Allan Holdsworth 1947-2017 – an appreciation

Allan Holdsworth passed away suddenly on April 16th 2017 from heart failure at the age of 70 at his home in Southern California.
He died in relative obscurity, and, by all accounts, in poverty.
The fact that Allan Holdsworth, at the end of his life, was an obscure small cult tells us a lot about the current state of the music business and also the popularity of instrumental music containing improvisational forms. Bluntly, the music form known as jazz is in a bad way in the USA. The problem is not confined to Allan Holdsworth. I have read interviews with other jazz players in the past few years where they explained that they were unable to play live in the USA because they could not get paid any reasonable amount of money for their craft. Europe and Japan are just about the only regions of the world where jazz artists can actually make a living playing live.
The statement that Allan Holdsworth was a guitarist’s guitarist is undoubtedly true, but it is an over-simplification and sells Holdsworth short in many respects. However, it is true that just about every person who has tried to play electric guitar has heard of Allan Holdsworth. In the same way that Jaco Pastorius greatly expanded the vocabulary of the bass guitar in the late 1970s, Allan Holdsworth did the same for the electric guitar in the 1980s. By the end of that decade, he had almost single-handedly expanded the entire notion of what a six string fretted electric instrument cold sound like, both as an accompanying instrument and as a solo instrument.
Holdsworth’s accompaniment and chordal work on guitar was the antithesis of the old phrase “rhythm guitar”. Holdsworth did not sweep the strings, he plucked them, and his chord voicings were often colored, inverted and contained controlled dissonance and open ringing notes. He used large spreads across the fretboard. I have his music instruction book “Searching for the Uncommon Chord”, and I can verify that some of the voicings and fingerings are beyond my ability to play.
Essentially, Holdsworth played accompanying guitar like a keyboards player. Processed through intricate and complex equipment, this resulted in a unique soundscape that has been imitated to a greater or lesser degree by dozens of guitar players.
It was no real surprise that when the SynthAxe appeared in the 1980s, Holdsworth was immediately drawn to it, and he became the musician most indelibly associated with the instrument. The conception of feeding the string information from guitar into keyboard controllers perfectly meshed with his approach to playing guitar. Unfortunately the SynthAxe, like many great innovations, lacked a large enough market to support proper development, and reliability and cost issues blighted greater acceptance. Holdsworth’s own SynthAxes were eventually retired from road use, to be used occasionally in the studio.
Like many skilled practitioners on musical instruments, Allan Holdsworth did not start out playing guitar. He was initially a horn player, and this was immediately obvious when you listened to his solos, which contained pauses and gaps reminiscent of what you hear in blowing instrument solos, where the instrumentalist has to stop playing to take a breath. The attack, the tone, the note selection and his use of a diverse range of scales made him recognizable in no more than two or three notes. Like all great individualists on any instrument, Holdsworth’s solos were instantly recognizable as Holdsworth.
Holdsworth, in his solo playing, also seemed to be totally non-anchored to the blues form and scale patterns that most guitarists start out playing, and often become trapped within. His choice of notes and scales seemed to be derived partly from bebop, but mostly from Somewhere Else.
Holdsworth, as befits a determined individualist, also wrote quirky, often non-standard compositions. He seemed ill at ease with or uninterested in conventional song forms. In the 1980s he experimented briefly with vocal-led music, but soon abandoned having a singer in his band, and for the last 25 years of his life, he toured and recorded with a base trio format, adding a keyboards player occasionally. However, he always used the best musicians available, and there was no shortage of musicians who wanted to play with him. Like Frank Zappa, alumni of Holdsworth bands are to be found embedded in positions of veneration in the music industry all over the place. Holdsowrth’s best composi
tions are, like his solo playing, instantly recognizable, if only because almost nobody else could write tunes like that.
Unfortunately, the characteristics of his playing and compositional ability that made Allan Holdsworth unique also made him uniquely difficult to sell as a musical artist. That difficulty was exascerbated by his demanding and uncompromising personality. Unlike many other gifted instrumentalists, Holdsworth never became a fluent sight-reader, so the parallel career of a session player to pay the bills was not really an option for him. (He would have hated that line of work anyway). He also seemed to have a low boredom threshold, and tended to walk away quickly from any musical project that could not hold his attention. Stints with UK and Bill Bruford in the late 1970s ended quickly, as did an attempt to form a more conventionally-structured rock band (recording sessions for “Road Games” followed by the band I.O.U.).
Holdsworth’s many musical admirers included Steve Vai, Frank Zappa (who would probably have hired Holdsworth to play for him if he had been a sight-reader) and Eddie Van Halen, who assiduously lobbied for Warner Brothers to sign Holdsworth as a solo artist in the early 1980s. Hoever, after recording most of an album, Holdsworth and Warners fell out, and only a single truncated LP, “Road Games”, was released.
After that flirtation with the conventional end of the record industry, Holdsworth’s fate was to shuffle from independent record company to record company, releasing an LP here, a CD there. He moved to Southern California in the 1980s, worked and toured infrequently, and, like most jazz artists, suffered from the general downturn in the music industry, which has seen royalties, once a source of steady income for recording artists, shrink to almost nothing in the last 15 years. In occasional interviews, he came across as frustrated, but unrepentant. At the end of his life, he was scratching a living, and after his death, friends had to set up a GoFundMe for his anticipated funeral expenses. The fact that the appeal was shut down after 72 hours, having raised over $114,000 dollars against a $20,000 target, confirms that Allan Holdsworth still had a lot of friends and admirers.
A more conventional Allan Holdsworth would probably have worn tight trousers in a stadium rock band, played bombastic solos, been a hero to air guitar players…and would have been boring beyond belief. Instead we ended up with 40 years of a unique approach to guitar playing that re-wrote a lot of the vocabulary and expanded, sonically, harmonically and melodically, the entire landscape of what we know as Playing Guitar.
Rest In Peace Allan. We hardly knew ye.

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