Allan Holdsworth

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Allan Holdsworth
Allan Holdsworth



Allan Holdsworth is known to be a guitarists guitar player, and many of today's great guitar players mention him as a source of inspiration. His innovative legato technique in combination with wide stretches and "impossible" chords, makes his style and approach to music unique. He was also one of the first players to adopt the guitar synthesizer and played a major role in the 70's jazzrock movement.

Early career & influences

Allan Holdsworth, born August 6, 1946 in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, is son of a skilled amateur musician, that in early ages was taught music theory and began to play the saxophone, but switched to guitar at age 17, probably due to the lack of work for saxophone-players at that time. He states Django Rheinhardt and Wes Montgomery as his first role models, but the biggest impact on him was actually horn players like John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. He stated in an interview that when John Coltrane died, he locked himself into the bathroom and cried for hours. Influences also included Charlie Christian, Joe Pass and Eric Clapton. Rumours had always told that Alan was a violin-player, cause of his violin-like sound on the guitar, but that's not actually true, even though Allan bought a violin from a pawn-shop and practiced it for some years.

In the beginning of his career he paid his dues by playing on local dance establishments and clubs, playing whatever what was asked for. His first recording was made in 1969 with Igginbottom ("Wrench"). On occasion he met Ray Warleigh, one of the best tenor-sax players around at that time, and he brought him to London to perform at the legendary Ronnie Scotts with his band in the early 70's.

In 1971 he was a member of Sunship, a band that played mostly improvised music, and contained future-member of King Crimson, percussionist Jamie Muir. He was then "discovered" by Jon Hiseman, who had his "progressive"-rock band" Tempest" by that time, and was eventually touring internationally. He is featured on the cult-recording by Tempest from 1973 with the same name, as well as a recording made by BBC by the same time. His fame grew among musicians in the U.K, when beeing a member of avant-garde instrumental music ensemble, Soft Machine. In 1974 they released the album "Bundles", which led to an international reputation as a skilled guitar player.

Shredding the Jazzrock scene in the mid/late 70's

Drummer Tony Williams (ex. Miles Davis) heard Allan around 1975 and asked him to join his band "The New Lifetime", which was one of the leaders in the jazzrock-movement back then. Allan states that from the very beginning "Lifetime was just me and Tony". They just kept playing with musicians in Tony's apartment, until they found one that Tony really dug. Even Jaco Pastorius was said to be around.

Allan Holdsworth with the New Lifetime
Allan Holdsworth with the New Lifetime

Allan Holdsworth (1975)
Allan Holdsworth (1975)

Allan was then participating in many different constellations in the genre, adding colour with his personal sound/approach. He was playing with Pierre Moerlen's band "Gong", as well as participated on Bill Brufords (ex. Yes, King Crimson) first two solo albums and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty's solo albums. In 1976 CTI records released a solo album with Alan, known as "Velvet Darkness", against Alan's will. The album was made from some old tapes when he was rehearsing in a studio, and he still doesn't want to hear about it.

In 1977 he joined Bill Bruford, John Wetton and Eddie Jobson (ex-Roxy Music/Frank Zappa) to form one of the most succesful progressive-rock bands to be known as just "UK". Due to different thoughts about the music, Allan was asked to leave the band by John Wetton (Allan states that no personal matter was involved, they had just different musical directions), but appeared on Bill Brufords album "One Of A Kind" from 1979. He also begun a short-lived collaboration with pianist Gordon Beck, even though they played together later in his career, resulting in two more jazz-oriented albums. (Sunbird 1979 and The Things You See 1980)

Going solo

Tired of beeing a sideman/session player Allan formed his own band I.O.U in the beginning of the 80's. The name I.O.U is short for "I Owe You", which was a joke among the members - since they all liked beer, and got lousy wages, they might as well ending up beeing paying the club owner instead of getting paid. The first setup of I.O.U included drummer Gary Husband and bassist Paul Carmichael. His first release as a leader was in 1982 with an album just entitled "I.O.U".

In an interview in Guitar Player in 1983 Eddie Van Halen stated: "that guy is bad! He’s fantastic, I love him" and "he's the best, in my book." Van Halen persuaded Warner Bros. Records executive Mo Ostin to sign Allan, and he relocated to L.A by the same time his first album (EP) on Warner "Road Games" was recorded. Since Gary Husband left Alan's band to join Level 42, Chad Wackerman (ex. Zappa) and Jeff Berlin (from the Bruford band) joined Alan for the recordings. Along was also Jack Bruce, a long-time friend and collaborator of Allan's, who's doing some vocals on Road Games. Noteworthy is that Ted Templeman (Van Halens producer) was producing the album as well as the forthcoming "Metal Fatigue". The album was grammy nominated the next year. (1984)

Since Allan had controversies with Warner regarding his artistic freedom, he signed a new contract with Enigma Records. In 1985 Allan recorded "Metal Fatigue" with bassist/top session player Jimmy Johnson (Flim & the BB's) and Chad Wackerman, both of them still members of Alan's band. Also appearing on the album was bassist Gary Willis and original IOU drummer Gary Husband as well as others. One of the albums track's "Devil's take the Hindmost" was featured as a little plastic sleeve in Guitar Player, together with a transcription of the solo. (that the editor NEVER heard someelse manage...)

Ibanez AH10 signature guitar released in early 80's
Ibanez AH10 signature guitar released in early 80's

The following album "Atavachron" is best known for Allan's introduction of the guitar synthesizer "Synthaxe", which is present on and off on almost all of his solo recordings. (he was also doing some branding for them in ads etc.) The personnel are very much the same as on Metal Fatigue, but also featured Alan Pasqua (keyboard) and Tony Williams on one track.

The following album "Sand" in 1988 saw Allan's further explorations of the SynthAxe and the same year was also the third duo-album with pianist Gordon Beck released. The following year was Allan's studio "The Brewery" built (in L.A), and "Secrets" featuring drummer Vinnie Colaiutta was recorded on location. The name for the studio was taken from one of Alan's major interests in life except the guitar - beer! Allan is known to be a real connossieur and knows a lot about the art of brewing. (he also brews his own beer since 1999)

During the eighties Allan also recorded as a guest soloist/collaborator with artists such as: John Stevens, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jon St. James, Krokus, Stuart Hamm, Stanley Clarke and Jack Bruce amongst others.

Further explorations

Allan's friend/drummer Gary Husband was working with Level 42 in the beginning of the 90's, when their guitarist Alan Murphy died from pneumonia. Murphy, who actually was a big fan of Allan, was replaced by Allan for the album "Guaranteed" and Allan was joining Level 42 on a series at Hammersmith Odeon in London. Due to a misunderstanding between Allan and the band's leader bassist Mark King, Alan was never hired permanently in the band, even that he might be wanted to.

Allan followed up his solo career in 1992 with the album "Wardenclyffe Tower" that introduced a collaboration Allan had with luthier Bill DeLap - the Baritone guitar! Keyboard-player Steve Hunt started to appear on Alan's records and in conjunction with icelandic bass player Skull Sverrisson and drummer Gary Husband, they made a release in 1994 entitled "Hard Hat Area".

In the beginning of the 90's it was popular amongst metal-bands to use the Baritone guitar for getting lower bass tones, but the first Baritone was actually made in the 50's by Danelectro. Ed. note.

Allan changed direction in 1996 with the album "None to soon", which can be seen as a tribute to his role-models, containing jazz-standards such as "Nuages", Countdown" and even "Norwegian Woods" by the Beatles. His fellow jazz-piano player Gordon Beck, monster-bass player Gary Willis and Kirk Covington made up the band, and the album was recorded at the Brewery.

He also made a visit in Sweden 1996, collaborating with the brothers Johansson (Jens and Anders), whose are son's of world-famous jazz piano-player Jan Johansson on their album "Heavy Machinery".

Continueeing the tradition from the previous solo-album, Allan continueed with an acoustic rhythm-section/jazz motifs on the album "The Sixteen Men of Tain" (1999), which refers to Glenmorangie, a distillery in Scotland.

The new Millenium

Allan with Carvins signature model
Allan with Carvins signature model

Due to the divorce in 1999, Allan had to sell off his studio and wasn't recording/beeing active as much as before in the beginning of the new Millenium. He hasn't been releasing a studio solo record since "The Sixteen Men of Tain", but have done a lot of live performances, as well as two live-albums (the first for Sony in Japan) entitled "All Night Wrong" (2002) and "Then!" (2004).

These was the first official live-recordings from Allan, since he is very self-critical and never have approaved a live recording, even though he had been bootlegged for numerous times. He is known to be suffering of "stage-fright", and is legendary about the criticism about his own playing. But at the same time he admits this to be one of the reasons for developing his style and to continueeing to explore music.

Allan has also worked close to Carvin in order to produce a new signature model, which he also uses himself. Picture can be seen to the right.

People about Allan

Allan writing autographs at NAMM 2009
Allan writing autographs at NAMM 2009

- Edward Van Halen ("He's the best in my book.")
- Yngwie Malmsteen ("I had to take my hat off to him.")
- Frank Zappa ("He's the most interesting guitarist in the universe.")
- Steve Vai ("The two best electric guitarists are Jeff Beck and Allan Holdsworth.").

Other guitar player's that mentions Allan as a source of inspiration includes Frank Gambale, Brett Garsed, Shawn Lane, Guthrie Govan amongst others.

He has also been voted best guitar player for 5(!) times by readers of the magazine "Guitar Player".


Allan's style is immidiately reconizeable and he has an unique sound as well as an unique approach to the electric guitar. He is known for huge stretches of his fingers and an outstanding legato technique and his unusual chord voicings. (often in combination with volume pedal to obtain swells) He has a complicated rhytmic approach and his timing is truly remarkable. He plays with a singing distorted sound, that have tended to be less with distorsion in the past 20 years. He states that it's actually the sustain he's after rather than the distorsion - probably to sound more like a horn player. He' been using the SyntAxe extensively as well as Baritone guitars, but are seldom heard playing acoustic guitars.


Allan has used a lot of different gear throughout the years. Guitars included are Gibson SGs, Fender Strats with humbucker's (in early day's), Ibanez signature model and Charvels. The same goes for the amps where he have been using Fenders, Marshalls, Mesa/Boogies, Jim Kelley amps amongst others. Allan is a real "tone-seeker" and have'nt still stopped looking for "the perfect tone". His current setup consists of the following:

Steinberg Allan Holdsworth signature model, the GL2TA-AH with passive Seymour Duncan SH-AH1 Humbucker pickups.
Bill DeLap Guitars (he owns a couple of baritones as well)
Carvin HF2 and HF2 Fatboy.
The HF2 is semi-hollow, the fatboy completely hollow.
(The Synthaxe was made by Bill Aitken in the 80s and is a fretted, guitar-like MIDI controller with or without a breath controller with no "real" guitarstrings )

2 Yamaha DG80 112 Digital Modeling Amp (for clean sound)
Hughes and Kettner TriAmp MKII, ZenTera.

Yamaha UD Stomp
6(!) Yamaha Magicstomp (for delay & pitch-shifting)
Rocktron Intelliflex

He uses mostly 008 strings except for the Fatboy which is stringed by 009 strings. He prefers Dunlop 1mm picks.


Solo albums:
1976: Velvet Darkness (not official)
1982: I.O.U.
1983: Road Games (EP)
1985: Metal Fatigue
1986: Atavachron
1987: Sand
1989: Secrets
1992: Wardenclyffe Tower
1993: Hard Hat Area
1996: None Too Soon
1997: I.O.U. Live (live) (not official)
1999: The Sixteen Men of Tain
2001: Flat Tire: Music for a Non-Existent Movie
2003: All Night Wrong (live)
2004: Then! (live)
2005: The Best of Allan Holdsworth: Against the Clock (compilation)

As a collaborator:
1979: Sunbird – with Gordon Beck
1980: The Things You See – with Gordon Beck
1988: With a Heart in My Song – with Gordon Beck
1996: Heavy Machinery – with Jens Johansson and Anders Johansson
2009: Blues for Tony – with Chad Wackerman, Jimmy Haslip and Alan Pasqua (double album)

With others:
1969: Igginbottom's Wrench – Igginbottom
1972: Belladona – Nucleus
1973: Tempest – Tempest
1975: Bundles – Soft Machine
1975: Believe It – The New Tony Williams Lifetime
1976: Million Dollar Legs – The New Tony Williams Lifetime
1976: Gazeuse! – Gong
1976: Capricorn Princess – Esther Phillips
1977: Re-Touch & Quartet – John Stevens
1977: Enigmatic Ocean – Jean-Luc Ponty
1978: Expresso II – Gong
1978: Feels Good to Me – Bruford
1978: U.K. – U.K.
1978: Live In Boston – U.K.
1978: Touching On – John Stevens
1979: One of a Kind – Bruford
1979: Time is the Key – Pierre Moerlen's Gong
1980: Conversation Piece – John Stevens
1981: Land of Cockayne – Soft Machine
1983: Individual Choice – Jean-Luc Ponty
1983: Retouch – John Stevens
1984: Transatlantic – Jon St. James
1986: Soma – Soma
1986: Change of Address – Krokus
1986: Fast Impressions – Jon St. James
1988: Radio Free Albemuth – Stuart Hamm
1988: If This Bass Could Only Talk – Stanley Clarke
1988: No Borders – Carl Verheyen
1988: The Distance Between – Strange Advance
1989: Attack of the Neon Shark – Alex Masi
1989: A Question of Time – Jack Bruce
1989: Guitar's Practicing Musicians – various artists
1990: Truth in Shredding – The Mark Varney Project
1990: Silent Will – Andrea Marcelli
1990: Blue Tav – Steve Tavaglione
1991: Love in Peace – Paz
1991: Forty Reasons – Chad Wackerman
1991: Guaranteed – Level 42
1992: Lone Ranger – Jeff Watson
1993: The View – Chad Wackerman
1993: Come Together: Guitar Tribute to the Beatles – various artists
1995: Suffer – Gongzilla
1995: Oneness – Andrea Marcelli
1995: Worlds Away & Back – Strange Advance
1996: Stare – Gorky Park
1997: From Your Heart and Your Soul – Steve Hunt
2002: Pray for Rain – Atlantis
2003: BBC Radio 1971-1974 – Soft Machine
2003: Abracadabra – Soft Works
2004: Sonic Undertow – Riptyde
2004: Mythology – Derek Sherinian
2004: Book of the Dead – K2
2005: Nebula – David Hines
2005: Anthology: Under the Blossom – Tempest
2006: Deconstruction of a Postmodern Musician – Corrado Rustici
2006: Floating World Live – Soft machine
2007: Prowlin' – Dan Carlin & Friends
2007: Quantum – Planet X
2007: The Acatama Experience – Jean-Luc Ponty
2007: Rock Goes to College – Bruford
2008: Progasaurus – Chris Buck2008: Everyone Knows My Drinking, No One Knows My Thirst – Eric Keyes
2009: Highway Star – Snew 2009: The Early Years – Paul Korda
2009: Propensity – with Danny Thompson and John Stevens (originally recorded in 1978)


(Ed.note: Since Allan had'nt produced an official video before this millenium, most of these are bootleg movies, and I will recommend his records instead, even that the material here is awesome!)

Related GMC Lessons

Alan Holdsworth Chordal Style
Lydian Modulation

Sample transcriptions

Devil take the hindmost ("Metal Fatigue" 1985, transcribed by Steve Vai)

Devil take the hindmost 1
Devil take the hindmost 1
Devil take the hindmost 2
Devil take the hindmost 2
Devil take the hindmost 3
Devil take the hindmost 3

See also

Allan Holdsworth's homepage

Interview with Allan by Bill Milkovski

Interviev with Allan (2004)