No Secret (Guitar Extra 1992)
Guitar Extra, Summer 1992
Allan Holdsworth - the name alone strikes fear in the hearts of guitarists across the globe. Over the last two decades, Allan has pioneered a totally unique, virtuostic guitar style, redefining the language of jazz/fusion in terms of technique and sound and establishing himself as the archetype for an entirely new approach to the instrument. Constantly evolving musically, Allan creates music that is both strikingly beautiful and often incredibly complex. No guitarist since John McLaughlin has so successfully combined the power of rock with the intricacy and freedom of jazz. Veteran of such seminal progressive rock and jazz/fusion ensembles as Tempest, Soft Machine, Tony Williams Lifetime, Bruford, Jean Luc-Ponty and U.K., Allan has also served as a "sessionman deluxe," making countless guest appearances in a variety of situations, most recently contributing to Level 42's Guaranteed. The latest incarnation of his own band, I.O.U., features Skuly [sic] Sverrisson on bass and I.O.U veteran Chad Wackerm an on drums, and is on the verge of releasing a brand new album. In this interview, Allan discusses his roots and his philosophy on a life in music.
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: Did your parents push you to take piano lessons?
Allan: My father tried to get me interested in the piano, but it was really obvious that I had no interest in it. It wasn't that I didn't like the sound of it, it was just that I don't have any interest in that kind of instrument. Then I really started to like the saxophone, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane, who I heard on the Miles Davis albums. When I heard John Coltrane, I was really moved by it. Then I started going down to the record shop every Saturday-I'd go down in to town and buy an album, and I started buying all these John Coltrane albums. It was only four or five months after I discovered John Coltrane that I read in the paper that he died. It was a real shock because I guess when you're young and you've just discovered somebody, I felt like I really knew him. I just felt like he had a whole lot more left.
Q: Were you playing guitar at this point?
Allan: Yeah. I'd just started messing around with it, but I had no real interest in it. I wanted to play saxophone, but at the time, a saxophone was really expensive, and my mom and dad didn't have the money for it. He got me a guitar from an uncle who played guitar, and he left it laying around. It was just an old roundhole acoustic guitar.
Q: How did you learn your first chords?
Allan: From him, because he had a real understanding of the guitar - he knew where all the notes were, he knew where all the chords were. He couldn't play guitar himself, but he knew where everything was on the guitar, so he'd say, "Do this, do that, put your fingers here, put your fingers there." I didn't even want to learn it, because I'm a little bit stubborn, and I like to learn things on my own. I don't like to find out what somebody does and then have to ask him about it. I'd rather listen to it and then go and try to figure a way of my own to do it. By that time I was just noodling on the guitar a little bit, and before I knew it, I was in a local band, still with no intention of being a full time musician.
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: Was moving on to the sax ever a goal?
Allan: No. By that time I was stuck noodling with the guitar. In fact, I didn't think too far forward. I was just thinking it was a hobby, and that I really loved listening to music. It was listening to music that was more important to me than playing.
Q: After you first became aware of Coltrane and Miles Davis, what were some of the other records that you were listening to and really pouring over?
Allan: I went back to listening as soon as I learned a little bit more about guitar. I started listening all over again to all those Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Jimmy Raney albums. I was really a big fan of Jimmy Raney, because, although all of those guys are absolutely wonderful, there was just something about the sound of the guitar I didn't like. I didn't like that rubber band, dead-tape-wound-string sound, and Jimmy Raney always seemed to have a little bit more of a sparkle in his sound. It sounded a little bit more lively, like Charlie Christian's sound-more vocal, not so dumpy sounding. I realized that I wasn't happy with the sound of the guitar. I wanted to make it something else, but it happened so gradually, I didn't even realize I was playing the guitar. It was a hobby, like someone who rides a bike. I had no intention of trying to make 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.
Q: Did the English blues guitar players lie Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck have an influence on you?
Allan: Yeah. I was a big fan of Eric Clapton, especially in the beginning. I really liked the sound, because again, it was the sound. I thought, it doesn't sound like a normal guitar, its a little different. Since then it's been kind of a hell trying to squeeze a sound out of a guitar. Even now, I still don't like the guitar as an instrument to play. I like listening to other people play it, but it's not....everything I try to do with a guitar, the guitar doesn't want to do by nature, like I don't want to use distortion, but I have to use distortion to get the kind of sound I want, so then I have to figure out a way to make the distortion not so gnarly. I'm not really into that gnarly kind of sound anymore. It's like wanting your cake and eating it as well.
Q: Well, more so than anyone else, I think you've been able to get the sound of a blown instrument, and the fact that you've done it to the extent that you've done it is quite amazing. You're saying you haven't gotten there yet, as far as you're concerned?
Allan: No, because you can't. Some of the things I've tried to do, like changing the sound of the note after you've played it, is unbelievably hard to do on guitar. Where as on a bowed instrument, like a violin or a saxophone, it's really quite easy to shape the note after you've started it. With the guitar, percussive instrument that it is, the note is essentially over once you've picked it. I have always tried to use equipment and amplifiers where I can change the vowel sound, to change an "ooh" to an "aah", and stuff like that. For the solos, I wanted it to sound more like a horn, and for the chords, I use a volume pedal to sound more like a keyboard, and not so chinky. And I hate strumming, the sound of strumming drives me nuts. It's the same thing about how the guitar is kind of not the right instrument for me, but I'm too old to start worrying about another one.
Q: Isn't the attraction to amplified guitar the fact that it can afford so many different sounds and colors, that you can get a lot of different variances in tone quality, probably more so than on a violin or saxophone?
Allan: Essentially you can't though. There's no way that you can do that with a guitar what some guy can do with a bow. I know that from the Synthaxe, because I can do things on the Synthaxe that would be completely impossible on the guitar. I can play a note using a vibrato on it, make the note disappear, make the tone go soft, make the tone go hard again right away after that, so the bottom of the decay is almost gone, the envelope is gone, and then you open it right up again. You can't do that on guitar. Not even with a volume pedal. The note isn't there anymore, it's decayed. I know what you're saying. You can do a lot with amplifiers and processing, which I've tried to do, but it's not a real substitute.
Q: With the bow, like breath, you have this power source that's continuous, where as you said, picking a note happens once. On the Synthaxe, how do you do those things to make the tone come back after you've attacked the note?
Allan: I use a breath controller with it. If I'm making a solo sound or something, I usually program the patch, and then I go through and form the velocity so everything's like it would be at maximum. Then I use the breath controller to filter the sound so it changes the volume and the tone. What's happening is, if I play a note on the Synthaxe, the note's there, but you can't hear it until I blow, so it's a coordination deal. You hit the note, hope that it's there, and then blow it. But it seems so natural for me to do that. Blowing the thing was the most natural- it was more organic than the guitar to me. People moan about synthesizers, but they are electronic monsters, but I don't see any difference between a synthesizer and any other instrument. At some point in time, they've all been a product of technology. You couldn't put strings on a piano before we learned how to get steel, and stretch them and wire them. And nobody can make a bamboo flute without where to put the holes in it. I think it's just t he use of a model controller for synthesizers that's kind of in the early stages. I think eventually it will be unbelievable, because there's no limitation as far as the sound. The Synthaxe makes no sound of it's own, it's just a controller. It's just like a keyboard player having a controller keyboard. All the Synthaxe does is send out the note information to the synthesizer. Whatever synthesizer you use is the thing that makes the sound. I mostly use the Oberheim stuff, because I really dig the sound.
Q: What is it about Oberheims that you like compared to other synthesizers?
Allan: The way I got into it was an accident. When I would work with keyboard players who had Oberheims, every time they got on that I'd look over and go, "Geez. that's a nice sound." So the name Oberheim was in the back of my mind somewhere. And then, when I started playing the Synthaxe, the guy recommended the Oberheim because it has the most sophisticated MIDI control, and you can get to anything. Essentially, it's an old-fashioned synthesizer with patch chords: you can take any oscillator, you can patch it to anything. On the Matrix 12, there's eight low frequency oscillators so you don't need processing. it's just an unbelievable instrument, you can assign anything to anything else. Most of the synthesizers now went the other way, they have a little plastic window in there, and there's two buttons on the front, and with the combination of movements, these two buttons do everything. It's a nightmare. With the Oberheim, if you want something you go to the knob for that function-you turn it and you're do ne.
Q: You don't have to go through banks of this and that.
Allan: Oh, I hate that, I think it's all wrong. I once saw a synth at a NAMM show where one guy had made a real tight controller for a DX-7. It was huge! (laughs) I would have been interested to see how it worked.
Q: Let's go back a little bit. After hearing Clapton and being a fan, did you then pursue getting equipment like that, and buy a Les Paul?
Allan: I never liked Les Pauls. After I had the semi-hollow guitar, my dad bought me a Strat, and I played that for about 6 months. Then I made the mistake of going into this music store in Leeds, and I saw a SG custom in the window, a white one with 3 pick-ups. I played that thing, and that was it. So a friend of mine took over the payments on the Strat, and I started a new payment plan on the SG. And I basically used that SG pretty much right the way through until Tony Williams. I love those guitars. That one was lost mysteriously. The tour manager of Tony's band was owed some money and he had my guitar, and what he did is, he took my guitar down to the pawn shop and sold it. So when I came back to carry on working with Tony, my guitar was in the window of Sam Ash's or something. And I couldn't get it back, because I couldn't prove that it was mine. It was there for sale, but they wanted so much money for it that I had to go buy another SG somewhere else. This was right around that time of the first albu m, Believe It. And then I got this other SG Custom, a really nice one, but it was black, and that was a beautiful guitar. Then the band got stranded in San Francisco and I had to sell that one to get home.
Q: How were you affected by John McLaughlin's music?
Allan: I've always liked John McLaughlin's playing, because he always sounded like an individual, a strong individual. That's one of the things I appreciate the most. Pat Metheny, I feel the same way about him. Absolutely incredible, and I kind of thrive on the difference. The thing that makes them different is the exciting thing. I was always a big fan of John McLaughlin, I like everything he does, because there's nobody that sounds like John McLaughlin. I see him as one of those guys whose head sticks out way above everyone. I like all the Mahavishnu albums-I loved Billy Cobham, he was absolutely unbelievable. I dug Billy Cobham before that band, when he had the band Dreams, with Michael Brecker. So when John came out with his first album, with Billy Cobham on it, it was great just to hear Billy Cobham again. An absolute monster. Actually, I have to say that my favorite stuff john McLaughlin has done is on acoustic guitar. To me, with all those musicians, it really wouldn't matter what they played. It wo uldn't matter to me if John McLaughlin played saxophone, he'd still be who he is, and I feel that way about all those guys. Keith Jarrett, it doesn't matter that he plays the piano, the piano is totally unimportant. I'm not a big piano fan, and it's not an instrument I go out and seek. I don't just like John McLaughlin, the guitarist, I dig him as a musician because of the music that he's written, and the things he's played. And I do like it more when he plays acoustic guitar. He just seems unbelievably strong on that.
Q: How do you go about finding things on guitar and building up the language that makes up your playing? Did you think of your playing as being different from other guitarists?
Allan: It wasn't intentional. I didn't say, "He does that so I'm not going to do that." Basically, I always wanted to be, and always dreamed of, being really good at improvising, so I knew if I really wanted to be good, I had to know how to play over chords. But I wanted to play over chords and not sound like anyone else. I thought, well I don't want to learn what other people do when they play all their chords, I want to figure it out for myself. So I figured that I needed to know about harmony, and I need to know about scales and chords, and I devised a system of working out everything and cataloging it, using math to figure it out. I knew that if I used math I could figure anything out.
Q: When you say math, what exactly do you mean?
Allan: Say, for example, I wanted to find out how many seven note or eight note scales there are in one octave. It's easy with math, you keep number one constant, keeping it in the same key, and then you permutate the other notes until you've got every combination, and that's what I did. I wrote them all down and catalogued them. I'd take four notes, five notes, six notes, seven notes, and then I'd go up to nine note scales. Then I'd spread them out over two octaves, playing however many notes I wanted the scale to contain.
Q: So what happens in the second octave is different from what happens in the first octave, with a separate set of intervals?
Allan: Yeah, and when it comes out again on the second one, you can take three octaves. You can do as many as you want. I only went as far as three, (laughs) because of the guitar.
Q: Was this done at the same time as learning about conventional major and minor scales?
Allan: No, obviously this came after that, but what I knew was inadequate, and I couldn't play over certain chords, because I didn't know what scales to use. I knew if I did this, I'd have them, and then I could use my ears to guide me as to how I wanted to use them, based on what I felt musically. I cataloged them all, and I set aside all of the ones that had more than three semi-tones in a row, because they would be impractical. I finished up with this huge ream of stuff that I needed to learn. That stuff still applies now, I still only remember a small amount of it, but I learn more and more each time. Basically, I did the same thing with chords, I'd build chords from the scales, which is how I think of chords.
Q: Were these specific things that you were thinking, "I can't play over that," or was it that you just wanted to expand your knowledge and find new chords?
Allan: It was more like I wanted to find chords and voicings of chords, then I'd work on those separately from trying to figure out how to play over them. That's why, when I see a chord symbol, I sometimes don't even play a chord that might even constitute that one, I might just play some other chord that's built on the scale, because that's how I think of it. When the chords change, it's the movement, you can hear the scales change from one to the other. When I see the neck, when the chords change, it's like you can imagine a neck with LED's on it, and they're all lit up. When it gets to the next chord, all the dots change. The what I have to do is try to make a melody out of it, or make some sense out of it, or combine that with other things I want to do, like superimposing things on top of other things or whatever. Then you can play on things and add extra chords, playing something that suggests another chord between that chord.
Q: You've mentioned in previous interviews the concept of superimposing triads, and that one of your experiments was trying virtually every type of triad over a given root note or over a given triad.
Allan: Yeah, mixed triads, major ones, then minor over major, and so on. I also used to practice scales playing four notes on one string, so I'd be able to break out of patterns and wouldn't be thinking of just where my hand would fall. Then I could think about the neck linearly, moving up and down the neck, as well as positionally.
Q: In soloing, you seem to prefer to stay on the top four strings, and do a lot of moving up and down the neck.
Allan: That's because the sound is important as well. If you play the note in the A string, and then play the same note on the D string, it sounds a lot better on the D.
Q: It sounds more lively.
Allan: Yeah because the scale length of the guitar, the A and E become a little short, and the tone of the E on the low E string or the A string isn't as nice sounding. The D string definitely sings a lot more.
Q: Did you ever spend time working out any of Coltrane's lines on guitar?
Allan: no, because at the time that I was listening to Coltrane, I realized trying to copy what people did from records never did me any good. I started copying stuff that Charlie Christian did, and it didn't do me any good at all. All I did was get good at copying Charlie Christian, and I never really got any good at that. I just realized that I had to be motivated by the quality and the level of it, rather than exactly what it was, so I never ever sat down and tried to figure out what he played. I just tried to remember in essence what I thought it was that he was saying. You can hear what people do, though my playing ability is a lot lower than what I can hear, and probably most people's are too. It's just that if I hear somebody playing something, I usually can hear what it is. I tried to hear what he was doing without sitting down and figuring any of it out. If I wanted to play over something else, I would have to come up with something a whole lot better than what I was doing, and he was pushing me t o try to learn how to play better. He pushed me into trying to find out what I felt I needed to know rather than what anybody else knew. The whole concept of this lick thing is kind of offensive to me, because I don't think that's what it's about. A lick to me emphasizes the fact that it's something that you've played it before, which is something that I really don't want to do, even though I do it, because when you run out of ideas, and you're lost and you're stuck, my brain will only do so much. Then I go, "Oh geez, I'm not playing that shit again am I?" But really, the whole idea of music is exactly the opposite of that. You have to practice things that will allow you to have control, I suppose eventually. The idea is to practice so you have enough control over the instrument to actually be able to play what you can hear, and then that way you really are truly connected to the instrument. To play licks means that you sat down and figured out a few licks and are trying to find a place to put them all.
Q: So you're talking about the opposite, not being held down to things that already happened on the instrument, but making new things happen with the creativity of the moment.
Allan: Yeah, but that's not an excuse to play a lot of wrong stuff, like I do all the time, making mistakes all over the place. It's just that I think that, ultimately for me, my dream is to be able to have enough control over the instrument so that I could actually play what I hear. I can't, but with each stage or each phase down the road, I get a little better at it, not much but a little better.
Q: What's going on with the new record?
Allan: It's finished, but it's not mixed. I do want to record one more track, and drop one of the tracks that I have onto the next album, because I turned out having a lot of ballads. Also, I really enjoyed playing with Skully [sic] Sverrisson and Chad Wackerman on this tour, and I'd like to record a track with Skully on it. What I'm going to do is mix the tracks that I've got now, and then right before I hand it in, go in and record and mix another track.
Q: And this is for Restless Records, right?
Q: Tell me about the new guitars you're using with the super-long necks.
Allan: It's a baritone guitar, made by Bill DeLap from Monterey. They're kind of like Steinbergers. They have to be made of wood though, because we can't get a mold done, it's too expensive a process.
Q: And it's a six string instrument?
Allan: It's just a normal guitar, but unbelievably long. There's one with a 36-inch scale, the other one's 38, one of them's 34. Basically, one of them is like a long scale bass length, the other one is longer than a full size bass, and the big one is four inches longer than that.
Q: What are the tunings?
Allan: They vary. The smallest one is tuned down to C, the medium one is tuned to Bb, and the huge one is tuned down to A. They're all a 25 1/2 inch scale length from the low E, so the tone is as close to a normal guitar as I could get. I didn't want to have a short bass tuned down with thick strings on it. So they've all got the same gauge strings on it that I use on a normal guitar.
Q: Oh really?
Allan: Yeah, that's why they're so long. But the thing that I wasn't expecting was the extra bonus in the tone. It's not only the low end, which really sounds great, like a big cello or something. The midrange is different as well, it has a totally different color. I'm really loving it. It's a more nasal sound in the midrange, like an oboe or an English horn, beautiful. They did something that I didn't expect, but something that I could have only dreamed of. It's a beautiful tone, but the instruments are unbelievably hard to play.
Q: What do the tensions feel like?
Allan: The tension feels a little looser, but I don't bend strings very much. If you wanted to bend the string, you'd have to bend it a mile to get a tone. I use more of a classical vibrato, and you have to do that less because that kind of vibrato puts more of a pitch. Ever if you play in the middle of the neck or high up, it's kind of hard to control because you've got so much string behind your hand, and that makes it more difficult to play cleanly.
Q: How about the balance factor, having that giant neck sticking out?
Allan: They all feel perfectly balanced, with the exception of the difficulty in having a first fret you can fit your whole hand in (laughs). It's bigger than two inches at the first fret. You can fit a normal barred F right in there! So trying to play certain chords on there is pretty gnarly. But I only wanted it for the sound. It might not become something that I use all the time, but I really like that C one because it's playable, and it does have some of the depth that I was looking for.