The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)
The unreachable star
Guitar World, May 1989
Cover story: The continuing saga of Allan Holdsworth.
His utter mastery of the guitar and the ungainly SynthAxe is matched only by his compulsive self-scrutiny; fascination with progress and undying need to surprise himself. For Allan Holdsworth, these alone are the measures of success and the motivation that's fueled his legendary career. A powerful interview with a bona fide genius.
It's nigh on bedtime at the Brewery Allan Holdsworth's home studio, but young Emily "Pud Wud" Holdsworth wants no part of sleep. Her father, tweaking one of his instruments from the control chair, is doing his best to maintain peace, but his sweet child is intent on the far more pressing matter of her sense of time, tradition and thirst.
"I'll be in soon to make your tea, Pud," he says softly. "Take Wolfie and watch TV and I'll come right in." He stares at a stringy pile on the carpet before him. "That's where Wolfie had a nap. He's not here at the moment because I don't want to have to vacuum up all these dog hairs. I've got to get this place clean, because I've got to start working again. Can't work in here anymore."
The child persists, this time proferring a gangly toy replica of the monster from the movie Alien for her father's consideration. The maestro obligingly hops both tiny figures onto his lap and tries to reestablish his train of musical thought, but his attention is caught by a peculiar attribute of the hideous creature held by his child.
"Six fingers, Emily" he coos, shifting his gaze from her cherubic face to the plastic figure. "One, two, three, four, five ... six." He pauses to inspect the now outstretched fingers attached to his own gargantuan left hand. "A sixth finger. That'd be quite useful, now wouldn't it?"
THE EERIE PART of it is that if he really believed an extra digit would suit his purpose, he'd probably grow one. It falls under the first subtext in the maestro's unspoken but resolute belief system: The things we see are there simply to serve how we envision them. Compromise yields dissatisfaction. Oh, yes, and the finer the ale, the better the gig.
What Allan Holdsworth has done for the guitar - and to circumscribed notions of what music can or should be - says more about the artistic capacity to achieve under duress than any other contemporary yardstick. It's borne out by one glance around the Brewery, the garage-cum-tastefully carpentered twelve-track recording facility he calls a "cheesy wooden box I patched together in two weeks." It's borne out in the way he cross-bends a spacey inversion of an impossible chord with the vibrato bar and contextualizes it perfectly or streams together lines upon lines of tone, shape and color - all on an instrument better suited for clumsy strumming at the county pot-luck supper. And it's most emphatically there in anything he played on albums from Tempest, to Tony Williams' legendary Believe It, to his astonishing solo catalogue, most of which he to this day flatly dislikes discussing or - heaven forbid - listening to. What it all means is this: Don't believe Allan Holdsworth when he tells yo u that a pile of dog hair is keeping him from finishing a solo for his new record. Here at the Brewery things walk a hard enough line for acceptability. Those that initially satisfy his taste for harmonic intrigue will progressively - within moments - become flawed, obsolete. It's the willing indulgence of that bleary, ongoing conflict that makes him one of the world's most important and innovative musicians.
BY THE TIME the first Santa Ana winds have swept through that same drowsy Orange County morning, the maestro is already a pale-blue blur within the intimate Front Page recording complex, waffling about with everything from the house amplifiers to the tea maker to the spaghetti-wire underbelly of the mixing console. To the frazzled genius working on a breakfast of two Kit Kats and some square intentions, all seems fairly well and good; the bad transformers are replaced, the tea is finally hot, and all the technical foulups in the world are magically solved by any one of a number of homemade little boxes he's brought out for the occasion. As he offers each musician his lavish greeting, counterpoint is provided by a tape of the previous day's work. No one digs their solos; everyone digs Allan's shoes.
"I don't know how the maestro puts up with me," whispers keyboardist Steve Hunt, on loan from Stanley Clarke's band and in a feverish composing and improvising dutymode for this project. "I just kind of schmutz around a bit, and then he comes in and does a real solo." Bass wizard Jimmy Johnson shakes his hung head as he listens to a second-take of his own section: lyrical, confident - and hopelessly unsatisfactory. He vows to "stay after school" to fix the mess.
Allan is laughing in disbelief at how good Vinnie Colaiuta's drum performance is. This one sounds like a throwback to the Bruford days.
Johnson, remembering the despair in Allan's face when he told the guitarist that he'd listened to a tape of Believe It on the drive down from L.A., obliges: "We'll change that!"
The drummer's voice crackles wearily through the intercom. I'm really having trouble capturing the essence here."
"Well, you're not getting any help from the big boy in here," Allan responds encouragingly. "Maybe we should just bail on it as a lame tune."
The intercom sounds pained. "Come on! Let's just get it one more time!
Okay; laughs Holdsworth. Let's get it, steeds!
They get it good. The performance is surefooted, professional, awesome. And all the preliminaries and their precious results point up the attributes most characteristic of Allan Holdsworth and the musical life he leads - the disenchantment, the oppressive humility, the tinkering. the raging genius. Most striking is the profound awe he inspires in fellow musicians - and not, as critics would have it, solely guitarists - without any concomitant self-congratulation or compositional fascism. His records afford these musicians the opportunity to play, and if they're overly concerned with flow, contrast or the presence of even one questionable dynamic, it's only because they care so much about the music. He and his bandmates bear the bane of the musically well-to-do; in Allan's most singular case it renders his extraordinary gift as much a burden as a civic crown of the musical community. (Subtext #2 in the maestro's unspoken credo: the farther you can see, the more distant becomes the next horizon - the distance to your next horizon is always inversely proportional to the measure of the one you've covered.)
Allan Holdsworth's quest thrives on perceived progress. And, like the finest of ales, his concept is first preserved then slowly perfected, through a judicious split-view sensibility: A substantive process on one side seeks to generate the most responsive elements of harmonic color, taste and texture; a tactile side looks out for the most transparent means, vessels or contexts through which the intangibles can flow unchanged. It wasn't entirely by accident, then, that certain songs and themes cropped up in different places on early works like The Things You See, a series of improvisations with pianist Gordon Beck, and the ill-fated maiden solo project Velvet Darkness, whose title piece was re-cut entirely during Allan's short tenure with the French fusion aggregate Gong, and whose glimmering acoustic work restructured into full-blown band settings with the New Tony Williams' Lifetime. Holdsworth set things straight at home, perhaps, even as he set the music world on its ear; between th ose spells of idea-shaping during the early-to-midseventies, Allan wrung such thunder from his instrument that the jazz and rock albums he played on-by Williams, UK, Soft Machine, Bruford and Jean-Luc Ponty-were smoked into legend by his magical presence alone.
As it happened, the appropriate context for many of those compositional variations took their final shape in "The Things You See (When You Haven't Your Gun)," the opening cut to Allan's landmark, genuine solodebut, released independently as Allan Holdsworth, I.O.U. That album (and the tune, its characteristic Melvillian angst intact from its initial vocal reading on the duets album with Beck) was a harbinger of Holdsworth's decisive redefinition of the guitar's function and parameters. Inverted, intricate chordal figures weave in, around and beneath expressive, saxophonic honking. soaring melodic extensions and, to borrow a term from Allan (who'd sooner lop off his tongue than use it to praise his own performance), general reaming all around. He continued to refine his revolutionary soloing and chordal approaches on the mini-lp Road Games and its masterful follow-up, Metal Fatigue,. which balanced crafty vocal tunes and such deep instrumentals as "Home," which featured a lovely acousti c solo, and "The Un-Merry-Go-Round," a touching fifteen-minute centerpiece dedicated to the memory of his father.
Allan probably reckons he discovered that sixth finger the day he picked up his SynthAxe controller and began writing the music for Atavachron, perhaps the first contemporary recording ever to showcase the organic potential of MIDI. When Allan solidified his direction and his dedication to the instrument with 1987's Sand, however, he met with what was the first troubled public response to match his grim experience in trying to get his early progressive bands heard in England almost fifteen years before. Guitar legend Allan Holdsworth, playing through robotic synth patches on an album with as lackluster a title as Sand, of all things? (The fact is, Allan plays brilliant guitar-his publicly acknowledged "home turf' '-and highly expressive SynthAxe throughout the record. On a likewise reservedly titled album, Sahara, piano legend McCoy Tyner places marvelous strokes along the keyboard and a Japanese stringed instrument called a koto, with soprano saxist Sonny Fortune sailing over the top, all to blistering results.)
"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."
Jimmy Johnson is pleasantly surprised by what he's hearing over the playback monitors. The piece is "Joshua," a working track for the forthcoming Secrets, the portion a reference SynthAxe solo that begins very smoothly, very diatonically, with simple, ascending major-key phrases. Holdsworth is sitting at the board, tapping his foot nervously and shaking his head. Suddenly; the reedy lines begin twisting and winding their way outward, pushing and pulling at the confines of the progression. In a moment, order is restored and the solo continues along, undisturbed.
"That's the only bit, right there, man. The rest of it's horseshit."
Johnson is seeing the bigger picture; it's been a long four days. "You know, this is jazz, man, it's jazz."
"Yeah," smiles Holdsworth as he picks himself up and heads for the loo, "but they'll still never play it anyway"
FIFTY YEARS FROM today, when those gargantuan hands - paucity of fingers notwithstanding - are wrapped around the aluminum guidebar of a walker instead of the neck of some futuristic, wonderfully bizarre derivation of the SynthAxe, perhaps, the benefit of historical perspective will bear out for the abysmally shortsighted multitudes just how far ahead of his time the maestro was. And even that kind of timeframe isn't sufficient for a guy like Allan Holdsworth, someone who, after all, is just looking to find something meaningful in sounds. Or, more difficult still, just meaning to find something that sounds good.
It's raining relentlessly on the last of this four-day session. There's a long, heavy highway ahead bogged with wet traffic, a load of equipment to move back into the house, tea to make for the children and much to discuss.
Let's get it, steeds!
GUITAR WORLD: You said earlier that you were really happy with the way this record turned out.
ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: Yeah - with everybody else. I'm never really happy with what I do, but you have to finish, let go of it and then it's gone. Once I let go of it I don't worry about it, but while I'm working on it I think, "Oh Jesus, couldn't I do a little bit better than that?" but… I guess not [laughs].
GW: You didn't get picked up by Relativity for a second album. Why?
HOLDSWORTH: They wanted three more albums, and I just didn't know at that point if I wanted to do that. The main point was that the original deal called for one album with an option, which meant two albums. The album was delivered late and distributed late, and they didn't want to start the negotiations for another album until the first had been out for maybe six months or more. Considering that it was three months getting out, that's almost a year; I might have had to wait that long to find out if they'd even want me to do another record. So I said, "I don't want to wait; I want to know now if you - want to do another one, so I can at least start it." They said, "Only if we have these extra clauses," so I passed on it. I considered the fact that Enigma actually had all of the catalog-that was really an important factor.
GW: What about the majors?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, during the periods between my records for Enigma and Relativity I was approached at different times by major labels to do an album deal, but they didn't want to pay any money at all. They didn't want to pay enough money for me to make a record.
GW: Now this is not like one of those rock-star advances...
HOLDSWORTH:: They wanted to pay between ten and fifteen thousand dollars for an album. I've been involved in making albums for five thousand dollars so I know that it's possible, but the thing is that now I don't want to make a fifteen-thousand dollar record. I.O.U. was a five-thousand-dollar record; we recorded it pretty rapidly and mixed in two evenings. It was recorded over a span of time because we couldn't get the studio time all at once. But since then I've tried to be more careful in the recording, pushed myself a little bit harder, and just tried to spend more time mixing. And that all costs money. I got into a state where I was spending more money on the albums than I was actually making. So to go to a major label and be offered fifteen thousand dollars was pretty... well, it was pointless, really. I could have lived with that if I thought that they would let me do what I want to do, because they have the promotional capability a smaller record comp any doesn't have. But the worst point was that they hated everything that I'd done; you know they thought it all kind of wacky and that every record I'd made was a big pile. Yet they only made specific references to maybe two or three tracks, from a period of five or six years. Well, I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible without insulting anybody; I was like, "Oh, God, let me out! I want to get out of this building." I don't want to hear a guy intending to sign me to a label just to listen to him tell me he hated everything I ever did. I mean, I appreciate the fact that they might not like it - that's not the point. It's that they think that I am completely lost, that I don't have any direction, which is in my opinion completely wrong. I do have a direction, at least in my mind, whether or not it's perceived by other people.
One label did sort of like "Tokyo Dream" [Road Games ], but they just rabbited on about who they could get me to use in the band, you know: "It'd be really great if you could use this guy on drums and that guy on bass, and do it in this guy's studio with this guy engineering and play these kind of tunes and those kind of solos." God, man, that was back to square one.
GW: How could they dictate what kind of solos to play?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, they wanted someone else to produce; since they questioned my direction, they wanted someone else to stand there and tell me what I think is a good solo. I don't think that's possible; I think if I was working on someone else's project, then sure, I'll have a guy telling me what to do; but with my own music.. you know; I'm a big believer in the guy who produces his own music, because I think he's the only person who knows.
GW: Right, and the only person who hears it in his own mind.
HOLDSWORTH: Yeah. I mean, someone else can perceive good or bad, obviously; or they might think that I could have done better, but generally speaking, I push my-self a lot harder than any producer would. I'm the worst, you know; the worst.
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: So they've driven you into reclusion your own home.
HOLDSWORTH: [Laughs] No, I always do the guitar at home now; I can get a better sound here than I can in the studio, because I don't have to worry about wasting time for the other guys by trying to mike up the guitar. I've used that room [Front Page], but I really like a certain kind of room for recording guitar. I don't record in certain rooms because I usually can't get a sound I'd be really happy with. It might be okay - I mean, maybe nobody else would notice the difference, but I notice the difference.
GW: But you've often said that, when recording with bands like with Bruford and UK, listening to the band through cans in a separate room or on tape - a separate musical situation - can really debilitate your spontaneity.
HOLDSWORTH: It's still like that, but I've kind of gotten used to doing it that way over the last few albums, just for practicality. It made more sense for me to worry about the performance of the other musicians than to say "I'm gonna use that track some other guy in the band doesn't like just because I played a great solo on it." I don't work like that because I want everybody to be happy with what they played. I worry about myself later. But I don't wear cans to do overdubs; I just go into the control room and play and listen. I try to be as inside as I can get in an overdub situation. It's difficult, because it's easy to overdub something that sounds like a good solo, but hard to make it sound like it was part of what was happening. I like to live with the tapes and listen to them until I get to play solos over them, to get an idea of what the men were doing there. I try and play off of what they were doing, so there is still the relationship. I like to strike the combination betwe en fitting in and maintaining a few ideas I feel are reasonable.
Another thing I've done is to play solos live, but not spend any time on them; you know, just get a really cheesy tone, stick a Rockman into the board or something, play the solo for a vibe thing, and then replace it with a proper tone. Some of that is dictated by the music as well, because of some of the pieces. For example, when I started using the SynthAxe, I started playing all the accompanying parts myself.
If I've written something, it's a very specific thing, and I want it to be a certain way. Even though someone else could play it, they might not play it exactly as you heard it, whereas if you're playing it yourself - not that it's any better - it's going to be specific. And that's really important. Even though Steve's new tune "Joshua" sounds really open, it's actually very specific in terms of the voicings and what he wanted to hear in the accompaniment. And in that instance, you let the guy do his thing. To serve that, we did that take live.
GW That piece is uncharacteristically straightforward.
HOLDSWORTH: I actually had a little bit of trouble with that one. That was the only tune that I wasn't sure about; I liked it, but I wasn't certain that it would work for me, because it reminded me a little bit of Bruford. As soon as I started soloing on it, everything I played reminded me of ten or fifteen years ago, so I started getting really depressed really fast. Not because there was anything wrong with it, but because it was putting me in a space that I didn't want to be back in, just because that was then and not now. But I went in and said, "Okay I'll do it," did the solo, and, listening to it afterwards, I realize that it came out different, even though the composition still reminds me a bit of something Bill might've written. That was my main worry - that it would come out sounding like an old Bruford record.
GW: "Strangher," (sic) a boogie you recorded with Tempest, represented perhaps one of the first times such outside notes were played tastefully in a rock context. How did that develop?
HOLDSWORTH: I improvise with the same bunch of notes as everybody else, but just try to kind of rearrange the order of them, that's all. I don't do it very well, but I try to analyze the structure of the piece of music, and be creative harmonically It doesn't often happen, but I try. My ultimate goal is to be able to really improvise over anything; I'd love to be able to improvise over all the old bebop tunes, but I don't want them to sound like they were coming from there, because somehow there's something about improvisation that dictates to me that no one should take something that everybody else has done, like a certain formula, and reapply it. I'd rather try and formulate my own theory on how I hear it, as opposed to how someone else heard it. I think that's why I do get a little misunderstood. Harmonically misunderstood. That's all I ever cared about: just being able to play a solo, you know, all I ever want to do is play a good solo [laughs].
GW: I can anticipate your response, but in retrospect, which among your recorded solos have you been most happy with?
HOLDSWORTH: I'm not really happy with any of them. I mean, I just think that they were okay at the time, because that's all you can ever hope for, unfortunately. Because I started playing late, it's only in the last five years or so that I've started to feel I've made any progress as a musician, out-side of just waffling around on guitar. I feel like, I don't know that I haven't done anything yet. There are certain things I almost like. Like that solo on "Distance Versus Desire" [Sand]. In a way that was the closest I ever got to attaining the kind of sound I hear. People say, "You know I like the guitar sound you get, it's really expressive," or whatever all these things are that one tries to attain, but to me, it isn't anywhere near as expressive as what I think I'm going to be able to get out of the SynthAxe. I didn't think the sound was so great on that particular track, but I would never have believed that you could get that degree of control over a synthesize r. But people perceive things really differently. And it's almost like I've been living all this time just to get that instrument and I never even should have gotten a guitar. But then again, if I hadn't gotten started on the guitar, I wouldn't really be able to deal with the SynthAxe. You know I wish now more than ever that I'd been a horn player, because there's all these new little wind instruments coming out for synthesizer control; God, it makes me want to try again with one of those.
GW: A genuine sense of yearning, similar to that of "Distance Versus Desire," is apparent in some of the newer tunes, "Endomorph" in particular.
HOLDSWORTH: That's a solo piece about my father, but it could have been written about anyone. The song was written because I'm one of those people who never seems to say how much I care about people, especially the people I'm really close to. It's kind of an English thing; certain things go unsaid, and you don't have to always keep hugging people. I wish I had, because when my father did pass away, I felt that I hadn't actually told him how much I cared about him. The title means "something that's encapsulated in something else," like when you crack open a rock and there's some kind of a stone inside. I just felt like letting him know, and the song's about anybody else who might be feeling the same way, about just generally not being able to say what you're feeling.
Another new tune, "54 Duncan Terrace," is named for an address of a friend of mine who died a few years ago, Pat Smythe. He was a great piano player, and he had this old Bluthner piano in his house. That piano just sounded so nice, man. It had a beautiful sound, and those particular chords in that type of sequence reminded me of him. It's a very quiet piece, and I think I might even do another solo on that one, maybe an acoustic guitar solo. Alan Pasqua plays an acoustic piano solo on it that turned out great.
GW: When Jimmy Johnson remarked that he was listening to Believe It on the way down to yesterday's session, you winced. That album is really something of a landmark, and your playing is a great part of what distinguishes it.
HOLDSWORTH:: Well, it was a great period for me in terms of being introduced to some really unbelievable musicians; that's when I met Tony [Williams] and Alan Pasqua and Tony Newton, and hanging out and just being given a chance to play with them was really amazing. Alan is a truly astounding musician and I've always loved the way he plays. It's also only in the last five years that I realized what kind of a genius the guy is. Same with Gary Husband. But getting back to that particular period, I hated what I did on that record. I can't listen to it, but I thought everybody else sounded great. But I did the best I could at the time, so, that's all you can do, unfortunately I wish I could go back and do 'em all again [laughs].
GW: Velvet Darkness included?
HOLDSWORTH:: [Groans] That whole thing was just a rip-off and an embarrassment; I don't even like talking about it.
GW: If nothing else, the acoustic work on the record was very memorable. You've said that the performances they recorded were live rehearsals, and you were denied the opportunity for overdubs. How did you accompany yourself "Kinder" and "Floppy Hat?"
HOLDSWORTH:: They were done a different day, and I wasn't happy with them. It was one of those things where you think that they're going to let you listen to what you did, let you choose and maybe even do some of it again. But it wasn't the case. We rehearsed, and they recorded it. Everybody was trying to figure out what was going to happen during the tunes, and then we were to try and record them, but it just didn't happen like that. The guy put us in the red zone while we were just running through things, and consequently it came out sounding like shit. Sometimes, really cool things can happen like that, but generally, that would be far more likely if the guys knew everything and were then thrown into the studio playing pieces they were familiar with, rather than going in and struggling. It was a struggle, it sounds like a struggle and I really felt bad for all the other guys involved because nobody really got a chance on it.
GW: The guitar line from "Wish" is identical to the melody Paul Williams sings on
"The Things You See (When You Haven't Got your Gun)" [IOU].
HOLDSWORTH: That's because I counted nothing we did on that album. Usually, if I record something and feel that was the right place for it, I'll leave it to rest and never do another version of it again. I think that can only be said of that album; I can't remember anything else. The only time I ever did that was when it was unfinished - for example, on that Gordon Beck thing, we did a tune that turned out to be "The Things You See," or part of it, but that was before it was really finished. When we did the I.O.U. thing, I put it to rest.
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: And now?
HOLDSWORTH: Now I'm sitting on the fence between what the record companies see as my audience and what I'd like to see as the audience. I don't know if there are piano players who wouldn't buy a Chick Corea album because he was playing synthesizers and not piano, because he's the same musician, with the same kind of quality of performance. But there's this little thing in the back of people's minds that relates keyboards with synthesizers, and it's actually horseshit, because there's nothing - other than the fact that it was once easier to control a synthesizer with a keyboard - to relate a keyboard to a synthesizer, any more than there is to relate a Jew's harp to a synthesizer. So it really tells me something. It tells me that guitar players don't listen with their ears. They don't relate to the music or to the notes; they're only relating to something physical.
HOLDSWORTH:: It must be the fact that people are conditioned to combine in their minds things like keyboards and synthesizers. They say, "Oh, it sounds like a keyboard," and they've already spoken an untruth. It doesn't sound like a keyboard; it sounds like a synthesizer. That's the truth.
GW: You once said that a volume pedal and a delay were very primitive tools in obtaining the swelling effect you introduced on the second Tony Williams album [Million Dollar Legs]. Does the SynthAxe represent the proper means?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, I've always tried to get the guitar to do something it didn't want to do. I started out using distortion to get sustain so I could work on the legato approach and not have notes sputtering out - they could flow out, as though I were playing a horn. To me, one of the most tedious things I could ever imagine would be listening to a sax player tongue everything he played! I never really liked how the guitar sounded, so I guess I just basically got stranded with the wrong instrument. The way I view instruments is just as the word suggests: an instrument which a musician uses to translate what's in his head to someone else's ears. So, in a lot of respects, I'm not a guitar player; I don't think guitar, and I don't even think I play guitar very well, because I'm not really a guitar player...
GW: ... in the traditional sense, of course...
HOLDSWORTH: Yeah, not at all. I'm just a musician who got stuck with that instrument.
GW: We were discussing your disenchantment with the expectations placed on you by guitarists or guitar fans who blindly reject non-guitar expression from one who's made a name for himself on the instrument.
HOLDSWORTH: I get that impression now from comments directed towards me. It sometimes seems that real good players don't seem to concern themselves with that as much.
GW: You can't deny, though, that there is a certain amount of dehumanization involved in using synths of any kind.
HOLDSWORTH: I'm not of that opinion at all, because any instrument is a product of technology. Absolutely any instrument,
GW: Even a string stretched across a hole?
HOLDSWORTH: Even a string stretched across a hole. And even the most primitive flute, made out of bamboo cane, with holes in it, is a product of technology, because someone had to know where to put the holes. It's that way all the way down through time. Even a grand piano, with its steel strings, is a product of technology - they didn't know how to do that at one time. I see a synthesizer as being another instrument. The barriers between what people consider real and unreal will eventually be just broken down completely I remember when people used to think that electric guitar was some kind of horrible monster that didn't have anything to do with music, and that people wouldn't give it any credit whatsoever as even being a musical instrument. Now the electric guitar is almost regarded as an acoustic instrument. All the people who thought the electric guitar was a monster because it used primitive magnetic coils to pick up string vibration and pumped it through a fifty-watt Marsh all to create this' kind of bizarre tone utilizing distortion - it's amazing how many people still don't understand the principle behind that. You just can't tell some guys, electronics guys in particular, how you want something to distort, because distortion is something people have been fighting for years. It comes down again to the music. I mean, you can give an idiot a synthesizer and it's going to come out sounding pretty bad, but if you give a musician a synthesizer it'll be okay. I'm not saying I'm either of those [laughs].
GW: It's been said by certain musicians that synthesis, by its very nature, blocks a certain essential path of their creativity, their ability to express. It creates an undeniable separation between the actual dynamic and its transmission.
HOLDSWORTH: That's not true. That's an opinion and I value it, but I think what's most likely is that I haven't learned to control it - I haven't had as long a time to learn how to control it as I had with the guitar. I think that during the Sand period, I really made a lot of progress with regard to that specific area of the communication of music. I suppose the outside perception and the inside perception are so different that I can see why someone might say that. But I'm closer now; especially with Secrets - not necessarily playing-wise, but with a focus on the musicality that I'd like to convey - than I was before.
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: It's interesting that you note a growing use of space in your SynthAxe playing, because most of your single-note work with the instrument, specifically on tracks like "Spokes" and "Secrets," are far more complex than the concise guitar head on a tune like "City Nights."
HOLDSWORTH: I wasn't thinking of melodies as much as solos. It's relatively natural for me to leave holes when I play the SynthAxe, and because of the amount of sustain I'd normally use on guitar, it's less natural there for me to leave those holes That I don't like, because I realize I'm actually being pushed into something that I don't want to do, by the instrument. So in a bizarre way though the SynthAxe is a much more technological "space tweak" than the guitar, a lower-tech thing that seems to have the potential to allow one to express more through it, the SynthAxe is actually closer to reality. It doesn't push me into playing things I don't want to play. I feel that the guitar still uses me, and I didn't realize the extent to which it did until I started playing the SynthAxe.
GW: You mentioned that you don't consider yourself a very good guitarist within the traditional confines....
HOLDSWORTH: I don't really consider myself a guitar player at all.
GW: What players do you feel epitomize the proper way the instrument should be played?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, in a funny way all the people I like are all the people who are doing something different with it. From the beginning, I've enjoyed players like Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, and more recently, Pat Metheny who did a whole thing on his own. Scott Henderson is doing something unique, and now; Frank Gambale comes along and does something great. It just shows you that you shouldn't be so resolute about things like music. People waste time spending hours trying to clone something when they could be spending hours practicing something really different.
There is one English guy I admire who never gets any mention - Steve Topping. There's a guy who's amazing. And it's typical of England that he can't get out or get a deal or anything, because, like Gary Husband, he suffers too much opposition to what he's doing. Steve plays really; really interesting harmonic lines - and definitely absolutely, not bop. His lines are so unusual that the bop guys would have a hard time figuring them out [laughs]. And he plays chords that I've never heard people play before. He's got ridiculous chops - I've seen him demonstrate both left- and right-hand facility; but he's got just outrageous right-hand chops. He's got it all covered. We had a band back in England called Handlebars: just him, Gary myself, and anybody we could get on bass. It was a really free thing where we'd just go, and some very interesting things happened, mostly because of him. He has this unbelievable control of space.
It's really fresh to hear a guy come along and do something so stylistically opposite to what I would have thought of. I listen for that. I actually listen to a lot of guitar players. What I'm saying is that I'm not really overfond of the instrument as an "instrument," but I love to hear somebody like John Scofield, Eric Johnson or any of those studio guys who are actually wonderful guitar players, who can play all these different styles and things that I couldn't even touch.
GW: Numerous players have taken unmistakable elements of your style - vibrato-arm techniques like slurring into notes or flying them away by shaking them sharp, volume swells and your general linear concept - and assimilated them to where they've become staples in both rock and jazz-rock. Bill Connors, who's a wonderful player, leaps to mind. Does your influence frustrate or disturb you in any way?
HOLDSWORTH: It doesn't frustrate me at all, but it would frustrate me if I were them, because it's a waste of time. I mean, Bill Connors was, to me, an example of someone who had a very unique style. I think I first heard him on a Stanley Clarke album I loved, and on that album Bill sounded like Bill Connors. Now it's like ... I don't know. It makes me realize how fickle and unimportant a thing style is. It's interesting how something like that can push that person who's been imitated into a direction they might not otherwise have gone. For example, when people start to pick up on my things, it makes me realize how superficial those things are, and that makes me move forward. You realize, "Oh, that must have been so meaningless that it was just like a face panel from 1980," something that everybody had. Something else comes out and you realize it's just not an important thing at all. So when I hear people playing not just like me, but like, say Bill Connors used to play i t's positive inasmuch as it might move me towards something else. If someone else can't take the time to find it. I'm sure gonna look.. hard.
GW: I guess we all go through our own private journey as far as learning and developing, but in the saturated musical environment we choke around in today it's close to impossible to start from scratch. How does the study of others - meaning attempting to capitalize on the distance they've already covered - figure into a healthy growth as a musician, and not just as a guitarist?
HOLDSWORTH: To me, studying - meaning studying yourself and what you think you're bad at, or trying to learn something more about harmony or chords or whatever - is something that can be done to good results. But studying a person is completely wrong - it shouldn't ever be done. Listening to them and being influenced by them, yeah. I'm influenced by everybody I hear. When I listen to Scott Henderson's album, it really affects me. I'm motivated by the chords he's playing. I try and retain the attitude through which I realize that there is something else, and there's got to be more and more that I can learn to make my playing better. But I would never sit down and try and figure out anything that they did. Like I said, I'd like to become a really good improviser so that I can play on anything, but in my own way without having utilized things that I just picked up from other people. Maybe I'll capitalize on the essence or the heart of it, but not so much specifically what he had in mind; that's something that's unique to that person, like the way the guy looks. To me, playing like somebody else is just as ridiculous as dressing up in drag, you know? What for? I was born a guy, I wasn't born a woman. This shape, this color, it doesn't matter. You just have to find something within yourself and develop that.
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. Some of your most interesting solo.' have flown over pedal tones. You play pretty discursive solo over Chad Wackerman's new tune, "Peril Premonition, " while "Devil Take The Hindmost" [Metal Fatigue] almost sounds as though you've played every existing tone over a G minor vamp and succeeded in making them all function for what you were trying to say musically.
HOLDSWORTH: [Laughs] I don't know about that; but the reason for tunes like those is just to allow us a different kind of creative thought. Although I try to maintain a consistent approach, the way I view what you could play over one chord is pretty close to how I'd determine what I could play over a lot of chords. But the application is slightly different. What I wanted to do with "Devil Take The Hindmost" was write a tune that didn't have a lot of chords in it, because most of the tunes that I write have a lot of changes. So to give us a little bit of brain rest, during the night we'd play something like that, because it was something that people can relate to, something with which the players can sort of just have a good time, just a kind of "boogie-out" tune.
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.
GW: Something a lot of people who are awed by your technique don't understand is that you frequently use larger stretches to facilitate playing small intervals on consecutive strings. Stretching, you can actually move from a note on one string to a semitone above it on the next.
HOLDSWORTH: That was something that I originally started by working with two guitar players; we'd find all these chords that worked nicely with each other, and with two guitars, they'd sound really amazing. We would just play chords together, with very close notes. Neither of us would use any notes that were contained in the other guy's chord, but each pairing would constitute a whole chord. The way they sounded, very clustered, is very uncommon on guitar. It sounds completely different than it would on most other instruments. That's why I started doing it when I started working on my own. Plus, at the time, I was a big fan of [saxophonist] Oliver Nelson, who was always writing things with close voicings. Now, I don't use them as much as I used to, because I'm thinking a different way now.
GW: You don't do much jamming. Has being Allan Holdsworth intimidated potential partners?
HOLDSWORTH: No, I just generally don't enjoy it. I think if I played another instrument I might feel differently but with guitar, it seems like everything always finishes up in a duel. And it usually means either nobody knows what the hell's going to go on, or someone or everybody has to know all of the same tune, or it's like a free-for-all. I'm just not into it; I don't gain anything from it and I don't think anybody else does by listening to it. You know, I used to sit in a lot more with other people, but that was at a time when that's all I used to do, just trying to get a gig, so I'd just go and try and find some guys I could play with. I'm kind of content just to waffle on my own now.
GW: What sort of innovative waffling did you do in preparation for Secrets?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, I'm always… this is the big trouble with me, that I never know if what I'm doing is right, because I always finish up spending more time dabbling with pieces of equipment than I do playing. Sometimes, if I get a good sound I think, "Oh, maybe it was [?], maybe I did learn something," and after all, the sound is part of the music. For example, I have a hard time listening to certain guitar players because I can't. get past their sound. For instance, I really don't like that kind of "bebop through a fuzz box" approach. But we were talking about gadgets, weren't we?
GW: Not necessarily, although in the van you did say you really had to pull some stuff out from beyond to solo over the stuff the chaps recorded the other day. I assumed you were speaking metaphorically.
HOLDSWORTH: Well, I tried to, because the rest of the guys just played so great. I mean, they always do, but this time particularly I think the tracks that we 'got are just great - Vinnie and Jimmy were just reaming on it, and I couldn't just putsy around on top of them.
GW: How do you prepare yourself for something like that? Do you just lock yourself in here to search for tones and inspiration and....
HOLDSWORTH: I really just kick myself in here, yeah. I've found that I can't just say. "I've got this really great guitar tone. Now I'm gonna make it work with this song." For example, I was working on a guitar sound in here the other day and I got what I thought was a really good sound. Then I put it in the track and I realized I didn't like it at all. So now what I try and do is, when I'm working on a sound, I'll do it while monitoring the music, and when it sounds like it belongs in that track, then I'll just try and play it.
GW: But tonal consistency still seems to underlay your philosophy of sound. What about the speaker boxes you've constructed to maintain tone in various circumstances?
HOLDSWORTH: My first concern was to retain the same tone, no matter what. Even though there's a box involved, it doesn't react like a speaker driver - you won't hear it as much as you hear a speaker box. When you listen to a cabinet, you're hearing the cabinet, even more so than the speaker. I wanted to try and get more of a lab - type situation where I was really only listening to the speaker. It solves my problem of not having a place where I can actually set up microphones and record, because we've got the garage in this room, and I couldn't put mikes in there [points to enclosed patio area] because there'd be screaming kids all over the tape. The first one that I built was intended to replicate the sound of the speaker/microphone/monitor approach that you would use in the studio, but I realized its other virtues were in things like isolated recording in places where you don't have a room to record! Those boxes are out there in the patio near the washing machines, and no noise will get on the tape. It's sufficiently isolated from the outside, and the sound in the box is very quiet, because I use that other device I built myself that allows me to get what I feel is a good tone.
GW: What exactly is "The Extractor"?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, a lot of guys use a load resistor on an amplifier so they can come off the amp's line output and use that to drive all their effects, because everybody knows how useless a tube amplifier is in terms of utilizing effects sends and returns. For example, once you push a power amplifier into distortion, everything you return in that insert will be distorted: the reverb, the delay everything will just be a mess. And, in my opinion, if you're using a tube amp, a big part of the tone - if not eighty per cent of the beef, the actual quality of the sound - comes from the output section. I realized that I wanted to tap the output of the amplifier, but I didn't want to use a load resistor. So the Juice Extractor uses a different principle. For live use, the advantage is that you can use any kind of a head - a Fender, a Boogie, a Marshall or whatever - and just come off the output and into the Extractor. It's got eight multi - pie outs, so you can send and return for eq and gatin g and make the amp totally invisible to your ears. The outs can be sent to as many pieces of processing equipment as you can afford, and that signal just returned to a stereo power amp via a mixer of some description.
For recording, I take an amplifier whose sound I really like and put it into the Extractor. Then I take the line out of the Extractor - it has only a line out; there's no output - and feed it into a solidstate power amp. That drives the box that's going to be recorded at an absolutely minimal level, so the speaker's not experiencing any pain, and the cabinet's not experiencing any undue resonance from overloaded air inside it. Plus, the microphones are happy because they're not dealing with huge air excursion. And it's unbelievably quiet. I can get a big, reaming guitar tone on tape, with no noise whatsoever.
GW: Well, you certainly use what you say you use; there's a bevy of Rocktron gear in here. One thing I don't see, though, is a single Hartley-Thompson amplifier.
HOLDSWORTH: [warmly] Yeah, I've got them out in the garage. I couldn't sell them because they mean too much to me, in nostalgic terms. I stopped using the Hartley - Thompsons when I started using Dan Pearce's amplifiers. The Rocktron stuff is great, and they're really, really nice people. It's tough as a musician with regard to those things. As soon as somebody starts to take any kind of notice of you, then people start trying to get you to try things - and some of it's really great and some of it isn't. It inevitably leads to a
difficult situation, because if you go out and purchase a piece of equipment and the manufacturer finds out, they'll ask you if you liked it, and usually if you bought it, you did. It's almost at the stage where I don't want to say I like anything, because it's really against the grain of someone who's creative - not to say that I'm creative, but from my perception of any kind of creativity - to assume that one piece of equipment would be satisfactory from now until doomsday. It can't be, because my nature is that I'm constantly looking for something better. I don't like the sound I get now; I want to get a better sound, so I'm always looking for the better way to get it.
GW: Throughout the years, you've played SG's, Strats, Charvels. What about acoustics? What did you use on your really early work?
HOLDSWORTH: Actually; I didn't have an acoustic guitar; I borrowed one from Tony Williams' girlfriend at the time, Tequila, who sang on some of those older albums he did right before Believe It. She had an old acoustic guitar and I used that.
I never really owned an acoustic guitar. For a while, I had an Ibanez copy of a Gibson L5 that I used on the UK album. I love F-hole guitars; the only acoustic guitar I'd ever really like to own would be a really really great acoustic F-hole - you know, no pickups, just a really nice one, but they're so expensive, and for someone who has such limited use of that instrument, it doesn't warrant the amount of money that I'd have to spend on it. For three or four thousand dollars, I could buy another synthesizer [laughs very loudly].
GW: So you don't presently own an acoustic?
HOLDSWORTH: Yeah, I do. I own one custom - made guitar built by Bill DeLap, which is beautiful. It's a five-string guitar, tuned in fifths. I like that tuning [C,G,D,A,E, low to high]; it's a really logical tuning to me. The guitar's standard tuning is really illogical, and if I were starting again… if I hadn't had so much trouble trying to figure out how to get round the B string, I'd probably have learned to tune like Stanley Jordan, in fourths, to C and F [for the two highest strings]. That's the most logical tuning.
GW: Did you start experimenting with tunings on the acoustic guitar?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, I started working on it with the SynthAxe, just because it has very great limitations on acoustic instruments; you can only really effectively get four strings tuned in fifths to sound good. You can get five to sound borderline, but six - impossible. Well, nothing's impossible, is it? But it's much more difficult with an acoustic instrument, because you'd have to have an instrument as small as a violin and as big as a bass. With the SynthAxe, you don't have that problem, because you're just reaming little synthesizers and oscillators.
GW: Did it take you long to finish the guitar work for this record?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, if you look at it on an hourly basis, it's probably not too long, but if you measure it as an amount of time from when I take the tape out of the studio and sit at home with it, it probably is. That's the trouble I find with doing it at home, that there's too many distractions. I should be working now. It's just that right now there's three kids in here, and there's always something that'll happen right when I'm in the middle of something. I'll start something, then I'll get a tone that I really like, and I'm scared of soloing, man, I don't like it, because I know I'm not going to like what I do, so I put it off. So I'll go in there and when I've got a tone that I like for the tune, I'll consider the chore over, when it's really not.
GW: Why do you think you're afraid?
HOLDSWORTH: I know that I won't like what I do. I'm scared that I'm going to be stuck with something that's not going to make it, so I'm afraid of it. I really want to do it, but I'm scared of it at the same time. I just try and be as creative as I can at any particular time, and sometimes it doesn't feel like I am. Sometimes, I feel like I'm not creating anything. I'm scared of the day that I'll go in there and play a solo like one I've already done.
GW: I'm still curious as to why that bothers you so much. Don't you think that a musician's style is defined by consistency in his vernacular?
HOLDSWORTH: No, style is different. Style is just a way of somebody doing something, but a style in itself doesn't mean much, really. To have one is fine, but the thing is that I have to keep hearing a progress in my playing, harmonically I just want to keep hearing a musical growth in my solos, and I'm scared that I won't. Luckily, when I finish a project, I can usually hear some kind of progress. I mean, harmonically speaking - the internal things, not the external things. Not so much the way someone does something, or a tone or anything like that, but actual substance of it. I just want to continue to grow musically and play more intriguing or interesting harmonic ideas That's the part that I'm afraid of - that I'll get to a point where I just can't soak anything else in. I don't mean that what I've soaked in is anything substantial at all, I just mean that I might get to a point where I have to say "Well, you know, I can't hold any more water so I've got to get off."
GW: Do you experience that anxiety while you're playing or when you're hearing yourself play on a record?
HOLDSWORTH: Sometimes I experience it while I'm playing because I'm conscious of my limitations, but mostly, if I'm feeling relaxed and I've been playing for a few hours, then it's easier for me to play ideas, because I won't be so worried about my hands. For the first few hours that I start soloing in the morning, sometimes I feel that my limbs are in the way, that there's no connection between what I want to play and what my hands are doing. And then the more I play, the more connected it becomes, and the easier it is to get your hands to do as they're told.
As you learn something, it unlatches a door to another room that's full of all the other stuff you didn't know about before. You knew it existed, but you didn't know how to tap into it, and it goes on and on and on. A better analogy would be... When you get to the top of one hill, you can see that every hill ahead is bigger than the one you just climbed, so you really know that you can't get anywhere.
GW: You may be painting a pretty bleak landscape here.
HOLDSWORTH: Well, each person can only absorb so much in a lifetime, and some people can absorb more than others, but that's why a lot that has to do with music is passed on, just because no one guy comes along and does everything all at once.
I only speak with regard to soloing, be cause that's the thing about music that I'm most intrigued by. I've always wanted to be able to play good solos. And I never can. I never can get what I want - and probably nobody ever does - but at least I learn from each album and year that goes by this stuff that I didn't know before. And, as I said, this has nothing to do with style - they don't even really connect. One thing is my ability to play through sets of changes and try and come up with something inventive. I didn't learn music in a normal way inasmuch as my ultimate goal was, and is, to he able to solo well over anything. I mean, that's always been my dream. I want to he able to improvise over any changes - bop changes or anything - but I want it to sound like it came from somewhere else. I don't want to he beaten by the changes, that's all. Playing over changes is the big challenge, but I don't want it to sound like it came from bop.
GW: Can the two things work exclusively?
HOLDSWORTH. Oh, of course! I mean - try telling an Indian musician he can't improvise! [laughs] You don't have to do one to be able to do the other, but it might be more difficult. I've probably bitten off a whole lot more than I can chew; but that's my goal: I don't want the changes to eat me up.
GW: Although you've mentioned that it's a saxophonic quality you've tried to bring to the guitar, the way your phrasing combines with your guitar tone often attains an almost bowed sound.
HOLDSWORTH: The violin's very similar in a lot of respects, because again, you wouldn't want to hear a violinist sputtering out every note bowed. In a way it's the closest you can get to a wind instrument, because you can blow soft and loud on it, just by virtue of the bow; and you've got control over the volume, shape and sustain of the note once the vibration of the string has started. That's very difficult to accomplish on guitar because the guitar's really a percussive instrument.
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 < I>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.
GW: I can't believe some of the things you're telling me today It's so out of sync with what this is supposed to all be about.
HOLDSWORTH: The thing is that sometimes people see your face in a magazine and they say [mimics smugness] "Yeah, Allan Holdsworth, aaaah, he must be rich," or whatever, and it's sick, man, because... it's just really... I've accumulated more, and I've got a room where I can work and I'm actually lucky to have a good record deal, but it's just that it's really hard to survive doing it, because we don't sell records. The records cost as much or more to make as I get paid to do them, so it really is kind of a struggle, and the last few years, I've wondered about whether or not I should even worry about continuing to do it. And it's things like this that make me realize what a disgusting industry it is, man. I was having a beer in Old World one day and Ed, our head road guy showed me an endorsement thing I'd done in some magazine. I started talking to this couple, and they were saving, "Well, how come you've got your name in here when I've never heard of you? Wh at are you?" It made me realize how people in the industry will use you to a certain extent. And at the same time, the record company won't really devote as much promotion as that involved in trying to sell an amplifier. So it's really a bizarre gig, man, being a musician, and you should definitely never expect anything. I really scrape by, literally. You know; we get by and I am surviving, playing something that I enjoy but I must have been so fucking lucky it's unbelievable. And if you want to do what you want to do without that luck, it can take a long time. Guys see your face around and think you're rich - they forget it took twenty years, man, to get what I've accumulated now. To be able to afford something like a SynthAxe, I literally sold a house. We sold the house that we used to have in England so I could do that. That's how important it was for me to get that instrument. It's not like I had twelve thousand dollars hanging around where I could just go out and buy one, 'cause I don't - I don't make that kind of money. It's just that it was such a meaningful thing for me to have. It was like, "I had to have one.
GW: As much as I'd expect anyone to be, I'm in a state of disbelief - without sounding fawning - that someone regarded as one of the greatest guitarists alive couldn't make certain small compromises to pursue his goal, like playing on other people's albums and willingly do what's commercially necessary to...
HOLDSWORTH: You can only play on someone else's albums if they ask you. You can't invite yourself. Nobody asks me to play on their albums, so I never do.
GW: But aren't there session possibilities outside the "guest guitarist" camp?
HOLDSWORTH:: No. I'm a terrible session guy, number one, because I can't read, and number two, because I'm not a "who - do - you - do" kind of person; my equipment, or rig, or whatever you want to call it, is not conducive to instantly recreating someone else's thing. They would have to want me to do my thing, and if they want me to do my thing, they sure as hell don't call, so that's fine.
GW Couldn't you, with just a certain amount of discipline, fashion a part of what you do into something that could be salable in a studio situation? Is it something that you find so prohibitively abhorrent, or is it something you don't think you could do because you have a tendency to undervalue your abilities?
HOLDSWORTH: Oh, no, I enjoy playing other people's music. But the problem is, the less you do it, the less adaptable you become to doing it. There was a point in my past where I was doing a lot of different things with different people, and I'm slow even under those conditions, but I was much faster then than I am now because if you don't do it, you lose the ability for other people to communicate what they really want from you. Because you get tuned in to the inside, you get tuned in to what you're trying to do. And the closer you get to that, the further away you get from being able to replicate what someone else has in mind. So it's almost like:.. I'm kind of imploding, in a way. And I feel totally inadequate at doing it; I wouldn't feel that I could do something that somebody else could do a lot better. You know I'd be too worried about how bad I sound... I just don't think I'd mentally be able to deal with it now
GW: But that psychology can be too self-directed. In those situations, even if you don't like what you played, they'll still hand you the check. For your own music, yeah, that attitude is fine, and expected, but in the studio...
HOLDSWORTH: But if I didn't like it, I wouldn't want to do it even for the check.
GW: Well, okay But that's the thing...
HOLDSWORTH: Because then I might as well go and do something else, you know? I'd be less happy doing that than I would perverting my own music in a way to make that more commercial, because at least I would be in control of that. On the other hand, I love to play on other people's projects, if the way I play is what they would hear on their tune. But as far as doing a session and some guy saying, "Well, no, you might not want to do that one, don't do that kind of ..." Many years ago I was asked to do a few sessions back in London, when I was just waffling around with the whammy bar, and it would flip people out. They'd go, "God, don't do that, man, it's horrible!" It's very interesting that something that was totally unacceptable then is so normal now. It's so normal now the vibrato arm stuff, that it's unbelievable. It's like, tennis shoes, you know? Everybody's got a pair. But as far as compromising the music in order to make more money - I couldn't do that , because th en everything that I've ever believed in before, I'd just throw it out the window. My father used to go to the pubs and play and I never could understand why he'd always say "I'd rather go out and get a job than play this music that I have to play. And that's exactly what he did. And I never understood - I thought, God, surely it's better to play than not to play. But it isn't. I'd rather get a job at Guitar Center or something…I don't know. I'd rather get another job.
GW: What would you?
HOLDSWORTH: Well, I'd try and get a job working on something I thought was creative. And it wouldn't have to be even in music, but it would bc preferable if it was because I don't know much about anything else. And I don't know much about that either.
GW: How would you promote yourself? You've mentioned that you hated them using that Van Halen quote on the ads for your albums.
HOLDSWORTH: Yeah, they'd have all those quotes from these poor guys who've been pummeled by the papers into supposedly having said all this stuff about me, which is, you know, really an embarrassment for me. I don't ever want to use anybody else to sell something; that aspect of it makes me really cringe. The other thing is, you see an album out by some of the newer' guitar players, and they'll just say; Hey man, check out this guy - let the music speak for itself, and then you get an old fart like me who's been around for twenty years, and my music obviously - according to them - can't speak for itself! It's [totally] depressing, man. So how do you communicate all that stuff to them? You know, I'd have to spend more time than I spend now crawling about, going up to record companies pleading with them not to do this; I'd have to oversee absolutely everything that they did, and you can't, man! You can never oversee it all, man, you just can't get it all done in one lif etime.
I'd really rather get a job working for a company in a creative capacity, or get involved working for somebody like SynthAxe than to play something that wasn't what I wanted to play Because there's no point. It would negate everything I ever thought was... I just can't do it. I don't think I'd know how to do it anyway,'
I wouldn't know if what I was doing was commercial or not. It's that brickwall thing - that there's the musicians. And then there's the public, and in between them there's this huge wall you can't get through, created by the record companies. Most of them - not all of them; there's some very creative people at record companies, obviously - don't know anything about music. And then, you get the radio stations, who seem to know even less. I can't believe what I hear sometimes listening to a local radio station, KKGO, who totally refused to play anything that I do. That doesn't make me biased against them; I don't mind if someone comes up and says, "Man, you suck big time," or "We hate the music." That's fine, because everybody's entitled to an opinion. But one thing I can't stand is the stations ignoring the quality of musicians - excluding myself - who have played on the last two or three albums, and the kind of music we've played, which is in essence, improvised music, which mus t be, in essence, [a] form of jazz. They won't play it, because they don't know what it is, and because it doesn't conform to what they consider jazz to be. And the perception of what jazz is is completely wrong! For example, I've heard the guy on KKGO play things by guys - with all due respect - guys who cap barely play man, I mean really barely play. Awful. But because it was in a spang-a-lang spang-a-lang form that they could understand, they play it. So, the poor guy in the street who's desperately looking for something else to listen to - not that that would be us - and the poor musician who's trying to get his music across, have this huge obstacle between them.
That girl I mentioned who really liked "Distance Versus Desire - I was really kind of knocked out by that, and it opened my eyes to the fact that though it was played on an instrument that has caused me to be rejected by one half of the population, I was able to reach somebody else with it who knew very little about what I was doing normally So there was a classic example of a person who was exposed to something and liked it. If we could only get more creative people involved in radio stations or record companies, or people who actually knew what they were talking about! The whole thing's like a Monty Python sketch; it's so ridiculous that it's laughable. I couldn't go into a hospital and pretend to carve somebody up. Oh, pass me the scalpel, sir. But you've got people doing that in other jobs! I was fortunate enough one time to be talking to Michael Brecker about what's probably my favorite album of all time, Cityscapes, by Claus Ogerman and Brecker. God, what an awesome re cord that is, man; everybody should own it. It's a really subtle, deep record with wonderful orchestration and fantastic playing by Brecker, and the record company wanted to market it as "The Joy Of Sax." And you can't even find that record; I mean, God, who's in charge of this? It's so wrong, man. I used to always want to fight it, and I'll continue to fight, but I can't continue to fight and survive. Of course, I'll have to, and I'll continue by just doing what I want to do - that's the only way I know how to fight against it. Do what I want to do, refuse to conform, and get another job [laughs].