Holdsworth, Allan

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Allan Holdsworth

Guitar player, composer

Allan Holdsworth's unique legato guitar stylings and furious speed have inspired the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and the late Frank Zappa. Though he is a perennial winner of Guitar Player magazine readers' polls, he has never attained the kind of commercial superstar status accorded other guitar giants. Through ties with rock and fusion bands, Holdsworth has established a reputation as one of the finest soloists to come out of the English progressive rock scene of the 1970s.

Holdsworth was born on August 6, 1946, in Bradford, England. His father, an amateur jazz pianist, encouraged him to learn piano, but he was more interested in the saxophone. He especially liked Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane. Not surprisingly, Holdsworth's fluid guitar style has often been compared to the sounds produced by saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Coltrane. When he was 15, his father gave him a guitar and taught him some basic skills. He had an ear for jazz guitarists Jimmy Rainey, Charlie Christian, Jim Hall, and Joe Pass, but also liked Eric Clapton's electric blues sounds.

After playing rock numbers for a time in a local band, he formed a unit called Igginbottom in 1968, with Steve Robinson on guitar and vocals, Mick Skelly on bass, and Dave Freeman on drums. They released one album, Igginbottom's Wrench, and folded shortly thereafter. The album has been re-released as Allan Holdsworth and Friends Igginbottom's Wrench. In 1969 Holdsworth hooked up with trumpeter Ian Carr and his ever-changing band Nucleus on their album Belladonna. At that time the group also included Dave MacRae on keyboards (later of Robert Wyatt's band Matching Mole), Gordon Beck on piano, Clive Thacker on drums, Trevor Tompkins on percussion, and Roy Babbington on bass. Holdsworth departed when Nucleus expanded its lineup by adding, among others, bassist Tony Levin (later of King Crimson). In 1972 Holdsworth did a brief stint with rock band Tempest, which included John Hiseman on drums, Mark Clarke on bass, Ollie Halsall on guitar, and Paul Williams on vocals. They released a debut album of the same name and toured as an opening act for blues guitarist Rory Gallagher.

When Robert Wyatt left the band Soft Machine in 1972, he was replaced by Nucleus drummer John Marshall. That trend continued in 1973 when Nucleus saxophonist and keyboard player Karl Jenkins replaced sax man Elton Dean, and bassist Roy Babbington replaced Hugh Hopper. With ex-Nucleus members comprising the bulk of the outfit, it was natural that Allan Holdsworth should come in for the 1975 Soft Machine set Bundles. Once the opening act for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Soft Machine had never featured a lead guitarist, let alone one of Holdsworth's caliber. His contributions gave the band a much needed lift and helped steer it in a guitar-oriented direction. Holdsworth truly left his mark on the band, as he was replaced by jazz guitarist John Etheridge upon his departure.

Holdsworth's next stop was in The New Tony Williams' Lifetime. Williams's earlier version of the band, featuring John McLaughlin on guitar and Larry Young on organ, was regarded by many, including Miles Davis, as the finest fusion of rock, R&B, and jazz of its time. Holdsworth and Williams, joined by bassist Tony Newton and keyboard player Alan Pasqua, released Believe It in 1975 to wide acclaim. Holdsworth's unique harmonic excursions were surprisingly well suited to the precise jazz stylings of Williams. They followed that release with Million Dollar Legs in 1976.

For the next few years, Holdsworth collaborated with a number of artists in the English progressive rock scene. He played on Jean Luc Ponty's 1977 release Enigmatic Ocean, with bassist Ralphe Armstrong, Allan Zavad on keyboards, Steve Smith on drums, and Darrell Steurmer on guitar. He was also featured on the Pierre Moerlen-led Gong album Gazeuse!. Two albums with Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, Feels Good and One of a Kind, put him alongside Dave Stewart on keyboards, Jeff Berlin on bass, Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, and Eddie Jobson on violin. During that period he also recorded the more commercially accessible U.K. debut album with Bruford, Jobson, and bassist John Wetton. The "super group" experiment was not consistent with Holdsworth's personal musical directions, and he departed before U. K. recorded subsequent releases Danger Money and Night after Night.

His next effort, billed as his first true solo project, was I.O.U., featuring Paul Carmichael on bass, Gary Husband on drums and piano, and Paul Williams, formerly of Tempest, on vocals. By all accounts, Holdsworth turned up the juice on this set, achieving a sophistication and subtlety he was not able to express in a group context. Critics were less than kind as to Williams's vocals, but the album was seen as a long overdue step for Holdsworth. Recorded in 1979, its release was delayed until 1982. On the heels of I.O.U. he released a six track mini-album, Road Games, with Jack Bruce and Jeff Berlin alternating on bass, Chad Wackerman on drums, and Paul Williams again on vocals. Holdsworth was not happy with this effort and the mix was improved for the 2001 CD release.

Between 1985 and 1992 Holdsworth released several albums backed by the core lineup of Alan Pasqua on keyboards and Gary Husband and Chad Wackerman on drums. 1985's Metal Fatigue, also featuring Paul Williams on vocals and Jimmy Johnson on bass, has been regarded as one of his best. Standout tracks were "Devil Take the Hindmost" and "Un-Merry-Go-Round." The following year he released Atavachron, which, of all things, included cover art depicting him as a character in a Star Trek episode of the same name. Truly a product of its time, Atavachron was intended as a futuristically themed vehicle for introducing Holdsworth's experiments with the synth axe. Like many synthesizer-based projects of the 1980s, it now comes across as somewhat dated and overproduced. Likewise, the 1987 release Sand, though more rhythmically exciting, suffered for sounding more like a keyboard exercise than the kind of agile and expansive guitar work that Holdsworth pioneered. He all but shelved the synth axe for the 1989 release Secrets, which is regarded by many critics as his compositional peak. On Wardenclyffe Tower, he introduced the baritone guitar and reached for a softer, more lyrical style.

In 1993 Holdsworth, backed by bassist Skuli Sverrisson, keyboard player Steve Hunt, and Gary Husband on drums, cut Hard Hat Area. Like Wardenclyffe Tower, this album did not rely on synth axe, and it had more of a rock feel. On 1996's None Too Soon, Holdsworth covered two standards beautifully, the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and Coltrane's "Countdown." In a jazzier vein, Sixteen Men of Tain featured Dave Carpenter on acoustic bass, Walt Fowler on trumpet, and Gary Novak on drums. In this set Holdsworth blended his guitar and synth axe to create a mellower sound. He returned to the synth axe with Flat Tire Music for a Non-existent Movie, teamed again with Dave Carpenter.

Despite his reputation as a virtuoso, Holdsworth has never been too fond of live performances. In a 2005 Abstract Logix interview he explained: "I don't really do very well on the road. Back when I worked with Tony (Williams) I remember I used to do a lot of stuff in hotel rooms. That was years ago. Now I like to be at home and just sit down with a guitar and try to come up with a few ideas. If it feels OK then I'll make notes and just keep going back until I can make it grow into something. But on the road I get panicked, I get really nervous about playing." Nevertheless, Holdsworth released two live sets: I.O.U. Live in 1997 and All Night Wrong in 2002. Both were recorded in Tokyo, in 1984 and 2002, respectively. In 2003 Holdsworth also toured and recorded with the Soft Machine alumni band Softworks, with Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper, and John Marshall.

For the Record …

Born August 6, 1946, in Bradford, Yorkshire, England; son of a pianist.

Guitarist with Igginbottom, late 1960s; joined Soft Machine, 1973; released first solo album, Velvet Darkness, 1977; released Road Games, 1983; released The Sixteen Men of Tain, 2000.

Addresses: Management—Email: [email protected] Website—Allan Holdsworth Official Website: http://www.thereal-allanholdsworth.com.

Selected discography

With Igginbottom

Igginbottom's Wrench, Deram, 1969; reissued on Deram-Japan, 1988.

With Ian Carr's Nucleus

Belladonna, Vertigo, 1972.

Direct Hits, Vertigo, 1973.

With Soft Machine

Bundles, Harvest, 1975.

Triple Echo, Harvest, 1977.

Land of Cockayne, EMI, 1981.

The Untouchabler, Castle, 1990.

Best of the Harvest Years, See for Miles, 1995.

BBC Radio, 1971-74, Hux, 2003.

With Soft Works

Abracadabra, Universal, 2003.

With Tony Williams New Lifetime

Believe It!, Columbia, 1975.

Million Dollar Legs, Columbia, 1976.


Velvet Darkness, CTI, 1976.

I.O.U., Enigma, 1982.

Road Games, Warner Brothers, 1983.

Metal Fatigue, Enigma, 1985.

Atavachron, Enigma, 1986.

Sand, Relativity, 1987.

Secrets, Intima, 1989.

Wardenclyffe Tower, Restless, 1992.

Best Works Collection, Jimco, 1992.

Just for the Curious (instructional), CPP Media, 1993.

Hard Hat Area, Polydor, 1996.

I.O.U. Live, Purple Pyramid, 1997.

The Sixteen Men of Tain, Polydor, 1999.

None Too Soon, Polydor, 2000.

Flat Tire-Music for a Non-Existent Movie, Megazoidal, 2001.

All Night Wrong, Sony, 2002.

Then!, Alternity, 2003.

With U.K.

U.K., Polydor, 1978.

U.K./Danger Money/Night after Night (CD reissue), R&R, 1999.



Guitar Player, February 1993; April 1998; January 2004; November 2004; October 2005.


Abstract Logix,http://www.abstractlogix.com/interview_view.php?idno=80, (February 15, 2007).

Allan Holdsworth Official Website,http://www.therealallanholdsworth.com, (January 18, 2007).

All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com, (January 18, 2007).