Material Unreal: Musical Style

Early Influences and Chordal Theory

During his first attempts at learning how to play the guitar, Allan tried playing from Ivor Mairants' 'Exercise A Day', 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 (ie - 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 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 used with 'Igginbottom.  However, his time in Tempest did result in one important observation.  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 tracks, although usually employed more as an exaggerated vibrato or chordal finishing flourish at this point.  (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"). It's interesting to compare his first solo with Tony in "Scirocco" with his 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 flexibility in vibrato 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 in 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, non-harmonic scalar figures were used often as chromatically-ascending "bridge" textures to add exoticism while transitioning from one chord to another (this can be heard especially in the Soft Machine period), but at this point the more exotic scales were used to actually enrich the chord harmony itself and create a form of 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)

(To be further updated as the main chapters are posted)

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

No comments:

Post a Comment