- 1 Sad scene say Softs (Melody Maker 1974)
- 2 Allan Holdsworth (Melody Maker 1975)
- 3 The Reluctant Virtuoso (Guitar World 1981)
- 4 Allan Holdsworth (Music UK 1983)
- 5 Reaching For The Uncommon Chord
- 6 "...Where No Guitarist Has Gone Before..." (Cymbiosis 1986)
- 7 The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)
- 8 No Secret (Guitar Extra 1992)
- 9 No Secrets (Facelift 1994)
- 10 Allan Holdsworth: The final interview (Team Rock 2017)
"He also plays violin and hopefully, acoustic guitar and he sings a little, We do one thing at the moment which is like a wordless tune, just using the voice as an instrument, just a written melody which he sings. We may do more things like that."
In addition to his superbly fluid guitar line, a developing contribution by Allan to the sound of the Softs is his violin-playing which he has been working on for the past four years.
“What I would like to do is to write something for the band specifically for violin so I would have to play it but at the moment I don’t play it very much, which is my own fault because they ask me but I get nervous about it."
Moving on to selected aspects of his celebrated technique, we discuss early influences and whether or not guitar style was influenced by his violin playing or vice versa.
"The guitar developed completely on its own. It had nothing to do with the violin ‘cause that came along after the guitar. In fact, it’s the other way around. My violin style is derived from the guitar. I developed a four finger left hand technique anyway.
‘In the beginning when I started playing, I wanted an instrument that I could blow on and I’ve now found a way of getting something that I want out of the guitar. About 2 or 3 years ago I basically rediscovered the guitar, if you know what I mean, because I started to find a way of expressing myself through the guitar. In a way the instrument doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter what it is really, whether it’s a saxophone, a violin, anything, there’s always a way of trying to find something from it. What I didn’t want to do is sound like somebody else.’
The violin is definitely a hobby because I never touch it. I haven't played it since I played that solo on the IOU album. I practiced a lot at one time, but I stopped. I don't seem to have enough time to do what I want to do on the guitar.
Cymbiosis: I understand if your family could have afforded it you would have had a saxophone instead of a guitar when you were younger?
Holdsworth: Yeah, that’s what I really wanted—to play saxophone.
Cymbiosis: Why was that?
Holdsworth: Well, I just loved the saxophone. It was the sound. I think people are first attracted to music and then to specific sounds within it. I also liked violin later. But at the time I liked saxophone more, because it was on most of the records that my dad had. He was a jazz player and had a lot of jazz records.
Cymbiosis: So you had things like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw?
Holdsworth: Yeah, Dad played in the Air Force band during the war, and they played a lot of swing.
Cymbiosis: So you didn’t start playing it until you were in your early 20s.
Holdsworth: Yeah. I think I would have gotten into it sooner, if I’d had the right instrument. I wish now somebody had given me a violin when I was little; I really think I would have taken to it. I still have an affinity with it, but I can’t play it, because it’s a ridiculously difficult instrument to play. But there was something about it that was more comfortable and easier than the guitar. It was just at that point in time it was too late, because I would have had to neglect the guitar in order to make any progress on the violin. I just didn’t think I could do it, so I left it out.
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.
Q: Well, more so than anyone else, I think you’ve been able to get the sound of a blown instrument, and the fact that you’ve done it to the extent that you’ve done it is quite amazing. You’re saying you haven’t gotten there yet, as far as you’re concerned?
Allan: No, because you can’t. Some of the things I’ve tried to do, like changing the sound of the note after you’ve played it, is unbelievably hard to do on guitar. Where as on a bowed instrument, like a violin or a saxophone, it’s really quite easy to shape the note after you’ve started it. With the guitar, percussive instrument that it is, the note is essentially over once you’ve picked it. I have always tried to use equipment and amplifiers where I can change the vowel sound, to change an "ooh" to an "aah", and stuff like that. For the solos, I wanted it to sound more like a horn, and for the chords, I use a volume pedal to sound more like a keyboard, and not so chinky. And I hate strumming, the sound of strumming drives me nuts. It’s the same thing about how the guitar is kind of not the right instrument for me, but I’m too old to start worrying about another one.
Q: Isn’t the attraction to amplified guitar the fact that it can afford so many different sounds and colors, that you can get a lot of different variances in tone quality, probably more so than on a violin or saxophone?
Allan: Essentially you can’t though. There’s no way that you can do that with a guitar what some guy can do with a bow. I know that from the Synthaxe, because I can do things on the Synthaxe that would be completely impossible on the guitar. I can play a note using a vibrato on it, make the note disappear, make the tone go soft, make the tone go hard again right away after that, so the bottom of the decay is almost gone, the envelope is gone, and then you open it right up again. You can’t do that on guitar. Not even with a volume pedal. The note isn’t there anymore, it’s decayed. I know what you’re saying. You can do a lot with amplifiers and processing, which I’ve tried to do, but it’s not a real substitute.
AII of which paints a picture quite different to the one of obvious harmony between him and Gordon Beck. Despite their obvious affinity in Nucleus, their partnership was first really sealed on the 1977 album “Sunbird", an uplifting album, deliciously light in touch, but with all the technical mastery both players were renowned for. “The sad thing about that was that we did the album first. My reading’s really bad, and they recorded the album before we did the tour. By the time we’d got through the tour I’d figured everything out, but the album was done!” Sunbird" also features Allan (briefly) playing violin: "It was the last time I ever played it. I never really played violin - it was just like a hobby. I just went into a music store in Sunderland when I was playing with that Glenn South band and I don’t know why, I was just walking past a junk shop and went in and asked him if he had any old violins. I didn’t see anything - and he went in the back and he came out with this thing - no strings. And it was like 10 shillings or something - no, it was 5 quid. So I fixed it up and got a new bridge made for it and strung it up.
"It was just curiosity ‘cos I’ve always had a curiosity about instruments. I borrowed a clarinet and a saxophone from somebody in the same band. Then I tried an oboe - just to see how they work. I like to know - you get a better understanding of the difficulties you’ve got with each instrument. But the violin, even though I didn’t play it or practice it all that much, it felt relatively easy for me to play it. I think that if I’d started with that instrument when I was learning, that would have probably have been more my instrument than guitar, although unfortunately I wouldn’t have been able to play any chords. The chords have become a really important part for me. Maybe it worked out for the best..."
The eventual outcome of this approach was Holdsworth’s pioneering use of the Synthaxe. The name gives away the hybrid nature of the instrument, which also featured a facility for breath input that totally changes the nature of producing and sustaining sounds. Holdsworth is often quoted as saying that he sees his own playing more in terms of a wind instrument. Here he extends the analogy to the violin: "Yeah, because, that was the thing with the violin - you can play a note on a violin and you can make it loud and make it soft, the same note. Whereas the guitar being a percussive instrument, once you’ve struck the note, there’s a limited amount of things you can do with it, and end up having to use an amplifier for distortion to get sustain from an instrument that doesn’t really have that sustain naturally. So it’s difficult to shape notes once they’ve been sounded. You can, and I’ve tried to do as much as I can with them, but it’s not as easy to do it as with a horn. That’s why I love the Synthaxe because you have the breath control. I just try to get a little bit more fluidity out of the guitar." The sheer expense of transporting the Synthaxe around means that you’re unlikely to see it on stage alongside the guitar - another reason is that they’re not being made any morel "That was the fear that I always had, was that I’d fall in love with this machine. There was a time when I didn’t want to play the guitar at all! And then I thought, well, it’s a piece of technology - what happens if someone decides ‘we’re not going to make them anymore?’ Then I’ll be really stuck.
Was it your time with Jean-Luc Ponty that sparked your interest in playing the violin? Oh no, no, it was just curiosity. I messed around with a lot of instruments; I played clarinet for a while. I had borrowed saxophones from bandmates in the past, just to get a feeling of how they work and the challenges of each; and it was like that with the violin. I got a violin, and then after that I did buy a viola. But the viola got lost in the shuffle when I moved; I don’t really know what happened to it.
It’s hard to lose a viola!
I did, though.