Searching for purity (FUZZ magazine 2000)
Allan Holdsworth - Searching for purity.
Translated version of article appearing in FUZZ magazine (Sweden), May 2000
Author unknown (Unintelligible on the Xerox copy which was source material.)
Also available in Swedish.
[The original article was published in Swedish. Provisional translation by the Allan Holdsworth Archives. The translator has a working knowledge of Swedish and English, but they are not his first languages. Allan’s quotes must not be read as word for word transcriptions, as they have been back-translated from Swedish to English. Feel free to suggest improvements to the translation.]
That the guitar's tone decays shortly after the attack, is known to everyone who’s searched for the perfect guitar sound, and for "endless sustain". In the early days of the rock, different approaches were used to achieving sustain; deforming the speaker, cranking the volume to max, or using a fuzz pedal. Allan Holdsworth's idea of sound was different, he wanted to "play a wind instrument, not a guitar" and what he heard was the tone flow and expressivity of the saxophone. After a few years of playing the guitar, he discovered that with the help of amplification distortion, a powerful vibrato and legato technique, a more expressive tone was within reach.
Allan Holdsworth's influence on many of today's guitarists is very big, though he has not become a household name. With his music and amazing techniques, he has become a "musician's musician" in many ways.
Allan Holdsworth is an innovative musician who has always gone his own way but sometimes also been his own worst enemy, with draconian self-criticism. Holdsworth's tone is powerful but at the same time heartfelt. His deft, liquid legato playing in the spirit of Coltrane's "sheets of sound" is like a flowing river.
During the interview he is very enthusiastic about his upcoming album, with the new record company Gnarly Geezer (whose name refers to Holdsworth itself). His Yorkshire dialect persists, though he has lived on the west coast of the United States for a long time "where the sun rises every day and the sky is blue. In England, it's not so common," says Allan, laughing, and continuing to tell about his earliest memories of music.
"When I was 4-5 years, I never understood why music could make me cry or feel very happy. It was as if someone spoke to me without words, only later did I begin to explore what was happening in the music.”
A suitable illustration of this is found on the inner cover of the album Atavachron, with a picture of a young Allan in the process of switching the turntable on. He got a guitar early, but his free time was devoted to cycling and listening to music. The interest in guitar grew when he later got an “orchestra” guitar (Sw: “Orkestergitarr”), and a good friend put a microphone on it.
Allan Holdsworth became known through the band Tempest in the early 1970s. His first album, Igginbottom's Wrench, however, was recorded in 1969, and listening now, you can hear a musician searching for new ways.
In the mid 70's his guitar playing spiced up several fusion classics. A brilliant example is his solo on Hazard Profile Part 1 from Soft Machines Bundles where he plays a long exuberant solo over a bass riff. Solot takes off at the edge of the rock with a Marshall Amplifier of 11 (?) And a Gibson ES-175 jazz box.
An example of Holdsworth's influence is the song In The Dead Of Night (from UK) that inspired Yngwie Malmsteen to do a version on his cover album Inspiration, and Dream Theater's John Petrucci, who "quotes" the solo on Trial of Tears from Once In A Lifetime.
However, according to Allan, the Super Group UK was not a successful combination of musicians or music.
“Bill Bruford and I were actually sacked from the UK ... I was more unhappy in that band than I have ever been before.”
Holdsworth was tired of UK's "jigsaw music" and wanted to develop his own ideas. After UK he formed the False Alarm band, however, that became a dead end.
"I did not do anything for two years ... we did not get any interest in England.”
After moving to the United States, Holdsworth was able to record the brilliant EP Road Games at Warner Brothers through Eddie Van Halen.
"I'm not very fond of the album, I was not happy with my guitar playing and it was a tough period with a lot of conflict. I lost my record contract because Warner did not want Paul Williams to sing on the album.”
Holdsworth was again without a record contract but quickly released Metal Fatigue with a more rock-oriented sound and vocals on some songs.
As a gift from above, searching for a more expressive instrument, the SynthAxe was developed. But unfortunately, the result was that he again ended up off the beaten track.
“The music was not jazzy enough for the traditional jazz audience, and there was too little guitar for the guitar freak. It seems like some just listen with the eyes, and not what is being played”, Allan commented.
In the 1990s, Holdsworth's music partially changed focus with more sound experiments, but on the album None Too Soon there are several jazz standards.
“Gordon Beck (pianist) thought I should make a record to give the listeners a guide to my music. I played as usual, though, and the result was OK …”
Allan pauses to think and continues: "I'm not happy to play that music, there's a million musicians that can play that way. Somewhere in the future I would like to record more standards but my own music comes first.”
Tell me about the new album 16 Men Of Tain, and about who the 16 men are?
“It's a trio record with my own compositions. I play Guitar and Synthaxe, Dave Carpenter plays acoustic bass and Gary Novak drums, plus Chad Wackerman plays drums on a song. The trumpeter Walt Fowler (played with Frank Zappa, formerly) guests on 0274 and Texas.”
"My goal was to achieve the same feeling as in an acoustic jazz trio with my own music. At first I only thought of playing with a clean guitar sound, but I changed my mind, it did not sound like me”, Allan laughs. “On the track Eidolon I only play Synthaxe, no guitar.” Allan hesitates for a while, then asks if I know anything about single malt whiskey.
"There is a small distillery in Scotland called Glenmorangie and they make one of the best whiskies. On each box it says "Handcrafted by the 16 Men of Tain". I almost always name an album after a song title and that song has a festive, upbeat feeling. So I named it after the 16 men ... whoever they may be” [ laughs]. “At the end of last year I got a new record contract and was able to finish the album. My manager paid the musicians. Working without any money is frustrating, and I am often forced to do something else at the same time. This time there was a project outside the music that took over.”
What was the project if I may ask?
“I invented a beer pump system. We did not play much just then, and together with a good friend I developed the idea of being able to sell it to any of the American breweries brewing ale. When we sold the idea, I returned to music again.”
I think you made your most exciting and expressive music while playing the Synthaxe. Do you still use it?
“They are no longer manufactured and in the beginning I used it live too, but a lot of extra equipment was needed. It consisted of 3-4 parts, plus sound modules and a separate audio rig. When they went bankrupt ... this is more than ten years ago, I was terrified and sold the two I had. Then I had to trade some guitars for a Synthaxe which "lives with me now". I only use it for recordings. I'll use it until it breaks because nobody seems to be able to fix it anymore. I really like to play the Synthaxe and over the years it became the instrument I could express myself bes witht. But that's life, I do not want to keep playing on an extinct dinosaur”, Allan laughs.
Many of the compositions have impressionistic sounds. Do you listen to classical music?
“I love classical music ... Ravel, Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. It's very beautiful music. Bartok and Debussy do not have much in common but for me they have it because the music is very emotional.”
"My father was a pianist, which made my chordal playing different from other guitarists. I've always been fond of chords with small intervals, which is hard to play on the guitar. The regular guitar chords have four tones and then some tones are doubled. When I read books, several chords had the same name but did not contain the same tones. It made me hear and use chords in a different way than traditional harmony with roots, thirds and fifths. I perceive the whole sound and scale, which is the basis of the chord, at the same time. If I use a regular chord, the chances that another musician will use exactly the chord voicing I hear, is almost equal to zero.”
"I never wanted to be a musician, it almost happened without me knowing it. Nowadays, I'm looking inside myself to find something new. At the same time, I am very afraid not to be able to discover new things because of my own inability to convey "what I hear" to my instrument. If I get to a point where I find that "nothing passes through you any more", I would not have a goal anymore, it has not happened yet, but it's a strange feeling.”
ALLAN HOLDSWORTH'S TONES are primarily a result of a miraculous technique where one can sometimes think that it all depends on his distorted soft guitar sound in combination with amplifiers and incredible legato techniques. But those who heard and watched Holdsworth live (or his instructional video) can see that his overall technique is incredibly precise.
With small movements from the pick he has full control over attack, sustain and vibrato. When practicing, he usually plays melody phrases with a clean sound, to place rhythmic stresses and accents in different places. He uses LaBella strings, stainless steel for his Steinbergers and nickel for the Carvins.
“I experiment a lot with strings and string thickness. Most often I use 009 to 038 or 040. I like the feeling of 010 strings but prefer how the thin 008 strings sound, so I use 009 as a compromise. I use Dunlop frets, either 6100 or 6000. The latter are almost as high but a little thinner, and 6000s have a nice feel. I like both.”
Your coordination and right-band technology is very accurate?
"My pick attack is very light. Many people think that my left hand does everything but, for example, I can not play [the Chapman] Stick. I want to control the attack, and I dampen individual strings with the right hand. When using distortion, you can get a lot of "gravel" and noise between the tones, and I've been working to get rid of it, which my right hand manages by 90%. Using distortion was both necessary to me but also an inevitable must: Let me explain; if you use an amplifier that “strutlar”[Swedish word, meaning unknown], it may force you to do things you do not want to do, because you have to play by the amplifier's restrictions, which I do not like. The amplifier is as important as the guitar for me, it's part of the whole sound, a symbiosis.”
You have started playing Yamaha amplifiers after using Boogies for many years?
- I discovered the Yamaha DG series a few years ago. I really liked them, the sound was very close to my own sound ideal. When I spoke to the designer it turned out that the amplifier he copied was also very close to my sound ideal. In addition, they are easy to transport, and I always use my own load-boxes where I convert the speaker output signal to line level. The boxes change the speaker level to line level, which means that the amp still has the same feel, dynamic and sound character without sounding “flat”. I have been thinking about using a DG 80 with a 12’’ and a DG 100 2x12’’ for playing chords live.
Over the years, you've played on a variety of guitars and now you have a new Carvin signature model.
"In recent years, I've hired Bill DeLap, who builds outstanding guitars, but with long waiting times. I asked Carvin if they wanted to build an instruments based on my ideas. They accepted on condition that if I was pleased with the guitars they could start producing them commercially.
"I've also played on headless guitars for a very long time, the first Steinberger guitar was a breakthrough, a brilliant idea and a fantastic instrument.
What's the difference between a guitar with or without a head for you?
"It affects how the strings feel, which gives headless instruments a special sound. They are even instruments and the balance between bass and treble can not be improved. But we decided to build a guitar with a small head. The first was a arched hollow guitar just like the first Steinberger guitars! When I discovered that, Bill DeLap made some similar instruments for me. After Carvin's first versions, I got the idea for a design that gives an almost acoustic guitar sound (Carvin Fatboy, author’s note) where the cover and the back are not in contact with each other except at the bridge, and without sound holes. This allows you to play with very light pick attack and attack with distortion, and it still sounds almost clean. You can control the the distortion by adjusting the attack.”
What are your plans for the future?
"I want to play live again, which is inspiring and gives rise to ideas that I can use in compositions. We played a gig in Israel recently with Gary Husband and Skuli Sverrisson which I was really pleased with. Playing with Gary has always been something special. He plays exactly as I want it. The first time we jammed it was almost as if there was a cord between us under the floor.”
Since you had problems with different record companies, have you not thought about producing your albums yourself from recording to selling them?
"Well, but the reason is that I never had the money to invest in a project and still getting by with my family in the meantime. I hope there will be more records, more often", concludes Allan Holdsworth.