What defines greatness in a rock guitarist? Is it speed? Intensity? Histronics? Is it an elemental understanding and construction of a groove? Is it a combination fashioned to cultivate an image or simply convey an emotion?
For Allan Holdsworth, who died on Saturday at the age of 70, none of that was entirely the case. For this veteran British prog and fusion stylist, his decades-long career was about developing a voice of his own for an instrument that superseded all the clichéd rock star profiles many guitarists subscribed to. Holdsworth could play with the speed and potency that everyday guitar heroes viewed as virtues. But by the time he was gigging with the pioneering prog band Soft Machine as far back 1974, Holdsworth had developed a voice that was uncompromisingly distinct– one that continually stretched tone and technique through winding lyrical phrases that always packed a strong emotive jolt without ever sounding forced.
For the remainder of the ‘70s, Holdsworth cultivated that voice as a hired gun guitarist for, in quick succession, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Jean-Luc Ponty, UK and Bruford. Though he continued with a prolific career of his own during the ‘80s that highlighted the MIDI-controlled synthaxe, it was Holdsworth’s collaborative sets with the latter two artists that, for me, defined the beauty of his playing.
On UK’s 1978 self-titled album, his solos were astounding not because of flash or indulgence, but for the opposite. They were vignettes of concise, complete construction that yielded a sense of exquisitely contained drama. His solo during “In the Dead of Night” stands as an ideal example. With Bruford 1979’s album “One of a Kind,” one of the era’s most tastefully crafted prog albums, his work served as a consistently complimentary color to the playing of drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Dave Stewart and bassist Jeff Berlin.
The last decade produced little by way of new music, although the 2002 concert album “All Night Wrong” stands as a wonderful trio band primer on the tone, power and expression that provided Holdsworth’s guitar voice such a rich musical vocabulary.
“Allan Holdsworth’s unique contribution to the electric guitar is unquantifiable,” said fellow guitar pioneer Steve Vai in a Facebook post yesterday, “I remember him saying to me once that his goal was to create a catalog of music that was undiluted. Well, that he did.”