Chords and harmony

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CHORDS

Allan Holdsworth (steveadelson.com 2000)

TCG: When you play chordally, obviously we’re not talking standard II-V-I progressions. Are you following your ear or possibly that Ravel and DeBussy influence?

AH: It’s just what I hear. If I write a piece of music, I try to get it harmonically settled. I don’t really think about where it’s going. I let it go where the music sounds like it wants to go.

Axe Maniax (TGM 1993)

A lot of my playing is based on chord voicings which are very keyboard-like, and so a keyboard type of sound is better suited to my style than a distorted lead ‘guitar’ sound. Gibsons may suit a lot of people, but really if I got given one then its only function or use to me would be wallpaper - I’d just hang it on the wall to look at!’

Blinded By Science (Guitar Player 1993)

Allan’s practice routine reveals much about how he develops musical ideas: "There are things I work out away from the guitar, like various scales. I’m not concerned with modes, rather the permutation of intervals that differentiate one scale from another. I never think of a scale as having a set bottom or top. To me, it goes from the lowest available note to the highest on the instrument itself. I get this total vision of the whole neck instead of viewing a scale in a certain position. I like to see all of the notes at once. I think of the scale as a whole family of notes, with chords being parts of that family. If somebody writes a Cmaj7b5 chord, I won’t necessarily play an inversion of that. I play groups of notes that are part of that scale."


Joe Satriani Meets Allan Holdsworth (Musician special edition 1993)

ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: "Well, because my dad was a jazz musician he had records of most instrumentalists including guitarists, so after Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, I grew up listening to Joe Pass and Jimmy Raney; I loved Jimmy Raney. And all those guys were absolutely wonderful, but there was something about the guitar that I didn’t like even then. Guitar chords only consist of four DIFFERENT notes, generally---you can play more, but they’re usually duplicates or an octave---so it becomes more limited. When I’d hear chord things, I’d recognize the sound of the chords straight away; you almost knew what was coming. You’d appreciate the fact that it was MARVELOUS---it never took anything away from that---but I thought it would be nice to do something, where the chords sounded different. And unfortunately, unless you have two guitar players and they don’t duplicate notes, the chords will naturally sound a bit more ambiguous in some ways, although they’re not, you know? So I started to think of chords as being related to families. I don’t hear one voicing move to another; it’s like, that chord belongs to a family, a scale, and the next one belongs to a different family, and I try to hear the FAMILIES change as the sequence goes. You can play anything that sounds nice, as long as the notes are contained in those scales as they move from one to another. I hear that in piano players I like. They don’t sound trapped with this chord-symbol thing. Whenever I hear Keith Jarrett, it’s just these harmonic/melodic ideas, and they all sound RIGHT, but at the same time have this kind of FREEDOM in the way they move."


No Secret (Guitar Extra 1992)

Q: How did you learn your first chords?

Allan: From him, because he had a real understanding of the guitar - he knew where all the notes were, he knew where all the chords were. He couldn’t play guitar himself, but he knew where everything was on the guitar, so he’d say, "Do this, do that, put your fingers here, put your fingers there." I didn’t even want to learn it, because I’m a little bit stubborn, and I like to learn things on my own. I don’t like to find out what somebody does and then have to ask him about it. I’d rather listen to it and then go and try to figure a way of my own to do it. By that time I was just noodling on the guitar a little bit, and before I knew it, I was in a local band, still with no intention of being a full time musician.


On The Level (IM&RW 1991)

Chords

IM - That brings me to an aspect of your playing which is very rarely talked about - your approach to chords. How did you arrive at that? Did you use a mathematical formula to arrive at the voicings that you use or again, was it some other approach?

"The only time I have used mathematics with regard to chords is when I was either finding ways to make unusual scales or just permetating (sic) them - inversions, it’s good for that. But inversions you can do a lot of different ways. I will take a particular voicing because of what it sounds like rather than what it is. You can play certain inversions of chords and nobody would know what it was. You play a couple of chords and they say, ‘What’s that? Then you tell them and they go, ‘Oh no it’s not’. When I write things I just start with a melody and I just improvise with chords until I have some nice sequence going. I try work on it and extend it and change it. I usually record it then I go back. Sometimes after I have been working on something for a while I go back and listen to what I had been doing the day before and scrap. It’s one of the nice things about recording stuff, when you’re constantly expanding on something you can forget what it was in the beginning."


The Innocent Abroad (Musician 1984)

On his chordal accompaniments, Allan has been striving for a more "orchestral" sound, using layers of delays to get shimmering, pulsating textures from his sophisticated fingerings. "For my rhythm sound, I’ve designed a setup where all the signal processing is driven from one master board; I put each effect into one fader." His digital delays are two ADA STD-1s, two AMS units and a Yamaha E1010. The whole rhythm setup is run through a Yamaha PG-1 instrument pre-amp, some P2200 power amps and S412 speakers. The mixers are a Yamaha M406 and a M516. Allan also has an Ovation ‘83 Collector’s Series acoustic and a Chapman Stick.


The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever (Guitar Player 2008)

Do you still play chords by striking the notes simultaneously using the fleshy part of all four fingers? 

Yes, unless I need to do what I call “scrubbing,” or running the pick across the strings so it is sequential rather than one event. But when playing chords I like to hear all of the notes at the same time, unless the composition calls for something else.

Have you ever experimented with fingerpicking? 

No, I’ve never developed any kind of skill with that. It’s funny, now that you mention it, I don’t think I ever thought about doing that. I hear chords moving like they would on a piano rather than something where you go from one string to another, like on a banjo, where basically you arpeggiate everything.

HARMONY

Allan Holdsworth (Beat Instrumental 1979)

"Of chords, I suppose, I like the sound of clustered chords the best. They’re very easy to play on piano but very difficult on guitar, chords where the notes are very close together. They sound great to me."


Allan Holdsworth (English Tour Program 1989)

Born in Bradford in 1946, Allan didn’t start playing the guitar until relatively late - he never wanted to play it anyway, he’d rather have learnt sax - but it was a guitar he was given and so it was the guitar he learnt to play. Guided by his father, apparently a gifted jazz pianist, Allan was a good pupil, always questioning and probing. He quickly realised that the way keyboard chords were arranged differed greatly from the musically limiting system which ‘shape’ guitarists seemed all too willing to adhere to. But, as Allan preferred the more musical sound of his father’s piano chords, he set about the arduous task of transferring them to the guitar: "I started experimenting... taking a triad and going through all the inversions I could get on the lower three strings. Then I’d do the same on the next three, then take a four note chord and do the same... and so on. Then I’d write them all out, find the ones I liked and discard the ones I didn’t." It was this approach that gave Allan his amazing chord vocabulary and led to those tendon-defying stretches - seven or eight frets sometimes - that still put his imitators to shame.


Allan Holdsworth (Guitar Player 1982)

Will you take, say, an F# chord, and experiment with various ways to spread it out?



Yeah. I’ll just experiment with different voicings. What I usually do is just try to find the kind of voicings of particular chords that I like. Turn them around. I don’t like the sound of conventional guitar voicings. I love listening to jazz guitar; I listened to it a lot when I was younger, because my father introduced me to it. But I very quickly tired of the sound of the chord voicings. Whereas with a piano player I hear much more chordal inventiveness, not in terms of shuffling around with the chords, but with the inventiveness of voicings. I just decided that if I was going to get some chord things together that I might as well play some other voicings, instead of the kind of Jazz Book One or Jazz Book Two or Jazz Book Ten types of chords. I just searched for different voicings.



Do you think that different voicings evoke certain types of moods?



Oh, yeah. Sometimes you can use a simple chord and come up with a nice voicing. It’s all important, because it’s music.

Do you ever locate chords on certain groups of strings to change their mood or impact?



I wouldn’t favor any particular one over any other, unless it was called for in a specific piece. Then I would. I just try to look for interesting ways to play around some simple things and make them sound like they’re not. Or the other way around: Make something simple seem much more involved.

Allan Holdsworth (Sound Waves 2012)

I’m a huge John Scofield fan also. He’s like the other end of the spectrum with his music. It’s all about the harmony, which is almost more important. The chops are one thing, but playing really cool notes is another game entirely.


Allan Holdsworth (steveadelson.com 2000)

TCG: When you play chordally, obviously we’re not talking standard II-V-I progressions. Are you following your ear or possibly that Ravel and DeBussy influence?

AH: It’s just what I hear. If I write a piece of music, I try to get it harmonically settled. I don’t really think about where it’s going. I let it go where the music sounds like it wants to go.


Axe Maniax (TGM 1993)

A lot of my playing is based on chord voicings which are very keyboard-like, and so a keyboard type of sound is better suited to my style than a distorted lead ‘guitar’ sound. Gibsons may suit a lot of people, but really if I got given one then its only function or use to me would be wallpaper - I’d just hang it on the wall to look at!’


Blinded By Science (Guitar Player 1993)

Allan’s practice routine reveals much about how he develops musical ideas: "There are things I work out away from the guitar, like various scales. I’m not concerned with modes, rather the permutation of intervals that differentiate one scale from another. I never think of a scale as having a set bottom or top. To me, it goes from the lowest available note to the highest on the instrument itself. I get this total vision of the whole neck instead of viewing a scale in a certain position. I like to see all of the notes at once. I think of the scale as a whole family of notes, with chords being parts of that family. If somebody writes a Cmaj7b5 chord, I won’t necessarily play an inversion of that. I play groups of notes that are part of that scale."


Joe Satriani Meets Allan Holdsworth (Musician special edition 1993)

ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: "Well, because my dad was a jazz musician he had records of most instrumentalists including guitarists, so after Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, I grew up listening to Joe Pass and Jimmy Raney; I loved Jimmy Raney. And all those guys were absolutely wonderful, but there was something about the guitar that I didn’t like even then. Guitar chords only consist of four DIFFERENT notes, generally---you can play more, but they’re usually duplicates or an octave---so it becomes more limited. When I’d hear chord things, I’d recognize the sound of the chords straight away; you almost knew what was coming. You’d appreciate the fact that it was MARVELOUS---it never took anything away from that---but I thought it would be nice to do something, where the chords sounded different. And unfortunately, unless you have two guitar players and they don’t duplicate notes, the chords will naturally sound a bit more ambiguous in some ways, although they’re not, you know? So I started to think of chords as being related to families. I don’t hear one voicing move to another; it’s like, that chord belongs to a family, a scale, and the next one belongs to a different family, and I try to hear the FAMILIES change as the sequence goes. You can play anything that sounds nice, as long as the notes are contained in those scales as they move from one to another. I hear that in piano players I like. They don’t sound trapped with this chord-symbol thing. Whenever I hear Keith Jarrett, it’s just these harmonic/melodic ideas, and they all sound RIGHT, but at the same time have this kind of FREEDOM in the way they move."


ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: "Yeah, it’s more fluid, where the harmony moves from one place to another, and each time it goes by you could play completely different chords or notes, but they’re correct because they follow the harmonic sequence. But it’s not like every time you see a chord you play some other inversion of it---if you say ‘Stop! What chord is that?’ it might not even constitute an inversion of the chord you wanted, though it’ll be HARMONICALLY correct, because you’ll be playing notes from within that scale. It’s like giving all different names to the same scale. See, the only thing that makes one scale different from the other is the way that they are different intervallically. I don’t give a C Major scale seven different names, because as long as you know what it sounds like in each mode as you move the bass up from C---I don’t think of it as so fixed. It IS fixed, but in another way."


Mike Pachelli Show (video transcript 1991)

MP: You seem to have a really different approach to scalar relation between chords, like most guitar players sometimes it’s linear in the fact that it’s very scalar but your jumps are extremely large.



AH: They’re just the same notes, they’re just in a different order!



MP: Same thing with chords basically, your chords are – we watched you tonight and we didn’t see one – we’ll call it – normal - guitar chord all night long – is that on purpose?



AH: Yeah! (laughs) No… Yeah, I guess so…

No Secret (Guitar Extra 1992)

Q: When you say math, what exactly do you mean?



Allan: Say, for example, I wanted to find out how many seven note or eight note scales there are in one octave. It’s easy with math, you keep number one constant, keeping it in the same key, and then you permutate the other notes until you’ve got every combination, and that’s what I did. I wrote them all down and catalogued them. I’d take four notes, five notes, six notes, seven notes, and then I’d go up to nine note scales. Then I’d spread them out over two octaves, playing however many notes I wanted the scale to contain.



Q: So what happens in the second octave is different from what happens in the first octave, with a separate set of intervals?



Allan: Yeah, and when it comes out again on the second one, you can take three octaves. You can do as many as you want. I only went as far as three, (laughs) because of the guitar.



Q: Was this done at the same time as learning about conventional major and minor scales?



Allan: No, obviously this came after that, but what I knew was inadequate, and I couldn’t play over certain chords, because I didn’t know what scales to use. I knew if I did this, I’d have them, and then I could use my ears to guide me as to how I wanted to use them, based on what I felt musically. I cataloged them all, and I set aside all of the ones that had more than three semi-tones in a row, because they would be impractical. I finished up with this huge ream of stuff that I needed to learn. That stuff still applies now, I still only remember a small amount of it, but I learn more and more each time. Basically, I did the same thing with chords, I’d build chords from the scales, which is how I think of chords.



Q: Were these specific things that you were thinking, "I can’t play over that," or was it that you just wanted to expand your knowledge and find new chords?



Allan: It was more like I wanted to find chords and voicings of chords, then I’d work on those separately from trying to figure out how to play over them. That’s why, when I see a chord symbol, I sometimes don’t even play a chord that might even constitute that one, I might just play some other chord that’s built on the scale, because that’s how I think of it. When the chords change, it’s the movement, you can hear the scales change from one to the other. When I see the neck, when the chords change, it’s like you can imagine a neck with LED’s on it, and they’re all lit up. When it gets to the next chord, all the dots change. The what I have to do is try to make a melody out of it, or make some sense out of it, or combine that with other things I want to do, like superimposing things on top of other things or whatever. Then you can play on things and add extra chords, playing something that suggests another chord between that chord.

On The Level (IM&RW 1991)

Chords

IM - That brings me to an aspect of your playing which is very rarely talked about - your approach to chords. How did you arrive at that? Did you use a mathematical formula to arrive at the voicings that you use or again, was it some other approach?

"The only time I have used mathematics with regard to chords is when I was either finding ways to make unusual scales or just permetating (sic) them - inversions, it’s good for that. But inversions you can do a lot of different ways. I will take a particular voicing because of what it sounds like rather than what it is. You can play certain inversions of chords and nobody would know what it was. You play a couple of chords and they say, ‘What’s that? Then you tell them and they go, ‘Oh no it’s not’. When I write things I just start with a melody and I just improvise with chords until I have some nice sequence going. I try work on it and extend it and change it. I usually record it then I go back. Sometimes after I have been working on something for a while I go back and listen to what I had been doing the day before and scrap. It’s one of the nice things about recording stuff, when you’re constantly expanding on something you can forget what it was in the beginning."


The Allan Holdsworth Interview, part one (Musoscribe 2017)

To what degree is the music on your studio albums the product of careful composition and arrangement, and to what extent is it the product of improvisation giving way to creation?

When I write a piece of music, I start with just the composition itself. And I don’t worry about how difficult it might be to play solos over, or anything like that. I just let the composition go where I think it should go. And then I leave sections open for the soloist or whomever, to give them some space to play. I never wrote a composition that was just specifically for improvisation alone. Or if I did, I don’t remember what it was! I like the music to be dense harmony-wise, and then transformed. It works for me, anyway.


The Innocent Abroad (Musician 1984)

Still, the breathtaking quality and economy of Holdsworth’s solos are more compelling to the "blow me away" psychology of the pop audience than the subtlety and chordal sophistication of Holdsworth’s compositions. Holdsworth himself is well aware of the blow-me-away factor: "Those are the kind of things I like, three triads at once over a given chord, unusual harmonic things heard as a color when they’re played very fast. That way it’s a striking kind of thing, like ‘Wow, what was that???!’ I like the idea of making people want to pick up the needle and put it back to the solo."


On his chordal accompaniments, Allan has been striving for a more "orchestral" sound, using layers of delays to get shimmering, pulsating textures from his sophisticated fingerings. "For my rhythm sound, I’ve designed a setup where all the signal processing is driven from one master board; I put each effect into one fader." His digital delays are two ADA STD-1s, two AMS units and a Yamaha E1010. The whole rhythm setup is run through a Yamaha PG-1 instrument pre-amp, some P2200 power amps and S412 speakers. The mixers are a Yamaha M406 and a M516. Allan also has an Ovation ‘83 Collector’s Series acoustic and a Chapman Stick.


The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)

GW: You practice scales using four fingers on a string. What sort of exercises might help those who wish to reach into the uncharted realms of the instrument?

HOLDSWORTH: Well, the only exercise I really did was to utilize all limbs when practicing any given scale or harmonic concept that interested me. As chord changes are going by I like to be able to just look with my eyes at the notes on the fingerboard and imagine what I could play. I’d be looking at the fretboard and listening to a set of chord changes or imagining changes that I need to practice over, and I won’t think about what my limbs can do and what they can’t do. You’re kind of improvising with your head, on the neck, but your limbs are not involved in the process. Then I thought, "Well, to be able to do some of that in reality I have to do something that my hand won’t naturally want to do." So just in order to help myself stretch, I started to practice playing scales with four fingers. That way you can put yourself in different areas of the neck without playing a pattern and then jumping a position; they would all intertwine. That’s all. And all of the study [of] the theoretical side of it, is down to whatever that particular person needs to learn or wants to learn at that time. It’s just an approach to the guitar, that’s all. And that approach is there, no matter what the subject matter.

When I think of chords or scales - and I’m really bad at this, too - or if I think of a chord symbol, it’s a very specific voicing that I’m concerned with. If you saw a chord symbol for a lot of the things I write, it might be a very ordinary-looking chord, but the voicing might be more specific because of where it came from and where it’s going, simply because of the sound that I wanted to create with it. You’re always playing a specific voicing of a basic chord symbol. If I were to solo over that, I’d look at all the notes, determine what I would hear in the scale that would constitute the chord - related to either specific key or a bass note - and then I would just play notes in that scale, tied together. I might not even play any notes that really constituted what someone would think of as that chord symbol.


GW: Something a lot of people who are awed by your technique don’t understand is that you frequently use larger stretches to facilitate playing small intervals on consecutive strings. Stretching, you can actually move from a note on one string to a semitone above it on the next.

HOLDSWORTH: That was something that I originally started by working with two guitar players; we’d find all these chords that worked nicely with each other, and with two guitars, they’d sound really amazing. We would just play chords together, with very close notes. Neither of us would use any notes that were contained in the other guy’s chord, but each pairing would constitute a whole chord. The way they sounded, very clustered, is very uncommon on guitar. It sounds completely different than it would on most other instruments. That’s why I started doing it when I started working on my own. Plus, at the time, I was a big fan of [saxophonist] Oliver Nelson, who was always writing things with close voicings. Now, I don’t use them as much as I used to, because I’m thinking a different way now.