An updated book version of this blog (originally titled "A Thread of Lunacy") is now available in paperback and as an eBook from Amazon.
More information about this book can be found here.

Material Unreal: Musical Style

Photo by Neil Zlozower/Atlas Icons

Table of Contents
  1. Early Influences and Chordal Theory
  2. Exploring a Solo Style in Early Rock Bands
  3. Guitar Solos (circa 1980s)
  4. Modulations
  5. Going Nova

1. Early Influences and Chordal Theory

(Photo: Graham Hepworth)
     During his first attempts at learning how to play the guitar, Allan tried playing from Ivor Mairants' 'exercise a day' book (above, circa 1964), but soon lost interest and ultimately chose to “follow his own nose”. (5)

     Sam Holdsworth, using his jazz piano background, then began teaching Allan instead. He showed Allan closely-voiced chords on the guitar based on piano voicings. At some point Sam also advised Allan to avoid using open strings while practicing scales (in order to take advantage of the transposing nature of the guitar). (34, 64, 66)

     When his father (Sam) saw Allan practicing some blues licks at home, the unimpressed Sam showed Allan an example of jazz-based (bebop) blues. Allan then decided to avoid any recognizable blues licks from then on in his playing (if possible). (71)

     Allan learned to copy Charlie Christian solos off of a record. He soon realized that he needed to concentrate on a soloist’s inherent spirit and individuality, not just their notes and rhythms, as he discovered that, despite his success at copying solos, his own original solo choruses were lacking (“nowhere”). (16, 33)

     Inspired by the advanced harmonic concepts he heard in John Coltrane's saxophone playing, Allan began exploring scales. He began breaking down chords into scales, usually taking them to the nearest relative minor and working on them from there. He also used mathematics to find as many scalar interval permutations as he could, and discarded ones which ended up with 4 contiguous chromatic notes. Additionally, he created his own personal symbols ("hieroglyphics") to represent different scales.

     Later, he also researched and identified "synthetic scales" which took more than one octave to complete. These “extra-large scales” were useful because, due to their harmonic nature (of being spelled differently in different registers, and thus in 3 different keys), they could be used as linking scales (“a complete unity”) over a sequence of multiple chords (however, in his later years Allan didn’t really continue exploring this particular concept very much). (32, 39, 66)

     Harmony-wise, Allan here started to experiment with unusual chord sequences as part of his exploration of lead playing (i.e. - trying out solo leads over chord patterns). Unhappy with the sound of traditional 7th chords, Allan systematically found all of the 3, 4 and 5-note chords possible on the guitar (in all of their inversions) for 3 adjacent strings, and discarded the ones which he didn't like. He soon realized that most guitar chords are named only for their lowest note, and that many don't actually contain all of the chord tones implied in their name (and that the names are, to a certain extent, harmonically arbitrary). (23, 34)

     From this realization, Allan began to develop his improvised lead lines to incorporate scales which made use of any combination of a chord’s implied scale tones during a chord’s duration, even if some of the scale notes didn’t fall within the chord spelling itself - or even the most "heavily-implied" scale (this is generally a jazz piano-based device). In some ways, this is kind of like taking a parallel train line going the same direction to get somewhere, but with different scenery or accommodations (that's my analogy, not an Allan quote). Other concepts related to this are "modal interchange" and "chord-substitution".

     All of these explorations eventually led to Allan's discovery of poly-chords (stacked chords). Polytonality (stacking key centers) incidentally, was pioneered by Igor Stravinsky, who was one of Allan's main classical music influences. Allan can already be heard exploring poly-chordal concepts on 'Igginbottom's sole recording, "'Igginbottom's Wrench" (1969). (23, 34, 39, 48)

     After 'Igginbottom dispersed, Allan spent 3 years playing Top 40 and dancehall covers in the 12-piece Glen South Band at night, as well as woodshedding during the day. Based on subsequent recordings he made with Ian Carr ("Belladonna", 1972) and Jon Hiseman's Tempest (1973), it appears that he honed his skills at playing acid rock, electric blues and funk jazz during this period. (35, 67, 40, 64)

2. Exploring a Solo Style in Early Rock Bands

     Allan contributed a few compositional bits and pieces to Tempest's hard acid rock repertoire, but nothing really approaching the level of complexity he employed with 'Igginbottom. However, his time in Tempest did result in one important discovery. Allan's dates with Tempest culminated in a few double-guitar performances with Ollie Halsall (ex-Patto) as a 2nd guitarist. Ollie's nuanced tremolo (whammy) bar playing contrasted with Jimi Hendrix's more "uninhibited" acrobatics, and this inspired Allan to begin incorporating whammy bar articulation into his own melodic statements. (3)

     The "conventional" musical elements honed during the Glen South Band period further receded during his days with Soft Machine in 1974 ("Bundles"), as Allan began to develop his own sound (beyond his already prodigious speed and legato technique). Soft Machine gave Allan the opportunity to play extended solo improvisations (such as was common in his jazz hero John Coltrane's performances), and often over odd time signatures delivered by the motoric rhythm section. Harmonically, these were relatively "straight" modal vamps, and Allan only intermittently used more extended scale substitution over these grooves. However, Allan's tremolo bar style can be heard tentatively creeping into his Soft Machine excursions, although usually employed more as an exaggerated vibrato or chordal finishing flourish at this stage. (65)

     Allan's sessions with Tony Williams further instilled a sense of pacing into his longer guitar solos (building from broader phrases to denser scalar runs, such as in "Inspirations of Love"). It also gave him a chance to create some solely "motivic" solos, which would rely purely on harmonic content and tremolo bar note-shaping rather than cascading melodic acrobatics ("Wildlife", "Sweet Revenge", "Million Dollar Legs"). With this in mind, it's interesting to compare his first solo with Tony in "Scirocco" with his later solos in "Million Dollar Legs". In the latter, Allan has clearly developed the tremolo bar into a key part of his style.

     Allan's signature '80s sound was first heard on Gong's "Gazeuse!" ("Expresso") album. Here, he fully integrated a swooping, floating tremolo bar style into his more lyrical moments. Around this time he switched from Gibson SGs to Dick Knight custom Stratocasters, so it's possible the Fender tremolo bar and wider neck gave Allan some more vibrato bar flexibility as well.

     Additionally, he began to apply more dissonant scale choices over conventional chord harmonies. This would include playing a scale from a related key over a particular chord harmony, such as in "modal interchange". A very conservative (but not uncommon) blues rock example would be when an E minor blues lick is used over an E major blues harmony. Allan's usage of this idea was far more radical and far-ranging that that, of course (often involving clashing root notes). Earlier, during the 'Igginbottom days, he had explored stacked polychords in his songwriting, but here he expressed the "second layer" chord as a scalar device (as opposed to a second guitarist playing a contrasting chord). 

     These "foreign" scales also included the use of more "synthetic" scales (including diminished and whole tone variants). In the past (such as heard in the Soft Machine days), non-harmonic scalar figures were used often as chromatically-ascending "bridge" devices to add exoticism while transitioning from one chord to another, but at this point the more exotic scales were used to actually enrich the chord harmony itself, and create a form of "exploded" polytonality.
"I don't think of it in terms of a stream of notes. It's like a pattern, you create a pattern or a color that you see as one. It's like a color that appears before your face."  
- (1978.Spring: The Complete Guitarist)
"Single notes I hear like a long note. Then if it's a flurry of notes, I tend to hear them not as one note after another, but as a whole, from beginning to end, like seeing a color. If you play over one chord and superimpose another one over it, just to move it around a bit - I do that 'cause I always like those things that are harmonically interesting, where you want to go, 'What was that? Gotta hear that again!' I'm trying to find that feeling. It's slightly different from a 'sheet of sound,' in that most of the notes are important. I hear it like a line over a particular chord change." (10)

3. Guitar Solos (circa 1980s)

     A detailed analysis of each of Allan's guitar solos would be beyond the scope of this project, however some general observations about how to approach these improvised "flights of fancy" (really, miniature compositions in themselves) might be worth mentioning, especially considering the harmonic complexity that Allan was digging into at this time (and would continue to dig further into in the future).

     Most Western music is designed in so-called "epic" form, in which a theme (main character) takes a journey and then returns "home" to a "celebration". In classical sonata-allegro form, a theme (or themes) is presented in an "exposition", then repeated (in order to breed familiarity), followed by a development phase (or variations). After this exploratory development phase (where previous themes are chopped up, rearranged, modulated, etc..), the theme returns home in a reprise ("recapitulation"), usually with some minor changes. In sum, sonata-allegro form is essentially designed to take a particular melody theme on a "character-building" journey.

     What's interesting about Allan's solo approach is that he takes the harmony itself (the "key") on a journey. This approach was born from Allan's early exploration of stacking different chords on top of each other. Allan would essentially play solo phrases with a different chord in mind than the one spelled out by the rhythm section (or implied by the direction of the harmonic chord progression). This combination would, in effect, produce a stacked chord harmony in "exploded" form (as described in the previous section).

     With this in mind, music can be described as being consonant ("in key") or dissonant ("clashing", "off-key"). In Allan's solos, he often opens by implying a consonant, "normal" choice of notes, and then journeys outwards towards more dissonant families of notes (stacking). These more complex families of notes can come in many different colors (scales), and Allan will tell a story by moving from one color to another. In another analogy, one could say that a solo which stays "in key" the whole time could be "black and white", but a solo which travels through more exotic note choices could be "in color" (ie - many other choices besides just black and white).

     On another level, the actual degree of "off-ness" is another way of presenting an interesting story. You could say that the weirder the scale, the deeper the color. The rhythm section is in a way a compass, or one's sense of equilibrium, and Allan's guitar solo uses different kinds of scales (harmonies) in different degrees of harmonic dissonances in order to present a journey over this stable landscape. Also, each chorus in a solo section could be seen as a story "chapter" (since the root note is usually emphasized at the beginning of a chorus), and the several choruses of an entire solo would make a "book".
     "I hear a chord or a color. The harmony is one color and you can get two or three things that come along on top of it, that match it. I like playing things that some say would be a diatonically incorrect note. But it's really not, depending on how it's played. It's really appealing to me to weave in and out of these colors. I love the way that sounds." (51)
     Of course, aside from this harmonic element, Allan also forges many melodic and rhythmic motifs to impart a similar sense of movement and drama - but the above concept of harmony itself as a parameter/theme for development is one of Allan's most unique stylistic elements. When listening to a Holdsworth solo, much of the drama comes from the tension and release created by the varying consonance or dissonance his phrases have over a longer statement. For this reason, it's usually very rewarding to get to know the chord progression of a song, in order to get a feel of the canvas upon which Allan is painting his sonic journey.

4. Modulations

     In the late '80s/early '90s, Allan began phasing out use of the tremolo bar (whammy bar) to shape his lines (especially after he became more comfortable with the SynthAxe). However, from a harmonic perspective, he began spicing up his solo platforms (chord sequences) with long chains of key modulations. Allan had previously used quickly-modulating chord sequences here and there (all the way back to I.O.U., in fact), but after Atavachron, these modulating chord sequences became a primary device in his compositional technique.

The Bradford Interchange Station
(Photo © Stephen Armstrong (cc-by-sa/2.0))
     As described in section 3, in the first part of the '80s Allan applied different degrees of foreign scales over a (usually) stable tonality. In other words the "tracks of the train" were straight, and only the "view from the window" changed. However, after Sand's "The 4.15 Bradford Executive" (literally a "train song"), his compositions began to wind through more key changes than ever before. By Wardenclyffe Tower, even the song structures themselves were being put through cycles of variations. For example, "5 to 10" features several different cadence harmonies following every "refrain".

     From a soloistic viewpoint, this "unstable" harmony/song structure allowed for even more dramatic gyrations in melodic/harmonic single-note storytelling. If in the '80s Allan was painting with different colors on a blank canvas, now the canvas itself was becoming animated - perhaps like painting on a sculpture (or a dancer!). At this point, even Allan himself had trouble playing through his own complex harmonic puzzles - Allan cited "Tullio" (from Hard Hat Area) as being the hardest song he'd ever had to solo over (it was never performed live). Actually, at this point in his career, there were no physical limitations to Allan's fretboard skills (even from the early records there were virtually no boundaries limiting Allan's technical skills), but now he looked towards complex compositional/harmonic structures ("magic puzzles") to challenge himself as an improvising soloist.

5. Going Nova

     In the following decades, Allan essentially spent more time exploring stylistic variations on his concept, rather than pushing further into "total abstraction". The records None Too Soon and The Sixteen Men of Tain seemed to test out how Allan's compositions would work in a swing/traditional framework. Also, this period saw a return to a keyboard-less trio (although Dave Carpenter comped admirably on his 6-string bass). At times, this made it a bit harder to follow the more unconventional key modulations beneath Allan's solos, since not all of the chord tones were as obvious without the keyboard element.

     The zenith of Allan's compositional achievements probably came in the form of Flat Tire, an album created almost entirely from SynthAxe multi-tracks. By layering different instrumental voices using his various Yamaha synthesizer patches, Allan was finally able to compose on a "classical" level, although with plenty of solo improvisations being an essential ingredient. His first successful attempt at this kind of "film music" was the title track to Hard Hat Area, but on Flat Tire he expanded on this direction as far as his gear would allow him to go. The songs "The Duplicate Man" and "Don't You Know" probably best represent the symphonic aspirations Allan was going for.

     Allan's ideas seemed to loosen up a bit as the new millennium proceeded, as he reunited with Soft Works for an album (Abracadabra) and live dates, and joined forces with HoBoLeMa for some touring. Both of these outfits featured an emphasis on more vamp-based improvisation, with much looser (or even totally free, in the case of HoBoLeMa) song structures. With his own trios, it seems that Allan was heading into "heavier" territory, trying out various combinations of "Young Turk" drummers including Ronald Bruner Jr. and Virgil Donati. At least one song, "Every 10th Man" (performed live with Jimmy Johnson and Chad Wackerman), had a decidedly "hard rock" texture to it. Various collaborations with progressive outfits such as Donati's Planet X, Riptyde and K2 also may have influenced him. However, until further unreleased tracks come to light (if any), it will be hard to say where this new direction would have ended up.

"I like lots of melody and I try to be harmonically creative with lines. But, I also like to use some dissonance, diatonically speaking, unusual and sometimes impolite notes. They are quite all right by me. I like to hear it from other players. It's like adding other colors, another dimension. I love that "what the hell was that" thing. 

"However, some people/musicians hear an unusual note and think it's some kind of mistake. A shame, there is a colossal difference between a chosen note and a clam. But the difference is simple. Did you hear it? Do you want it? Did you mean it? If you did and it sounds good to you, it is good. Use it! Isn't that what it's all about?
Finding the truth for one's self. 

"Harmonic sensibility is a very personal individual thing. Most people/musicians hear things differently and what might please one, might not please another. One man's meat is another man's poison. Don't be afraid to dig, the most important people/musicians in my life always have. If you do decide to dig, don't always expect to come up with a clean face. It's o.k. The most important lessons to me, have been learned by trial and error. Unfortunately, mostly by the latter. Please do not misunderstand, I truly appreciate all the things the world's greatest musicians have achieved and given to us;
joy, wonder, beauty, spirit. 

"All I'm trying to say is 'try to find yourself,' as they have."

 - Twentieth Century Guitar Magazine, Sept 1, 2000

The numbers in parentheses refer to the sources listed in the Bibliography.

Go to the Table of Contents...