The SynthAxe dominates on “Sand”, where there are only two regular guitar solos on “Pud Wud” and “4.15 Bradford Executive”, but they are stellar! Also, Allan plays the “MacMan” solo through a Marshall amp. The synths are generally orchestral or reedy, and the music has something of a soundtrack quality to it. Jimmy Johnson, Gary Husband, Chad Wackerman and Alan Pasqua are important contributors.
- 1 Castles Made Of Sand (Guitarist 1987)
- 2 Guitar Like A Saxophone (Guitar World 1987)
- 3 Guitar Synths in Jazz (Music Technology 1987)
- 4 I want to reach people with my music – common people. (Sym Info 1987)
- 5 The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)
- 6 Allan Holdsworth’s Untold Secrets + Worthy Quotes (Guitar Player 1990)
- 7 Legato Land (Guitar Techniques 1996)
- 8 The Open End (Boston Sound Report 1988)
- 9 Untitled (Guitar Magazine? 2001)
One of the most revered musicians of our time and probably most talked about guitarist in these pages, Allan Holdsworth, has recorded a new album ‘Sand’ Because he refuses to either compromise his music or bow to commercial pressures Allan is again facing the prospect of ‘no deal’ Neville Marten asked about ‘Sand’…
Basically it’s a big leap forward for me with the SynthAxe. For the previous album ‘Atavachron’ I’d only had the SynthAxe a short time before we started recording. In fact, we actually came back off the road and I was waiting at home for it to arrive so that I could start working on the album and I didn’t write anything until I got it. So I was thrown in at the deep end in a lot of ways, because I was dealing with the Axe, dealing with the synthesisers and trying to write at the same time. I’m not saying it turned out to be a bad album because there are things about it that I like, but generally speaking I made a lot more progress on the new album, because I’ve had the Axe for so much longer.
Holdsworth’s 1985 release on Enigma Records, Metal Fatigue, included two vocal cuts. His 1986 follow-up on that label, Atavachron, featured just one. His latest, Sand (on Relativity Records) is all all-instrumental effort. Call it rock, call it jazz, call it what you wanna. This is simply great music from one of tile world’s greatest guitarists. Ax-lovers far and wide will be bowing down to His Highness Holdsworth after hearing this album, but the humble Brit takes all this adulation with a grain of salt.
It’s hard to guess where Holdsworth might go with this stuff. Truly, he has evolved to higher ground. The Allan Holdsworth of Sand is "blowing" some different sounds. At this point in his career, he is to Chuck Berry on guitar what John Coltrane (circa Ascension) is to Clarence "Big Man" Clemons on tenor sax. Ever-probing, ever-changing, he’s taking the six-string to new heights. Now, if only he can take some listeners and record-buyers with him.
I met Allan at Bernie Grundman’s Mastering Studios, where he was mastering his forthcoming album, Sand, for the Relativity label. The two cuts I heard indicated that, yet again, Allan Holdsworth would be setting new standards for guitarists, even though synthesizers are the main components in his new textures. This album will certainly give guitarists food for thought...
For those who are still unfamiliar with this instrument: the SynthAxe is a just a couple of years old string-instrument, which looks somehow like a guitar with a neck in a somewhat strange hook on the body, and which is being used to control a synthesizer. The last time the SynthAxe was for Holdsworth clearly an instrument for some variation of his guitar-play, now the proportions were almost even.
Holdsworth: “I think that at this moment I’m capable to play the SynthAxe a whole lot better. On the last LP, “Atavachron”, I just got it before we started recording and I had to play and try to fathom the instrument at the same moment, which didn’t make things easier. On my new LP, “Sand”, I almost play just SynthAxe.”
GW: It’s been said by certain musicians that synthesis, by its very nature, blocks a certain essential path of their creativity, their ability to express. It creates an undeniable separation between the actual dynamic and its transmission.
HOLDSWORTH: That’s not true. That’s an opinion and I value it, but I think what’s most likely is that I haven’t learned to control it - I haven’t had as long a time to learn how to control it as I had with the guitar. I think that during the Sand period, I really made a lot of progress with regard to that specific area of the communication of music. I suppose the outside perception and the inside perception are so different that I can see why someone might say that. But I’m closer now; especially with Secrets - not necessarily playing-wise, but with a focus on the musicality that I’d like to convey - than I was before.
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."
Although Allan has been associated with a number of different guitars and amps over the years, his passion for The Synthaxe guitar synthesiser remains undiminished.
"I had a guitar that had a Roland pickup on it for a while, years before I played the Synthaxe, but I didn’t like the ‘pitch to glitch’ I was getting. You know, the spurious blurting and stuff, especially if you played a percussive patch like a piano or a xylophone. So I spoke to Tom Mulhearn [sic], who was writing for Guitar Player magazine over in America at the time, and asked if he knew of any synthesiser controller that didn’t use pitch. He called me back a few months later and told me there’s this company called Synthaxe and they’re in England. So when I was over in England again I went over to see them and check it out and I just fell in love with it. The key pad part of it was, in my opinion, a stroke of genius. In fact, for me they could have almost got rid of the trigger strings and had a new instrument that had a neck like a guitar, but all of the strings would be triggered from the keys. I used to like it because I didn’t think about the guitar when I was playing it.
"It amazed me how many guitar players would pick up the Synthaxe and say, Can you make it sound like a guitar? I’d just stand there, tearing my hair out going, Yeah, yeah, spend $10,000 on something and make it sound like a $500 Strat! [laughs] With the Synthaxe, I just wanted an instrument that I could really control. I didn’t really have it down in the beginning. I’d first used it on ‘Atavachron’ and I’d waited until I got the Synthaxe before I started writing the music. I now realise that I shouldn’t really have done that. On ‘Sand’ I started using the breath controller and found a way to make it sound like me. I had always wanted to play the saxophone and so the breath controller brought me closer to what I want to do than the guitar can. In many ways the Synthaxe liberated me from that sound, you know, having to use distortion to get sustain. I absolutely hate distortion, but I have to use it to get sustain. It’s like a necessary evil. I hate all of the spurious sounds that are in betwee n the notes when you’ve got your amplifier cranked up. With the Synthaxe there was none of that. It was totally clean and I could take a note out from nothing and blow it out to maximum velocity and bring it all the way down to nothing again. I just wish I could do that on a guitar."
BSR: Do you feel there has been a change in tone or intention from Road Games to Sand?
AH: I think that my playing is continuously changing; it has been since I can remember. I don’t feel any differently about the way I play; I’m still as disappointed with what I do now as I was when I started. That never changes. But I think that what I am doing continually changes. Like living - or being a musician - it is continually a learning process. If I thought that it was staying the same, I wouldn’t play any more. I would give up. I’m scared of getting to a point where I won’t be able to absorb anymore. People can only absorb so much. Music is a cumulative knowledge. It’s actually handed down from generation to generation. If you put every person on a deserted island, you would soon find out who the geniuses were, but music is not like that. Things are handed down and passed on. You might hear something that you think sounds dated. I’d always give them a lot of credit, because they had nothing else, it came from them. That’s a great thing. But it is definitely accumulated.
Q: What is your favorite album on your own, as a member and solo project?
A: First of all, the newest one. And others are solo albums; ìWardenclyffe towerîîI.O.U.îîAtavacronîîSandî and ìSecretsî.