Photo: Blue Cheer home page
Randy Holden might be the Great Lost Guitar Hero of the 1960's. As the string-bender for the Fender IV, the Sons of Adam, the Other Half, (briefly) Blue Cheer, and then as a soloist on the rare Population II album, he navigated the course of California 1960's guitar rock, from surf music and garage-psychedelia to hard rock and near-heavy metal. Whatever the context, you could always count on sustain-laden leads more ferocious than those by almost anyone else in the business. It is that sustain, more than anything else, that makes him something of an American counterpart to Jeff Beck; like Beck, Holden also helped pioneer feedback and other kinds of electric guitar distortion. Holden also liked, and still likes, to play loud. No even a couple of stacks of amplifiers could do the trick for him in the late 1960's; he was looking for something that, quite possibly, was beyond the range of human hearing in its sheer all-enveloping nuclear power.
Interview by Richie Unterberger
What Holden never did get, with the possible exception of the one LP side he did with Blue Cheer, was wide recognition. His discography is comprised almost wholly of rare singles and albums from his assorted group and solo projects, known largely only to psychedelic/'60's cognoscenti, although there have been some reissues of this material (often unauthorized) for the collector market. As impressive as the best of those records were, Holden in conversation leaves the impression that they didn't capture the best of what he did live, let alone what he heard his head.
To pick up the Holden trail at the start, there are the Fender IV surf singles he did with Imperial in the mid-1960's. These have thick, sometimes explosive guitar reverb reminiscent of Dick Dale, but more ominous and futuristic. After the Fender IV, there were the Sons of Adam, the mid-1960's Los Angeles garage band that started to bleed into psychedelia, largely through the efforts of Holden's Yardbirdish sustain. Indeed Holden says he might have had the opportunity to join or at least play with the Yardbirds at one point. The Sons of Adam and Fender IV singles on which Holden played (the third and last Sons of Adam 45 did not feature Holden), as well as some unreleased material from that era, is now available on the Captain Trip compilation Early Works.
Holden then joined the Other Half, most known for the garage-punk single "Mr. Pharmacist," covered by the Fall. In fact, however, on most of their sole album (as well as a few non-LP singles), the group veered closer to Haight-Ashbury psychedelia with a punkish edge. Again this was characterized by Holden's knack for humming, elongated phrases and dive-bomb distortion. Their rare self-titled LP, issued on unauthorized import CD's, is quite worthwhile rare psych. Randy himself, however, has little fondness for their recordings, frustrated by the limitations of the guitar he was using at the time, and the lack of proper care allotted to the tracks in the studio. In search of yet more volume, he joined Blue Cheer for a while in the late 1960's, although he only played one side of one LP (their 1969 release New! Improved!).
Holden was drifting into a sound that was a bridge between psychedelia and heavy metal with his rare circa-1970 solo album Population II, on which he played as half of a power duo with drummer/keyboardist Chris Lockheed. Although in some respects this was a metal album, it was darker and more ambitious than most such efforts of the genre, with sludgy tempos that anticipated grunge, and laser beam riffs that did not sacrifice imagination in the search for wattage. Jimi Hendrix was one guitarist who was probably aware of Holden's experiments with extreme amplification. As a little-known story in the following interview reveals, one of Hendrix's associates actually gave Holden one of Hendrix's most magical guitars to try out, perhaps in hopes that Holden might let him in on some of his own unique strategies.
Population II, according to Holden, was not released (although unauthorized import copies have subsequently shown up). That disappointment, combined with the theft of his equipment, stunned him into a withdrawal from the music business, and indeed he rarely even picked up a guitar during the next two decades. In the 1990's, though, he became aware of his growing cult following, and started playing and recording again, releasing the Guitar God album for Captain Trip in 1996. Now living in Southern California and married to painter Ruth Mayer, he divides his time between painting, publishing art prints, and working on his own music, enthusiastically embracing the latest in studio and guitar technology. Randy spoke to me in the spring of 1999, for the chapter on him that will be included in Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of 1960s Rock (to be published by Miller Freeman Books in late 2000).Richie Unterberger is the author of Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll, published by Miller Freeman in 1998, which profiles 60 cult rockers of all eras. Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of 1960s Rock, a follow-up of sorts to that book, examines nearly 20 cult rockers from the 1960's that didn't make it into the first volume, allotting about three times as much space and depth for each chapter. Among the artists featured in the book, besides Randy Holden, are the Pretty Things, the Fugs, Tim Buckley, Fred Neil, Arthur Brown, Giorgio Gomelsky, Kaleidoscope, and the Bonzo Dog Band, in every case drawing from first-hand interviews.Also, visit Randy Holden's official website.
Q: What was your first band?
R: A band called the Iridescence, back in the late fifties. It was a really great band, live on stage. Very, very energetic, did a variety of material from blues-based [artists], such as Ray Charles things and James Brown things and early Chuck Berry things, in that kind of vein. Very powerful band onstage. It was in that period between say '58 and '62, pre-Beatles. But the thing that was happening back on the east coast where we were was the same thing that was happening with the Beatles in England. The same audience response.
Q: How did the Fender IV get started?
R: It might have gone through some name changes, but [the group] left [Baltimore] called that, simply because there was this love affair with Fender guitars and amps, and we had all Fender. It was like we were state-of-the-art technological equipment at the time.
Q: Was this the kind of stuff you were playing when you got to California?
R: No, we were doing it on the East coast. We were probably the only band in the world doing it, because everybody else was into James Brown, Ray Charles, that kind of thing, blues-orientation, but horn band style. The bands back in those days were anywhere from six- to ten-piece bands. We were the only four-piece. Not many people understood what we were doing at the time. It was strange, still. We were louder than all the ten-piece bands doing these guitar instrumentals, but that influence came out of several sources. There were a few instrumental bands around at the time, like the Fireballs, Johnny & the Hurricanes, and before that there were a couple of really good ones for the time.
Q: How was it that you got into surf music?
R: The surf element had a mideastern quality to it, in what I call the true surf music, and Dick Dale brought that out. But his past, my understanding, is he's Lebanese. So he was brought up with that kind of melodic sense, and he just applied it to an electric guitar, which [was] brilliant, I thought. But in my early background, I was exposed to things like flamenco, just via radio, and I loved it. So it had a similar influence with regard to the melodies.
I eventually turned more towards the staccato picking style, because I really enjoyed it. I adored Dick Dale. I thought he was just magnificent when he played. And it was fun to play that. And I could do it better than anybody (laughs).
I was a very strong and powerful guitarist, still am. I played with a lot of volume and strength. It was just what made me tick. So it's a driving force inside of my own self. I had to do it that way. Because that's the way it sounded good. It made people move. It moved me. Hitting that guitar string on a voluminous amp was just heaven. And people felt it.
To me, the equipment was always key. The state-of-the-art technology at the time was always key. And the reason it was, was because some of it was incredibly good. Like Fender, for example. Fender, he was a brilliant man. He was so far ahead of his time, it was incredible. So what he was able to take and do with guitars and magnets and tubes and circuitry and speaker configurations, it did some unbelievable things. He took military technology and turned it over into a use that was suitable for another purpose. Pretty amazing, when you think about it.
Every time Fender would develop a new and bigger [equipment], I'd go into debt and buy the thing on credit. I had a music store that was--the guy loved what I was doing. Basically, I went to school in the basement of a music store, instead of going to school. I don't know why he did that, but he'd extend me credit on anything I wanted. I was in debt for years. I had the first Bandmaster in Baltimore on the East Coast, the first Showman, the first dual Showman. So there was the high level technological edge. Most guitar players, where I came from and developed out of, were more into rhythm and blues, where the guitar didn't play a major role. But the guitar for me was a total, full-blast, full-on love affair. The louder and clearer that baby was, the more beautiful it was. So that's where it came from.
Q: Your singles with the Fender IV were mostly instrumental, but on sometimes you sounded half-surf and half-British Invasion, like "You Better Tell Me Now."
R: Isn't that interesting how that turned out? In that time, we actually played for a livelihood. We played every single night of the week, year after year, without a single night off. When the Beatle thing came out, it triggered--originally, I wanted to do nothing but an instrumental thing, with Jack Tanner, who was then Joe Kooken. He really felt we should go vocal, and I really resisted, because the instrumentation was where I really got my joy. So I started writing vocally, and it was almost mandatory for the way the club audience changed, because we played mostly beach clubs, beach city clubs. And those were the current things, like when the Beatles came out with "I Want to Hold Your Hand," well, we learned that and did it right away. It was fun. We learned a lot of the Beatles songs. We knew [them] within a week after the album was released. So we were so far ahead, in terms of what anybody else was doing in the local arena, it made a big demand for us. But the interesting part was, we played with such volume and power, and with that, you might want to call it, surf guitar sound applied to the new kind of music, 'cause it was changing. So it made a really interesting character.
Q: Then you got into all-vocal music and psychedelic rock with the Sons of Adam.
R: [Future Love drummer] Mike Stuart came along. Mike was very good. He used to play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was very strong, and his time was just dead-on. So we finally had a drummer that was right on target. And we had a guy from Baltimore that came out for a brief period named Earl French. I knew him when I was growing up playing guitar. He showed me a couple of really cool, great rhythm things on guitar when I was first learning. The guy had incredible sense of power and rhythm, and he came out and played drums with us for a while. We even bought him a set of drums. And he was just dramatic and dynamite and showmanship. He was a Keith Moon type. And he just decided he had to go back to Baltimore. Being away from the city seemed to make him feel insecure. That's where he grew up. And we were very disappointed to lose him. And then Mike Stuart came along, and Mike was very good, filled the role. And when Mike joined we changed the name.
When you say psychedelic, that didn't occur til later, really. The Sons of Adam really didn't touch on the psychedelic thing, at least not in my view. The psychedelic--you have to give a definition to it, really. If you look at the word, it means breadth and soul and things like that. So it's a broad-ranging word to be interpreted by many different ways without anybody's interpretation necessarily agreeing. But, at the time the Jefferson Airplane began, I would think they would be termed psychedelic. The time that San Francisco ballrooms and the light shows were going and drugs became a new thing. That's when psychedelia started. The Sons of Adam was together during that time. I never looked at it as psychedelic, though.
There's a really interesting division there, because the band played... we used to do a lot of Rolling Stones covers. We played with them at their first concert in the Long Beach Sports Arena. There were like 15 bands on the bill, and we got second bill. By the time it got to us, we just tore the bloody house down. The Sons of Adam was a unique band, because it was so powerful live that we could overthrow anything. The weak point of the band was, it didn't come across on recordings, and the writing of the material was rather odd, in what written material there was. Because it combined the power of the surf thing with the power of the blues thing at a really highly charged level. The only band that was ever better than us onstage for a night was the Rolling Stones, and they put on such a great show that night, I just went, wow. Nobody's ever done that to us!
But they had an interesting state-of-the-art equipment advancement above us that really blew me away. Bill Wyman had two big boxes hooked in tandem. That's the first time I've ever seen that, and it created such a big bottom end. Keith's guitar sound was very different. He used a Gibson/Les Paul, whereas I was using a Fender, and I still had the reverb thing going, because it created a wet, expanded sound, where his was a very dry, but had tendencies toward the feedback. And he'd crank the Fender Showman up on 10, and that would create this warm tube distortion, whereas if you tried to do that with the reverb on, you would get a screechiness and a sharpness that didn't work. So I was very impressed with what they were doing with equipment, which gave the band just incredible power. So I learned something very unique that evening. That was a big influence on me.
I started changing my concept of equipment and tone, and developing other ideas. Started playing with pre-amps, started getting rid of the reverb. I guess that you might have started playing with feedback, so I think from that point on, you could say that's where the psychedelia started to come. I got a Fender Champ and pre-amped to the dual Showman. So you'd put the dual Showman on 1, it would sound like it was on 50. But it was incredibly hard to control, and the hiss was so loud. So I kept searching for other equipment to get more power, volume, and excitement to it.
Keith Richards used a Les Paul guitar that had a mid-range tonal character, which he could crank up the Fender Showman amp that had a bottom and top end tonal character, to 10,. The effect was creating a sustain. But my use of a Fender Jaguar guitar with that Fender bottom and top end tonal character, and Fender amp with the same tone character, would not sustain, and the reverb was used to artificially produce the sensation of sustain. The max I could use the volume on was 7. Above that or on 10 it would produce shrill screeching and howling without control.
The dramatic difference between the two sounds was, the reverb with the Fender setup produced the illusion of being in a giant hall, and a giant sound, but that had a "distant" character to it. While Keith's use of the Les Paul with the Fender, and no reverb, but cranked on 10 produced the effect of being at the very front of the stage, instead of being distant. It was a very in your face sound. It was like the difference between listening from outside, to being front and center. It was immediately present, not removed. That effect made the Stones' sound image very much alive in the here and now presence, not somewhere distant, and away. That was the living presence of the Stones. Had they not had that equipment knowledge, and ability to use it, and had a less significant sound, they would have sounded and looked pretty silly with anything less. But they wouldn't have been them without that sound. They did have it, and they knew exactly what to do with it. That was impressive. That sound sucked in the audience instantly like metal to a magnet.
After I was blown away by that, I attempted to push the volume, but it wouldn't work with the Fender guitar and Fender amp combo. I tried eliminating the reverb, then boosting the volume, and that worked somewhat, but still had the screech lack of control problem. I had such a love affair with Fender guitars I didn't have the openness of mind to take notice of the basic frequency range characteristic difference in sound between Gibson midrange and Fender top bottom end. I tried changing to the Fender Jazzmaster, thinking it would produce a greater ease of playing for me. After my love-turned-hate-affair with that guitar, I finally switched over to a Gibson, and voila, there it was, the control over the sustain at high levels I was searching for.
Q: Do you think the Sons of Adam singles you played on captured the best of their live sound?
R: I think it was a combination of things. One, I knew nothing about recording in the studio. I mean, absolutely zero. I didn't know anything about the music business. My thoughts were that the people who did allegedly know about those things would come along and make those things right. People didn't know what to do in the studio with us. The engineer didn't know. They would freak out. The first guy I had a very good experience with in the studio was the Rolling Stones' engineer, Dave Hassinger. We went into RCA Studio B, which is a really big room. So the room was able to handle the sound. And Dave knew what to do with the mikes. He was totally tuned in, and I was impressed by that. So he was the closest engineer that ever got the closest to the Sons of Adam sound. Still didn't get it, but it was the closest it was ever done.
I had mountains of respect for that guy. I learned a lot from him. From my own personal transition from the power level that I was using in the surf music over to the feedback level, I had to get rid of the reverb to be able to accomplish getting the most out of the tubes, and find a way to pre-amp it. So I learned a lot from what they were doing in England, what was coming out of there, their interpretation of what was going on. Of course, they didn't have a clue what was going on with surf music, so that really made a distinction in the style and the sound. So I departed in the shape of the tone and the sound I was using. We kept the style.
Q: You weren't on the single "Feathered Fish" (written by Love's Arthur Lee, but never recorded by Love), but did you play it while you were in the band?
R: We did record "Feathered Fish" [in an unreleased version while I was still with the band]. Arthur gave me the song to do. But I don't know what happened in recording. They continued to play it after I left, when they added some fellow, what was his name, Craig Tarweather or something like that. There's one out that I've heard that Craig was on, but when I was with the band, we did record it. We also recorded "Hey Joe," and I don't know what happened to those recordings. They were some of the better ones. Gary Usher was involved in that.
Craig was an interesting guitarist. I liked him. He was a nice guy. I got along with him, because he was interested in the musical aspect of music. But he had a strange approach to tone. Onstage, it was just very thin and insincere when he was trying to get this feedback. But the only way you really get feedback is to get it. That used to bother me about his playing. He was a great technician, but he didn't know where the heart and soul of it was.
Love was playing around the same places we were playing at the time. Arthur came by where we were staying and rehearsing, and said he had a song that he thought would be good for us. And he'd just put out "Seven and Seven Is," and that was a good one, so he showed us some chords and the lyrics and we pounded it out and made something out of it. In some respects, it was okay, but it just wasn't a hit of any kind. There wasn't enough there to bring together. And Arthur was into this--psychedelia, I guess you could say, began with him (laughs). He was a strange guy. At the time he gave it to us, I didn't know about it, but it was LSD-oriented. I didn't have a clue what he was saying, I thought he was weird.
Q: On a French reissue of the Other Half album, they list Country Joe McDonald as the songwriter of "Feathered Fish."
R: Totally wrong. That's Arthur Lee's song, 100%, except for the arrangement.
Q: Why did you leave the Sons of Adam?
R: Got mad and quit. Well, I had a direction I was going. And one of the things that always used to happen, the club owners would--I mean, you could count on it, to say, turn those damn things down! And meanwhile they were making the money hand over fist. People would be lined up three deep around the block to come hear us, and so every time that they would fire us for being too loud, the crowd would follow us and they would go broke again. (laughs) It was an interesting cycle. And one night we were playing in San Francisco at the Longshoremen's Hall, which is some kind of a concrete and steel dome. The one and only time we ever played there, Chet Helms put it on with the Family Dog. The sound bounced around in that place so hard and painful, it just was disgusting. It had the worst acoustical concept on the planet, and no matter what you did, you couldn't get the sound out of the amps if you turned it down. So I cranked it up some more. Mike, the bass player, and Joe were saying, "Turn it down! Turn it down!" I said, hey man, what is my motto? So I turned it up some more, and that ticked them off.
And they wanted to do Byrds cover songs, or cover songs to play clubs, and I said, no, man, we gotta write. I want to play powerful, hard, and heavy driving music. This is where we came from, and where it's going. They were getting really frustrated with me and it was a big division. I just said, you know what? I'm just out of here. I can't do it anymore. I'm not gonna turn my amp down. I just don't do that.
Q: It was reported that you might have had a chance to join the Yardbirds at one point.
R: Yeah, there was a call for me. They had a show going on at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. And some of the girls that used to hang out with the Sons of Adam, groupie girls you'd call them back then, they were hanging out with a lot of bands, and they were big followers of Sons of Adam. I had just left the band, and I didn't know what I was going to do. I played powerful, loud, sustain and kind of out there on the edge, or over the edge, whichever it is. And they said "Jeff [Beck] refused to go on. They need somebody right now," and I was the only person anybody knew at the time, that could do their music. To me, in my mind, the Yardbirds were a big band at that time.
But I hadn't rehearsed with them at all. So I thought, you know, I would love to do that, but I'm not going to get up there and not have even done at least an hour rehearsal, to go through some material, or half hour rehearsal. And I thought really hard about it, because I thought, Jesus, now that'd be a band I'd like to play with. They were going more in the direction I was going. I thought, no, Jeff is not gonna not play. He's gotta play! I thought it would be stupid to go down there and make a fool out of myself if he's going to play with a band--"Oh, I'm here to play." "Yeah, right. What kind of jerk are you?" I just couldn't envision him not playing. But it turned out he didn't, and Jimmy Page took his place that night. But Jimmy Page was well involved with the band, so he already knew what was going on. Already knew the material, so was a perfect shoo-in.
There was a rumor that Jeff was gonna leave the band. Somebody arranged a meeting between [Yardbirds singer] Keith Relf and I, and Keith wanted to get together and rehearse when the opportunity presented itself, if it happened, so he took my name and number, was going to call. Now that's how it came about. The Yardbirds didn't do anything after that. They had some interesting things. Keith Relf was really good on the harmonica, and his voice was really, really good. He had a good stage presence, too. The bass player and the drummer had a good rhythm section. So it would have been a really interesting, different experience to have done something like that. Had no idea what would have happened.
Q: After the Sons of Adam, you joined the Other Half. They've been variously described as both an LA band and a San Francisco band.
R: The Other Half, all except me, moved to San Francisco, after I left them. I wasn't interested in doing that.
Q: How did you get in with the Other Half?
R: Later on [between the Sons of Adam and the Other Half], I was sitting around, I just couldn't seem to find anybody to play with, and it was driving me nuts. I even went crippled in my arm for about six months. My arm locked up, and I thought it had been paralyzed the rest of my life, and it was a psychosomatic illness from not being able to play. The same girls that were trying to pull me down to play with the Yardbirds said there was this good band. They write their own songs. And I was interested in somebody who wanted to do creative authorship, rather than doing cover songs of somebody else. I was tired of doing cover songs, just to play clubs to make a few dollars and stay alive. I wanted to create.
So I went to hear the band [the Other Half] and I sat in and plugged in, as I recall. Turned everybody's volume up. I think I made 'em all mad right at the start (laughs). I just started dialing their knobs. But they liked it, and they did their own music. And I thought, yeah, this sounds like this would be interesting. They wanted me to play right away, so we got together and started rehearsing. And I got a bunch more amps together and said, this has a possibility. But it just never grew. It couldn't grow beyond its first initial stage change. So I didn't stay with it long.
We started playing the Avalon Ballroom and places like that up there, but we were based in L.A, driving back and forth. I wasn't really into the San Francisco scene. I would arrive in San Francisco in time to go on stage and leave as soon as I was off stage. I'd jam with Steve Miller onstage. His band always liked to sit down. Steve and I would (be) guitar firing at each other, and that was a lot of fun. We had just a pile of Dual Showmans, and I would just link 'em all together and do about a twenty-minute psychedelic-type solo, everything cranked on ten. I didn't have a very good guitar, though. I was unhappy with my guitar.
I just multiplied the amplification. I attempted to pre-amp things, and it just didn't work well. Then I multiplied the amplification, but it couldn't be gotten in the studio at all. The studio was just a flop.
R: So you were unhappy with the Other Half album?
R: [The group] didn't know what they were doing, the producers of the record didn't know what they were doing. I still didn't have a clue what I was doing in the studio. And I really wasn't very happy. I wasn't doing what I wanted to do, and I was trying to accommodate everybody else. At the expense of sacrificing my own soul and happiness. I didn't figure that out til a long time later. And that was a big mistake, for me, personally. It was like always feeling stuck in a cage, never being able to express myself the way I wanted to. It was a rather unhappy experience for me. The only time I semi-enjoyed it was when I would plug all the amps in and go kind of crazy with them. But I couldn't stand the guitar I had. It wouldn't do what I wanted it to do.
I had a Jazzmaster, and I got all jagged out about thinking, I want one of those, because I had some strange perception that the neck seemed to be longer to me. And I needed the length. I had large hands, and I wanted this length that I could slide around on. But the thing had such an awful tone. I played the doggone thing for over a year and a half, and I just hated it. But I didn't have any more money to get another guitar (laughs), and it turns out the way it's built, it can't sustain. So it'll screech instead of sustain, the way the strings cross the bridge into the tremolo arm. It's a different device than the Stratocaster. The way the Stratocaster is designed by Leo Fender, the reason it has this big block in there, is it's a sustain block. And the Jazzmaster did not have that. So the strings were funky and dead. So if you'd go to make a stretch and try to melody on it, it would turn into a screech. It wouldn't go anywhere, so it was kind of infuriating and frustrating. So it turned out more psychedelic than it was really intended to at all. It was just a matter of equipment limitation.
Q: How much were you involved in writing the Other Half material? Jeff Nowlen gets more of the songwriting credits than anyone else.
R: Jeff [Nowlen] would write most of the lyrics, but title concepts and things like that, I was involved in most of the direction of the band, writing the entire instrumental structure, and arranging everything from the drums, bass, rhythm, you name it. So I was a little bit pissed when I saw that. He sang. Once again, I was naive about the business aspect of the music then. I didn't understand the publishing, I didn't understand the copyright, I didn't know any of that. I just assumed that if management liked what I did, they would protect me and handle all the necessary business that had to be done. (laughs heartily) I think we should have a good laugh here.
Q: But "Wonderful Day" is your song, right?
R: I did the whole thing on that. It was designed in the subliminal mind as a call and response thing it was supposed to represent. But the problem was, I was doing--the lyric lines had one guy doing the call and the response, so the concept didn't come through. It was an experimental concept. Half the lyric is--it's strange you mention it, because it popped in my mind the other day for no explainable reason at all. And I started thinking the lyric line, to see if I could remember what it was. And I realized that's where it was supposed to have been. It's basically this (laughs) this guy who's really happy, generally just happy about everything in life. And he's got some girl that is just pissed. So it's a conflict.
Q: So the album was a disappointment for you.
R: If there was something I liked about it, I liked a couple of the concepts. I liked "Flight of the Dragon Lady" a little bit, except it didn't come off on recording at all. Didn't come off. It was just dead and dull and dumb-sounding. It was not huge and magnificent and spectacular. So that was very depressing. When I heard it I thought, what a piece of garbage! I was amazed that it ever even got released. And then I liked "Morning Fire." I was experimenting with this Indian double-tuning of the E string, the B and E tuning needed to be playing two strings at once in a simultaneous melody, and that was kind of an interesting thing. But I wanted to take it further, but (sighs) limitations on the stupid guitar. I hate that guitar to this day. I smashed it. I got so angry with it one night at a concert we did in Denver, I just smashed it. I couldn't stand it anymore. It was a piece of junk (laughs).
I went to a Gibson SG. I thought it had the neck length that I wanted. Didn't particularly care for the body style. But it had the neck length, and it had the sustain ability. It had those beautiful humbucking pickups that the Fender didn't have. Didn't like the looks of it, though. But it was fun to play. I actually stayed with that one for a while.
I had been influenced on seeing what Eric Clapton got out of a Gibson SG Standard, and recalling what Keith Richards got out of his straight Les Paul Standard. I began to see I had been looking in the wrong direction. I decided on an SG Standard, of the type Clapton was using, because I thought the neck was longer (still pursuing the Jazzmaster idea), that it would be able to accommodate my large hands better. It's amazing what the illusion of a belief can do. I actually believed the neck was longer, and made it more enjoyable and easy to play, until I discovered many years later that its neck was actually a half inch shorter. That says something about the power of illusion, and belief, that we tend to believe what we want whether it's true or not, so long as it serves the ends. Not that it matters much, except to self-delusion as potential impediment.
I tried the SG Standard years prior when Gibson first introduced it, but it was miserable for sound of Surf music, in that use. No tone, flat sound, hollow and empty. But when used without reverb, and the volume boosted out of sight, it had an explosive thunder I'd overlooked the potential for before, and the midrange frequency vrs top and bottom end in combination was nothing I'd ever comprehended fully to that time.
The change in sound to the Gibson worked incredibly well through both Fender, and Marshall, amps but it still wasn't the over the top sound I was looking for, even though it was quite good. It was also a more distorted sound than I wanted, which was an element I didn't care for about Clapton's sound.
Q: Why did you tune the strings the way you did, on "Morning Fire" and other material?
R: [On "Morning Fire"] I would tune the open high E string down to the same as the open B string. It gave a sympathetic mystical kind of sound. Only did that on one song, but who knows, may do something with the idea again. It had a nice quality to it for melodic passages etc.
I also tuned a whole step lower than standard tuning. In ordinary tuning, the low E was tuned to D, the A to G, D to C and so on. I did that for a couple of reasons. One was, there was a sound character to the wind, and the sea that has a very distinctive, but subtle thunder to it I don't think most people notice, or consider. But it is nearly ever-present, and I wanted to try to capture the essence of that otherwise silent thunder, deep growl. It's almost more of a feeling than a sound, of a presence, of the kind that raw nature is present, and always there. Even when it appears placid, safe, secure, it's not far away from being flat out maniacal. It's a pretty obvious sound if you've ever been in the presence of strong wind, and waves. There's a howl and shriek that almost drowns out the other frequencies of the low end. But it's the low end that really has a deep roar, and can be very ominous, displaying the power it really generates, and is, as a pure force of nature (that's actually quite calm put up against exploding novas - it's all relative).
I was even going for the exploding nova sound. I once thought at some depth what a nuclear bomb would sound like in close proximity, and I concluded it would be so overwhelming it wouldn't be heard, but would simply be all encompassing, beyond-imaginable experience. I think I was so affected by the idea of what such sound would feel like, and that it was so technological, that I wandered into the arena of attempting to produce and generate a sound that would be so overwhelming, that it would create a silence all its own. Its sheer volume would be so overwhelming, the only way it would be physically heard, would be "through it", rather than outside of it.
Put it another way, it would be more of a subjective experience, rather than an objective experience, or more definitive (or divinely, as you prefer). The experience of the listener would place them in the realm of being with it, as part of its presence, and the only way to hear the music in it, would be to be within it. Otherwise outside of it, it could probably have a pretty high level of offensiveness to it, by way of the various arguments of decibel levels and all that hoopla.
The sound I was after was way beyond things like decibel levels. It was off the Richter scale. The experience was one of hearing from the inside out. The reverse of the ordinary. I have to say, with all those SUNN amps, that was exactly what it was like. Nothing quite like it on earth. Even a jet taking off doesn't have that effect.
So, for the curious, that's what it was all about for me. It probably stepped outside of bounds of the rock music would of ideas, but was incredibly fun. I use to be totally deaf for up to three hours after rehearsal. It kind of amazed me. I would see people talking to me but couldn't hear zip - plain silence. I remember driving back from rehearsal one day, and an ambulance was directly beside us, with people in other cars holding their ears, but I heard nothing at all. Kind of really surprised me. I wondered if I was actually destroying my hearing. But it would come back ordinary as ever. There must have been some kind of shock to the ear mechanism that prevented it from interpreting, and would take time to re-establish itself. Strange, and curious experience.
I had only a single experience where I believed I may have damaged my right ear. I was about twelve inches away from the center cone of a speaker in that set up, and I hit the harmonic octave note that sounds like a whistle of a bomb dropping, at the end of "Fruit and Icebergs" [which Holden recorded with Blue Cheer]. I had to stand in an exact position to achieve that note. I was a little too close, and the note actually just flat out knocked me down on the ground just like I had been hit with a piano dropped on me. It was incredible. I was amazed. Didn't expect it, and never had anything like that happen before (or since). Kind of blew me away. Ever since that moment my right ear does not pick up the same high frequencies as my left.
My end conclusion was, decibel measurements of sound as a tool to measure potential damage level is basically a bunch of mumbo jumbo. From my own personal experience, ears are not damaged by sound levels on that level, but can be damaged by frequencies that are not measurable, like the one I experienced. In short, loud rock concerts are not harmful to the audience.
I also used heavy gauge strings. Stretching those to the extremes I would use, would wreak havoc tearing up my fingers. But they were the strings that held the best full bodied tonal response, and I was unwilling to compromise the sound. When I de-tuned I discovered the heavy strings stretched a whole lot easier. So there was an additional side benefit to doing it besides the sound concept. So I just stayed in de-tuning. There were occasions though when I missed some of the high notes I would have rather used, but that was the tradeoff.
These days, I tune the standard way. I also use lighter strings, and found other ways to get tones I prefer. Then, what I did way back when is what I did then. Another time, another place, and although has some pretty interesting aspects, what I do now holds me in greater fascination.
Q: There's a quasi-legal French reissue of the Other Half album, with bonus tracks.
R: How could it even be quasi? It's not even quasi-illegal. It's just flat-out illegal.
See Part Two of the Randy Holden interview
Also see our 2020 interview with Mr. Holden
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