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.
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.
I hear you’re getting a special neck - or necks - made for your SynthAxe...
Well, as you know, I love the SynthAxe and it’s opened up a whole new world for me - taken me out of the little guitar world - and in conjunction with that breath controller it’s just great. The only thing I ever felt that was wrong with it - and it wasn’t wrong in concept, because I think the idea is still a good one - was that the frets were too big. I think Bill Aitken originally specified how the frets were going to be and the idea of having the frets linearly spaced, as opposed to like they are on an acoustic instrument, is great because there’s no reason for them to be any size at all. But I do think the only mistake was that they were too big, because I could play certain chords and things on the guitar that I can’t even reach on the SynthAxe so it’s kind of limited my vocabulary in some ways, taking out those things which I could do on the guitar but cannot do on the Axe.
Now I’m trying to have two custom necks made with the same linear spacing, in as much as they won’t be spaced how they are on a guitar, but they’ll be spaced like they are on a regular SynthAxe only 21% smaller.
How did you arrive at 21%?
Well, what happened was Alec Stansfield from SynthAxe, came out to the States and worked with us when we were doing some SynthAxe demos and I talked to him in detail about it. They kept having people saying ‘It doesn’t feel like this’, ‘It doesn’t feel like that’, and I thought although it’s silly to have it exactly like a guitar - because there’s no reason for it to be - it still shouldn’t be any harder to play than a real guitar. And it was!
So I just said why don’t they make it easier, so that I can play I things that I couldn’t play on the I guitar, as opposed to the other way around. So I figured that 25% would be a really good reduction in length, because that would make the neck really small, like rabbiting around on a violin. But obviously there’s a minimum space between the frets before it starts causing problems electrically, so what Alec did was he figured out the closest you could get the 23rd and 24th frets without getting problems, and it turned out that it was 21% smaller than the existing Axe. So that’s what I’m going for.
‘I’m really over the moon with these Steinberger guitars. The necks are specially made for me. They’re made with no relief, ‘cause I’ve never believed in that. I don’t believe in that theory at all. It doesn’t make sense. I know why they did it on old acoustic guitars with a big action, just because the string where it vibrates the most in the middle is more likely to buzz. But it causes problems all over the guitar. The best way to me is to take two straight lines; so the neck’s made with no relief, and it’s got a 20in radius, so it’s really flat, and Jim Dunlop 6000 frets, so they’re really high. There’s something about the guitar when the neck’s got an underbow in it, it feels soggy in the middle.’
The necks were also a bonus in that they feel very large and rounded, almost like half a baseball bat. The flatter necks you get on modern guitars don’t really suit my playing. I cant seem to grip a neck properly if it’s insubstantial."
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.