|(Photo: Graham Hepworth)|
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)
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)
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"). This was an idea which Allan had explored earlier (which originally led to stacked polychords during the 'Igginbottom days), but here he applied 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)
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".
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.
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))
From a soloistic viewpoint, this "unstable" harmony/song structure allowed for even more dramatic directions 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 dramatic - perhaps like painting on a sculpture (or a dancer!). At this point, even Allan himself had trouble playing through his own complex harmonic puzzles - "Tullio" (from Hard Hat Area) was named as the hardest song he'd ever had to play through (and was never performed live). Actually, at this point in his life, there were no physical limitations to Allan's fretboard skills (even from the early records he could essentially play anything), but now he needed complex compositional twists ("magic puzzles") to solo over in order to be sufficiently challenged.
(To be further updated as the main chapters are posted)
The numbers in parentheses refer to the sources listed in the Bibliography.