- 1 Allan Holdsworth (Guitar Player 1980)
- 2 Allan Holdsworth (Guitar Player 1982)
- 3 Allan Holdsworth (Guitar magazine 1974)
- 4 Allan Holdsworth (International Musician 1981)
- 5 Allan Holdsworth Interview (richardhallebeek.com 1996)
- 6 Allan Holdsworth Talks SynthAxes, Jaw-Dropping Solos and More (Guitar World 2017)
- 7 Allan Holdsworth’s Untold Secrets + Worthy Quotes (Guitar Player 1990)
- 8 Any Key In The U.K. (Unknown publication 1978)
- 9 Guitar Synths in Jazz (Music Technology 1987)
- 10 Med Siktet Innställt På Total Kontroll (MusikerMagasinet 1996, Swedish language)
- 11 No Secrets (Facelift 1994)
- 12 Patron Saint (Guitar Player 2004)
- 13 Player Of The Month (Beat Instrumental 1978)
- 14 The Allan Holdsworth Interview! (Jazz Houston 2006)
- 15 The Allan Holdsworth Interview, part one (Musoscribe 2017)
- 16 The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)
- 17 Whisky Galore (Guitarist 2000)
Had things become better?
Not much. With Bill and U.K. the rehearsals had almost nothing to do with what ultimately went on the records. We just played bits and pieces of songs, and they would shake them up and record them. Then we had to try to reproduce those parts live. And I just don't feel at home doing that. I'd 'rather play something first, and then record it. Now, I'm not against overdubbing - it's great. It's nice to embellish things, but I think that the important things should go down on the tracks so that when you play the songs onstage, nine times out of ten they'll sound better. With U.K., particularly, we had millions of overdubs, and then we had to try to decide who could play what parts live because one guy doesn't have four hands, and so on. Again it comes back to the magical quality of interplay between band members.
How was your guitar recorded? Did you mike it or go direct into the board?
I just miked it, out in the room where the whole band was. It was actually a tiny place, so we couldn't get much isolation. The drums were in the middle of the room, the guitar amp was tucked away in one corner, and the bass was practically in the toilet at the other end of the boat. It probably would have sounded better if we had recorded it in a bigger place, but we didn't have the money to do it anywhere else.
Actually, it sounds as if it were recorded in a much bigger place.
That was just the help of Trident studio, were the album was mixed. And we probably could have gotten it to sound a lot better if we had had more time to mix. But we didn't.
Were any solos spliced on I.O.U.?
We didn't do any splicing. In fact, most of the album was done straight in one take. I don't like cutting. I'd rather do it again from the top then cut it. I just don't like editing.
Do you approach a recording session in a very different way from a gig?
Yes, I think recording messes me up a bit. The biggest problem I have with recording is getting engineers to understand what sort of a sound I want. Obviously every player has in his head the sort of sound he wants to get; and often I feel that I achieve that live, but I can't often achieve it in studio conditions.
How about sessions?
ALAN: I don't read so I've always avoided sessions. I know that not all session players read and I could probably do the job but other people do it better than me, and they enjoy it. I wouldn't because I never have liked impersonations. The point for me is not to absorb another player's licks but his general quality. Too many people miss that point. It's the quality not the licks. If a guitar player is known for his licks that are instantly recognisable then he isn't making any progress and it doesn't interest me. More important is that line of quality, and if it's there, absorb it, not the superficial stuff. When I started playing 15 years ago, I always had trouble playing other people's solos and so I started inventing bits of my own. They sounded awful but I know now that I did the right thing. It wasn't until 6 years ago with Tony Williams that I realised I was developing my own style, it takes time but it's more rewarding than playing somebody else's note for note.
Your solos are often really long, but always interesting. Do you do a lot of Punch-ins?
Hardly ever. It's also not possible because I always work alone. You need somebody to push that red button for you. At one point I've played so many times through the chord changes that I don't have to think about the scales anymore. Sometimes I will paste a small segment of a different take over a less interesting part of my solo to fix a solo. And sometimes I might combine some tracks, but usually I don't. I think it sounds natural when some things are a little bit off. That's just a part of that solo. But if I'm in an overdub situation, I try to get things as good as possible. Frank Gambal (with whom Holdsworth recorded the album 'Truth In Shredding' for Mark Varney -RH) once said to me "My solos are not perfect. I look at them like a Persian Rug.Up close there are a million imperfections, but if you stand back a little bit it's fantastic".But just how far do you want to stand back?? Do you have to stand back 200 kilometers to get the right pi cture? I think Gambale is great, don't get me wrong. I really l ike his playing. It all depends on the way your looking at you're own things. That's just different for everybody. My problem is that I always want more from myself than I can possibly give. I hear it in my head, but it seems I can't fully reach it. My head is always ahead of my hands. When my playing gets a little bit better, I can do what I heard in my head before. But right now I'm hearing things which I can't play at the moment. And that's always very frustrating. I don't think it will ever change though. But if you're able to play anything you can imagine, there's no magic to it anylonger. Then I would probably be ready with it and just quit.
Music and producing music has changed much over the years with the arrival of digital recording and home studios. Can you share your thoughts on this? —Bob Dyer
It’s a whole different world now. I float between analog and digital, and combine the two setups into a hybrid. I’ve worked with some great engineers over the years, and they didn’t want to make the change from analog to digital. Whether you like it or not, you have to go where it’s going because much of the analog equipment is obsolete.
He went almost a halfyear over schedule, and half his fans went crazy-eights.
"Because I'm a constant experimenter," explains Allan. "Over the last two albums, when I started using the SynthAxe, I began working with different ways of recording guitar, probably more than I should have. At points during Atavachron, I'd do things like run the amp into one speaker cabinet, mike it, feed that into another amp, and then mike up that cabinet. On The 4:15 Bradford Executive, from Sand, I used two of the little enclosed speaker cabinets I built and drove each with a different amplifier [Ed. note: These small, soundproof cabinets contain movable microphone riggings for placement in relation to the speakers]. Finding things like that can take forever. On this album, I just thought about all the things I learned from the past and tried to consolidate them. I'd say okay look, - this mike sounds good and I'm going to stop putzing with it." I did putz a lot with it in the beginning: I'd record a solo and then two days later erase it all. Jimmy Johnson would keep calling and say, "look, man, don't be erasing." I'd listen to copies of what I erased and think "Oh ,that wasn't so bad." When I start chasing the tone thing, sometimes I really go around in circles."
Part of Holdsworth's recording process involves sussing out a feel for the tracks from monitoring the band's basics; because each guitar part was overdubbed, recording solos required a certain period of emotional reaquaintance with the tracks. "As you get more experienced, you get a little bit better at it," he says. "I was familiar with the backing tracks because I'd been in the studio to do them. Sometimes I might like a solo from a guitar point of view - 'Oh, I played pretty well over that section' - but then I'd listen back, and it just wouldn't sound like I was there. Sometimes I do that too much; I might be overly conscious of what's going on, and that's why I want to do the next album differently. I didn't do anything differently than I would have done at the studio, and it still sounded reasonably natural."
Where did you record the album?
At Trident. The only time I've used Trident before was when we mixed a Gong album there but it's great, a fantastic place, the engineers are great. We produced the album ourselves. I think it needed to be done like that really this time. Because the music wasn't written by one guy, it changes from player to player as it goes through each piece. It might be better to get an outside producer for the next album because he'll have a chance to listen to the material first but it was better this time if we produced it ourselves. And besides, we had Steve Taylor as an engineer and he's fantastic!
Were there many overdubs?
Well, there were some, not an awful lot. We started with bass and drums mainly. That's a thing I'd never done. I don't like that way of working at all. We're going to do it different next time.
So if he's primarily using the SynthAxe, does he record his performances as MIDI data into a sequencer?
“I've considered it; I might even do something like that on another album. I'd like to do an album like that. And because it would all be synthesized, I could just record it into the computer, like we did on the last track on the album. Everything was recorded on the computer except the solo; that was recorded to tape, because I used the guitar amplifier and all that. It would have been more complicated to record it and then process it, because I wouldn't have been able to get the same feel without hearing that sound.'
Ever the perfectionist, he has refined his technique and sound over the years. He knows the guitar building process well, and is aware of the importance of each link in the audio chain. He talks about the recording process in such a way that Eric Johnson appears to be a slacker - it is about maintaining total control.
- I have been experimenting so much over the years. I play with a distorted sound, and then you have to see the amplifier and the guitar together as one instrument, they are inseparable. I do not use the amplifier only to raise the volume of the guitar. Put it this way; it's not just something you add when the sound is already fully formed. The way horn instruments are able to control and shape the tone has always been my ideal, and working with distortion is my way of compensating the guitar's deficiencies in that area. That's why I've completely abandoned acoustic guitar, which has a percussive quality and little sustain. In my studio, The Brewery, I have been able to try things out, and now I think the pieces have fallen into place.
"One of the terrible things about that record was that even at the time we were using distortion but - this might sound really stupid, but it's the truth - we could not find a recording engineer who would let us turn up the amplifiers in the studio. They'd just turn them down in the control room. The guys would come into the studio and say, 'no, no, that's not how it works - we want to get the sound here and you just record it."
"I did quite a few gigs with Nucleus. We did a couple of tours of England and then we went to Europe and did a couple of tours there. Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I was just trying to figure it out - I think all those guys were putting up with me at that time." What had been so exciting about this and earlier Nucleus bands was that here was essentially a band of jazz musicians looking to experiment in the largely rock territory of amplification and effects. “I had no idea how to record guitar then, and it was because I had had such a horrendous time recording that I decided to try and figure out what was wrong. And that basically started me off thinking about the sonic aspect of it. It triggered me off then because I was playing live and I'd think I was getting a good sound and then I'd record it and I'd think, 'Jesus, that doesn't sound too good!”
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.
He had failed, however, to mention something that happened in New York just before he came home. As I mentioned this omission in his life's history, Allan's normally placid and amiable expression darkened in-to a scowl. The event? An invitation from Creed Taylor, boss of CTI Records, for Allan to record a solo album. He hates that album with a passion. It was recorded in nine hours; there were no rehearsals. "It's just a jam. The sound is disgusting. I mean, I'm really particular about my guitar sound, especially over the last two or three years, cuz I reckon I've now got that part of it together. We got into the studio, and we never had what you might call a balance check. None of that happened, man. They set the mikes up, and they had two mikes for a double drum kit. Really crazy. We'd play the tunes once, and that was it. Finished. Next tune. We'd just let one tune run down even if it didn't have an ending. And that's literally how that album was made."
MM: What recording format and mixing desk are you using?
Oran BEQ40 is my console…I had a Trident before that…I never got into the computer stuff. I know people have done some amazing things with them but I’ve never got into them. One of my favorite units was a Euphonix R1 stand-alone hard disk recorder. They’re expensive, like 65k or something. I like the idea of stand alone units as opposed to computer stuff. You can record digitally one channel with great results especially at high sample rates, but there are issues with summing on a digital board that they just don’t sound as good to me. All of those numbers are being sent down two wires. I guess that’s why I prefer analog consoles. Now I’m using two HD24’s, the high resolution units so I can record at 96k and they have the really good converters.
Other than using computers instead of two-inch tape, how would you say that your approach to making albums has changed over the years?
It’s basically changed by default, just by the way people do things. Before – in the old days – people would rent a really nice studio for a few days, and we could play everything more or less together. And if we had to overdub something, that was fine. Then we’d spend a few days or a week or so mixing it, and then Bob’s your uncle.
But now people just send files over the internet, and more often than not, you’re not in the same room, or at least not at the same time. The technology forced a change; that’s why so many studios went out of business.
Do you think something’s been lost with the demise of the old way of doing things?
Yeah, you always lose something. But you gain things, too. It’s possible to make very high quality digital recordings if you use very high sample frequencies like 96kHz or above.
Still, anybody who’s worked on a really great analog two inch tape machine in a studio knows that you can’t do that on a little digital recorder. It’s blatantly obvious, but nobody cares. They’re playing it all over their iPhone!
BY THE TIME the first Santa Ana winds have swept through that same drowsy Orange County morning, the maestro is already a pale-blue blur within the intimate Front Page recording complex, waffling about with everything from the house amplifiers to the tea maker to the spaghetti-wire underbelly of the mixing console. To the frazzled genius working on a breakfast of two Kit Kats and some square intentions, all seems fairly well and good; the bad transformers are replaced, the tea is finally hot, and all the technical foulups in the world are magically solved by any one of a number of homemade little boxes he's brought out for the occasion. As he offers each musician his lavish greeting, counterpoint is provided by a tape of the previous day's work. No one digs their solos; everyone digs Allan's shoes.
GW: But you've often said that, when recording with bands like with Bruford and UK, listening to the band through cans in a separate room or on tape - a separate musical situation - can really debilitate your spontaneity.
HOLDSWORTH: It's still like that, but I've kind of gotten used to doing it that way over the last few albums, just for practicality. It made more sense for me to worry about the performance of the other musicians than to say "I'm gonna use that track some other guy in the band doesn't like just because I played a great solo on it." I don't work like that because I want everybody to be happy with what they played. I worry about myself later. But I don't wear cans to do overdubs; I just go into the control room and play and listen. I try to be as inside as I can get in an overdub situation. It's difficult, because it's easy to overdub something that sounds like a good solo, but hard to make it sound like it was part of what was happening. I like to live with the tapes and listen to them until I get to play solos over them, to get an idea of what the men were doing there. I try and play off of what they were doing, so there is still the relationship. I like to strike the combination betwe en fitting in and maintaining a few ideas I feel are reasonable.
Another thing I've done is to play solos live, but not spend any time on them; you know, just get a really cheesy tone, stick a Rockman into the board or something, play the solo for a vibe thing, and then replace it with a proper tone. Some of that is dictated by the music as well, because of some of the pieces. For example, when I started using the SynthAxe, I started playing all the accompanying parts myself.
GW: Did it take you long to finish the guitar work for this record?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, if you look at it on an hourly basis, it's probably not too long, but if you measure it as an amount of time from when I take the tape out of the studio and sit at home with it, it probably is. That's the trouble I find with doing it at home, that there's too many distractions. I should be working now. It's just that right now there's three kids in here, and there's always something that'll happen right when I'm in the middle of something. I'll start something, then I'll get a tone that I really like, and I'm scared of soloing, man, I don't like it, because I know I'm not going to like what I do, so I put it off. So I'll go in there and when I've got a tone that I like for the tune, I'll consider the chore over, when it's really not.
How do you record an album these days? It sounds live but I take it it's not.
"We played everything together. But it used to be that you'd go into the studio and be terrified that you might play something you liked, but somebody else would hate their track so you couldn't use it. So now I just go in there and let what happens happen. Usually I just keep doing it until the other players get it dead right. And if I like what I've played I'll keep it, if not I can do another solo."