Allan Holdsworth is a pioneering jazz/fusion guitarist, who is known in the music community as having a unique style and a highly advanced technical approach to the instrument. With his father being a very talented pianist, Allan's exposure to music came early and he began to play a guitar that he received from an uncle. He preferred jazz over pop music but learned anything he could to advance his playing through the years. After playing in local bands around his home town, Allan moved to London and things started to progress for him in his musical network. His playing continued to improve and he wound up getting the gig as guitarist of the popular British band Soft Machine. During his tenure with them he performed in clubs, festivals and fine theaters. As the music community started recognizing Allan's talent with the guitar, he began to work in the progressive rock/jazz fusion genre with names such as Bill Bruford, Tony Williams, Jean Luc Ponty and others. In a natural progression, Allan wanted to start leading his own band and writing his own music. He moved to the United States and began his solo career which eventually produced 12 albums, with more on the way. Manifesto records has just re-issued these albums in a 12 CD box set titled "The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!". Being a very humble and modest man, he wasn't very happy with the title, thinking it was a little over blown. He should read more music industry publications because it's basically true. Along with the box set there is a companion double CD called "Eidolon", which is a sampling of the full release. I talked with Allen about the solo catalog release and his career.
R.V.B. - This is Rob von Bernewitz from Long Island. How are you?
A.H. - I'm good. How are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. Did the rains finally subside on your side of the country?
A.H. - Yes. It's actually nice today but we did have a lot of rain.
R.V.B. - It seems that you guys go from one extreme to the other over there.
A.H. - The people a little bit further north got it worse than us here in San Diego.
R.V.B. - I glad you made out ok. Thank you for taking this time to speak with me. The guitar... you brought it to a new level. Was there any incident in your youth that made you want to become a guitar player?
A.H. - Not really. I had always loved music way before I ever touched an actual instrument. My dad played music all the time, as he was a really great pianist. I was surrounded by music. He had lots of great records... classical... jazz and other stuff. I wanted to play a horn - like a saxophone - but they were kind of expensive. My dad bought a guitar from my uncle and I started noodleing around on that. I wasn't really interested in it at first but it kind of grew on me.
R.V.B. - Was it an acoustic guitar?
A.H. - Yes... my first one was acoustic.
R.V.B. - Was it playable? A lot of beginner guitars are hard to play.
A.H. - Yeah it was decent. It wasn't great but very playable.
R.V.B. - What kind of things did you tackle at first?
A.H. - When you first start out, you can't necessarily play what you want to play because you don't have the skill. I had always liked jazz and classical music, but I couldn't play it. I didn't have the ability at that point so I just started playing pop music, and I also started playing blues.
A.H. - Only from my dad. He wasn't a guitar player but he was a really good teacher. He understood the guitar and knew where the notes were. He eventually became quite good at it. He didn't have a lot of chops but he had a lot of hard wedding knowledge. He was good with chords.
R.V.B. - I can see where you got it from. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
A.H. - Apparently not. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - You're from England, and there was a very happening music scene over there. There was hard rock, rock and roll, skiffle, pop and folk music.
A.H. - When I was growing up I had always liked progressive rock. As I got better on the instrument, I started to study other things.
R.V.B. - What was your first band? Did you have a high school band?
A.H. - The first real band I played with was called The Glen South Band. He was a singer, and had a 12 piece dance band. They had a residency at this club in Sunderland. He eventually moved to Manchester. The band basically played pop music. I practiced during the day and play with them at night. It was very good for me. When I had enough of that, I had the opportunity to move to London, and I stayed with a friend down there.
R.V.B. - When you settled in, I guess you networked yourself into the music scene?
A.H. - The guy I was staying with (Ray Warleigh) was a saxophone player. He used to bring me around to some of the clubs and introduce me. He said "Bring your guitar and maybe you can sit in on something." I started doing that, and then after a while I started playing with a few different groups.
R.V.B. - Did you check out any of the big bands at the time like The Beatles, for example?
A.H. - To be honest, I didn't like The Beatles at the time. Now I absolutely love them. I think they were fabulous songwriters. I was interested in a different kind of music. I went to see all of the jazz guys play. I wanted to go where I could learn something.
R.V.B. - Jazz music influenced your guitar style. You're known as a technical guy. At this point you were learning scales and mixing jazz in with it?
A.H. - I did a lot of homework on scales at that time.
R.V.B. - In the late 60's, you started playing with various groups. Would you consider that time period part of your learning process of developing your skills to a higher level?
A.H. - Yes of course but it never stops. Learning is a never ending process. Once I got used to the fact that I was never really going to know anything, it was nice feeling. You climb up one mountain and you get to the top, and there's another one that's bigger than the one you just got over. It's like you just keep going.
R.V.B. - You played with bands like Igginbottom, Sunship, and others in the late 60's and early 70's. Was there anything from that period that sticks with you today?
R.V.B. - What types of establishments and gigs did you play with Soft Machine?
A.H. - With that band, we did a lot of festivals in Europe. That band had a pretty big following in Europe. They did a lot of concerts on their own. We also played a lot of small concert halls and clubs.
R.V.B. - In the late 70's you hooked up with guys like Jean Luc Ponty and Tony Williams. Things are starting to happen now. Was that a natural process to lead you to finally going out on your own and leading your own project?
A.H. - I loved working with Jean Luc and I loved working with Tony Williams. I got to a point where I just wanted to play my own music. It was a logical step to form a group of my own with Gary Husband and Paul Carmichael. We did that for a while and then I left the UK. I worked with Bill Bruford, which was great.
A.H. - Jeff played on Road Games. That was an album I did for Warner Brothers. Playing with Jeff was awesome. He was terrific.
R.V.B. - When you set out to make your own music, was it a mixture of composition and improvisation?
A.H. - The compositions are usually vehicles for improvisation. You write a piece of music, then you take some form of it and manipulate it and use parts of it for playing solos. That's kind of what improvisation is. It's to write music that gives the soloist a vehicle to solo on. I've always loved that because that was the biggest challenge... trying how to play a half decent solo.
R.V.B. - Was it the same fixing little things that may have went wrong on a solo in an analog studio as it is today in the digital world?
A.H. - It's the same thing. You could fix stuff in the analog world. I'm not very good at that in the digital world. It's been a little difficult for me to make the jump from analog to digital. A lot of the young guys can do it in their sleep. I don't really know how to use it. I use a computer like everyone else now. I just run the digital program like I was running an analog tape recorder machine.
R.V.B. - The technical manuals are about 2" thick. I can understand that coming from a musician. Let the recording techs work it. What was your first real good guitar?
A.H. - The first real guitar I got was a Hofner President. It was an acoustic guitar. Then I got cello style jazz guitar. I got a pickup for it... that my dad put on. After I shortly got fed up with that, I got a Fender Strat. It was really a great blue Fender Stratocaster. I saw to this out of town musician, who was a really good musician, but I never really knew who he was. He played an SG, and I really liked the sound he was getting. So I sold my Strat and got an SG. I played an SG for years, and years, and years.
R.V.B. - Did you find that the thin neck on the SG was easier to play that the Strat.
A.H. - The Gibson I had was an SG custom. I had an SG standard at first, but I later traded it up for an SG custom. No - the neck was like a baseball bat - it was huge. There was nothing skinny about that neck. I had it re-fretted with big frets. I ended going back to a Strat style guitar because I liked the longer scaling... 25 1/2.
R.V.B. - You toyed with electronics a lot and eventually started using the SynthAxe. It enhanced the sound of the guitar but did it change the way you approached playing the guitar?
A.H. - I fell in love with that thing. I learned things from it... for sure. I took some things from the SynthAxe and applied them to the guitar. The thing about the SynthAxe is - it's its own beast. It makes up sounds on its own. The beauty was, I could use synthesized patches or the breath controller to make horn like sounds, that I could never make on the guitar. I was able to use string patches and mic patches. It gave me a of flexibility that the guitar didn't have. I really enjoyed playing with it.
R.V.B. - Why did you move to the United States? Was it tough to pick up from your homeland and move here?
A.H. - When I first got my own band together, the singer - Paul Williams - lived in Tustin California, with his wife. They invited me to stay with them. I was married at the time but I went out there on my own. I started working with some musicians like Chad Wakerman and Jeff Berlin. We started doing gigs and people started showing up... which was amazing. We went from playing in a pub to 6 people, to a 250 seat club that was packed. It wasn't a tough decision at all. I had been to America before when I came to New York in 1976 to work with Tony Williams. I started my solo career in England but it was a struggle. It started gaining momentum in the States, so I made the jump. I decided to stay because it was all about the music. Then my family moved out here.
R.V.B. - You started making waves and getting noticed by people in the industry. Getting an endorsement from Eddie Van Halen had to be helpful for you.
A.H. - Of course. He's a great guitar player and he's also a very sweet man. He was kind to me. He introduced me to Ted Templeman - the record producer for Warner Brothers. The whole thing didn't work out, and it was a disaster, but that's beside the point. The real point was that he was trying to help me. He said nice things about me.
A.H. - It's basically my whole back catalog of solo records. I played on a lot of records, but they weren't my records. These are albums that I did under my own name.
R.V.B. - Were some of these albums out of print?
A.H. - It was sporadic. Some of them were bootlegged. Some were made in Australia and some were made in Japan. My publishing attorney was trying to help me. They have their record company Manifesto Records. They said "We'll help you put out the back catalog." I said "Sure, that sounds great." They did a really great job. The only issue that I had was the title. (The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!). I never saw the box until it was already in print. I had heard all of the music when they sent me the masters and they did a really nice job on re-mastering... considering some of the sources were very old. The title of it kind of makes me cringe. They said "We'll tell everybody it wasn't your idea and it will only be available for a short period of time." They'll be released on single albums so the box is not a permanent fixture.
R.V.B. - You are known throughout the music and guitar community as an extremely talented guitar player. You play difficult music and it's unique. So you kind of did change the guitar. It's something to be proud of.
A.H. - The thing is that it's not for me to say. I felt that because it was on my box set, it sounded like I went along with it. I didn't see it until it was too late to stop it. They had spent so much time and energy doing it, that I didn't want to rock the boat. I just said "Carry on."
R.V.B. - On the 2 CD companion set that is co-released (Eidolon) - are those songs that you picked out?
A.H. - Yeah. It's a compilation of tracks from all of the various albums... it's a sampler.
R.V.B. - Was it difficult deciding which tracks to choose? Were there any on the cusp of making the CD?
R.V.B. - Do you have any really good concert performance memories?
A.H. - I usually only remember the really bad ones. (Hahaha) I enjoy playing, so it was always fun. On occasions things would go wrong but I would just brush it off. There were a couple of places that we played were it was really great but I hated the sound. The club was nice and we had a nice crowd, but I never really enjoyed the sound in the room. There was a place in Japan where it looked like it would have the worst sound in the world because it was basically a big rectangle, but the sound was really nice.
R.V.B. - What are you proud of in your place as a guitar player?
A.H. - I appreciated the fact that people have listened to my music. I never expected anybody to like my music. If somebody says "I really don't like that... it's horrible." I would just say "That's ok man... we can still be friends." It's up to the individual.
R.V.B. - You've done 12 solo albums. Do you have any favorites?
A.H. - I prefer the newer ones to the older ones. The further back they go, the less I like them. As you make some progress you can see some things that were wrong with the precious ones. They are what they are and you can't take them back.
R.V.B. - Do you feel that your songwriting has matured through the years?
A.H. - Yeah... because I've learned things. Music is a never ending story. You're never going to get to the end, no matter how long you live. The more you learn, the more you can apply to the music that you are playing.
R.V.B. - How often do you practice these days?
A.H. - Sometimes I'll go months at a time where I don't do anything. Typically I play every day now. Every once in a while I go into a thinking mode, where I'm thinking about it and not necessarily playing it. When you go back to the instrument, it feels a lot fresher that it did before... even though it takes a while to get the connection between your head and your hands together again. Alan Pasqua used to do the same thing. It's good to think about it.
R.V.B. - Do you ever do master classes or give lessons?
A.H. - I have never been interested in doing that. I don't know anything and I'll never know anything about music. I feel unqualified to teach anybody. Some guys make really good teachers.
R.V.B. - With your technical ability, it appears that you know a lot about music.
A.H. - Obviously I know a bit but it's a different area when you are trying to teach someone. I never felt comfortable with it.
R.V.B. - What do you have going on these days?
A.H. - I'm working on a 2 albums now. I'm doing them for Steve Vai's label... Favored Nations. He's being very patient with me, waiting for me for years to finish them. He's a good chap and he told me he does the same thing. You can get behind with that stuff, especially when personal things change. I've moved quite a lot over the past few years. That disrupts the recording aspect of it. It's the same with going on the road and traveling. It pays the bills and you try to survive for a while, but if you don't get down to it, and try to do some stuff, it never gets finished.
R.V.B. - Do you still see Chad Wakerman?
A.H. - I haven't seen him in quite a while. I've only seen him a few times since his wife passed away. It was very sad. We'll still play together because he lives not far away. I've been working with a different band. I like it and I'm sticking with that for a while.
R.V.B. - Is the band that you are working with from the San Diego area?
A.H. - No. They're all from LA.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your box set release and the companion double CD. You've had a great career up to this point. The music community is enjoying your work. You should be proud of your accomplishments because you're a very talented guitar player. Have a nice day and good luck in the future.
A.H. - Thanks for your kind words and thanks for calling.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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