Allan Holdsworth (6 August 1946 – 15 April 2017) was a British jazz fusion and progressive rock guitarist and composer.
Holdsworth was known for his esoteric and idiosyncratic usage of advanced music theory concepts, especially in regards to melody and harmony. His music incorporates a vast array of complex chord progressions, often using unusual chord shapes in an abstract way based on his understanding of "chord scales", and intricate improvised solos, frequently across shifting tonal centres. He used myriad scale forms often derived from those such as the Lydian, diminished, harmonic major, augmented, whole tone, chromatic and altered scales, among others, often resulting in an unpredictable and dissonant "outside" sound. His unique legato soloing technique stemmed from his original desire to play the saxophone. Unable to afford one, he strove to use the guitar to create similarly smooth lines of notes. He also became associated with playing an early form of guitar synthesizer called the SynthAxe, a company he endorsed in the 1980s.
Holdsworth was cited as an influence by a host of rock, metal and jazz guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, Greg Howe, Shawn Lane, Richie Kotzen, John Petrucci, Alex Lifeson, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Romeo, Ty Tabor, Fredrik Thordendal, and Tom Morello. Frank Zappa once lauded him as "one of the most interesting guys on guitar on the planet", while Robben Ford has said: "I think Allan Holdsworth is the John Coltrane of the guitar. I don't think anyone can do as much with the guitar as Allan Holdsworth can."
Holdsworth was born in Bradford, where he was raised by his maternal grandparents, Sam and Elsie Holdsworth. Sam Holdsworth was a jazz pianist who had previously moved to London to pursue a career in music, but he eventually returned to Bradford. Holdsworth was given his first guitar at the age of 17 and received his initial music tuition from his grandfather. His professional career began when he joined the Glen South Band, which performed on the Mecca club circuit across Northern England.
Early career and 1970s
Holdsworth first recorded in 1969 with the band 'Igginbottom on their lone release, 'Igginbottom's Wrench (later reissued under the group name of "Allan Holdsworth & Friends"). In 1971 he joined Sunship, an improvisational band featuring keyboardist Alan Gowen, future King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir and bassist Laurie Baker. They played live but never released any recorded material. Next came a brief stint with jazz rock band Nucleus, with whom Holdsworth played on their 1972 album, Belladonna; likewise with progressive rock band Tempest, on their self-titled first studio album in 1973. His playing can also be heard on a live BBC Radio concert from that year, which was released several decades later in 2005 as part of Under the Blossom: The Anthology, a Tempest compilation album most notable for the song "Gorgon". There has been an urban myth, propagated in part by the singer Donovan, that Holdsworth played the fuzztone solo on Donovan's 1968 hit "Hurdy Gurdy Man", but the solo was actually played by Alan Parker.
During the middle part of the decade, Holdsworth worked with various well-known progressive rock and jazz fusion artists, including Soft Machine (Bundles and Land of Cockayne), The New Tony Williams Lifetime (Believe It and Million Dollar Legs), Pierre Moerlen's Gong (Gazeuse!, Expresso II and Time is the Key), and Jean-Luc Ponty (Enigmatic Ocean), experiences he valued—especially his time spent with drummer Tony Williams. In 1976 came the first of Holdsworth's many frustrations with the music industry, when CTI Records released a recording of what Holdsworth thought was a rehearsal session as an official studio album, Velvet Darkness. This angered Holdsworth, who said decades later that he still loathed the album intensely and wished it were never made public.
In 1977, Holdsworth was recruited by drummer and Yes founder Bill Bruford to play on his debut album, Feels Good to Me (released January 1978). Shortly afterwards, Bruford formed the progressive rock supergroup U.K. with keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson and bassist John Wetton; Holdsworth was brought in on the recommendation of Bruford. Despite getting along well with them personally and enjoying the recording of their 1978 self-titled album, Holdsworth claims that he "detested" his time spent with the group, and that it was "miserable" due to numerous musical differences whilst on tour, namely Jobson and Wetton's desire for Holdsworth to play his solos to an organised structure for each show, something to which he vehemently objected.
Whilst U.K. continued with different musicians, Bruford returned to the core line-up of his solo band now simply named Bruford, with Holdsworth retained as guitarist. Their second album, One of a Kind, was released in 1979 and featured extensive contributions by Holdsworth, but by this point he wished to pursue his own musical aspirations and soon left the group, albeit with some reluctance.
Holdsworth's first significant collaboration was with jazz pianist Gordon Beck on the latter's Sunbird album in 1979. Their first collaborative release The Things You See followed in 1980, and was a largely similar effort but without percussion or bass. Soon afterwards, Holdsworth joined up with drummer Gary Husband and bassist Paul Carmichael in a trio that became known as False Alarm. This was Holdsworth's first outing as a bandleader and, after the acquisition of former Tempest singer Paul Williams, the band was renamed I.O.U. Their self-titled debut album was released independently in 1982, followed by a mainstream reissue through Enigma Records in 1985.
Immediately after I.O.U.'s release, guitarist Eddie Van Halen brought Holdsworth to the attention of Warner Bros. Records executive Mo Ostin. Van Halen had previously enthused about Holdsworth in a 1980 issue of Guitar Player magazine, saying "That guy is bad! He's fantastic; I love him", and that Holdsworth was "the best, in my book". Furthermore, in a 1981 interview for Guitar World magazine, he said that "To me Allan Holdsworth is number one".
This resulted in the Warner Bros. release of Road Games, an EP, in 1983. It was produced by longtime Van Halen executive producer Ted Templeman, and received a nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the 1984 Grammy Awards. Holdsworth, however, disliked Road Games because of creative differences with Templeman. Former Cream singer Jack Bruce provided vocals on Road Games (Holdsworth and Bruce had played together with Billy Cobham, Didier Lockwood and David Sancious under the name A Gathering of Minds at Montreux in 1982), whilst the later incarnation of the I.O.U. band consisted of Paul Williams, drummer Chad Wackerman (who, along with Husband, would become a regular Holdsworth bandmember for the next three decades) and bassist Jeff Berlin.
Having relocated permanently to Southern California and acrimoniously parted ways with Warner Bros., Holdsworth signed to Enigma for the 1985 release of Metal Fatigue (along with the aforementioned I.O.U. reissue). It was during this time that Flim & the BB's bassist Jimmy Johnson joined the band and, like Husband and Wackerman, remained a regular member of Holdsworth's touring bands until his death. Making his last appearance on vocals was Paul Williams, with whom Holdsworth claimed to have fallen out due to the selling of live bootlegs by Williams.
The Atavachron album in 1986 was a landmark release in that it was the first to feature Holdsworth's work with a brand new instrument named the SynthAxe. This unusually designed MIDI controller (different from a guitar synthesizer) would become a staple of Holdsworth's playing for the rest of his recording career, during which he would effectively become the public face of the instrument. The next year saw the release of a fourth album, Sand, which featured no vocals and showcased further SynthAxe experimentation. A second collaboration with Gordon Beck, With a Heart in My Song, followed in 1988.
In the late 1980s, Holdsworth set up his own recording studio named The Brewery in North County, San Diego, which would become one of the main recording locations for all of his studio albums beginning with Secrets in 1989, and throughout the 1990s. In a 2005 interview, he stated that he no longer owned the studio following his divorce in 1999. Secrets introduced pianist Steve Hunt, who went on to play keyboard as a member of Holdsworth's touring band, and for two further albums.
A collaboration in 1990 with fusion guitarist Frank Gambale came about in the form of Truth in Shredding, an ambitious collaborative project put together by Mark Varney (brother of Shrapnel Records founder Mike Varney) through his Legato Records label. In December of that year, following the death of Level 42 guitarist Alan Murphy in 1989, Holdsworth was recruited by the band to play as a guest musician during a series of concerts at London's Hammersmith Odeon. With former I.O.U. partner Gary Husband now being the drummer for Level 42, these circumstances all led to Holdsworth contributing guitar work on five tracks for their 1991 album, Guaranteed. Holdsworth would also play on Chad Wackerman's first two studio albums, Forty Reasons (1991) and The View (1993).
Holdsworth's first solo album of the decade was 1992's Wardenclyffe Tower, which continued to feature the SynthAxe but also displayed his newfound interest in self-designed baritone guitars built by luthier Bill DeLap. With the 1994 release of Hard Hat Area, Holdsworth's touring band for that and the following year was composed of Steve Hunt, Husband and bassist Skúli Sverrisson. A collaboration in 1996 with brothers Anders and Jens Johansson resulted in Heavy Machinery, an album with more hard-edged playing from Holdsworth than was usual. In the same year, he was once again joined by Gordon Beck on None Too Soon, which comprised interpretations of some of Holdsworth's favourite jazz standards.
2000s–2017 (and death)
The decade began positively with the release of The Sixteen Men of Tain in 2000, but it turned out to be Holdsworth's last album recorded at The Brewery. Immediately afterwards, he abruptly slowed his solo output due to events in his personal life. A pair of official live albums, All Night Wrong and Then!, were released in 2002 and 2003 respectively, along with a double compilation album, The Best of Allan Holdsworth: Against the Clock, in 2005.
His eleventh album, Flat Tire: Music for a Non-Existent Movie, was released in 2001. In a 2008 interview Holdsworth mentioned that a new studio album entitled Snakes and Ladders was slated for release in the same year through guitarist Steve Vai's Favored Nations label, but this did not happen. Further new material with Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Johnson was also said to be in the works. In a 2010 interview he claimed to have enough material for two albums, which he planned to begin recording after a show in Tel Aviv.
Throughout the latter half of the 2000s he extensively toured both North America and Europe, and played as a guest on albums by numerous artists. Notably, he was featured on keyboardist Derek Sherinian's 2004 album Mythology, as well as with the latter's progressive metal supergroup Planet X, on their 2007 album Quantum.
In 2006 he performed with keyboardist Alan Pasqua, Wackerman and bassist Jimmy Haslip as part of a live tribute act in honour of the late Tony Williams, with whom Holdsworth and Pasqua had played in the mid-1970s; a DVD (Live at Yoshi's) and double album (Blues for Tony) of this tour were released in 2007 and 2009 respectively. Throughout 2008–10 he toured with drummers Terry Bozzio and Pat Mastelotto, and bassist Tony Levin as HoBoLeMa, a supergroup playing improvised experimental music. On 3 November 2011, Holdsworth performed in Mumbai as part of drummer Virgil Donati's touring band. The following year, Holdsworth joined Chad Wackerman for a third time on a studio album by the latter, for Dreams Nightmares and Improvisations.
In 2015, Holdsworth launched a PledgeMusic venture to release new studio material, as part of a collection named Tales from the Vault. The album appeared in July 2016.
On April 7, 2017, Manifesto records released the box set The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever! The Allan Holdsworth Album Collection, which comprises remastered versions of 12 of Allan's solo albums. These 12 albums also have been released in a vinyl box set under the name "The Allan Holdsworth Solo Album Collection", marking the first time many of these albums have been available on vinyl. At the same time, Manifesto also released the 2-CD compilation "Eidolon", which features tracks selected by Holdsworth himself. Holdsworth was able to promote these albums briefly, as he died only a week later from high blood pressure. According to The Guardian, he played his final gig in San Diego on April 10, 2017.
Manifesto Records has released three posthumous albums as of 2020. All are archival live recordings. Live in Japan 1984, released in 2018, is the first authorized release of the widely bootlegged "Tokyo Dream" laserdisc, with a limited edition bonus DVD. "Warsaw Summer Jazz Days '98", released in 2019, contains a CD and DVD of a concert that was originally broadcast on Polish TV. 2020 saw the release of "Frankfurt '86", a CD and DVD of Holdsworth's 1986 appearance at the Deutsches Jazz Festival.
Holdsworth also appears on two tracks on German artist MSM Schmidt's 2017 album "Life", his latest studio recordings to be released as of 2019. Peter Lemer released the album "Jet Yellow" in 2019, featuring Holdsworth on the track "Dognose". This album was however recorded in 1977.
Compositions and style
Holdsworth's solo compositions are primarily instrumental, but vocals were prominent on all his 1980s albums except Sand. Two of his most recurring singers were Paul Williams (featured on I.O.U., Road Games and Metal Fatigue) and Rowanne Mark (Atavachron and Secrets). Additionally, he sang lead vocals on Igginbottom's Wrench and The Things You See, something he never did again. Early in his career he occasionally played violin (Velvet Darkness, Sunbird, The Things You See and I.O.U.) and acoustic guitar (Bundles, Velvet Darkness, U.K., Gazeuse! and Metal Fatigue). He felt he was not proficient at acoustic guitar because its percussive tonal quality didn't accommodate the kind of legato playing he favored.
Holdsworth's playing style combined elements of jazz and progressive rock, and drew upon scale forms often derived from those such as the lydian, harmonic major, diminished, augmented, whole tone, chromatic and altered scales. In his instructional video for example he mentioned that he often played altered scales that are unusual to the average player, such as F minor major 7th with a raised 4th, while also displaying an ability to recognize such complex scales in chord form with voicings up and down the neck, with each note being a member of a family.
In his solos he extensively used various fast legato techniques such as slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs (the latter being a personalised method more akin to a 'reversed' hammer-on); all of which produce a fluid lead sound. One of the reasons for his renowned emphasis on legato, as opposed to picking, stemmed from a desire to make the sound between picked and legato notes indistinguishable.
Another of his most identifiable traits was the use of rich, fingerpicked chords (often awash with delay, chorus and other complex effects), which were articulated and sustained using volume swells to create sounds reminiscent of the horn and saxophone. He said that he preferred both of these instruments to the guitar, the latter of which was not his first choice of instrument upon receiving one from his father when beginning to play music. It was because of this unfamiliarity with the guitar, combined with attempting to make it sound more like a saxophone, that he originally began to use legato without realising that it was not a common method of playing at the time. Furthermore, he was influenced greatly by such saxophonists as John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Michael Brecker and Charlie Parker, while some of his favourite guitarists were Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Raney, Charlie Christian and Hank Marvin.
Influence and reception
Holdsworth was highly influential among advanced guitarists and was considered one of the most technically accomplished and most unusual players. According to Guitar World magazine he is "as influential as Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen". Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Shawn Lane, Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Neal Schon and Gary Moore have proclaimed Holdsworth one of the most advanced guitarists of his time.
However, Holdsworth remained "not well known outside musicians' circles", and musically, even by guitarists, he was criticized for not being musical enough and being too technical for the average listener. Holdsworth himself understood that his music did not gel with the majority of people and said "I don't think everybody would like it, for sure. But if people got to hear it, if even 20% liked it, I would be really happy with that." He once approached a major record label and was told by its producer that his music was "completely directionless," and how he did not approve of anything Holdsworth had ever done since he started making his own albums. Guthrie Govan has said of guitarists who aspire to play like Holdsworth: "I think it's potentially dangerous when a rock type player hears a bit of Allan Holdsworth or Frank Gambale and then dives straight into that style of playing; not only is the technical aspect daunting, there's also all that musical knowledge and understanding going on behind the scenes, and it's really hard to absorb both of those aspects at once without your playing just starting to sound worse."
Following Holdsworth's death, The Pods & Sods Network released a three-part tribute podcast featuring many of his contemporaries, friends and fans sharing personal stories, memories and tributes. Participants included Steve Lukather, Jeff Watson, Chad Wackerman, Joe Satriani, Frank Gambale, Jean Luc Ponty, Vernon Reid, Jennifer Batten, Dweezil Zappa, Ty Tabor, and Mike Keneally.
Holdsworth worked with many different guitar manufacturers as he developed his sound, which he felt he was never able to perfect throughout his career. From the late 1960s through to his time spent with Tony Williams in the mid-1970s, his main instrument was the Gibson SG.:23–25 He then switched to playing custom Fender Stratocaster guitars that were modified with humbucker pickups.
During his time with Soft Machine in the 1970s, Holdsworth approached various Luthiers in England to make him a fretless guitar. It is thought that Holdsworth's incentive behind this approach was to achieve a greater level of legato, similar to other jazz fusion guitarists such as David Fiuczynski and Guthrie Govan, and in some albums and live performances by guitar virtuoso Steve Vai. Holdsworth instead achieved this with use of the vibrato bar, by artificially adjusting the pitch while changing notes to achieve the desired fretless legato sound. This is also a technique by which Holdsworth was inspired by saxophonists, with large scoops in and out of phrases causing a jointed and smooth saxophone-like sound, without the need of a fretless guitar. With this revelation it is thought he abandoned the idea of the fretless guitar.
In 1984, Holdsworth developed his first signature guitars with Ibanez, known as the AH-10 and AH-20. These instruments have a semi-hollow body made from basswood with a hollow cavity underneath the pickguard, and can be heard on Metal Fatigue and Atavachron. He also developed a signature guitar with Charvel called the "Charvel Holdsworth Original" which he played in the 1980s. His long association with Steinberger guitars began in 1987: these are made from graphite and carbon fibre, and distinctively have no headstock. With designer Ned Steinberger, he developed the GL2TA-AH signature model. He started playing customised headless guitars made by luthier Bill DeLap in the 1990s, which included an extended-range baritone model with a 38-inch scale length. However, he later said that he only owned one of the latter instruments (with a 34-inch scale). He also developed a line of signature guitars with Carvin Guitars, including the semi-hollow H2 in 1996, the completely hollow HF2 Fatboy in 1999, and the headless HH1 and HH2 models in 2013.
On Atavachron, Holdsworth first recorded with the SynthAxe—a fretted, guitar-like MIDI controller with keys, string triggers, and an additional tube-like input device named 'Masters Touch' (designed by Nyle Steiner, inventor of the EWI) which dynamically alters volume and tone using breath velocity. Sound-wise, he used patches that were mainly Oberheim synthesizers. He used the SynthAxe on all solo releases from Atavachron onwards, but later said he no longer wanted it as such an integral part of his playing—especially live—mainly because of it being so rare (fewer than 100 units still exist), and difficult to maintain and repair as a result.
Allan Holdsworth's experimentation with amplifiers started early: "My father's friend built me my first amplifier. I used to love going to his place and watch him solder and such. This got me started in my interest in electronics."
Over the years, Allan Holdsworth used numerous amps, such as the Vox AC30 and a 50-watt Marshall with two 4x12 speaker cabinets. He liked the Marshalls for single-note soloing, but not for chords because of the resulting distortion. He also experimented with a couple of Norlin Lab Series L5, which he found too clean.
Other amps included Johnson amps, Mesa Boogie (Mark III, Boogie 295, Quad Preamp, or .50 Caliber) and a Carvin keyboard amp.
In his later career he transitioned to Hartley-Thompson amps, which in his opinion had a warm and clean sound. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen used Holdsworth's modified Hartley-Thompson amplifier to record his solo on the 1982 song "Beat It" by Michael Jackson.
Holdsworth could also be seen performing with Yamaha DG80 112 digital modelling amps that he used in pairs: one for his clean sound and the other had a 'crunch' preset with very little gain and a lot of master volume.
Holdsworth endorsed Hughes & Kettner amplifiers. He used the TriAmp MKII and the ZenTera together with a Yamaha DG130 Power amp. and Fender Twins.
Holdsworth lived in California from the early 1980s. Cycling was one of his favourite pastimes. He was also a keen beer aficionado, with a particular fondness for Northern English cask ale. He experimented with brewing his own beer in the 1990s, and invented a specialised beer pump named The Fizzbuster, which, in his own words, creates "a beautiful creamy head."
Around 1986, Holdsworth struggled financially and occasionally sold equipment to make ends meet.
Holdsworth became a grandfather in December 2010 when his daughter Louise gave birth to a girl named Rori.
Holdsworth died on 15 April 2017 at his home in Vista, California, at the age of 70. Initially no cause of death was officially disclosed, however, news media later reported that he died of heart disease.
- 1997: I.O.U. Live
- 2002: Live at the Galaxy Theatre (DVD)
- 2002: All Night Wrong
- 2003: Then!
- 2007: Live at Yoshi's (DVD)
- 2018: Live in Japan 1984
- 2019: Warsaw Summer Jazz Days '98 (CD & DVD)
- 2020: Frankfurt '86 (CD & DVD)
- 2021: Leverkusen '97 (CD & DVD)
With other artists
- 1972: Belladonna (released as a solo album by Ian Carr)
- Soft Machine
- 1975: Bundles (band member)
- 1981: Land of Cockayne (guest musician)
- 2003: Abracadabra (as Soft Works) (band member)
- 2003: BBC Radio 1971–1974
- 2006: Floating World Live 1975
- 2015: Switzerland 1974 (CD, DVD)
- The New Tony Williams Lifetime
- Pierre Moerlen's Gong
- John Stevens
- 1977: Touching On
- 1977: Re-Touch
- Jean-Luc Ponty
- Gordon Beck
- Jon St. James
- 1986: Fast Impressions (guest soloist on "Fast Impressions" & "Rainy Taxi")
- Stanley Clarke
- Stuart Hamm
- Jack Bruce
- Alex Masi
- 1989: Attack of the Neon Shark (guest soloist on "Cold Sun")
- Chad Wackerman
- Level 42
- Andrea Marcelli
- Gorky Park
- 1996: Stare (guest soloist on "Don't Make Me Stay")
- Steve Hunt
- 1997: From Your Heart and Your Soul
- Steve Tavaglione
- Derek Sherinian
- Corrado Rustici
- 2006: Deconstruction of a Postmodern Musician (guest soloist on "Tantrum to Blind")
- Planet X
- 1992: REH Video: Allan Holdsworth (VHS, reissued on DVD in 2007)
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