The news of Allan Holdsworth’s passing could have knocked me over with a feather. While I have lamented the aging and passing of many of my favorite musicians https://cirdecsongs.com/2017/02/21/father-time-remains-unbeaten/ , I was nonetheless unprepared to hear about the death of another favorite today.
Allan Holdsworth was one of the most innovative and expressive guitarists in music. He released 12 albums as a solo artist. But more often than not, he made his greatest impact as a bandmember or sideman. Guitarists who love Eddie Van Halen but fail to recognize Holdsworth should probably take their Van Halen records outside and burn them. Because even EVH would be quick to acknowledge the influence Holdsworth had on him.
I was being captivated and influenced by Holdsworth before I knew who he was. I thought he had come in to my musical life by way of the King Crimson family tree. He had a knack for showing up with Bill Bruford, my favorite drummer. My 1985 introduction to Crimson led me to all kinds of magical, musical places. For starters, I learned about U.K., the band Holdsworth and Bruford formed along with bassist/vocalist John Wetton and violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson. Their eponymous debut album remains among the most important in my collection, primarily due to Holdsworth’s guitar. His work on the album’s opening track alone more than justifies my reasons for admiration.
When Bruford left U.K. to form his own band, he took Holdsworth with him. They made a couple of remarkable albums together as the band Bruford (which also featured bassist Jeff Berlin and keyboardist Dave Stewart). I have more than a few favorite Holdsworth moments on these albums. This one came to mind almost immediately.
As it turns out, I’d heard Holdsworth’s “angular” guitar style about seven years before, in ’78, when he was playing with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. My dad was a big fan of Ponty’s, and used this band to get his rock-loving son interested in jazz. The tactic worked, and I was a Ponty fan almost immediately. The violinist changed band members so frequently between ’75 and ’82, I often lost track of who was in the band. Only later did Holdsworth’s name stick out, even though his sound was highly distinctive.
The mid-80s were all about progressive rock for me. The more artists I could bring into the fold after the Great King Crimson Revelation, the better. Once I learned Holdsworth had released albums as a solo artist, I was all over them. I could only imagine what that unique tone would sound like fronting the band. I was not disappointed.
Holdsworth even introduced me to a new instrument: the SynthAxe. Half guitar, half synthesizer, the instrument brought forth some unique sounds. They only seemed to accentuate the guitar tone Holdsworth already owned, along with his nearly impossible to grasp chord shapes. Guitarists Jeff Lorber and Lee Ritenour also used the SynthAxe from time to time, but it never sounded better to me than when it was wielded by Holdsworth.
Unfortunately, Holdsworth’s music got lost in the shuffle at the dawn of the 90s. I had gone from progressive rock to jazz to grunge and back again repeatedly. I never stopped respecting Holdsworth’s sound. I was just hearing a lot of other things as well. By the mid-90s, I had taken up playing the guitar myself. My instructor, well aware of my love of King Crimson and Adrian Belew, asked me if I had ever heard of Allan Holdsworth. I remember laughing loudly before rattling off the albums I had, and was quickly joined in laughter by my understanding teacher. Over the years, he kept me in the loop about what Holdsworth was doing. Sometimes we’d sit together in the guitar shop and marvel over what Holdsworth was playing on his latest CD.
More than a few musicians have their fair share of imitators. Holdsworth is not one of them. His technique is too difficult to approach casually. His chord shapes take levels of dexterity I can only dream of. Andy Summers does a fairly good job of approximating those shapes, but he is the only guitarist I can think of who can. Allan Holdsworth truly seemed to be one of a kind.
To help me write these words, I went to my CD shelves to pull down some of my favorite Holdsworth music. Even better than realizing how much of it I had was discovering how many different places I had to go to get it. That is the mark of a sound innovator, and those kinds of musicians simply don’t come along every day. I will be forever grateful that this man’s music entered and remained in my musical orbit. It may not have always been the most important sound in my life, but it always mattered. And it always will.
Rest in peace, Allan Holdsworth. You will be deeply missed.