The SynthAxe is widely covered in numerous interviews on this site. Here are the main points, see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SynthAxe:
What is the Synthaxe?
The SynthAxe is a guitar-like synthesizer controller, mainly invented by Bill Aitken, and introduced to the market in the mid 80s. This means that it is shaped like and can be played by guitarists. However, it produces no sound of its own. All input is transferred electronically to its MIDI output, which is then sent to an external synthesizer sound module. While it shares some traits with a guitar, it also differs from a guitar in many respects. The SynthAxe features two sets of strings. The right hand set of strings is used to control note attack exclusively, much like a piano keyboard. The left hand strings cover the neck. The neck has an electronic circuitry which detects when a string is fretted. The neck strings can be set to trigger the sound by themselves, facilitating legato and tapping techniques. In addition, the body of the instrument featured keypads which worked very much like a synthesizer keyboard, except the pitch was determined by the left hand position. There were pads covering single and multiple strings. Allan favored these keypads, as they allowed him to play block chords, and to control dynamics after the initial attack. In addition, Allan purchased a breath controller, which allowed him to control dynamics by breath, finally fulfilling his dream of playing a wind instrument.
Allan's adoption of the SynthAxe
Allan was introduced to the SynthAxe at an early stage, and immediately became the instrument's main proponent. He was highly enthusiastic about almost every aspect of the instrument. Mainly, it meant that he could retain (and expand on) his guitar technique while controlling synthesizers, without relying on glitchy pitch-to-voltage technology common in guitar synthesizers. The only major concern he had with the instrument's design was the wide spacing of the frets. Frets were evenly scaled on the neck to allow equal playability. However, this meant that Allan could not perform some of his multi-fret stretches in higher positions on the neck, which again meant that some of his favorite chord voicings were unplayable.
Allan introduced the SynthAxe on "Atavachron", which featured the instrument widely. The SynthAxe also played a major role on "Sand" and "Secrets". He continued using the instrument on studio albums throughout the 90's. However, his use of the instrument was severely impeded when the SynthAxe company went bankrupt. The instrument was costly, and never attracted a large number of buyers. Servicing and maintenance of the instrument became very difficult. This meant that its use for live concerts became very risky, and Allan soon retired it for live use. At one point, he became so disillusioned that he sold his SynthAxe as well as all his synthesizer modules. However, facing withdrawal symptoms, he was able to purchase one that he kept in the studio. After his divorce sometime around 2000, he was not able to maintain a permanent home studio. Thus, he used the SynthAxe extensively on the mostly one-man album "Flat Tire", which was released in 2001. From then on, it was used sparingly, and Allan's recorded output diminished. Two SynthAxe tracks were included on "Tales From The Vault".
Allan's favorite synthesizer sound modules were made by Oberheim, while he also favored Yamaha for certain sounds. In addition, he used several other types such as Kurzweil. These will be featured in a separate article on Synthesizers.
The SynthAxe in interviews
Allan's use of the SynthAxe alienated a large part of his audience, which consisted of a large number of guitar players. Still, it was a major topic in interviews, especially from 1985 to 1990. This means that there is a lot of material, which should ideally be categorized further. The remainder of this article simply quotes all articles where Allan talks about the Synthaxe.
- 1 What is the Synthaxe?
- 2 Allan's adoption of the SynthAxe
- 3 The SynthAxe in interviews
- 4 SynthAxe quotes
- 4.1 Reaching For The Uncommon Chord
- 4.2 Allan Holdsworth (Guitarist 1985)
- 4.3 Allan Holdsworth: Synthaxe (Guitar Player 1985)
- 4.4 Allan Holdsworth’s New Horizons (Downbeat 1985)
- 4.5 Crosstalk - Bill Aitken and Allan Holdsworth talk about SynthAxe (Guitarist 1985)
- 4.6 Never again a serial-production-group (Sym Info 1986)
- 4.7 "...Where No Guitarist Has Gone Before..." (Cymbiosis 1986)
- 4.8 HUMBLE GUITAR MASTER ALLAN HOLDSWORTH ALWAYS STRUGGLES TO PAY THE RENT
- 4.9 Castles Made Of Sand (Guitarist 1987)
- 4.10 Guitar Like A Saxophone (Guitar World 1987)
- 4.11 Guitar Synths in Jazz (Music Technology 1987)
- 4.12 I want to reach people with my music – common people. (Sym Info 1987)
- 4.13 The Open End (Boston Sound Report 1988)
- 4.14 Allan Holdsworth (English Tour Program 1989)
- 4.15 Guitarist's Guitarist (Jazz Times 1989)
- 4.16 The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)
- 4.17 Axes Of God (Guitar World 1989)
- 4.18 Allan Holdsworth’s Untold Secrets + Worthy Quotes (Guitar Player 1990)
- 4.19 Mike Pachelli Show (video transcript 1991)
- 4.20 On The Level (IM&RW 1991)
- 4.21 No Secret (Guitar Extra 1992)
- 4.22 The Reluctant Guitarist (Jazz Journal 1992)
- 4.23 Axe Maniax (TGM 1993)
- 4.24 Blinded By Science (Guitar Player 1993)
- 4.25 Creating Imaginary Backdrops (Innerviews 1993)
- 4.26 Allan Holdsworth: An interview (Atavachron 1994)
- 4.27 Makin’ Trax (Guitar 1994)
- 4.28 No Secrets (Facelift 1994)
- 4.29 Allan Holdsworth Jam (Jazziz 1994)
- 4.30 Allan Holdsworth: One Of A Kind (Guitar Shop 1995)
- 4.31 Allan Holdsworth Interview (richardhallebeek.com 1996)
- 4.32 Med Siktet Innställt På Total Kontroll (MusikerMagasinet 1996, Swedish language)
- 4.33 Strong stuff from the brewery (EQ magazine 1997)
- 4.34 Allan Holdsworth (steveadelson.com 2000)
- 4.35 One Man Of 'Trane (Jazz Times 2000)
- 4.36 The Sixteen Men Of Tain (musired.com 2000, Spanish language)
- 4.37 Whisky Galore (Guitarist 2000)
- 4.38 Allan Holdsworth interview (Music Maker 2003)
- 4.39 Don’t you know? The Lost Words (Oneiric Moor 2003)
- 4.40 Patron Saint (Guitar Player 2004)
- 4.41 A Conversation With Allan Holdsworth (Abstract Logix 2005)
- 4.42 The Allan Holdsworth Interview! (Jazz Houston 2006)
- 4.43 No Rearview Mirrors (20th Century Guitar 2007)
- 4.44 Harnessing momentum (Innerviews 2008)
- 4.45 The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever (Guitar Player 2008)
- 4.46 Allan Holdsworth - Jazz/Fusion Guitarist (Musicguy247 2017)
- 4.47 The Allan Holdsworth Interview (Musoscribe 2017)
- 4.48 Interview_with_Allan_Holdsworth_(Jazz_Italia_2005)
The Synthaxe is not a step beyond that (to me) [referring to guitar synths] — it's a giant leap beyond. It's a MIDI controller, it's very accurate, and it works. It's a very strange instrument to play at first because it's got two sets of strings. It will drive any synthesizer capable of handling all the MIDI information that the Synthaxe puts out. It puts out more information than a lot of keyboards would. You can hook it up to Oberheims, and that works really well. With the Synthaxe you have the problems of coping with a new instrument in as much as it feels different - you're playing a different set of strings with each hand, and the fret spacing is completely different, but it doesn't take very long to get used to. I only played it a couple of times, and each time I played it, I got more into it. To me the Synthaxe is a fantastic achievement. I find it amazing that someone went to these lengths to create this instrument.
What are you doing at the moment?
Well, we’ve got a new album coming out soon in the States, called ‘Metal Fatigue’, on the Enigma label. I understand it’s going to be released over here, unlike the last one, Road Games’, which was on Warner Brothers, but I don’t know which label it will be on. Warner Brothers took an awful tong time to decide whether they wanted us to do another album or not, which is why this one’s taken such a long time to come out. The majority of the recording was actually done quite a while ago, and there are two different sets of personnel. On side one it was Chad Wackerman on drums, Jimmy Johnson on bass, Paul Williams on vocals and myself on guitar. On side two Gary Husband, (an original member of the IOU band) played drums, Gary Willis was on bass and Alan Pasqua played some keyboards. The first line up is the one we’re touring with at the moment, and we’re just off to Japan. Hopefully, we’re going back to the States to record the next album, which I’m really hoping will feature the SynthAxe.
I didn’t really want to play the guitar, I wanted to play Saxophone, but it just so happened that I didn’t get a Saxophone, I got a guitar and that’s where it all started. That is why this SynthAxe thing is so interesting to me, because for a long time now I’ve been very interested in the compositional side of things. One of the things I’d really love to do is get an amazing band together but not be a player in it at all, just a writer. I’d love to write a piece of music that a set of musicians could embellish. The themes and the chord structures would be fixed, but the rest of it would be very open to interpretation. In the framework of a band you can tell the players roughly how it is, they know what the bar lengths are and they can take it from there, without ever getting lost or the music becoming something else.
Among the first to use a SynthAxe, Allan Holdsworth has just released Atavachron [Enigma (dist. by Capitol), 72064-1], on which he uses the synthesizer controller extensively. A prominent display of the instrument under Holdsworth’s control, "Non Brewed Condiment," from Atavachron, appeared as a SynthAxe demonstration on the flipside of Guitar Player’s January 1986 Soundpage.
WHEN WE WERE recording Metal Fatigue [Enigma, 72002-1], a friend let me try his Roland synth. It was interesting because you could get some different sounds, but it was hopeless, as far as I was concerned, because everything else that you had ever learned about the guitar went out the window. It’s like the instrument was playing you, instead of the other way around, and I hate that kind of situation. However, I got kind of stoked up about synthesis anyway.
I had ago on the SynthAxe in January ‘85, and I was blown away. Sometimes if I’m playing another instrument and I hear synthesized sounds coming out, it’s psychologically strange. But on the SynthAxe, it seems very natural. I think, "This is the instrument I use to do that." A lot of stuff I did on the new album would have been impossible without the SynthAxe, or with a pitch-to-voltage synthesizer. And because it is a computer-controlled machine, all the improvements, all the updates they make, can be incorporated into the system without changing the physical makeup of the guitar. In a lot of respects, the SynthAxe is a quantum leap beyond the guitar. Each musician is going to find something different in it, and the actual instrument won’t ever be outdated because it doesn’t use pitch-to-voltage, and if you want new sounds, all you have to do is change the synthesizer you connect it to.
The extra-long scale length was the thing I had the most problem with. I see the reasons for it, and I think it’s a really good idea, but I probably would have the neck really small instead. Being a guitar player himself, [SynthAxe co-designer] Bill Aitken wanted to be able to play barre chords all over the neck with equal ease. If I play low down, things are easier, but as I play higher up the neck, they become more difficult. Also, when you look at the neck, it’s kind of bizarre. It threw me for a while. Say, if I was soloing above the 12th fret, I’d wonder what note I was playing. After nine months of using it continuously, though, I’m used to it.
The SynthAxe uses normal guitar strings, but I thought that since the string is just acting as an electrical contact, it seemed logical to have them all of one gauge. That way, the tension would be uniform. Strings of different diameters have to be hit in slightly different ways, especially with wrapped and plain strings. So I use .015s for the right hand and .013s for the left hand. I could have used a lighter string for the left, but I perspire quite a bit, and the strings wouldn’t last any time at all. I change them less often than on my normal guitar. I can usually get a week out of the left-hand strings and a couple of weeks out of the others.
I tried adapting some of my existing pieces to SynthAxe, and it works really well for some. But there’s really so much more I can do with it. I would like to stick mostly to new things because it has opened up so many doors for me, compositionally and sonically. I’m not too interested in sampling, but I like creating sounds from scratch.
At first it was a little hard for me to get into synthesis because, being a guitar player, I wasn’t familiar with it. I didn’t even know how synthesizers worked, except that the sound came from oscillators. My first synthesizer was the Oberheim Matrix 12, so I was kind of thrown in at the deep end. It’s not the most basic machine you can get, but in a way it was good for me. It took me a while to even be able to find my way around. Luckily, my interest in studio signal processing and trying to find new sounds on the regular guitar really helped.
I didn’t realize how great those synthesizers were until I started using them. I’ve always liked the Oberheim sound anyway. It seems that every synth manufacturer has its own voice. The Oberheim has a vocal quality or something. With the Matrix 12, you can assign two voices to each string. And you can pan them anywhere in the stereo image and get some really beautiful stuff.
For signal processing with my synth, I use my existing guitar system with wider-range speakers. I’ve been experimenting with JBL full-range monitors for the SynthAxe and using them for rhythm guitar, as well. I might finish up with some custom ones that are somewhere between a keyboard monitor and a guitar speaker. I don’t really like the way high-frequency horns sound on guitar-or anything, for that matter-so I’d like to find some good smaller speakers like 8s or l0s for the high end. I’ve always been against the principle of splitting the sound by highs and lows anyway, even in the studio. It always sounds so unnatural to me to hear one part of the sound coming from one place and another part from another place. I grew up listening to 8" full-range speakers, and they were always beautiful without being shrill - the sound all came from the same space and didn’t seem all chopped up.
I have the SynthAxe pedal unit, but I didn’t have it for a short tour of Europe, so I had to recall all the patch changes and parameters from the SynthAxe console. For every patch change or different sound, I had to hit three buttons, which could get kind of confusing when you’re trying to play. There’s too much pressure on you. It’s one thing to do that in the studio, but when you try to coordinate everything like that onstage, it becomes very difficult. Also, if I hit one wrong number onstage - like if I missed a button because I didn’t have enough light to see - I could recall the wrong patch, and then I was really in trouble. By the time you get it, the solo’s over. When we got back from England, they loaned me a new SynthAxe and gave me the new software, which lets you load into the console the name of each song, give that song a number, and place it in any order in the set. For example, I could pick up the SynthAxe, step on the pedal, and theoretically play all night without touching the console at a ll. You just program for each song, and then recall it from memory. It takes a while t o program it, but you do it at home, and then it’s great on the gig. The unit has two pedals: One goes through the presets going up, and the other goes down. So if you make a mistake and jump up one too many, you can back-pedal.
For years I’ve used a delay, a Harmonizer, and a volume pedal to get my chordal sound. I tried the SynthAxe in the same way, and it sounded wonderful. One of the tracks on the album, "All Our Yesterdays," features that sound. I was pleased with how the piece turned out. Once I got into the synthesizers and their parameters, I tried to get all of the effects to happen automatically without using a volume pedal. Some have real slow attacks, so it’s like fading-in sounds with a volume pedal. Now I can control the attack, the sustain, and the release all from the synthesizer. So I’ve created a number of patches that give like an automatic volume pedal effect. I still have one volume pedal at the end of my signal chain before the power amps to cut down on overall noise.
I use the keys on the guitar a lot. As I get better at it, I’ll use them more and more, because I’m even using them for soloing. You can do some interesting things with them. For example, you can do a trill from the low E string to the high E string, playing a Bb on the low E and a B on the high E, and just trill on the first and sixth keys with the right hand. You could get the same effect easily on the strings with good classical right-hand technique, but it would be very difficult with a pick. Some things you can do make it an awesome experience. I’m really reveling in it.
I don’t, however, use the vibrato bar very much. That’s because the way a vibrato sounds on a guitar synthesizer is similar to the way a pitch-bend wheel sounds on a keyboard synthesizer. And I think those things should be taped over anyway. Whenever I see a keyboardist using one of those onstage, I want to jump up there and put some duct tape over the wheel. It drives me crazy. I’m quite happy with the way the SynthAxe works, in that I can get the finger vibrato and all those little subtleties from my fingers, which sound so much different from a pitch wheel or vibrato bar. You can also reassign the vibrato arm to control any function that you want, including volume swells or changing the tone through envelope shaping. I haven’t experimented with it very much yet because there’s so much else that I’ve been learning. It’s great to have something to look forward to in an instrument.
I spend a lot of time dealing with the synthesizers, as well, because the more familiar I become with them - especially the Oberheims - the more amazed I am. I also have a little Yamaha TX7 module that’s got some pre-tweaked patches of my own. For some reason, the TX7 and DX7 are much more limited, to me. I know it seems funny, but most DX7 sounds are so recognizable. They always seem to have that bell-like sound; it’s kind of neat, but I’m tired of it. What knocks me out about the Oberheim is that you can still come up with all these new sounds out of an analog synth.
I haven’t experimented with open tunings very much. The only ones I’ve worked with are regular guitar tuning and straight fourths across the neck - I always thought that was a good tuning for guitar, anyway - and I also use fifths because I used to play a little bit of violin and I liked that fingering. It’s really logical and gives you a phenomenally wider range. It’s incredible on the SynthAxe because unlike acoustic instruments, I can tune in fifths from the high E, giving the same top-end range as the guitar, but the low end goes down to F, next to the lowest note on the bass guitar. That’s quite a range. Fifths are not that good for chords I unless you look at the tuning from the opposite point of view. [Ed. Note: A perfect fifth is the inversion of a perfect fourth.] There are lots of neat chords and voicings in that tuning waiting to be discovered, I’m sure. And I can store different tunings for recall in the SynthAxe console, so I can call up, for example, the fif ths tuning just for a solo.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to compare your approach with others who use your instrument, because one of the fantastic things about it is that it allows people to really grow in diverse directions. There are so many things you can do with it, it’s just mind-boggling. I want to get on and do what I do with it. It’s just an instrument to make music on. It’s not that I’m not curious what Lee Ritenour and others are doing; it’s just that I don’t have any real interest in figuring out what someone else is doing with it. I’ll be that much more knocked out with it when I see someone else playing. That’s kind of the way I feel about the guitar.
I was tempted to do the whole album with the SynthAxe. I used it on every track in one way or another, but I also used the regular guitar for most of the solos. On the album and onstage, it’s about 50-50 SynthAxe and guitar. There are only two major solos on the SynthAxe: "Non-Brewed Condiment" and "All Our Yesterdays." It works out well onstage, too. And it’s really no bother to switch from SynthAxe to guitar: It’s no different than for a keyboardist to walk from his synthesizers to a piano. It’s no big deal. I just plan according to the song’s needs. On "Looking Glass" I play everything on the SynthAxe live, but on the album the solo was done with a guitar. On the next album, I plan to use the SynthAxe more the way I’m using it live. Some of the pieces will be exclusively SynthAxe, while others will be exclusively guitar. All of the tracks on Atavachron are a mixture.
What do I think will happen with guitar synth in the next couple of years? I don’t think it will fizzle out. I think there will be a kind of a SynthAxe revolution; they’ve started something -the digital guitar controller - that I think a lot of people will latch onto in one way or another, with a lot of different approaches. There will be guitar controllers that don’t operate on the pitch-to- glitch approach; it’s too complicated and too unreliable. And if you’re playing a guitar synthesizer, why do you want to do harmonics or certain things that you can do best on a regular guitar? Use a guitar for those things. There are so many other things you can do on a synthesizer, so why do that? You can’t do harmonics on a piano, either, but it’s still a great instrument. I don’t think MIDI will stay-at least the way it is now. MIDI isn’t very bright for guitar. It was designed for transmitting keyboard information, which isn’t nearly as complicated as what you need for a guitar. Pitch-bending can be a real problem, for example. So, new systems are bound to come up.
On his latest Enigma album, Atavachron, the revolutionary guitarist takes one step further toward Mars with a new and revolutionary piece of hardware, the SynthAxe. The product of several years of painstaking research, the SynthAxe is England’s answer to the guitar synthesizer. But unlike that popular Roland product, the SynthAxe makes no sound of its own. What it is, basically, is a controller for synthesizers, capable of interfacing with Fairlights, Synclaviers, or any MIDI-equipped synths. This thing is strictly high-tech to the max, and Holdsworth feels it positively renders all other guitar synthesizers obsolete.
"It’s really in a field of its own. It’s an amazing machine. I’m so in awe of the whole thing. I’m still trying to figure out why anyone would’ve gone through that amount of trouble; and believe me, they did go through an awful lot of trouble to do this. They’re totally pioneering something in a certain direction that no one has ever done before. There isn’t anything even close to it. There probably will be in a few years time when other companies start copying them, but they’ve laid the groundwork and therefore I think they deserve credit for that"
The SynthAxe has a highly sophisticated series of sensors under the surface of the fingerboard to relay information to the synthesizers. These sensors detect such subtleties as string-bending, damping or muting with left and right hands, dynamics, and just about every normal function of a guitar except for harmonics. Other features of this incredible new instrument include automatic hold, which creates drone notes to play on top of, and an automatic trigger-mode which allows the player to sound notes by tapping the fingerboard with left hand only (a la Stanley Jordan or the Chapman Stick.)
"There’s so many functions of the instrument that I haven’t actually gotten into yet," says Holdsworth. "There’s so much to learn, and I guess one of the interesting things about it is that everybody is going to find something different to do with it. As for me, I don’t want it to sound like a keyboard or anything. I just want an instrument that I can play in such a way that my personality is still visible through it all. And now I’ve got a machine that will do that.
One drawback with the SynthAxe is the fact that the fret spacing is fairly even as you go up the neck, rather than getting narrow as you approach the bridge. This makes chording fairly difficult at that high end of the neck. "There are certain chords that I can’t play on it. I just can’t reach that far. Chords that I had been used to playing on the top third of the regular guitar neck were suddenly impossible for me to play on the SynthAxe. That was the only single problem I’ve had with it, and I understand that they’re going to be offering a few more neck options as they begin marketing them to the general public. But there’s such a lot of work involved in the circuitry of the neck itself that it would be a very expensive proposition at this point in time to make a different neck for me.
The SynthAxe has not completely taken over Holdsworth’s music. He uses the machine about half the time both in concert and on his latest recordings. As he says, "I don’t want it to completely wipe out everything else I’ve done on the guitar up to this point"
Bill: A week before the NAMM show I was in LA and Oberheim were kind enough to give me some office space in the demo room, to let some of the prime guys in the LA area have a look at the SynthAxe. Allan was one of the guys who ‘phoned me up. He came down, had a look and his reaction was pretty positive - after a couple of hours’ rehearsal, he blew an amazing number. It was great!
What was the response from the people?
Allan: It’s hard to tell really. I think they were all asking what on earth it was.
Bill: Yeah, that’s right. There were shouts from the audience saying "What is it Allan? Tell us what it is." And Allan just turned it on and showed them. The response we had on the stand the next day was great. We had a lot of people coming back asking us how the hell did he do this and what tuning was he using on that bit because, half way through he started pressing buttons and changing sound textures, registers and complete tuning systems - the whole issue.
Allan: Yeah it’s a marvellous machine. I’d been experimenting with the guitar tuned in fifths, but with the geometrics of it you can only go dawn so far. Even starting at ‘E’ and going down to ‘C’, like a cello, the guitar’s a little bit small really but, with this, it looks like string length is a thing of the past. Not only that but you can even get another ‘F’ below that, which you could never do on a guitar, it’s incredible!
So you were simply preprogramming your usual open tunings.
Allan: Well I normally don’t use any tunings other than regular guitar tuning. I’ve never really done anything with other tunings, no.
Bill: What! So that was a new thing you were doing; I thought, when I saw you doing this, that you’d been doing it for years! Amazing!
Allan: Well I was thinking, before I met you and became aware of the SynthAxe, of starting to experiment with tuning the guitar in fifths like a violin, which is amazing because, although you’ve only got four strings, the range is almost as great as the guitar. Then, when I became more familiar with it, I just stuck on the string below that, the low ‘C’. So it really only happened a few weeks before I got hold of the SynthAxe, and it’s a mind boggling thing to be able to do it that way, just by pressing a button.
First of all I made myself a double-neck, with one in regular tuning and the other tuned in fifths, just for practicing. I got hold of a lump of wood, cut it up and stuck a couple of necks on it.
Bill: That’s great. On the stand the next day, people were coming up and asking what Allan was using and we still had the stuff in the console, so I was able to dial through and say "Well, this is the sound he was using on the first one and this is what he was using on that one" and the people were looking at the tuning systems and just going "wow". But I hadn’t realised that you’d never used it seriously before.
Allan: That’s why I was so knocked out with it, because I didn’t need two necks any more. Actually, that was a piece which I’ve only just done, which I’m hoping to get on this next record and the whole of the first section is done with the thing tuned in fifths. It just opens out the range because one of the limitations of fifths, obviously, is that you can’t play real close voicings so you just have to go the other way, you know, wider. Fifths is a very logical tuning, but it’s quite difficult on guitar because it’s so big, but on a violin it’s very’ logical, because of the size of the hand and the size of the instrument. Bill: So, maybe that’s a point to the future; if people get into other tunings, maybe there’ll be a case for building a SynthAxe with a shorter scale length. I mean, we’ve been as revolutionary as we can be with this thing, but we had to start from a certain point and we chose a scale length, but what you’re saying might mean that people will want different scale lengths in the future.</ P>
How did you get on with the fretting, as it’s almost ungraduated?
Allan: Well, that was the only thing I had any real problem with. I just couldn’t play some of the chords that I normally play on the guitar, because the frets were just too wide apart at the top of the neck. It’s not really a problem, though, because it will eventually be solved.
Bill: You must let me know, when you’ve had a bit of time to get into it and see if you can define what would be the ideal scale length for it.
Allan: Yeah, I will do that.
I’ve never really understood the reasoning behind using a non-standard Fingerboard format.
Bill: Well, the logic behind it was that because the positions of the frets were not musically relevant any more, we were able to look at the conventional guitar fingerboard and see if there were any areas, as far as playability was concerned, which could be improved.
This led us to the conclusion that widening the upper fret spaces would allow the player greater freedom at the top of the neck, especially for playing barre chords for instance. We were also able to narrow down, slightly, the spacings at the nut end. The nice thing is that eventually you will be able to define any neck you want - you could even have ordinary’ spaces at the nut end and wide ones at the tap if that was what you were after.
What about a modular system, where you could clip in, for instance, the top octave in a totally different scale length?
Bill: Yeah , that would be something. You’d have to decide the size of your hands, the kind of stuff you wanted to play and then say to the SynthAxe manufacturer (smiles) "Look, I want it like that".
Of course the tooling cost would be horrendous, because all of that is numerically controlled - machining the fingerboard, the photographic system on the printed circuits and you’re going to have to pay a premium for something like that, but it’s not out of the question.
Allan: The thing that knocked me out most of all about it was that, when I first tried the Roland stuff I realised that the pitch to voltage system is absolutely and totally inadequate. That’s not to say that people haven’t been able to go out there and play music, don’t get me wrong, because there are lots of guys doing really amazing things with them. But for me it just seemed to be a crazy thing to do; to open up this door to doing so much more, and yet to close another one immediately- like being able to play all the things that you want to be able to play rhythmically and accurately.
Anything that’s pitch to voltage has to sample part of the waveform, so if it’s a long note it’s twice the size of a light one. If you play a trill on a high string it comes out sounding twice as fast as on a low string. Then if you take a chord and play all the notes at the same time, they don’t come out at the same time and, to me, that is totally unacceptable.
What I noticed immediately about the SynthAxe is that, whatever the problems are with it, it was obvious that this was the way to go - and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
I haven’t played a SynthAxe For some time now but I remember that the trigger strings, the right hand strings, had a very light tension.
Bill: That gave Allan a problem. It’s been modified since then, and Allan hasn’t seen the improvements yet, but I think it’s fair to say that that was the biggest problem you had wasn’t it?
Allan: It was the biggest problem, going to it immediately after a regular guitar, but I found that if I played it for a couple of hours, it became much easier. In fact the strangest thing was going back too regular guitar afterwards, that was really peculiar, because the strings felt so much tighter. But it’s just a different action and you soon get used to it.
Bill: Allan’s made a good point there. People who pick up the SynthAxe and expect to play their Strat and Gibson licks on it are in for a big disappointment. What Allan’s into is doing something new and his perception is amazing, in fact he’s the most perceptive guy, musically, that I’ve come across in terms of looking at what an instrument does. So OK, the SynthAxe won’t do everything you can do on a guitar, but it will do a whole pile of things that you’ll never do on a guitar - or a keyboard, I might add - in a month of Sundays, and Allan knows that and can get into it.
What you’ve got to do, if you’re interested in synthesis, is sit down with the SynthAxe and give it at least an hour. What you find is this: unlike a lot of so-called guitar synthesisers, where the more you get into them, the more you realise their limitations, with the SynthAxe you instantly recognise some of the limitations, but the more you adapt, the more you realise that there’s a whole world there waiting for you to get into.
I imagine that people make the mistake of treating it too much like a guitar, instead of saying "This is a SynthAxe, let’s get on with it"!
Bill: Absolutely. That is the point, it’s not a guitar.
Allan: It’s a way of being able to find new ways of expression in music through the use of a brilliantly designed piece of equipment. Also, I’m totally in awe of the fact that someone has actually done that. I still find it hard to believe that someone has gone to all the trouble of putting it together. It’s awesome!
Bill: I find it quite unbelievable hearing this! When I saw Allan play it for the first time on stage I can tell you it was a really strange feeling. I mean, it was 1977 when I first started thinking that I wanted to do something like this, and eight years is a very long gestation period. To see somebody actually doing it- wow! It’s an emotion that I’ve never felt before, and the only thing I can say is that it’s similar to is watching my wife have a baby - that’s really true - I’ve got three children, one’s called Paul, one’s called Lindsay and the other’s called SynthAxe! Allan was the midwife!
How near are you to production?
Bill: We’re in production now, in a very small way. The ones that we can quote sensible delivery times on are orders by Gary Moore, Steve Levine, Allan, Lee Ritenour, John Farrar. The other guys are just having to wait until we can fulfill their order. In six months time we’ll be in serious production.
It has improved immensely since the prototypes and Allan, for instance, is willing to buy it in it’s current state of development, but we’ve told him there’s a long way to go yet. The people who get the first SynthAxe in the next few months are automatically going to get any updates or mods we do - mechanical or software. The other nice thing is, because the product is so software based and because we’re only at the threshold of what the technology can do, we’ve got nothing but improvements to offer and that’s great.
What’s the main difference between your system and any other?
Bill: Basically the only other systems that have been successful commercially have
been based on the pitch to voltage system. There was an old Hagstrom system which was a fret triggering design, similar to our left hand triggering mode; we’re not saying that our system is all original - some of it is, while some ideas have come from other places. The Hagstrom one is an example, only that was monophonic and it was very difficult to control. If you’re comparing our system to any others, you’re talking about pitch to voltage. with that system you start off by hitting a string and trying to figure out what the string is doing in acoustic terms; is it vibrating, if so what frequency is it vibrating at, what level is it vibrating at, when it stops vibrating at a certain level I will switch that note off. All those things are very unpredictable. I’m not knocking companies who have designed products using that system, because technically they’re very well designed.
When you start trying to analyse the frequency of a moving guitar string that’s a technological hassle! The trouble is, like Allan says, that depending on the frequency you get a different sampling time, a difference in performance according to frequency and problems with
harmonics, so you get spurious pitches sometimes. Then you’ve got the difficulty of dynamic control, because when the levels of vibration fall below certain thresholds, the notes cease to happen, whether you want them to cease or not. We decided to develop a system which was more predictable, something that a guitar player can get into and make work, with perhaps some slight adaptation to his technique; it may not be 100% like a guitar in presentation and technique, but it is better than something which is presented like a guitar, but only works 50%. We analysed every single parameter like pitch, dynamics, sustain and all of them are independently under software control. If you bend a guitar string halfway across the fingerboard it will raise the pitch by a tone or maybe three semitones. On the SynthAxe you can make it anything you like - it could be an octave if you like
The same applies to the wang Bar - it can be the range you want it to be; when you wang it down an octave, all the strings go down exactly on octave, not just approximately, as on a normal guitar. On the SynthAxe, they all go down absolutely in parallel, so you get a tuned chord wherever you are on the wang bar! You don’t have to apply these things to pitch either; you could apply them to filter, attack times, vibrato speeds and depths, whatever you want! All the nice facilities that are available on the synthesiser you are using are available to you on the SynthAxe. If you took a pitch to voltage conversion of the guitar signal, you can only get a limited number of parameters out of that, so you can’t take advantage of a lot of the parameters that are available. It would give you a very limited view of synthesis.
Allan: That’s what was most apparent to me; the pitch to voltage way of controlling synths, although people have adapted to it very well, is definitely not the way to go. It’s gone as for as it can. The SynthAxe is a totally new instrument that I can use to control all the other things I want to do - like sampling for instance.
What about the Synclavier?
Bill: A number of Synclavier users have spoken to us and we’re very willing to do on interface, but that’s really down to New England Digital to be willing to do their half. We’d love to make a Synclavier interface and people like John Farrar and Al DiMeola have already enquired about it. It doesn’t matter how good our interfaces are, if the synth interface isn’t there, there’s nothing we can do.
There’s one important point here. If you analyse the MIDI buss coming off the SynthAxe it is packed solid - we use every available bit in MIDI. and whether keyboard players like it or not, guitarist’s language, in terms of the string bending, damping and so on, is far more complex than the keyboard player’s. Then again, that’s why synths happen to look like piano style keyboards; it’s a very easy way of presenting the man/machine interface. They don’t have to look like a piano. It’s really up to the synth manufacturers to come to us and make sure they can interpret the MIDI information properly.
An inevitable subject in the conversation is the SynthAxe. Without wanting to fall into a too technical story, here follows in short the working of this new music-instrument. One can image the SynthAxe as a kind of guitar. An essential outward difference is the neck which stands in an ergonomic sensible way in an angle on the so called body of the instrument. On this instruments there are two sets of strings: on set on the neck, to play with, or better: to indicate the pitch, and one set on the body, where the strings are being touched.
With a guitar the pitch of a produced sound is being determined by the place where the string is being pressed on the so called fret. With the SynthAxe this isn’t the case; the electronics that are present in the instrument registers the place where the string makes contact with the fret and deduces the pitch from that; the tone on which the string has been tuned has been programmed in advance. This produces a couple of advantages: the musician doesn’t have to put strength in order to play, never has to tune and change the strings until they fall apart from the instrument. Further on the SynthAxe offers a couple of possibilities to influence the sound, the pitch and the time to hold a certain tone (sustain). The SynthAxe differs essential from the guitar in working, because it doesn’t produce sound from itself; everything that being played, is being transformed in digital information which is being fed to a synthesizer which is being connected to the instrument. So, virtually this story amounts on the fact that you can play synthesizer on a guitar-like instrument in stead of on a keyboard, which has been customary since the introduction of the synthesizer. It all seems quite simple, but still, a collective of three wise guys have been busy for no less than eight years to develop the SyntAxe! To play on the SynthAxe asks a different attitude from the musician, because he thinks he has a guitar in his hands and hears the sound of a synthesizer, which still is again completely different than normally because on a guitar the arrangement of the tones that form together a chord just is different than on a keyboard. A guitar furthermore lets itself play essentially different, so the synthesizer producers quite different sounds and changes than you are used to hear.
Well, last year Holdsworth saw a prototype from the SynthAxe on a fair, nosed a bit on it and one hour after his introduction with the instrument showed a complete elaborated composition, which made even the developers of the machine fell backwards with astonishment. And Holdsworth went home with a SynthAxe, a firm pat on the back and the request to keep in touch soon. Was he the first one that was allowed to play on it?
“I think so, yes. I just didn’t master to play the instrument totally. The amount of possibilities is incredible. And furthermore they are still busy with changing and adding without chancing something on the outside. In fact it’s just a computer which transforms information to a synthesizer.”
Doesn’t this development hold a certain danger in itself? Take for instance the Fairlight; when that one came on the market everybody talked about a musical revolution, but now it proves that it is only being used to make weird sounds.
“Whatever new things come onto the market, on a certain moment you will see that they are being misused for one thing or another. I don’t believe that that is so important; at least someone will do something good with it, it doesn’t matter what, as long as the striving only is the making of music. It totally depends on the musician. The same thing with electronics. In fact it’s just like cooking. My mother could bake incredible chips, but at home I couldn’t get it done myself. Then she came to visit us once, and made them exactly the same way: in our kitchen, with our gear. That’s all I’m saying: it depends on the person, not on the machine.”
His new album, Atavachron, admirably adds to his achievements, and reveals Holdsworth’s continuing quest for his own unique sound. Like any true pioneer, Holdsworth is never content with the typical tools of his trade. Indeed, synthesizers and more recently, the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), have opened up new avenues of musical exploration for him. You’d think with the myriad possibilities available through these technological little wonders, there’d be enough to keep anyone busy. This Englishman, as you already know (or will understand after reading the following interview), is not just anyone. Nor is his new instrument, the SynthAxe, just any musical instrument: there is the familiar fretboard that can be played by a guitarist, but it is a synthesizer controller, not a guitar.
Though uncomfortable and unusual to some, the SynthAxe has found a master worthy of its creative capabilities. [For more on the SynthAxe, pick up the June issue of Guitar Player]. I caught up with Allan at his home in Orange County, CA., where he lives with his wife, Claire, and their three children, Louise, Sam and Emily. One of the most striking characteristics about Holdsworth is that his honesty is only exceeded by his profound modesty, much like his fellow countryman, Peter Gabriel. I hope you find it as refreshing and enlightening as I did.
Cymbiosis: Now you’ve got a new toy for your composition—the SynthAxe. Can you tell us a little bit about it and how you became involved in it?
Holdsworth: Basically, I tried it through natural curiosity. I had tried using some of the other available guitar controllers and guitar synthesizers, or whatever they were called. It was totally hilarious; it was like a revelation and a frustration at the same time, because when you plugged a Roland guitar into a DX7, you’d be able to make some of the same sounds as a keyboard player or synthesists make. It was interesting for a guitar player, but I knew that the system didn’t work because of the way that they have to track the pitch and then convert that to voltage. I think pitch to anything is like pitch to glitch, as I call it. It just has an inherent flaw in it somehow. So I don’t think there would be a synthesizer player in the world if the keyboard was pitch to voltage. When I saw the first brochure on the SynthAxe, I read the way they were doing it and I knew that I had to see it. So I phoned anybody I knew at guitar magazines, like Tom Mulhern [associate editor] at Guitar Player and asked him if they had heard anything about it. I eventually tracked down Bill Aitken, the inventor; I saw him over at the NAMM Show a couple of years ago. He let me play this thing, and I was absolutely blown away with it. They’ve made a lot of improvements since then and that’s one of the other incredible things about it. They just keep coming up with ways to make this thing better without changing its shape or the way it plays or feels. For example, the trigger strings on the first one I played were really insensitive compared to the way they are now. Now they’ve got a new set of trigger strings where the sensing can be adjusted from the console, so you can have them set up any way you want. If you make mistakes on it, it’s your own fault. The machine doesn’t make any. And that’s what I was looking for. I wanted an instrument that was going to allow me to control the synthesizer the way a keyboard player would, and it seemed to me that this was the closest, or this was..."it". I think there is going to be a whole other generation of controllers that will use a similar principle to this. I personally believe that’s the right way to go.
Cymbiosis: And in addition to the trigger strings, you have a keyboard on the SynthAxe.
Holdsworth: Each key corresponds to a string, so if you play this [first] key, you have to be playing on this [first] string, and so on.
Cymbiosis: How is the SynthAxe going to change your approach to composition?
Holdsworth: I’ve now got more sonic capability than I had before with the guitar, inasmuch as I can use synthesis and, in effect, that has sparked a whole other thing off in me. I was, in some ways, getting fed up, not with the guitar itself, but with the way that the guitar was sounding in some respects. It was reaching a point where, more or less, everybody started to sound a little like everybody. There’s obviously some really great exceptions like Scott Henderson or Eric Johnson-all these guys who are doing their own thing.
When I got the SynthAxe, it just sparked off this incredible interest in synthesis which I’d never thought of before. So I’m trying to get a deeper understanding of synthesis so I can create my own sounds and programs. And that is really exciting to me, because I’m so new at it. I’ve got all this energy again like I had when I first started playing. It’s a different kind of energy than the one I have for just developing my musical knowledge. So one helps the other. It’s a new inspiration for me.
Holdsworth: In a way, yeah, because it’s so new. I want to be able to make as Individual a sound on that as what people think I do on the guitar. It has to be possible. I guess if I could do that, it would prove something. [Laughs]
Cymbiosis: And leave your mark on the world?
Holdsworth: Not like that. Just for my own satisfaction. I would like to be able to create—like Jan Hammer or Joe Zawinul. There’s not many synthesists you can say that about. They’re recognizable through the music. When I hear Chick Corea play synthesizer, I can recognize the musician—I can hear the notes through the sound. It’s still the music that’s the most important thing. That’s all I want to achieve. I can now make a lot more sounds, so it’s more inspirational to me in the writing sense. Sometimes I find a sound and I’ll go off on a whole other thing than I would have done If I’d just been trying to write a piece on guitar.
Cymbiosis: Well, your new album, Atavachron, because of the SynthAxe, has a distinctly different sound from Metal Fatigue, the one prior.
Holdsworth: Yeah, I think there’s two reasons for that. One is because I’ve been thinking over the last couple of years that when I reviewed all the albums, I’d never feel quite so happy with the vocal tracks. Not because of the vocals, because Paul [Williams] sings great. It wasn’t that. It’s just because, musically, they seem to be more watered down or more fickle. They just didn’t seem to be what I wanted. And I wanted to do an instrumental thing, so when I got the SynthAxe, I was thinking in those terms. So when I started to write the music, it just came out more instrumental. And, second, because I was playing some of the synth parts and playing guitar, I realized we should definitely get a keyboard player in the band.
Cymbiosis: Maybe what you could do is midi the SynthAxe through a vat of it, or a "Non Brewed Condiment". [Laughter]
Holdsworth: Yeah, right. Well, non-brewed condiment is something that’s used on fish and chips in England because it’s cheaper than malt vinegar. It’s just a substitute for malt vinegar, like you have, in America, mayonnaise that’s not real mayonnaise. And the reason for that [title] was that it was a tune that I did entirely on the SynthAxe. It was my first real synthetic piece in a way and since my favorite food is still fish and chips, and my favorite drink is still ale, "Non Brewed Condiment" seemed like the perfect title for that piece. It’s like I was saying, the fact that the SynthAxe is different from the guitar makes it better. Psychologically I can relate that to the synth and to the sound. I can look and see the sound, whereas on the guitar it’s just made for something else, you know. And I can understand why there’s going to be a lot of guitar players who may not like SynthAxe, because it’s not like a guitar. It won’t do some things that are very guitaristic.
Cymbiosis: Do you see moving from guitar almost exclusively...
Holdsworth: No, I’ll never do that. I see it as an addition because I’m still searching for the guitar sound. It’s getting closer. It’s getting more horn-like, [laughs], so it must be getting closer. The SynthAxe guys, themselves, have no intention of it ever being a substitute. And the other thing is I don’t particularly feel the need to get guitar sounds simultaneously with the synthesized sounds. So I feel happy to put that guitar sound aside for a while and see what else there is out there.
Cymbiosis: And when you come back to the guitar, you can have a fresh approach to it.
Holdsworth: Playing the SynthAxe has helped my guitar playing, because in a way it’s difficult to play. It’s taken me a while to get used to it. There’s certain things about it that react differently or feel different. When you deflect the string with the picking hand, obviously you can’t feel anything on your finger of the left hand, because the string’s not being deflected. Little things. So when I go back to the guitar, it just enhances the guitar in some respects, without detracting from the SynthAxe at all.
For his three Town Pump dates, Holdsworth will be focusing on material from his new album Atavachron. Named after a word he heard in a Star Trek episode, the new LP features a newly developed instrument called the Synth Axe. “It’s like the next generation of machines that guitarists can play to control synthesizers,” says Holdsworth. As well as his trusty Synth Axe, Holdsworth will be joined on stage by drummer Chad Wackerman, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and keyboardist Billy Childs (formerly with saxman Freddie Hubbard).
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.
When I had the first one, I think that was even before the step on days. (Step on is the pedal system which allows the player to ‘step on’ or back through pre-programmed I patches stored in the SynthAxe console. Ed). That was fine in the studio but I came unstuck numerous times on stage trying to recall patches by number. Also, as you know, I always wanted to play a horn - the guitar was pretty much an accident - and I’ve started using this breath controller which a friend found in a junk store in LA.
Is that the Yamaha model?
Oh, no! It’s not a controller which works in conjunction with any synthesiser; it’s a totally separate unit. This one can be connected to the MIDI controls, but I’ve been using it on the audio - it’s a voltage controlled filter, basically. It’s wonderful because it’s given me all this expression, which I didn’t think was possible out of it. For example, the second track on the album, called Distance Versus Desire, is like a ballad, and I just solo over the top the chords. I think the kind of expression that can be got with it, kind of surprised myself: you’d always expect to get more from a real instrument. I’m not saying it’s not real and eventually those barriers will break down and there will be no definition between real and unreal, because no instrument is real really. I’ve been using almost exclusively Oberheim stuff and I’ve got a lot better at it. I didn’t want to bring in programmers or anything because I like to know how everything works, even if it’s sad. I’d rather get a sad soun d and be responsible for it than have somebody else make me a brilliant one and not know how he got it. So I’ve gradually been progressing in that department and there’s a solo on the title track Sand where I used a Kursweil (sic) 250 Expander and an Oberheim Xpander mixed together. I’d created an oboe-like sound on the Xpander and I used the bassoon patch on the Kursweil (sic) and mixed them both through the breath controller. It was great because the bassoon patch ran out half-way up the range and the Oberheim kind of takes over and it’s almost undetectable - it’s hard to know where one ran out and the other one took over. But I actually forgot, when I was recording it, that I was playing anything that was anything to do with the guitar at all. I was in the studio and it was almost like I had an oboe in my chops. It’s a great feeling because it’s closer to what I want to do than I’ve ever got from the guitar. I’ve always attempted to get sounds out of the guitar that didn’t really want to come out. Plus it’ s taken me into a whole new thing; I’m not just dealing with things relating to the guitar.
Was the barrier into the synths the big barrier?
It was kind of confusing because I got the synthesiser before the SynthAxe arrived and I had to look at all these pages in the manual and I was totally clueless. Nothing meant anything at all until I got the SynthAxe and could figure out what was going on - I think I drove Marcus Ryle crazy. (Marcus Ryle was a co-designer or the Oberheim Xpander and Matrix 12 synths and was SynthAxe’s service agent in the us. Ed) I think he had his phone number changed by the time I’d finished! But the most important thing was that I had the desire to know. I felt about that like I felt when I first got a guitar or when I first got involved in music; you really want to have a go.
There are only two guitar solos on the LP…
Yeah. I don’t know whether it will alienate a lot of people, or not. But that was all I felt I wanted to do on it: I really wanted to further my playing on the SynthAxe. Right now I guess the guitar is prominent, from the onlooker’s point of view, but eventually I’d like that role to be reversed so that I would just become a synthesist. I’d like people to be more aware of what the music is about, rather than just the fact that I play the guitar. What’s so wonderful about the SynthAxe is that it’s taken me out of that thing. All these things that I dreamed about I can try and have a go at. It’s just unfortunate that I didn’t find out about it twenty years ago - but that’s life!
The two tracks where I did use the guitar are the two tracks I really felt it should be played on. There’s one track which I wrote with Chad Wackerman, which is depicting the train ride from London to Bradford - I used to catch this train from King’s Cross to Bradford called the Bradford Executive. I wanted to write something which depicted the changing scenery as you ride by on a train, so the chord sequence doesn’t repeat; there’s a little motif at the beginning and the end, but the actual structure doesn’t change. It’s quite a long piece, about seven minutes, so even though there are only two guitar solos, at least this is a long one.
I hear you’re getting a special neck - or necks - made for your SynthAxe...
Well, as you know, I love the SynthAxe and it’s opened up a whole new world for me - taken me out of the little guitar world - and in conjunction with that breath controller it’s just great. The only thing I ever felt that was wrong with it - and it wasn’t wrong in concept, because I think the idea is still a good one - was that the frets were too big. I think Bill Aitken originally specified how the frets were going to be and the idea of having the frets linearly spaced, as opposed to like they are on an acoustic instrument, is great because there’s no reason for them to be any size at all. But I do think the only mistake was that they were too big, because I could play certain chords and things on the guitar that I can’t even reach on the SynthAxe so it’s kind of limited my vocabulary in some ways, taking out those things which I could do on the guitar but cannot do on the Axe.
Now I’m trying to have two custom necks made with the same linear spacing, in as much as they won’t be spaced how they are on a guitar, but they’ll be spaced like they are on a regular SynthAxe only 21% smaller.
How did you arrive at 21%?
Well, what happened was Alec Stansfield from SynthAxe, came out to the States and worked with us when we were doing some SynthAxe demos and I talked to him in detail about it. They kept having people saying ‘It doesn’t feel like this’, ‘It doesn’t feel like that’, and I thought although it’s silly to have it exactly like a guitar - because there’s no reason for it to be - it still shouldn’t be any harder to play than a real guitar. And it was!
So I just said why don’t they make it easier, so that I can play I things that I couldn’t play on the I guitar, as opposed to the other way around. So I figured that 25% would be a really good reduction in length, because that would make the neck really small, like rabbiting around on a violin. But obviously there’s a minimum space between the frets before it starts causing problems electrically, so what Alec did was he figured out the closest you could get the 23rd and 24th frets without getting problems, and it turned out that it was 21% smaller than the existing Axe. So that’s what I’m going for.
And you’re trying to get a few of your SynthAxe playing mates to come in with you?
Yeah, I’m going to do it anyway, even if I have to scrape up the money myself, because it’s something I need to do in order to be able to do all the things I want to do on it. Obviously the cost is high, because it’s custom and not just like a regular wood guitar neck. There’s a lot of circuitry involved in the neck, so to make it smaller is a big chore and the more you make, the cheaper they become. I’m going to talk to some other SynthAxe chaps and see If we can get at least four or maybe five necks ordered. I would like to have one for each of my Axes, because I’ve got a spare one and I’d like to have one for that. If I got used to the small one and something went wrong, I’d be in all sorts of trouble when I went back to the original!
Oh, the other interesting thing which I must tell you is that, you know people always come up and ask about the SynthAxe ‘Can It sound like a guitar?’, and I thought well, let’s have a go. I mean it’s pretty stupid really to want to control a synthesiser and make it sound like a two hundred and fifty buck Strat plugged into an old Marshall or something. It’s kind of weird and I can’t imagine anyone wanting the SynthAxe to do that but I thought I’d have a go. So I waffled about on the Matrix 12 and came up with this patch, stuck it through a fifty watt Marshall and recorded it just like you would a guitar. It’s really clean and controllable and even though the
sound’s distorted, there are no sounds of your hands on the fretboard, like you have on a guitar. So the notes stop in a really neat way; they’re not cluttered with all this white noise crud of your hand moving around, which I hate and try and control on the guitar. But it’s pretty much eliminated with this. Also that track Mac Man was recorded on a sequencer, using the Mackintosh, except for the solo, which I had to record on my Akai, at home. The rest of it, including Chad’s percussion parts, the drum machine and bass, were recorded on the sequencer down at the studio. Mac Man is this chap who has more command of the computer than I’ve seen from most anybody and he was manipulating it while we were waffling.
The melody part is played with the SynthAxe through a Roland digital piano. It’s funny because the first part is like a pseudo acoustic piano and the solo’s like pseudo electric guitar. It’s an interesting track - a fun track. There are no keyboard controlled synthesisers on the album whatsoever, except for the solo on Pud Wud which is Alan Pasqua. The rest of the sounds - the accompaniment sounds behind the guitar - are just the SynthAxe.
You must listen to music generally and realise what you do is radically different to the majority.
I realise it’s different. I’ve basically got goals set for myself in as much as how I’d like to play eventually, which is where the SynthAxe comes in, and hopefully one day I can bury the guitar. I can see a point in the future where people who learn to play instruments may not necessarily have ever played the acoustic version of that instrument. Even now, I know guys who play keyboards who have never played a piano - apart from tinkling on one. Assuming there isn’t another world war that blitzes everything, who knows, in maybe just a few years you’ll get kids coming up playing instruments that don’t bear much resemblance to the electric guitar.
The electric guitar’s a pretty cheesy thing when you think about it; still working on those bits of wire and magnets for its sound. It’s all of the things that are wrong with it that have made it the unique instrument it is. Because it still works by a vibrating string, it’s much more of an acoustic instrument than people would have given it credit for, initially.
To me, I don’t see any difference between a synthesiser and an acoustic instrument. It’s what’s done on it that counts. If it’s a dog pile then it’s a dog pile no matter what it’s done on.
Guitar fanatics showed up two hours early for his recent show at New York’s Bottom Line, scrambling for front row seats in order to better trace the paths of his fingers flying tip and down the neck. They howled at the announcement of each number and nearly levitated off the floor during Holdsworth’s solo excursions. Bassist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Chad Wackerman propelled things along as Allan switched modes from song to song - first the Steinberger, next the SynthAxe, back to the Steinberger and so on. Curiously, he never touched his patented Ibanez AH-I0 guitar. Backstage, Holdsworth talked about his recent conversion to Steinberger guitars.
After years of grappling with the possibilities of guitar synthesis, Holdsworth has finally gained control in the game by latching onto a SynthAxe, the sophisticated English MIDI guitar controller.
"The pitch-to-voltage principle, or pitch -to glitch as I call it, has some bad inherent problems that you can never really surmount, he maintains. "I tried the Roland guitar synthesizer and I’ve heard people play them and make nice sounds on them, but it’s kind of like a trick. You have to learn what you can do and what you can’t do. And I found that to be just a big pile, you know? I mean, you can learn how to manipulate it in some way and learn what its limitations are, so you avoid all the things it won’t do and concentrate on the things it will do. And that, to me, is useless. I hate being dictated to by a machine. To me, the principle is wrong from the beginning. And that doesn’t mean that John McLaughlin or Pat Metheny hasn’t been doing wonderful things with it. It’s just that, to me, it doesn’t work. It’s a disobedient machine, and I hate that. It takes a long time to decide what note you played, and the wavelength of a low note on that machine is bigger than a high note, so all the low notes conic out slower than the high notes. And all those problems are eliminated with the SynthAxe.
"The SynthAxe doesn’t make pitch mistakes. It can’t. All the manipulation and frequency analysis has been eliminated. It’s an obedient machine, at last. I love the thing. I’m still in awe of it. I see it as the birth of a totally new generation of machines."
Holdsworth has added a breath controller apparatus to his SynthAxe. Basically a piece of thin tubing that hooks up to the unit and runs to his mouth, this breath controller allows Allan to literally blow the notes out of his instrument. With this bit of tubing, the guitarist’s guitar hero can finally become a saxophonist.
"I really never wanted to be a guitar player," he begins. "I’m a guitar player because I was given a guitar as a young boy and I began dabbling on it and eventually got into it. I always loved music as a kid, but the instrument I really wanted to play was the saxophone. I’ve always wanted to play a wind instrument of Some kind, be it a wind instrument that exists now or one that is played on some other planet somewhere . . . I dunno. So, I’ve begun experimenting with this breath controller to get that quality. It’s an accessory that’s been around for a long time. In fact, they don’t really exist anymore. This one ... a friend of mine found it in a junk shop because he knew how interested I was in blowing. The way it works with the SynthAxe is the instrument won’t make any sound until I blow. And the sound changes with the amount that I blow, both in volume and in tone. The voice box that Peter Frampton used in the seventies is quite different. That shaped the sounds. This activates the sounds. All you’re d oing is blowing into your instrument, like a sax player. It’s a whole new ball game for me."
His last solo album, Atavachron, marked a turning point in Allan’s career, featuring much more synthesizer than is generally expected on a ‘guitarist’ album. His involvement with the SynthAxe is largely responsible for this development, since it has allowed him to step into a role generally reserved for keyboard players. But the changes in his music are not merely in the tonalities of the lead and backing instruments; the character of his compositions has definitely evolved in new directions since his plunge into synthesizers without forsaking the nuances of his playing style altogether.
"I’m interested in what people think about it. I think it’s going to be immediately obvious that you wouldn’t be able to do that on any other kind of controller. Some of the textures and the controllability would be impossible on something else. Who knows? They might hate it. "Where’s the guitar, where’s the guitar? Allan’s not playing guitar anymore!"
"That was the SynthAxe through a Marshall. The first track was guitar, but the last track was the SynthAxe. Most of the other sounds I used on the SynthAxe were guitar-like sounds, or horn-like sounds, because that’s the instrument I hear in my head. I’ve always tried to get the guitar to sound like a horn. It’s easier for me to get the SynthAxe to sound like a horn than it was the guitar.
So if he’s primarily using the SynthAxe, does he record his performances as MIDI data into a sequencer?
“I’ve considered it; I might even do something like that on another album. I’d like to do an album like that. And because it would all be synthesized, I could just record it into the computer, like we did on the last track on the album. Everything was recorded on the computer except the solo; that was recorded to tape, because I used the guitar amplifier and all that. It would have been more complicated to record it and then process it, because I wouldn’t have been able to get the same feel without hearing that sound.’
OVER THE LAST couple of years, Allan Holdsworth has become one of the SynthAxe’s most vocal supporters. In 1986, he released Atavachron, proving that there is, now more than ever, a difference between ‘keyboard’ and ‘synthesizer’ music. Yet as Allan explains, there is much more to his favorite axe than the sounds to which he now has access.
“In a way, the SynthAxe has kind of taken over for me, because I can reach what I want to do musically more with the SynthAxe than I could with the guitar. It seems like I’ve been waiting all my life for this instrument, because it allows me to do all the things I could never do with guitar. Like the last track on the album; it sounds pretty much like guitar, and I did that by creating a sound using the Oberheim Matrix 12, and then combining two separate sounds and putting them into a little 15-Watt Marshall.
“That was my first attempt, and I did that solo really fast. Usually, I’ll spend time making a solo, getting a sound. I might spend five or six hours on a sound. At home, that is - I wouldn’t do that in the studio. At home it’s great, because I just say, oh, this sounds pretty good, go out and have a beer, and comeback next day and listen to it. And if it doesn’t sound good to me, I can change it until it does. If that was studio time, I’d be paying a lot of money for experimenting, and I’m such an experimenter, really. So using the Akai has just been fantastic, because with the noise-reduction system on it, it hasn’t impaired the guitar sound at all, and I think I’ve been able to achieve as good a sound, if not the best sound, as I’ve had so far.
Getting back to guitars, what’s it like translating all of Holdsworth’s guitar technique to an instrument like the SynthAxe?
“The only limitations are in your ability to control the synthesizer and make it understand what you want it to do. That’s really opened up to me in the last year. When we did the first album with the SynthAxe, Atavachron, I was still pretty new at it. It’s been a year and a half now. I’ve learned a lot about synthesis since then, and have used a lot of different things.
“I use the breath controller a lot on it, because I always wanted to play a horn. Breath controllers have been around for a long time, but keyboard players generally don’t like them. But for me, it seems so natural, because I really think I should have played a horn. So when I play the SynthAxe with a breath controller, I am playing a horn; I feel like I’ve actually achieved what I wanted to do.
“There are a lot of things on the last track on the album that I did with the SynthAxe simulating the guitar sound that were very reminiscent of things that I would do on guitar if I could do them almost the same way.
‘Plus the fact that l could even use the breath controller to control the guitar sound, or a SynthAxe guitar sound. That’s one of the things about the SynthAxe as well that, to me, is so superior to all other kinds of guitar synthesizers or controllers. A guitar’s not a really good way to control a synthesizer. When you play a note and the string dies, then the note’s going to die, unless you’ve got a hold pedal, and you’re constantly fighting with another pedal on the floor, whereas with the SynthAxe, I can program it to sustain that note until I mute it. ‘So to me, to put hexaphonic pickups on the guitar, the way Roland does it, is silly; besides, I think the pitch-to-voltage - or pitch-to-glitch technology, as I call it - is coming to an end. They’ve gotten just about as far as they can go. It’s a glorified guitar tuner. You play a note, it has to decide what the note is, and then figure out if it made any mistakes. There would be no keyboard player in the world who would play a pitch-to voltage keyboard, so why do they expect guitar players to do that?
“To me, the SynthAxe is the birth of the next generation of controllers, and the improvements and advancements that they’ve made since I got the first one have been astounding. Every week, they’ve got something else that does something it didn’t do before. You can write your own law tables for velocity - the way the keys work and everything. It’s awesome. Nobody really appreciates it yet, but I’ve found the SynthAxe is the only way to get total control over everything.
“...I always think of sounds as a uniform thing. If I’d been a piano player, I wouldn’t be a guy that would want to play and accompany myself. I like playing with other people, I like the interaction. I can’t play bass - I like to play with somebody like Jimmy who’s fantastic. It’s a whole different way of looking at it; they’re “low note“ men. It’s fantastic, because there’s no way I’d be able to think like that. “I’ve mixed more than one sound, obviously, a lot of times, but always on every string. The EQ might change from one string to the next, or the filter might change as it goes up because of the way the sound was programmed. It wouldn’t be one sound on one string, and one sound on another. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that I’ve never bad the desire to do that.
“It’s really difficult for me to say enough about the SynthAxe, because in some ways it’s gone against me with SynthAxe themselves. They see me as a person who already loves the thing-which I do-so they may be less likely to listen to me than to another guitar player who isn’t convinced by it. There are certain aspects of things that I would really like to stress to them that they should always keep, like I think they should always have 24 frets, because to me that would be like taking the EWI, the Electric Wind Instrument, and putting only one octave key on it just because the saxophone only has one octave key. When you’re dealing with a synthesizer, you don’t have those range problems anymore, it can go from DC to VHF. So you’ve got eight octave keys on it, and that’s great! Why restrict yourself to these silly things that apply only to acoustic instruments because there’s a law of physics involved? So to take frets off your guitar is silly, especially when even a modern guitar like a Steinberger has 24 frets. It’s got to have 24 frets!
“There are some things you can do with the SynthAxe’s trigger keys for soloing that would be incredibly difficult with a pick. I don’t use a pick with it anymore - I’m trying to develop a technique to play on it with my fingers. You see, on a guitar you use a pick for the sound, but on the SynthAxe it makes no difference.’
So Holdsworth is not terribly worried about giving up the feel of a real guitar?
“Oh no. Why? If I’m playing a guitar and I’m hearing a flute, I’m not hearing a guitar anymore anyway. So for me, hear the SynthAxe, I’m able to respond and get inside the sound I’m using more than I could with a guitar. When I play a guitar with any conversion system on it, I’m still thinking “guitar“. Whereas, while I’m playing the SynthAxe, I’m totally engrossed and lost in that sound, with what I’m doing at the moment. It’s still new to me, and I’m still growing and learning about it, but it’s totally rejuvenated my way of thinking about music. I think that eventually, I’m going to be able to get closer musically to what I can hear in my head than I could with the guitar. I’ll try.’
Together with drummer Chad – and bassist Bob Wackerman Holdsworth gave a performance from one hour which was creditable. Very varied, and with a lot of space for soloing by the diverse musicians, without ever threatening to become freaky. On guitar Holdsworth was in a better shape than ever and played a couple of solo’s that are amongst the fastest I’ve ever heard, in which he didn’t lose his sense of melody not even for a moment. The man stays a phenomenon. The other instrument handled by Holdsworth was the SynthAxe.
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.”
Aren’t you afraid that the SynthAxe is, commercially seen, doomed to die; you’re the only one who’s positive about the instrument?
“Maybe that’s because I never wanted to play guitar. I just see it as an instrument, for me it’s something great; I can’t say enough positive things about it. I can understand why people aren’t so satisfied with it generally; guitarist simply have the tendency to be rather ‘close-minded’ on that point. They want to do everything with it which they also can do on a guitar and don’t think about the possibilities this instrument offers which aren’t possible on a guitar. It works to two sides. I’m very enthusiastic about what they did with the instrument, the shape, the angle of the neck, that sort of things. The only critic which I would have on the instrument is the neck; to my opinion it should be smaller. But that’s the only thing I would want to chance. It’s quite good possible that the instrument is doomed to die, just like all the things that are ahead of its time. On the other hand you could get a whole new generation of SynthAxe-players who never had a guitar in their hands. It’s just an incredible invention.”
The story goes that you had to sell your house so you could buy the SynthAxe.
“That’s not quite true. Some eight years ago I had bought a house, or actually a flat, in England. At one moment we moved to the States, where I rented a house, because I didn’t know if I would like it there. Meanwhile we leased out the flat in England. What happened was that the guy who moved into our flat didn’t pay the rent. With the music I make I may be happy if I can be able to support myself, so two houses at the same moment I couldn’t pay. So I sold the house in England, which I thought was terrible, because I wanted to have something to return to if I wouldn’t like it in the States. I’d rather not see my wife and children on the street. But anyway, I got more for that flat than I paid for it when I bought it, and the difference I used to be able to buy the SynthAxe.”
But there’s also a practical argument like to be able to make ends meet.
“That’s for me the only criterion, to earn at least that much money so my wife and children have something to eat. I would want do some other work, and than make music in my free time. Rather maybe, because guitarists want to hear me play the guitar, and I don’t care about that. I play guitar when I want to. I would rather work for SynthAxe, or Oberheim, or whoever and then make the music I want to make myself.
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)
BSR: Do you see yourself doing that with an orchestra or just with the SynthAxe?
AH: I would do it just with the SynthAxe. I’d have total control over it. Then I don’t have to sit there with some guy who plays the violin and doesn’t want to play this shit. (Laughs). Some of those guys can be a big pain, especially with different kinds of music. I always like that thing that Keith Jarrett says about classical musicians: "They are worse than the audience." I guess a lot of those guys only want to do certain things. It’s like a job. They are kind of like worker bees. Their creativity must be on a different plane from a lot of jazz musicians. A lot of these guys seem to be stuck up about it, but the fact is that their creativity level isn’t very high at all. It is with some people-obviously there are some wonderful musicians. Generally speaking, the guys in the band, the orchestra people, a lot of them are unhappy. That’s how it seems to me. It’s like they just sit there and read newspapers and play their part. To me that’s not music. You have to find people who are really involved with and into it. You have to have someone there kicking their ass constantly, trying to get them to do it the way you want it, or you just do it yourself, with synthesizers, with much more control. Obviously you don’t have the same sound palette that you would with a real orchestra, but eventually you might.
Thinking of himself as a musician, rather than just a guitarist, Allan was a natural candidate for the guitar synthesiser. But the problems associated with such devices - inaccurate and delayed tracking, spurious or missing notes, etc. - meant nothing but frustration... until he met Bill Aitken and his new invention - the SynthAxe. Aitken had himself been frustrated by the inadequacy of the systems available in the late seventies and so had set about designing one himself.
It was a strange-looking beast though - a plastic hulk of a thing with the neck sticking up at an angle. It had two sets of strings and the frets weren’t normally spaced; they hardly seemed to reduce as they progressed up the neck. Weird though it may have appeared, Allan saw the SynthAxe’s musical potential right away and has been its foremost user to date. Almost all the synthesiser parts on his last three albums - ‘Atavachron’, ‘Sand’ and his latest release, ‘Secrets’ - have been played on the Axe and listening to Holdsworth’s extraordinary accompaniments to his equally stunning soloing, you begin to realise the true extent of his knowledge, understanding and -maybe above all - musical intuition.
Even the most cursory hearing of Holdsworth’s playing will reveal just how moved he was by Coltrane - the long, fluid lines, the extended improvisations, the phrasing which feels and sounds more like a horn than a plucked string instrument. "It was unconscious in the beginning," Holdsworth said. "But I think I was always trying to make the guitar into a less percussive instrument. That’s why I got interested in trying to use the amplifier to create sustained notes - so I could put the instrument into another realm of phrasing. Its not that I like distortion or anything like that for its own sake, its that I liked the way the amplifier could let [me] play long notes. Whereas, the normal jazz guitar - like say Joe Pass - is too percussive for me to be able to relate to it; I still love it and love to listen to it, but it wasn’t something that I felt; that’s why the SynthAxe was such a great discovery for me. It was like it was suddenly possible for long, flowing lines to be created by a guitar player; and now, with a breath controller, I can control the dynamics using breath like I would if I was playing a horn. So its kind of like a dream come true. Its like I’ve finally gotten around to playing the saxophone!"
In the two years since he began to play the hybrid instrument, the SynthAxe has loomed larger and larger in Holdsworth’s musical arsenal. It now rests comfortably in his hands for at least 50% of most of his live sets.
"Most guitar players don’t like the Synth-Axe," he said, "because it feels totally different from the guitar. The strings that you play with the right hand are a separate set from what you play with your left hand. Fret spacing is completely different. So I guess a lot of guys feel totally alienated by it. But I suppose the fact that I really didn’t like the guitar allowed me to adapt more easily to the Synth-Axe. I really like it. In fact, I’ve gotten to a point where I feel as though I cant get as much out of a guitar as I can out of the Synth-Axe.
"I’ve been trying - and I haven’t succeeded yet, but I keep getting closer - to create a kind of a horn sound that’s somewhere between an oboe and a soprano saxophone. And since there’s no real acoustic instrument that I can learn how to play, I use the synthesizers that I control with the Synth-Axe to create a sound which is somehow like that. I’ve always liked the idea of synthesis. I mean, there must be so many sounds - unheard sounds - that would be wonderful to hear. The real quest is to find some of them. Hopefully, eventually I’ll come up with a sound that isn’t trying to be something else, but which is definitely identifiable as something else.
His Warner Brothers connection severed, Holdsworth took the demo tracks, finished them into an album which eventually became Metal Fatigue. and was released on Enigma Records. It was followed by Atavachron, on which he introduced the Synthe-Axe [sic] and featured Billy Childs and Tony Williams. When Enigma hesitated with a contract pickup, Holdsworth moved to Relativity for the release of Sand, but his current release is once again back on Enigma.
"It’s obviously a struggle to play a new instrument like the SynthAxe initially," Allan concedes, "but on an expressive level, it’s really a dream come true. And it really puzzles me that people who listen to my music think the SynthAxe is less natural or acceptable than the guitar, because whatever I play, I’m still the same musician, offering the same quality of performance. It tells me that people aren’t hearing with their ears; they’re hearing with their eyes."
GW: What do you think it was about the last two records that forced the record companies into a corner?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, some of it is overconcern with what they consider to be my audience. They think that the majority of people who come to see the band are probably musicians. They’re probably right, but to me that’s really a drag, because then they’ll turn around and say "Well, guitar players aren’t going to come and see you play the SynthAxe, because they can’t relate to it anymore." which is a terrible thing to say, because it implies that guitar players are not musicians, in a sense, because they listen with their eyes rather than their ears. I find that people who didn’t like my music when I was playing guitar - non-musicians - really like what we’re doing now with the SynthAxe. So it’s taken on this new life, but they don’t seem to be prepared to try and reach a different audience with the music.
GW: Did that record do anything for you?
HOLDSWORTH:: Well, it’s the same prob1em. I have great difficulty listening to it now because I sound so bad on it. But it was obviously representative of what we were doing, and that’s the way I played then, because I didn’t know any better. But it’s a good record in terms of having captured something; it captured the essence of what we were doing. And Gary I thought, played just great on it. Paul Williams sang great, too.
GW: Do you think the vocal concept prevented you from getting over with the jazz constituency?
HOLDSWORTH:: It was just something that I grew out of, or that I thought I should change. The original vocal concept stemmed from the trio concept; I wanted to be able to play things as a trio with a melody and chords, set up in a situation where I could perform them with just a guitar. So I used the voice like an instrument, and Paul was the perfect person for that. But I just wanted to do something different. I mean, I never know what I’m going to feel like or what I’m going to want to do, because it changes, and I can’t help it. When I got the SynthAxe, a whole other thing suddenly opened up to me and I didn’t see what I was doing as a musician, or the band itself, in the same way anymore. And I also saw the vocal thing sitting me on the fence really hard, and that people who like instrumental or "jazz" music were kind of perturbed by the vocal aspect of my music. I never was, but I thought that they were, and I also felt that there were people who liked the vocal aspect of t he songs but didn’t like the rest of it. It was like stretching both sides, and, like I said, when I got the SynthAxe I decided that that was what I wanted to do, so I just continued to sit on the fence in a different way.
GW: What specific barriers have you overcome between the music and the instrument?
HOLDSWORTH Well, just the problem posed by learning how to do something in a short space of time, that’s all. Because, with all due respect to keyboard players, they’ve had about fifteen years to learn how to deal with synthesizers. In a lot of ways, it’s taken people fifteen years to accept that instrument. And I find that people - particularly guitar players - will often put that barrier up themselves.
I think I’ve made a lot of progress with the SynthAxe on this record. The longer I play the thing, the more comfortable it becomes and the more it becomes a part of my playing. Now; I enjoy playing it even more than guitar, because guitar poses a different set of problems that I’ve been battling with one way or another for years. On the one hand, I had to use distortion - quite unnatural to a percussive instrument like a guitar - to get the kind of sustain and vocal quality I wanted from my instrument. At the same time, I’m left with the schzzhhhh of it all. I find that I leave a lot more holes and pauses in my playing with the SynthAxe, whereas with the guitar’s sustain, there’s always some kind of note hanging on.
GW: Are you finding that playing the SynthAxe has affected the manner in which you approach playing standard guitar?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, maybe it is, because I’m learning. When you learn something,
it can’t help but be passed on. I think I’m becoming more and more dissatisfied with the guitar’s sound, just because I’m trying to turn something incredibly ugly into something I want to be really beautiful-sounding. I want to get the range of the guitar’s fidelity in terms of bandwidth, without losing all the high end and making it sound too mellow. And of course, because I can accomplish more things with the SynthAxe on an expressive level - using the breath controller, for instance - it’s made me even more dissatisfied with the guitar. But again, that’s me. I still love to hear other people play the guitar, but find myself liking it less and less because I can get less and less from it.
GW: I notice you don’t even use a pick when you play the SynthAxe.
HOLDSWORTH: Well, the reason for using a pick is a sonic one, because it gives a certain sound, and I’m not so keen on the sound of my fingers on the strings on guitar. But with the SynthAxe, the connection between the finger and the string makes no difference to the sound, because the sound is controlled via other means. So I play with my fingers because I feel I can actually play better with them. I can play things from string to string with a little bit more control than I can with a pick on that instrument. And that’s true of guitar, too. I can do things with fingers that are difficult for me to do with a pick, but the pick sounds a lot better - you know, the initiation of the string vibration, the delicacy of it, can really be shaped with a pick.
GW: Are you working or involved with SynthAxe in the same capacity that you might have been working with Washburn?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, the challenge of it was in trying to find a company that would allow me to work for them in a creative area, but not to be strapped down with saying I used their instruments. Just because I’m Steinbergered doesn’t mean that I can’t give some other company creative input on how to make their instruments better. And that’s something I was really looking forward to. So, all I can say to any young guys out there thinking about doing endorsements is, think again. That’s a warning. If they’re gonna rip off an old fart like me, who’s been doing it for twenty years, then they’re sure as hell going to try and ream some young guy who comes along. That’s how I feel. They caused me a lot of problems. I mean, that’s part of the reason I was pawning equipment again; I had reached a point in my life where I needed to get into something else in order to survive anyway because playing this kind of music doesn’t make money. Making these kind of records doesn’t make money. It’s like a survival thing; when I was younger it was cool, because the survival - just getting by - was enough. But now as I get older, with kids and everything, it’s getting to be that that isn’t enough. You know I’d like to be able to think that in five years’ time, no one might want to hear anything that I do, because guitar players might be elevated to such a point that I can’t even think of anything worth shit. So, I might be out of a job, in which case being creatively involved in another aspect of music would be a good thing for me. Thinking about the kids, making sure that they’ve got somewhere to live as opposed to being out on the street or something. It seems like we got to the point like, "Well, what the hell are we going to do now?" Because three months’ rent is a lot of money. They just took it away And that’s the truth, as far as I know and nobody can do anything about it, except to say that it’s true.
One of the least constant factors in the equation has been Allan’s preference in the characteristics of the guitar itself. Since the early seventies, when he acquired his first Fender Stratocaster, he persistently sought to break the instrument down to an elemental form - moving on to the thinner Gibson SG, another chiselled Strat, several hollowed-out Charvel and Ibanez solidbodies and, most recently, to the deceptively resonant, stripped down plastic Steinbergers - ultimately using MIDI as the basis for its restructure. With two SynthAxes and their corresponding analog Oberheim Matrix 12 and X5B synth modules and disk player, some Yamaha DX 7’s and an Akai S-900 sampler, Allan feels that the dream has been finally realized. "For years, I’ve been trying to get the guitar to do things it simply didn’t want to do," he explains. "I never have to fight the SynthAxe to make it respond, and, in a surprising sense, it’s really the most expressive instrument I’ve ever played through"
Allan finds that, despite its size, the Steinberger cleverly embodies the tonal consistency, uniformity of feel and sleek playability he’d sought in guitars for years. "It’s unbelievably even," he says. "It has a kind of resonance, though not the kind induced by the various pieces of wood you’ve ordinarily got connected together. When I started playing the Steinberger, I was taken by its really scientific approach. The materials used were all the same; you could consistently operate under a formula that works. You’re not worrying about how far up the tree this piece of wood came from, how it was cut, how it was dried or how long the tree had been dead. It seemed that every single thing on the guitar just contributed, so you were left with either a really great guitar or a little junk pile. And for some reason, the Steinberger has a great sound. Between that guitar and the SynthAxe, I can’t imagine wanting another guitar - except to own another Steinberger. I actually had one stolen from the studio [Fron t Page Recorders, Costa Mesa, CA]; If anybody finds a black Steinberger with serial no. 2660, and when you take the top plate off, it’s got my name written on it in gold pen - it’s mine."
Two different versions of the same home-built effects rack that served Allan faithfully for fifteen years have been used recently in conjunction with two set-ups:
one for SynthAxe transmissions and rhythm guitar, and one for his lead tone. "It’s pretty modular," he points out. "What I’m trying to set up at the moment is something where I don’t have a rack anyone. I’d just take pieces I want to use, and that way I’m not locked in. But for my live sound, I use that T.C. Electronic Spatial Expander, the ADA Stereo Tapped Delay and a Rocktron Pro Chorus - those are my three main chorusing units. I return the effected signal to a small Ramsa twelve-channel mixer and then, right before it goes to the power amp, it goes through the Hush IIC. And I use the RX, which is like a new Hush Exciter, on DX7 synthesizers, because it makes them sound a lot better."
Cluttered, cramped and shimmering with a warm, inspirational magic, The Brewery remains a warehouse of ideas and dreams yet to be realized. "I’m intrigued with electronics and amplifiers and I’ve experimented a lot," the maestro muses. "I’ve still got quite a lot of thoughts about what can be done to allow the electric guitar to do more, but that sort of thing is almost as difficult to get someone to execute as it is to get someone to create a SynthAxe. In a way, the creation of the SynthAxe was like a dream come true - something I might have dreamt up that somebody else actually made. A lot of the other dreams I have about guitar amplifiers - ‘if only I could do this’ kind of syndromes - are much less likely to happen, and probably won’t."
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."
For his guitar tones, Allan worked with several pieces of MESA/Boogie equipment, running either a Mark III, Quad Preamp, or .50 Caliber through various combinations of custom enclosed speaker boxes, prototypes of what Rocktron now markets as the Allan Holdsworth Juice Extractor load box, and other assorted gear that best suited each situation. And although his mastery of the SynthAxe controller has taken considerable strides over three years of exploratory use, Allan’s loss of contact with the company over unresolved design flaws has cast the instrument into a position of liability, especially for stage work. "It’s really hard to push forward," he points out, "because I’ve got four consoles of which only two work properly, and even those screw up. The last time I went to Japan, it was dropping memory all the time. It’s bad enough when you’re a guitar player who’s already got mission control there, but with all the synthesizers, when the stuff starts going wrong, boy, it starts going wrong. On that last Jap anese trip, I just wanted to throw it away and start playing guitar again.
"I’ve also always wanted to get a small neck made," Holdsworth continues, "because despite all the things SynthAxe did, which I thought were absolutely awesome - and still do - their mistake was in making the neck so big. We came up with one that was almost 25% smaller, but it was too expensive to get just one made. There are things that are a hell of a pain to play on it, even though I can do them very easily on guitar. I find myself having to think differently about how I’m going to play something, just because I know my hand isn’t big enough to grab certain notes. And I know that if the neck was smaller, I’d be able to play stuff that I wouldn’t be able to play on guitar That would really open it up for me."
Allan focused his attention on the SynthAxe for With A Heart In My Song, his second album of duos with Gordon Beck since meeting the pianist in London in the mid ‘70s. The Things You See, released in 1980, contained intimate, compelling duets between acoustic and electric guitar and piano - sort of a space-age take on a Jim Hall/Bill Evans dialog. Beck is one of the few bebop-based musicians Allan has worked with closely, and the guitarist has had to adjust his approach to suit the slightly unfamiliar territory. "I once worked in a band Gordon had for a while in France, which was kind of hard for me because I was like a fish out of water," he recalls. "But the more I played with him, the more I enjoyed it, because it was a way to check my own progress. At one time I probably wouldn’t have been able to play on it at all, but because of things I’ve learned, I actually felt a lot more comfortable playing and soloing over his changes."
Ultimately, Allan’s decided knack for steering clear of his obstacles came to fulfill the beauty of Secrets, the next careful step in his ongoing search for sounds. The vehicle, he hopes, will eventually become irrelevant. "People who have followed and liked my music over the years have been pretty forgiving when I wanted to do something different," he admits. "It got a little tough when I started using the SynthAxe. I knew I wanted to get into it, but it was difficult for me to get my own personality to come through, and now I’ve got it to where it’s a lot better. I know the limitations of the instrument, I’ve come to understand synthesis a lot more, and I feel I’ve tried to get more of a voice, so that you can hear the musician through the instrument. I’m not saying it’s there yet, but it’s a lot closer now. It’s all a learning experience.
The distortion splashes near the beginning and end were the SynthAxe through a Rockman. For the rhythm guitar I ran the Boogie Quad Preamp straight onto the tape machine, without a microphone. I’d never done that before. At home, I have a couple of good mike preamps and line amplifiers, so I don’t have to run anything through the console. That way, I’m only monitoring on the console, and I can bypass all the electronics. I try a couple of different mike preamps or line amps to see which one best reproduces that particular sound. That gives you more coloration flexibility when you’re mixing, because I don’t think the best results come from mixing and recording on the same console. It’s quite often preferable to record on one thing and play back on another.
Although he makes use of guitars and amps for much of his music, Allan Holdsworth isn’t even close to being a conventional guitarist - never wanted to be, in fact. Drawing his concepts from saxophonists such as Oliver Nelson and John Coltrane, he’s forged a virtually unbounded linear approach and a remarkable chordal flair that have stretched ears and fingers for nearly 20 years of recording. His mastery of the cumbersome SynthAxe was critically validated by three consecutive sweeps in the Guitar Synthesist category of Guitar Player’s Reader’s Poll.
Regardless of whether he likes it, Holdsworth’s ceaseless innovations and unswerving standards have secured his place on the evolutionary timelines of both jazz and rock guitar. His unique perspective on these achievements cast as much light on the man as does his music. Here, then, are some particularly pithy Allan Holdsworth solos.
I was really looking forward to a European tour that was supposed to follow the release of my latest album with [pianist] Gordon Beck, With A Heart In My Song. We were going to go out as a duo and play material from the album, and I was really excited because it was going to be the only tour I’d ever done where I’d only play SynthAxe - I wasn’t going to take a guitar. It was going to be acoustic piano and some synthesizer stuff, with some rhythmic things that were sequenced. The guy from the record company called and told us that when they learned of my involvement, everybody over there said, "Oh, no; that guy’s a rock player." It just put them off. I feel really frustrated by that, because I don’t really see the music I play as rock at all. I mean, I can see its roots, but I think they must just hear the tone; a somewhat distorted guitar sound, and automatically the music goes right by; all they can think is "Oh, this is rock." It’s a weird world.
MP: Well it’s a brilliant solo. In ‘85 you got into SynthAxe. I’m not that familiar with it but I know it doesn’t work from pitch to voltage, it works how?
AH: It works like a mechanical contact – just like a keyboard. So it’s extremely accurate you know, and it was the only one for me that worked. I just wanted to really accurately control synthesizers. I didn’t want to have to deal with a glitch guitar, to have like a guitar with a glitching sound underneath – I had no desire to do that at all, I just wanted something that I could play synthesizers and program my own sounds and get into that world, because you know it also freed me from the guitar - I started using the SynthAxe with a breath controller, and I was actually getting more pleasure out of playing that than from the guitar, it kind of freed me, I kind of escaped from the guitar a little – which I liked. But unfortunately I wasn’t really able to get any real assistance from, you know, I guess nobody else liked it but me – well maybe there’s a couple other guys out there who really love it but…
MP: How is the neck spacing on it?
AH: Fret spacing is linear, you know. It does get smaller but not like the same as guitar. And that was one of the problems I had, I wanted them to make a smaller neck, but it wasn’t going to happen.
IM - There was also a double-necked Steinberger which I saw you using at a gig last year. Are you still using that?
"I used it on one gig as an experiment. I only did it once because I didn’t like the guitar. SynthAx (sic) loaned me that guitar because the expense of doing the tour was so much that I went home and lost money. It wasn’t done like normal tours, we had to pay for our own hotels and transportation, so by the time it was over we lost money.
IM - That was the Guitarist Tour wasn’t it?
"Yeah. That’s why this year was a bit of a disaster as well because none of the guys who were normally in the band could do that tour and then I got this opportunity to do this thing with Level 42, which was perfect, because I couldn’t do a tour and then we had one gig to do, a guy asked if we could bail his out a little bit and help him with the finance thing which was the only reason that we would do it and I said yes. But obviously I would be doing it for free, but they wanted Gary to do it for free and I couldn’t accept that so I said no you have to pay him and they were paying for the other two guys to come over from the States the day before the gig, meaning that they would get in totally jet lagged and then we would have to do the gig without a rehearsal and the guy said, ‘oh well you can rehearse at the gig’, but that never happens, even if we got there at like 10 a.m., those guys are not going to want to get up that early and it was a big gig, like a London gig with no rehearsal, so as far as I was concerned it had to be knocked on the head. But what really did it is he started threatening me with giving me a hard time in his magazine, so up until that point I had only decided in my mind that I didn’t want to but I was hovering on it because I knew the reason why we had decided to do it in the first place was to help them out, but when he said that a release valve went and I said no, we’re not doing it. It was the wrong thing for me, the exortationate expenses were such that I couldn’t bring the SynthAx. I brought my consul [sic] and SynthAx supplied me with a SynthAx. I brought one synthesizer and two TX7 modules which are emergency machines really. We couldn’t afford to rent the Matrix 12, which was what I would normally use, because they were too expensive. I had this idea of having this double-neck made so I could play all of the music that I had done on SynthAx on guitar. The problem was that although I really love the Steinberger I didn’t like that one. Since then I have had another made but it had similar problems. But I found the regular guitar was suffering on the double neck so they made it longer to give it a bit more top, make it a little bit ‘brighter’ sounding. It’s not really happened, I don’t think it’s going to be a success. The huge guitar that I was talking to you about is a complete success but it’s just tuned like a regular guitar but really long."
Q: Isn’t the attraction to amplified guitar the fact that it can afford so many different sounds and colors, that you can get a lot of different variances in tone quality, probably more so than on a violin or saxophone?
Allan: Essentially you can’t though. There’s no way that you can do that with a guitar what some guy can do with a bow. I know that from the SynthAxe, because I can do things on the SynthAxe that would be completely impossible on the guitar. I can play a note using a vibrato on it, make the note disappear, make the tone go soft, make the tone go hard again right away after that, so the bottom of the decay is almost gone, the envelope is gone, and then you open it right up again. You can’t do that on guitar. Not even with a volume pedal. The note isn’t there anymore, it’s decayed. I know what you’re saying. You can do a lot with amplifiers and processing, which I’ve tried to do, but it’s not a real substitute.
Q: With the bow, like breath, you have this power source that’s continuous, where as you said, picking a note happens once. On the SynthAxe, how do you do those things to make the tone come back after you’ve attacked the note?
Allan: I use a breath controller with it. If I’m making a solo sound or something, I usually program the patch, and then I go through and form the velocity so everything’s like it would be at maximum. Then I use the breath controller to filter the sound so it changes the volume and the tone. What’s happening is, if I play a note on the SynthAxe, the note’s there, but you can’t hear it until I blow, so it’s a coordination deal. You hit the note, hope that it’s there, and then blow it. But it seems so natural for me to do that. Blowing the thing was the most natural- it was more organic than the guitar to me. People moan about synthesizers, but they are electronic monsters, but I don’t see any difference between a synthesizer and any other instrument. At some point in time, they’ve all been a product of technology. You couldn’t put strings on a piano before we learned how to get steel, and stretch them and wire them. And nobody can make a bamboo flute without where to put the holes in it. I think it’s just t he use of a model controller for synthesizers that’s kind of in the early stages. I think eventually it will be unbelievable, because there’s no limitation as far as the sound. The SynthAxe makes no sound of it’s own, it’s just a controller. It’s just like a keyboard player having a controller keyboard. All the SynthAxe does is send out the note information to the synthesizer. Whatever synthesizer you use is the thing that makes the sound. I mostly use the Oberheim stuff, because I really dig the sound.
Q: What is it about Oberheims that you like compared to other synthesizers?
Allan: The way I got into it was an accident. When I would work with keyboard players who had Oberheims, every time they got on that I’d look over and go, "Geez. that’s a nice sound." So the name Oberheim was in the back of my mind somewhere. And then, when I started playing the SynthAxe, the guy recommended the Oberheim because it has the most sophisticated MIDI control, and you can get to anything. Essentially, it’s an old-fashioned synthesizer with patch chords: you can take any oscillator, you can patch it to anything. On the Matrix 12, there’s eight low frequency oscillators so you don’t need processing. it’s just an unbelievable instrument, you can assign anything to anything else. Most of the synthesizers now went the other way, they have a little plastic window in there, and there’s two buttons on the front, and with the combination of movements, these two buttons do everything. It’s a nightmare. With the Oberheim, if you want something you go to the knob for that function-you turn it and you’re do ne.
In recent years, Holdsworth has found an outlet for his horn-playing ambition in the SynthAxe, a guitar-like synthesiser controller with a tube into which the player blows to add expression.
‘The SynthAxe is close to what I want, cause it’s a combination of blowing and picking, so it’s like a horn and guitar. You don’t have to blow so hard though, it’s an open blowing, like blowing a balloon up; there’s no embouchure.’
There has been a certain resistance among followers of Holdsworth’s guitar playing to his use of the SynthAxe, but Holdsworth feels they are missing the point.
‘That tends to prove that lot of guitar players are not listening to the notes. They’re listening to something else. It’s the music that counts. Perhaps they can’t relate to the sound of it, but it’s being done just like it would on the guitar.’
Allan Holdsworth is probably the world’s most respected fusion guitarist. He talks to Dominic Salmon about the appeal of Steinbergers in relation to his musical philosophy.
Allan Holdsworth has been hailed by many as one of the foremost pioneers of modern guitar playing. A champion of the SynthAxe, Allan swapped to Steinbergers after the collapse of the guitar synth company.
‘The SynthAxe was a great instrument. Unlike other guitar synths it didn’t require you to throw away your guitar technique, and it also meant that you could use sounds winch were completely separate from the guitar. However, when they went bust, it meant that there was no support for the machine, and due to its complexity, this could prove a nightmare on the road. Because a lot of my set at that time was based round the SynthAxe, a lot of the musical ideas couldn’t work without it. In the end I just ended up selling them to avoid the hassle but I am thinking of buying another one that I can play at home in my spare time. A friend of mine has one he wants to sell - there is a problem with the switches in the neck, but hopefully I can get that sorted out.
The Wardenclyffe Tower features several cuts with Synthaxxe (sic) guitar synthesizer, but Allan says he’s retired that instrument from live performance, possibly even from recording. In its place, he’s dabbling with a new controller developed by Starr Switch. "The instrument has unbelievable potential," he beams. "It’s different than a guitar. It looks like a small keyboard. It’s laid out with 24 ‘strings,’ which are actually keys, and 23 frets or keys. It’s like a two-dimensional keyboard. You can play it vertically as well as horizontally, and play chords on a single ‘string,’ I had him design me one that’s like a guitar neck, where the different-colored keys are like the dot markers on a guitar."
Steve Hunt [keyboardist] plays a much larger role on Wardenclyffe Tower than on Secrets.
I think it depends how long someone’s been around in the band. Also, I was using the SynthAxe a lot more back then, which almost negates the role the keyboard player has. After all, he’s gonna be doing something similar with textures. Back then with the SynthAxe, I was able to do that on my own, and that’s basically what happened. And this last album, I only used the SynthAxe on two tracks. I didn’t use it much.
Why did you decide to abandon it?
There’s a number of reasons, but the most important reason is that I was getting to a point where I was going to abandon playing the guitar altogether and only play the SynthAxe. I thought it was closer to what I wanted to do musically, in my head—sonically, the whole thing. With the SynthAxe, I could use it as a wind instrument. I used to use it with a breath controller—I could use it as the wind instrument I had always wanted to play since I was a kid. I didn’t have to deal with distortion and shaping a distorted guitar sound into something musical, which is a real challenge. It’s been one of the problems I have all of the time with the guitar—I want to make it sound more like a horn. But at the same time, the fact that you have to use any sort of distortion to get sustain is a kind of a catch-22. You have to use something you don’t want to use to get something that you want to use. I didn’t have any of those problems with the SynthAxe. It was really clear and really easy.
The fact that is has the keys as well as the strings —that was a stroke of genius for me. What I got afraid of is that I tried to keep in contact with them [SynthAxe Inc.] about any future things that they wanted to implement and Ideas that I had about modifications and improvements. The barrier broke down and in the end and right as it is—this moment—they don’t exist at all. There’s maybe two or three guys on the whole planet that could probably fix one. That got to be a really dangerous position to be in. If I quit guitar and got rid of them all and played only SynthAxe right now, then I’d be in real bad shape right now. And my worst fear came true, because a couple of months ago I sold both of my SynthAxes and thought "Well geez, I just have to get rid of them." And now over the last few weeks I’ve realized that I really miss them. I hooked up with this guy that bought one he never uses. He inherited some money and spent it on a SynthAxe and he decided he didn’t want to use it, so he knew that I played it and he tracked me down and he offered to sell it to me. I borrowed it from him to try it and there were two bad frets on the neck and I called some of the people that used to work at SynthAxe and try to find out what the possibilities of getting this malfunction fixed were and I’m still waiting to hear from one of the tech guys. So you can see, that’s a scary situation to be in if that was the only instrument I played!
So, it boils down to a lack of support then? Yeah and the lack of support simply boils down to the fact that there were so few people playing it that it was a complete disaster for the company. There was no way they could continue to make it. Even though, I still believe and [really passionately] I know it to be true in my heart that it was the only one—the only guitar synthesizer that was ever built that really works for me. It’s just that unfortunately it behaves so unlike guitar that they [guitarists in general] don’t want to deal with it. They don’t want to get past that little threshold you have to jump over to get into it. Most guitarists when they get a synth—well this is a generalization of course—they pick one up immediately and they try to get a synthesizer trying to play a guitar sound which is completely insane to me! I mean, I can’t think of anything more ridiculous. The whole idea for me was to get outside the realm of guitar and start doing other stuff. But that might be the thing that’s true of guitar players. Guitar players in general are narrow as far as just looking at an instrument. A lot of players don’t even listen to other instruments—they get so wrapped up in the guitar. I know that to be true, because of the amount of guitar players that I know that are like that. Sometimes, they don’t hear the music, they only hear the sounds. Anyway, so that’s where it is with the SynthAxe at the moment, so that’s why I stopped using it.
That must be a really frustrating situation for you.
Well, I started working with a new guitar synthesizer controller made by a guy down here named Harvey Starr, and the potential of this one is huge as well! It’s a really strange thing. It’s a cross between a keyboard and a guitar. You lay it flat like a pedal steel, and it has 12 strings, but they’re not really strings at all, they’re keys. They’re groups of 24 keys times 12, so it looks like a typewriter, but the problem for me is that obviously playing that way is upside down for me, and I’ve never been able to use my right hand. It’s like learning to play a whole new instrument. Whereas the SynthAxe, I fell right into it right away, so I don’t think it’s going to be a substitution for me—not that it can’t be for someone else.
Is going back to regular guitars a limiting thing for you?
Oh yeah, yeah. [really sounding depressed] The way that I could make a note loud and then soft and then loud and then soft is completely impossible with a guitar. Sure, you could use a volume pedal but it’s not the sound— it’s not the way I want to hear it. If you play a violin and you pull a note and then you can make it soft and add vibrato, take some off and then make it bright again and hard—just one note. It’s just the way you can shape notes. You can shape notes on guitar—I’ve worked really hard at doing that, but it’s really limited compared to what I could do on a SynthAxe. The perception from someone else’s point of view is probably different, but being the guy that’s trying to create the music, I know that instrument works. It really worked for me, so it’s kind of sad that it’s ended. I’m gonna try all I can to get this one particular SynthAxe going and over a period of the next few years, I might try to see if I can round up a few more used ones. I should never have sold the ones I had—it was a big mistake. I had two and I bought the second one quite a number of years after the first one, just so I would have a spare. Each one had a spare console, because the console had a lot of the memory stuff in there and they failed from time to time, so it was good to have a spare one for each.
How many SynthAxes are out there?
A thousand maybe. Not very many. There’s probably that many, but not much more I would think. A lot of studios bought them in the beginning. I’ve seen them sitting around in places.
MP: The expert system instrument designer... ?
AH: They haven’t been able to create what you haven’t heard yet, which is to me what synthesizers should be all about, and will be, eventually-it’s only a matter of time.
CH: Oh yeah. And it’s not like they’ve never been about that, but...
AH: No, but there’s a lot of horseshit about synthesizers that I hear, where people say: "It’s not a real instrument," you know, "It’s a product of like, the technology." But I’ve always believed this: That any instrument that’s ever been played by man since the dawn of time has been a product of technology.
CH: Oh yeah?
CH: On some level.
AH: If you made a wooden flute, you had to know where to put the holes.
CH: The product of technology-or hazard. [laughs]
AH: Yeah! And then if you make a... if you go back and you say, a grand piano, you know, that’s a really modern instrument. It’s steel-you drag it out of the ground, and pull the strings through dies, they wind it and all that-it’s totally modern. It’s nothing to do with a primitive instrument. It’s all... it’s all these guys, they say, "Oh, you know, electric guitar, or synthesizer or whatever..."; it’s all... I think it’s all bull.
MP: You don’t think it’s too easy...?
AH: I just think it’s that same thing, is... that wanting to be open and to accept the fact that it could be good; we just see all the bad things about it. And probably with the beginning of synthesis they just saw it taking people’s jobs. In the long run, it probably can’t ever do that. It’s like if you have a mechanized plant, and you make guitars or whatever, you’ll probably end up hiring more people, because you’ll be able to do, you know, you’ll be able to do things a little bit more efficiently.
CH: I kind of view it like plants in the office; you know, you have the plastic ones. They don’t give off oxygen. Then you have the real ones. I mean, synthesis is kind of like that-could be in its worst case. [Too often] it’s kind of like an artificial musical medium...
AH: Well, I don’t see that-I don’t see that at all, because all instruments... that would be true if you were talking about some tree t hat grew outside that when the wind blew it played "Giant Steps," but that’s not the case with plants. Or, I mean, it’s like if you have a plastic plant, that for sure is not real. But... what’s so unreal about a synthesizer, compared to a saxophone?
CH: Ah... just that the cheezy ones don’t sound that good... [especially the cheddar alto sax preset on my old Ensoniq...]
AH: Well, that’s... neither does a guy with a million-dollar saxophone who’s lame!
CH: This is true.
MP: I think a big part of the fear is they think ‘you’ll be able to produce really beautiful music without having the expertise and putting in the years, having made the commitment-or even having the talent; any schlep that can afford a computerized setup can produce music-I think that scares some people.
AH: Yeah, but I don’t think so, because there’s always gonna be... they’re always going to be able to recognize the difference. Sure, when it first comes out, you might be able to impress some people "Oh, look what I did with my little computer setup," and such. But really, when you put that same thing in the hands of a real musician, you’re not going to have the same results.
CH: What I guess my point about synthesis is that... I’ve got a problem with a lot of synthesizer music I hear.
AH: Well, that’s to do with the musician.
CH: Of course, you’re right. It has more to do with the musician. They settle for a stock preset, it’s cheezy, and they get overused, and they actually are thrown out there on countless albums projects like legitimate orchestrations-and it sounds like Velveeta, you know?
AH: Yeah, but that’s the same as having like... somebody riding in the Tour de France... you give all these guys the same bike, and somebody’s gonna do some more than another guy.
AH : And it’s even deeper than that, because you’re talking about a creative force, not necessarily just a physical force. Anybody can figure out... you might get guys who’re real good at working your computer, who can do... they can get in and look at my setup, and say, "Oh man, you don’t know how to use anything," you know, because I don’t know how to use the computer-and I don’t! I use a computer like I use a tape recorder: fast-forward, rewind, play and record!
CH: I use it like a tape recorder and like a word processor; I mean, I can edit out a bad note, you know. I can change a note in a melody line, by typing on the keyboard, as opposed to playing it, just because I want to hear how that melody would sound with a different note. And it’s buried right in there with the sequence of notes that I just played.
AH: Well, the lucky thing for me was that, with the SynthAxe, I couldn’t record when I was playing solos, ‘cause I chose to use an analog breath controller. I can’t record solos on a sequencer; I have to record them directly to tape.
CH: Maybe that’s just because your computer can’t record some MIDI control parameters...
AH: Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. I’m glad that I can’t go in there and change the shit around... Excuse me for a second. [AH hastens away, either to pull a pint or unload one].
CH: A couple more. Where do would you like to take synthesis with the guitar; with the SynthAxe: Is there a future there for you?
AH: Well, it has nothing to do with the guitar, really. It’s just that the synthesizer... I’m really interested in the synthesizer.
CH: But what can you envision doin g with it in the future that you haven’t done? Is there anything...?
AH: Oh yeah! There’s a lot. It would depend on synthesis... you know, the way it goes and how much the instruments develop. The sad part about it, of that thing, is because of the instruments that I’ve got now, is that I only have a SynthAxe that really doesn’t belong to me because I sold mine. But the next thing would be like, perhaps this instrument that Harvey Starr makes, which is like a keyboard. You know, totally like... it’s a keyboard, with like two necks. A guitar... it looks like a pedal-steel guitar. But there’s buttons instead of strings.
Allan Holdsworth may use a 32-track Mitsubishi tape machine, but he records at home for the same reason you probably do: economics. The futuristic fusionist has recorded his eighth album, Hard Hat Area,, on Restless (his second release for them), and though overdubbing and mixing at home is his usual m.o., there are significant differences in his approach here than in previous solo efforts. For one, Allan recorded this record digitally, a choice he has some misgivings about. Another difference is that the album has a more live, less cerebral sound than earlier albums, due primarily to the fact that Allan and his mates had toured extensively, honing and shaping much of the music that appears on Hard Hat Area. But perhaps of greatest interest to guitarists is that the SynthAxe appears on only two of the tracks. In Fact, Allan doesn’t even own a SynthAxe anymore; he had to borrow one for the album! "I only played SynthAxe on ‘Hard Hat Area’ and ‘Postlude.’ The rest of the album is all guitar, wi th the synth parts handled by the keyboard player," he explains. "Only ‘Hard Hat Area’ has just me.
Are you still happy with the SynthAxe, if you must use a controller?
If I must use a controller I think the SynthAxe is the only one I ever could use. In the beginning I was trying to play it before I even knew how it worked; I was just so excited to have it. I made lots of mistakes on it. But after a few years, I realized there was nothing else that even came close. I’m not interested in hexaphonic pickups and pitch-to-glitch converters on a regular guitar. I really did want a discrete controller. I didn’t want to hear a guitar when I was playing a synthesizer.
What’s the best thing about the SynthAxe, design-wise?
The keys. The fact that it has those keys is an absolute stroke of genius. I use those all the time - I never play chords without them.
Those are the black touchpads on the upper bout, the top left of the guitar?
Yes. It’ll do things like take the pitch from your left hand but allow you to play the notes and sustain them with the keys. You can then move your left hand while the chords still sound. You get a real smooth, seamless effect that way.
Why haven’t controllers caught on with guitarists more?
Guitarists really aren’t interested in them. And that’s okay. That made it good for me in a way, because I started out not wanting to play the guitar. So this was like the thing I had been waiting all my life for. I was quite prepared to put the guitar on the back burner just to work on the SynthAxe. Which was fine because nobody was playing one. But because nobody was buying them, they never caught on and they didn’t last. But you can’t think of it in the context of a guitar. You can’t compare the SynthAxe to a $500 Strat, in the same way you wouldn’t compare a Strat to an Oberheim Xpander. One of them’s going to cost $3,000 and other you can get for $500. That’s because of what’s in it. But they went out of business and that left me with two dinosaurs. I didn’t like that idea at all. So I sold them. I actually don’t own a SynthAxe. The SynthAxe I used on the album belongs to a friend of mine. But I’ll see if I can trade him some guitars for it because I do miss it.
Then why did you get rid of it in the first place?
It was a problem with reliability. When I used it on the road, if it went down, there went half the songs. So I had to work all the songs out on the guitar, and I got tired of
doing that. I decided just to play guitar, and I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now. But I miss it, and I especially miss it when I record. It’s a great tool for those more orchestral things. I won’t ever take it on the road, but it’s nice to have it.
How was the SynthAxe used on "Postlude"?
I use it for the bassoon sound. Towards the end I also play a solo, after the keyboard solo. Then there’s a bass solo and then it ends. Whenever you hear the bassoon sound, that’s the SynthAxe.
The eventual outcome of this approach was Holdsworth’s pioneering use of the SynthAxe. The name gives away the hybrid nature of the instrument, which also featured a facility for breath input that totally changes the nature of producing and sustaining sounds. Holdsworth is often quoted as saying that he sees his own playing more in terms of a wind instrument. Here he extends the analogy to the violin: "Yeah, because, that was the thing with the violin - you can play a note on a violin and you can make it loud and make it soft, the same note. Whereas the guitar being a percussive instrument, once you’ve struck the note, there’s a limited amount of things you can do with it, and end up having to use an amplifier for distortion to get sustain from an instrument that doesn’t really have that sustain naturally. So it’s difficult to shape notes once they’ve been sounded. You can, and I’ve tried to do as much as I can with them, but it’s not as easy to do it as with a horn. That’s why I love the SynthAxe because you have the breath control. I just try to get a little bit more fluidity out of the guitar." The sheer expense of transporting the SynthAxe around means that you’re unlikely to see it on stage alongside the guitar - another reason is that they’re not being made any morel "That was the fear that I always had, was that I’d fall in love with this machine. There was a time when I didn’t want to play the guitar at all! And then I thought, well, it’s a piece of technology - what happens if someone decides ‘we’re not going to make them anymore?’ Then I’ll be really stuck.
"And in fact that’s what happened. But luckily for me I’d started getting back into using guitar again. I had a lot of experimental guitars then, from a really small one to a couple of really huge baritone guitars, so that I could get at least on record get the kind of range that I could get with the SynthAxe. So miss that."
"I am discontent with what I can do with it," he says, "and I have always felt frustrated. I ended up playing the wrong instrument. But, at the same time, it would be too difficult for me to scrap it and start on a new instrument, even if I wanted to." His ambivalence with his instrument of choice is partly why he has taken to the SynthAxe, an elaborate guitar synthesizer of which he has become the most prominent user.
"It opened up a whole new area, he says, “I can use the breath controller, and I wanted to play a horn. I was able to make the sound loud and soft, all the things I wanted to do with the guitar but couldn’t-the guitar being percussive by nature.
"Sure, you can change a note, but there’s only so much you can do, compared to a horn where you can make a note disappear completely and then bring it up again, make it loud or soft, all after it’s started. It’s really important to me, to shape the sound.
"That’s what I see with a complicated instrument like the SynthAxe. It’s still a tool. Music, the sound that it makes, is what’s important. What makes it is completely irrelevant.
“You won’t find me playing SynthAxes much anymore, either. I quit playing one because the company went bust and I worried about owning a dinosaur that I could never get fixed. So I sold everything, including two SynthAxes and a bunch of synthesizers. But then a few months ago, I started missing it, so I traded a guy I know two guitars for his one. It has some problems, though. I also don’t use guitar synth live anymore. It was getting more expensive to tour, and the biggest expense of all was transporting equipment, especially if we were going to a different country. We’d spend more money on that than we’d make at the gig. Plus, at one point I was using the SynthAxe for 50 percent of the material, and if it didn’t work for some reason, there went half the show. So it became a liability, even though I love the instrument. On Hard Hat Area, I only used it on the title cut and a solo in “Postlude”. I haven’t tried any other guitar synthesizers, either, like the Roland. I think that making pitch control a synthesizer is completely wrong. I’ve heard people do really great things with that approach, but it’s just not for me. I like the SynthAxe because it’s a controller that I can drive a synthesizer with, but when you stick a pickup on a guitar, the synth responds to all the tuning problems, and that gets to be a real pain. And overall guitar players seem to look at guitar synthesizers as a novelty, whereas for me – who never wanted to play the guitar in the first place – it was like a way to escape from it. And with the SynthAxe I could hook up to a wind patch and play chords on it, which was really great. I really love the instrument, but unfortunately, it didn’t last. People even used to leave notes on my amps between sets telling me to go back to playing regular guitar. Now I get notes asking me to go back to guitar synth!” (laughs)
-You’re using less and less SynthAxe lately. Is that a conscious decision, just to put the instrument aside?
The problem is the company went bankrupt years ago. So I’m kind of stuck with a dinosaur.The parts are impossible to get and there is nobody to help me out if I have problems. Especially live the instrument is really unreliable so I stopped using it in that situation.In the studio it works fine and I still use it on a few songs per CD. When the SynthAxe was released I wanted to quit playing guitar and just play the SynthAxe. I thought it was an amazing instrument and I still think so. When the company went bankrupt I sold everything. Later I started to miss it. Coincidentally I met somebody who had one and I traded a bunch of guitars with his SynthAxe. Later on that one was stolen in L.A. Bass player Dean Deleo from the Stone Temple Pilots called me a year later and said he had seen the instrument in a pawn shop for $30. They tried to sell it as a plastic practise guitar, but it didn’t work because you need three parts to get some sound out of the instrument, ha ha. Now I just keep it safely locked away at home. I also use it a lot as a composing tool.
-What kind of sounds do you use for the SynthAxe?
Almost all the sounds are Oberheim synths. Great sounds.
- The SynthAxe offered opportunities to express myself the way I always wanted to do, I immediately fell in love with it when I tried it. If the company had not folded, I probably would have still used it live today, and maybe stopped playing the guitar altogether. However, this was not the case, production stopped, and hence all support. It became too risky to use, and I only use it for recordings nowadays. I get the sounds from Yamaha DX-7 and Oberheim synths. The only new modules I have acquired are from Korg. More recently I have tried a possible replacement for the SynthAxe, Starr Switch. It seems promising but nothing is decided yet.
Another item not in use at the Brewery is a patchbay. "I don’t believe in them," Holdsworth declares. "Every time you run a signal through a connector, you screw up the sound. All the pieces of equipment in my studio are very mobile, so if I want to put an EQ or limiter on something, I can take it right to the source." Tape machines are also rented in for recording projects. "I’m a big fan of Mitsubishi 880’s," says Holdsworth, "and, of course, analog machines. I’ll sometimes rent an Otari. It depends on what the budget can go for." The guitarist owns a pair of Alesis ADAT machines, which he keeps in the studio mainly for writing purposes. The same goes for his modest MIDI rig, which is driven by Cubase software running on an old Atari ST computer, Holdsworth’s Synth Axe MIDI controller, which was his main axe a few years ago, is now principally used to input data to the sequencer for writing applications or to trigger the occasional synth pad on records. While Allan was once mad for MIDI, the M-word now plays a fairly minor role in his music. "I quit on the MIDI stuff completely for a while, but I just got back into it recently. I don’t do it a lot, though, and I don’t want to do it a lot anymore; although it’s cool for writing."
TCG: On your "orchestral" rubato type pieces are they pre-arranged or more improvisational?
AH: Usually they’re completely improvised. It then goes into a piece of music that’s not improvised.
TCG: Are you thinking melodically or harmonically?
AH: I try to think about the whole thing. I use multiple delays on two Intelliflex units. They’re very flexible machines. I just set up a few multiple long delays and I feed the sound into the processor with a volume pedal. The SynthAxe is what got me into this sound.
TCG: Do you still have the SynthAxe?
AH: I have two, but I use them sparingly. I can’t play a regular guitar synth. The SynthAxe is not like a guitar. The notes are in the same places, but he feel is totally different. I could just forget I was supposed to be playing a guitar. I used to do clinics for SynthAxe and audience members would ask if I could make it sound like a Strat. It was pretty funny. They would want to play blues licks on it. It was quite hilarious. I never looked at it in that way. Quite the opposite.
TCG: When did synthesizers enter the picture?
AH: I tried the early Roland synth and loved the idea of the sounds, but it didn’t really work for me. Tom Mulhern at Guitar Player magazine recommended the SynthAxe and that was where that relationship started. Also guitar-wise, I played Charvels for a while, and later discovered the Steinberger. That was it. I just thought it was amazing. It was real hard to switch back to any other guitar. I became friendly with Ned Steinberger. He would send me the guitars without any frets, and then I would send them to a luthier by the name of Bill DeLap and he would flatten the fingerboard, and take out the relief. I like the neck to be absolutely straight. We would put Jim Dunlop 6000 fret wire in it. I had quite a few of these. Also, Bill built me a few baritone guitars. He made me a regular length wooden Steinberger and basically I’ve been playing that till I hooked up with Carvin for this new custom guitar. I play about 80% of the time now on the Carvin and 20% on the Steinberger. It’s still nice to switch back and forth. I love headless guitars. I think the new Carvin is an excellent guitar.
The SynthAxe was a particular favorite tool for Holdsworth through the ‘80s in that it helped him get closer to the legato sax style that he had been emulating since hearing Coltrane recordings for the first time back in the ‘60s.
"Because I always wanted to play a horn, which is a non-percussive instrument, the guitar is essentially a percussive and I try and make it sound like it’s not," he explains. "But one of the things I always wanted to do was to be able to make a note and then change the whole shape of it after it sounded. You know, make it soft, make it loud, put vibrato on it, take it off, change the timbre of the sound, all after the note was played, which is not a very easy thing to do with a percussive instrument. And with the SynthAxe I have that ability because I can hook it up to a breath controller and I can do exactly that. I can make a note and change it and shape it in a totally different way than I can do on the guitar. And because the guitar gave me the chords -which I would’ve surely missed if I would have played the horn and not the guitar - eventually it gave me the combination of being able to play like a chordal instrument and a horn at the same time, and that was very appealing to me. It gave me a lot of textural possibilities that I didn’t have with guitar. And I kind of got engrossed in it. But I don’t feel exactly the same way about it now. I think of it more as something that I can use for extra color."
He also plays headless Steinberger guitars, custom made headless guitars by Bill DeLap and makes sparing use of his SynthAxe synthesizer controller. He uses Stella guitar strings and is very pleased with his setup of two Yamaha DG-80 amplifiers with extension speaker cabinets in combination with a DG-1000 pre-amp.
Tell me more about the SynthAxe.
I am one of the few people that use it and perhaps one of the few people who have really appreciated what this instrument is. It is an instrument ahead of its time and it is a bit sad that has disappeared. Most guitarists don’t want to know anything of it. I used to do clinics, tried to find new sounds and people asked me to make it sounds like a guitar. It looked interesting to lend it to other people because they always tried to play guitar things with it, and I tried it like other instrument. The only thing it had in common with the guitar is that people knew where the notes were. But now it has disappeared. It’s a pity.
I’m pleased to see there’s a lot of guitar soloing on the new record.
"Well the last band album I did was ‘Hard Hat Area’ and we had Steve Hunt on keyboards and that fills out things sonically. On my solo records I would often play the SynthAxe to fill out some of that missing sound, but I’ve been consciously trying to lower the SynthAxe content, isolating it to one or two tracks on a record. So yeah, more guitar."
Tell us about the SynthAxe synth controller. Guitarists never really understood it, did they?
"No they didn’t. I suppose some of the things in there are old technology now, but what they achieved with that thing is still amazing. The thing that stood out for me with the SynthAxe was its difference. When I picked it up it was like I’d put on a space helmet and gone to another world. And when I put it down and picked up a guitar, I took the space helmet off and came back down to earth.
"The Axe’s problem was guitar players. I remember in California when I was doing some demonstrations for them, I’d be playing it and I’d have the breath controller hooked up and everything. Some guy, inevitably, would come up and say: ‘But can you make it sound like a Strat?’ and you just want to beat him over the head with it. Then he’d pick it up and go straight to his blues licks!
"When they went out of business I got so depressed. I was using it more than the guitar at one point and I thought, ‘You can’t do this or you’re gonna be trapped; it’ll break down and you’ll never get it fixed’. So I sold everything and emptied it out of my life. But in six months I was craving it again so I went on a quest to find another one. And I found one, but I never take it out of the studio; it stays at home."
You’re one of the few players technically capable of taking really good samples of other instruments and playing them via the SynthAxe....
"But the beauty of the SynthAxe was that it allowed me to go into that other place like in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. My two favourite synthesisers were Oberheim Xpanders and Matrix 12s, and the old Yamaha DX7. With the Oberheims I was always looking for a haunting, hornlike sound, but one which very obviously wasn’t a saxophone, a trumpet or something, which is pointless. The idea was to create a sound that I hadn’t heard before."
We’re almost 20 years after the invention of the SynthAxe, but there’s not much new stuff coming out in that arena, except for some glitchy pitch-to-midi guitar synths from Roland. Do you see or expect anything new? I don’t know. I haven’t seen anything. I’ve never seen anything that came close to it. Nothing. Having the keys on it and just the whole way the whole thing worked was just really amazing. I felt like I could get inside it, it felt like part of me. And most of the other ones you know, they don’t work. You have to make it work with a guitar sound, mix the guitar sound with the synth sound and half the notes are missing, you know. With the SynthAxe, that doesn’t happen.
OF: Allan, since the eighties you have been the greatest Ambassador of the SynthAxe, but it is only now you decide to make a complete album with it... Why ?
AH: In the past I had thought about it, but I was focusing on Group projects, so although I wanted to do it, I just never had the opportunity. When I found myself with the time to do it between projects, I went for it.
Back when you were beginning to experiment with guitar synthesis, you lamented that guitarists tended to be closed minded to new sounds and approaches. Have we become more progressive since then?
Things haven’t changed a whole lot. I loved the SynthAxe because it was still a guitar, but it took me into a whole other world of textures and sounds that I couldn’t do with a standard electric. And, you know, eight out of ten guitarists who saw me play it would come up and ask if I could make it sound like a Fender Stratocaster. Besides falling off the chair, I would wonder why anyone would spend all of their money on this thing to make it sound like a $500 guitar? So I think my view is that things are still the same.
Bill: Do you ever compose on keyboards?
Allan: No, I can’t play piano at all. I like to work with the SynthAxe, though.
Bill: That’s strictly a composing tool for you at this point?
Allan: Yeah, I use it in studio. And it’s a great instrument, but it’s falling apart now.
Bill: Not very road-worthy?
Allan: No, all the cables look like hell, with the plastic peeling off and everything. I keep having to wrap them with duct tape. And you have these big 20-pin connectors for it. It’s not something you want to go and mess around with a soldiering iron. I can’t see well enough to do that. You know, I’ve always been fascinated by electronics but when I opened that thing when I first got it, it currently have two of them. One actually is in perfect working order, the other one works for about 20 minutes. So you gotta be quick with that one. I love the keys on it. I think that was the real genius about the instrument. The trigger strings have got a slight time lag but the keys are instantaneous, just like playing a keyboard. It’s so beautiful to go and play a chord while you hold the keys down, and there’s one key for each string. When you hold a chord down you can take your hand off and move it to the next chord so you can get this more seamless, piano-like thing, which would be very difficult to do with any other kind of MIDI guitar controller. So I’m really fond of that thing but it’s going to die eventually. I’ll have to get a Roland guitar synth or something else to replace it. I’d really miss having a guitar synthesizer if this other one died.
Bill: I wonder how you would deal with the fact that your acoustic wouldn’t be giving you that sustain quality that is so much a signature of your electric sound.
Allan: Yeah, well, that’s true. I love to hear other people play acoustic guitar. I’m not very fond of hearing myself play it. But I think when I really quit playing acoustic guitar was when I got the SynthAxe, because that just opened up this other door and I was like, ‘Well, I guess I can leave that other guitar behind completely.’ Because there was a period after I had been playing the SynthAxe for about a year, I was even getting frustrated with electric guitar. There was a point where I was actually close to making a decision to just play the SynthAxe and forget about the guitar.
Bill: I remember that period when you were playing the SynthAxe almost exclusively. And you had that plastic tube that ran from the instrument to your mouth to help you shape the notes, like Peter Frampton or Stevie Wonder did in the ‘70s with the Talking Box.
Allan: Yeah, I always wanted to play a horn and I loved that way that you could shape the note with that gadget. And because it was an analog device, you couldn’t record it in MIDI or anything. It was made by Niles Steiner, before he made the EVI or the EWI. I think it was called The Mouth Destruction. Basically, you can set it so that there’s no sound at all and as you blow it raises the volume and opens the filter, so it’s pretty organic. I was really getting into it. It was really great to be able to play a note and then make it loud and make it soft, then make it loud again...all the things that you can’t do with a guitar that you can do with a horn or a violin. So I was loving that.
MM: Are you still using the SynthAxe…
AH: Only in the studio because they’re so rare now…they haven’t been made in several years. I have two of them…one works and one doesn’t. I guess if I tried I could track down someone from the original company to work on it for me, but really it’s too much stuff for me to carry around and try and travel with. I’m afraid of the reliability issue, too…I just cross my fingers and hope it keeps going in the studio.
TCG: Okay, that’s cool. Tell me, is it a 2-CD set called Then, that’s all Synth Axe, or Just for the Curious?
AH: No, it’s called Against the Clock (Alternity Records).
TCG: That’s the compilation.
AH: Yeah, it’s a double CD. One of the discs has the majority of the guitar stuff on it and then the second disc is mostly Synth Axe but there are some guitar tracks on that side as well. We didn’t have room for it on the other CD so we kind of put a couple of guitar tracks at the end of the Synth Axe side. I did an album of my own called Flat Tire. Flat Tire is just a single, it’s not a double-album. It’s a single album and I did it right after my divorce. I didn’t really have a full-on studio set up then so it was...I lost my studio in the process. I was just doing some stuff in this house that I rented in San Juan Capistrano. So a friend of mine had kind of commissioned me to do an album for him but unfortunately, I couldn’t do it as a guitar album, so it ended up being a Synth Axe album,
TCG: Well, divorces do that to us, Al, and we’re all pretty human at heart. Do you still have the Oberheim modules?
AH: No, wow, this must be about twenty years ago now, when Synth Axe went out of business, I got really disappointed. I was really distressed about it because I was actually playing that more than I was playing the guitar and I did used to get a little bit afraid of it for that reason. I thought "Well, if this goes away and you focus on that and leave the guitar behind, then what’s going to happen when this thing breaks and they don’t make it anymore”. I did a stupid, impulsive thing, which is sold everything. I had two Synth Axes. I sold them both and I sold all my synthesizers and said "To hell with it! If they’ve gone away, what am I going to do? I didn’t want to get stuck playing an antique," so I thought "Well, the guitar is calling my name again so get back to that!” So sold them and then about six months later, I was really having some serious withdrawal symptoms and really missed it, and then friend of mine worked at Guitar Center, and he told me about this guy who had a Synth Axe and was trying to sell it and so I called up the guy up and actually, I didn’t have any money to buy it at the time. I traded him a couple of guitars for it so that’s how l ended up with the Synth Axe that have now. So it doesn’t go anywhere, it just stays in the studio. I just use it as a writing tool or for some soundscape stuff or whatever and I use it until it decides it doesn’t want to wake up anymore and then that will be the end of that (laughter).
How do you communicate with the band when you present new music to them?
I just play it for them. I’ll either record it and give them a CD or just play it during rehearsal and make suggestions about how I would like it to go, and that’s basically it. I recently started recording things again, which seems to be a good way of doing things. I also like to write things on the SynthAxe because I can record directly into a sequencer and play it back. It still works pretty well.
So, the SynthAxe is still lurking out there somewhere?
Yeah, but I just use it in the studio. It stays there. It’s probably going to die soon at some point.
You’ve been saying that for more than 15 years. [laughs]
True. [laughs] It’s not roadworthy, but it is still working.
Will there be any SynthAxe on the new records?
It’s mostly guitar, but there are a couple of SynthAxe things, just because I like to take advantage of the instrument while it is still running. Every time I turn it on I wonder if it’s going to start up.
You have explored a lot of different timbres and approaches to phrasing with the SynthAxe. Has some of that orchestral sensibility found its way into your guitar playing?
Yeah, the SynthAxe made me think a whole lot differently about the guitar, and at one point I was considering not playing guitar at all. I initially wanted to play a wind instrument, and when I used a breath controller with the Synth-Axe, it allowed me a certain amount of expression that I was unable to get from the guitar, particularly the ability to make notes loud and then soft and then loud again, and to change the sound of the note after it had been struck. On the guitar you can shape notes a little bit, but not as much. When the SynthAxe company went out of business, however, I decided that I’d better go back to the guitar.
R.V.B. - You toyed with electronics a lot and eventually started using the SynthAxe. It enhanced the sound of the guitar but did it change the way you approached playing the guitar?
A.H. - I fell in love with that thing. I learned things from it... for sure. I took some things from the SynthAxe and applied them to the guitar. The thing about the SynthAxe is - it’s its own beast. It makes up sounds on its own. The beauty was, I could use synthesized patches or the breath controller to make horn like sounds, that I could never make on the guitar. I was able to use string patches and mic patches. It gave me a of flexibility that the guitar didn’t have. I really enjoyed playing with it. Allan Holdsworth Talks SynthAxes, Jaw-Dropping Solos and More (Guitar World 2017)]]==
An interesting phase of your career was your use of the SynthAxe. Do you still play it? —Galen Peterson
Yes. It’s an exquisitely unique instrument. The SynthAxe enables you to achieve a whole world of sonic textures that you cannot get with a guitar. There was nothing like it before and nothing like it since. I’ve been playing it pretty regularly since Atavachron . Bill Aitken from Solid State Logic was the primary inventor. He was a guitarist but he wanted to be able to play synthesizer, so he came up with the idea of making this unusual-looking machine. I played one of the first ones and loved it. It makes no sound of its own because it’s essentially just a MIDI controller.
People used to write notes on my amp, asking me to stop playing the SynthAxe and play the guitar instead. But now people often ask me, “We’d love to hear you play the SynthAxe—did you bring it?” I rarely play it onstage anymore because it’s too costly to take on the road and it requires a lot of equipment.
Early on in your solo career, you became very closely associated with the SynthAxe. What piqued your initial interest in that instrument?
It went back really far into my childhood, actually. Because I always wanted to play a horn or a violin or something where you could shape a note, as opposed to the guitar which is basically a percussion instrument. And I always tried to get the guitar to sound like it wasn’t a percussion instrument.
When the SynthAxe came along, it opened the door to not only different textures and sounds that were unavailable on the guitar, but with the use of the breath control, I could do all the things that I wanted to do if I had been a horn player of some sort. I learned a lot from just playing that instrument. I still use it a lot in the studio; for the stuff I’m working on now, it has probably ended up on every track.
You’ve explored other technological innovations, and you’re involved with some development yourself. Have you played any newer things, like the Moog guitar?
Briefly, but it was a few years ago. But it was like a step backwards for me; if I have to go from the SynthAxe, the thing is going to have to be absolutely, incredibly remarkable for me to want to make a jump.
ALEX: In your opinion, why has no one else in the guitar synth world proposed a valid alternative to Roland's hexaphonic pickup, which is not very faithful, apart from SynthAxe and Yamaha, which have a virtually error-free system?
ALLAN: I do not know ... because probably many guitarists, when I did some clinics, they asked me: "well, can you make it sound like a Strat?" and I would answer "why do you want to make it sound like a Strat? Why take a guitar synth with all these sounds and then play it like a guitar? You already have a guitar!" But I think that most guitarists want to play the guitar so they do not want to waste time managing it from a technical point of view. The reason why nobody has done another is because it is very complex to make the sound of a guitar. As with a keyboard, driving a synthesizer is simple, you just have to switch on a switch or not, with the guitar it's hard. Yamaha has made a great system, the strings are very low. The problem, in this case, is that if you do bending you may have precision defects since it is calculated at the bridge level ... The SynthAxe was completely different. Each key was separated on each string and the sensors were inside the strings themselves - they are like microphones so it makes sense the movement of the string as well as knowing how long the string is and then know when bend is possible if you play more towards the neck and how much if you play more towards the bridge. It's all programmed, a great machine. But they are very delicate, I have one that works well and one that does not work. At the beginning they were very reliable but now I would fear to take another one. [Machine back translated.]