’t have to do any hacking!
After a longstanding relationship with Charvel guitars, he’s switched over to Ibanez. "They designed a guitar for me, the Ibanez AH-10, which we worked on together for over a year. They almost gave up on me in the end because I kept demanding so many changes. But I’m really pleased with what they eventually got. The guitars I’ve got now are the best instruments I’ve ever owned. It’s very light wood for maximum sustain. It’s more expressive than anything I’ve ever played before!’
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"
MP: And before getting into that you went through a period with Charvel Strats, your chisel period, explain how that was...
AH: Well it was just basically, before I met Grover Jackson – who is an unbelievable guy, he really helped us out a lot in the beginning with IOU when I first came into the States I didn’t have a guitar or anything, he gave me 3 or 4 really great guitars, and uh, basically the chisel thing was just taking an old Strat and chiseling a hole so you could put a humbucker on it. It was before you could get humbuckers on Strats, you know. And then, like I said, I met Grover and he made these guitars for us. Those were some of the best guitars – I had a red one he made that was actually one of the best guitars I ever owned.
MP: What was the neck configuration? Was it maple or
AH: It was maple with ebony fingerboard and a basswood body
MP: And Seymour Duncan 59…
AH: Seymour Duncan, it was essentially a 59.
He has worked with Charvel, Steinberger, DeLap Guitars and most recently with Carvin.
- These people have been very helpful, but usually something has come in the way. Grover Jackson was the one who took care of the band when we first came to the United States. He let us rehearse in his factory, and built a red Charvel that I had for a long time.
- Something that has always been a problem is that [factory made] guitars vary in quality so much from one to the next [in the production line]. I do not like to rely on a (single) guitar and Steinberger came to the rescue. Their guitars sounded amazing and because the material was plastic, the copies were almost identical. I ordered custom-built guitars with a flatter neck. My communication with Ned Steinberger was very good, and we had a constant dialogue where I made suggestions regarding product development. At first, there were only a few parameters to control, but it developed. Unfortunately, it went as it always does when Gibson buys something - downhill. I received no help and they did not even bother to call me back.
TCG: When did synthesizers enter the picture?
AH: I tried the early Roland synth and loved the idea of the sounds, but it didn’t really work for me. Tom Mulhern at Guitar Player magazine recommended the Synthaxe and that was where that relationship started. Also guitar-wise, I played Charvels for a while, and later discovered the Steinberger. That was it. I just thought it was amazing. It was real hard to switch back to any other guitar. I became friendly with Ned Steinberger. He would send me the guitars without any frets, and then I would send them to a luthier by the name of Bill DeLap and he would flatten the fingerboard, and take out the relief. I like the neck to be absolutely straight. We would put Jim Dunlop 6000 fret wire in it. I had quite a few of these. Also, Bill built me a few baritone guitars. He made me a regular length wooden Steinberger and basically I’ve been playing that till I hooked up with Carvin for this new custom guitar. I play about 80% of the time now on the Carvin and 20% on the Steinberger. It’s still nice to switch back and forth. I love headless guitars. I think the new Carvin is an excellent guitar.
Supplemental Editorial Begins: All of your guitars have the wider neck at the top and the flattened-out fretboard, right?
Yeah, they’re usually 11/16ths at the nut to 2 1/4 at the bottom of the neck, pretty much like the Charvel necks that Grover Jackson made for me back in the ’80s, which is not standard at all on a Strat, because Strat necks are really narrow at the top, and the string spacing is really wide, so my problem with Strats was first of all I didn’t like the radius. And then the second thing is that the necks are so narrow at the top, compared to wherever the string spacing is at the bottom, that I would roll the strings off of it on each side of the fretboard. So I just decided to ask Grover, originally, if he’d make a nice wide at the nut neck. But then make it as wide as a Gibson Les Paul at the end of the fretboard. And of course then you look at a Gibson, and the spacing’s down on the bridge end of the fretboard, but the neck is wider. So it seemed completely illogical to me that the Fender neck is really not quite right somehow. It’s just personal taste, that’s all. So I’ve had all my guitars made with pretty much those dimensions. And with just about as big a frets as you can get, and then a pretty flat radius: 20 to 25.
ALEX: Could you describe the qualities of your guitars starting with the legendary Charvel, right up to the current Carvin?
ALLAN: Actually, before using the first Charvel, I bought a Fender Stratocaster during the time I was working with Tony Williams. I used a white Gibson SG Custom. It really was a great guitar! I lost it ... but I bought a Stratocaster that I used for a while with a single coil but I did not like it very much, so I redid the wiring so that the tone knob worked on the treble pickup. I connected the tone knob to the rear pickup so that it sounded a bit thicker ... then I played ... hell, I did not like it at all so I took some humbucking pickups and put them in. Since I had PAFs from SG - I owned 3 or 4 SGs - from which I always eliminated the middle pickup, I used 2 on this guitar and it sounded very good. It was a light body, as if it were alder... ... [Machine back translated.]
ALEX: Do you prefer alder or ash?
ALLAN: I do not like ash. It's too hard. In my opinion, alder sounds much better. Then I realized that I did not really like the neck because it had Fender spacing. I needed the Gibson spacing and I wanted the neck to be wider ... On the Fender with the double strings [“Sulle Fender con le corde più doppie”] and the narrower neck I had the neck really bent and the strings tended to come out from both sides. So, I went to a luthier and I had a neck built, a maple neck with an inch and 11 / 16th up to 2 and ¼ ... it was practically the size of a Gibson neck ... then I got built a vibrato with Gibson spacing, and it was excellent. It sounded really good. A fantastic guitar. I used it on everything I did in England. With that guitar I made the album IOU. We had to mix the album and we did not have a penny. We had a deadline so I mixed side 1 in a day from midnight to 7 am and the next day still from midnight to 7 I mixed side 2! But I had to sell the guitar to pay for the recording so ... I did not have a guitar! When I moved to America, I contacted Grover Jackson who was the Charvel guy. He is a fantastic person. He built me 5 or 6 guitars, we talked about the type of wood to use and he took the size of the neck from inch and 11 / 16th to 2 and ¼ making it standard so that after making those guitars for me, the Charvel people liked it so much that they started doing all the Charvels with that dimension. They no longer made a guitar with the regular size neck! Jackson also introduced me to the American basswood which may be lighter than the alder. I had two or three made of this wood, a red one ... it was beautiful. I never wanted to sell it! [Machine back translated.]
BAM: When you replaced your guitar, why did you have a Charvel made instead of getting another Strat?
AH: Because my guitar really wasn’t a true Strat. It was an old Strat body that had Gibson humbucking pickups in it. I’d gouged out a place for them. Fenders are good for experimenting, because they’re modular, easy to take apart.
AH: Just before I came over here, I met Grover Jackson [Charvel guitar maker] in London. I talked to him about specific ideas I had about making guitars. I knew my guitar was really light and it sounded really good. So I thought that there was maybe something to that. Because, for a long time, there was this kind of fashion to make electric guitars really heavy, the thought being, the heavier they got, the more sustain they’d have, which I never believed.
AH: Guitars don't need to be heavy at all. They generally sound better when they’re lighter. And what Grover did was make me exactly what I asked for in terms of neck dimension and kinds of wood. He made four guitars for me out of different woods and my favorite is the basil one. It's almost as light as balsa wood. It's real springy and has a lively kind of tone. It's not hard at all. It almost has a real resonance, like an acoustic guitar, the guitar actually vibrates as opposed to being like a rock.
BAM: How was the Charvel neck dimension different?
AH: Well, on normal Fender guitars, the necks are narrower at the top of the neck than they are on the Gibson. Yet the string spacing is wider on the Fender, which never made any sense to me. So what Grover did was make the necks the same width as the Gibson and set the strings slightly closer together. So there's about an 1/8" gap on the side of each E string. When I used to move the strings on my Fender, for vibrato, I used to pull them off the edge of the fingerboard. It was very easy to do that and it would drive me nuts. That's why I wanted the necks made special.