What guitar are you using with U.K.?
Basically I’m using a Strat. It’s got DiMarzio PAF pickups now. Before that, I had Gibson pickups. It’s just got a volume and a tone instead of one volume and two tones. I also did away, with the middle pickup. The toggle switch is just an ordinary three-way. It gives you either pickup or both. I like it because it’s really simple. I like to keep the guitar as simple as possible. I chose the DiMarzio PAF’s because they’re supposed to be an authentic reproduction of the original Gibson pickup. I found with the DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups that, although they’re very loud, the sound isn’t as good. I don’t know why, I’m not really up on what you can do with pickups. I know that if you go over the top with the windings, they become self-inductive or something and I know that if the magnets are too powerful, they’ll stop the string vibrating which is your source, really. these pickups are really good. I can’t tell the difference between the PAF’s and the original Gibson ones, but I can tell the differe nce between the PAF’s and the Super Distortion pickups - they’re very different.
Do you still have the original pickups on your Stratocaster?
I just have two DiMarzio humbuckers on it - one in the front and one in the back. And I just have one volume and one tone control because I like simple guitars. The selector switch allows me to choose which pickup I want.
Do you ever use both pickups together?
No. I’ve never used both at once - even on the SG Standard. And on my SG Custom, the middle pickup doesn’t work. I normally use the bridge pickup for leads, and the neck pickup for chording. I usually leave my volume control set between 8 and 10 on the guitar, and the treble pickup’s tone is adjusted to about 5 or 6 - enough to roll off some of the top end.
Have you had the same struggle to get a guitar you’re really happy with?
I’ve always gone through a lot of equipment in a continual search for things, and that process has slowed me down over the years as I’ve got nearer the mark. There was a time when I tried loads of guitars, but I don’t think I’ll be changing too many things on guitars in the future. I now have one Strat with a Boogie body and a Dick Knight neck, and that’s the newest one. The other Strat is the nicest one, the dark one, and it’s older and has been played more. That’s an original Fender that I bought when I was working with Tony Williams, and I got it for 300 dollars including case, about £150. It was fairly new one with quite a narrow nut, and being so cheap and fairly nasty I decided to take the neck off and sell it. With the money from that I had Dick Knight make one for me. I had a few teething problems with that but he’s sorted them out now. I also had two Gibson humbuckers which I took off a couple of SG Customs - over the years I’ve built up quite a collection of old PAF’s from the centre position of SG’s - and they are what I put on that Strat, and I really liked the sound. I’d always fancied the idea of putting Gibson pickups on a Fender guitar because there’s something about the guitar I liked, the long scale length. It seemed that the strings rang a lot more. I also noticed that if you put the Fender pickups a long way from the strings that horrible harmonic caused by the powerful magnets disappeared. When I put the old PAF’s on the balance seemed just right between the power of the magnets, the amount of windings on the coil and the fact of being humbucking, which I liked for obvious reasons- they also didn’t affect the string movement. I’ve found that a lot of the very powerful pickups, the Super Distortions and so on, have an incredible effect on the way the guitar sounds to me acoustically, and I didn’t like that. If you use thin strings like I do these pickups practically stop them from vibrating, and when you’ve got to a point like that it’s pretty ridiculous. I think there’ll be a swing back soon to pickups that actually sound better rather than having lots of volume. With amps the way they are these days who needs hot pickups? They’ll probably find a less Mickey Mouse way of amplifying strings than bobbins and magnets anyway eventually. It’s like loudspeakers, you’ve got all these thousand [sic] of pounds of equipment and at one end you’ve got a little magnet on the guitar and at the other end you’ve got a big magnet and a piece of paper. It’s very strange. That side of it has been the same for many years and they haven’t improved on it. Like those high-output pickups: The sound of a lot of them is pretty disgusting, and I’m looking forward to the guys who are going to make the better sounding ones.
Why do you think the old Gibson pickups sound so good?
I don’t know really. I was a bit confused about that because I put those DiMarzio PAF’s on both my Strats now, and like the sound of them very much. I had a funny experience the other day with this guitar that Dick made, on which I had two DiMarzio PAF’s. I also had an old Gibson PAF and a humbucker lying about, and so I tried them to find the difference between the Gibson and Di Marzio PAF’s. Although there had never seemed much difference before, this time there was, and the DiMarzio sounded much thinner in comparison. Perhaps it was faulty. When I put the other Gibson pickup on that sounded good as well. Gibson say there’s no difference between the old ones and new ones.
The pickups are DiMarzio. They’ve just sent me a pair with black tops because I complained that the cream tops didn’t match the whole scratchplate too well. Those people are very good to me. The pickups were especially wound and I’m going to put them in another Stratocaster eventually.
Did you leave the original Fender single-coil in the middle?
No. Because I used to use pretty thin strings, and I didn’t like pickups like those, which had a lot of magnetic string pull, because they took away a lot of the vibration.
Have you ever considered installing a contact pickup in the guitar in order to infuse more of the body’s resonance into the sound?
No, I’m still trying to get the sound I want just through the combinations of the wood. It’s getting pretty close now. And Seymour Duncan made me a pickup a few months ago that I’m currently using, and I’ve fallen in love with it. I just hope I have a chance to get together with him to take it to the nth degree; that is, the right combination of the right pickup and the right woods.
Why do you only have one pickup in the bridge position and no pick up at all near the neck?
I found that I hardly ever used the other pickup, anyway. I’ve always favored the treble pickup. So when Grover made the first prototype for me, we just tried it with one. And it seems that I’ve never missed it at all. So I decided to have them all made with single pickups. It’s really basic. Each of the guitars has a different pickup on it The red basswood one has the specially made Seymour Duncan pickup, the white one has a Seymour Duncan 59N, and the spruce one has a specially wound DiMarzio on it.
Are there any fancy switches such as coil taps?
No. I don’t have any extra wiring. Just one volume and one tone. And I would have just one for volume, except that I still prefer the tone I get from the guitar’s control. There’s a difference between the tone when you have the volume up full on the guitar and you back the treble up on the amp and turn down the tone on the guitar just a bit. It sounds wetter or something -- I just prefer it.
In Allan Holdsworth’s career, which spans 15 years, he’s gone from cello guitar, to Fender Stratocaster, to Gibson SGs, and today he plays Charvel guitars.
‘When I first played the SG I fell in love with it instantly and I took the Fender which I’d bought on HP back to the shop, and traded it for the Gibson SG Standard they had. I stuck with that for a couple of years while I was a semi-pro, and then I got a job in a Mecca houseband, and that’s when I started messing about with guitars and experimenting with 335s and whatever. That was a real experimental thing, I changed the lot, different amps, different strings, different guitars. I still like trying everything and each one of these Charvel guitars I have is an experiment, but they’re getting closer and closer to what I want. All the necks are 2 ¼" wide at the top of the fretboard which is a lot wider than a Fender, and I really like that. I’ve always been anti heavy guitars, and all of these guitars are light. They’re made of spruce or Bass (as in ass) wood. Most of the older Strats were light.’ Allan Holdsworth had, at the date of our meeting, four Stratocaster type Charvels which included a blonde one w ith a pair of custom wound Dimarzio humbuckers, a red one with a single custom wound Seymour Duncan humbucker, and a white one with two more custom wound Seymour Duncan humbuckers in the middle and rear positions for a certain sound Allan was after. The fourth one is blue, also with a pair of custom wound Seymour Duncan pickups. All of these guitars feature one tone and one volume control plus pickup selector and brightness switches. Another guitar of Allan’s is a Charvel prototype that looks not a million miles from an Ovation Viper, also with Seymour Duncan pickups.
One of these instruments carries a Dave Storey (Kahler) tremelo (sic) which loads from the top, with no tremolo block in sight. Before he emigrated to the USA, Dave was England’s answer to Floyd Rose, and his unique tremolo system. Ah well, England’s loss, America’s gain.
Holdsworth’s current lead work is especially unusual because although his tone is as fluid and nimble as a synthesizer, he uses virtually no signal processing at all (he did use a Scholz Rockman for the sax-like bite of "Three Sheets To The Wind"). "I’ve noticed for a long time that lighter bodied guitars always seemed to sound better. [Charvel’s] Grover Jackson was unbelievable, going to all lengths experimenting with different woods. We finished up using bass wood; it’s a little bit like alder, but it’s lighter, very resonant. Grover made four Charvel guitars for me. He also widened the neck dimensions, more like a Gibson. The bridge is an aluminium DiMarzio and the pickups are Seymour Duncans, similar to a PAF but with two rows of pole pieces so that both bobbins are absolutely symmetrical; it makes the magnetic field more uniform." For strings, Allan uses .009 Kaman Performers. His favorite amp for lead playing has been a Hartley-Thompson with an occasional Fender.
I like pickups with low magnetism because the strings aren’t affected by the pickups so much. A lot of people don’t realize how much that affects the sound.
How does it affect the sound?
The best example would be a Stratocaster. I got my first one when I was playing with Tony Williams, and I couldn’t intonate the thing. On the low E I’d get this wobble. But it was just the pickups sucking on the string, because when I put a couple of PAF humbuckers on it the problem went away completely. Then I realized that the older Gibsons that I liked the sound of so much had really weak pickups. So, sometimes I’ll use a booster pedal to bring up the gain and push the front end of an amp a little harder.