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Allan Holdsworth’s Untold Secrets + Worthy Quotes (Guitar Player 1990)


I think of "Secrets" as a song, but primarily as a vehicle to improvise over. The harmonic structure of the piece was inspired by a thought I had about how no one can ever really figure out what anybody else is thinking. And Rowanne Mark is really fantastic at taking an idea and creating lyrics. Apart from that, she sings fantastically. Quite often with me, titles come as I'm writing something, but this time there was only a feeling. I also usually write the melody after the chords, but on this piece I played the melody as the top line of the chord voicings.

On almost the whole album I used an Oberheim Matrix 12 and an Xpander, a Kurzweil Expander, and some Yamaha TX synth modules. Most of it turns out to be the Oberheims and the Kurzweil. The solo sound on "Secrets" is a mixture of the Xpander and a TX7 module; I have the Steinberg Synthworks program to work with that synth. FM synthesis doesn't kill me, but having a couple of those units is useful. I was looking for something like a cello tone that I could get a bowed quality from. I wanted it to have more of a string feel than a blown feel. I'm not saying that's what I achieved, but that's what I was going for.

So you didn't use the breath controller.

I did. That's what I use to control the dynamics. I use the breath controller to do things I would have done with a bow, like pulling harder, laying off and being more gentle, and then doing staccato notes where you bounce the bow.

When you play loud, staccato notes, do you blow intermittently or just blow hard and use left-hand articulation to determine the notes' shape?

Most of the time I use it with normal guitar technique, and I'll be blowing constantly hard with the envelope open all the way. I use the air to control velocity alone. If I were playing a bunch of sixteenth-notes and wanted them really hard, I'd be blowing really hard, so all of the notes I was playing would come from what I was doing with my right and left hands, not the breath controller. I'm not using it to dictate the way the note is played; it's only shaping it after it's been played. It's not part of the function of getting the note out, like it would be on a true wind instrument.


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."

Don’t you know - The Lost Words (Oneiric Moor 2003)

OF: In general, do you work a lot with computers ? What comp/softs did you use for the arrangements on Flat Tire?

AH: In general I do not work allot with computers. I do have a collection of old Atari Computers because at the time the Synthaxe came out, it was the only soft where that would record the thing, because it puts out so much information, that if I used a regular sequencer I would play half way through a tune, and it would be full, and half of what I played wouldn't play back. I then got turned on to the Steinberg softare, the Pro 24 which is really old, then I switched to Steinberg Qbase, which is what I still use, so I basically have an ancient set up.

Guitar Synths in Jazz (Music Technology 1987)

As it turns out, one of the tracks I heard, entitled 'Mac Man', featured some stunning sequences created using Mark of the Unicorn's Performer program and a Roland digital piano. Allan points out that he used the SynthAxe's Poly mode 3 rather than Poly mode 1. From there, Macintosh ace John England (MacMan, himself) edited the sequenced track with Performer. Chad Wackerman played live to the track, and his performance was recorded as MIDI data into the sequencer, leaving the leadline the only part not sequenced. Allan says he's looking forward to getting into an Atari ST to run the Steinberg sequencer program, which is apparently ideally suited for recording MIDI data output by the SynthAxe in Poly mode 3.

The Open End (Boston Sound Report 1988)

BSR: One of your new directions seems to be using the Macintosh.

AH: Well, actually, I only used the Macintosh once, and that was on "MacMan." It wasn't even my computer, the Macintosh doesn't work very well with the Synth-Axe. I have an Atari computer with Steinberg software, because at the moment, the Mac with the Unicorn software doesn't record all the midi channels simultaneously - it records them one at a time. The Synth-Axe puts out information on all six midi channels simultaneously, so you would have to play one string at a time, and that would be a total pain in the ass. (Laughs)