Allan Holdsworth: guitar player interview

Guitar player did a great interview with Allan Holdsworth back in March 2008.

This is a small snippet, where guitar players describe their feelings about Allan Holdsworth’splaying:
We ran excerpts from the following quotes in our April 2008 cover story on Allan Holdsworth. Here, they are presented in full.

“I put Holdsworth up there with Paganini and Liszt. Terrifying.” —David Lindley

“Allan has the touch. Maybe it’s those extra- long fingers of his. No one can listen to him without being affected by his tone and fluidity. A superb player who is a joy to hear.”
—Adrian Belew

“Holdsworth is so damned good that I can’t cop anything. I can’t understand what he’s doing. I’ve got to do this [does two-hand tapping], whereas he’ll do it with one hand.” —Eddie Van Halen

“Allan really changed guitar playing. The legato techniques and ‘sheets-of-sound’ approach influenced not only jazz guitarists, but also a whole generation of metal players. And aside from all the technical stuff, he’s a master jazz guitarist. Check out his version of ‘How Deep Is the Ocean.’” —John Scofield

“Allan’s beautiful and unique chord voicings have always had an impact on me. His approach to guitar is one of a kind. He pushes the limits of the boundaries of electric guitar, and his lead phrasing would make Charlie Parker smile. His playing is essential listening for any guitarist, of any style, so they can see that the only limits we have are the ones we put on ourselves.” —Eric Johnson

“Allan wanted to sound like John Coltrane. Problem was he’s playing guitar, not saxophone, so he had to figure out a way to get a similar ‘sheets of sound’ equivalent on guitar. The scales and intervals he chose were also all unusual, and he didn’t become just one of the great scalar improvisers overnight. He worked like a dog on Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Then, when he’d run out of notes he’d reach for the whammy bar and send shivers down your spine.” —Bill Bruford

“Allan plays legato parts like a violinist. His right hand might as well be a bow, because his left hand is like Paganini’s. You can call his playing whatever you want to, but it will still fry your brain if you try to figure it out. John McLaughlin, Michael Stern, John Scofield—all of us just scratch our heads and go, ‘Damn!’” —Carlos Santana

“I have always considered Allan Holdsworth in a league of his own. In my obnoxious must-analyze-everything teenage years I remember walking out from a concert with the man, very frustrated. I simply didn’t get how he was able to pull it off in such a smooth, delicate way. The stuff his fingers were doing didn’t have anything to do with what was coming out of the speakers (at least not to my tiny intellect). Nowadays, I simply let the playing happily floor me. I believe he is from another planet.” —Mattias IA Eklundh

“As Frank Zappa said, ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,’ so just listen to Allan Holdsworth and experience the pure beauty of his unique musical language, which goes beyond all clich√©s. He is a true master, and remains unsurpassed.” —Alex Machacek

"I’ve known Allan and his music for 30 years now, and after all this time he still amazes me. His concept is still advancing with his playing, and his technical prowess, which is phenomenal, is in complete harmony with his musical direction—and this is a very advanced direction. I recall a show I saw him at in London about 14 years ago. After the concert I said to him, ‘If I knew what you were doing, I’d steal everything, but I don’t know what you are doing!’ Allan laughed." —John McLaughlin

"When I listen to a guitar player I listen for different things. The first is just the level of stimulation I get as a lover of the instrument and the way it sounds to my ears and soul. I first take it in emotionally. The intention of the player, their dynamics and articulation etc, are usually the things that make up the piece’s emotional impact. But there is a side of me that enjoys analyzing the performance on different levels too. My ears can identify tone colors, shapes, chord structures, fingerings etc. I can immediately see in my mind’s eye what virtually every guitarist I have ever heard is doing and how they are doing it on the instrument, even though much of the time it falls outside of my own ability to stylize. Besides being emotionally swept away by Allan’s use of melodic color, most of the time I am utterly stunned and confused as to how he is playing what I am hearing. His chops and inner ear completely defy my own inner musical eye and reasoning and I’m left in a blissful state of humility and surrender.” —Steve Vai

I owe quite a lot to Allan as he recommended me for the guitar post in Soft Machine in 1975, when he left to join Tony Williams. They didn’t know me but he left them my number and I got the gig—the first big one of my career, which led directly on to others (e.g., Stephane Grappelli). So things really got going for me because of that.
Following Allan was one of the toughest things I ever had to do, as any guitar player can imagine. The set was based around the monumental solos that he had been doing, so I had to try to fill those shoes! He has been ahead of the game for over 30 years and is the preeminent guitar soloist of our generation (if not any).
When I first heard him in about 1973, I was amazed by the ambition and direction of his playing. I was edging along a similar path myself but he was far ahead, and so was a source of inspiration and aspiration.
Since then he has developed and refined the ingredients that were already there with outstanding single-mindedness, dedication and concentration. His playing now is completely controlled and mature and his mastery of the elements that he is interested in—harmony, line and tone—is unique and puts him in the very top league of the greatest soloists in guitar history. That’s why guitarists should care!!! —John Etheridge

I discovered Allan "by accident" when I was 12. A friend of mine asked me to swap my Slade Alive album for his Tempest record, which was Allan’s first recording on a big label with a rock band. I fell in love immediately with his unique phrasing, tone, vibrato, etc. After that I became an avid fan and many years later when I finally met him and he accepted to play on my solo album, I felt exactly the same chill going down my spine that I had felt many moons before when I first got my hands on that Tempest record. If you’re any type of musician you have a duty to listen, understand and let your mind be blown away by Allan Holdsworth’s work because his music isn’t just about guitar playing, it’s so much more. It would be like saying that Coltrane’s music is about sax playing or that Monk was just about the piano. Listening to Allan will inevitably help develop anyone’s musicianship. —Alex Masi

“Only the elite musician wishes not to imitate. Originality and finding your own voice are the only beacons that the elite musician follows. Allan is one of these musicians.” —Jeff Berlin

“His guitar playing is totally original and that in itself is rare. But even more rare is that his playing also seems to be impossible to emulate. When I was a teenager I used to learn the beginnings of many of his solos but they would usually venture into what was for me impenetrable territory, often just a quarter of the way in. One can imitate his pull-off, bar, and vibrato technique, as sometimes players do, but the s*** where it sounds like he’s blowing air into his guitar and playing super fast in the way that a great saxophonist would, I haven’t heard any other guitarists be able to imitate. You can hear his influence on EVH, but Eddie doesn’t go into that dissonant territory and the blowing air effect is not there when he’s playing fast. As a kid I was amazed that Holdsworth wasn’t using his right index finger on the neck, but now I realize the angle and the muscles in action for right hand tapping would never create that sound as for whatever biological/scientific reason there is a certain lack of true force in right-hand tapping. At its best, two-hand tapping has a beautiful fluidity but it doesn’t have a quality of sound you’d call strength, while his fast playing certainly does. I believe it is only with his very unusual muscle and nerve setup in his left hand and arm that such a sound is possible on the instrument. He sounds like he’s blowing into it hard when he’s playing super fast.

To my taste, guitar doesn’t lend itself to playing fast as well as other instruments. I think the possibilities of approaches to doing it are limited in comparison to instruments like the piano, the saxophone, or the drum machine. Something about the guitars physicality in correspondence to our muscles and hand angles just doesn’t seem to offer the potential for expression at lightning speeds that those other instruments do. To me, he is one of the few people who totally overcomes those limitations and is totally expressive whilst playing fast and makes it sound natural, relaxed, and effortless—and, at the same time, exciting and intense. It always sounds like there’s a musical/emotional idea there and it never sounds like he’s playing scales or exercises, which almost all flashy guys of the last 25 years generally seem to be doing a big percentage of the time, though I’m no expert.

My favorite stuff of him is that first I.O.U. album and Road Games. Those are just beautiful records and he seems to be hitting a peak around that time—so inventive and unprecedented. I’ve heard that his stuff in Tempest is interesting in that his tone sounds like Clapton. I want to hear that. The UK record is awesome as is the stuff with The New Tony Williams Lifetime. Those were staples for listening to and playing along with when I was 15 and 16. And they always sound great when I’m in one of those phases and come back to them. Oh, and the two Bruford albums are extraordinary. I used to love learning from that stuff. Fun to try things that are impossible!” —John Frusciante

"Hearing Allan’s guitar playing for the first time was a cathartic experience for me. His guitar sang, it pushed musical boundaries, and it rocked.
His brilliant approach to harmony is completely original, beautiful and spellbinding. His technique and improvisational skills make him a true guitar god, the jaw dropping kind, and the kind that influences many a player in all styles of music.
On the issue of legato playing, he is the king, and anyone interested in going down that path has to hear what Allan has accomplished.
To witness him playing with Tony Williams’ band, a Gibson SG around his neck, Small Stone Phaser and Marshall stack in tow, at the intimate club My Father’s Place in Roslyn, NY, was something I’ll never forget. He ripped a hole in the guitarist’s-space-time-continuum that night! And we’ve never been the same." —Joe Satriani

“I remember hearing Allan Holdsworth in the 1970s on a Tempest record. He was playing alongside another amazing (and long since deceased) pull-off king named Ollie Halsall. What an embarrassment of riches! Then I heard him on some of Bill Bruford’s stuff. At that time Allan was just playing an SG into a Marshall. Later, he mined that sound to perfection with Tony Williams’ New Lifetime on the Believe It album and others. While I am perhaps not directly influenced by the man myself, his prodigious technique and soaring, melodic fluidity were inspiring and daunting, to say the least. That tone! The amazing accuracy of his pull-offs! That limpid wang bar! In a way he, like other giants such as Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, or [fill in name here] spawned generations of imitators who, threaten to make one forget how great the original Master is. Don’t succumb to this! Allan Holdsworth’s playing can be heard in everyone from the loudest Metal exponents to the most intricate fusioneers, but none of them can touch the man himself.” —Nels Cline

I played a lot with Allan not only when he was in Soft Machine, but also in various jazz contexts with his own groups and those of pianists Pat Smythe and Gordon Beck, and more recently with Softworks. To say that he is an original one-off is, of course, stating the obvious—but his approach is so individual that it demands an equally special type of playing with him. His lines arch seamlessly over everything and don’t obviously invite you in, and it can seem that the rhythmic dovetailing and interaction that you get with some other musicians isn’t on the cards. (I read an interview with Tony Williams later where he said that whatever he played, it didn’t make a dent in Allan’s playing). He is, however, of course listening and very aware of you, but it’s expressed in his own way. My reaction is to adopt a parallel but related way of playing, and I’ve always found it an absolute joy.
I know he often seems to feel uncomfortable in other people’s groups and would like to be judged on his playing in his own bands but in the case of the recordings with Soft Machine (in particular “Bundles” and “Hazard Profile” on the Bundles album and “Madame Vintage” on the SoftWorks album) his playing is astounding.
The only problem with Allan is that he can be so self-critical that it becomes destructive. His perfectionism has him reject quite wonderful takes—especially live ones—out of hand. There’s a lot of great music on the cutting floor; but that’s Allan. —John Marshall

Full interview