Technique

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Allan Holdsworth (Beat Instrumental 1979)

"I suppose that I tend to play things outside the usual positions for playing them as well. Like, for example, I’ll tend to play four notes together on one string rather than on two because that helps the overall fluidity. That can bring its problems too, of course, because I often have to play difficult passages and that need to keep it fluid can add complications."

"Actually I find it rather hard to talk about my technique to a great extent. I can’t say that I sit and think that much about it although, of course, I do think about music. Like I’m fascinated by scales."

"Recently, for example, I sat down and played around with chords and scales trying to find as many different ways of running into chords using different scales as I could. Like I’ll take two triads and play them against each other with as many different notes as I like the sound of between them. Then I tried mixed triads like a major and a minor in different keys so I did one set keeping one key as constant.

Speed too is another Holdsworth attribute but one which he refuses to take too seriously, it’s something, he says, which you either have or you don’t but it doesn’t matter too much either way to him.

Allan Holdsworth (Guitar Player 1982)

Where did your wide hand stretches come from?

Basically, if you know you want to play over a certain chord or a certain scale, most of the time guitarists play the scale so that the notes are played consecutively. I wanted to avoid that by playing intervals that were spaced further apart. They’re the same scales and chords, it’s just that I wanted them to be juggled around more. I’m just juggling, really.

Do you ever find that your hands just wont stretch that way sometimes?

They usually stretch okay. I think my stretch has gotten a little worse as I’ve gotten a little older. I keep notes of the things I used to play, and sometimes I have trouble with them.

Do you use hammer-ons or do you try to pick every note?

I use a mixture with a lot of hammer-ons. I don’t use conventional pull-offs, though. I never pull my finger sideways, because I find that when you pull the strings off, you get a kind of meowing sound as you deflect it sideways. And I detest that sound. In the past, I have practiced quite hard to not play like that. I don’t think my fingers come off sideways at all. They just drop on and off directly over the top like I’m tapping the strings.

As you play faster, do you find that you are less conscious of your actual technique?

I don’t consciously make any transition between playing slower and faster. Sure you might be likely to make more mistakes as you start waffling around, but you try not to. Because if you continually do that, you obviously can’t play that way anyway. Each has its own set of problems.

When you use a volume pedal to swell each chord in a series, does it seem cumbersome?

Not particularly. Using a volume pedal with echo is not the greatest way to get that effect, but at the moment that’s the way I do it.

Some guitarists wrap their right-hand little finder around their volume knob to swell notes and chords.

I couldn’t do that effectively because of some of the chords that I want to play; there would then be too much going on elsewhere. And I don’t like the volume control so near my little finger. I’ve displaced the volume control on each of my guitars further south that it would be on a normal Strat. On a normal Strat, you can turn the volume control with your little finger, but that used to get in the way of my wrist. So, I moved it further away. I find it easier to do that and switching on the floor than with my hands, so I can concentrate more on my playing.

Do you ever mute your strings with your right hand?

No, I don’t like the sound. Al Di Meola’s done it to death. It’s not something that particularly grabs me by the ear or anywhere else, although it’s pretty easy to do. It’s just not a very attractive sound to me.

When you fingerpick, what do you do with your pick?

I just tuck it in and hold it with my 1st finger, and then use the thumb and the other three fingers. I play most chords that way. I can strike all the notes at the same time, because I don’t like that "droing" -- the strum sound across the strings.

On some of your songs, particularly "Out From Under," you play the melody while holding chord forms. Is this for organization or an audible effect?

It depends on whether I want it to sound like a chord or not. Usually when I do that, I want the notes to ring into each other -- hit more than one note at a time.

How do you execute artificial harmonics?

I just hold the pick and lightly tough the string with my middle right-hand finger, but I don’t use them very often.

Do you find the technique to be awkward?

It’s not awkward, but I’ve heard some people do it so well that it almost makes it not worth doing for me. Some people do it amazingly well. For me to play it as well as some of the people, it would probably take me as long as I’ve got left.

Allan Holdsworth (Guitar magazine 1974)

My technique tends to run away with me a little bit. I get pissed off when I listen to a lot of the things I’ve played. It’s just enthusiasm and the nerves you get on a gig - you don’t realise at the time that you’re flying around so fast. I haven’t really worked that hard on my technique, I never practised speed exercises or anything like that. It’s only in the last year that I’ve really got down to practising seriously. In fact, I feel that I wasted a lot of time in the past, and I’m trying to get it together now.

Allan Holdsworth (Guitarist 1985)

What about your phenomenal technique, did you make a conscious effort to learn to play fast?

Absolutely not. I can understand how it might have seemed that way to some people at a certain point in my life, but it’s certainly never been an important thing. I suppose when you’re young, you tend to waffle more, you know, eventually trying to get it together. But I think my playing has improved over the years, as most people’s does.

It’s just that I understood, when I first started playing, that if I wanted to be able to play what I wanted to hear I needed a certain amount of technique in order to be able to achieve that, otherwise I would only become frustrated. Of course, as the years go by, your technique develops but so does your use of musical language, and they seem to merge more. At some point I might have been more involved in the physical aspects of it, whereas it’s not so physical any more, it’s more of a mental thing. I find that my playing has developed more from thinking about it than playing. The more you have, in terms of physical technique, the more things you are able to do on the spur of the moment - without actually having to practice them.

One of the things I’ve noticed about practicing is that, if you practice, you tend to become good at practicing and I didn’t ever want to do that. I wanted to have the freedom whereby, if I was playing a solo on a certain set of chord changes, I might be able to come up with something new on it each time. Quite often it’s not like that, and you find yourself falling over the same things, which is when I get really depressed. So, basically, the technique is a way of being able to connect my brain to my hands. You don’t start out that way, it’s a far more frenzied thing, and there’s a lot of waffling involved, butt don’t think I’ve been like that for a while now.

Allan Holdsworth (Music UK 1983)

I ask Allan if he considers there to be anything special about his technique, and his reply has me in stitches. ‘You’d think there was, because I get tapes every day from people trying to sound like me. They’re wasting their time, they could be sounding like them. Who wants to see a load of little robots walking around with the same coloured pants on, and plastic surgery to try and look as ugly as me?

Allan Holdsworth’s New Horizons (Downbeat 1985)

"I remember seeing other guitarists who were a lot better than me at the time, and I’d notice how they’d be using only two or three fingers on their left hand. They all had their pinkies curled up in a little knot there. And this was an incredible waste of energy to me. I thought I should use all the limbs I’ve got, so I started practicing seriously with all the fingers on my left hand!’

He adds, "People who have heard me think that I have very long fingers - [being] able to reach and stretch to all these odd chord voicings. But my hands are not big at all. I just acquired this dexterity through repetition and practice. I didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be done. It just seemed perfectly logical to me at the time!’

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

It sounds like you’re sweep-picking the beginning of the solo.

No, I don’t do that. I can’t do that. It’s just that normally I don’t arpeggiate things in the way that’s become fashionable. I remember when I first started playing, my dad had all these books for me to practice on: Everybody was familiar with Paganini’s Caprices, and arpeggios were something you practiced but didn’t play. It’s always inspiring to hear somebody like Frank Gambale do it - I couldn’t play arpeggios the way he does, but I can play them the way I do. I’ve practiced playing scales where you put the accent anywhere, whether on a note you pick or one you don’t. You can say, "I’m going to play four notes and accent the second note, but I’m only picking the first note." So you make the first a really gentle touch, and then you have to whack the string with your finger on the second. For the third you can be a little slower when it hits the fret, and so on, so that eventually you can put the accent where you want it. Over the years I’ve learned that by using the legato technique, I can physically play anything that anyone else can play anyway, just by accenting unpicked notes and finding different fingerings. But it’s easy for me to do that, because that’s how I play.

One problem with legato technique is that it tends to make you play all the notes running in one direction, and that’s something I tried to stop doing two or three years ago. I try not to play more than three or four notes going in one direction. You realize that it’s too easy, that your fingers are doing the walking, as John Scofield says. When I read that, it made me start rethinking it.

This is a textbook example of how you de-emphasize the pick sound.

You have to make your finger hit the fret just a fraction of a second apart from when the pick strikes the string, and then it won’t have the front on the note. A lot of other times I’ll use the little finger itself to start the note, just to zap the string on the head right at that fret for the first note, and that’ll be it. I do that pretty often. Like I said, I’ve practiced a lot to emphasize different notes, because I hated it when I used to listen to what I’d done, and I’d say, "There’s the pick; here’s the hammer; there’s the pick." I thought, "Screw that; I want to make it so you can’t tell which one’s which."

Another Kind Of Passion

When the new kid on the block plays more notes, then everybody says, "Oh, it’s not happening." But then, five years later, when they figure out that guy wasn’t playing very many notes at all, because the new guy’s playing twice as many notes, they accept the other guy, and they say of the new guy, "Oh, but he doesn’t play with any feeling." I don’t really pay any attention to it. I don’t think music has anything whatsoever to do with how many notes anybody plays. I’ve tried in the past to make something have some sort of passion to it with less notes, but at times I like it fiery - that’s passionate in another way, But I do think that some guys don’t play with any feeling at all. Another thing that’s so funny about some of the really hairy metal monsters I hear, is that it’s as though they just took, a [ProCo] Rat distortion and D.I.’d it into a console, but because they’re playing lot of notes, you don’t hear the sound , and then when they sit on a note for a minute [you] go, "Oh, yuk!" It’s terrible! It’s just the gnarliest thing I ever heard.

Any Key In The U.K. (Unknown publication 1978)

Can you pinpoint any one particular influence that helped you evolve your style?

Well,’ I think I was influenced in that I think I wanted to play a different instrument to the guitar! It started very early when I was listening to jazz records. The guitarist would be playing well but I was often more impressed musically with the sax solo. That’s what inspired me really. I wanted to get a more horn-like thing out of the guitar. It’s very natural. I didn’t consciously go out to do that. I knew I loved that but I didn’t know that I was approaching it differently until a few years later. I just like that sort of liquid thing as opposed to guitars with a machine-gun feel. I really like it to be like . . . water. It’s more like patterns as well. I know people mock guitarists who play fast things but I don’t think of it in terms of a stream of notes. It’s like a pattern, you create a pattern or a colour that you see as one. It’s like a colour that appears before your face.

Blinded By Science (Guitar Player 1993)

Although Holdsworth uses a pick, he manages to produce smooth tones with a transparent attack. "I practice with a clean sound and try to play phrases and notes, placing the accents in different places. I hammer or tap the first note instead of picking it. And I tap notes with my left hand on the way down the neck instead of using pull-offs. It’s pretty much left-hand technique. I can’t tap with two hands at all, though every now and again I may tap in an extra note up the neck."

Castles Made Of Sand (Guitarist 1987)

Unlike most players you seem to play four notes on each string rather than the more conventional three.

When I practise scales I will play four notes on one string. If I’m playing a C major scale, starting on F, I’ll play the F, G, A, and B on one string and the C will be on the A string etc, etc. Because I found not only was it good for my hands but it was really good for interconnecting things. Because I didn’t want to end up playing in positions - like you’d see guys playing, and every time it was a different chord their hand would be in a completely different position and I wanted to eliminate that completely. So I always practised playing scales in every position and I looked at four notes per string as a way of connecting positions together. Because If you want to get from one end of the neck to the other you can use that, rather than actually changing positions, which seemed a little bit awkward to me. But it was good for my hands because it makes you reach a bit further. But now I try not to play more than two or three notes consecutively in one direction - try and juggle them around a little bit .

You have a very snappy left hand; your pull-offs can sound like picked notes.

Well, I never use pull-offs because I don’t like the sort of ‘meow’ sound they make with the string being deflected sideways. So I kind of tap the finger on and lift it directly off the string . I practise trying to make all the notes play the same volume or even some of the notes I’ve hammered, louder than the notes I’ve picked. So you can place an accent anywhere you normally would if you were using a pick. I’ve got better at it now and when I listen to it I can pick up what’s going on and I think it’s harder to tell, now, what’s picked and what isn’t. But basically I wanted to make a note I’d hammered, louder than a note I’d picked.

No Record Contract, No Big Hoopla, But The Fans Have Kept The Faith For Allan Holdsworth (Guitar World 1982)

"I’m gonna try to keep developing my musical technique, not physical technique. And if it’s required that my physical technique change, it’s going to be a perfectly natural evolution. I do want to keep changing. I’m fed up, basically. I don’t use the tremelo (sic) arm so much now as I used to. I’ve done that. and when I listen to it, it almost sounds silly - kind of childish. I can’t stand listening to what I did in the past.

Part and parcel of his smooth articulation is the way he uses his right hand. With a standard flat pick he employs just enough energy to set the string in motion, and picks only the requisite number of times to keep the momentum during the run. It’s easier said than done:

"It’s been really laborious, that part of it, because one of the big problems I had was trying to make notes sound even. So that you couldn’t tell the difference between them, or making the ones I didn’t pick sound louder than the ones I did. That’s gradually gotten better over the years. When I heard some of the old things, they’re so primitive to me. The new record, even that’s starting to sound old - it’s a year old now - but at least it doesn’t hurt as much as listening to some of the other older things."

On The Level (IM&RW 1991)

IM - You use very little right hand picking in your soloing style so you evolved this very smooth legato approach. How did you come about that? Was it a continuous desire to develop something like that or did you just fall into it?

"It’s actually both, because when I first started playing, I started doing it before I knew it wasn’t supposed to be like that. Then afterwards I found out it wasn’t supposed to be like that so then I tried to play normally. I used to I [sic] always record myself. I had a little tape recorder and whenever I was just doodling I’d record it and listen to it. You can find out so much by that. I went back and listened to some of the other stuff after a period of time and thought, ‘What’s going on!’ Then I listened to this other stuff that I had done before and I really liked it, you know there was something about it that really appealed to me so I started doing it again and then I just stuck with it. Up until a couple of years ago I used to think that the technique had limitations in as much you might not be able to play everything that was demanded of you but I don’t believe that anymore. I actually got misquoted on this subject before by Guitar Player Magazine because what I said was, ‘I think you can play a nything that anybody can play using that technique’, but they made it sound like it was me saying I could play anything that anyone else could play, so we’re straight! But talking about the technique, using the legato technique now I actually believe that you could play anything. You know if somebody played a line to you using a different technique, you could play it back to them using that technique, it’s just that you have to come up with funny fingerings for it in order to get it to work properly. Obviously continuing to record myself like that I wanted to get to a point where I could make the notes that I wasn’t picking louder than the one that I was and vice versa and I can do that reasonably well - not as good as I want - but I think sometimes when I listen back after even something I felt, ‘Well where was it then, which one of those was it?’ So it’s getting a little better."

Player Of The Month (Beat Instrumental 1978)

His playing style, nevertheless, is hard to pin down in words. It veers from almost heavy metal in the chords to light and ethereal in the solos, interspersed with runs so lightning fast he makes John McLaughlin look like a sleepwalker. But he can do that, and, knowing he can do it, doesn’t feel constrained to demonstrate the ability at every opportunity, whether it’s appropriate or not. So what is it that makes him different from the legions of other jazz-rock guitarists? Again, hard to say. But a lot of it has to do with his use of the tremolo arm on his customized Fender Strat.

Terry Theise’s electric guitar top ten (Guitar magazine 1976)

Alan Holdsworth is the first guitarist I’ve heard who doesn’t think guitar. He seems to approach his instrument as if it were a saxophone, notes spilling out without the tension or enunciation of the usual guitarist’s picking hand. He has the most amazing stamina in his fretting hand, enabling him to play at continual top speed for measure after measure without pauses, something beyond the powers of Ollie Halsall, with whom he shares a similar technique. However, while Halsall is beginning to achieve some critical and popular recognition, Holdsworth is mysteriously glossed over. This might be excusable if he had only his speed to commend him but he is a most musicianly guitarist.

He has recorded with Soft Machine on "Bundles", playing two extraordinary long solos. The first of these is on Hazard Profile, Pt. II and it is a monster. Rhythmically, it utilises a three note pattern which recurs at frequent intervals, and which starts the solo off. The amazing Holdsworth speed is well displayed, and it’s so smooth; the notes glide out rather than tear out (as is the case with McLaughlin). And the lines themselves are substantive, irrespective of the velocity at which they’re expelled. Modes with chromatically altered notes, dissonances, even the occasional blues lick, all are fused into a surging motion, rising and falling. At two points in the solo, the accompaniment shifts from the droning tonic to a chorus of changes which Holdsworth follows effortlessly. Ingeniously at one point he changes two notes in a repeating line which perfectly address the changing harmony underneath. He is also featured on the title track which leads into Land Of The Bag Snake, in which a repeated sixteen measure chorus is divided into four changes. The dynamics of the guitar solo lie in the tension which immediately precedes each change, i.e. as anticipation of it leads to execution of it, it is again a fine solo.

The Innocent Abroad (Musician 1984)

"After a while, technical things are just technical things. I don’t want to be involved with flash; I just want to be involved with music."

The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)

GW: You practice scales using four fingers on a string. What sort of exercises might help those who wish to reach into the uncharted realms of the instrument?

HOLDSWORTH: Well, the only exercise I really did was to utilize all limbs when practicing any given scale or harmonic concept that interested me. As chord changes are going by I like to be able to just look with my eyes at the notes on the fingerboard and imagine what I could play. I’d be looking at the fretboard and listening to a set of chord changes or imagining changes that I need to practice over, and I won’t think about what my limbs can do and what they can’t do. You’re kind of improvising with your head, on the neck, but your limbs are not involved in the process. Then I thought, "Well, to be able to do some of that in reality I have to do something that my hand won’t naturally want to do." So just in order to help myself stretch, I started to practice playing scales with four fingers. That way you can put yourself in different areas of the neck without playing a pattern and then jumping a position; they would all intertwine. That’s all. And all of the study [of] the theoretical side of it, is down to whatever that particular person needs to learn or wants to learn at that time. It’s just an approach to the guitar, that’s all. And that approach is there, no matter what the subject matter.

When I think of chords or scales - and I’m really bad at this, too - or if I think of a chord symbol, it’s a very specific voicing that I’m concerned with. If you saw a chord symbol for a lot of the things I write, it might be a very ordinary-looking chord, but the voicing might be more specific because of where it came from and where it’s going, simply because of the sound that I wanted to create with it. You’re always playing a specific voicing of a basic chord symbol. If I were to solo over that, I’d look at all the notes, determine what I would hear in the scale that would constitute the chord - related to either specific key or a bass note - and then I would just play notes in that scale, tied together. I might not even play any notes that really constituted what someone would think of as that chord symbol.

GW: Now, what of these great stretches...?

HOLDSWORTH: Someone asked me once, "How far can you stretch?" and I said "I don’t know, because I don’t want to know". Because if I actually physically calculated how far I can reach, then I might not try and do something.

GW: Might not try?

HOLDSWORTH: Yeah, because I’ll say, "Oh, I can’t do that. I can’t reach that far." I don’t want to know; because sometimes you find that you can do something you never thought you could do if you don’t tell yourself you can’t do it. My hero, Clint Eastwood, always says, "A man has to know his own limitations," but I’m not sure about that one.

GW: But as you said, knowing your weaknesses can only help you to develop your strength.

HOLDSWORTH’ In the area that Clint was thinking, he’s probably absolutely correct, but for me... I don’t want to know that I can only reach from the B to an F. [Looks curiously at his guitar] I mean, I’m just guessing. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know I might think while I’m improvising, "Oh, I want to play this G[?] up here," and my hand might be oriented elsewhere. So I’ll have to quickly determine how many different ways you can finger a particular set of notes. If I start figuring my limitations into that, I might not try as hard. I just never sat down and said, "Well, I can’t do that." Although I know there are certain things I can’t do! [attempts a fifteen-step stretch]

People always say;. "Oh, you use wide interval leaps" and stuff like that. Well, I do in some ways, but then again, I don’t use any more wide interval leaps than somebody like Scott or Frank Gambale. The only reason I did it with stretches was for a sonic purpose - it was the only way I could get that note to sound that way Like, if I had to play [plays an ascending figure beginning on. the B string’s fourteenth fret; repeating the C# on the first string on the way up], then I’d have to repeat that note, and it wouldn’t sound the same, or the limitations of my hand wouldn’t allow me to do that, because I’m not a good guitar player.