The Magnificent Architect of Improvisation: A Tribute to Allan Holdworth

Allan Holdsworth’s death from heart disease on April 15, 2017, was a stupefying shock. It was a blow to lose him so suddenly, and after a series of Southern California shows right before his death where family friend (and administrator of the unReal Allan Holdsworth Facebook Group) Manning Bartlett marveled, “He was still searching and growing.
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Allan Holdsworth’s death from heart disease on April 15, 2017, was a stupefying shock. It was a blow to lose him so suddenly, and after a series of Southern California shows right before his death where family friend (and administrator of the unReal Allan Holdsworth Facebook Group) Manning Bartlett marveled, “He was still searching and growing. His harmonic complexity was even more astounding than ever. He wasn’t resting on his past or going through the motions. He was continuing to evolve as a musician.”

Photo Credit: Neil Zlozower/Atlasicons

Guitar Player had just reviewed his new box set, The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!, and we were hoping he would make himself available for interviews, as he had done so graciously in the past to hold our readers spell-bound with his insights on creativity, technique, tone, and composition.

But it was also a shock to fully understand that his sublime artistry was never repaid in even bare-living wages—to realize that he had to sell gear to survive; or that during his last shows, he had to rely on fans to put him up for the night, or he’d have to sleep on the floor of the venue; or, finally, that his family and friends had to start a GoFundMe campaign to put this sweet and unassuming genius to rest.

However, these are woeful truths we will have to absorb and discuss as the full impact of Holdsworth’s loss to the community of guitarists and musicians unfolds. For now, let’s celebrate his artistry with tales from two brilliant players who were inspired greatly by his virtuosity.
—Michael Molenda

By Reeves Gabrels

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In my life as a guitar player, there are few pivotal musical moments. I think I am not alone—at least among those of us who came up in the ’80s and ’90s—for whom hearing Allan Holdsworth for the first time was exactly that. All one needs to do is look at the change in Eddie Van Halen’s playing between Van Halen and Van Halen II to see the impact—a debt that Eddie later paid by securing a deal for Allan for Road Games. Listen to any of us who popped into the public eye in that time period—Eric Johnson, Satriani, Vai, Shawn Lane, Vernon Reid, etc. The list is endless, and the best of us incorporated what Allan taught us as DNA we could splice onto our own, and grow a new branch. Other’s less so.

In 1976, a drummer friend turned me on to the new Tony Williams Lifetime album Believe It. All it took was Allan’s opening track, “Fred,” and nothing was ever the same. A door opened that would never close again. Over the years, Allan became a kind of musical imaginary friend to me. I tracked down every album I could that he appeared on—solo, band project, and guest appearances live or in the studio. Each album was a sort of letter—a musical correspondence that said, “Hey, check this out. This is what I am hearing now.”

You see, the thing about Holdsworth was that he didn’t have a bag of tricks. There were no pat riffs, no fall backs, or get-out-of-jail-free lines in his playing. He put the time into studying horn players and keyboard players (not guitarists), and evolved his own unique chord voicings and corresponding scale patterns. He was a pure improviser and musician who told his story in the moment, as deep and real as any blues, and as complex and modern as any contemporary composer.

Allan was a true gentleman (who never had harsh words for fellow musicians). I often think of jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw’s comment when an interviewer asked him the difference between himself and his contemporary, Benny Goodman. Shaw’s response: “Goodman plays clarinet. I play music.”

At the end of the day, that is the difference—with few exceptions—between Holdsworth and the rest of us guitar players.

I think the true lesson is in the individualistic concept. The dedication to the muse. The nobility in pursuing the art. And, to Allan, the words “thank you” are not enough. My eternal love, maximum respect, and undying gratitude. Play on.

By Carl Verheyen

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When I first met Allan Holdsworth in the ’70s, he invited me over to his house to jam. All I knew about him was what I’d heard on Bill Bruford’s One of a Kind album [1979]. With one listen, it was instantly apparent that this was a very different guitar player. Sitting across from the innovative genius and playing with him was already intimidating enough, but, one day, we decided to play his new song “Three Sheets to the Wind.”

To my ears, his concept for chord melody seemed to be aligned with Ted Green’s famous book Chord Chemistry, in that the three notes in a major triad may be voiced on any trio of strings, using any combination of intervals. Notice the E chord in Fig. 1. The third, G#, is on the bottom string with the root in the center of the chord and the fifth on top. (Use either hybrid picking or straight fingerpicking to sound the notes together.) The C triad in Fig. 2 compresses the outer notes, as they contract in contrary motion from the previous chord, while the E note on the fourth string stays common to both voicings.

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This concept of spreading out the notes of a chord into wide-interval voicings like this resonated with me years later, when my own chord vocabulary began to develop. I find it interesting that sometimes we learn something we’re not yet ready to absorb and apply, but, years later, the light bulb goes on and we get it.

But on that first day, I was instantly humbled when Allan showed me the chord voicings he used for the soloing changes in “Three Sheets to the Wind,” because my left hand couldn’t form the shapes quickly and cleanly enough. I limped home with my tail between my legs, and the next morning I locked myself in a room with a guitar. I refused to come out until I could go from a first position C chord to each of the wide-grip, pinky-stretch voicings illustrated in Figures 3-5—each of which includes a note cluster of a minor-or major-second interval.

From a first-position “cowboy” C chord, keep your second finger on the fourth string and slide it up to the C note at the 10th fret. Now, try to lay your fingers down simultaneously on the rest of the notes in Fig. 3, thrusting your pinky out there to grab the third string’s G note at the 12th fret. Practice this C-Fadd2 change over and over again, until the first-finger barre and other three fingers learn to come down all at once. Then, practice switching back and forth from Dm(add2) to Cadd2.

It took a little while until I could get these kinds of unorthodox chord voicings under my hands and incorporate them into my playing. But that was Step One. Step Two—actually blowing over those changes—was a much harder challenge. I’m still working on that 40 years later.