Parallel Lines (Guitar Player 2005)

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PARALLEL LINES

A CONVERSATION WITH FUSION GIANTS JOHN MCLAUGHLIN AND ALLAN HOLDSWORTH

Guitar Player Magazine, October 2005

BY BARRY CLEVELAND

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To assert that John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth invented jazz-fusion guitar would be something of a stretch, but only a short one. Beginning as primarily a jazz guitarist, McLaughlin quickly assimilated the high-voltage sounds of Hendrix and other rockers into his playing, and his groundbreaking contributions to albums by Miles Davis and Tony Williams' Lifetime in the late '60s and early '70s alone justify his claim to fusion fame. The mind-blowing virtuosity McLaughlin displayed with his Mahavishnu Orchestra, his uncanny mastery of guitar synthesis, and his acoustic world-fusion excursions with Shakti and Remember Shakti further established him as one of the most innovative and influential players of his generation.

Holdsworth, on the other hand, outfoxed the competition by devising an entirely unique approach to playing that even left McLaughlin scratching his head. Surfacing in the early '70s with progressive rockers Tempest, Holdsworth established himself as a rock guitarist with jazz credentials, and then went on to work with leading fusion groups such as Soft Machine and Bill Bruford's Earthworks, prog supergroup U.K., and Tony Williams' New Lifetime, as well as releasing numerous highly innovative albums with his own band (several featuring his extraordinary work with the SynthAxe synth controller).

GP brought the two visionary guitarists together for a spirited and freewheeling conference call that ran the gamut from crossed paths to the future of jazz.

GP: To what extent were you aware of each other's work back in the early days of jazz-fusion?

HOLDSWORTH: I had heard John play on a few things by the late '60s. For a few years, I felt as if I was following him around. First to London, then to New York to play with Tony Williams, then back to London after he'd returned.

MCLAUGHLIN: I didn't know about Allan until after he'd joined Tony's band. I came to the Bottom Line to see them play in '72. I don't know if you remember that night, Allan, but you were playing up a storm. You were already doing these long lines that sounded like a combination of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and I was really blown away.   Tony had a way of putting a foot in your behind at the right moment in the right way, and he made you play that night for sure. Like Miles used to say, "Nobody ever played like Tony."

HOLDSWORTH: No, they didn't.

MCLAUGHLIN: He was absolutely unbelievable, and not just as a drummer, but as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century. He was only 17 when he began playing with Miles. And speaking of Tony, Columbia/Sony just sent me some tapes from the famous Trio of Doom—which was the band with Tony, Jaco Pastorius, and me-recorded in the late '70s.

GP: Allan, you also played with Jaco and Tony didn't you?

HOLDSWORTH: Yes. When I first moved to New York, I was living at Tony's house, and we were trying to find a bass player. Well, one day the doorbell rang, and there was Jaco with his giant Acoustic 360 amp that he'd somehow crammed into a taxi. After he set up his stuff, he went right to the fridge and helped himself to some milk and a donut. Jaco was such a cool guy, and, man, what an experience to play with him. Tony recorded the jam, but I don't know what happened to the recording.

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. I remember Jaco coming to a rehearsal I was having in New York. I'd never met him before, and the first thing he did was get $20 off me to fix a flat tire or something. We jammed, and he was unbelievable, so I told Tony about him. That must have been around the same time you jammed together.

GP: Allan, you play mostly using pull-offs and hammer-ons, whereas John picks every note. Do you ever listen to each other, and think, I should learn to do more of that sort of thing"?

HOLDSWORTH: I would if I could, but every time I hear John play I want to get a proper job.

MCLAUGHLIN: I would steal all of Allan's stuff, but I haven't got the faintest idea what he's doing

HOLDSWORTH: The truth is-neither do I!

MCLAUGHLIN: Let's be clear - Allan has one of the most original guitar styles I have ever heard. I'm more of an old school player, and I want to make every note speak. But there are marvelous advantages to Allan's technique, and it's really amazing for me to hear, because it's so different from mine, yet it's so right. And his chord movement just kills me. I don't know how he does it - he must be double jointed - but the sound is just beautiful, and that's something I haven't really developed. Allan was also a huge influence on the next generation of rock guitarists. I believe that Eddie Van Halen, for example, got a lot from him.

HOLDSWORTH: I don't know if he did or not. I'm pretty sure whatever influence I had wasn't from the beginning, because when I was on the road with U.K. we played with Van Halen before they had become famous, and Eddie already had a lot of that going on before he ever heard me.

MCLAUGHLIN: However it happened, Eddie is a great player, and I feel that what he's done for pop guitar-particularly his solo on Michael Jackson's "Beat It"-is really good. When I look back at the evolution of electric guitar playing over the last 25 to 30 years, it's phenomenal compared to the evolution on most other instruments. Think about all the great players-from Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and Wes Montgomery to Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix to Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Eric Johnson. It's just amazing!

GP: You both have said that discovering John Coltrane was a life-changing experience in your musical development. How so?

HOLDSWORTH: For me, it was very radical. My father was a major jazz fan with a large record collection, so when I heard, say, Cannonball Adderley, I could recognize where the different aspects of his playing came from. But when I heard Coltrane I couldn't hear the connection between what he was doing and anything I'd heard before. His playing sounded so right and real-like he'd found a way to plug directly into the universe and it was the most wonderful, exhilarating, mind-opening, heart-opening thing. When I read that he had died, I cried as if he was a close personal friend.

MCLAUGHLIN: I was traveling on a bus when I read over somebody's shoulder that Coltrane had died. My knees buckled under me. I never met him or saw him play live, but he was like a dear friend to me, as well, and my experience was very much like Allan's. I followed Coltrane's career throughout the Miles period, but when A Love Supreme came out in 1964, I couldn't hear it. I knew the problem was with me and not the music, and that I didn't have the ears, or the mind, or the heart to grasp it. I’d listen to the record once a day while reading the poem on the back cover---which was more like a prayer--and it took me nine months just to hear it, and to realize where he was coming from. Coltrane was a deeply spiritual human being, and his music came from that. A Love Supreme, Om, and Interstellar Space are still so far beyond contemporary music that it's absolutely phenomenal.

GP: Was there just something about the '60s?

MCLAUGHLIN: It wasn't until the '80s that I realized just how unbelievable the '60s were. There was a global explosion in music that had no precedent, and the world was changed as a consequence. By the mid '70s, music had become big business, and record companies were making a lot of money, which lead to marketing labels such as "classic jazz" and "jazz-fusion."

HOLDSWORTH: "Fusion" was actually a good word to describe music that combines a lot of genres, but it came to represent something that's not so good-which is a drag, because there's nothing wrong with the word. Now when somebody asks me what I think of fusion music, instead of saying what I want to say about the word, I think of it as "everything you've ever heard before again."

MCLAUGHLIN: I'm quite happy with that label, so if you want to call me a fusion musician, that's fine with me.

HOLDSWORTH: It's actually fine with me, too.

MCLAUGHLIN: At the same time, when I go to record stores, I don't even want to go into the jazz sections anymore because of the retro jazz thing which has been going on for over a decade now. I remember the New York Times jazz critic saying about 12 years ago, "Thank god, this pestilence known as fusion is dead." What? Get a life!

GP: Isn't that more of a problem in the U.S. than in other parts of the world?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yes that kind of discrimina tion is much less noticeable in Europe and Japan. In the U.S., it's also partly due to the success of musicians such as Kenny G.who a lot of people think are playing jazz. The record companies make lots of money off that stuff, so that's what gets attention. I'm not judging Kenny G. A lot of people like him, so he must be saying something right to them, but what he's playing isn't jazz.

GP: Fortunately, there's a global trend towards music becoming increasingly diverse and available worldwide.

MCLAUGHLIN: Yes. Young musicians these days are faced with so much music they have to listen to just to find their own musical identities and that's an indication as to how much the world has changed since Allan and I were starting out. In the U.K., for example, there was a little newspaper that came out once a week called Melody Maker, and if you wanted to get any news about music, that was all there was. And now here we are doing a story for an amazing magazine called Guitar Player. You open the magazine, and you get photos of guitars, articles about your heroes, musical information, and transcriptions. Back when we were getting started, such a thing was unthinkable. You have no idea how difficult it was just to get LPs from America in the late '50s and early '60s. It took me six weeks to get a copy of Kind of Blue.

HOLDSWORTH: When I started playing with light strings, I used to buy a set of regular Gibsons and drop them down so the fifth string was the sixth - which also gave me an unwound third - and then I'd have to take buses all around town to find an octave banjo string for the high E.

GP: Those advances notwithstanding, do you have any advice for young musicians these days?

HOLDSWORTH: Someone once asked Frank Zappa that question, and he replied, "Yeah, take out an Herbalife franchise." That was a real pearl!  

John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth Discuss Guitar Synthesizers

By Barry Cleveland | October 05

This is a Web-only outtake from a conversation with Barry Cleveland that appears in the October ’05 issue of GP.

GP: One of the many things that distinguished you both from most of your contemporaries was your ability to get impressive results from early guitar synthesizers. How would you account for that?

MCLAUGHLIN: I began experimenting with guitar synths back in 1974. Bob Easton at 360 Systems came up with a rig that used his interface first with an EMU module, and then with a separate Mini-Moog for each string, which was like driving an eight-wheel truck. I was always saying, “Ladies and gentlemen why don’t you chat amongst yourselves while I tune up my instrument.” It was kind of a joke, and after one major tour I gave it up. So, the problem was that the technology wasn’t very good in the early days. For example, the latency was terrible. I mean it was like 50ms on the low strings! But you’ve got to go with what you have, and that was the best technology available at the time.

GP: So how were you able to get around those limitations?

MCLAUGHLIN: I didn’t.

GP: It sure sounds like it on those records.

HOLDSWORTH: It sure does.

MCLAUGHLIN: For me, the number one demand was that each note should sound cleanly, because that’s the way I play—I want every note to speak, if possible. So, I suppose the fact that my style involves picking each note cleanly gave me an advantage.

GP: What other sorts of guitar synths have you used?

MCLAUGHLIN: While playing with the John McLaughlin Trio in the ’80s, I used the Photon MIDI interface and blended the modern sound of the synthesizer with the antique sound of a nylon-string acoustic guitar—a combination that worked amazingly well. And another amazing piece of gear was the AXON MIDI interface, which used Neural Net technology. It was a great unit for playing live, and I used it on solos while touring with Paco DeLucia and Al DiMeola, but it was very difficult to record with. You’d hear all of the glitches, and with six outputs it was hard to get just a single synth output to work cleanly.

Recently I’ve been using a Godin Multiac guitar with an internal RMC pickup system, driving a Roland GI-20 MIDI interface, connected directly to a 1.6GHz Apple laptop running MIDI software. I’ve been using it a lot in the studio while recording my upcoming CD, and also live, particularly with Remember Shakti. It works like a dream, with practically no latency, and is easily the best guitar synth that I’ve ever tried.

GP: Have you tried the Roland, Allan?

HOLDSWORTH: No I haven’t, but it sounds like I should. I haven’t experimented all that much with guitar synths other than the SynthAxe, which isn’t a guitar controller strictly speaking.

MCLAUGHLIN: Yes! Your work on the SynthAxe is nothing short of phenomenal in my opinion. I tried to play one once but I just floundered like a beached whale—and it was a shame because I would like to have been able to get a handle on it. Allan, I’m not flattering you, but you are the standard-bearer on that instrument.

HOLDSWORTH: I think it’s one of those things that you just pick up and it works for you or it doesn’t. I had used a Stratocaster with a Roland hex pickup and a MIDI interface to play some background chords on a track on Metal Fatigue, back in 1985, and though I liked hearing different sounds, I hated how it worked. I asked Tom Mulhern at Guitar Player if anyone was making a guitar MIDI controller that didn’t use what we used to call a “pitch-to-glitch” converter, and he told me about the SynthAxe. As soon as I started playing it, a friend of mine said, “It’s like somebody invented that for you.”

I felt the same as John about making each note speak, but my approach was totally different. I play mostly hammer-ons and rarely use my right hand except for chords, so I wanted to be able to accentuate hammered-on notes as opposed to picked notes—to bury the picked notes amongst the others and still make a phrase—and I was able to do that with the SynthAxe. The other cool thing about it was the breath controller, because I always wanted to play a horn. I could strike a note on the SynthAxe and you wouldn’t hear anything until I blew, which changed the volume, velocity, and tone of the note. And not only the attack of the note, but what happened to it afterward as well, which I found particularly intriguing. I’ve never really liked distortion, but I’ve had to use it in order to get sustain, so the SynthAxe was perfect for me because I could play a note and it would sit there for as long as I could keep blowing.

GP: Didn’t the SynthAxe also have a set of keys in addition to the playing strings?

HOLDSWORTH: Yes, the SynthAxe also had six keys that you played with your right hand, and they actually became the most important aspect of that instrument for me. I could have played it just using the left hand on the left hand strings and the right hand on the keys. And you could also play a chord and then sustain it by holding the keys down while moving your hand to the next chord, as opposed to a guitar, where when you stop fingering a chord it’s gone. It was a shear genius.