The passing of Allan Holdsworth on Easter day has robbed the world of jazz, rock and, damnit, the world in general of a unique voice. Few people are gifted to bring something new to the world of music, but it could be argued that Holdsworth contrived not once, but twice, to change the sound of guitar forever. Holdsworth, self-deprecating as ever, would have denied such hyperbole. He once declaimed to this correspondent, in his quiet Bradford tones that decades in Southern California never quite extinguished, that his initial musical ambition was only ever to play Scotty Moore's solo off 'Hound Dog', "but I never could bloody get it down" he sighed.
In fact, Holdsworth was never that keen on playing the guitar at all. His whole playing career, in a perversity that Holdsworth's dry humour doubtless appreciated, was probably predicated on his ambition to make the guitar sound nothing like a guitar. He wanted it to be a horn. Or, at least a violin. But his father, who deeply shaped Holdsworth's musical sensibility, playing him a mix of Coltrane and Ravel, jazz and classics, couldn't afford to buy the young Allan the sax he desired. Instead Holdsworth had to make do with the guitar an uncle brought him.
Holdsworth the tyro guitarist hardly set the world on fire, joining as he did at the end of the Blues Boom and the nascent Prog Scene. From the off, his idiosyncratic chordings and long legato lines didn't fit with Clapton-era histrionics. But having taken the inevitable road south, it wasn't until his mid-twenties that Holdsworth found a fellowship with a generation of jazzers who increasingly didn't see a schism between the worlds of jazz and rock. Having your own voice was what mattered. Ray Warleigh and Gordon Beck became particular colleagues and mentors, and it was with Ian Carr's Nucleus that Holdsworth first grabbed the world by its ears. Following 1972's Belladonna came associations with Tempest (occasionally playing alongside the equally unique but tragically short-lived Ollie Halsall), Soft Machine and ultimately Tony Williams' New Lifetime.
This was the first time Holdsworth changed the guitar world. John McLaughlin, a fellow Yorkshireman who never lost respect for Holdsworth, may have gone first, yoking jazz and rock together, but it was Holdsworth who created something new from their synthesis, essentially inventing his own colour coded chord notation which still leaves students of the guitar bedazzled, creating a heritage in rock through the likes of Van Halen and Satriani or in jazz that has led to the likes of Ant Law and Alex Hutchings.
Holdsworth loved Tony Williams the musician – 'The Drums Were Yellow' being his tribute to Miles' 'little genius'. But his days with the drum man also summed up the fragile nature of the jazz world. When a tour with Williams collapsed, Holdsworth found himself broke in the USA and he literally had to hock his guitar to get home again. Again, when the adoring Van Halen wangled Holdsworth a Warners deal which should have won him the kind of superstar status that the likes of Bill Bruford always felt he deserved, it all fell through in what Holdsworth called a 'miserable experience' when the label rejected his choice of drummer and singer.
Holdsworth it seemed was always meant to plough a lone furrow, doomed to carry that ambiguous accolade of a 'musician's musician'. But that freedom from corporate moulding, his blithe ignorance of 'commercial potential' (it's no surprise Zappa was another soul brother) liberated Holdsworth, even if it never put cash in the bank. In the mid 1980s a series of albums, notably Metal Fatigue, Atavachron and Sand found him discovering a whole new voice, with songs like 'Non Brewed Condiment' bringing the SynthAxe to the fore. Not everyone loved the new vibe, but again this was Holdsworth changing the very sound of the guitar. Suddenly on songs like 'Distance v Desire' Holdsworth could be both orchestra and clarinet yet be playing guitar. Lush harmonies blossomed around eerie melodies, voiced in ways still yet to be understood. When he found he could add a blow tube, his ambition to breathe the guitar was finally achieved, and it was kind of fitting that his last solo album, Flat Tire in 2001, was almost entirely produced on synth guitar, with his ability to recreate 'fake' clarinets being as satisfying for him as anything in his previous 30 years of recording.
In the years since, Holdsworth grew quieter, his health more fragile. He kept up his interest in road cycling for as long as possible, and relished his own hand-pumped home brews, employing the swan necks he wanted to sell to US micro-breweries. Long-time associate and fellow Yorkshireman Gary Husband got him to play on his Dirty and Beautiful Vols 1 and 2, but even Husband couldn't get McLaughlin and Holdsworth together simultaneously in a studio.
But coming out from the pain of divorce that underwrote Flat Tire, with his solo catalogue re-issued by Manifesto, a new album being recorded and his first tour in years recently begun, it looked as if Holdsworth was about to bring pleasure to a whole new generation. But sadly it's not to be. Rest in peace, Allan Holdsworth, The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever.
– Andy Robson