By Christopher Scapelliti
What does it take to become a guitar hero to guitar heroes? Take a listen to Allan Holdsworth and you’ll get an idea. The jazz-fusion innovator has been hailed by such six-string legends as Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani. No less a player than Eddie Van Halen told Guitar World in 1980, “To me, Allan Holdsworth is number one.”
Holdsworth, who died of a heart attack on April 16 at the age of 70, was the guitarist other players looked up to.
The reason is evident in the listening. Holdsworth’s chord vocabulary and exquisitely sophisticated chord progressions were dazzling enough, to say nothing of his solo guitar work, in which he applied any variety of scale forms to create lines of complexity, unpredictability, and saxophone-like fluidity. (Reportedly, he started out wanting to be a saxophonist; he just couldn’t afford the instrument.)
But his daunting talent was also evident in the viewing. Holdsworth’s fret-hand reach was legendary and intimidating to view. It’s not surprising that few guitarists have attempted to replicate his music. The physical challenges and technical hurdles alone are enough to rule out most players.
After taking up guitar in the early Sixties at the relatively late age of 17, Holdsworth plied his own singular approach to the instrument, first as a sideman and later on his own. Following an album with the legendary avant-jazz group Soft Machine in 1975, he migrated first to drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime project, then to French-English prog rockers Gong, before landing in the supergroup U.K. in 1978. It was there, working alongside drummer Bill Bruford, bassist John Wetton, and keyboardist Eddie Jobson, that Holdsworth first came to the attention of many guitarists.
In 1982, he launched his prodigious solo career, one that saw him release some 15 authorized live and studio albums of largely original compositions, alongside collaborations with fusion guitarist Frank Gambale and jazz pianist Gordon Beck. The resulting catalog found Holdsworth straddling the genres of jazz, rock, and prog. He was also been something of a technological pioneer for his embrace in the Eighties of the SynthAxe, a guitar-like MIDI controller he enthusiastically put to use in his music for some 15 years.
Earlier this month, on April 7, Holdsworth’s long career was celebrated with the release of The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!, a box set comprising all 12 of his solo albums from 1982 to 2003. Sadly, he died unexpectedly just nine days after its release. The cause of his death has not yet been made public.
Holdsworth’s family has set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for his funeral expenses. To contribute, please visit here.
Allan Holdsworth’s unique contribution to the electric guitar is unquantifiable. I remember him saying to me once that his goal was to create a catalog of music that was undiluted. Well, that he did…. Dear Allan, you were extraordinary and from all of us who you’ve touched so deeply with your brilliance, we are grateful. Rest in deep peace my friend.