This article is about Allan's father, Sam Holdsworth. It consists of quotes made by Allan about his father in interviews from 1978 onwards. The words "father" and "dad" are highlighted in bold. Please note that Allan was adopted and raised by his maternal grandparents, and consistently referred to them as his father, his mother and his parents. This is detailed in the quotes below.
This page is dedicated to Lynne, Louise, Emily and "Mr. Berwell".
When and why did you start to play guitar?
I started when I was about 16 or 17 after I left school because I ‘d always been interested in music. My father was a pianist so I was exposed to a lot of music at home. He was like an inspiration to me really in that he often presented me with things I wouldn’t normally get to hear. He helped me a lot in that way but I never actually sat and down and learned to read music.
How curious, then, that he didn’t even pick up anything with six strings on it until he was seventeen. "Originally I wanted to play saxaphone [sic], when I was a kid. My dad was a piano player. He was really good, but he gave it up. I don’t know why, I’ve never understood that. Anyway, he never got round to buying me a sax, and I didn’t have any money of my own at that time, so I couldn’t afford an instrument. So he bought an old Spanish guitar off an uncle of mine for a fiver, and he left it lying around, and I just picked it up."
"I liked quite a lot of classical music but was really more interested in people who could improvise. That was something that fascinated me. Luckily my father was a Jazz pianist and had quite a lot of records which gave me something to go on. When my Uncle gave me a Spanish guitar I dug those records out and listened to them."
A native of Bradford, Yorkshire, Allan Holdsworth was born on August 6, 1948 [Note: The correct year is 1946]. Although his father was a skilled pianist, a love for the 88 keys never bloomed in young Allan. His early interest in music never went beyond listening to jazz records, and it wasn’t until he was 16 that he even tried playing a guitar. At that time his father bought him an acoustic for about ten shillings. The instrument sat around for awhile until Allan’s interest in playing was sparked by hearing the local guitarists play in the neighborhood pub. Soon thereafter he joined a band that covered pop songs, in which he played two guitar solos per song: "One was supposed to be an impersonation of the one on the record," he explains, "and the other was something of my own."
Although Allan doesn’t see himself as a jazz guitarist, in his youth he listened to a lot of jazz records belonging to his father, which featured Charlie Christian and Joe Pass. ‘I’d heard a lot of jazz guitar before I’d even seen a guitar. I listened to Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix too, but what I always tried to catch from people, was the essence of what they were saying, rather than the way they were doing it. The last thing I wanted was to sit down and calculate what they did, just so I could do it like them. What I wanted to do was find a way to get something that was as good as that musically, and that’s my aim. To continuously try and play better, without deliberately playing like someone else.’ Allan Holdsworth’s morals were firmly planted when I quizzed him about the offer of a job with Miles Davis, should the offer ever arise?
‘I don’t know, it depends on what I’d be asked to do (laughs).’
Born thirty-five years ago, Allan Holdsworth was raised in the grim Northern mill town of Bradford, Yorkshire. Although he didn’t pick up guitar until age seventeen, he quickly made up for lost time due to a distinguished tutor: Allan’s musical tastes and later his knowledge of theory came entirely from his father, Sam Holdsworth (no relation whatsoever to the editor of this journal). The elder Holdsworth had been a professional piano player who made the ultimate sacrifice: "He was really a monster musician. He retired and went to work in a factory because he couldn’t stand playing all the tunes that people wanted him to play. He made a conscious decision to only play music on his own at home, for his own pleasure. So he really put all his energy on me."
The result of Sam Holdsworth’s tutelage was twofold: young Allan developed an ear for good jazz, a taste that now firmly underpins all his playing and composing; secondly, and more importantly, Holdsworth’s music has a striking individuality and originality, a whole separate channel on the rock guitar river.
Why did you leave the UK. to go to America?
Basically, it was because I thought I had tried as hard as I could to play what I wanted to play in England, and couldn’t really get anywhere. It had actually got to a point where I decided that I wasn’t going to be a musician any more. I was just going to get a job, like my father had, in a factory or a music store or something and just play for my own amusement. I’d never stop playing, because I would always have the interest to play, but I don’t want to play pop music and I don’t want to be a session player; selfishly, I just want to play what I want.
I really didn’t expect anything to happen though which is why, before I left England, I was quite prepared to drop out of music completely. Luckily, the bass player in the band at that time, Paul Carmichael, went over to the States and met a girl there who said she could get us some gigs, because people knew who we were. We went over there and were absolutely astounded at the response. Basically, I’ve never looked back.
It was like a last chance for me, because I definitely knew what would happen to me if I stayed here, which was absolutely zero, so why not try. I did, and this is our third album since we left, so I’m really quite pleased. I love England, I always will, but for me it’s just not the place to be for music. It’s great for certain people and certain kinds of pop music, but for me it was just impossible.
When he switched over to guitar he was still interested in getting a saxophone kind of sound, which led to all kinds of early experimenting with amplifiers and sustain. "I guess consciously since I’ve started on the instrument I’ve been trying to get the guitar to sound more like I was blowing it than plucking it, as such. I remember having this little 15-watt amplifier that my parents had bought me, and there’d be a certain volume I’d play at with this thing where it would feedback and sound really great, a more hornlike quality than anything I had heard before. Then I’d plug my guitar into somebody else’s amplifier and it would sound completely different. That interested me very much, so I’d try and figure out how the whole electronics thing worked. My father had a friend who built amplifiers and I’d get some lessons with him, so I gradually became aware of what was happening with the sound once you’d pluck a note. From there I’d try to hone in on it - make an amplifier that did exactly what I wanted it to do!’
Holdsworth credits much of his astounding technique to the fact that his first teacher, his father, the late Sam Holdsworth, was a piano player and not a guitar player. "He used to help me with chords and scales, and since he wasn’t a guitar player he couldn’t tell me how it was to be done on the guitar. But he could tell me about the music. So while I did learn the music from him, I had to apply my own logic to everything.
Cymbiosis: I understand if your family could have afforded it you would have had a saxophone instead of a guitar when you were younger?
Holdsworth: Yeah, that’s what I really wanted—to play saxophone.
Cymbiosis: Why was that?
Holdsworth: Well, I just loved the saxophone. It was the sound. I think people are first attracted to music and then to specific sounds within it. I also liked violin later. But at the time I liked saxophone more, because it was on most of the records that my dad had. He was a jazz player and had a lot of jazz records.
Cymbiosis: So you had things like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw?
Holdsworth: Yeah, dad played in the Air Force band during the war, and they played a lot of swing.
Cymbiosis: You apparently had a fascination with your parents’ record player when you were very young and you’ve certainly carried on in your father’s tradition about wanting to surround yourself with equipment. [That’s about all that could be seen in the living room].
Holdsworth: Well, it’s a curiosity. I’m curious about it all. I’ve always been interested in electronics, and I wanted to know why the guitar sounded like it did when using a certain amplifier. I had to analyze and find out why each amp sounded different, so I spent a lot of years modifying and messing with tube amplifiers.
The Georgia Straight 4 July 1986
“My father bought an old guitar from my uncle and just left it lyin’ around. I never thought I’d be a musician, but I had always loved music, just listening and stuff. So I started messing around with the guitar and it just kinda grew on me.”
How is your music theory; do you read for instance?
No I don’t. But I don’t think that would affect your theoretical knowledge. For example, my father helped me a lot with regard to that, because I understand chords and scales and that changes from day to day and hopefully grows from time to time. So I think it’s possible for people to know a lot about harmony, for example, without having to read. But I’ve never been able to read, although when I first started playing I was dabbling around on wind instruments - but I used to perforate my ears all the time - and I found it incredibly easy to read on a wind instrument. When I saw Eb, there was only one place I could play Eb in that octave. But I could never get it together on the guitar; I could never decide where I wanted to play a given note. I’d see a phrase on a piece of paper and just get completely confused as to where I wanted to play it - which may or may not have been practice and may or may not have been that I didn’t pursue it enough. But you’re still thinking about the notes, but you’re thinki ng about them from the inside instead of the outside. Like superimposing things. I like to superimpose two or three different chords over the top of one chord. A very simple example is playing a G major triad, starting on the low E string, and then an octave above that play an F sharp triad and the octave above that play an F triad. So when you play them the actual harmony is going down but the notes are going up. I like those kinds of things.
Born in Bradford in 1946, Allan didn’t start playing the guitar until relatively late - he never wanted to play it anyway, he’d rather have learnt sax - but it was a guitar he was given and so it was the guitar he learnt to play. Guided by his father, apparently a gifted jazz pianist, Allan was a good pupil, always questioning and probing. He quickly realised that the way keyboard chords were arranged differed greatly from the musically limiting system which ‘shape’ guitarists seemed all too willing to adhere to. But, as Allan preferred the more musical sound of his father’s piano chords, he set about the arduous task of transferring them to the guitar: "I started experimenting... taking a triad and going through all the inversions I could get on the lower three strings. Then I’d do the same on the next three, then take a four note chord and do the same... and so on. Then I’d write them all out, find the ones I liked and discard the ones I didn’t." It was this approach that gave Allan his amazing chord vocabulary and led to those tendon-defying stretches - seven or eight frets sometimes - that still put his imitators to shame.
BSR: Who are some of your early and current influences?
AH: Some of my early influences were Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, I suppose, Jimmy Rainey and Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, and all those guys. They were the records that my father had. He was a jazz piano player, and he always had these records lying around. This was before I started playing. So I heard them all when I was growing up.
GW: I can anticipate your response, but in retrospect, which among your recorded solos have you been most happy with?
HOLDSWORTH: I’m not really happy with any of them. I mean, I just think that they were okay at the time, because that’s all you can ever hope for, unfortunately. Because I started playing late, it’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve started to feel I’ve made any progress as a musician, out-side of just waffling around on guitar. I feel like, I don’t know that I haven’t done anything yet. There are certain things I almost like. Like that solo on "Distance Versus Desire" [Sand]. In a way that was the closest I ever got to attaining the kind of sound I hear. People say, "You know I like the guitar sound you get, it’s really expressive," or whatever all these things are that one tries to attain, but to me, it isn’t anywhere near as expressive as what I think I’m going to be able to get out of the SynthAxe. I didn’t think the sound was so great on that particular track, but I would never have believed that you could get that degree of control over a synthesize r. But people perceive things really differently. And it’s almost like I’ve been living all this time just to get that instrument and I never even should have gotten a guitar. But then again, if I hadn’t gotten started on the guitar, I wouldn’t really be able to deal with the SynthAxe. You know I wish now more than ever that I’d been a horn player, because there’s all these new little wind instruments coming out for synthesizer control; God, it makes me want to try again with one of those.
GW: A genuine sense of yearning, similar to that of "Distance Versus Desire," is apparent in some of the newer tunes, "Endomorph" in particular.
HOLDSWORTH: That’s a solo piece about my father, but it could have been written about anyone. The song was written because I’m one of those people who never seems to say how much I care about people, especially the people I’m really close to. It’s kind of an English thing; certain things go unsaid, and you don’t have to always keep hugging people. I wish I had, because when my father did pass away, I felt that I hadn’t actually told him how much I cared about him. The title means "something that’s encapsulated in something else," like when you crack open a rock and there’s some kind of a stone inside. I just felt like letting him know, and the song’s about anybody else who might be feeling the same way, about just generally not being able to say what you’re feeling.
"To be honest," he said in a conversation in mid-April. "I call it jazz because the essence of the music is improvisation, and that makes it jazz to me. My dad used to tell me that to him jazz meant improvisation, and it was supposed to be current with what was happening at any particular point in time. Unfortunately some people insist upon tieing jazz to a specific time period. And that’s not completely right, I don’t think. I always feel that what Charlie Parker did when he came on the scene, or what any other new player does, should be different from what went before. That’s what’s jazz to me. That’s the essence of it,"-
Holdsworth mentions his musician-father frequently. An excellent pianist who spent the World War II years in the Royal Air Force, he was Holdsworth’s first teacher. "My father was really a great jazz piano player," he recalled, "and a great influence on my life; He made a living as a musician early on. But after the war, when he got a chance to go to London to play, he changed his mind - decided that he’d been away front home long enough and he wanted to be with my mum. So he just did local gigs.
"In the beginning, he was working as a musician, and then he just made a decision to stop. I guess he played too many dance gigs with drunks leaning over his shoulder. He finally said, I don’t want to play this kind of music anymore. To him it was better to get a day job and play the music he wanted to play for his own pleasure. I never understood that at first, but I do, now. I used, to think -that, well, surely any playing’s better than no playing. But then, after a" while, you begin to think, well ... maybe not."
Holdsworth’s first interest was the saxophone, and its a fascination that has stayed with him right up to the present day. "I loved the sound of it," he said, "and I still do. But we didn’t have the money to buy one. When I was about 15, my dad picked up an acoustic guitar from an uncle and just left it laying around. At first, I didn’t pay any attention to it. at all. But after it’d been around for a couple of years, I started noodling around on it. When my father saw there was some interest, he started to help me out with chords and stuff. He was such a fantastic natural teacher that he understood the guitar, even though he didn’t play the instrument. The funny thing is that he actually wound up teaching it to local students in Bradford.
"The important thing that my dad did was to open me up to all kinds of creative ideas. I was exposed to music from the very beginning, As far back as I can remember I used to play his old albums,- even 78 rpm records, and I heard Charlie Parker and Charlie Christian very early on. And, of course I’d get to hear my dad play on his gigs. When I was about five or six he made me a record player out of one of those mechanical, wind-up turntables. He was into hi-fi, with mono amplifiers, and building stuff."
"He passed away a few years ago. I’m afraid that I never really told him how I felt about him, but I guess that can happen. But I wouldn’t be where I am musically now without his influence -that’s for sure."
The other significant influence on Holdsworth’s playing has been - predictably, perhaps - saxophonist John Coltrane. "When I first started," he explained, "I tried to play pop music - or what was popular at the time, just because it was the only thing that I could manage to play. But I always used to listen to other kinds of music. Then a few years later I started listening to John Coltrane and it was wonderful (in fact, I introduced my father to his music, because he’d never heard it). Shortly after that, Coltrane died. And it was just after I’d fallen in love with his music. I was devastated; I remember locking myself in the toilet for a long time to think about it because I was so moved by what he did."
Like a lot of kids, when I was growing up I was kind of stubborn, and although I obviously loved my parents, I didn’t always show it - kids can be like that. I think they knew I loved them and cared about them, but I was just not very good at telling them. After my dad passed away, I started feeling unusually sad, particularly so because I was always left wondering if he ever did know how much I loved him.
I tried writing some lyrics for this piece, but I couldn’t express them. I called Rowanne, played it for her and explained the feeling, and that I wanted the title to be "Endomorph," something that’s trapped inside something else, just the way I felt. She wrote it, and like she usually does, she just put a big frog in my throat. She did the same thing with "All Our Yesterdays," from Atavachron: I was just in tears, man. It was incredible. She’d written words that said more than I would have imagined I ever could have. The problem was that I’d written it for me, and it was just outside her range. She could sing it up an octave, but I wanted the melody to be inside the register of the chords. We tried transposing it, and it started not sounding dark or somber enough. I remember my dad used to say, "This tune sounds great in this key." Then he’d play it in a lot of different keys and say, "But listen - it doesn’t sound right in this one." Sometimes you can get away with a half-step in either direction, but even then it often doesn’t work. I tried it again myself, and I couldn’t do it, man. I might have been able to 10, 15 years ago, but I was just croaking and sounding terrible. A few people tried, and then Craig Copeland, whom I met through Chad - who introduced me to Rowanne, as well - came in, and he really sang it great.
Under the second verse there’s a weird, ominous undercurrent.
It was actually a resampled voice. It was taken way out of key, completely off, then we took other samples at different notes, mixed them together, and made another sample as the combination of all of them in that one note. Sonically, it wasn’t as nice as I would have liked, but it did the job inasmuch as it had the spooky vibe about it - there’s a lot of air in the sound. I’d also been working with the Steinberg Tx7 programmer, to get something to simulate the unique sound of a PPG synthesizer. I did two PPGish sounds and blended those with the voice sound That was the bulk of the piece.
Did the piece come off with the kind of emotional breadth you’d intended?
I don’t know. By the time I finish an album, I’m numb. I don’t even know whether any of it’s good. You think, "Oh, Jesus, what did I just play? Was that the biggest load or what?" There’s no way to know. You just say, "I think it was alright," and try again the next day. But sometimes you just have to get away from it. You have to remember what it was feeling like to you when you first did it. I usually come up with the idea really quick, so if the feeling is strong enough in the beginning, when I strike on something I think is okay, it will usually return later. Quite often I work to a point where I just can’t tell. I won’t listen to it for a while, and then I’ll hear it later and go, "Yeah. It was alright."
MP: What was your early musical influences?
AH: Well, all of the people really that my dad use to listen to which is jazz from the period, which would go back as far as Django, Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman, and right way up through Miles…
MP: I understand at a real early age you had a major affinity with a record player, like at 2 or 3 you were just uh…
AH: Well I was absolutely enthralled with music, music was everything, I mean I had no desire whatsoever to play an instrument – I wasn’t really interested in an instrument, I was just interested in music.
MP: Were you formally trained?
AH: No, in fact most of the things I learned, I learned in the beginning anyway, since then I’ve just worked on my own, but most of the things I learned in the beginning were from my father.
MP: I understand that when you were young you wanted to be a saxophone player.
AH: Yeah, well after I’d been listening to music for a long time, I got to be about 10 or 11. I was really interested in saxophone, the breathing thing seemed so alive, you could do more with it than a voice. But it was on that connection like a vocal thing.
MP: And why didn’t you pursue that?
AH: Well, at the time saxophones were very expensive things to buy so my dad got, we I had an uncle who played guitar and my dad got a guitar from him and just left it lying around, I just started in front of the mirror (laughs) I had no real interest in it at all, and he just left it there and I just noodled on it from time to time, try it on listening to music but still had no real desire to play anything and I guess over a period of time I realized I was playing a few chords on it and my dad sort of took over because he knew all the notes on the guitar being the musician that he was…so as soon as he saw I had any interest in it he started trying to help me out. But I was very stubborn, I didn’t really like the help, though I needed it, but I wanted to do it on my own.
MP: There’s some amazing tunes on there, I always thought that if Metal Fatigue if it got airplay it could have been a great FM crossover hit. There was Devil Take the Hindmost, all I can say about that is “whew!” and then the tune I was REALLY interested in is The Un-Merry-Go-Round. Where’d that come from?
AH: Well it’s kind of a… basically I wrote that for my dad, you know, because my dad died during that year that I was doing the album. He used to have all these… he was a really great artist, he used to draw this merry go round with all these famous English politicians on it, like you’d have Ronald Reagan and all these guys on it, and he’d have them with their slogans, and he used to call it the UN Merry go round, so I got the title from him.
MP: The solo in there, which by the way is Phil Keaggy’s all-time favorite electric guitar solo, the soprano – which is quite a compliment in itself – the soprano sax solo that you sort of do – how, where’s that coming from, I mean what’s the inspiration, it sounds nearly exactly like a soprano!
(laughs) For a period of time I guess I was – I go through these periods that change and I was really trying to get like that soprano kind of tone. I guess that was about as close I got. I couldn’t get any closer so I gave up, started on something else.
MP: Let’s talk about some of your instruments, basically. What was your first guitar then?
AH: First guitar was this old, it was kind of like an old classical guitar, but it did have steel strings on it, and then after that my dad got me an f-hole guitar which is a guitar I played a year or so - it was a Hofner, and then I put a pickup on it and I spent it my dad who was into building amplifiers just started getting interested in amplifiers then. He built that, then I saw this guy who had this Fender Stratocaster which I fell in love with so I tried this Fender Strat, my dad got it – well signed for it – so I could make the payments on it. And then about 2 months later I saw, I played an SG and that was it from then on, I was completely in love with this SG. I got this SG Standard, later I traded it for an SG Custom. I basically stayed with that guitar right the way through until…Tony Williams.
IM - How much do you actually know about the harmony theory and scale theory. What’s your background on that?
"Well my dad was a piano player and as far as I can tell I know quite a lot about scales. I could be wrong! So it is something that I have spent a lot of time on. I always study a piece of music from a harmonic point of view before I even play on it and I write it all down for myself then I just improvise on it."
IM - So when you look at the guitar neck you see it as a unified whole rather than as loads of little box positions of shapes?
"I see it as a whole thing because that’s how I started out learning it. When my dad started showing me scales, he would never let me use an open string. I started learning scales with full fingering so that opened up the neck immediately and I wasn’t stuck with playing in the nut position. When he started showing me chords I’d always be more intrigued with closer voicings which were a little more unusual at that time on guitar. I didn’t know what was normal on guitar, what it’s supposed to be like. Whenever I practice a scale I never practice it in one position. Even when I first started, every scale I practiced would be from as high as I could get to as low as possible. Sometimes even now when people ask me to do things that use open strings, I have to really think hard before I can use an open string."
IM - So, are you totally self taught then apart from what your father taught you?
"Yeah, well then from what he had given me I started coming up with concepts of my own and I wanted to figure out how many combinations of notes there are. Just getting into permutations and creating scales by using mathematics. That was one of the simplest ways to do it because that way you can get every single one and you don’t miss anything. Say you want a scale that stretches over three octaves so that if you’re soloing over a couple of changes or whatever you could use this scale and it will go through three separate, independent key centres but in itself it is a complete unity. So you would start out and spread the notes out in such a way that if it started on say a C you could take any amount, say 10, 12, 15 notes over three octaves and just spread them out so that when you get to where you would think the next octave started on C it wouldn’t be C and then on the octave above that it wouldn’t be C, the octave above that it would be. By using numbers like that I could figure all that out so I did and I got reams of stuff and I will never be able to remember it all, but it was just like an exercise, so what I do is draw from that thing because it’s like an endless supply. There’s more information there by just sitting down and working it out first than I’ll ever be able to absorb. Plus the fact that I then saw all the connections with the chords and scales, so I’m just trying to work on that. I’m not very good at it, but I’m trying."
Holdsworth was born in Bradford on August 6, 1946. He never knew his father, and his mother later remarried. He was adopted by his grandparents and grew up believing they were his mother and father. His grandfather, the pianist Sam Holdsworth, played the role of mentor and teacher admirably well, and the younger Holdsworth attributes much of his individualism to the teaching of the man he calls ‘dad’.
‘He was great. He was a big help in a way.I think he was sort of largely responsible for it coming out a little different, just ‘cause he knew where everything was on the guitar, but he had no idea what was normal standard practice for guitar. So I never learnt any of the normal things. Like, I started straightaway with different kinds of voicings of chords. He used to write things out for me to play, show me how to do certain things, scales and chords and stuff, like the way he would have done them on the piano.
‘I did practice scales a lot. One of the things my dad said was "There’s no point in practising anything in the open position. Don’t play any open strings ever." So I never did. I never learnt a single scale using any open string. I started out straightaway playing all the scales using only the fingers. Immediately then I could play the scales all over the neck
‘My dad tried to show me how to read, but I just used to remember the exercises. He’d put something new in front of me and I’d be absolutely useless. The only thing I could ever read was that Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, because it was written enharmonically, with no key signature. But I can’t read; it’s absolutely pathetic. I would learn if I was starting again.’
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: 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.
Oddly enough, Holdsworth became a musician almost by accident. "I had no desire to become a musician," he explains. "I was only interested in listening. When I started listening to saxophone players, I became interested in playing sax. My parents couldn’t afford to buy me one, so my father bought an acoustic guitar from my uncle. He left it lying around to see if I had any interest. Through time, I picked the thing up and tried to play it, and slowly I started to pick a few things up."
ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: "Well, because my dad was a jazz musician he had records of most instrumentalists including guitarists, so after Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, I grew up listening to Joe Pass and Jimmy Raney; I loved Jimmy Raney. And all those guys were absolutely wonderful, but there was something about the guitar that I didn’t like even then. Guitar chords only consist of four DIFFERENT notes, generally---you can play more, but they’re usually duplicates or an octave---so it becomes more limited. When I’d hear chord things, I’d recognize the sound of the chords straight away; you almost knew what was coming. You’d appreciate the fact that it was MARVELOUS---it never took anything away from that---but I thought it would be nice to do something, where the chords sounded different. And unfortunately, unless you have two guitar players and they don’t duplicate notes, the chords will naturally sound a bit more ambiguous in some ways, although they’re not, you know? So I started to think of chords as being related to families. I don’t hear one voicing move to another; it’s like, that chord belongs to a family, a scale, and the next one belongs to a different family, and I try to hear the FAMILIES change as the sequence goes. You can play anything that sounds nice, as long as the notes are contained in those scales as they move from one to another. I hear that in piano players I like. They don’t sound trapped with this chord-symbol thing. Whenever I hear Keith Jarrett, it’s just these harmonic/melodic ideas, and they all sound RIGHT, but at the same time have this kind of FREEDOM in the way they move."
The sounds of Django Reinhardt, Jimmy Rainey, Charlie Christian, Joe Pass, Eric Clapton, and John Coltrane were among the primary inspirations identified by Holdsworth which steered him away from an early passion for bicycle racing and instead towards learning to play a musical instrument. Having never picked up a guitar until his late teens, he found his musical hobby paying off on England’s Mecca dance hall circuit. Born in Bradford, Yorkshire (U.K.), in 1946, Holdsworth had been tutored in many aspects of musical theory and jazz appreciation by his father, Sam, an accomplished amateur musician. Allan later went on to analyze scales on his own, based on mathematical permutations of intervals-the results of which can still be heard in Allan’s playing today.
CH: Okay, what, if anything, do you see as a prerequisite for making your name as recognizable as other famous jazz artists’? Like Wynton Marsalis; do you see that there’s a... is that a concern to you?
AH: Well, it’s totally a non-concern to me... Probably because of the way I started, when I think about it, is... there’s a lot of reasons. But one of the main reasons is that, most people-when they start out-they have an idea that they want to be a musician. One day maybe a young kid he might pick up a guitar and go, you know, "Jeez, I really would like to work real hard on this and get a job as a musician," and everything. But when I look back, I realize that that was the farthest thing from my mind. When I started playing, I only did it as... It was just literally a hobby. I’d never any intention of taking it any farther than that. It was just because I loved music so much, and that I’d listened to it from being really little, you know, like three or four years old. Constantly... that’s all I’d do, is just bury my head in my dad’s records. And I just thought of myself as a listener. So when I started getting involved in trying to write music, then I was really shocked at myself, you kno w. But it came by a complete accident. All of a sudden, I realized like now, when I think, "Jeez, you know, I’m actually doing this as a musician,"-but it wasn’t my intent. And I think that worked to my advantage, in that I don’t expect anything, you know. I don’t think perhaps the same way as someone who’s hunting for a certain thing, you know. But I realize that it would be impossible for me to do anything like, speaking of Wynton Marsalis, for example, just simply because his music can be put in a box. He plays classical music; he plays jazz music; and you can put it in a big box, and my music falls through all the holes. So you can’t... that’s the biggest reason. It has nothing to do with whether it’s any good or not, or whether his is any good or not; it means that people will hear it because it falls into a box, and they can play it on the radio. But my music can’t; it was never heard on the radio, except by a few stations who were not too scared to lose their ratings by playing it.
MP: Which of your father’s records did you used to listen to? I heard you say that. What are the ones that really "did it" for you?
AH: All of them. I used to listen to all of them. Most of them... we had Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Charlie Christian... Django Reinhardt. Now there, you know-Django Reinhardt-and Charlie Christian were probably the biggest influences once I started to play guitar, but before that, I didn’t really pay any more attention to it because I heard the music in the notes. [to his kids, who are wanting to order pizza] Mom can do that! Jeez, I’m the one who’s doing the interview! You don’t want to order the pizza?!? Starve to death, then!
Aside from Allan Holdsworth’s little known involvement on Donovan’s hit "Hurdy Gurdy Man”, his first excursion into the recording world was the Igginbottom’s Wrench album, a 60s jazzy pastiche reminiscent of other early proggers (Colosseum, Giles, Giles and Fripp), with our interviewee supplying vocals as well as guitar. I suggested to Allan that his playing even at this early stage was quite well advanced.
“It doesn’t sound like that to me! I think I’d only been playing about two years, maybe three years when we did that record. At the beginning I was taught by my father, who was a really wonderful piano player. Then started to find out things for myself. Being an incredibly stubborn guy I wanted to be able to figure things out for myself. Because if I can hear it I must be able to figure it out.
Holdsworth paints a picture of a fairly shambolic set-up. I presumed that this had maybe then been his first sortie into a band set-up. "No, it wasn’t, actually. I played with a lot of local Top 40 bands, club bands, working around in Bradford. Because I never wanted to be a musician, I was just a listener, and I used to just listen to my dad’s records and spent most of my time as a kid just listening to the music. And I really wanted a saxophone but they were pretty expensive. And then he bought a guitar from my uncle and he left it lying around and I picked up a few things here and there, but had no real interest in it. And then I guess after a couple of years I started to learn a few things. When he saw me taking some interest in it, my dad, he tried to help me, and from that point on started to meet other people who were in bands and they started to ask me to play with them. So that’s how it started. But I never intended to be a professional musician - it wasn’t like a lot of young people when they first start learning an instrument.
There are other surprises on the album, such as the jazzed up instrumental version of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, and a strangely lilting cover of Django Reinhardt’s jazz classic Nuages.
"What I wanted to do was my own rendition of something Django had done, rather than try to do something in a way that he might have done it, which I couldn’t do anyway. For the introduction I just took and reharmonised the middle section. Then we just played over the sequence and the melody actually comes at the end. Django was always one of my main inspirations when I was younger. My dad used to have lots of Django records and I thought he was absolutely amazing.
"There’s something special about those older players. I notice this when I listen to Charlie Parker records. Other bebop players have refined it all since then, but it’s been cleaned up and it just doesn’t have the vibe that it used to have. It used to have a mystery about it before they figured out how to do it. It’s that mystery kind of thing in music that really excites me. Med Siktet Innställt På Total Kontroll (MusikerMagasinet 1996, Swedish language) His career as a guitarist has in many ways been a constant battle against the inherent limitations of the guitar. His parents were not so well off, and they could not afford a saxophone. Young Allan had to make do with his uncle’s guitar.
- I had no interest in it. You could not shape the tone very much afterwards, and I just picked it up from time to time.
Over time, his dad, a clever jazz pianist, saw that Allan was making progress nonetheless and wrote small instruction manuals for his son.
- The books he wrote were actually better than anything I could have bought in the music store. He could not play the guitar himself, but he had all the necessary theory. In this manner, he did not limit me by saying the chords should be played this or that way for example. One can say that the foundation of my style was laid there - I started without a lot of notions of what one could or could not do. He also pointed out that I should not use open strings, which I greatly benefited from when transposing what I had learned to other keys. It also meant that from the very beginning, I was using four fingers of the left hand. Many only used three and for me that was a mystery - the guitar is difficult enough to master with all fingers available. I wish I had more, he says, laughing.
Guitar.com: Your legato sax-type attack has always come through in your playing going back to Soft Machine. If you listen closely, it’s very much a Coltrane thing.
Holdsworth: He just completely turned my life upside down. I remember when I first heard those Miles Davis records that had Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane on them. It was fascinating to me, a major revelation. I loved Cannonball Adderley also but when I listened to Cannonball I could hear where it came from. I could hear the path that he had taken. But when I heard John Coltrane, I couldn’t. I couldn’t hear connections with anything else. It was almost like he had found a way to get to the truth somehow, to bypass all of the things that, as an improviser, you have to face. He found a way to be actually improvising and playing over the same material but in a very different way. That was the thing that really changed my life because I realized it was possible. His playing was just like a complete, total revelation to me. And I realized then that what I needed to do was to try and find a way to improvise over chord sequences without playing any bebop or without having it sound like it came from somewhere else. And it’s been an ongoing, everlasting quest.
Guitar.com: When did you have this epiphany?
Holdsworth: When I was probably about 18, 19.
Guitar.com: You were already playing guitar at that time?
Holdsworth: Yeah, I was just dabbling with it. I was still really interested in the horn. I had wanted a saxophone, I didn’t really want the guitar. But saxophones were pretty expensive in those days anyway, relative to a cheap acoustic guitar. There weren’t so many guitars around then, not compared to nowadays. But my uncle played guitar and when he had bought himself a new guitar, he sold his old one to my father, who then gave it to me. And that’s basically how it started.
Allan Holdsworth: I actually never was interested in playing. I only wanted to listen to music.
TCG: How then did guitar come into your life?
AH: When I was about 15 or 16, I thought it might be interesting to try the horn, because I found myself listening to a lot of saxophone players. I was really drawn to the idea that you could shape the notes after they were sounded, as opposed to the guitar which was basically a percussive instrument. Saxophones were pretty expensive and we couldn’t afford one, so I ended up with a guitar that I got from my uncle. I wasn’t really that interested in this instrument. I wasn’t particularly drawn to it. I soon took an interest in some local Skiffle music which sort of lit the torch. My father realized this and started helping me with my musical education. Interestingly, even though he was a pianist, he realized that playing scales and such with open strings on the guitar was counterproductive to playing in different keys. So I learned and still use lots of fingers to accomplish my musical ideas.
His father, Sam, was a piano player who taught his son chords and scales. "But since he wasn’t a guitar player, he couldn’t tell me how it was supposed to be done on the guitar," says Allan. "And I guess that’s how I developed such an unorthodox technique. I learned things from the piano and figured out on my own how to transpose those ideas onto the guitar. And I just acquired this dexterity through constant repetition and practice. I didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be done that way, it just seemed perfectly logical to me.
Merlin Rhys Jones started by asking Allan about the influence of John Coltrane on his playing...
Allan Holdsworth: ... that’s when I started going out and buying tons of Coltrane records, everything I could find. My dad had a lot of records and I started out copying Charlie Christian solos. By the time I discovered Coltrane I had learned to just absorb the (musical) experience. I never analysed or transcribed anything (Coltrane) did because it was very spirited, with a lot of heart but it was also heady. Coltarne Sounds was my favourite record.
I also listened to a lot of Chopin and Debussy. (My dad) knew I wouldn’t get anywhere with the piano so he gave me a guitar, but the guitar wasn’t that much better! He used to sneak me into clubs to see electric players.
MRJ: How old were you then?
At which age did you start to play and what kind of music did you listen to?
Well, that’s a good question because I started to listen to music when I was around three years old, but I didn’t want to be a musician, I just enjoyed listening to music. I couldn’t understand that there were some compositions that could make me cry and others that could make me feel happy. It was like something magical, something really fascinating. I took my parents’ records and, although I didn’t know how to read yet, I knew all of them and identified them by taking a look at the covers. I think that when I was 11 or 12 my dad tried to teach me to play piano, but I didn’t like piano. It is not that I don’t like to listen to others playing, simply I didn’t feel comfortable sitting there. I thought that I wanted to play a wind instrument, like a saxophone, for an example, but at that time they were very expensive and my parents couldn’t buy it. So my father bought an old guitar from my uncle, but the truth is that at the beginning it didn’t like a lot either. I put myself in front of a mirror and started to imitate Elvis. My father started to play guitar on his own, he was a pianist, so in the beginning he didn’t have a lot of technique but a lot of knowledge, so he played very attractive things, but not too fast. It wasn’t until 18 or 19 when I started to be interested, to take it seriously. I just wanted to listen to music, not to be a musician. I didn’t feel I had anything to offer as a musician. But, without knowing how, I changed. Unconsciously years went by and I started to like it.
Allan, the average listener would be very bemused by your music. Not too many singalong choruses there...
"Not really, no. I don’t know where it comes from really; it’s like a little portal to the other side. I suppose it was initially classical music, which was what my father played around the house; he had loads of records so there’s obviously a lot of classical in there. But he was also a jazz musician and had a lot of jazz in his collection too, so that was another obvious source of information."
Any plans for instructional video’s or books for the future?
No, I mean there’s so many kinda bullshit bootleg books that were out there that were half way finished and half done and...The guys don’t pay you any money to do books, you know if somebody says uh ok, we’ll give you $1500.- to do a book, by the time it takes you to do a book, you’re broke. The last thing that I did was this thing called ‘Melody Chords For Guitar’, but it wasn’t my book, it was written by my father. And the whole idea was, I wanted to show people what I had been taught by my father. Not me, I didn’t write that book. My father did. So that’s why some of it’s funny. The way that he..explains notes and...you know flat 10’s instead of sharp 9’s and whatever. His whole thing was different, he was coming from a different era you know, ‘cause we were a few generations apart. But the guy wouldn’t do it. It was supposed to be Melody Chords For Guitar by Sam Holdsworth edited by Allan Holdsworth. But he was a real, forgive the word, asshole about it and he wouldn’t do it. He just said no and I got into a war with him, like a legal battle with him, but...because of the way that the contract was, he kind of won. So it was really sad. I think I managed to get something in there about the fact that my dad dit it, it’s pretty obvious it’s not what I do now. What I was trying to show was what I’d been taught before. What I’m gonna try to do now is, now that I’ve got a computer is to write one over long period of time. So I don’t have to worry about it, I can do it in my spare time. And whenever I decide it’s there, Maybe sell it through my site.
Fan: What are your thoughts about Wes Montgomery?
AH: I love Wes Montgomery. My dad bought an album, an EP on riverside records, and Melvin Rhine was playing organ and bass with his feet. I listened to him a great deal, especially from this era. He was just a completely different kind of player.
TCG: It’s easy for me to forget when I’m around you, the effect that you’ve had on musicians everywhere, and in guitar, there are just a slew of other guitar players that you’ve influenced or outright have tried to copy your style and it must be daunting for you, you know...I mean a certain amount of imitation is flattery but you know, the Allan impersonators still exist!
AH: (laughter) The thing that was interesting to me that when I first started listening to...first started playing and I was listening to my dad’s records and I heard Charlie Christian, and I really...I tried to copy Charlie Christian, and actually, I got pretty good at it, you know, but then I realized, "Well Jesus, man, you’re only getting good at sounding like somebody else, you know...And then I caught it real early, and just said "Ah, I know what I need to focus on. I need to focus on the quality of what I’m playing as opposed to the actual, physical, you know, thing of what I’m doing, so I stopped doing it like right then, like within the first couple of years, and I just concentrated on trying to figure out a way to do what I thought was, just to try to elevate my playing without it being...I was always influenced by other people, but I would stay away from...I never analyzed anything to the point where you know, I was actually doing the same thing. I would try to sort of come up with another way of doing something that sounded like it or similar to it, without it actually being a direct, you know...knockoff, because it’s pointless. One of the things that’s really nice about music is that you progress, and you know, you never get anywhere in the end just...you know, it’s an everlasting quest, you know, it’s not like you’re ever going to get anywhere, you know, you just try to get better, but I just think that, I can’t understand how anybody would get any satisfaction...the feeling sometimes when most of the time I don’t like what I do but once in a while, something will happen and I say, "Yeah okay...That was all right!" And at that point, I can’t imagine anybody having...that’s a nice feeling, that little bit of satisfaction once in a while, and I can’t imagine anybody who spent their whole life, cloning somebody, how they could get any satisfaction at all. It would drive me absolutely insane!
TCG: There was show called The Stepford Wives.
AH: Oh, I saw that (laughter)
Do you read or write conventional music?
That’s hard to believe.
I started out learning to read because my father was a great piano player who read very well. He always encouraged me to read and I did when I started playing clarinet in my youth. I found it relatively easy to read while playing the clarinet because most of the time there was only one place where a note would exist most of the time. With the guitar, it was totally confusing because you have a lot of choices in terms of where you can play a note. So, my dad caught me a few times when I just memorized note placements. He’d give me new things and I’d screw them up and he knew I wasn’t reading. Eventually, I didn’t bother with it anymore.
At what point did you decide to dedicate your life to music, and have things turned out at all like you’d imagined they might?
No, things have turned out nothing like I’d imagined. And I often think about that whenever we go to music schools, because I’m sure almost everyone who goes to a music school is there because they’ve already decided that that’s what they want to do. But for me it was the absolute opposite. My father was a wonderful piano player who had a great record collection, including all the classic jazz records, and I just loved listening to music. I had no interest in learning an instrument until I was about 15, when I started thinking that maybe I’d like to get a clarinet or a saxophone. But in those days they were pretty expensive, so instead my dad gave me a guitar he had bought from my uncle. Then he bought me a couple of chord books and as soon as he saw that I was making a little progress, he started trying to help me, and that’s when I developed an interest. And he had records by all these great guitar players lying around, like Jimmy Rainey, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, and Charlie Christian, who became my first major influence.
Is jazz inextricably linked to improvisation, and if not, should it be?
A lot of that question, to me, is like what my father instilled in me. He said that he felt that in his opinion, the word “jazz” was basically a music that was designed for people to improvise in, like a world that people improvised in—regardless of a sort of stylistic thing. Be it be-bop traditional jazz, or avant garde—whatever it is—if there’s a space in it for improvising, then he considered that jazz. Now a lot of people don’t. For a lot of people it’s got to be a fixed style. For example, some people my say to me, “Your music isn’t jazz.” And then I’ll go, “Well, almost everything that we do is … all the chord sequences are chord sequences just like they are in traditional music, like in be-bop, only we play over maybe different kinds of chords. So in my father’s eyes my music would be jazz, but to a lot of others it wouldn’t be. But to me, if the music is improvised, it’s some form of jazz. If each piece of music is written as a vehicle for improvisation … It’s just like the word “fusion” became a nasty word, because when somebody says the word to me I cringe, because I know that I’m going to hate it. But the word is fine. It’s a very fine word to describe what’s happening. The trouble is it got completely linked to a specific kind of thing. A really complicated head, super fast, and then off they go. So even though the word was good, the association ruined it. And jazz may be like that. Most people go immediately to be-bop. Which is fine. But sometimes people are hearing that kind of music and not improvising as much as people playing other kinds of music. You hear Indian musicians improvising like crazy. Of course, you can’t really call that jazz, but it my dad’s eyes it would be considered a form of jazz. And that’s basically what jazz means to me, regardless of any kind of stylistic attachment.
Particularly these days, when people think of Kenny G. as jazz. Smooth jazz. Those guys need to grow a beard, man. There’s a five-o-clock shadow on that stuff.
R.V.B. - I glad you made out ok. Thank you for taking this time to speak with me. The guitar... you brought it to a new level. Was there any incident in your youth that made you want to become a guitar player?
A.H. - Not really. I had always loved music way before I ever touched an actual instrument. My dad played music all the time, as he was a really great pianist. I was surrounded by music. He had lots of great records... classical... jazz and other stuff. I wanted to play a horn - like a saxophone - but they were kind of expensive. My dad bought a guitar from my uncle and I started noodleing around on that. I wasn’t really interested in it at first but it kind of grew on me.
R.V.B. - Did you take any formal lessons from anyone? Allan holdsworth Black and white
A.H. - Only from my dad. He wasn’t a guitar player but he was a really good teacher. He understood the guitar and knew where the notes were. He eventually became quite good at it. He didn’t have a lot of chops but he had a lot of hard wedding knowledge. He was good with chords.
R.V.B. - I can see where you got it from. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
A.H. - Apparently not. (Hahaha)
You wanted to take up a horn rather than guitar when you were younger. You really didn’t think of yourself as a guitar player. Do you still feel that way and why?
Pretty much. I just think of myself as a musician. I always think of an instrument as exactly that, it’s just a tool for you to try and express yourself. My dad was a fine pianist and he had a lot of great records and beautiful music.
I grew up listening to Ravel, Debussy, Bartók and jazz like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhart. It was incredibly inspiring! And I was given a guitar and I said “What the hell is this?!”
Like I said, my dad was a piano player, and I tried that, but I just didn’t have the feel for it. I wanted to play a horn or violin because you could change the loudness or softness of a sound. With a percussive instrument like piano or guitar I didn’t think I could get the feel I wanted on it. But I tried the guitar and found myself trying to make it not sound like a guitar [laughs].
But eventually I fell in love with the guitar for other reasons. I played the violin for a couple years too but I missed playing chords. So I went back to the guitar and used distortion to sustain notes and make it do things it wouldn’t normally do. So, here I am playing the guitar… or trying to!
Your early influences were the ambitious end of classical music: Stravinsky, Bartok, and the like. When you were young, did pop music filter its way into your musical sensibility?
My dad was a piano player, a really good pianist. He had lots of records around; they were mostly jazz records. But you don’t wake up one day and sound like Django Reinhardt, so I decided to learn to play some of the pop music that I could play. And once I could, my interest in that music faded away. So pop music was just a starting point, although I still listen to all kinds of music.
ALLAN: I took a lot of cues from my father who is a pianist. He was truly an excellent pianist. He could not play the guitar, even if he was good! He knew where all the notes on the guitar were, but simply could not play it. So, he could tell me where to put his hands on the guitar, but he could not do it, so he did not have any preconceptions about how the guitarists do things. It was more open! I think it opened my mind a bit. Then I studied alone, working on scales, etc. ... As you know, all the necessary information is available, you just have to look for it. When you study music, you realize that there is a certain logic, therefore I have only tried to use my own logic in the study. [Machine back translated.]