TRIBUTE: Allan Holdsworth (1946 – 2017) by Mark Wingfield

Allan Holdsworth

Guitarist Mark Wingfield remembers ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: 

Allan Holdsworth is responsible for having revolutionized the guitar. as much as any other guitarist in the history of jazz (or any genre) and his death last month at the age of seventy is still sinking in. He was often credited with being a genius and rightly so.

His playing is so original that it’s difficult to reference him to any other guitar player. I sometimes heard Allan’s playing as a beautiful serpent moving like liquid through the music, undulating and bellowing beautiful and startling colours. He played the guitar more like a horn than a guitar, and yet his phrasing was utterly unique. As John Etheridge said of him recently, “Allan played like flowing water”.

Allan Holdsworth was so far above every other guitarist in his playing abilities that he was simply unreachable. Certainly on a technical level, in terms of single note speed and fluency, I don’t think there is anyone else who comes close on the guitar. This opinion is shared by every other guitarist I know on both sides of the Atlantic. That is one reason he’s such a legend amongst guitarists. But also artistically, Allan had something very special and unique.

Every guitarist knows that they can’t hold a candle to a great sax player or pianist in terms of speed and fluency. On the guitar it’s just not ergonomically possible to play like that. Except if you’re Allan Holdsworth. Listening to him in full flight it’s often hard to believe what you’re hearing. Can this really be a guitar? Can a guitarist actually be playing lines as fast and fluidly as Coltrane or Brecker?

For my generation of guitarists, Allan was more than an inspiration. He was clearly at a level technically no one else could reach, yet listening to him seemed to say to me as a young striving guitarist: you can go further than you think if you just work hard enough. On another level his playing seemed to say: you don’t have to stick to convention, there are new ways to approach an instrument, there are still new approaches to be discovered. I know many of my contemporaries share this inspiration.

What Allan could do technically was beyond remarkable, but what for me really made Allan great, was that all this speed and fluency was in the service of the emotion of the music. However fast he played, it never sounded like he was mindlessly shredding. Every line meant something, every flurry of notes was filled with pathos, poignancy, ecstatic urgency or wonderfully surreal strangeness. Allan’s unique approach to the guitar extended into his chord voicings as well. These voicings, never before heard on the guitar, were at the heart of his compositions. Some of these compositions were formed of unique chordal landscapes the like of which have not been heard before or since.

Some people call Allan’s music jazz others call it fusion. The association with fusion has possibly prevented him from being as widely known by jazz listeners as he deserves to be. I often wonder how and why people make these differentiations. “Jazz” guitar has been electrified for over fifty years, but I’ve noticed if you add too much distortion to your guitar or you have a synth in there, some people will automatically label if fusion, regardless of what the music is actually like. Allan often had both. Yet his music had all the elements of jazz: a melody with chord changes which was used as a vehicle to improvise, and lots of communication and interplay between the musicians. One thing that was different, is that Allan’s music often had a story like arc. It wasn’t just a straight forward tune followed by solos on the tune. This and the lack of adherence to convention, the use of electric instruments (with distortion), and the fact that he refused to be constricted to a set of do’s and don’ts in form, rhythm, or harmonic structure, meant that it took a long time for his music to be accepted as “jazz” and still isn’t by some.

The mind that gave him these amazing abilities also found life difficult to cope with and that struggle became increasingly impossible as time went on. Though I didn’t know Allan personally, being on the same record label I sometimes heard the inside story of how painful life had become for him and the downward direction his state of mind was taking. It became clear at a certain point that his lifestyle was taking a serious toll on his health.

 A huge, huge credit should go to Leonardo Pavkovic, the head of MoonJune Records. Leonardo did more to help Allan than anyone will ever know. Largely because of Leonardo’s help, Allan got an extra 15 years of live playing at the end of his career that otherwise would not have happened. Sadly despite various attempts, Allan didn’t feel able to complete any studio work during that last period, but he did many great live shows, some of which were recorded.

So with sadness we all say good bye to a guitarist the likes of which will never be seen again. An artist who invented an entirely new approached to the guitar, achieved the impossible on the instrument, played with passion and pathos, and created a unique musical vocabulary.


– The track Tullio from the album Hard Hat Area is and example of Allan playing like flowing water over one of his very extensive story like chord progressions. (LINK)

– To hear Allan playing something more straight ahead, I recommend How Deep Is The Ocean from the album None Too Soon. Most of this albums are standards. (LINK)

– The track Tokyo Dream from the album Road Games has Allan playing like a man possessed, over an extremely complex chord progression.  An example of how Allan’s passion driven playing would go to super human extremes and yet he’d somehow never put a note wrong. (LINK)

– The track 0274 from the album The Sixteen Men Of Tain a good example one of Allan’s characteristically complex, story like chord progressions and signature chord voicings. (LINK)

– For guitar fans I recommend the slightly more rocky track, Devil Take The Hindmost from the album Metal Fatigue which is an example (one of many) of Allan taking the guitar past the outer edges of what it should be able to do. (LINK)

Mark Wingfield wishes to thank John Etheridge for thoughtful contributions to this tribute.  

Mark Wingfield’s website

Categories: miscellaneous

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