The Beverly Theatre, Beverly Hills CA, Dec. 1983
(Photo: Nancy Clendaniel)
The purpose of this "blog project" (A Thread Of Lunacy), is to chronologically and stylistically chart the musical journey - album by album - of ground-breaking jazz-rock guitarist Allan Holdsworth. Largely unknown to the general public, but revered internationally by fans and "stars" from the worlds of progressive rock and electric jazz, Holdsworth's work stands on a high summit, alongside the legacies of rock guitar luminaries such as Jimi Hendrix and Edward Van Halen. However, at this point in time, not a single published book has focused on Holdsworth's full career as a musical pioneer (although in recent years more and more university theses based on Allan's music have begun surfacing). This research project ("online book", if you will) aims to rectify that situation.
As an added reward, charting Allan's nearly 50-year career also provides an interesting vantage point from which to survey the development of some important strains of progressive rock, jazz and fusion music, not typically as well-known as the more popular hard-blues/heavy metal styles played on "classic rock" radio. However, the focus here will mainly be on how Allan Holdsworth developed his own unique sound world, starting from "off-kilter" '60s guitar-pop to an almost "modern symphonic" electric style in the 21st century- a style which will almost definitely remain vibrant and undated even going into the 22nd century. In the words of celebrity "stunt guitarist" Steve Vai: "I would not be surprised if, in 100 years from now, if people are still even listening to guitar (which I suspect they will be), he’ll be singled out as ‘the one’ alone, so to speak.".
"The Things You See..."
After an opening "Prelude" chapter describing Allan's early influences (and how he found himself "stuck" with the guitar), the following thirty chapters take a look at Allan's career over his entire discography, from 1969 to 2017. In a way, one could think of these articles as "deluxe liner notes" for each album collection.
Each chapter opens with historical background and relevant "oral history" from Allan and his band mates (assembled from various published and unpublished interviews). In order to enhance flow and readability, the interview passages are often edited together from several different articles from around the same time. This is indicated by multiple footnote numbers at the end of such passages. However, the un-edited quotes (in reality, "less-edited") can be located online by way of the Bibliography listing. Allan's quotes in the chapter texts are always italicized and green, while quotes from others are "normal colored" (but still italicized).
|(late 80s/early 90s)|
If possible, information regarding the guitars, effects and amps Allan used to get his distinctive "sound" for that period is also presented. Personally, I don't have experience with most of the more exotic instruments and amplification systems Allan used, so this info is based solely on published accounts (cross-referenced in the Bibliography) and from commentary on social media from Allan's friends. I tried to visually support whatever information I could dig up with contemporaneous photographs, if possible.
The various Appendices are detailed compendiums on specific elements of Holdsworth's music, such as his gear, the evolution of his musical style, an annotated chronology and a Bibliography of articles/correspondence used for this project (as well as a couple bits of miscellanea).
Most visitors here will naturally have already felt the gravitational pull of Allan's richly dense music. However, it's well worth looking at Allan's accomplishments with a fresh, un-"cult"-ivated eye. What makes Allan Holdsworth such an important guitarist? Why do so many top musicians regard him with such unreserved admiration? How does someone unacquainted with the Holdsworth oeuvre approach such a prodigious body of work? Depending on one's musical background, Allan's work can at first seem fairly impenetrable (or at worst, "noodly"). Hopefully I can clear up this misconception with this project, and demonstrate how Allan's music is driven by heart, emotion and a highly-thoughtful passion for exploration and innovation.
In the beginning, Holdsworth's musical upbringing was rooted in classical and jazz, and with this seed, he essentially nurtured his style from a "different soil" than those who would popularize the modern rock trends he would later be more associated with. Stubbornly "following his own nose" from the very beginning (and throughout his career), Allan developed and explored an alternate universe musical style which stunned his more famous musical contemporaries into awe. Unfortunately, it also created puzzlement and/or indifference from record labels and a general public more receptive to simpler, more popular music trends.
In any case, the following sections summarize some of Allan's unique stylistic innovations in the realms of harmony, melody, rhythm, articulation, and guitar tone. Of course, many great musicians have contributed one or more unique, trend-setting elements to each these musical ingredients. However, Allan tirelessly explored all of these areas to forge one of the most uniquely-personal styles ever heard in the last century. Also, with these points in mind, I'm hoping that even someone unfamiliar with (or intimidated by) Allan's music might be encouraged to develope a taste for his rich, highly refined and rewarding musical brew...
Most guitar chords in rock music have just three notes in them, while most guitar chords in jazz have four. In both cases, the notes are typically spread apart a bit so that they don't "rub against each other" too much when sounded as a chord (in particular the four-note chords). Allan likes to make guitar chords with sometimes even more notes, and often these notes are bunched closer together. This makes his chords sound more "ethereal" or "floating", although technically they actually have more calories than most "normal" or "heavy" chords. On the other hand, some of these chords just sound weird until one gets used to them.
In most rock or popular music, the chords also move up or down by changing as few notes as possible and staying within one scale (or one "key"). Allan likes to execute more exotic jumps to produce more dramatically-shifting colors for his chord sequences - originality is one of the primary driving forces behind Allan's music. However, in order to be original, it's necessary to take chances and take the less-obvious routes. This search for the "uncommon chord" usually resulted in unconventional chords and harmony progressions in Allan's music.
As his career developed, Allan even started to experiment with unconventional song structures. For examples, in the late '90s, he started to have more and more key changes in his compositions, and some would have very complicated verse/chorus/bridge/solo sections. Eventually, he reached a point where he was basically writing "film music", where it wasn't even necessary to have a repeating chord progression. In fact, one of his last records was titled Flat Tire: Music For a Non-Existent Movie.
Along with originality in song composition, the other thing important to Allan was improvisation. In fact, for most of his solo career, one of the things he valued in a given song was its ability to provide a challenging "canvas" for solo improvisation. This is one of the reasons why his late-career songs eventually began to get almost "classically" complex during their solo sections.
One of the most immediately striking things about Allan's guitar solos is how they weave in and out of "right" and "wrong" notes. While honing an original melodic solo style in his early days, Allan eventually realized that "wrong" notes can sound "right" in certain contexts. At first, he liked to throw in a "weird" melody in between two really "safe" scales. Using some of these exotic scales, Allan was able to take some interesting harmonic detours when going from one chord to another.
At the same time, he developed the idea that he could make some pretty interesting harmonies by combining (stacking) two different chords at the same time. Since there was usually only one guitarist in his band (although he did experiment with this stacked chords idea in his first band, 'Igginbottom, which had two guitarists) he realized he could imply a second chord over the rhythm section groove through the cascading notes of a guitar solo. In other words, he could solo "normally" using the harmonically "right" scale for a given chord (which is what 99.9 percent of most soloists do), or he could choose notes from a different, implied chord.
This is actually a pretty important concept in jazz improvisation ("chord substitution", "modal interchange", etc..), but much less common in rock or electric jazz ("fusion") - at least in the '80s. Ultimately, Allan developed a unique ability to tell a melodic story by juggling these "right" and "wrong" moments in a solo's dramatic arc. When listening to one of Allan's guitar solos, it's rewarding to join him on his "trip" by paying attention to when he goes "out", and how far out he goes when he does.
Allan's songs are usually not written with a 4/4 beat in mind. In fact, he likes to think of his songs as being in 1/1! What this means, is that each phrase, riff or chord progression can have its own length, regardless of the rest of the song. In most rock songs, it's 4 bars of this, then 4 of that, then 8 of this, etc... Allan approached his songs more like modern poetry - or like camera cuts in a film scene. Each section only needed to be as long as it needed to be. This would often result in some of the weirdest combinations of time signatures outside of avant-garde classical music. However, it's important to keep in mind that all of these whimsical beat durations were shaped with Allan's personal sense of "swing", and not just some kind of math equation.
From a soloistic viewpoint, Allan also employs some timing ideas in his phrases which are generally very unique to rock or jazz guitar. However, they're actually not that alien to jazz saxophone phrasing. Since one of Allan's heroes was saxophonist John Coltrane, it's likely that his idiosyncratic tendency to stretch beats - or to begin and end them on less-obvious beats - was inspired by Coltrane's groundbreaking style. Allan's dramatic use of "pauses" to mark out the shapes of his phrases also has a very saxophone-like feel.
For many people, the first thing which strikes many listeners is the fluid smoothness to the way Allan sounds his solo notes. Unlike most jazz guitarists or metal "speed-pickers", Allan uses a legato technique to articulate his lines. Because he's only picking a fraction of the notes that he's producing, this makes his melodies cascade with a much softer attack. Again, this is similar to a saxophone legato technique, where one breath results in a stream of fingered notes, rather than a separate puff for each note. Allan also worked on varying the dynamic attack of each note in a legato phrase. In other words, he developed the ability to make a middle or ending note louder than the first (picked) note, even without picking it. All of these dynamic articulations were achieved with a highly-developed, unique left hand fingerboard technique, which later influenced an entire generation of guitar players.
|(1978, with U.K.)|
5. Tone and Technology
Last but not least, Allan worked tirelessly throughout his career to create a personal "tone" for his guitar, which was (and is) unmistakably distinct from any other guitarist before or since. Coming from the same musical generation as people like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck or the Kinks' Ray Davies, he similarly discovered the rich harmonic properties of a solid body guitar plugged into an over-driven tube amp. However, unlike many of his later blues-rock contemporaries, he chased after a more "horn-like" quality to his distortion sustain. Instead of a buzzy, snarling tone, Allan mainly used distortion to remove the "twang" of the guitar string, and to instead impart a more "bowed" quality to the tone.
Over the decades, this eventually led Allan to experiment with synthesizer tones. Once he got his hands on the SynthAxe (a guitar-shaped synth controller), he was able to further explore timbral arenas in his music, both as a composer and an improviser. In other words, he was able to express himself as if he were playing an actual saxophone, trumpet, piano or violin.
As Allan furthered his craft, he also invented several pieces of studio gear which helped him more easily obtain the sounds he was looking for. Although he wasn't a huge fan of DAW-enabled computer recording, he was otherwise very involved with the cutting edge of music technology, designing guitars, pedals and amplification/recording systems.
|(late 80s/early 90s)|
"Jazz? I HATE jazz..."
Perhaps for these reasons, Allan's music has ended up becoming an acquired taste, especially for many non-musicians. For guitar players, Allan's jaw-dropping technical abilities have been enough to inspire near-fanatic loyalty. For other kinds of composers and musicians, the outlandishness and fearlessness of Allan's compositions and harmonic choices are a source of endless fascination. Allan's unique and unconventional explorations of tone and rhythmic delivery are also irresistibly seductive to many sonic connoissseurs.
"Hard Hat Area"
However, for the general music fan, it may be difficult to find an "in" to the Holdsworth sound world. As a "popular music fan" myself, some of the below tips have helped me out in getting to grips with Allan's "alternate universe" pop music. In no particular order:
- Let your ear get used to the chord progressions under the solos, and get to know where chorus repeats happen (often cued by drum rolls/cymbals). Some of his solos are pretty long, so it's worthwhile to break them up into more digestible "chapters". One way to do this, is to think of each solo chorus as a chapter of a book. The solos make much more sense when one is also paying close attention to the rhythm section (especially with Jimmy Johnson's solid-as-a-rock bass!).
- Listen to the melodies, even when they are buried in seemingly "theme-less" chord-melodies. In later years, Allan didn't like to play a "vocal melody" over his verse sections, but keep in mind that the top note of each chord acts as part of an implied melody theme, even if it isn't played on a separate lead guitar track. If you can sing along to the top note yourself, it's even better.
- Figure out the implied swing beat or groove. There's ALWAYS a groove. However, if you tend to dance to the beat, then I'd advise doing this in private!
- After following along with my "listening guides", listen again without looking, but try to remember the general structure. This will give you a "bird's eye" view of the whole piece, and make the symmetry of the composition easier to appreciate. Also, regarding the song breakdowns, I tried to mark out things which (I imagined) Allan would have been listening for himself, while playing.
- Another cool thing to follow is how Allan teases the drama of a solo with the ramping up of "out" phrases. As mentioned earlier, keep an eye on when, and how far "out" Allan's solos get.
Allan's music is also ideal for repeated listening. After an attentive listener "gets" one element of a song, another amazing "thread of lunacy" will usually surface right afterwards... Listeners who give Allan's records a chance (and stick with it) will find his music to be full of buried treasure. Hopefully, with the records in hand and the pages to follow, this site will act as a kind of "divining rod", pointing to where these gems might be found.
Prelude: With Debussy and Coltrane.
Table of Contents
I also have a HUGE list of thanks owed to Per Stornes, Olivier Feuillerat, Steve Hunt, Gary Husband, Alan Pasqua, Christophe Coureau, Aymeric Leroy, Rick Beato, Eric Miller, Louise Holdsworth, Tony Newton, Steve Robinson, Michael Skelly, Dave Freeman, Patrick Schroeder, Marie Takahashi, Chip Flynn, Nick Stefanakis, Eddie Coralnick, Debbie Dunne, Chris Hoard, Graham Hepworth, Manning Bartlett, my wife and first critic Motoko Shimizu, and followers on the Unreal Allan Holdsworth FaceBook Group who have kept me going when I was sometimes getting burned out on this major undertaking.