Allan Holdsworth - Guitar Genius

allan holdsworth with soft machine 1974
Allan Holdsworth playing Hazard Profile Part 1 using a white Gibson SG Custom with Soft Machine in 1974

Introduction

It is March 16th, 2019. Almost two years have passed since the death of Allan Holdsworth in April 15th, 2017. I think I have recovered enough from the shock caused by Allan's passing away that I am now ready to write some kind of an article about this guitar genius. However, I am not going to write album reviews because I do not believe that words can do justice when trying to describe music. The sounds have to be heard to be absorbed. No review can be a substitute of direct experience. This is just a small tribute to a big hero who is no longer with us.

As an electric guitarist myself, I have had my share of idols like (in no particular order of importance):

Back in September 2012, I took the time to list even more guitar idols in my blog Suosikkikitaristini aakkosjärjestyksessä ("My favourite guitarists in alphabetical order").

I still love and respect all of them, but in the case of Yngwie Malmsteen I had to sell all albums that were released after Odyssey (1988). I feel that Yngwie's later records have weak songs. What is more, they have boring, repetitive, predictable guitar solos that are technically very demanding but have little artistic or emotional value. I almost never listen to Yngwie's earlier records either, but when I listened to Alcatrazz's debut No Parole From Rock 'n Roll (1983) about eight months ago, I remembered why Malmsteen became such a big influence for numerous guitarists in the 1980s.

Malmsteen played amazing solos very cleanly and fluidly, and had a wonderful guitar tone on the early albums. Unfortunately after hearing No Parole From Rock 'n Roll, you have heard enough of Yngwie's soloing to know it all, and the following albums are mostly the same stuff soloing-wise. But it is not my intention to put down Yngwie here - reading about his extreme practice habits taught me the importance of working hard to develop my own technique.

However, this is an article about Allan Holdsworth, an unparallelled guitar genius whose playing was a huge influence in my whole life ever since I heard his fantastic album Hard Hat Area (1993) in 1993. I remember that the songs sounded very weird at first, and I was mostly in awe of Holdsworth's unbelievable soloing on that record. I had never heard anything like it. The solos were quite unconventional and technically they were almost impossible to play for anyone except Allan. So I loved them right away, but it took me a few weeks of continuous listening to appreciate the strange songs.

I remember lending Metal Fatigue (1985) and Hard Hat Area to a fellow student at school expecting him to be as impressed as I was. I was raving about this guitar genius who could seemingly play almost anything! To my disappointment he returned the albums only after a day or two, telling me that he was sorry, but he did not get Holdsworth's music at all. It was incomprehensible to him and he said that he just preferred stuff like Nick Cave.

I was shocked and thought that there had to be something wrong with his brain, because clearly both of those albums were work of a god-like guitar genius. I did not remember that I myself had not understood the songs at first either, and the guy who I lent the albums to was not a guitarist, so he could not even realize how technically exceptional Allan's guitar soloing was.

It was perhaps about 15 years later when I heard from another Allan Holdsworth aficionado that Hard Hat Area is not a very accessible album for the newcomers. I could not see that, since I had been listening to that album non-stop for probably a few months. I basically brain-washed myself to like it. I used to have a portable Technics CD player and Hard Hat Area was playing on it all the time. I also listened to Mahavishnu Orchestra's Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975) for at least two months non-stop during almost all my waking hours. I was simply obsessed with guitar geniuses Allan Holdsworth and Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

Holdsworth's guitar technique

Allan Holdsworth was raised in a family that did not have much money. Initially Allan wanted to become a saxophone player, but that instrument was too expensive. He could not afford to buy it, and an electric guitar was his second choice. In many interviews Allan said that he hated the percussive attack sound caused by hitting guitar strings with a pick. So he came up with a unique way of playing solos that aimed to hide the picking sound while maintaining a steady volume level using his legato technique.

Legato

Legato with respect to electric guitar means basically using hammer-ons and pull-offs. With legato playing, you hit the strings with your fretboard-hand fingers so hard that the strings will ring. In other words, you do not use your pick at all. In fact Allan did use pick in his solos, but like I said, he always wanted to make sure that the pick attack was not audible to the listener.

Playing legato like Holdsworth did requires lots of strength, stamina and coordination, but Allan practiced incredibly hard. I think he mastered the legato technique better than anybody else. In some interviews he said that he just did not know that you were not "supposed" to play electric guitar like that. So Holdsworth-like legato playing was a brand new innovation. Taken to his level of perfection and completeness, it was a wholly new way of playing electric guitar.

Legato is best suited for electric guitar, but I have heard Allan play acoustic guitar too with a surprising proficiency using his trademark legato technique. It was on The Things You See (1980), a collaboration album with pianist Gordon Beck.

Chords

In addition to having virtuoso skills as a soloist, Allan's chordal work was also very advanced. He often used chord voicings that were highly unconventional. Allan's chord shapes often require huge finger stretches.

Holdsworth as a band member

Wikipedia contains a comprehensive list of bands that Allan has worked with. Allan was an amazing player all the way until his death in 2017, but I feel that his greatest period was probably from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. In this section I am just going to enumerate some albums that I have learned to love and appreciate.

Tempest

Tempest was a UK based, short-lived progressive rock group. It was active between 1973-1974 and released two albums: a self-titled Tempest (1973) and Living in Fear (1974). The Tempest album features Allan Holdsworth and it is an excellent album with great guitar work from Allan.

The second album Living in Fear features another guitarist, Ollie Halsall. Unfortunately Halsall is very little known, even in the guitar circles, but rest assured that he is a quite fabulous player in his own right. I hear fluid legato playing sounds also in Halsall's guitar work and he is very technical.

When doing research for this article, I found out that a Tempest collection album Under the Blossom: The Anthology was released in 2005. It contains both studio albums and live songs recorded by BBC back in 1973. This album comes as a double disc release in most countries, but for extra cool factor, I just bought a special Japanese 3CD edition today. I cannot wait to hear the live tracks as they feature both Allan and Ollie. It has to be an amazing treat for us guitar fans.

UPDATED 2019-03-28: I received Under The Blossom today. The third CD on the Japanese release contains two previously unreleased studio tracks that are okay. But the tracks 3-9 contain BBC Live Concert and these tracks are just amazing! Ollie Halsall and Allan are on fire, and their soloing style is so similar it is hard to tell them apart. Especially the track 7 called Brothers stands out, being almost 15 minutes long!

Soft Machine

Allan played on Soft Machine's album Bundles (1975). This record contains one of Allan's greatest guitar solos ever on song Hazard Profile Part 1. It is long and incredible, and it seems Allan never runs out of ideas - he just keeps on flowing brilliant note choices one after another.

The New Tony William's Lifetime

The albums Believe It (1975) and Million Dollar Legs (1976) feature Allan Holdsworth. I have owned Tony Williams Lifetime - The Collection (1992) CD for a long time, because it contains both albums on a single disc. Allan has said that he truly enjoyed the time spent with Tony Williams, a brilliant drummer familiar from Miles Davis albums. During this time period in the 1970s Allan used a white Gibson SG Custom and a Marshall stack to achieve a beautiful, raw and pure overdriven sound.

His SG Custom was further customized by Holdsworth himself: he completely removed the middle pickup, claiming that it caused too much magnetic pull towards the strings. So Allan's SG had a pretty ugly hole in it, but the guitar sounded absolutely great.

Later in his career starting in the 1980s Allan kept experimenting with more complex guitar and amplifier setups (even feeding sound from one amplifier to another), but in my opinion he should have stuck with a proven, classic formula of certain minimalism. The sounds he created with his SG and a Marshall stack were simply the greatest ever, and he should have realized that no matter what you do, it is not possible to improve on it.

As a sidenote, I have exactly the same complaint with John McLaughlin. In Mahavishnu Orcestra, he achieved perfect tone with a Gibson EDS-1275 and a hot and heavy Marshall stack cranked up to ten. In my opinion McLaughlin should have kept that setup for electric sounds, because there is no way to top that tone-wise. I have seen McLaughlin twice in the 2010s and he still played great and had good note choices, but unfortunately the guitar tone was not as glorious as it used to be back in the early 1970s.

I am firmly convinced that it is best to avoid all digital modeling, and use only traditional tube amplifiers. They have that warm, raw and pleasing tone that all old school guitar heroes had.

Pierre Moerlen's Gong

Allan recorded albums Gazeuse! (1976), Expresso II (1978) and Time is the Key with Pierre Moerlen's Gong. I have not heard Time is the Key, but especially Gazeuse! is a fantastic album that I have listened to countless times while being high. It is a very trippy, mental and beautiful album.

Jean Luc-Ponty

With violinist Jean-Luc Ponty Allan recorded three albums. I have only Enigmatic Ocean (1977) and it is a good album that I can recommend. Guitar solos by Allan are astonishingly great as always.

U.K.

With U.K. Holdsworth recorded the eponymous U.K. (1978). This is album is somehow pretty weird and it took me a while to get used to bassist John Wetton's singing. The U.K. album has grown on me, and nowadays I like it.

There also exists an unofficial live recording called Concert Classics, Vol. 4 (1999). It features a gig in Boston in 1978. If you can get hold of it, I recommend it very much.

Bruford

The drummer Bill Bruford and Allan left the British progressive supergroup called U.K. and joined forces on two albums Feels Good to Me (1978) and One of a Kind (1979). I have never heard Feels Good to Me, but I own One of a Kind CD.

It is my opinion that the songs on One of a Kind are not that special, but Allan's guitar work is great.

Allan Holdsworth and Gordon Beck

For more traditional jazz and acoustic work, I can recommend Allan Holdsworth & Gordon Beck: The Things You See (1980).

Holdsworth as a solo artist

Solo albums

If you need to know all albums, go to Wikipedia. I recommend these five records:

Of those albums, Metal Fatigue is probably the most accessible for the beginners. Why did I list only five albums here? Because those are the ones that I have most listened to. If you like these albums, then it makes sense to buy the others, too.

UPDATED 2019-03-20: I know Allan did not like I.O.U. Live because I guess Paul Williams released it without his approval. But for Holdsworth fans who want to hear great songs played live, I recommend I.O.U. Live.

Synthaxe

Allan loved synthaxes because with those you could get all kinds of sounds with a guitar-like instrument. Here Allan and I disagree: I always thought synthaxe sounded horrible and sterile. I still intensely hate the dreaded synthaxe and very much prefer it when Allan played a real electric guitar with tube amplifiers. After Metal Fatigue (1985), Allan liked to use synthaxe on his solo albums so be warned: If you are like me, you might not like it.

Conclusion

Allan Holdsworth was a guitar genius with a formidable technique. He was very humble, but in one interview, possibly in Guitar Player in the early 1990s, he mentioned that with his trademark legato technique and possibly altered fingering, he was able to play anything that others could play. I am sure he did not mean to say that as bragging, but merely as stating a fact.

Nevertheless, in addition to having physical qualities such as strength, agility and endurance in his fingers, his choice of notes was highly unusual. So he had a brialliant mind, too.

Today we have pretty many of those so-called "shredders" who can play very fast. Unfortunately the shredders often have poor imagination and their playing sounds mechanical, cold and dull. It gets boring quickly.

I feel that Allan Holdsworth's golden time was approximately from 1973 to 1993. His solo work is pretty complicated and many times it is inaccessible for the casual listeners. But his work as a band member in 1970s was more accessible and every bit as brilliant. I think that during that time Allan played his most imaginative solos and his guitar tone was among the greatest ever.

In conclusion, Allan Holdsworth's guitar playing has had a huge impact on me at both intellectual and emotional level. I am sure that I will never grow tired of hearing his soloing. Further, I have no doubt that this man was a guitar genius.


Kalevi Kolttonen <kalevi@kolttonen.fi>
Helsinki, Finland
March 16th, 2019