Eddie Van Halen, no slouch on the strings himself, has said that Allan Holdsworth is the best guitarist there is, a view pretty much seconded by the likes of Frank Zappa, Neal Schon and Gary Moore. A cover story in Guitar World magazine last year proclaimed Holdsworth "as influential as Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen," and Holdsworth is the cover subject of the current issue of Guitar Player.
As Holdsworth figures it, though, the neighbors in the unassuming Tustin tract where he lives with his family "don't know what I do--or anything, I think. Most of them probably don't even know I play an instrument."
In some respects, he prefers it that way. The torrents of praise that have come his way make Holdsworth cringe. Short of wearing a shirt that reads "I Am Nothing, Really," Holdsworth could scarcely be more diffident about his talent and the accolades it has earned. It's as if his closeness to his own music doesn't permit him to rest on the laurels offered by others.
Holdsworth, who will perform tonight in Santa Ana, is a lanky, spider-fingered, soft-spoken man. Seated on the floor of his equipment-cluttered garage studio last week, he said: "Obviously, it's very nice when someone likes the music. And you can't argue, 'No, you're crazy, you're completely wrong,' with them. You'd be denying them their opinion. So I just have to say, 'Thank you very much.' But I always think that what I do is crummy anyway.
"I love music--really a lot. That's why I do it. But mine just never makes it, to me. There's always something wrong with it, something I want to change. But I like that, because at least it keeps me looking, trying to find ways I can improve, which obviously are a lot."
In his pursuit of what may be an impossible perfection, Holdsworth has created some genre-blurring music with Tony Williams' Lifetime, Bill Bruford, Soft Machine, Gong, UK and on his own albums and tours. And his "crummy" music, with its labyrinthine logic and dazzling interval leaps, has expanded--some say redefined--the vocabulary of the electric guitar.
Although his musician fans may jockey for the best finger-viewing seats at his shows, Holdsworth's neighbors certainly aren't alone in not knowing about him.
"A lot of people in my audiences are either musicians or somehow connected to the business, simply because they're the only ones who ever find out about this music," Holdsworth said. "It's practically impossible to reach other people because of the problems this kind of music has getting airplay and promotion.
"That's sad to me, because the ultimate thing for me would be to reach someone who didn't know anything about music at all, so they wouldn't be watching your fingers and all but (rather) listening to it on a different, emotional level, where they just heard it and it meant something to them."
Does he think his kind of progressive music would appeal to the casual listener?
"I don't think everybody would like it, for sure. But if people got to hear it, if even 20% liked it, I would be really happy with that.
"But it's hard to get past the people who are in the business side of it, like the radio stations which seem totally disinterested in anything that isn't pushed on them by the record companies.
"There are good people in radio and the record companies, but there are others who are completely in the wrong job and holding music up in the process. It would be like me walking into a hospital, pretending to be a doctor and carving somebody up. They really aren't qualified.
"In a way, I think the whole business is pretty corrupt. It's like anything else where people make a lot of money--it's really hard for the little guy. I do realize this kind of music might not be liked by the vast majority of people anyway, but it's just sad that we and so many of the other kinds of musicians out there can't reach those extra people--people desperate to hear something different--who might like it."
In a recent interview, Van Halen, while decrying Holdsworth's lack of popular recognition, also asserted that his music "needs direction."
"I think he's absolutely wrong," Holdsworth said. "Maybe I need direction if they wanted to make me do something I didn't want to do so I could make money, but that's not what I'm in it for. Obviously I want to make a living at it and make ends meet enough to be able to continue improving at this, but I think I have a good idea about exactly what I want to do.
"A couple of years ago, I went to a meeting with a major label interested in me. And I couldn't wait to get out of there, man. The guy practically said that I was completely directionless, that he didn't like anything I'd ever done since I'd started making my own albums and that they wanted me to use X musicians instead of Y musicians, and this producer, this engineer and this studio.
"And my hair was standing on end there. I couldn't believe it. Especially with the musicians I've been lucky enough to have play with me; I'm very proud to play with those guys, so that really annoyed me."
(His ace band tonight will be drummer Chad Wackerman, bassist Jimmy Johnson and keyboardist Billy Childs.)
Holdsworth's current album, "Secrets" and two previous ones are Enigma, a small independent label. Although Enigma has limited means for promotion, Holdsworth says he is happy with it because "they trust me with the music. They'll say, 'OK, go make a record,' and leave me alone. A lot of guys have their record company breathing down their neck, trying to get them to do some lame track that might get on the radio."
Holdsworth recorded the basic tracks for "Secrets" at Front Page Recorders in Costa Mesa, then did his solos and the mixing in his garage studio, dubbed the Brewery.
Beer is his second passion. Some guitarists were annoyed to find that a good chunk of his "Reaching for the Uncommon Chord" instruction book was instead a dissertation on beer. Corporate sponsors take note: In domestics Holdsworth likes Northern California's Sierra Nevada, the Seattle microbrews Red Hook and Ballard Bitter, and of the majors he admires Coors' delicacy and hops-to-bottle quality control. That's a Spaten Franziskaner Weis being poured in digital stereo at the end of "City Nights" on the "Secrets" album.
Working at home, without the worry about the expense of studio time, Holdsworth said he felt free to take as long as he wanted to record the solos and experiment with sounds using his crowded racks of equipment.
For someone who's never satisfied with his work, all that freedom may not be a good thing.
"I think I drove my family nuts," he said. (Holdsworth's wife, Clair, sings on one track. They have three children.) "I'd basically get up, come down here and work until I couldn't stand up anymore, go up to bed, and do it again the next day. Even if I found something I liked, I'd still want to experiment and push it one step further. But I'd be recording countless solos and then erasing them. And sometimes, when you've worked on something for such a long time, you have no perception of what it is. I'd listen back to something and say 'This is not happening' and start all over again, but a week later I'd be looking for a cassette to record on and come across the thing I'd discarded and find it was OK. I do that too much."
Being so consumed with his passion for music, Holdsworth says, makes him fear his family life is suffering. "I'm pretty selfish, I think. I'm probably a terrible dad. I don't do too much with my kids. Obviously I love them and everything, but I just stay here in the studio all day.
"When I was younger, I was only concerned with the music. What happened tomorrow didn't concern me, as long as I could play today. And my day-to-day life is still pretty much like that. But I do worry about it now, because having a family changes everything."
Income for Holdsworth arrives in the fitful spurts typical of most working musicians, and he said it doesn't help the home finances that his music requires constant investment in new equipment. But it's a rotating door; equipment is also sold when he's exhausted its potential for him or when the cash flow is particularly thin. He turned down a number of needed paying gigs while mixing the album, hence, the board he mixed it on has since been sold.
One such investment, made a couple of years ago, is the SynthAxe, a futuristic synthesizer that looks as much like a Klingon battle cruiser as it does a guitar. It is something Holdsworth has become very close to, he said, in part because, with a "breath-controller" tube to his mouth, he can achieve the expression of sax players he admires, such as John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly.
It also cost in excess of $10,000, and he was able to buy it only after a delinquent renter forced the Holdsworths to sell a flat they owned in London. All the money cleared in that sale went toward the SynthAxe, Holdsworth said, "much to my parents-in-law's disgust."
The Holdsworths moved from London to Tustin in 1982, after visiting a musician friend and deciding they liked the area.
"And I still like it, though even in the short time I've been here, I've seen it change a lot. It's a shame, really. All that land just gets eaten up so fast." An avid bicyclist who frequently rides Santiago Canyon, he noted, "Now I have to go five or six more miles when I ride before I get to where there's no more houses."
He'll be spending less time at home this year, though, as he will be supporting the "Secrets" album with tours in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia.
For Holdsworth, though, the excitement of a tour is accompanied by the specter of a bad gig.
"It's the most horrendous feeling for me. When I have a bad night, I'll feel I'm forcing everything and falling back on things I've played 1,000 times before because nothing's working. I hate that feeling. At that point in time I want to die, or at least leave. Later, I'll think, I must find a way to make sure that never happens again. It's a great motivation, so I'm glad I don't like it."
And then there are the times when there is magic to make it all all worthwhile.
"If I detested everything I did, I'd decide I had the wrong job. So it's not completely like that. Sometimes your ideas are flowing, and all the musicians are operating like one being, and you're not quite sure where it's all coming from.
"With the really great improvisers I've heard, there's obviously all the work they've put into their ability and control of their instrument, but then there are just these magic things that happen. I don't know how much I'll ever get there--the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know.
"But I really love music, and I feel it's a strange kind of language which almost in some ways is on a higher level than speech. It feels to me that it has some cosmic force. Sometimes it feels like it's connected with outside, like something else. I'm afraid I really can't explain it without sounding like a true imbecile."
Allan Holdsworth plays tonight at 8 at Hamptons, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. Tickets: $15. Information: (714) 979-5511.