Great Guitars: Allan Holdsworth

Great Guitars: Allan Holdsworth

By Ross Boissoneau

When it comes to compiling a list of guitar gods there’s no lack of candidates. Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Joe Pass, Larry Coryell, Steve Morse, Eddie Van Halen and at least a couple dozen others would top the lists.

None of them is Allan Holdsworth. The nonpareil guitarist is unquestionably among the greatest axe-slingers of the past half century. Yet while he’s revered among guitarists, he’s practically unknown outside the guitar or jazz community. On April 7, 2017, the Manifesto label released the box set The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever! The Allan Holdsworth Album Collection, comprised of remastered versions of a dozen of his solo albums. Holdsworth passed away just over a week later.

“I recall a show I saw him at in London about 14 years ago. After the concert I said to him, ‘If I knew what you were doing, I’d steal everything.” – John McLaughlin

When he formed UK with Bill Bruford, John Wetton and Eddie Jobson, articles noted the depth and breadth of the band’s cumulative playing experience: Family, King Crimson, Yes, Curved Air, Gong, Soft Machine, Tony Williams New Lifetime, Jean-Luc Ponty among them. Those latter half were courtesy of Holdsworth.

Well-received by fans and critics, UK looked from the outside like a triumph, combining the best of electric jazz and progressive rock. Internally, however, things were falling apart. Holdsworth was notified while on the road that he would be replaced following the tour, and Bruford was dismissed by the other two shortly afterwards.

Allan Holdsworth

Allan Holdsworth

It’s perhaps the greatest disappointment in the annals of progressive rock or fusion. That’s not just the opinion of fans (guilty!), but that of others, such as Bruford himself, who said of Holdsworth: “To this day, his solo outing on “In The Dead Of Night” by the group UK remains one of the most perfectly formed, intelligently paced and brilliantly executed three minutes of liquid guitar bliss you are ever likely to hear.”

“I put Holdsworth up there with Paganini and Liszt. Terrifying.” – David Lindley

After UK crumbled, he continued on with Bruford in the drummer’s self-named band. The peripatetic guitarist also spent time in the British funk band Level 42, Derek Sherinian’s group Planet X, and the collective HoBoLeMa with Terry Bozzio, Tony Levin and Pat Mastelloto. The last 30 years of his to-short life were primarily spent leading his own bands, with sidemen like Jimmy Haslip, Gary Husband, Chad Wackerman, Jimmy Johnson, Gordon Beck, Gary Willis, Steve Hunt and others.

No matter the context Holdsworth stood out. His breathtaking speed and legato style were his hallmarks, but it was the emotional feel that accompanied his derring-do which struck many listeners. That’s where Mark Papagno feels he really shined. “The liquid legato, speed and intervallic leaps, yes, but I was really blown away by the emotional aspects,” said Papagno.

Papagno is active in a similar milieu, treading some of the territory as Holdsworth somewhere between progressive rock, fusion and avant garde. He saw Holdsworth perform live numerous times and became friends with his fellow guitarist. “I caught him every single time” he performed near Baltimore, said Papagno.

He recalled the first time he met Holdsworth. “I was standing at the bar when he came right up and introduced himself. It’s like your hand was touched by God. We talked for two hours,” Papagno said. “He was a super nice guy.”

Asked to name his five favorite Holdsworth albums, Papagno is off and running. “I.O.U. is still one of my favorites. It’s raw, but still spellbinding. It’s not as produced as some of the later ones,” he said.

It’s soon apparent he can’t stop at five. “Metal Fatigue, Wardenclyffe Tower, All Night Long, Atavachron. The Sixteen Men of Tain. The Lifetime discs (Believe It and Million Dollar Legs by the New Tony Williams Lifetime).”

Fellow guitarist Robert Fripp often said of King Crimson albums that the studio recordings were love letters while the live albums were hot dates. Among the hottest of Holdsworth live was Blues For Tony, a 2010 release by a quartet including two members of the new Tony Williams Lifetime, Holdsworth and Alan Pasqua. Another was released last year: Abracadbra in Osaka, a live date from Soft Works, a.k.a. the reconstituted Soft Machine. The dates from 2003 included Holdsworth, drummer John Marshall, bassist Hugh Hopper, and Elton Dean on saxophone and Fender Rhodes.

“Besides being emotionally swept away by Allan’s use of melodic color, most of the time I am utterly stunned and confused as to how he is playing what I am hearing.” – Steve Vai

Though he passed away unexpectedly in 2017, Holdsworth recordings continue to be released. Most recent was Jarusum International Jazz Festival 2014, which found him in the company of Husband and Haslip. The latter’s liner notes indicate how playing with Holdsworth impacted him. “Working with Allan Holdsworth was otherworldly and has left me with many deep emotional and indelible experiences,” Haslip said.

“The guy was brilliant. And a lovely person,” said Papagno. Unfortunately, we’ll not again hear him perform or see his like again, but fortunately for us all, his music remains.

“It is a real mystery to me why he is not a household name, but it really doesn’t matter. His contribution is large and I think all musicians know it.” – Pat Metheny

Ross Boissoneau is a regular contributor to Something Else! Reviews, Northern Express and Local Spins. He’s written for the All Music Guide, Jazziz and Progression Magazines, and is a member of the Downbeat Critics Poll.

Ross Boissoneau

4 thoughts on “Great Guitars: Allan Holdsworth

  1. Love seeing Allan’s name spread around in unusual and surprising locations! I’ve been a fan since 1977, and in the next 40 years went on quite the journey following his musical growth.

    He started out as a somewhat idiosyncratic rock player, but rapidly moved into progressive music and then jazz-rock. At a certain point he made the decision to focus on becoming the best improvisor he could be. Across all of his recordings, he never once repeated a solo.

    His own music has/had elements of modern classical and jazz (particularly Coltrane-era) and is dense and difficult for many listeners. He actually created his own unique framework for playing over changes that is intensely liberating once you begin to understand it.

    Love him or hate him – you will not hear any other guitarist that sounds like him – end of story.

  2. Thanks for keeping the flame burning… let’s not forget the musical contributions of this very special musician. He is dearly missed.

  3. THANK YOU for shining a new brilliantly bright light on one of music’s most criminally underrated and ignored masters ever. I agree 100% with Mr. Lindley, also. Terrifyingly beautiful. RIP, Mr. Holdsworth.

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