Though Allan Holdsworth specializes in music that emanates from a radio/marketing no-mans land somewhere between jazz, rock, funk and easy listening, he's persistently pursued his rich musical vision for over 20 years, turning out material cherished by hordes of guitar aficionados around the world and greatly admired by fellow guitarists.
Back in the 70s Holdsworth had already attained the absolute pinnacle of what practically every plectorist strives for -- freedom from the percussive nature of the instrument and the ability to emulate the flowing legato lines of saxophone players. He's been refining that aesthetic ever since, coming closer than any other guitarist to capturing the spirit of John Coltrane on his instrument. Indeed, Trane has been Holdsworth's guiding light from the very beginning.
A cursory listen to any of Holdworth's ten recordings since his 1979 debut as a leader, I.O.U., reveals a player of astonishing technique -- the stunning streams of notes, unparalleled harmonic sophistication, singular chordal voicings produced by seemingly impossible reaches on the fretboard along with his orchestral scope as an arranger and his improvisational daring. But on his latest release, The Sixteen Men of Tain, the reluctant guitar god has trumped himself. Fueled by the rhythm tandem of former Chick Corea drummer Gary Novak and in-demand LA upright bassist Dave Carpenter, Holdworth has come up with his jazziest offering to date for the small, mail-order-only Gnarly Geezer Records (www.gnarlygeezer.com). The typically mind boggling legato chops are very much in tact on Tain, and the swinging, interactive dynamic underscores the Trane connection.
Guitar.com: Are you still playing with the trio that's on the record?
Allan Holdsworth: Since that recording, Gary Novak started working with Alanis Morrisette, so he's gone doing that. I'm playing with Dave Carpenter still but we've got Joel Taylor on drums. Joel's a really great musician. And it changes it again. Each guys brings something different. I'm also doing a tour of Europe with a different band -- Gary Husband and Jimmy Johnson. So that's going to be pretty different, too.
Guitar.com: What was your attitude going into this project?
Holdsworth: After doing the  album None Too Soon, which was like a bunch of old jazz tunes [by the likes of John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Django Reinhardt and Bill Evans] I wanted to pursue this direction but with my original music. The interpretation of my music varies depending on who's playing it. I had been playing with Gary Novak and Dave Carpenter, and I could hear that their interpretation was pushing into a different direction and it sounded really kind of natural. So I basically wrote the material that was on the new record with that in mind because I knew how Gary Novak would interpret it. He plays with a lot of energy but he can also play pretty soft. It's different from the way Gary Husband's interpretation would be and I was enjoying it. Also Dave Carpenter, who always on the live gigs would play electric bass I knew he played acoustic bass and I thought that would help even further to create the kind of sound I was looking for.
Guitar.com: I always felt your music was defined by the drummer. And I often wondered what these same tunes would sound like with, say, Billy Higgins on drums and Dave Holland on bass.
Holdsworth: It changes everything. The music actually stays in tact but the presentation of it changes it so much as well. Playing with Gary Novak and Dave Carpenter was just something I was enjoying. Plus, it was a lot less loud less volume. We toured with that group on and off for a couple of years and I really wanted to record it but I didn't have a record deal. So at the end of one of the last tours we did together I felt, "I really would like to record this now while we're still playing it." So we went into my home studio and recorded the basic tracks then, a couple of years ago. And I just shelved it. I stuck it off to the side and waited until such time as I could get a record deal to finish it. I'm glad I did that, actually. Because if I had waited until a deal came around [to record the basic tracks], it would've been different. I probably would have ended up doing it with different people. So I'm glad it happened how it happened.
Guitar.com: How has your recording studio evolved?
Holdsworth: Where I used to live, I just converted the garage. I didn't have a place that I could really record, it was just somewhere that I could mix. I could record guitar there because I made these special isolation boxes with a speaker and a microphone. I didn't make a lot of noise, so I could get the sound I wanted at pretty low level. That was how I did it then. But when I moved to where I am now in San Diego, a good friend of mine who's also a carpenter helped me convert the big garage into a studio. With this one, there was actually enough room that I could record drums too. It's still small and it wouldn't work with someone who plays perhaps at different levels volume-wise. With someone like Gary Husband, you really need to put him a nice big room to get the drums to sound the way they should. And because Gary Novak can also play very loud but typically plays a lot softer, I was able to do it there.
Guitar.com: Your legato sax-type attack has always come through in your playing going back to Soft Machine. If you listen closely, it's very much a Coltrane thing.
Holdsworth: He just completely turned my life upside down. I remember when I first heard those Miles Davis records that had Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane on them. It was fascinating to me, a major revelation. I loved Cannonball Adderley also but when I listened to Cannonball I could hear where it came from. I could hear the path that he had taken. But when I heard John Coltrane, I couldn't. I couldn't hear connections with anything else. It was almost like he had found a way to get to the truth somehow, to bypass all of the things that, as an improviser, you have to face. He found a way to be actually improvising and playing over the same material but in a very different way. That was the thing that really changed my life because I realized it was possible. His playing was just like a complete, total revelation to me. And I realized then that what I needed to do was to try and find a way to improvise over chord sequences without playing any bebop or without having it sound like it came from somewhere else. And it's been an ongoing, everlasting quest.
Guitar.com: When did you have this epiphany?
Holdsworth: When I was probably about 18, 19.
Guitar.com: You were already playing guitar at that time?
Holdsworth: Yeah, I was just dabbling with it. I was still really interested in the horn. I had wanted a saxophone, I didn't really want the guitar. But saxophones were pretty expensive in those days anyway, relative to a cheap acoustic guitar. There weren't so many guitars around then, not compared to nowadays. But my uncle played guitar and when he had bought himself a new guitar, he sold his old one to my father, who then gave it to me. And that's basically how it started.
Guitar.com: So prior to the Trane experience, were you playing in a more staccato fashion, picking every note in a more traditional style?
Holdsworth: More like that, yeah, in the beginning, certainly. Then I realized I could manipulate it a little more than I thought.
Guitar.com: What were some of your early experiments in that regard?
Holdsworth: I experimented with amplifiers and I realized an amplifier with an electric guitar was actually part of the instrument, not an afterthought. In the beginning I had always thought that the amplifier was an afterthought -- something you plugged this thing into to make it so people can hear it. But then I realized it could become part of the voice of the whole instrument, that it was totally connected. That's when I started experimenting with little devices so I didn't have to play loud to get a certain sustain or the sound that I wanted. I started experimenting way back then with little boxes because I was always interested in electronics. I wanted to be an electronics engineer when I left school but they told me that I couldn't because I was too dumb, my math was too bad. I subsequently found out that it wouldn't have mattered. Because it's like, you can have all the math in the world and never have an idea in your head. I always had ideas and I was always fascinated with electricity and electronics. Anyway, one of my father's friends was a radio ham and he built his own amplifiers and radios. I used to go over to his house and he would show me stuff. It was really fascinating.
Guitar.com: What were some of your earliest experiments with getting sustain and overdrive?
Holdsworth: Basically just realizing that if I pushed the amplifier to a certain point, I could get a certain kind of sound but then the sound became oppressive because it was forcing me to use this thing at a specific volume, which I didn't like. So I started experimenting with making boxes that would allow me to turn down the speaker. Basically like power attenuators now. Over the years it changed and I went in a whole different direction made boxes that converted the amplifier's output to line level. But in the old days I didn't do that, I used a device to actually turn down the speaker. Then I realized I could get this sound, which was closer to what I was hearing in my head. I just kept going, trying to do the same thing through trial and error. I would practice trying to play using a combination of left hand hammer-ons and right hand picking in a way where I could try and make the notes that were hammered louder than the ones that were picked so that I could bury them in each other. That way, you wouldn't be able to tell which was which. It just developed from there.
Guitar.com: Gary Novak seems to be a key to your latest recording. He's got that ability to play straight ahead and authentic or he can play very aggressively.
Holdsworth: It's a very interesting thing to play with different drummers and get the actual feel of the whole thing. Gary has a pretty amazing way of just making it feel good. It feels better than it does with other guys even though you can't really put your finger on it. Yeah, he's amazing.
Guitar.com: Speaking of drummers, you included a wonderful tribute to Tony Williams on this record ("The Drums Were Yellow"). I'm sure his passing must've hit you pretty hard.
Holdsworth: Yeah, it was a shock. I remember when it [happened] because we were just loading into Catalina's Bar & Grill in Hollywood and I remember Catalina coming out with this look on her face and saying, "You'll never believe what I just heard." We were all kind of horrified. We played there three nights with the trio and two nights as a quartet with (keyboardist and former Lifetime bandmate) Alan Pasqua. The last time that Alan and I had worked together in a group situation was when we played together with Tony. So we played a few things that we used to play with Tony, in his honor. It was really sad.
Guitar.com: Over the years you've bounced around to a lot of different record companies. What can you tell me about Gnarly Geezer?
Holdsworth: It's a very interesting situation, actually. Gnarly Geezer was started by two guys, Steve Solomon and Tom Voli. These two guys just decided they wanted to start a record company and they wanted me to be the first artist on the label. I think they had plans of getting other people eventually but they wanted to start somewhere so they asked me. They had set it up in a nice way and I didn't have a deal at the time so it seemed like a good thing for me to do. So far it's strictly mail order via the Internet but they are working on getting the records into major retail chains. I think it could work out pretty good. The new record has already done pretty good in Europe, England and Japan. I'm hoping it will do well in the States also.