Allan Holdsworth, Virtuoso Guitarist Who Amazed His Peers, Dies at 70
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLOAPRIL 18, 2017
Allan Holdsworth performing with the progressive rock group U.K. in Central Park in 1978. Michael Putland/Getty Images
Allan Holdsworth, a self-taught guitarist whose protean, virtuosic style was a source of amazement even to his more famous peers, died on Saturday at his home in Vista, Calif. He was 70.
The cause was a heart attack, said Leonardo Pavkovic, Mr. Holdsworth’s former manager.
Mr. Holdsworth forged a relentlessly exploratory approach to harmony, which he brought to bear on both the guitar and the SynthAxe, a guitarlike synthesizer that allowed him added control over his tone and flow. He had his own vocabulary of unorthodox chords, often involving far reaches across the fretboard. As a soloist, he executed lightning-fast melodies with remarkable fluidity.
Reviewing a performance by Mr. Holdsworth in 1983, The New York Times’s Jon Pareles wrote: “He pours out notes in a liquid rush without slurring a single one. His sense of harmony reveals itself in daring melodic extrapolations and in chords that are complex and impressionistic yet as transparent as folk music.”
Mr. Holdsworth played in a number of seminal ensembles throughout the 1970s, including the Tony Williams Lifetime, Soft Machine and U.K. But he never seemed to arrive at any band’s moment of peak popularity, or to stick around long enough to accrue a major following.
Intransigently committed to his own artistic vision, Mr. Holdsworth sometimes clashed with record labels. And though he was constantly self-critical and battled stage fright even into his later years, he drew breathless praise from many guitarists — including Frank Zappa and Eddie Van Halen, both of whom considered him to be at the top of the class.
Mr. Holdsworth never thought much of his reputation as a musician’s musician. “I don’t like playing to guitar players, actually. I’d rather just play to ordinary people,” he said in a Canadian television interview in the 1980s. “But obviously it’s difficult with this kind of music because no one ever really gets a chance to hear it, because radio won’t play it. Because it’s not jazz, they don’t really know what to call it, so they don’t know where to put it.”
Allan Holdsworth was born on Aug. 6, 1946, in Bradford, England. He never knew his biological father, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents, whom he called his parents. His grandfather, a factory worker, was an amateur jazz pianist.
His favorite music when he was a child came from the saxophone, especially the recordings of John Coltrane. In an interview with the website guitar.com, he remembered Coltrane’s impact on him: “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.”
But Mr. Holdsworth’s grandparents could not afford to buy him a horn, so at 17 he picked up an acoustic guitar that was lying around the house and taught himself to play.
Throughout his life, he continued to prefer the sound of wind instruments. (He also taught himself the violin.) To avoid a choppy, percussive sound, he never strummed the guitar, even when playing chords. Instead he plucked each string with a separate finger. When playing lines, he avoided picking with his right hand, often letting his fretting hand do the work.
Mr. Holdsworth started playing in local bands in the late 1960s. He later moved to London, where he first recorded with an experimental rock band, ’Igginbottom, in 1969. By 1972 he had joined the fusion group Tempest; the next year he was invited into Soft Machine, a seminal progressive-rock ensemble.
But he left after two years when the American drum virtuoso Tony Williams, renowned for his work in Miles Davis’s quintet, asked him to join Lifetime, which had been one of the first jazz-rock fusion bands to emerge. Mr. Holdsworth stuck around for two albums.
He did stints in the late 1970s with the French jazz-rock band Gong, the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and the all-star band U.K. In 1979, struggling financially but eager to advance his career, he took out loans to release a solo album. (The first album under his name, “Velvet Darkness,” culled from rehearsal tapes, had been released by CTI in 1976 against his wishes, and flopped.) He called it “I.O.U.”
In the early 1980s he moved to California, where Mr. Van Halen heard him and persuaded Warner Bros. Records to sign him. But Mr. Holdsworth chafed at the label’s dictates, and he was dropped after releasing just one 24-minute record, “Road Games.”
On “Atavachron” (1986) and “Sand” (1987), Mr. Holdsworth introduced the SynthAxe, which could be activated with a breath controller, bringing him closer to a hornlike inflection.
He continued to record and perform over the next three decades. The album “The Sixteen Men of Tain,” released in 2000, was a particular highlight.
Mr. Holdsworth was married and divorced twice. He is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Lynne Holdsworth; two daughters from his second marriage, Louise and Emily Holdsworth; a son, Sam, also from his second marriage; and a granddaughter.
“What he gave me was complete freedom and liberation,” the drummer Gary Husband, who played with Mr. Holdsworth for 35 years, wrote of him in an email. “He came forward having developed from the instrument what he wanted the guitar to give him, which was completely other than what anybody else was doing with it.
“He chased simply what he heard and what he loved.”