Allan Holdsworth (1946-2017)

With the sad death of Allan Holdsworth, we have lost another guitar great and one of the UK’s most singular musicians. There’s an old muso cliché that seems to lend itself to guitarists more than other players – ‘he/she’s a musician who just happens to be a guitarist’. Allan really was that. He came up with an entirely original soundworld, and was feted by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and John McLaughlin.

From a young age, Holdsworth always revered horn players – particularly Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Michael Brecker – above guitarists, but, given a guitar by his father as a teenager, decided to pursue his love of music using that tool. In doing so, he revolutionised the instrument, fashioning a unique legato technique.

The aim was a smooth, soaring sound which lent itself to horn-like improvisation, allowing him to play fiery, exciting solos with huge intervallic leaps. His chord work was underrated and equally innovative, using close-interval voicings and ridiculously large stretches. He came up with an entirely personal series of ‘chord scales’, loathing standard chord shapes and even calling them ‘disgusting’ on his instructional video!

The first time I heard Allan’s playing was his extraordinary solo on Stanley Clarke’s ‘Stories To Tell’ track from the album If This Bass Could Only Talk, but it took me a while to identify him since my cassette didn’t list the personnel… To my ears, it was just a remarkable solo; I didn’t even particularly ‘hear’ it as a guitar.

In the late 1980s, as I started reading various American muso mags, Allan’s name popped up frequently (particularly memorable was this 1989 Guitar Player cover feature) – it was time to explore his career in more depth. In the early to mid-1970s, he guested with Soft Machine, Nucleus, Tempest and Gong. Master drummer Tony Williams came calling, and he hot-footed it over to New York for 18 months of recording and touring with the New Lifetime band.

He then joined Bill Bruford in one of the greatest ever fusion units alongside Jeff Berlin and Dave Stewart, then formed prog supergroup UK with Bruford, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton (playing a legendary solo on ‘In The Dead Of Night‘). He also forged a brief but fruitful musical relationship with violinst Jean-Luc Ponty.

An early solo album, 1976’s Velvet Darkness, was virtually disowned by Allan despite featuring Narada Michael Walden on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass. But he spent the 1980s embarking on a far more fruitful solo career. Endorsed by Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa, mainstream success beckoned in the mid-’80s, but a high-profile Warner Bros contract came and went very briefly with only an EP Road Games to show for it. It didn’t hold him back though; in fact it led to probably his most commercially successful period – Metal Fatigue, Atavachron and Sand were all important statements.

The period between 1988 and 1994 was arguably Allan’s peak – superb solo albums like Secrets, Then!, Hard Hat Area and Wardenclyffe Tower came out and he contributed striking guest spots to albums by Level 42 (Guaranteed), Stanley Clarke and Chad Wackerman (Forty Reasons). He was even lured to share the stage with Level for a month-long Hammersmith Odeon residency in 1990.

Like fellow ex-pats Richard Thompson and Morrissey, he made California his home, moving there in the early 1980s and forging valued musical relationships with Vinnie Colaiuta, Jimmy Johnson and Scott Henderson. Henderson spoke of his incredible generosity in the studio. Drummer Kirk Covington – who recorded with Allan on the ‘standards’ album None Too Soon – reported that sessions at his home studio were always curtailed at 7pm at which point Allan would hand out pints of his home-brewed cask ale.

The complexity of his style meant that Allan influenced relatively few guitarists, though for my money Henderson and Francis Dunnery (who will be presenting his own personal tribute to Allan on his Progzilla Radio show this Sunday at 6pm UK time) adapted some of his techniques to great effect. Fellow Yorkshireman John McLaughlin once said, ‘I’d steal everything Allan was doing if only I could figure out what he was doing!’

I saw Allan several times in concert; at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Jazz Cafe, Ronnie Scott’s, Queen Elizabeth Hall and twice with Level 42 at Hammersmith. He was notoriously self-critical, but to my ears achieved a remarkable consistency in the live context.

A 12-CD career-spanning box set The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever has just been released on Manifesto Records. Allan was also working on a long-awaited new studio album at the time of his death. He spoke about both projects in this recent podcast.

Farewell to a master. We won’t see his like again.

Allan Holdsworth, guitarist and composer, born 6th August 1946, died 15th April 2017

Allan, Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Johnson in concert

The Wackiest Guitar Solos Of The 1980s

eddie_van_halen_at_the_new_haven_coliseum_2Pop music has always featured its fair share of brilliantly ‘inappropriate’ instrumental solos, from the (uncredited) honking tenor break on Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ and Tony Peluso’s brilliant fuzz-guitar feature on The Carpenters’ ‘Goodbye To Love‘ to Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter’s unreconstructed rampage through Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’.

And then of course there are the jazz solos that occasionally enhance ‘pop’ material – Sonny Rollins lighting up the Stones’ ‘Waiting On A Friend’, Ronnie Ross’s memorable break on Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and Phil Woods/Wayne Shorter/Pete Christlieb’s tasty leads on some of Steely Dan’s best work.

In the ’80s, there was a lot of demand for the wacky solo, often thrown in to pep up some pretty light/fairly inconsequential material. One in particular really set the benchmark for the decade, and it’s naturally where we start our rundown…

6. Michael Jackson – ‘Beat It’ (Solo by Eddie Van Halen)

Eddie’s shock-and-awe break was a perfect distillation of all his trademark techniques: lightning-fast picking, close-interval tapping routines, whammy-bar divebombs and even a cheeky Jimi Hendrix ‘All Along The Watchtower’ homage.

5. Michael Sembello – ‘Maniac’ (1983)

Sembello, hitherto best known as a very able jazz/R’n’B session player for the likes of Stevie Wonder, David Sanborn and George Duke, unleashed this overblown post-‘Beat It’ solo (starting at 2:50) which sounds like it belongs to a completely different song. Maybe he should have stuck to the jazz and R’n’B…

4. Bros – ‘Chocolate Box’ (Solo by Paul Gendler)

Gendler was a respected UK-based session player (and member of Modern Romance!) before getting the call from the Goss boys. He tosses off a Francis Dunnery-esque, way-too-good-for-the-charts solo at 2:40 on this wafer-thin but very catchy single.

3. Europe – ‘The Final Countdown’ (Solo by John Norum)

This song is obviously crying out for a widdly guitar solo, but Norum’s brilliant Malmsteen-esque playing (starting at 3:17) goes beyond the call of duty even by the standards of a mid-’80s hair-metal band.

2. Al Jarreau – ‘Telepathy’ (Solo by Nile Rodgers)

Nicely set up by Steve Ferrone’s wrongfooting half-bar drum fill, Nile plays all the notes he knows and a few more too in this seriously weird but rather brilliant harmonized/double-tracked break (starting at 2:05) from the L Is For Lover album.

1. Allan Holdsworth – ‘In The Mystery’ (1985)

Jazz/rock guitar genius Holdsworth inexplicably saved some of his wackiest solos for vocal-based, ‘commercial’ material. This one, starting at 2:20, is fairly astonishing and, arguably, totally wasted on the song… (Bassist Jimmy Johnson also deserves a mention for his frenetic, Red-Bull-sponsored performance.)

Any more for any more? There’s a very poppy Five Star track with an insane guitar solo, the name of which escapes me…

Technology Catches Up With Technique: Allan Holdsworth’s Secrets

Allan_Holdsworth_-_1989_-_SecretsIntima Records, released May 1989

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989

8/10

Some time around the late ’80s, I became a bit disillusioned with the major UK music mags (but continued to love Q). Their infinite search for ‘coolness’ coincided with my increasing interest in playing bass and guitar, so I started checking out American mags such as Musician, Guitar World and Guitar Player, as well as Guitarist here in the UK. Their focus seemed to be on the mechanics of/intentions behind making music rather than puking in hotels or haircuts.

I think I first heard guitarist Allan Holdsworth’s name via a Guitar Player cover interview to promote his Secrets album. I hadn’t yet heard a note of his music but his intelligent, exceptionally modest (some would say mordant) approach to playing drew me in, as did his endorsement of sax players (Brecker, Coltrane, Parker) rather than the usual guitar influences. Also he mentioned that he had been working with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, another name that I had heard with relation to Frank Zappa but had never really properly investigated.

By chance, I came upon Secrets a few months later in a bargain bucket. £5.99, if I remember rightly. From the first bar of the opener ‘City Nights’ (a typically nimble salvo around the kit by Vinnie) I was blown away. Holdsworth’s solo is burning, with loads of notes spraying out everywhere, but it’s also totally devoid of clichés. He repeats the trick all over Secrets, with Vinnie and bassist Jimmy Johnson prodding and cajoling him every step of the way.

It’s also refreshing to hear Allan blowing over lots of major chords in ‘Joshua’, the sort of tune which might be a bit soppy in the hands of Metheny or Abercrombie but is transformed into a stunningly fluent series of solos alongside Colaiuta’s brilliantly unhinged accompaniment. ‘Spokes‘ is a nicely arranged vehicle for Allan’s nutty synthaxe playing (and some more Vinnie/Jimmy genius) and, on ‘Endomorph‘, Holdsworth even comes up with a very moving song inspired by the death of his father with some excellent vocals from Craig Copeland.

Though his playing was always brilliant, Allan’s investigations with various types of guitar synthesis had lent some of his improvisations a ‘cheesiness’ earlier in the ’80s leading to a few less-than-essential albums (with the possible exception of  ’85’s Metal Fatigue). This is not to say that his other albums aren’t worth checking out, but I’d go back to his work with Bill Bruford and Tony Williams in the ’70s rather than earlier ’80s collections.

But Secrets is the one where technology really caught up with his ingenious concepts. All lead guitarists are on an endless search for tone and Allan seems to have found his ideal one here. It’s smooth yet fiery and he genuinely achieves the ‘sheets-of-sound’ style of improvising that he so admires in his favourite sax players by utilising incredibly wide intervals (for a guitarist) and legato phrasing.

His playing is as instantly recognisable as Wes, Van Halen or Scofield’s. It’s not easy music, though. But, as he lamented in the interview mentioned above, it’s not that difficult and he always wished it was more popular.

Vinnie Colaiuta

Vinnie Colaiuta

Secrets was the first in a trio of superb solo albums (and some sterling sideman work with Chad Wackerman) which continued with Wardenclyffe Tower in ’92 and Hard Hat Area in ’94, all of which are pretty essential listening if you like his vibe.

Within a year of Secrets coming out, I’d seen Allan live whilst at university in London and also checked out his month-long guest spot with Level 42 at Hammersmith Odeon throughout December 1990 (and some brilliant solos on their Guaranteed album). I was becoming a major fan and have been ever since. I’m glad he seems to have got over a bout of illness a year or so ago and is busy on the touring front again. Long may he run.