Holdsworth & Co. A New Side Of Allan’s Music. (Guitar 1980)
HOLDSWORTH & CO. A new side of Allan’s music Guitar, April 1980 Story: John Dalton
Although he is known to most electric guitar fans, and regarded by many as one of the world's best and most distinctive guitarists, Allan Holdsworth has never achieved a widespread popularity or success. The main reason is that apart from occasional gigs with the nebulous Allan Holdsworth Quartet, he has always played in other people's bands, notably UK, Tony William's Lifetime, the Bill Bruford Band and Soft Machine. This year sees the beginning of a new project which may do much to change that - a trio called Holdsworth & Co in which Allan will play guitar and sing, Gary Husband will play drums and piano, and the bassist will be a player whose name we cannot divulge for contractual reasons, but who is at present playing in another well known band. Allan is very excited about Holdsworth & Co, as he feels it will enable him to show a hitherto unknown side of his playing and music. He played us a demo tape recorded with Jack Bruce and Jon Hiseman of tunes the band will perform, numbers in which the balance of strong melody and instrumental ability is well maintained, and featuring some beautiful chordal work from Allan, as well as his unique ability to play fast legato passages. He says that Holdsworth & Co will sound different but certainly as good, and they commence a European and British tour in Hamburg on April 8. They will release an album later in the year, perhaps on ECM.
Included in this feature is one of Allan's solos from In The Dead Of Night on the first UK album (Polydor 2302080), transcribed by Berklee student and guitarist Steve Vai, the 19 years-old player mentioned by Frank Zappa last month (and wrongly transcribed as Steve Bye).
We spoke to Allan at his London home as he prepared for the tour, and began by asking about Holdsworth & Co's music.
Can you describe the music you're working on?
It’s very hard to describe music. I think it's very original, and the guys I play with are fantastic.
Has it opened up new areas in your guitar playing?
Yes, it has. One of the reasons I wanted to play in a three-piece - not for ever obviously, because it has certain limitations - is because I wanted to use another side of my playing which no-one ever really gets a chance to hear. With this band I'm doing all the stuff that people normally never ask me to do. If I play on someone's record they usually just ask me to play a solo and that's all, but there are other things I really like to do which I never get the opportunity to do. I could have done it a bit more with Bill (Bruford) except for the fact that he seemed to prefer the sound of synthesizer to guitar anyway. There are certain tunes where I'd like to have played accompaniment parts, but for reasons known only to him he preferred the synth thing. That's something I've got really tired of, that curtain of sound over everything all the time. You get this backwash and it never stops, everything is built onto this blanket of sound. There are occasions when it can be beautiful - there are a couple of tunes on Bill's last album where it was nice - but l just wanted to break loose from all that and play the music that I've been working on for a long time. There's more space in this music because it's a three-piece, but I'm also working a lot harder than normal. It came about when I had a blow with Jack Bruce and Jon Hiseman, and we were toying with the idea of trying to get that team together, but it came unstuck because we all had different problems at the same time. We made a demo at a studio during a couple of evenings and turned out half an album. I enjoyed it so much, it triggered the idea of a three-piece, and I knew that's what I'd like to do. It's taken a long time to sort out, and we're off now, hopefully.
Do you think the three-piece format still has a lot to offer?
Oh yes, absolutely, it's going to keep on changing. There are certain things in the music I write that I'd like to hear other instruments on. Sometimes when I'm soloing I'm not actually able to accompany myself, and that's something I try to incorporate into the writing, so that those sections stand up without chords, and have a lot of movement going on. There's none of that modal one-chord stuff at all yet. We're also including some almost free improvised pieces. It's all new material.
What has happened to the Allan Holdsworth Quartet?
That was never a real group, because we only used to do one-off gigs, and there were different guys in the band every time. We never had a repertoire as such, and I got really sick of it, playing in front of people after working out tunes 10 minutes beforehand. I got tired of that and wanted to be more organised, and I think a three-piece is the most direct way to get to it, in the beginning anyway, even if we add to it later. It's very direct, and definitely heading in a specific direction, although I couldn't explain what that is. I feel that I've been living for it in a way.
Do you look upon it as a band which could make lots of albums?
I'd like to think so, and I'd like to augment it on record on certain tracks. I just want to be in control, and that's as close as you can get, but you also have to take all the responsibilities as well. I'm not saying the others don't have responsibilities, because the way they play is great, but the most important thing is that it's an opportunity to play things nobody's ever heard me play before.
What's the current situation with ECM?
Well they've expressed an interest, and Manfred Eicher has said he'd like to record the band, but first he wants to hear what we're up to, although he is familiar with what I've done before.
What sort of equipment will you be using live with the trio?
Well I've got a really good set-up at the moment. I've had a lot of trouble finding it, and started experimenting with it in UK, although that was stone-age compared to how it is now. I was using one 50 watt Marshall amp and a couple of 4X12 cabinets, and that was alright for solos but every time I played a chord it just wouldn't hack it. I tried a couple of other amps, to switch between for chords and solos, and that didn't work either, and it really began to worry me. If I played on my own at home could play all the things I liked. but it just wouldn't work when it was loud, the chords would disintegrate. So I've just been experimenting and getting closer and closer to what I want. I'm still looking, but what I've got at the moment is two of the Lab Series L5 amps for chords, because I found they were very clean and strong sounding. Rather than have a 200 watt amp I though [sic] I'd have two 100's and have a little more spread, and there's a close delay between them to give a stereo effect. I really like the L5's, although I find they're not quite up to it for the single line sound I’m used to, but then I've never found a transistor amp that is, except for a new amp, which I'll describe in a minute. My set-up is basically the two L5's linked with the close delay, and I plug my guitar into a little routing box which sends the signal between what was originally the Marshall 50 watt and the two Labs. I then found I could get a more controllable sound by using a Burman 50 watt amp, a Pro 501. It was originally a combo but Mr. Burman kindly made me a head which I used with the Marshall cabs, and that worked really well. And then came the killer of all time. Two guys from Sheffield, Pete Hartley and Pete Thompson, turned up while I was on tour with Bill, and they said they liked the sound that I made and that if they could make a transistor amp that satisfied me then they might be able to convince a few other people. So, I tried it and it was really excellent, but still fell a little bit short for me. They took it away, worked on it and brought it back, and it was getting better and better every time. Their standard model is a 2X12 combo but with an unusual shape, like a cheese-wedge. It has one input, is all transistor, and has two volume controls, a red channel and a green channel, and you can set them for a clean or dirty sound, the usual thing. With valve amps, like Boogies, I've always found in that situation that they don't work, because to get a sound out of the amp anyway I find I have to push the output, and if you turn the pre-amp up and the master down you just get that horrible distorted fuzz-box sound. To get any sort of sound out of it you had to turn it right up, which completely defeated the object of having two inputs on it - if you wanted to play chords you couldn't play loud. lt would be just like having two 50 watt amps and setting one up for a dirty sound and one for a clean sound, and I couldn't do that because I’d be driving the amp for single notes so hard the other one would never compete with it at all. So the Boogie was a total waste of time for me. Although the amp these guys have made is transistorised, they've found a way somehow, using magic parts or something, to make it sound fantastic, and it's absolutely incredible to me that I'm now using a completely transistorised set-up. That Hartley-Thompson transistor amp sounds as good as if not better than any valve amp I've ever played, honestly, and that's an incredible achievement. It doesn't have a conventional pre-amp and master volume; you produce the sound with the first volume and all the second one does is turn it up or down, without any tonal distortion or anything. There's no conventional overdriving system. It's the same on the red channel and the green channel, and you can set the master volume controls for chords and single lines, and it really does work, with very clean chords. Since then they've improved it with two separate devices for the red and green channels, and it's really amazing. The only reason I'm not using just that one package is because I've really got hooked on the multiple amp system and the spaciousness of it all. The Hartley-Thompson amp that I'm using is set for two different lead sounds, so I can switch between them. If I change pickups, like from the front to the back, I like to change the tone settings on the amp, which you can't do normally, but I can do that with this amp and switch between the two lead sounds, and then with the routing box I can switch to the Lab amps. It's got me reeling in a way because I always thought I understood a little bit about amps, and I'm completely baffled now as to why I like this one so much. It's got me worried in a way too, because I always like to know how a thing works, even if it's only very basically. I've messed about with practically every amp I've had, and know within 10 or 15 per cent what results I'm going to get, but all this transistorised solid-state is totally alien to me, I've got no understanding of it at all. The fact that I've got this transistor amp and am relying on it and not knowing how it works is a bit unsettling. I think I'll have to go and stay with those guys and get them to do a little number on me. For me the amp is like the body of the guitar, the part of it which speaks. The guitar itself is incredibly important, but not so important as the amp. I could play a pretty gruesome guitar through a reasonable amp and guarantee a better sound than if I played a really good guitar through a duff amp. It's just an extension of the guitar, although for many players it's just an afterthought, which is just fine, but it's not way I feel about it.
Have you had the same struggle to get a guitar you're really happy with?
I've always gone through a lot of equipment in a continual search for things, and that process has slowed me down over the years as I've got nearer the mark. There was a time when I tried loads of guitars, but I don't think I'll be changing too many things on guitars in the future. I now have one Strat with a Boogie body and a Dick Knight neck, and that's the newest one. The other Strat is the nicest one, the dark one, and it's older and has been played more. That's an original Fender that I bought when I was working with Tony Williams, and I got it for 300 dollars including case, about £150. It was fairly new one with quite a narrow nut, and being so cheap and fairly nasty I decided to take the neck off and sell it. With the money from that I had Dick Knight make one for me. I had a few teething problems with that but he's sorted them out now. I also had two Gibson humbuckers which I took off a couple of SG Customs - over the years I've built up quite a collection of old PAF's from the centre position of SG's - and they are what I put on that Strat, and I really liked the sound. I'd always fancied the idea of putting Gibson pickups on a Fender guitar because there's something about the guitar I liked, the long scale length. It seemed that the strings rang a lot more. I also noticed that if you put the Fender pickups a long way from the strings that horrible harmonic caused by the powerful magnets disappeared. When I put the old PAF's on the balance seemed just right between the power of the magnets, the amount of windings on the coil and the fact of being humbucking, which I liked for obvious reasons- they also didn't affect the string movement. I've found that a lot of the very powerful pickups, the Super Distortions and so on, have an incredible effect on the way the guitar sounds to me acoustically, and I didn't like that. If you use thin strings like I do these pickups practically stop them from vibrating, and when you've got to a point like that it's pretty ridiculous. I think there'll be a swing back soon to pickups that actually sound better rather than having lots of volume. With amps the way they are these days who needs hot pickups? They'll probably find a less Mickey Mouse way of amplifying strings than bobbins and magnets anyway eventually. It's like loudspeakers, you've got all these thousand [sic] of pounds of equipment and at one end you've got a little magnet on the guitar and at the other end you've got a big magnet and a piece of paper. It's very strange. That side of it has been the same for many years and they haven't improved on it. Like those high-output pickups: The sound of a lot of them is pretty disgusting, and I'm looking forward to the guys who are going to make the better sounding ones.
Why do you think the old Gibson pickups sound so good?
I don't know really. I was a bit confused about that because I put those DiMarzio PAF's on both my Strats now, and like the sound of them very much. I had a funny experience the other day with this guitar that Dick made, on which I had two DiMarzio PAF's. I also had an old Gibson PAF and a humbucker lying about, and so I tried them to find the difference between the Gibson and Di Marzio PAF's. Although there had never seemed much difference before, this time there was, and the DiMarzio sounded much thinner in comparison. Perhaps it was faulty. When I put the other Gibson pickup on that sounded good as well. Gibson say there's no difference between the old ones and new ones.
There's a lot of things people don't understand. The guys who built me the amp have a strange balance of science and checking by ear. You usually get the boffin who's working everything out mathematically so that in theory it should be perfect, and as often as not it doesn't sound very good. One of the guys made a speaker cabinet for me, because I like the sound of the angle-fronted Marshall 4X12 cabinets very much, and also the Fender 2X12 cabinets. As I said, their cabinets are cheese-wedge shaped, so he measured the cubic capacity of the Fender cabinet and made a Wedge shaped cabinet with the same volume and same speakers, and the difference was quite incredible. It was amazing how the shape affected the sound, although that particular thing wasn't as good. It sounded brighter.
You’re one of the few players today who use a tremolo arm. Why is that?
Yes, well most people take them off don't they. Hendrix did a lot of things with it, and Ollie Halsall did a lot of interesting things with it too. He sort of fired me off really, because he took it one stage further. It's just a device, and doesn't really affect the way you play. The way I play has been a natural progression. Since I started I always played legatos, probably out of ignorance and partially because I wanted to play a horn - l didn't want to play a guitar in the first place. Before I realised it was doing it. I went through a stage where I wanted to stop playing legato, when I thought this is wrong, something’s weird. I worked hard to make the notes even, but it's pretty hard to do because you always get the difference in volume between the notes you hit and those you don't. I used the tremolo because I was interested in the vocal sound, and the way the tremolo could manipulate pitch. Everything goes through stages, and now I don't use it as much as I used to. It's finding its way out of my playing and just comes out occasionally. I look upon it just as if someone uses a phase-shifter, or some new device that comes out. After a few months everybody's using one anyway, so l tire of it.
Is the way your guitar is set-up very important to play the way you do?
Not really, because I've always tried to do what I do with acoustic guitars. It depends on how you set them up, but it's the same for any instrument. If you play saxophone you use the kind of reeds you like. But those things are never as important as what comes out in the end. I use thin strings, and I've experimented with all weights of strings. Sometimes thin strings are worse to play than thicker strings. There's an optimum balance for playing and a similar balance for sound, and I've always gone for the one that sounded right, even if it might not have felt quite right. Sometimes the string set-up feels a bit funny, a bit weightless in the middle, and when other people play it they go out of tune. It's a matter of getting used to them, and I like them because like the sound to really sing, like John McLaughlin on acoustic guitars - a beautiful singing sound from thin strings. Other guys do it with different gauge strings, but it's all relative to how you play the guitar, the natural balance between your right and left hands, the sound you hear in your head and the one you produce. I've had problems with acoustic guitars because I've never really owned a good one. The only time I play them is on records, and it's never been a priority to own one. I have a nice Ibanez acoustic cello guitar, and I liked the sound of it, but it has no volume. The top is so thick round the outside I suppose. Dick was explaining to me that it doesn't matter how thick it is in the belly of the guitar as long as it gets thinner towards the edge, so the top vibrates like a speaker. The Ibanez doesn't moνe, and when I put thin strings on it, it just doesn't operate. Other guitars, classical guitars for instance, put out an incredible volume. I'd like to find out the steel-string weights that are relative to the top of the guitar. I've searched for a long time with electric guitars to get the sound as near as possible to the sound in my head and it's hard. I've come close to it with acoustics on records when the engineer has been hip to all the problems, but I'd really like someone to make me a cello guitar with a very thin top, something that would probably collapse if you put telegraph poles on it. A guitar that would respond to the strings I like.
I have an old Gibson cello guitar, a Kalamazoo I think, made in 1938, and it's very loud for a cello guitar. It's in beautiful condition and has a very nice sound, and the Ibanez only puts out about half the sound yet is twice the size. I know that size doesn't make any difference anyway, because some over-size guitars sound terrible. I'd really like someone to make a lightly built guitar. Maybe something like a Maccaferri would do, because that was almost like a classical guitar. They feel quite light and put out a lot of volume, even those CSL ones. I find though that if someone is making something like a guitar or an amplifier they have to think about making it for everybody, and that's the thing that never seems to work out for people like me. The standard one is never quite right, there's always something I'd like to have done to it, which is why I'd like someone to make me an acoustic guitar.
Are you planning to use acoustic guitar with the trio?
Yes, I'd like to. I used to have one of those amplifiable Ovations, but I just didn't like the sound of it when it was plugged in. There was something nasty in the sound, and I hear something of the same character in that Yamaha electric piano. It's as though there's no sag or give in the sound, it's not elastic or woody . . . I don't really know how to describe it. A very hard sound. It sounded quite nice when I mixed the electric sound and a microphone sound, but when I tried that live a couple of times with UK it never worked, simply because I hated the electric sound so much and couldn't get the mike sound loud enough. With this band Gary will probably be using acoustic piano, so I won't be competing with huge amounts of volume.
Have you heard any new and interesting players recently?
Well the most interesting guy I've heard for ages is Steve Topping. He's a friend of Gary's and he's a fantastic player. It's ‘watch out all the imitators' because he's really doing something else and going off in another direction. We did a couple of gigs with him, sort of added him to the band, and we'll probably do that again in the future. His development shows an early interest in John McLaughlin, but he's gone further and channeled his own route from it. It’s one thing to pick up things from somebody, and then it's easy to just carry on chasing that guy, but with Steve I feel he's just listened to things for their musical value. He's a very inspiring player, yet I don't think he's playing with anybody or doing much at the moment. It's very encouraging because there are so many impersonators around, and l got very disillusioned trying to find a bass player - the world is full of miniature Jaco Pastorius’s That's why I like Steve Topping so much, because he's not only a fantastic guitar player but he's also cutting out a new hole for himself. It's the essence you should look for in music, not just what it sounds like. I really haven't seen that for a long time.
As we left we noticed Allan's gleaming racing bike leaning against a wall, a hobby and exercise he has recently returned to. ‘Yes, it's hard being a musician’, he said, ‘because you have to keep up cycling all the time. A little while ago I rode to Rochdale near Manchester, which is quite a long way, to see a friend of mine who's really into beer. After a good evening out l left at midnight and it took me 15 hours of riding to get home.’ Blanching at the thought of it, we realised that here was the secret behind those fast moving fingers.