Legato Land (Guitar Techniques 1996)
Guitar Techniques, December 1996
After a series of customary record company problems, the extraordinary instrumentalist from Yorkshire (currently residing in Southern California) is back with a new album, aptly titled 'None Too Soon'. Cliff Douse gets the beers in...
For more than two decades Allan Holdsworth has been exciting guitar players and music lovers alike with his spectacular chord voicings and smooth, yet often angular solo lines. Although embellished with lightning speed runs, his style exudes a warmth and depth of expression that is often missing in the playing of most 'technically oriented' guitar players.
Allan first came to prominence during the mid-70s with popular jazz rock acts such as Tony Williams' Lifetime and Soft Machine. His legato approach, contrasting greatly with the heavier pick styles of Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin, soon drew praise from the likes of Eddie Van Halen and Gary Moore, to name but two. He quickly became one of the most sought after guitarists during the late 70s, appearing on Bruford's 'One Of A Kind', Jean-Luc Ponty's 'Enigmatic Ocean' and the first UK album, all widely regarded as fusion classics. He formed his own band, IOU (named after the group's financial status), in 1982 and has since worked on a number of critically acclaimed solo projects, despite recurring record company problems. His new album 'None Too Soon' seems to be no exception to the rule...
"I had a lot of problems with the record company. I was signed to a certain company for a world deal. I delivered the album in January and it was released in Japan in May. Then they informed me that they weren't going to release it anywhere else in the world just because one guy didn't like the music! I have only just managed to get the rights back for the rest of the world. The album is now out in Europe and it will be released in America by the end of October. This really is a drag as the album was recorded in October of 1994. It seems to be the story of my life!"
'None Too Soon' is an unusual Holdsworth album in that none of the tunes were penned by the man himself. It features compositions by jazzers such as John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Bill Evans instead.
"It's not a trad album. It's a bebop album, but with a wrench or two in there. I've got Gordon Beck on piano, and there's Gary Willis on bass and Kirk Covington on drums. I think it turned out pretty good and we'll probably end up doing another, but we'll use real piano next time, as poor old Gordon had to deal with a digital one -something he's not used to at all!"
There are other surprises on the album, such as the jazzed up instrumental version of the Beatles' Norwegian Wood, and a strangely lilting cover of Django Reinhardt's jazz classic Nuages.
"What I wanted to do was my own rendition of something Django had done, rather than try to do something in a way that he might have done it, which I couldn't do anyway. For the introduction I just took and reharmonised the middle section. Then we just played over the sequence and the melody actually comes at the end. Django was always one of my main inspirations when I was younger. My dad used to have lots of Django records and I thought he was absolutely amazing.
"There's something special about those older players. I notice this when I listen to Charlie Parker records. Other bebop players have refined it all since then, but it's been cleaned up and it just doesn't have the vibe that it used to have. It used to have a mystery about it before they figured out how to do it. It's that mystery kind of thing in music that really excites me.
"There's that Japanese way of doing something, where they take something that's already been done and try to figure out a way to improve on it. A lot of musicians do that and they do it really well. They can play a lot of different styles - a lot better than I could - but that wouldn't have any meaning to me, because I wouldn't feel like I had achieved anything by doing that sort of thing. I think those people don't realise that they'll never, ever be able to get what they were after in the first place, because the thing that attracted them to whoever it was that they were trying to study, the most important part, is the part that they'll never get. That's the 'unknown' thing. It was never predictable for the guy who was playing it in the first place, but it does become predictable when somebody's copying something, because they're looking at it from the outside."
Allan has got through a number of guitars and amps during his long career. What equipment was used on 'None Too Soon' and what gear does he currently use?
"I was mainly playing my Steinbergers through a couple of Mesa Boogies, one of which is a Dual Rectifier, although I've actually switched to Carvin guitars just recently. Bunny Brunel (bass player, ex-Chick Corea) came over with this amazing Carvin bass guitar. I know they always had this reputation of doing high quality guitars at a lower price and all that stuff, but this guitar was really pretty amazing. Bunny suggested that I talk to them and see if they would make me an instrument. It turned out that they were interested in doing a special one-off custom guitar, but the bottom line was that if they weren't able to make a guitar that I was going to play, then it was no deal. So they came up with several prototypes and they kept changing them and modifying them. I got two of the 1 advanced prototypes just a few days ago and they're absolutely amazing. I'm really happy with them, so that's what I'm going to be playing from now on. I used one for a recording yesterday and it sounded great!"
Although Allan has been associated with a number of different guitars and amps over the years, his passion for The Synthaxe guitar synthesiser remains undiminished.
"I had a guitar that had a Roland pickup on it for a while, years before I played the Synthaxe, but I didn't like the 'pitch to glitch' I was getting. You know, the spurious blurting and stuff, especially if you played a percussive patch like a piano or a xylophone. So I spoke to Tom Mulhearn [sic], who was writing for Guitar Player magazine over in America at the time, and asked if he knew of any synthesiser controller that didn't use pitch. He called me back a few months later and told me there's this company called Synthaxe and they're in England. So when I was over in England again I went over to see them and check it out and I just fell in love with it. The key pad part of it was, in my opinion, a stroke of genius. In fact, for me they could have almost got rid of the trigger strings and had a new instrument that had a neck like a guitar, but all of the strings would be triggered from the keys. I used to like it because I didn't think about the guitar when I was playing it.
"It amazed me how many guitar players would pick up the Synthaxe and say, Can you make it sound like a guitar? I'd just stand there, tearing my hair out going, Yeah, yeah, spend $10,000 on something and make it sound like a $500 Strat! [laughs] With the Synthaxe, I just wanted an instrument that I could really control. I didn't really have it down in the beginning. I'd first used it on 'Atavachron' and I'd waited until I got the Synthaxe before I started writing the music. I now realise that I shouldn't really have done that. On 'Sand' I started using the breath controller and found a way to make it sound like me. I had always wanted to play the saxophone and so the breath controller brought me closer to what I want to do than the guitar can. In many ways the Synthaxe liberated me from that sound, you know, having to use distortion to get sustain. I absolutely hate distortion, but I have to use it to get sustain. It's like a necessary evil. I hate all of the spurious sounds that are in betwee n the notes when you've got your amplifier cranked up. With the Synthaxe there was none of that. It was totally clean and I could take a note out from nothing and blow it out to maximum velocity and bring it all the way down to nothing again. I just wish I could do that on a guitar."
It is interesting that Holdsworth's dislike of distortion is responsible for his warm guitar tone, a complete contrast to the harsh overdriven sounds used by most rock guitarists. The man clearly pays a lot of attention to how his guitar sounds.
"Tone affects people quite differently. I'm very affected by it if it doesn't sound good, but I know other people who are not. Their sound could be, let's say, less than perfect, but they can play right through it, as if it's not there. Actually, I wish I could do that, because if I have a bad sound, I can't get past it. If I play the first note at a gig and it sounds horrible, I think, My God, I don't want to hear another note! I think that to do otherwise is to show a certain insensitivity.
"The sound is so important to me, although sometimes I can get on stage and absolutely nothing will go right. If it goes wrong at the beginning of the gig, I am personally doomed. The further I can get into the gig without doing something wrong, the more relaxed I'll get. I'm always really afraid because I don't feel that comfortable standing up on stage. I enjoy playing, but there's the other aspect of it that I don't like. It's an inability to be able to concentrate and I'll think so heavily about what's gone wrong."
There are many fantastic guitar players out there at the moment. Are there any that Allan particularly enjoys listening to or playing with?
"Oh, there's so many good guitar players out there I get scared to go anywhere now. But really, I just like anybody who does anything that's different - anyone with a voice. I believe that an instrument is just a tool in order for a musician to make music. I never really listen for the guitar, I just like to listen to musicians, so it doesn't really matter which instrument they play. But occasionally I'll hear something with some great guitar playing by someone like, say, John Scofield. There are so many amazing guitar players that I'd feel embarrassed to mention only one... which I just have [laughs].
"I prefer not to play with many other guitarists, with the exception of a very few players like Steve Topping, for instance, who has this amazing restraint, even though he's got the ability to do all kinds of stuff. Most of the time when you get guys together who play the guitar, they'll just be going at it and it'll be like a swordfight on stage."
Allan's tunes often feature unusual melodic concepts and strange chord progressions. How on earth does he compose this sort of music?
"Sometimes I get an idea when I'm out on my bike and I'll come back and try to find it on the guitar. Other times I'd just be noodling and I'll come up with something and write it out. On other occasions I just force myself to come up with something if I feel the need to write some
times I can go for months without writing anything. I don't think I've ever written anything in a day. For instance, there was a tune on 'Wardenclyffe Tower' called Sphere Of Innocence. I had 80 to 90 percent of that tune complete, but it took about a year to finish because I couldn't find a way to make the tune resolve itself in a way that I liked. And then one day I just came up with this idea and I got it to modulate in a way that I wanted it to, so I thought, Oh, it's finished. Great!
"I think the most common way for me to compose is to start with a chord progression; sometimes I hear the melody and the chords as one thing - the harmony moving inside the chord like a multiple melody. That's how I hear things. In a lot of music you hear the melody and the chords are underneath, but I like to make up chords that work as a three dimensional melody. It's all happening at once."
Does he have a favourite album out of the ones he's recorded?
"I usually end up liking the last one, but I think I'm most pleased with 'Hard Hat Area' and 'Secrets'. The problem with me is, as soon as I go back and listen to something that I played it all sounds really old and I can hear all the things I was trying to do but couldn't. And I think that's a good sign, as it's what keeps me going. If I listened to an album and thought it was good, then I'd realise that maybe it's time to get another job. What worries me a little now is that I've started to feel something happening where I've developed a way of hearing things that are really, really difficult for me to play. It's the most frustrating thing in the world to be playing a solo and this idea's in my head, but it's not in my hands. I'll start doing things like that and then I'll crash because I haven't got the chops to do it! I don't know - maybe I just need to go back to the drawing board and practise for a while."
Is he kidding? Anyway, the handpump on the cover of his latest album implies that Mr Holdsworth is still taking his beer seriously...
"Oh yeah, I'm afraid so [laughs], much to my waistline's disgust! When I first came to America I couldn't stand the cold, fizzy stuff, so we came up with a device which we call 'The Fizzbuster', which we place between a conventional pressurised American keg and a vacuum pump, in order to pull up beautiful pints of ale. You can just take a keg of some good American beer and put it through this and you get a beautiful creamy head. When Gordon Beck (keyboardist) came over to California and we were working on the album, we'd play most of the day and then at about 7pm we'd go back to my laundry room and pull up a couple of pints of 'English' ale. We'd just sit there and we'd think, Jesus, the California sun is shining and we've got some ale! That's what that little handpump joke at the end of the album is all about. I brought most of the things I like along with me and there's a part of England in my laundry room!"