Allan Holdsworth’s Early Days
This article covers Allan Holdsworth’s early days, defined as the period from his birth up to around the time when he took up Ray Warleigh’s offer to move to London around 1970. It does so by gathering quotes from interviews from 1975 onwards. Notably, it mostly excludes his recording with the band Igginbottom in 1969, which is subject matter for a separate article.
Among the topics covered are Allan’s relationship with his father, his early experience with listening to music, how he started to play the guitar, and his experience playing in early bands, notably his three years with the Glen(n) South orchestra, which provided Allan with his first professional experience. The band would do residencies in local “Mecca” ballrooms around Yorkshire. Some of these topics will also be covered in separate articles.
"Before Tempest I wasn’t really doing anything really. I’d played with local rock bands round Bradford and then I got into a Mecca parlays thing for about three years. That was the longest thing I did, really."
When and why did you start to play guitar?
I started when I was about 16 or 17 after I left school because I‘d always been interested in music. My father was a pianist so I was exposed to a lot of music at home. He was like an inspiration to me really in that he often presented me with things I wouldn’t normally get to hear. He helped me a lot in that way but I never actually sat and down and learned to read music.
What kind of band did you play in first?
They were a few semi-pro bands from around Bradford, where I was born. It was all workingmen’s clubs and that type of thing. After that, I got in one of those Mecca bands in Sunderland and Manchester and played with them for three years. I eventually met Ray Warleigh, the alto player, and he told me that he had a spare room in London because I wanted to move so I stuck it out with the Mecca band for a while and then decided that I couldn’t take it any more. I left to go down to London and moved in with Ray. I couldn’t have done it without his help, really. It’s pretty hard if you don’t know anybody.
Pop music was easier to play, though, and it was the best way to get started. He soon got involved in the heady world of working men’s clubs around Leeds and Bradford, toiling through the No.6 smoke and the spilled Newcastle Brown, learning all the time for the next three years he was with the band. "I realized then that to copy was pretty pointless. I used to play one solo that was copied off the record, and one that was mine, and mine were always terrible. So I tried to get into the essence of a solo, how it came to be that way, what motivated someone to play that. You have to go deeper than just copying, and try to find out where the music’s coming from.”
"I really would have loved to have played the saxophone when I began. I actually didn’t start guitar till I was about 17 which I suppose is pretty late really. Before that I’d always wanted to play but never really wanted to enough to make a nuisance about getting myself an instrument."
"After that first guitar I got a Hofner Cello guitar and put a pickup on it. That all came from seeing this guitarist in a pub who’d really impressed me with the idea of electric guitars.
"Eventually I went along for an audition with another local band whose guitarist was leaving. He offered to lend me his Strat for the audition. It was just love at first sight. Here was the guitar that could produce all those electric sounds I’d always wanted.
"Of course, I was immediately into hire purchase on one! Then people started mentioning this name ‘Gibson’ to me and one day I went into Kitchens in Leeds and saw this amazing looking cherry red S.G. I had to have it, it was such a beautiful guitar, such a lovely piece of wood. I got into even more H.P. debt on that!
In the meantime, however, there had been problems with gear. Having run out of bread Allan had had to sell his Gibson and had foolishly let a friend accept responsibility for keeping up the payments on the Strat. When Allan sold his Gibson he was guitarless as the ‘friend’ had not kept his promise and the Fender had been repossessed!
Unlikely though it may sound the next guitar was a Hofner Colorama with a bent neck and a broken truss rod! But perhaps we should skip that and join him again when he’s playing with Hiseman.
A native of Bradford, Yorkshire, Allan Holdsworth was born on August 6, 1948 [Note: The correct year is 1946]. Although his father was a skilled pianist, a love for the 88 keys never bloomed in young Allan. His early interest in music never went beyond listening to jazz records, and it wasn’t until he was 16 that he even tried playing a guitar. At that time his father bought him an acoustic for about ten shillings. The instrument sat around for awhile until Allan’s interest in playing was sparked by hearing the local guitarists play in the neighborhood pub. Soon thereafter he joined a band that covered pop songs, in which he played two guitar solos per song: "One was supposed to be an impersonation of the one on the record," he explains, "and the other was something of my own."
What induced you to pick up the guitar?
When I was 16, my father bought an acoustic from an uncle of mine who played in various clubs—he paid about ten shillings for it. The guitar was always sitting around, so I started messing with it and gradually made progress, though I still wasn't that serious. Being very stubborn, I never took lessons. It's sort of my nature to not ask for information - even if I'm dying to find something out. I like to discover things. And even if I were screaming inside to ask, I just can't bring myself to do it. My father tried to help me, but I refused. That was a stupid thing to have done, since there was so much knowledge he could have given me. You know, I could have learned things three or four times faster from him than I did on my own.
How did you come to the realization that you wanted to pursue the guitar seriously?
Well, I used to sneak into a pub a few miles from where I lived with my brother-in-law - I wasn't old enough to drink legally yet. We watched the local bands. I really liked a lot of the guitarists - I just became more and more interested in it. I joined some bands that did note-for-note renderings of pop records. In each song, there were two guitar solos. One was supposed to be an impersonation of the one on the record, and the other was something of my own. And my solos were always so disgusting!
Why didn't you quit doing that?
I did. I realized that instead of learning, I was just calculating - copying something without any insight into what was going on in the mind of the guy who first played those parts. So I decided that wasn't the thing to do. I stopped copying, and for quite a long time afterwards I couldn't play solos that I felt were anywhere near as good as those I heard. I was trying to get something that was good in its essence—musically equal, but not the same.
As your skills increased, did you find a need for a better guitar?
Yes. My father purchased a Hofner f-hole acoustic for me. A friend of his who owned a hi-fi shop built a 15-watt amp for me and placed a pickup on my guitar. But in a year's time, I had progressed beyond that guitar's capabilities, too. So I talked my parents into buying me a Fender Stratocaster.
Did this satisfy your needs?
Oh, yeah. But only about six months later I sold it so that I could get a cherry Gibson SG Standard. I'd never seen an SG before, and I was interested in the way it looked - weird. So I tried it and instantly fell in love. I didn't want to put it down. Luckily the SG didn't cost as much as the Fender. Even back then, the Strat cost £200 - about $400 - which was pretty expensive. The Gibson was only about £165. I kept the SG until joined a group called the Glen South Band at a club called Sunderland, near Newcastle. Then I got an SG Custom and a new amp a Vox AC-30.
Did you play regularly?
At first, no. I had a day job making baskets - strange job. But soon the band was working enough to enable me to quit the day job. Then we moved to Manchester. I met a couple of musicians from London there, and one was a sax player named Ray Warleigh. Around 1971 I quit the band and moved to London, where Ray put me up. I couldn't have made it without him. He fed me and kept me alive, and he used to take me along to his gigs; he went to quite a few sessions. It was a long time before anything started happening, but luckily I met up with [drummer] Jon Hiseman, who was putting a rock band together called Tempest.
Born thirty-five years ago, Allan Holdsworth was raised in the grim Northern mill town of Bradford, Yorkshire. Although he didn’t pick up guitar until age seventeen, he quickly made up for lost time due to a distinguished tutor: Allan’s musical tastes and later his knowledge of theory came entirely from his father, Sam Holdsworth (no relation whatsoever to the editor of this journal). The elder Holdsworth had been a professional piano player who made the ultimate sacrifice: "He was really a monster musician. He retired and went to work in a factory because he couldn’t stand playing all the tunes that people wanted him to play. He made a conscious decision to only play music on his own at home, for his own pleasure. So he really put all his energy on me."
Originally an aspiring reed player, Holdsworth didn’t pick up the guitar until he was 17 years old. "I played saxophone and clarinet and I wanted to play oboe, but I had problems with my ear. I kept popping it from blowing and getting ear infections, so I had to stop. It was some kind of peculiar physical thing where all the pressure would build up in one place. I don’t know - I guess I wasn’t supposed to play a wind instrument"
Cymbiosis: I understand if your family could have afforded it you would have had a saxophone instead of a guitar when you were younger?
Holdsworth: Yeah, that’s what I really wanted—to play saxophone.
Cymbiosis: Why was that?
Holdsworth: Well, I just loved the saxophone. It was the sound. I think people are first attracted to music and then to specific sounds within it. I also liked violin later. But at the time I liked saxophone more, because it was on most of the records that my dad had. He was a jazz player and had a lot of jazz records.
Cymbiosis: So you had things like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw?
Holdsworth: Yeah, Dad played in the Air Force band during the war, and they played a lot of swing.
Cymbiosis: So that might account for why a lot of your riffs almost sound hornlike as opposed to how a "regular" guitarist might sound?
Holdsworth: I don’t think any of that was deliberate, really. My parents bought me a guitar; it was real cheap. I think they paid 10 shillings for it, about a dollar at the time, I guess. I just left it lying around and had no interest in it.
Cymbiosis: Why did you finally pick it up?
Holdsworth: Curiosity, really. I gradually got interested in it, decided to play it, and once I got to a certain point, it was like a light switch went on, and I started to learn how to play the guitar. I think it’s only after I’d been playing a few years that the kind of things I listened to a lot when I was younger started unconsciously coming out in my playing. I was trying to get more of a sound out of the guitar than it wanted to make at that time.
BSR: When did you know you wanted to become a musician?
AH: I really didn’t want to be a musician, I was in it just as a hobby. Then people started asking me to play in local bands where lived in England. I started doing it gradually. I was working in factories and mills in Yorkshire, and I got this gig with a Top 40 band and we played in this pub constantly. I did that job because I thought, "I could practice during the day, I didn’t have to work, and I could play the Top 40 stuff at night." It was good because I could work on my sound. Even though I hated the music, I could still be a musician. So it was a good period for me, a good learning experience.
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.
From school, Allan drifted into work at various local mills. His respite from the tedium of the mill was playing in ‘Top 40’ bands in the evenings. He then joined the Glen South band, who worked in the Mecca-owned ballrooms of Sunderland and, later on, Manchester. Although already thinking in his own musical way, Allan reckons his three years with Glen South were a good grounding. He recalls the times - a couple of decades but musical light years away - with fondness: "He gave me quite a lot of freedom in that band. There were generally two solos in every song - we had to eke them out back then - and I always played the first solo as it was on the record, but for the second solo Glen used to let me do my own thing. It was good also, because I had all that time during the day to practice...
Holdsworth’s first interest was the saxophone, and its a fascination that has stayed with him right up to the present day. "I loved the sound of it," he said, "and I still do. But we didn’t have the money to buy one. When I was about 15, my dad picked up an acoustic guitar from an uncle and just left it laying around. At first, I didn’t pay any attention to it at all. But after it’d been around for a couple of years, I started noodling around on it. When my father saw there was some interest, he started to help me out with chords and stuff. He was such a fantastic natural teacher that he understood the guitar, even though he didn’t play the instrument. The funny thing is that he actually wound up teaching it to local students in Bradford.”
"The important thing that my dad did was to open me up to all kinds of creative ideas. I was exposed to music from the very beginning. As far back as I can remember I used to play his old albums,- even 78 rpm records, and I heard Charlie Parker and Charlie Christian very early on. And, of course I’d get to hear my dad play on his gigs. When I was about five or six he made me a record player out of one of those mechanical, wind-up turntables. He was into hi-fi, with mono amplifiers, and building stuff."
The other significant influence on Holdsworth’s playing has been - predictably, perhaps - saxophonist John Coltrane. "When I first started," he explained, "I tried to play pop music - or what was popular at the time, just because it was the only thing that I could manage to play. But I always used to listen to other kinds of music. Then a few years later I started listening to John Coltrane and it was wonderful (in fact, I introduced my father to his music, because he’d never heard it). Shortly after that, Coltrane died. And it was just after I’d fallen in love with his music. I was devastated; I remember locking myself in the toilet for a long time to think about it because I was so moved by what he did."
MP: What was your early musical influences?
AH: Well, all of the people really that my Dad use to listen to which is jazz from the period, which would go back as far as Django, Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman, and right way up through Miles…
MP: I understand at a real early age you had a major affinity with a record player, like at 2 or 3 you were just uh…
AH: Well I was absolutely enthralled with music, music was everything, I mean I had no desire whatsoever to play an instrument – I wasn’t really interested in an instrument, I was just interested in music.
MP: Were you formally trained?
AH: No, in fact most of the things I learned, I learned in the beginning anyway, since then I’ve just worked on my own, but most of the things I learned in the beginning were from my father.
MP: What was your schooling like?
AH: Regular schooling, oh, pretty imbecilic…the usual secondary model schools, they were called in England at that time... at 14 or 15 I got a job at a bike shop… then I got a job making baskets…there were a lot of day jobs (laughs).
MP: I understand that when you were young you wanted to be a saxophone player.
AH: Yeah, well after I’d been listening to music for a long time, I got to be about 10 or 11. I was really interested in saxophone, the breathing thing seemed so alive, you could do more with it than a voice. But it was on that connection like a vocal thing.
MP: And why didn’t you pursue that?
AH: Well, at the time saxophones were very expensive things to buy so my Dad got, we I had an uncle who played guitar and my Dad got a guitar from him and just left it lying around, I just started in front of the mirror (laughs) I had no real interest in it at all, and he just left it there and I just noodled on it from time to time, try it on listening to music but still had no real desire to play anything and I guess over a period of time I realized I was playing a few chords on it and my Dad sort of took over because he knew all the notes on the guitar being the musician that he was…so as soon as he saw I had any interest in it he started trying to help me out. But I was very stubborn, I didn’t really like the help, though I needed it, but I wanted to do it on my own.
MP: Let’s talk about some of your instruments, basically. What was your first guitar then?
AH: First guitar was this old, it was kind of like an old classical guitar, but it did have steel strings on it, and then after that my Dad got me an f-hole guitar which is a guitar I played a year or so - it was a Hofner, and then I put a pickup on it and I spent it my Dad who was into building amplifiers just started getting interested in amplifiers then. He built that, then I saw this guy who had this Fender Stratocaster which I fell in love with so I tried this Fender Strat, my Dad got it – well signed for it – so I could make the payments on it. And then about 2 months later I saw, I played an SG and that was it from then on, I was completely in love with this SG. I got this SG Standard, later I traded it for an SG Custom. I basically stayed with that guitar right the way through until…Tony Williams.
Q: What were your first recollections of music, and how did you first become interested in music?
Allan: It was all the records that my dad had. Being a jazz piano player, he had a lot of records lying around, and that’s how I first heard Charlie Christian, on some of the old Benny Goodman albums. So I kind of grew up listening to that. He also had Joe Pass, Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow - those guys. I always loved music, I loved listening to it, but I absolutely had no intention of becoming a musician, or anything. I just thought music was something to enjoy and listen to, and that’s all I did.
Q: Were you playing electric in that band?
Allan: By that time I had an f-hole guitar, like a jazz guitar, and I put a single pickup on it.
Q: What kind of music were you playing in that band?
Allan: Mostly pop music of the time, the mid-’60’s. After that, I got asked to play with a guy called Glen South, who was a band leader in one of the local dance places, like a resident guy. He offered me a job with his band, and depending on what day it was, it would be a dance band, or top 40. He asked me to do that, and I really didn’t know if I wanted to give up a job for it-music still didn’t interest me that much as far as making a living from it.
Q: That makes it sound like there wasn’t any emotional attachment to it, you weren’t sitting there saying, "I’m going to learn how to play this thing, and give it a real dedicated effort."
Allan: No, there wasn’t in the beginning. About three or four years after that, in the early-’70’s, I started working at it.
"Some of it might [the music] be a little sad or melancholy. Maybe some of that comes from where I grew up, because it’s a pretty bleak part of the world-in Yorkshire. It was a huge textile town, a booming town in the ‘40s. You get that feeling just from the way it looks-everything’s gray, and the buildings are all black, and, like a friend of mine said, the sky’s so low. "I think music is geographically influenced. Even though I live here now," he gestures out the rain-spattered window to a suburban scene looking unusually UK-like, "the music is from somewhere else."
Holdsworth paints a picture of a fairly shambolic set-up [on Igginbottom]. I presumed that this had maybe then been his first sortie into a band set-up. "No, it wasn’t, actually. I played with a lot of local Top 40 bands, club bands, working around in Bradford. Because I never wanted to be a musician, I was just a listener, and I used to just listen to my Dad’s records and spent most of my time as a kid just listening to the music. And I really wanted a saxophone but they were pretty expensive. And then he bought a guitar from my uncle and he left it lying around and I picked up a few things here and there, but had no real interest in it. And then I guess after a couple of years I started to learn a few things. When he saw me taking some interest in it, my dad, he tried to help me, and from that point on started to meet other people who were in bands and they started to ask me to play with them. So that’s how it started. But I never intended to be a professional musician - it wasn’t like a lot of young people when they first start learning an instrument.
Guitar.com: So prior to the Trane experience, were you playing in a more staccato fashion, picking every note in a more traditional style?
Holdsworth: More like that, yeah, in the beginning, certainly. Then I realized I could manipulate it a little more than I thought.
Guitar.com: What were some of your early experiments in that regard?
Holdsworth: I experimented with amplifiers and I realized an amplifier with an electric guitar was actually part of the instrument, not an afterthought. In the beginning I had always thought that the amplifier was an afterthought -- something you plugged this thing into to make it so people can hear it. But then I realized it could become part of the voice of the whole instrument, that it was totally connected. That’s when I started experimenting with little devices so I didn’t have to play loud to get a certain sustain or the sound that I wanted. I started experimenting way back then with little boxes because I was always interested in electronics. I wanted to be an electronics engineer when I left school but they told me that I couldn’t because I was too dumb, my math was too bad. I subsequently found out that it wouldn’t have mattered. Because it’s like, you can have all the math in the world and never have an idea in your head. I always had ideas and I was always fascinated with electricity and electronics. Anyway, one of my father’s friends was a radio ham and he built his own amplifiers and radios. I used to go over to his house and he would show me stuff. It was really fascinating.
Guitar.com: What were some of your earliest experiments with getting sustain and overdrive?
Holdsworth: Basically just realizing that if I pushed the amplifier to a certain point, I could get a certain kind of sound but then the sound became oppressive because it was forcing me to use this thing at a specific volume, which I didn’t like. So I started experimenting with making boxes that would allow me to turn down the speaker. Basically like power attenuators now. Over the years it changed and I went in a whole different direction made boxes that converted the amplifier’s output to line level. But in the old days I didn’t do that, I used a device to actually turn down the speaker. Then I realized I could get this sound, which was closer to what I was hearing in my head. I just kept going, trying to do the same thing through trial and error. I would practice trying to play using a combination of left hand hammer-ons and right hand picking in a way where I could try and make the notes that were hammered louder than the ones that were picked so that I could bury them in each other. That way, you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. It just developed from there.
‘The thing that always moved me most was hearing a really great chord, or just the way it was voiced. That’s what I live for, that chord. It came mostly from classical music in the beginning. I got interested in certain composers - Bartok, the string quartets, and then The Concerto for Orchestra, and I also liked some of that opera, like The Miraculous Mandarin. Oh, and Debussy and Ravel. I love Ravel’s string quartets. There’s something about that period. Music was just starting to look like scenery; you could see things in the music.
He began to take a serious interest in music in his late teens, while lie was working in factories and as a bike repairman. At first he wanted a saxophone, but it was then that Sam Holdsworth suggested a more modestly priced acoustic guitar. There followed lessons with Sam, an electric guitar and experiences with various local groups before an invitation from his friend Glen South led to three years or so in a Top 40 band on the Sunderland Mecca circuit. It was there that Holdsworth was first able to try his hand at the clarinet.
Allan Holdsworth: I actually never was interested in playing. I only wanted to listen to music.
TCG: How then did guitar come into your life?
AH: When I was about 15 or 16, I thought it might be interesting to try the horn, because I found myself listening to a lot of saxophone players. I was really drawn to the idea that you could shape the notes after they were sounded, as opposed to the guitar which was basically a percussive instrument. Saxophones were pretty expensive and we couldn’t afford one, so I ended up with a guitar that I got from my uncle. I wasn’t really that interested in this instrument. I wasn’t particularly drawn to it. I soon took an interest in some local Skiffle music which sort of lit the torch. My father realized this and started helping me with my musical education. Interestingly, even though he was a pianist, he realized that playing scales and such with open strings on the guitar was counterproductive to playing in different keys. So I learned and still use lots of fingers to accomplish my musical ideas.
The sounds of Django Reinhardt, Jimmy Rainey, Charlie Christian, Joe Pass, Eric Clapton, and John Coltrane were among the primary inspirations identified by Holdsworth which steered him away from an early passion for bicycle racing and instead towards learning to play a musical instrument. Having never picked up a guitar until his late teens, he found his musical hobby paying off on England’s Mecca dance hall circuit. Born in Bradford, Yorkshire (U.K.), in 1946, Holdsworth had been tutored in many aspects of musical theory and jazz appreciation by his father, Sam, an accomplished amateur musician. Allan later went on to analyze scales on his own, based on mathematical permutations of intervals-the results of which can still be heard in Allan’s playing today.
Holdsworth’s early career was frought with desperation and dry spells, and from his late teens through his mid-twenties music was a mostly sporadic venture and hobby; he supported himself primarily repairing bicycles during this time. His first known project as a leader was a low-budget project recorded in 1969 on the Decca label with a few of his local Yorkshire friends-the band’s name was Igginbottom, and the music was derivative of the psychedelic rock fashionable at the time-yet even then, the origins of Holdsworth’s prowess and vision as a guitarist were readily apparent. Veteran British jazz saxophonist Ray Warleigh who travelled frequently around the country, was actually the first professional to "discover" Holdsworth. Warleigh, who played in a large, state-supported dance-hall band (as did some of the other members of Igginbottom), was instrumental in introducing Allan to the London clubscene. At the time, Holdsworth’s major influences were a wide range of American jazz greats - in particular Benny Goodman’s guitarist Charlie Christian and saxophonist John Coltrane-and in particular the psychedelic, bluesy hard rock of Cream.
Ironically, Holdsworth never intended to play guitar at all. "I was just dabbling with it," he recalls of his teenage years in the small town of Bradford in Yorkshire, England. "I had wanted a saxophone, I didn’t really want the guitar, but saxophones were pretty expensive in those days, relative to a cheap acoustic guitar. My uncle played guitar and when he had bought himself a new one he sold his old one to my father, who gave it to me. That’s basically how it started."
At which age did you start to play and what kind of music did you listen to?
Well, that’s a good question because I started to listen to music when I was around three years old, but I didn’t want to be a musician, I just enjoyed listening to music. I couldn’t understand that there were some compositions that could make me cry and others that could make me feel happy. It was like something magical, something really fascinating. I took my parents’ records and, although I didn’t know how to read yet, I knew all of them and identified them by taking a look at the covers. I think that when I was 11 or 12 my dad tried to teach me to play piano, but I didn’t like piano. It is not that I don’t like to listen to others playing, simply I didn’t feel comfortable sitting there. I thought that I wanted to play a wind instrument, like a saxophone, for an example, but at that time they were very expensive and my parents couldn’t buy it. So my father bought an old guitar from my uncle, but the truth is that at the beginning it didn’t like a lot either. I put myself in front of a mirror and started to imitate Elvis. My father started to play guitar on his own, he was a pianist, so in the beginning he didn’t have a lot of technique but a lot of knowledge, so he played very attractive things, but not too fast. It wasn’t until 18 or 19 when I started to be interested, to take it seriously. I just wanted to listen to music, not to be a musician. I didn’t feel I had anything to offer as a musician. But, without knowing how, I changed. Unconsciously years went by and I started to like it.
PH: …Our paths crossed, you know, we probably met many, many years ago in Bradford, but it’s quite funny how 30 years later you come back and here you are in Amsterdam, on, you know – neutral territory. I can remember when I moved up to Bradford from London, and we talked about Manningham, which was a part of Bradford where at one stage along the way there was a Mecca dance hall where most things happened on a Saturday night. You used to be in a Mecca dance band, didn’t you, at one time?
AH: Yeah I was, for a short time, it was on Manningham Lane, I think, and it was closer to the town where I used to live, which was like taking Manningham Lane up towards a town called Shipley and left up Carlyle Road and it was up there somewhere…
PH: But musically if I remember in the 60s, you had the beginnings of the Beat-dom [Note: This word is most likely a reference to the emergence of Beat music, British beat, or Merseybeat] and the local bands which were playing the hits of the day rather than your own stuff, and you were with a band called Igginbottom that played - basically you were more into Coltrane than the Beatles or the Stones.
AH: Yeah well that’s true, but I also before that, haha, I still did play with a lot of local bands in that town, Jimmy Judge and the Jurymen, they’re all like funny names, haha, Margie and the Sundowners, all these people, it’s great, I’ll have to ask them what they’re all doing. But that was more like playing in working men’s clubs and just doing the cover tunes, and then Igginbottom was really just an experiment and the unfortunate thing is that it actually got recorded when it never should have been, haha, because it was too soon, too early to be doing any recording really. It didn’t deserve it to be recording then.
Bill: I recently saw an old picture of you playing violin. What was that about?
Allan: When I was working in a Top 40 band in England, before I moved to London, I was out just walking around in the town in Sumberlin [Sunderland] and I happened to walk past this pawn shop. And I don’t even know why I did it but I went in and said to the proprietor, ‘Do you have any old violins?’ And he comes with one and says, ‘How about this one?’ It had no strings on it but it had a bow that looked like it was in reasonable shape. So I bought it for ten bucks. I took it to a violin repair shop and they put a new soundpost on it and the bridge and strung it up. I started playing around with it for a while... on and off for about a year.
Bill: Any gigs?
Allan: I think I did play it on a couple of gigs with Tempest. I think I might’ve also played it a couple of times with Soft Machine. But I always really liked violin. It felt natural to me. I often wish that I had been presented with a violin when I was young. It just seemed like it was comfortable for me to play right away, but I couldn’t play chords on it and by that time I was really getting into chords and stuff. And I started dedicating time to playing just one instrument, I didn’t have enough time to learn how to play two. All those guys who play multiple instruments amaze me. They must have split brains or something.
At what point did you decide to dedicate your life to music, and have things turned out at all like you’d imagined they might?
No, things have turned out nothing like I’d imagined. And I often think about that whenever we go to music schools, because I’m sure almost everyone who goes to a music school is there because they’ve already decided that that’s what they want to do. But for me it was the absolute opposite. My father was a wonderful piano player who had a great record collection, including all the classic jazz records, and I just loved listening to music. I had no interest in learning an instrument until I was about 15, when I started thinking that maybe I’d like to get a clarinet or a saxophone. But in those days they were pretty expensive, so instead my dad gave me a guitar he had bought from my uncle. Then he bought me a couple of chord books and as soon as he saw that I was making a little progress, he started trying to help me, and that’s when I developed an interest. And he had records by all these great guitar players lying around, like Jimmy Rainey, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, and Charlie Christian, who became my first major influence.
Without making a value judgment of good or bad, do you have any thoughts on the origin of your hypercritical view of your own playing?
Part of it is where I’m from, I think. A lot of English people are maybe like that, more so than American people. But I don’t know exactly. Many English musicians that I know are always apologizing for everything. I don’t know. Or maybe its because I didn’t set out to be a musician, it just kind of happened. I loved music, then I ended up with an instrument that wasn’t exactly the instrument that I wanted to play, but then I fell in love with it later, but then I still had no goals or aspirations whatsoever to be a musician. I had the opportunity to play in different bands when I was younger, and I thought, “Nah, I don’t want to do that, I’ve got a day job,” and I just carried on with it, and then all the sudden I got this offer from a guy named Glen South, who had a small band with a brass section, and he had gigs at some night clubs that were run by a company called Mecca—they’re still there in England—and they used to have them in every city pretty much, and it was a full-time job, and I took it. And while I was doing that job I realized for the first time that I was a professional musician. But right while I was playing in that band, that’s when I thought about trying to become a musician as a way of making a living. It was really just a hobby that took off. The foremost thing was not for me to do something so I could make money at it, and maybe that’s why I never really learned how to read very well or anything, because then I might end up in the studio world, perhaps, and I’m not sure that I would enjoy that, either. That would be like a job then. I always wanted music to be not a job. So I just feel incredibly fortunate that I ended up surviving doing something that I really love. Involved in a world that I really love. So maybe part of it is that I never really feel that I’m a real musician. Maybe there’s some subconscious thing going on in my head … I don’t really know what it is, it just that people ask me about things, like, “What do you think about that DVD that you guys did?” And I respond that I haven’t seen it. And I probably won’t, because I’m afraid that if I see it I’ll just put the guitar down, and I don’t want to feel like I’ll just put the guitar down, and that’s why I really hate going back and listening to live stuff. I know I’m going to probably hate it, sometimes to the point where I don’t want to play.
I’d like to go back even further into your past. What made you want to play guitar in the first place?
I didn’t want to play the guitar. I wanted a saxophone or a violin, but they weren’t easy to come by. My parents didn’t have much money, but my father bought a guitar from my uncle and he gave that to me. My father was a great piano player and he knew, even from when I was really tiny, that I was really interested in music.
The guitar just sat in a chair for a long time, and eventually I started picking it up and noodling around with it. One day it seemed like my dad thought I was making a little bit of progress, and I was getting more interested in it. Then he went out and bought a bunch of guitar books, and started trying to help me with the guitar. So the fact that I play guitar is actually a giant accident.
You’ve mentioned your jazz and classical influences. What about your rock influences? When did you get the idea to incorporate rock influences into your music?
That came just by the fact that I couldn’t play anything else. When you first start out, you don’t just wake up one day playing like Joe Pass. I started out with what I could actually play. I started with pop music, and then I started playing in local blues bands because it was easier. And then I got interested in more different kinds of music as I progressed.
Since I didn’t really like the guitar because of its “percussive” sound, I got very excited when people like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton started using heavier distortion. I saw that I could get more sustain out of the guitar now.
R.V.B. - I glad you made out ok. Thank you for taking this time to speak with me. The guitar... you brought it to a new level. Was there any incident in your youth that made you want to become a guitar player?
A.H. - Not really. I had always loved music way before I ever touched an actual instrument. My dad played music all the time, as he was a really great pianist. I was surrounded by music. He had lots of great records... classical... jazz and other stuff. I wanted to play a horn - like a saxophone - but they were kind of expensive. My dad bought a guitar from my uncle and I started noodleing around on that. I wasn’t really interested in it at first but it kind of grew on me.
R.V.B. - What kind of things did you tackle at first?
A.H. - When you first start out, you can’t necessarily play what you want to play because you don’t have the skill. I had always liked jazz and classical music, but I couldn’t play it. I didn’t have the ability at that point so I just started playing pop music, and I also started playing blues.
R.V.B. - Jazz music influenced your guitar style. You’re known as a technical guy. At this point you were learning scales and mixing jazz in with it?
A.H. - I did a lot of homework on scales at that time.
The Final Interview: Allan Holdsworth Talks SynthAxes, Jaw-Dropping Solos and More (Guitar World 2017)
Your playing is the polar opposite of your fusion contemporary Al Di Meola. He pretty much picks every note. You don’t. Was there ever a time that you pursued a more standard way of playing guitar where you would utilize the plectrum more? —Jason Jenkins
When I first started playing, I plunked away just like everyone else. During the Sixties I played in a blues band for a few years, and I liked it. It wasn’t until I was playing for a while that I made the decision to change my style from a percussive to more of a legato approach. I just wanted a different sound.
Early on in your solo career, you became very closely associated with the Synthaxe. What piqued your initial interest in that instrument?
It went back really far into my childhood, actually. Because I always wanted to play a horn or a violin or something where you could shape a note, as opposed to the guitar which is basically a percussion instrument. And I always tried to get the guitar to sound like it wasn’t a percussion instrument.
When the Synthaxe came along, it opened the door to not only different textures and sounds that were unavailable on the guitar, but with the use of the breath control, I could do all the things that I wanted to do if I had been a horn player of some sort. I learned a lot from just playing that instrument. I still use it a lot in the studio; for the stuff I’m working on now, it has probably ended up on every track.
Your early influences were the ambitious end of classical music: Stravinsky, Bartok and the like. When you were young, did pop music filter its way into your musical sensibility?
My dad was a piano player, a really good pianist, in fact. He had lots of records around: they were mostly jazz records. But you don’t wake up one day and sound like Django Reinhardt, so I decided to learn to play some of the pop music that I could play. And once I could, my interest in that music faded away. So pop music was just a starting point, although I still listen to all kinds of music.