Why Don’t We All Know Ollie Halsall?

January 19, 2012 | By | 2 Replies More

A semi-recent thread on the metroamp.com board was started about a geetar-slinger named Ollie Halsall.


That was my reaction too, since like you I’m pretty sure I know about every famous to semi-famous guitar player worth knowing about. Obviously not true.

Ollie was almost in the Stones, inspired jealousy in Alvin Lee, and was cited as an influence by the immortal Allan Holdsworth.

Still wondering why you’ve never heard of this guy? I was too. Before any more words, give this a listen, particularly the lead break which starts at 2:04. Bear one thing in mind: This is 1974!

I’m assuming you’re suitably impressed – and btw I think that’s Ollie and the one and only Allan Holdsworth, whom you Holdsworth fans can probably pick out.

You can call it horn-player-influenced legato or you can just call it “holy sh*t!”, either way it’s amazing stuff – which sounds a lot like some of the stuff that came after it.

For some perspective, 1974 was the year the following albums came out:

> Queen, Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack
> Rush, Rush
> KISS, KISS and Hotter Than Hell
> Kansas, Kansas
> Slade, Old New Borrowed and Blue and Slade in Flame
> Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic
> Judas Priest, Rocka Rolla
> Aerosmith, Get Your Wings
> Deep Purple, Burn and Stormbringer
> Lynyrd Skynyrd, Second Helping
> Bad Company, Bad Company (also the year that Led Zep announced Swan Song records)
> Joe Walsh, So What
> Rolling Stones, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll
> Thin Lizzy, Nightlife
> Robin Trower, Bridge of Sighs

That’s just a partial list! WTF happened to the music biz?!

More On Ollie

To get some info on Ollie, I asked Barry Monks, whose website keeps the flame for all things Halsall, to answer a few questions. Here we go, thanks much to Barry.

WoodyTone: Who is Olllie Halsall and why don’t guitar players know more about him?

Barry: Here’s a brief biography. Peter Halsall (‘alsall’, ‘Ally’, ‘Olly’ and thence ‘Ollie’) started his career playing drums – interesting, since an advanced sense of rhythm is an often overlooked factor in exceptional guitar playing – and then the vibraphone in ’60s pop-soul outfit Timebox. He started playing guitar in 1967 and the band evolved in 1970 into the ‘progressive’ Patto, named after lead vocalist Mike Patto.

In 1973, Ollie left to join Jon Hiseman’s Tempest, initially partnering with Allan Holdsworth on dual lead guitars.

After a year, he started to work with Kevin Ayers and, apart from short spell in the band Boxer – with Mike Patto again – from 1975 to 1976, he stayed in the Ayers band until his untimely death in 1992.

During that time, he did an extraordinary amount of sessions, perhaps most notably for the Monty Python and Rutles albums, on which he played – uncredited – guitar, keyboards and bass, and sang Eric Idle’s parts.

What do you think are the things guitar players should know or realize about Ollie?

It’s important to remember that he was the first rock guitarist to employ the hammer-on legato technique using all fretting fingers. Although it sometimes sounds like it, he never employed ‘tapping’ [right-handed hammer-ones a la EVH].

Halsall was nothing short of a musical genius. He learned the vibraphone by mapping out the keys on strips of paper. When he finally got one, he could play it immediately. Similarly, he progressed from nothing to a virtuoso guitarist in just a couple of years. Perhaps significantly, he was a lefty.

Patto and Timebox drummer John Halsey once said, “Ollie may not have been the best guitarist in the world, but he was certainly among the top two.”

Do you know if any guitar players have said that they’re influenced by Ollie? For example, the tune “Gorgon” by Tempest has stuff in it that’s eerily similar to Edward Van Halen, and Ollie recorded that in 1974.

The Van Halen-like stuff goes back a lot earlier than that. It’s worth checking out Patto’s ‘Give It All Away’ from the Hold Your Fire album [1971] and and ‘Loud Green Song’ from Roll ‘Em, Smoke ‘Em, Put Another Line Out [1972]. I have heard that EVH has cited Ollie somewhere, but can’t find the quote.

Apart from Holdsworth, other notable players who have acknowledged Ollie’s influence are Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and XTC’s Andy Partridge.

He was short-listed by The Stones as Mick Taylor’s replacement so he was clearly a known player.

On Patto’s 1972 tour supporting Ten Years After, Alvin Lee taped every Patto set on his Revox and insisted on travelling in the Patto van rather than his tour bus, hoping something would rub off on him.

Any idea why he isn’t better known?

Probably because of his psychological makeup. Apart from brief interludes, he just didn’t seem interested in becoming “successful,” let alone a rock star. He once said he was more into ‘people and situations’ than music.

How did you find out about him?

I knew of him in Timebox but first saw him play when the band I was in supported Patto at the Temple Club, Covent Garden, London in September 1970 – an experience on a par with seeing Hendrix at The Saville Theatre, London 3 years earlier. [That’s some endorsement!]

Do you know what gear he used?

Ollie’s first guitar was a right-handed white Telecaster. He exchanged it for a 1967 white three-pickup Gibson SG Custom with Vibrola. It was converted to left-hand playing by a roadie. This included repositioning the tone and volume controls accordingly.

Early he used a Fender Princeton and Super Reverb wired together and run flat out, controlling the tone and volume from the guitar.

With Tempest, he switched to Yamaha solid-state amps and to a 100w Marshall setup with Boxer.

From 1975 He used a right-handed [a la Hendrix] black Fender Strat occasionally.

In 1976, the SG Custom was confiscated by Boxer’s manager, Nigel Thomas, against debts, which forced Ollie to use any guitars and amps he could beg, borrow or steal.

He eventually got a cherry Gibson SG Standard, and had it similarly converted. He used this for about 10 years with any amp he could lay his hands on – a Vox AC30, 50w Marshall 50w and 4×12, Fender Twin and, on the final Ayers tour, a Fender Studio 85 solid-state combo.

Thanks much again to Barry, and RIP Ollie, sorry we didn’t give you your due man!

Check this out: This tune is great! (Warning, a little above-waist nudity in the vid.)


Category: Marshall, Ollie Halsall, Princeton, SG, Super Reverb, Telecaster

Comments (2)

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  1. Paul Cross says:

    A talent unrecognised indeed! I first picked up on Ollie Halsall through the first Patto album in the very early 70’s–I couldn’t believe how good the guitarist was and then sort of followed his career (?!) afterwards…more Patto albums, his work wirh Neil Innes and other assorted ex-Bonzo’s, (Neil dedicates his re-packaged album ‘How Sweet to be an Idiot’ to the memory of Ollie Halsall, now available with extra tracks as ‘Re-cycled Vinyl Blues’–with tasty Halsall guitar playing) then onto Kevin Ayers, if anybody is unaware of Ollie’s work then check out his playing on the cd ‘June 1st 1974’ live from the Rainbow Theatre London. I then saw him playing live with Kevin in London where Ollie “flew” on stage literally! Suspended by a wire dressed as a bumble bee and still playing his guitar!! I sort of lost touch with his work in the late 80’s but have never forgotten his ability, in fact I still enjoy his recorded work on numerous albums.
    Gone but not forgotten–RIP

  2. All sentiments duly noted, and seconded!

    Having written the first biography of Danny Gatton (UNFINISHED BUSINESS: THE LIFE & TIMES OF DANNY GATTON), and a three-part retrospective on Ollie for UGLY THINGS (“Traveling Show: The Serendipitous & Surreal Six-Stringed Life & Times Of Ollie Halsall”) — which has since been reprinted on Barry’s site (under “Articles”) — I’ve gotten a fair feeling for underrated guitar heroes! (My website also features a chat that I did with Zanna Gregmar, who sang and played keyboards with Ollie during the early ’80s.)

    My introduction to Ollie also came via the JUNE 1 album, which I mail-ordered from Rather Ripped Records as an impressionable teenager — and what made an impression he made on my grey matter! So why didn’t Ollie succeed, with such an undeniable talent?

    Two main reasons, I think: Ollie spent much of his time as a sideman, and also, because he didn’t establish a high profile for himself as a singer and/or solo songwriter — unlike, say, Jimi Hendrix, who (from a purely commercial viewpoint, before his own artistry enters the frame) proved to be the “total package” that Chas Chandler was seeking as an independent producer.

    As a result, Ollie remained primarily known to guitar fanatics, and people who enjoyed scanning album credits (like yours truly). Additionally, Ollie spent much of his career in the UK and Spain, which are separate universes when it comes to pop music (and what gets embraced, vs. what doesn’t).

    All this discussion reminds me of something that one of Danny’s own sidemen told me, when I was researching my book about him: “As sad as it is, a lot of legends are forgotten.”

    That being said, Ollie left a undeniably deep footprint, one that any guitar player will have hours and hours of fun trying to work out…which is half the battle when you’re trying to establish your own style.

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