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So what’s the secret behind Allan Holdsworth?


Gold Supporting Member
Some people are just born to do certain things. Allan Holdsworth was just gifted with immense talent which he cultivated and refined throughout his life. He was what some people would call an 'outlier'. It's unfortunate that he didn't achieve much commercial success, however I didn't know him so don't really know if he cared. Seems to me he just focused on honing his craft up until his untimely death...


So what’s the secret behind Allan Holdsworth?

long fingers :knitting
I am reminded of the (true, apochryphal, or totally fictional--I'm covering my bases here) story that a female classical music patron/lover, after a brilliant recital by a great, great pianist, someone like Artur Rubenstein or Jose Iturbi, remarked on his ability to play so well with such small hands. His answer? "Madam, whatever makes you think you play piano with your hands?"

So it is with Holdsworth, or Django. Or anyone playing unprecedented ideas.


He was a huge influence on me in my teenage years. I came to know his music mostly from reading interviews with players like EVH who would often cite him as an influence.

My first record was Metal Fatigue and it just went head first from there. I was able to see him live several times in the late 80s early 90s and got to meet him once after a show. He was very kind and gracious and somewhat puzzled that a group of dorky teenagers spent an hour at the dressing room door behind the club waiting for him to come out. He signed all our tickets and records. Jimmy Johnson was also very nice and signed anything we wanted.

I quit trying to analyze what he did years ago and just accepted the fact that he was from another dimension sent here to Earth to raise the quality of our mortal music and what could be done with it. His entire way of playing, from his chords to his soloing to his tone was just so far beyond anything his peers were doing. It really defies description.

I was very saddened when I learned of his passing and even more sad at hearing how his life was towards the end, mired in alcoholism and having to sell off his gear to pay his bills.

But his music will live forever and inspire countless generations for years to come.


Senior Member
More than the faster parts, I actually find his chord progressions and slow whammy bar lead parts captivating.
It has that singing quality and I think he was trying to get there with his tone as well.

There's actually a research paper by a (Dutch?) student which talks about his life, music evolution and some theory.
He presents a few scales that AH would use and has analysed a few of his songs including 'Pud Wud'.

From what I remember, he outlined that AH used the Melodic Minor, Natural minor and a couple others scales more often than not. But all these scales had an added note (typically a 4/#4).
It was also mentioned that AH didn't use any 'exotic' scales.

AH had transcribed Bebop players like Charlie Christian etc. early on and was then deeply inspired by Coltrane.
He developed a disdain for typical consonant music (straight Maj7 voicings etc).. :D

The 4 note per string also changes the sound so much. Joshua Melder can be seen doing it often in his videos.

I wonder what else was in store for us since 'The 16 men of tain' was such a beautiful album and different from his previous work.
Love Holdsworth!
Untouchable. He improvised live solos that if you were in the room felt as if he was channeling a higher power.

His early stuff was my favorite.
Tony Williams, Bruford, Gordon Beck, Ponty, IOU, Road Games, Metal Fatigue...up to Secrets felt like was always growing musically. Newer stuff like 16/Wardencliff/None plateaued but had great moments.

His Boogie tone era was where I feel he peaked. Saw him then with Gary Husband Steve Hunt and Jimmy and that massive rack rig with the steinberger really seemed to track his fingers and expressiveness when he was at his best imo.

I wish I could have heard him play the red charvel through that rig!


Saw AH live three times in a small club, 2 early IOU tours with Jeff Berlin on bass and Paul Williams singing, and once with Jimmy Johnson- never less than staggering, even when he seemed disappointed.
The way he'd casually play the jaw dropping scalar stuff was truly amazing, and the whole band was great.

I was still a teen, but I made mom take me... the first time. After that she liked the music too. :D

Another fave- trading solos with the percussion, gradually getting wilder:



Here's a neat trick. Load up your clean, multi-chorus guitar toan. Then put your fingers in any random position on the fretboard and strum. Chances are it sounds like a Holdsworthian chord.

....on a serious note. I would like to get some insight on his overdriven sounds. There's obviously some high-end roll off and almost honky mids - but it seems like he was always able to get this with any old gear. I'd love to cop his dirty sounds.


For what it's worth, I think Holdsworth's harmonic conception – and he wouldn't put it this way, but it's the way that makes sense to me – is primarily about finding the nexus points (common notes, alone or in clusters) between all possible scales and chords, and becoming fluent enough that you can move with absolute freedom across the neck while still understanding where you are relative to the "song," and how you can get back "home" if you want to.
This is how I think of his playing as well.


That's just like my opinion, man
Silver Supporting Member
Mm you can mimic bits of what Allan does to a certain point..

Maybe learn a few bars that you enjoy and are importantly within your technical reach. It is easy to get frustrated. Remember there are lots of players who wanted to play like him and obviously could not. Think EVH was one of them.. EVH! I remind myself of that fact and it makes it ok to fail. So just enjoy whatever you can do and be glad it inspires.

The downside to doing this without basic theory is that you're bound to blindly memorising and it is harder to adapt and assimilate into your own playing. But it can still be extremely fun and a nice way to get out of a rut.

Alternatively you could just focus on the tone, phrasing, legato and the whammy work. Check this one out, around 2:30, I bet Steve Vai approves :)



Holdsworth grew up obsessing over the likes of Coltrane, not guitarists and if you listen you can hear tons of Coltrane in his playing. Similarly he plays a lot of closed-voicing chords, some of which are physically impossible without giant hands, because you tend to hear more of those voicings on piano especially in jazz with block chords etc whereas typical guitar chords are open-voiced. So I guess his playing comes down to being inspired by other instruments in the jazz genre rather than other guitarists.

Take his cover of Countdown for example

after some noodling at the start his solo starts at 1minute in, it sounds VERY Coltrane to me. His legato playing and smooth tone take away the attack that usually identifies guitar lead tones making it sound sax-like. His earlier stuff in the 70s with UK sounds more "normal" and throughout his career he seemed to move further and further away from typical guitar tones and scale shapes.

If you mean more about the theory side of his playing, all he is doing is playing over the changes like any jazz player, but his songs are full of non-diatonic chords so it can almost sound like he's playing random notes except you can hear the flavour notes of the underlying chords being stressed in his lead lines. He created a whole series of elaborate scales to fit over the strange chord voicings he uses. My favourite example of his fast playing over chord changes like this is on "0274" about half way in

I could probably write a book about what I like about Holdsworth but imo his sixteen men of tain album is his overall best work for people looking to get into him but finding it hard to enjoy his music.


One thing he made extensive use of was physical/mathematical patterns. Taking 3 notes per string and turning them into 4's or 6. Then moving it across the fretboard, theory/scale/etc be damned.
Funny thing, another big proponent of this kind of approach was Dimebag.


Here is Allan Holdsworth playing with pop(ish) band Level 42. It's not easy/diatoninc chord progression. And AH plays mindblowing stuff :

Another one, same band:

This is late Alan Murphy (not Mike Rutheford, who is miming in the video) playing very AH infuenced solo on easy progression:
I've been literally in love with that Level42 CD while contemporarily listening to AH original works. The tune 'A Kinder Eye' is the definitive answer to OP question. Wonderful, incredible and simply from another galaxy.
Holdsworth is one of the few guitarists who truly found his unique voice. He's one of those musicians you can instantly identify after hearing a few seconds. For me, that's a very small club - EVH, SRV, Jimi Hendrix, Vernon Reid, Carlos Santana, Dimebag Darrell, and Trey Azagthoth are the first other names that come to my mind.

As the materials shared by others in this thread show, Holdsworth constructed that voice pretty methodically. Inventing one's own scales and basing chords and melodies off those scales is the epitome of making things from scratch. Different starting point helps yield different end result.

On a physical level, I'm impressed by how Holdsworth had not only his saxophone-like lead tone, but also a delicate clean tone for his otherworldly chords - all just by using his fingers with a single bridge humbucker. You'd think that his smooth lead tone would come from a neck pickup, but his bridge pickup approach is perhaps like Eric Johnson's.

I had the good fortune to see Holdsworth play a few years before he passed. It was just a pre-tour warmup gig, yet one of the most memorable gigs I've ever witnessed. I didn't hear notes so much as colors and temperatures come from his guitar. His fretboard command was so total that physical aspects like long fingers or whatever just melted away - it was a purely sonic experience.


I went on a commando trip to upstate Roslyn New York to see Allan in a place called "My Fathers Place". We got there hours early because we had to beat the traffic. At the bar an elusive chap pulls up and grabs a pint of a local brew from Valley Forge Brewing Company. My mates and I were already deep into the Valley Forge Ale ourselves and I leaned over and asked Allan "So whats it like doing this for the chicks and all ?" and we had a silent pause before we all broke out in glorious laughter. His gear was hauled in and we caught the soundcheck and needless to say it was an amazing night. I got to buy an idol a beer and he destroyed the place. He knew we drove for hours without us saying . . . it was not the end.

We went to the following leg of his tour into New York City where he opened for Al DiMeola at Radio City Music Hall. I can't even begin to describe the amazing sound and experience that was. Allan saw the same crew in the audience and gave us a nod as he obliterated the Main attraction. I was fueled by the "Friday night In San Francisco" Record and even bought a nylon acoustic to learn the Paco DeLucia fingerstyle and by the end of the night Chad Wackerman was the worlds greatest drummer, Jeff Berlin the worlds greatest bass player and my sights were firmly set on Allan Holdsworth and Paco Delucia. Yngwie was a warm up for me back then, I had the skills to finally experience complete failure when Allan came along. I never looked at the fretboard the same. In fact I never looked at a fretboard a person was playing live the same way, utter disbelief. Its only happened twice. With Allan and a guy named Rosco Martinez playing an upside down white SG with triple gold pickups and Bigsby strung upside down.

I would highly suggest watching the Jazz Movie by Ken Burns and it should explain alot about what happened to Allan. Then I would go and find his earliest recordings from the 1960's and you will hear the magic even back then and into the 70's when he was blazing on Non Master Volume Marshalls, just amazing. Eddie Van Halen happened after Allan and even Yngwie, most people don't realize that. They both had recordings that were jaw dropping before Ed.

So thats my suggestion, find the Jazz Allan loved and then his first stabs at it, otherwise its like picking up a hammer and chizel and looking at a 9 foot cube of granite thinking about carving the most sensual woman on earth.

Here is a rare one, packed with tone and mastery :

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