Archive for December, 2002

ALLAN HOLDSWORTH

8 December 2002

[ Picture of Allan Holdsworth playing his guitar]Some things are arrived at by serendipity, while others are more causal.  I try to remember the order that events occurred, how one thing led to another, or what the critical path was — but I cannot always get it right.

It is very much like that with Allan Holdsworth — did I get into Allan via Soft Machine, Gong, Jean-Luc Ponty — or did I get into them via Holdsworth?

Was the path via Hillage and Gong, or through Genesis, Yes, and Bill Bruford?

That’s the thing, Holdsworth was everywhere – -and as a result of all this disparate session work, he has been a major influence during a period of tremendous innovation in music.

I have read a great many guitarists give Holdsworth credit for being a major influence on them, including big names, such as, for example, Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai — and he was Frank Zappa’s favourite guitarist!

Although I never, ever, learned any licks by anyone, I would be influenced by a sound and tone or even an approach or technique.

Holdsworth’s distinctive long legato lines changed the way I played the guitar completely.  His technique demanded use of the small “pinkie” finger on the left hand, and this in turn demanded a proper hand position — which meant that the guitar had to be worn higher!

So I wound up my strap, adjusted the neck angle, and started playing in a posture that completely opened up my playing. Barré chords were a dawdle, and I tended not to bend the strings so much on solos — instead I was incorporating the scales that I was doing to introduce my “pinkie” finger.

Until Holdsworth, I was predominantly playing Blues runs, riff and solos. Of course I dabbled in funk, Jazz and even country, but whatever I was doing, I was phrasing in breaths — I even knew it at the time, and I thought it was the right thing to do.  I remember being influenced by an Eric Gale interview in which he said that all the best guitar solos can be played on the saxophone, and legato being the length of a breath.

Allan Holdsworth trashed that idea — his legato runs were l-o-n-g and fast — but beautifully fluid.  You couldn’t really sing along — and while the sax could match the speed and fluidity, the runs were longer than a breath.

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The technique is based on playing a scale using all the fingers of the left hand.  The thumb is on the back of the neck and the hand remains static for the scale run.

Rising scales employ few picks from the right hand (one per string in fact), and the remaining notes are obtained by hammer on technique.  Falling scales (or going backwards) is achieved by making strong pull,offs to get the same effect — so the “pinkie” finger has to become quite strong.

Then all you do is mess about within the scale runs, hammering on and pulling off, as well as running up and down the neck quickly to join up different octaves of the scale-based run — making the notes flow smoothly enough to get the legato.  You can basically play almost anything as long as you hit the correct first note and last note, and peg the correct notes to the underlying chords or bar chops.

The other thing he did was use the tremolo arm at the end of legato runs to pull raw emotion out of his playing — what a master of the “whammy bar”!

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When people heard him play, they often said he sounded like a violin — and that is so true, especially when he plays with a violinist — such as Eddie Jobson on UK or one one of my long-time faves, “Enigmatic Ocean” by French Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

It is abundantly clear the effect Allan Holdsworth has had on Steve Vai’s technique and style.

When I think on it, this man is playing on far too many of my all-time favourite albums.  I still have the vinyls of Gong’sExpresso II“, Jean-Luc Ponty’sEnigmatic Ocean“, Bill Bruford’sOne of a Kind” and “Feels Good To me“, UK’sUK” and Tony Williams’sBelieve it“.

I do not know why I have not kept up with Allan Holdsworth — I have no CDs, just LPs!  It was all in the 70s! I saw him live a good few times — with UK and with Bill Bruford, and as far as I know there are no official live recordings. Heck I even met him one time, and we had a great chat!

This was years ago.  For some reason he was doing some weird tour whereby he would turn up at a venue and jam with an apparently random band.  This is all pretty hazy, and I am doing my best to recall it all.  The gig was, I think, in what-was-then called “The Third Eye Centre” in Glasgow (on Sauchiehall St.), so it was a small venue — just a few dozen people I think.  It was mid week I think and all very informal.  I cannot say the gig was memorably brilliant (it was a bit of a mess to be honest), but I really appreciated the risks this chap was taking.   Someone told me that he did this the year before and it was excellent; the band really connected with Allan and it worked great. Oh well, you win some and you lose some — it was either going to be magical or crap and all by luck and chance.

Allan seemed pretty normal to me – a thoroughly nice Yorkshire bloke, unassuming, maybe a bit on the shy and quiet side, but nicer than expected (he has a bit of a dour face)! I remember that he said that he didn’t really go in for effects pedals, preferring to exploit the guitar and set up itself.

Anyway, it is a rare thing that he has done — because an artist is usually either an influence or far too distinctive to be an influence — Holdsworth manages to be both!  He is a major influence on guitar player as well as being instantly identifiable. Man, that is quite a trick to pull off.

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