The Allan Holdsworth Interview! (Jazz Houston 2006)
The Long-Awaited Allan Holdsworth Interview Written by Michael J. Morrison Wednesday, 11 January 2006
Allan Holdsworth is touted by many, including me, as the pinnacle of guitar innovators of our time. His career has spanned 30 years and reads like a Who’s Who of musical wizards: Tony Williams, Bill Bruford, Jack Bruce, Stanley Clarke, Missing Persons, Level 42 to only name a few and he’s inspired words of admiration and praise from people such as Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana, Steve Vai, just to name a few. I had the pleasure of interviewing Allan before his upcoming Texas and European tours. We talked about a lot of typical guitar topics but also veered into the music business, the shape of radio, cycling, and his favorite libations. Below is a slightly edited (for ease of reading only)version of our conversation. Enjoy!
Ok, right to some gearhead questions:
Is there anything that you don’t want to talk about?
Nope, I don’t think so, we can talk about whatever.
MM: What gear are you currently using?
AH: Well I’ve been playing on a bunch of Carvin guitars, prototypes and my productions models. I’ve also got a bunch of custom made guitars. Bill DeLap guitars, the baritone guitars, although I’ve kind of abandoned those things. You know a lot of speed metal bands started using them and drop down tunings so I just left them and moved on. I used them extensively on a couple of albums then I just figured it became more and more difficult logistically to travel with them. That’s why I like the Steinberger guitars. They’re easy to travel with…and they don’t get messed up by the airlines. Most airlines don’t let you take your guitars on the plane with you, they make you put them in the (cargo)hold which can really mess them up. I usually only take one, maybe two, guitars. It’s a convenience thing and also the condition of the guitar staying in the cabin, not the hold.
MM: You mentioned the Carvin guitars. Do you play production models or are yours custom made for you?
AH: NO. That was a stipulation that I insisted on that I be able to walk into any Carvin store and pick up an instrument and it be exactly the same. Some of the prototypes are one-offs because they weren’t production models, obviously, but the ones I play now I got from Carvin stores. The production models are not different than the ones I play, not in any way.
MM: So there you go fellows, the guitars he plays are EXACTLY like the ones you can buy. He doesn’t sell out.
AH: Well, I did do a deal with Ibanez a long time ago where my guitar was built by someone else and the production models were hit and miss, but that’s the last time I did something like that and my deal with Carvin stipulated that they all be up to my standards—so I could go in and get one from a store and it be exactly the same. Carvin and I agreed to do a guitar based on my specs and they asked if I liked it if they could produce it…if I didn’t like it I would just keep the one guitar, but if I did like it, they would produce it. It’s worked out pretty well, really. As a matter of fact, I’ve got some ideas for a new one with a tremolo cause I miss having a tremolo sometimes.
MM: The guitar world owes a lot to you. You pioneered a lot of ingenuity in the guitar scene…you kept a lot of guys out of jail by creating power amp soaks and silent speaker boxes, for example.
AH: Well, I don’t know about that, but thank you.
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.
MM: Do you like any of the modeling things out there that could substitute for the SynthAxe?
AH: Well, I like the VG-8 but it wasn’t really a controller…it was still using the pickup thing. I actually have a thing made by Roland built into a couple of my guitars currently. John McLaughlin was telling me about a new Roland thing that works off that same pickup thing and I have a lot of respect for him not only as a musician but as someone who really is into the technology thing. He recommended this Roland thing and that you can track right into the computer with it. It sounds pretty cool to me. John actually heard some things I did with the SynthAxe and he tried it but it didn’t really work for him. In some ways I just kind of fell into the SynthAxe, it was kind of luck and it just worked for me. I think I will investigate that Roland thing because ultimately the SA is going to croak at some point.
MM: I’m sure Roland will be pleased to hear that! I hope they’ll take care of you in that…
AH: (laughter) well, we’ll see.
MM: What keyboard modules are you using, currently?
AH: Well actually back in the 90’s I had two Matrix 12’s and two Oberheim Expanders and I honestly loved those. I had Yamaha DX-7’s, TX-816’s, you know little boxes like that and between those two I could get a lot of sounds I really liked. I don’t really like the sample based synths I hear now, there’s something about them…I have heard some computer-based stuff that sounds amazing, but you know around the end of that time with the SynthAxe I got so frustrated with the whole thing that I sold all of it. About six months later I was suffering serious withdrawals and I ran into a guy who later became a friend that had one and I traded him a couple of guitars for it but at that point I didn’t have any synth stuff anymore and I couldn’t find any Oberheim stuff because they discontinued them...so, now I have a bunch of the Yamaha DX and TX modules. You can get a lot of sounds out of those units by programming them yourself.
MM: What recording format and mixing desk are you using? Oran BEQ40 is my console…I had a Trident before that…I never got into the computer stuff. I know people have done some amazing things with them but I’ve never got into them. One of my favorite units was a Euphonix R1 stand-alone hard disk recorder. They’re expensive, like 65k or something. I like the idea of stand alone units as opposed to computer stuff. You can record digitally one channel with great results especially at high sample rates, but there are issues with summing on a digital board that they just don’t sound as good to me. All of those numbers are being sent down two wires. I guess that’s why I prefer analog consoles. Now I’m using two HD24’s, the high resolution units so I can record at 96k and they have the really good converters.
MM: Are there any pieces of gear that you just can’t seem to get rid of or find a replacement for?
AH: Ummm…no. (laughter) Well there are some vintage pedals made by Color Sound and another unit that was a signal booster…one called a Color Sound overdrive…I regret getting rid of those. No one makes anything like that anymore. You know TC electronics makes one that does that boosting thing. I don’t like using a distortion pedal, I prefer the amp distortion and that pedal can help because I still prefer low output passive pick ups.
MM: What amps are you playing currently?
AH: I was playing the DG80’s but they discontinued them…and again I’m using defunct discontinued equipment(laughter). Now I’ve been using a Carvin tube amp. I’ve been using that and really like it with 2 4x12 cabinets but most places we play are too small to get that stuff on, so I usually use the Yamaha rig in those situations. I’m still using the Yamaha UD tap delays…Rick Kurioki(sp) helped me build this unit that is 8 delay lines in one box. It became logistically impossible to move that kind of gear around and have any money left at the end of the gigs. Ha!
MM: Do you still have any relationship with Rocktron?
AH: Yes I do and also with RSP Techonologies. A couple of guys were going to get me to check out a new amp they’re making.
MM: Just so everyone can understand this, when you help design something do you get a buyout(basically cash up front and then nothing afterwards) or do you get a piece of the action?
AH: Usually you get a small percentage. It’s good with some companies and not so good with others. Carvin is treating my pretty well. Yahama helped me out with the delay box because I couldn’t get anyone to make one. I was grateful that they even made it since the piece of gear wasn’t even in existence but it’s now discontinued.
MM: Well, a lot of people have the idea that because you have a record deal or playing shows or an endorsement that you’re a millionaire.
AH: Well that would be nice but it doesn’t work like that---well not for me…(laughter)
MM: With all the bootlegs of Road Games what were the sales like for the recent re-issue?
AH: Actually I never owned any of it. Warner bros owned it…I don’t see any of it at all…the record had a big budget by the end of it, there were tons of engineers and Ted Templeman produced it, and the money was blown thru. It turned into a joke and a bunch of money was stolen and because it was a cheap album, an EP, the percentages paid to me were very small and the debt incurred doing the album just kept rising because they were charging interest on the money that the project owed them. It would take millions of sales to pay back even the debt and interest they are still charging me. I have no connection to the album at all. Gnarly Geezer records were really the guys who made the whole re-release happen. I don’t think the sales were anything spectacular but I know a lot of people were interested.
MM: How about the live DVD you did at the Galaxy and it’s release?
AH: Well it was supposed to be a demo on the Gnarly Geezer website when those guys were still up and running and what happened is they gave me another deal, after 16 Men of Tain, and then it didn’t work out and they didn’t want to keep the record company going so they said “well forget about the tracks that you’ve already done on the new recording, give us the rights to the video and we’ll right off the other”. Eventually we decided to discontinue it because it was shot originally as a demo for the website, not a release of any kind. It was only about 40 minutes long and wasn’t really long enough or done well enough for a real DVD release.
MM: Are there any plans on doing any kind of live DVD?
AH: I’ve been approached by a couple of people, but basically I’m just trying to play catch up. I haven’t been very productive the last four or five years. Now I’m trying to get some new music out and concentrating on getting this new album out for Steve Vai’s label, Favored Nation. There are so many bootlegs out there, what’s the point of putting out something else with so much cheese?
MM: Here’s a fun one: What did Tony Williams like about your playing?
AH: I don’t know. (laughter) We played together originally with Jack Bruce. He called me after forming his own band after that recording, but he never said anything to me. (laughter) I guess he liked what I did cause he dragged me across the world.
MM: What did Tony learn from you?
AH: Probably nothing…I don’t know. I can’t imagine Tony learning anything from me. I was so green. I don’t know how to answer that question.
MM: How much collaboration was there between you two?
AH: It was pretty even…the big thing was he never told me what to play or what to do. He really wanted me to figure out something on my own. I’m trying to do that with my guys now. They can interpret it anyway they want as long as they play the music in the way it should be played. Each drummer and bass player I use plays every tune differently and I think they enjoy that and I do, too, when everything is working. Tony was that way. He wanted us to do our own thing. He was not a control freak and very loose.
MM: On Atavachron, did Tony come in as a collaborator or was it more worked out?
AH: It was more worked out. It was pretty complete and finished but he was as usual unbelievable.
MM: I know you don’t read music and Tony did, how did you and the other musicians you work with relate musically since you have your own form of music notation you created for your own music projects?
AH: Well it was really pretty easy. He’d just play something for me and we’d work it out on the spot just in the music itself or I’d go and write my own chart for myself. With me, relating the music to Tony, Alan Pasqua was and is such an amazing musician that he can hear something one time and play it back to you perfectly or even improved. His ears are insane! Literally anything you play will come right back at you.
MM: How does your music change by using different drummers and bassists?
AH: Well, one group of guys will usually push the song one way and another group of guys will push it another. Usually, I like both ways. Sometimes one particular group will play a tune in a way that I like better and the other group will have another tune that works better with them. There are some tracks that I’ve done where I used two different bassists and drummers and it’s interesting to hear the differences with them playing the same exact tunes. You can hear that it’s the same tune harmonically but their interpretation is so drastically different that I think it would be interesting to put out a whole album like that so people could see just how much the musicians contribute to the music and push it in different places.
MM: You used to write material and then work it out on the road before you recorded. Do you still do this?
AH: Yes, but we’ve done it all ways, really. “Tullio” off of Hard Hat Area-we actually rehearsed that tune before we played in Japan but the tune was so long that we never played it live. It was so long I couldn’t remember all of it. I can’t even remember the chord sequence to play over. It’s one of the longest tunes I’ve done. It sounds as if it’s two or three different sections for the solos but it’s really only one time thru! The band was like “can we not do that tune tonight?” (laughter) And so we never did it live.
MM: Speaking of “Tullio” I know you’re into cycling. Tell everyone who Tullio Campagnolo is and why you wrote that tune.
AH: Tullio is the “Mr. Campagnolo” the inventor of pretty much everything that hangs on every bicycle today. It’s like race cars having certain innovations on them that show up 20 years later on regular cars. That’s what he’s done for bicycles. You see what everyone takes for granted in racing finally showing up in production cars. One story is that he designed a(unable to discern the name) bike and really felt good about them, but woke up one night and decided he could make them better so he went to his shop and destroyed them all and threw them all away and started over. That’s incredible, really. Most people would sell the prototypes and continue on after making a lot of money selling those first creations, but he didn’t do that. Everything I ever read about the guy I loved, plus I loved all his bike parts.
MM: Any plans on doing collaborations with big names?
AH: Well there’s lots of people I’d love to do projects with, but I pretty much have to wait for the call from them. The thing is, for the type of records I want to make, there’s no budget for them anyway. You pretty much have to own your own studio to make it work. I have a buddy that has his own studio and he works out a good deal with me. Most of my budgets are just enough to pay the guys in the band. I’ve even done albums where there wasn’t even enough money to pay the guys in the band for the work that they did in the studio. I’ve got a good deal now with Steve(Vai) and he’s got really good distribution, but to get the kind of money to do a “dream” record is very, very difficult with those kinds of budgets.
MM: You should let your fans help you out because I know they’d love to hear you play with Scott Henderson or Mike Brecker.
AH: Well, yeah, Scott’s just insane. He’s an insane player.
MM: Tell me about the Jimmy Haslip, Alan Pasqua, Chad Wackerman “Lifetime Tribute” dates in Europe coming up soon.
AH: It’s actually some old stuff and new stuff. We doing it very similar to the way we did it in “Lifetime”. We’re coming in with music that’s not quite finished pieces and experimenting with it as we go. I haven’t done it that way in a long time and it’s great. It’s challenging getting my butt kicked, it’s great.
MM: Do you like giving up that control and doing something that’s more “free”?
AH: Well everything’s worked out, but when we first start working on the tunes it’s much more open. It eventually gets all worked out.
MM: When you write for your records they are very worked out with parts for everyone. They have a definite identity. When you add someone like Jimmy Haslip whose musical vocabulary spans straight-ahead, pop, r&b, and latin music and Chad Wackerman who’s played with artists as diverse as Frank Zappa and Barbara Streisand, not to mention Pasqua who is another legend, all those influences seems like it would be much different than you being the band leader.
A: Yes, it’s very different. There is no leader in this thing, although that could change I guess. I like it a lot! I don’t enjoy being a band leader and I never think of myself as that, either. I just think of a guy that plays in a band that plays a bunch of my tunes. (laughs)
MM: Are there any chances of recordings with this band?
A: Well, not in Europe, but there’s a good chance that if we all come out of it with a smile on our face then we probably will back in the states…hopefully, it would be nice to think that we could do something. (note: Jimmy Haslip has also expressed great interest in doing a recording with this band and has told me that Allan is just ridiculous in rehearsals playing incredible solos then spends the twenty minutes after rehearsals apologizing for how bad he played)
MM: Who were your influences musically?
AH: The first guy was Charlie Christian that really did it for me and Django because he was one of the only European guys out there. Of course Jim Hall and Joe pass, but I was really more interested in saxophone than guitar.
MM: Who are the sax players that influenced you?
AH: Charlie Parker because of records my father had…also Cannonball Adderly, but really Coltrane was the main one. He was spiritually connected to some pipeline where he could bypass all the stuff you had to go thru a thousand times to get to what you really wanted to say. I think that was the biggest thing that I learned from that---that “oh my God!” it’s possible to play over this thing without doing things that you’ve heard before. It was very inspiring for me and I went out and bought everything he played on. I remember when he passed away I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for hours. It was weird because I felt like I knew him.
MM: Do you think that was the demarcation line in your life musically?
AH: Well it gave me a lot of ideas, it gave me a lot of…there were other ways of doing and playing things. It gave me freedom to do things that you hadn’t really heard before…you know it didn’t have to be diatonically correct or whatever if it’s working. So it was that freedom to not have to make it sound like something you’ve heard already. Different lines, different chords, some specific formula to get away from…
MM: Well, I consider you the Coltrane of our time. AH: Well, I’m speechless.
MM: It seems you’ve dialed back on the overdrive sounds. Am I correct in this observation? Is this something that you’ve done on purpose as a musical choice or are you able to get the sounds in your head with newer modeling amps/pedals without the saturation that you’ve used in the past?
AH: Well, it’s really related to the kind of music. When I did the album None Too Soon and then 16 Men of Tain it was a challenge to put a distorted guitar sound in that musical setting which was basically acoustic bass and drums. If I was to take the sounds I was using on albums like Hard Hat Area which was mostly the Boogie’s and stuff, when you stick that in with acoustic bass and drums it just doesn’t seem to work. It just doesn’t seem necessary to use the same amount of distortion. When Gary’s playing it works because it’s aggressive and has got that edge in that setting. But something softer and more delicate like on None Too Soon, it just didn’t sound right. It was a real challenge to make that work and sound right and I was pleased that I was able to do that in that setting. Now I don’t use that much distortion but I still use it to get sustain and but I get more of a controlled thing. The new album will be a return of stuff I used to do, more aggressive sounding.
MM: Ok, a question from me. I enjoyed hearing you play standards and really dug hearing you play over altered blues changes like the tune Isotope. You have such a great sense of phrasing and definitely from a bebop tradition. Do you like playing over those types of changes?
AH: Well it’s like Pat Smythe used to say to me “the only thing worse than playing over one chord is playing over two” (laughter) so it’s kind of like that. How many times do you want to play the blues? I mean there are some great blues tunes, but it’s just, I don’t know…I just don’t feel the need to do that, but I understand how people in the audience can have fun seeing that and listening to that.
MM: Why do you think fusion jazz struggles for an audience in the US but seems to be thriving in Europe and Japan?
AH: I think it turns around. It’ll be good there and bad here and then it’ll switch. When I first came to the US in 1980 we worked a lot in the US but couldn’t get work in the UK. Now it’s switched really. A lot is radio, too. Media doesn’t support it and so there’s no place for people to go and listen to it. There are a few radio stations that play cool stuff, but not many. We fall thru the cracks and holes because what we do isn’t jazz and it’s not rock. But a lot of clubs have closed and that’s had an effect, too. That part shriveled up.
MM: The radio stations that you get airplay from in the States do you find that it’s more guitar-oriented or have been you been able to expand to an audience that you previously hadn’t reached yet?
AH: Um, I think if there’s a station that had some sort of a producer that played something a little bit different than what they’re used to hearing that they might introduce a whole new audience to the music and find their audience really likes it. All you can do is send him a piece of music and hope they like that one piece. It’s like if you’ve never tasted an orange how are you going to know whether you like it if you’ve got someone telling you you’re not going to like oranges? And that’s what exactly what’s happening. The radio guys are dictating to the public what they are going to like which is complete garbage, complete rubbish! The internet is helping because it’s free speech.
MM: I would hope some program directors would give you more than thirty seconds of the first tune from albums like None Too Soon, Flat Tire, or 16 Men of Tain.
AH: Well yeah, there’s a ballad on 16 Men that there’s nothing offensive about the track and could even be played on a smooth jazz station, really. Too many people are telling the public what they are going to like.
MM: Well your tune “Home” is just a beautiful piece of music that could definitely be played on smooth jazz stations. There’s nothing edgy about that tune, it’s just beautiful music.
AH: Well, thanks very much.
MM: Who’s music are you listening to these days?
AH: Gee, all different kinds: I like Bartok to Don Henley. I love a lot of different music and the guys around me are constantly giving me stuff to listen to.
MM: Any future plans with Gary Husband or Level 42?
AH: Well, I love those guys and would play with them more but distance and money are always an issue. You know you book some dates at the Baked Potato and just don’t have the money to fly someone overseas to try and do a date when you won’t even come close to breaking even. That’s just the way it is. But, I know that I’ll play with those guys in the future again. I love playing with them.
MM: Are you still brewing beers?
AH: No. I just drink them!!! (huge laughter)
MM: Ok. What are your top five beers?
AH: Wow, OMG, that’s a tough one. One of my favorite is Timothy Taylor’s. I like Beck’s beers. I like the London beers Fuller’s and Young’s and I’ve always liked Tetley’s because you could drink gallons of it without falling over. (huge laughter) That’s one of the hardest things to do. You can make a real rocket fuel beer like many micro-brewers do that has a really strong taste but have a lot of alcohol. It’s hard to make one that has a low alcohol content that tastes good. I actually love Czech Budweiser beer. It was pretty good. The American version is one of my least favorites.
MM: Well, I have to say I caught you drinking a Coors with lemons on one of your last shows here in Houston.
AH: Really? Maybe I was drinking a wheat beer at the same time. Who knows? I used to drink lemon with rice beer.(laughter)
MM: Thanks again for everything and I look forward to seeing you in Houston with a ton of rabid fans. Don’t be gone so long next time and we’ll see you on February 16th here in Houston.
AH: We’ll try and you’re very welcome.