The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever: Allan Holdsworth

In the ’70s, I ‘discovered’ two brilliant British guitar players who never, ever got their due. One was Ollie Halsall, the astounding guitarist, keyboard player and vibraphonist with Patto, Kevin Ayers and plenty more. The other was Allan Holdsworth, the amazing fusion guitarist who first hit my radar screen with the Tony Williams Lifetime.

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Halsall died in 1992 at the far-too-young age of 43, and now Mr. Holdsworth is also among the missing; he left the building Saturday, April 15th. Although their styles were not similar, they both had great things to offer, and I only just realized that, after Holdsworth played on the first album  by Tempest, a band created by Coliseum’s Jon Hiseman, Halsall played on the second Tempest album, Living in Fear.

I was fortunate enough to catch up with Holdsworth in October of 1991 at a smoky little downtown St. Petersburg club called Club Detroit (now the wonderful Ringside Cafe). I couldn’t tell you the first thing about his bandmates, only that, on a Sunday night, I sat in awe of his string-bending. I’d never seen anybody quite like him. I even got him to autograph my copy of Velvet Darkness (1976).

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Fareed Haque, the brilliant guitarist who has fronted his own band and Garaj Mahal, The Flat Earth Society and Math Games, offered this testimonial:

Allan Holdsworth is one of the true innovators and geniuses of modern electric guitar playing.

His approach to tone to harmony to technique, to phrasing was brilliantly inspired and truly innovative.

In addition his understanding of the highest level of extended jazz harmonies and lines was completely intuitive and deeply profound.

In many ways he is the John Coltrane of guitar.

I’m deeply saddened that Allan is gone and that we won’t have a chance to hear his next revelation. I guess we’ll have to wait till the next lifetime.

Peace to you, Allan.

I hear they do serve the finest beer in heaven!

The Allan Holdsworth discography is replete with many of the seminal names of the fusion movement. His first actual recording was with Ian Carr’s Nucleus on their Belladonna album (1972). Tempest was 1973, followed by his turn with ground-breaking Soft Machine on Bundles, including Holdsworth’s “Land of the Bag Snake.”

He was thrust into the limelight when Tony Williams formed his second Tony Williams Lifetime, with John McLaughlin out and Holdsworth in. The group also featured keyboard player Alan Pasqua and Tony Newton on bass. Believe It! was badass hardcore fusion, pure and simple, a 1975 smash. The follow-up, Million Dollar Legs, was mediocre by comparison.

Holdsworth went on to record three Gong albums with Pierre Moerlen, Gazeuse! (1976), Expresso (1977) and Expresso II (1978, and that one also features Darryl Way and Mick Taylor). He also worked with Jean-Luc Ponty in 1977 on Enigmatic Ocean, trading guitar leads with Daryl Stuermer. He would record with Ponty two more times.

Bruford had Holds play on his first solo album, Feels Good to Me (1978). The two went on to form U.K. with John Wetton and Eddie Jobson for the band’s debut in 1978 and its follow-up the next year, One of a Kind.

Holdsworth met jazz pianist Gordon Beck and played on his 1979 Sunbird. They collaborated on The Things You See a year later. Holds also formed a band which started as False Alarm but became I.O.U. And he was part of an incredible amalgam at Montreux 1982 featuring Billy Cobham, Didier Lockwood and David Sancious. A later edition of I.O.U. included Chad Wackerman and Jeff Berlin. And first real solo album Road Games was released in 1983.

As you can see, his resume is already stunning. But wait! There’s more!

1985 saw Holdsworth truly blossom with Metal Fatigue, and it blew up the following year when Atavachron introduced us to the synthaxe, which Holds defined as its most important purveyor. More albums followed, including Sand (1987), Secrets (1989), and another with Beck, With a Heart in My Song (1988).

He hooked up with Frank Gambale in 1990 for Truth in Shredding (rarely a more accurate title). He played with Level 42 on their Guaranteed album (1991) and on a pair of Chad Wackerman albums as well. In succession came Wardenclyffe Tower (1992), Hard Hat Area (1993), None Too Soon (1996), The Sixteen Men of Tain (2000), and Flat Tire: Music for a Non-Existent Movie (2001).

Holdsworth put together a tribute to the Tony Williams Lifetime in 2006 (Williams died in 1997) that featured Pasqua, Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip, yielding an album (Blues for Tony) and a DVD (Live at Yoshi’s). And 2008-2010 was spent with HoBoLeMa, including Terry Bozzio, Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto.

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I was lucky at Club Detroit. Holdsworth hated the fact that CTI published Velvet Darkness without his permission; it was a studio session with Pasqua, Alphonso Johnson and neared Michael Walden. He signed it anyway.

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Somehow, now, the name of his new album seems appropriate. Eidolon means spirit or apparition. His spirit will forever be in the music.

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