Allan Holdsworth Style Legato Pattern

By: Matt Warnock

Allan-Holdsworth-CarvinAllan Holdsworth has long been known as one of the most exciting and technically facile jazz-fusion guitarists in the world. His long, incredibly fluid, lines are often more reminiscent of a saxophone or violin than they are of a guitar, something that has subsequently caused Holdsworth to develop one of the most easily recognizable sounds in jazz.

Though Holdsworth has developed a very unique approach to the neck, and to seeing scales and modes across the neck, the rest of us can use fairly standard guitar fingerings, with a few added slurs and slides, to bring a bit of that Holdsworth fluidity into our own playing.

The following scale pattern is a great introduction into the long, fluid lines that dominate Holdsworths playing. Even if we don’t end up sounding exactly like the great British axeman after learning just one pattern, borrowing from his technical repertoire can open new doors to our own style of playing that we may not have explored otherwise.


Before we can jump into the riff as a whole we’ll break it up into a few easy to play exercises that, when combined, will give us an Allan Holdsworth style scale pattern. The first step to learning this riff is to get the three-octave major scale under our fingers; in this case we’ll learn it in the key of G.

But, as with any riff, once we’ve learned it in the key of G try taking it into other familiar, and not familiar, keys across the neck. Pay close attention to the specific fingering used in this scale. There are many ways to play the three-octave major scale, but in order to properly play the lick later on we’ll have to use this specific fingering.

Example 1 – Three Octave G Major Scale (Click to open in new window)

Now we’re ready to add slides to our scale, which is the first step in getting that smooth, legato sound that Holdsworth has mastered in his solos. Notice that the slides are always done in the same place going up and down the scale. On the way up the first finger slides from the first to second note on each new string, and on the way down the first finger slides down from the penultimate to the last note on each string set.

Notice how by just adding one slide, a fairly simple technique, the scale is already starting to transform from sounding like an exercise to a melodic idea. Slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs and trills are all easy way to spice up any scale, shifting it from the realm of technical fodder to musical idea.

Example 2 – Three Octave G Major Scale with Slides (Click to open in new window)

With the scale under our fingers, and after adding the slide, we’re ready to check out the melodic pattern that will define the riff in its final form. Notice that the pattern can be broken down to a collection of eight notes that is repeated on each new string going down the scale.

Because the pattern is eight notes long it fits nicely into each bar, making it easier to memorize and get under our fingers. Try practicing the pattern on each string set, so just the first bar, then just the second, then just the third etc, before putting them all together.

Example 3 – Pattern Picked (Click to open in new window)

Now, let’s add the same slide that we used in the second example to the scale pattern from example three. The tricky part is keeping the time steady when we add the slide. Sometimes slides can cause us to “speed up” the two notes that feature the slide, mostly because we are used to picking each note and all of a sudden are free from that technique and our left hand “jumps” from the first note of the slide to the second.

Make sure to use a metronome when practicing this, and all other, example as it will help keep our playing in check, while improving our time and feel along the way.

Example 4 – Pattern with Slides (Click to open in new window)

By this point we’ve got the three-octave scale, with slides, firmly under our fingers and are ready to add the final ingredient, slurs. Slurs really make this pattern sound liquid, even when played at a slow tempo. Notice that when we add slurs to the pattern we are essentially breaking it up into string sets, as we only pick the first note of each new string.

Also, one of the cool side effects of adding slurs in this fashion is that we obscure the bar-lines. We are not picking the first note of each new bar, but are picking on the first beat of the first bar, then on the & of the third beat of each subsequent bar. This oddly accented picking pattern really gives the riff a unique feel that helps make it hipper than just playing down the major scale.

Example 5 – Pattern with Slides and Slurs (Click to open in new window)

Once the riff is under our fingers at a decent tempo try experimenting with it by adding rests, starting the pattern on different beats of the first bar, applying it to other modes and scales etc.

Remember, a pattern is just a pattern until we internalize it and manipulate it to sound like a musical idea. Check out Holdsworth when he solos. Yes there are patterns in his playing, but do we really notice?


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