Farewell, Allan Holdsworth

It was probably about 1987. I was a skinny 15 year-old kid starting to take guitar lessons at a local music shop. My mom was a great sport and drove me there each week and camped out in the parking lot while I sat with my instructor. Sadly, I can't remember his name, but I remember he looked like the spitting image of Richard Marx. 

When I first started studying with him I listed all of the players that got me started: Jimmy Page, Hendrix, Clapton, Eddie, Satriani and Vai. We were both into all of those guys, but my Richard Marx look-alike was also pretty hip to fusion scene happening at the time. One day he asks me, "have you ever heard of Allan Holdsworth?" 

Being a big Eddie fan, I had devoured everything I could read about him and Holdsworth often came up in his interviews in those days. I had heard the name, but had no idea who this guy was. The next week my teacher gave me a cassette with Holdsworth's Metal Fatigue and I.O.U. When I got home I popped the thing into my cassette deck, pressed play and preceded to have my mind blown. 

The first track I heard was the title track from Metal Fatigue. The opening crunch and dissonance of those chords were something I'd never heard before. Then just as soon as the groove gets happening, the crunch disappears into luxurious guitar-fueled soundscapes that sounded more like Andy Summers playing a synth than a guitar. The abrupt changes, the complex harmonies and the serpentine melodies totally threw me. And then oh my god Allan let loose with that signature sound for his first solo and it was like getting punched in the face. 

Who sounds like this? What is even going on here? What key is this even in? 

I may not have know every trick in the book of my guitar heroes to that point, but I had a good idea where they were coming from. Holdsworth was like meeting someone from another world speaking a language like I'd never heard. I didn't understand what I was listening to, but I was enthralled right away and knew that this guy was on to something. 

Over the years Holdsworth's musical wanderlust didn't always produce records I liked as much as those first ones I heard. Some (Sand for example) lost me with the heavy emphasis on the synth-axe. But others (Hard Hat Area) felt like a return the essential Holdsworthian sound without being a retread of earlier efforts. No matter what though, I always had deep respect and admiration for his purity of purpose. It was clear that he was not interested in being a pop star and you always had the sense that he was stretching out for some musical idea that was just out of reach.

I didn't always keep up on everything he produced, and it took a long time before I dove into his earlier work as a sideman. Fast-forward several years and I'm taking drum lessons. One day my teacher turns me on to Tony Williams' Lifetime project. I put the first track on and when the guitar solo hits I immediately recognize it as Holdsworth. Maybe not as sophisticated as what he came to be, but so clearly him and just as exhilarating.

Looking back on the large body of work he left behind, it was light-years beyond anything else happening at the time. Even today, Road Games still sounds modern and somewhat avant-garde to my ears. His singular pursuit of that inner-voice pushed the boundaries of his music far beyond what nearly anyone else has done.

Oddly, the guitar was not his favorite instrument, but it was the one he started with. He re-shaped what we thought could be done on the guitar to pursue sounds closer to horns (particularly the saxophone) and keyboards. Only an "outsider" would throw out all traditional approaches to the instrument to forge such a unique style. For that we have to thank him for pushing the instrument to such extremes.

Nearly thirty years later, I can't say I can actually playing anything like Holdsworth. But the daring harmonies, the lofty lead lines and the general penchant to toss the rule book out have had a lasting influence on me. The loss of Holdsworth is the loss of a musical voice so unique that I wonder if we'll ever hear anything like that again. 

So tonight I'm pouring one out for Allan. Here's to you Mr. Holdsworth.