Patron Saint (Guitar Player 2004)
2004 Nov Guitar Player (Darrin Fox)
Whether it's Charlie Christian drawing inspiration from tenor giant Lester Young, or John McLaughlin channeling the spirit of John Coltrane, guitarists of all stripes have been infatuated by the endlessly inventive improvisations and tonal complexity of modern saxophone masters. However, the guitar is obviously a lot different from a saxophone. To get anywhere near that ideal with a plank of wood and six strings is a Herculean task, because guitarists don't have the steady stream of wind that a horn player uses to nimbly deliver lines that dance across measures with an Astaire-like grace. And then there's the tone-guys like Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker produced some of the most expressive, organic timbres you're ever going to hear from any instrument.
Well, Allan Holdsworth not only mastered horn-like phrasing and tone, but he managed to do it whether he used Gibsons, Fenders, Charvels, Steinbergers, tube amps, or solid-state amps. And, unlike many other players seeking bell-like sounds, Holdsworth didn't plug an archtop into a Polytone and call it a day. He copped his horn timbres by using distortion-which he hates, by the way-and tremolo bars, and by avoiding picked notes. By sheer force of will, Holdsworth created one of the most identifiable guitar voices in modern music. That, my friends, is why he's a bad-ass of the highest order-and we're only talking about his solo tone.
Beginning with his 1982 release, I.O.U., Holdsworth introduced an otherworldly chordal style that relied on tightly- clustered intervals and expansive voicings that was previously unheard of. His instructional book, Reaching for the Uncommon Chord, is essential food for any guitarist looking to move beyond the norm. The guy is a giant.
His latest album, All Night Wrong [Favored Nations], was recorded live to stereo at Tokyo, Japan's Roppongi Pit Inn. And even though Holdsworth hates live recordings, there is no better setting to hear a modern master at work.
You're not a big fan of live records. Why? Well, I have a problem known as "red-light fever." If I know the gig is being recorded, I'll just fall apart. Couple that with the fact there are hundreds of bootlegs of my gigs out there, so it's like, why bother? Also, I kind of believe that a live show is an event that's only meant to be experienced by the people who happened to be there at that point in time.
Did you record multiple shows? We were going to record two nights. But, unfortunately-and much to my horror-when we returned the second night, the engineers had torn all the mics down. I don't know if they were paranoid about them being stolen or what, but I've worked in studios where people have been fired for moving mics. We thought about setting them up again, but I just lost it and said, "Forget it."
Is there anything you do before a gig to put yourself in the best headspace to improvise? There are two things, but they're not always easy to do. I like talking to the fans, but, before the gig, I start thinking more about their concerns, rather than my own. I can't empty my head. So if it's possible, I'll go to a corner café and hide. Then, I won't have to talk to anyone. The other thing I like to do is to put my hands in a bowl of hot water. I used to just sit and play the guitar before I went on, but I'd find myself falling into all these patterns and things I didn't want to play. So rather than predicting any particular motion with my fingers during warm up exercises, I'll just wiggle them in hot water until they're loose. I also like the way the water makes my skin feel. The moisture gets into my skin, and I can grab the strings better.
Do you ever get into prolonged ruts? Oh, yeah. I hit a dry spell when I was going through some personal stuff over the past four years, but that affected my composing more than my soloing. I felt my improvising during that time was okay, and I'd occasionally hear stuff that I'd never played before. But to compose, I have to sit down with a guitar and focus, and when things aren't as I want them, it's very easy to get scatterbrained and drift from one thing to another-which results in a cycle of non-productivity.
I've never heard you cite any compositional influences. Most of them are classical composers such as Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Copland, and Bartok-particularly his string quartets. I still can't listen to Debussy's "Clair de Lune" because, if I do, I'll cry [laughs]. I can't get past the first two bars. It's really weird, man. It tears me up. What I took from those guys was how their tunes make me feel in my heart. It's about the emotion, rather than what the piece actually is. I think that's because I want to be influenced, which is a whole lot different than trying to work out precisely what someone is doing.
Do you hear solo lines in your head before you play them? I wish I could hear a solo in my head from the very first note to the very last, but they kind of go their own way. I choose a note to start my improvisation, and I go from there-just trying to make some melody or sense out of it. I often get into problems if I try to think ahead. I do this more with chords, rather than when soloing, but if I think ahead five or six chords and then "hear" a blank spot, there's a 99.9 percent chance that there will be a huge clam when I actually get to that spot. This is because I already know I don't know what I'm going to do! So it's best if I don't think too much.
How much time do you spend with the instrument each day? It varies. I never sit with it for long periods of time unless I'm recording. I try to play every day, but it may only be for 15 minutes. Then, three hours later, I'll pick it up again for another 20 minutes.
Have you always approached the instrument like that? Yeah. I must have Attention Deficit Disorder or something. I get to a certain point, and then I get fed up and go do something else. I have difficulty concentrating on anything for a great length of time. Sometimes, I make the most progress when I haven't touched the guitar for weeks. If I spend too much time with the instrument I'll find myself saying, "Geez, how do I stop doing this?" Or, "How many more times are you going to play that line?" So if I don't touch the guitar for a week-maybe more-the whole guitar feels better.
Do you find it easier to get your sound these days? Ugh [laughs]. Well, because I'm always looking for something else, the answer is no. I'm happy with my sound to a certain extent, but you get frustrated a lot easier the older you get, and you grow weary of the chase. You think, "Do I really want to spend four hours moving this mic around, or trying this other amp?" When I was in my 20s, I would mess with everything. Now I'm just thinking, "Not again."
What's missing in your sound that you're trying to hunt down? It's always the same thing. I've never liked using distortion to get sustain. Distortion gets in the way. Once you push an amp into distortion, you're essentially turning it into a little compressor, which means you really have to concentrate on not making extraneous noises between notes. I've always wanted this sound-and I can hear it in my head, which is a good thing-where I've got all the sustain and beef one gets with a dirty sound, but without all the crud you have to deal with.
That sounds like a life-long mission. I know! When a horn player or a violin player picks up their instrument, they automatically have sustain without having to plug into a fuzz box. So I'm constantly trying to find a way to make the sound give me everything I need to get the sustain, but have none of the fur around it. It's like I'm trying to give the sound a shave. I start with a hairy sound, give it a shave, and see what's left.
At what point did you realize that achieving the ideal of horn-like tone would require a different approach than that of the other players who were searching for the same thing? Actually, I learned that really early on. I think this is going to make a lot of people laugh, but, early in my career in the '60s, I was playing with some local band, and we had an opportunity to go into the studio. I had an AC30 and a Gibson SG, and I used to like to turn up the amp until it was right at that point where it would get real throaty and fat, but without a ton of distortion. So we started playing, and the engineer came in shaking his head saying, "No, no, no. This is all wrong. You turn the amp down, and we turn it up in the control room." And I'm screaming, "No, you don't understand. I want you to record this sound." This would go on for hours, and it would drive me crazy. I couldn't figure out why I liked my sound at gigs, but hated it every time it was recorded. Horrible.
When did you start getting closer? I started to get an understanding of how to record a guitar when I was with Tony Williams in the Believe It days. By that time, most engineers had come around to recording a loud amplifier. We were working with an incredible engineer named Bruce Botnick, and he was great at understanding exactly what I was looking for. That's where I learned what kind of mic I wanted to use, and where it goes on the speaker. And that recipe hasn't changed from that day on: a Neumann U87 placed between the center and the edge of the cone.
Is right now a better climate for your music than it was, say, in the 1980s? I don't know what it's like for everybody else. I just know it's a lot harder for me now than it used to be. I haven't toured the States for more than ten years. And it's not because I don't want to. I'll play a couple of local gigs around San Diego or Los Angeles, and that's it. But if nobody calls, what do you do? I can't just call them and say, "Give me a gig." They have to call you, and, unfortunately, the phone doesn't ring.
Back when you were beginning to experiment with guitar synthesis, you lamented that guitarists tended to be closed minded to new sounds and approaches. Have we become more progressive since then? Things haven't changed a whole lot. I loved the Synthaxe because it was still a guitar, but it took me into a whole other world of textures and sounds that I couldn't do with a standard electric. And, you know, eight out of ten guitarists who saw me play it would come up and ask if I could make it sound like a Fender Stratocaster. Besides falling off the chair, I would wonder why anyone would spend all of their money on this thing to make it sound like a $500 guitar? So I think my view is that things are still the same.
You've always been hyper-critical of your playing. Do you feel such a high level of self-criticism has helped you evolve your playing, or has it hampered you? It can do both. It can keep you searching, but it can also be debilitating and depressing. You know, I can feel so bad about how I played after a gig that I won't want to see a guitar for months. It's a constant balance for me, and I'm just waiting to see which way the scales fall. I don't know if it's because I'm getting older, but there's more likelihood now of me being frustrated with my own ability to a point of not wanting to do it anymore, than there is of it pushing me forward.
Are you getting more comfortable with your huge influence on modern guitar? It's very flattering, obviously. Somebody must have liked something I did. And I think that would be good to remember when I'm getting fed up and ready to throw in the towel. It's helpful to know there were a lot of people out there who got some sort of pleasure from my playing. Hopefully, I motivated some players enough for them to move the guitar forward and take it to yet another level. That would be a very nice legacy.
Downsized And Digging It
"Gear is important, but its purpose is to fine-tune your sound, not to make your sound," says Holdsworth. "That comes from the hands."
These days, Holdsworth is using a pair of Yamaha DG80 112 digital modeling amps loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s. "I use one amp for my clean sound, and one for my lead tone," he explains. "For the clean sound, I actually use a Crunch preset, but I have the Gain set very low, and the Master volume set really high. If I hit the guitar hard there's a little growl in there. Then, I have two or three different EQ variations of that sound for different rooms. For the lead sound, I just use the Lead One preset, and I have five different patches with varying degrees of gain that I'll cycle through on any given night."
As identifiable as Holdsworth's reedy lead tone is, his expansive clean tone is just as much a signature. However, his legendary chorusing-which used to be the product of racks upon racks of single-ended delay units-proved to be too much trouble. "Doing it that way, I had a huge amount of control-not just over the delay time, but the stereo image as well," he relates. "But I eventually realized I was using this ridiculous amount of stuff to do something that most people aren't even going to hear! So I approached Yamaha with an idea about putting a rack full of delays into a little box." The result is the Yamaha UD Stomp-a pedal that houses eight separate delay units and affords Holdsworth all of the required tweezability. "I use a pair of UD Stomps and that's it. I throw them in a suitcase, and off I go."
Although Holdsworth is pictured in All Night Wrong with his custom headless guitar built by luthier Bill DeLap, he still relies on his signature model Carvin Fatboy. "When we travel to Japan, I often take the headless guitar because of size limitations. Now, Carvin and I are in the process of making a headless version of my signature model, because I really like the way the headless guitar hangs on me. It's so balanced." Holdsworth strings the DeLap with a LaBella .008 set, and his Carvin with a .009 set. His pick is a 1mm Dunlop.