During that last year or so with Charvel, I was approached by the Ibanez staff. They seemed interested in my ideas, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for Charvel to make the necessary changes I sought. Ibanez came up with four or five prototypes, and each one was better than the one before. They were able to make the necessary refinements, and consequently they came up with a guitar superior to any I'd previously owned.
So I made a decision to change because I have to keep moving. It was nothing personal because Grover's guitars are great. But I decided Ibanez could make a guitar that was closer to what I sought. Eventually they came up with the one I now have. It has the neck dimensions I like, the high Jim Dunlop frets, a very light body, and the tremolo is great. It's not directly screwed on, but it pivots on a metal plate, and it sounds better.
Paul Williams is always the guy I've trusted when I've asked him about the guitar sound. I guess I've known him for such a long time that he's come to know exactly what I sound like. Every time I tested a guitar, I'd ask him and he'd always say, "No - the red Charvel; sorry - play the red Charvel..." I couldn't believe it when I played the Ibanez during one gig in New York. I was a bit scared to play it, and I was only going to play it for one tune, but I liked it so much that I played it for the rest of the tour. The next day at the sound check, Paul heard it, and he said, "Play the Ibanez," because it sounded better. That was a wonderful achievement because the Charvel was difficult to beat. The bottom line with Ibanez was they knew I wouldn't play their guitar unless they made me a better one than I already had. In fact, the green one I have is a production model, and it was so good that I persuaded them to let me have it. To me it was a step forward, and I'm going to be working with them in the future to take it even further. I'd like to make it a different shape, etc.
I hear you’ve got a rather interesting new guitar, would you like to tell us something about it?
Well, until about a year ago I was using a Charvel guitar, very similar to a Stratocaster, which was built for me by Graver Jackson of the Charvel manufacturing company out in California.
Then, about a year ago, Ibanez said they would be interested in making a guitar to my specific design. So, we took all the things that I’d learned over the years, including the time in England, when my ‘main man’ was Dick Knight, along with his son-in-law Gordon, and they were marvellous to me. They gave me greatly reduced bills when I wasn’t working, and Dick helped me experiment with different woods. One of the things I found was that I loved the sound of light guitars.
Grover had made me some guitars out of Basswood, which is a really lightweight, resonant wood used for making furniture - drawers and things. It’s very unaffected and doesn’t absorb moisture easily, so it’s ideal for painting. It’s a very sonorous wood and I love the sound of it.
We used a quarter-sawn Maple neck with Ebony fingerboard, an inch and eleven sixteenths at the nut to two and a quarter inches at the body, with a seventeen inch radius on the fingerboard -so it’s very flat. I’ve been using Jim Dunlop 60/J 00 frets, which are very high; I like them to go right to the very edge of the fingerboard and cut quite steeply. Ibanez made about six different guitars and each one was progressively better than the one before until, about six months ago, when they gave me a guitar which was absolutely marvellous, the best guitar I’ve ever owned.
They then decided that they were actually going to produce this guitar, which is great. The funniest thing was that at the NAMM show, when they brought one of the first production models for me to have a look at, it was so good, I managed to blag them into letting me have it. They tell me that they’re weighing the individual bodies and, if they are over or under a certain weight they are not getting through. I think it’s marvellous for such a big company to go to those extremes.
One of the original prototypes didn’t have a scratchplate and the pickup was mounted directly onto the body. We took that very same guitar, hollowed out a cavity down the middle and put a scratchplate on it, with a single humbucker. It improved the sound by at least 60%! The other great thing is that, because there’s a cavity, you can use any pickup configuration you like, mounted on a scratchplate and don’t have to do any hacking!
After a longstanding relationship with Charvel guitars, he’s switched over to Ibanez. "They designed a guitar for me, the Ibanez AH-10, which we worked on together for over a year. They almost gave up on me in the end because I kept demanding so many changes. But I’m really pleased with what they eventually got. The guitars I’ve got now are the best instruments I’ve ever owned. It’s very light wood for maximum sustain. It’s more expressive than anything I’ve ever played before!’
GW: Throughout the years, you’ve played SG’s, Strats, Charvels. What about acoustics? What did you use on your really early work?
HOLDSWORTH: Actually; I didn’t have an acoustic guitar; I borrowed one from Tony Williams’ girlfriend at the time, Tequila, who sang on some of those older albums he did right before Believe It. She had an old acoustic guitar and I used that.
I never really owned an acoustic guitar. For a while, I had an Ibanez copy of a Gibson L5 that I used on the UK album. I love F-hole guitars; the only acoustic guitar I’d ever really like to own would be a really really great acoustic F-hole - you know, no pickups, just a really nice one, but they’re so expensive, and for someone who has such limited use of that instrument, it doesn’t warrant the amount of money that I’d have to spend on it. For three or four thousand dollars, I could buy another synthesizer [laughs very loudly].
GW: So you don’t presently own an acoustic?
HOLDSWORTH: Yeah, I do. I own one custom - made guitar built by Bill DeLap, which is beautiful. It’s a five-string guitar, tuned in fifths. I like that tuning [C,G,D,A,E, low to high]; it’s a really logical tuning to me. The guitar’s standard tuning is really illogical, and if I were starting again… if I hadn’t had so much trouble trying to figure out how to get round the B string, I’d probably have learned to tune like Stanley Jordan, in fourths, to C and F [for the two highest strings]. That’s the most logical tuning.
GW: Did you start experimenting with tunings on the acoustic guitar?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, I started working on it with the SynthAxe, just because it has very great limitations on acoustic instruments; you can only really effectively get four strings tuned in fifths to sound good. You can get five to sound borderline, but six - impossible. Well, nothing’s impossible, is it? But it’s much more difficult with an acoustic instrument, because you’d have to have an instrument as small as a violin and as big as a bass. With the SynthAxe, you don’t have that problem, because you’re just reaming little synthesizers and oscillators.
Although certain of his older instruments have been sold due to space limitations, the disregarded relics of Allan’s guitar-development heyday pepper areas of the Holdsworth homestead in and around the Brewery. A mutated prototype of Allan’s signature Ibanez model leans, forgotten, behind the patio door, while other parts and portions of guitars, amplifiers and innovations-in-progress can be found just about anywhere else one glances. Beside a dormant Battle Zone arcade machine sits one of Allan’s latest and proudest, a soundproof enclosure containing sliding speaker rigs and microphone fixtures, designed to provide a clinical, sonically consistent recording environment for live guitar tracks.
Guitar fanatics showed up two hours early for his recent show at New York’s Bottom Line, scrambling for front row seats in order to better trace the paths of his fingers flying tip and down the neck. They howled at the announcement of each number and nearly levitated off the floor during Holdsworth’s solo excursions. Bassist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Chad Wackerman propelled things along as Allan switched modes from song to song - first the Steinberger, next the SynthAxe, back to the Steinberger and so on. Curiously, he never touched his patented Ibanez AH-I0 guitar. Backstage, Holdsworth talked about his recent conversion to Steinberger guitars.
"When I first played the Steinberger it felt kind of strange because it was so little and it kind of moved around, but after I got used to its size I started to like it more and more. There’s something in the consistency of that instrument that I like. You can take two Steinbergers off the rack anywhere and play them and they sound the same. Whereas, a wooden machine you can’t find two that sound alike. Every piece of wood varies so much. The first one that Ibanez made for me was a great guitar, but they’ve made eight or nine for me since, but they never found another piece of wood that was as good as that first one. But I’m not going to give op on wood because I’m still working with Ibanez. Now I’m trying to get them to make their guitars out of laminates. It just makes the thing so stable and, from that respect, very controllable."
MM: So there you go fellows, the guitars he plays are EXACTLY like the ones you can buy. He doesn’t sell out.
AH: Well, I did do a deal with Ibanez a long time ago where my guitar was built by someone else and the production models were hit and miss, but that’s the last time I did something like that and my deal with Carvin stipulated that they all be up to my standards—so I could go in and get one from a store and it be exactly the same. Carvin and I agreed to do a guitar based on my specs and they asked if I liked it if they could produce it…if I didn’t like it I would just keep the one guitar, but if I did like it, they would produce it. It’s worked out pretty well, really. As a matter of fact, I’ve got some ideas for a new one with a tremolo cause I miss having a tremolo sometimes.