Allan Holdsworth: Frank Zappa's Favorite Guitarist

An interviewer once asked jazz fusion guitar great Allan Holdsworth, if he used “standard notation” when composing his one-of-a-kind jazz fusion and progressive rock compositions. His immensely unsurprising answer was, “no.” Immensely, unsurprising because nothing about Holdsworth when it comes to his chops, his collaborators, or his versatility, is “standard.”

One reason why Holdsworth sound is so unique is the inspiration behind how he came up with it. Born in Britain in 1946, Holdsworth desire as a child was to play the saxophone, but his parents could not afford to buy him one. “Stuck” with playing the guitar, Holdsworth made up his mind – and kids, not to mention Holdsworth no matter his age (but more about that later) – can be stubborn, decided to forge a sound on his guitar that would make it sound like an “entirely different instrument.” This accounts for his intricate legato soloing technique, that involve a massive array of scale forms resulting in impossible to predict riffs all of them stunning, and each one as surprising as the next. In addition, he’s come up, and has perfected over a lifetime of improvising and composing, a massive array or complex chord progressions. This genius he applies to necks and frets not only found on guitars, but also on the SynthAxe, which looks like a guitar crossed with a Walkie-Talkie, and, in the hands of virtuousos like Holdsworth synthesizes guitar sequences to a synthesizer, to produce way, way, more than the sum of it’s parts.

Holdsworth’s first effort on vinyl was in 1969, with the band Igginbottom on their first (and only) album, Igginbottom’s Wrench. (Later re-released, as Allan Holdsworth and Friends.) In the 1970s he hooked up with Sunship, an improv band, with which he did live shows, but no recording. After that came a stint with the jazz rock band, Nucleus, followed by the progressive rock band Tempest, and then work with progressive rock and jazz fusion artists and groups including Soft Machine, The New Tony Williams Lifetime, Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, Jean-Luc Ponty, Bill Bruford (of Yes,) and with Bruford again as part his progressive rock supergroup U.K. And, in the early 1980s, Holdsworth worked with Gordon Beck and with Gary Husband in a trio known as False Alarm.

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The 1990’s also had Holdsworth collaborating with a wide range of others including with guitarist Frank Gambale on Truth in Shredding, with Level 42, after the death of Alan Murphy, for a series of concerts at London’s Hammersmith Odean and on their album, Guaranteed, and on studio releases with Chad Wackerman. In 92’, another solo album, Wardenclyff Tower, was released, and then in ’94 Hard Hat Area, for which he organized a touring band with Husband and bassist Skúli Sverrisson.

Since 2000, Holdsworth has released several more studio albums including The Sixteen Men of Tain, Flat Tire: Music for the Non-Existent Movie, and in 2005, a compilation album, The Best of Allan Holdsworth: Against the Clock, as well as two live albums, All Night Wrong, and Then! On stage, Holdsworth has toured extensively throughout North America and Europe. More guesting has included working with keyboardist Derek Sherinian, the progressive metal supergroup Planet X, once again, with Jean Luc Ponty on his The Atacama Experience, as a member of HoBoLeMa, a supergroup playing improvised experimental music, and with Wackerman once again on Dreams Nightmares and Improvisations.

In addition, and close to Holdsworth’s heart, has been touring, as part of a live tribute act in honor of Williams, who passed away in ’97, which resulted in a live album, Live at Yoshi’s and a double album, Blues for Tony. It’s Williams who Holdsworth credits with inspiring some of his best work because he would “let me dig myself a hole…” and make “me find my own way out of it. This, in turn, inspired Holdsworth’s own determination not to give musicians who play for him “any direction on how to approach anything” because this ultimately produces the most inspired results.

Finally, getting Holdsworth’s resume entirely up to date, there is the upcoming planned release through his PledgeMusic of a new collection of studio material to be titled Tales from the Vault.

Holdsworth’s combined excellence on stage and on recorded tracks over these years have placed him in that rare class of musicians who are credited by other rock, metal and jazz guitarists as having influenced their playing. It’s a list that includes no less than Eddie Van Halen – who called him, “the best in my book,” – Joe Satriani, Greg Howe, Shawn Lane, Richie Kotzen, John Pertrucci, Alex Lifeson, Kurt Rosenwinkle, Yngwie Malmsteen, and the late Frank Zappa, who called him his “favorite guitarist,” explaining, “he’s one of the most interesting guys on guitar on the planet.”

Despite this, Holdsworth stubbornly refuses to sink into even the remotest shade of self-flattery, taking this to the extreme of being one of the few artist in any art from, musical or otherwise, who has made a recurring habit, of apologizing to audiences at live shows. Alongside this reticence to elevate himself in his own mind, is Holdsworth conviction that “music is never-ending. You can never know anything. That’s the one thing I got comfortable with immediately as a musician—the fact that I could never know anything about music.” That being the case, his legions of fans and devotees are forced to retort, “Well then, Holdsworth’s (professed) ignorance… is our bliss!” 

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