Interview: Randy Holden

Marcus Singletary: What was the first guitar that you ever owned?

Randy Holden: It was an acoustic Stella that cost twenty bucks, which was a lot of money then. The strings were about a half-inch off the neck, and really hard to play. Then, I had a Danelectro, but it was under the Sears name. Then, my first Stratocaster. It had just beautiful curves, and a jack that went in diagonally. It was magical!

Marcus Singletary: Who were some of your initial influences?

Randy Holden: The Ventures were a big influence, but I was playing things like Ray Charles, and bands back in those days did that type of R&B. James Brown - he just came up then, and I would say Duane Eddy. Before that, though, I loved the old Spanish classics. The Ventures did renditions of a lot of those - "Besame Mucho", "Dark Eyes", and even some of the older classical things like "Malaguena".

Marcus Singletary: Why guitar, instead of another instrument?

Randy Holden: I was about six or seven years old, and my cousin Linda and I were up in her parents' attic. We found a guitar in there, and I picked it up and just started plucking on that thing. I loved the sound of those strings! We stayed up in the attic all night, and she was listening while I was playing. That's where it came from. There was something about hitting that string. It still does that to me.

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Marcus Singletary: How did you learn to play?

Randy Holden: I realized that I didn't know anything, and I needed to know what the names of the strings and notes were. I went to the library, [and] got this book that had the names of the notes of every fret on a guitar keyboard. I memorized every one of those. It enabled you to communicate with other people who played music. So, from there, I began to learn chords. Mostly, I played lead melodies, but that's how it developed.

Marcus Singletary: When did you turn pro?

Randy Holden: Right away! A matter of necessity, but I wanted to, as well. I started playing clubs at fourteen or fifteen, and that's how I made money. I had a really good band back then - The Iridescents. We would play the DJs gigs in Baltimore every weekend, and every other weekend, we'd play the Arlington Marine base outside of Washington. That was a real kick! Those guys were a great audience. We got all the free beer we could drink!

Dick Dale came to town, and we played on the same bill. I had the same amps as his band had - Bill Showman. In fact, I had the first one on the east coast. I went to get my amp off the stage, and it was gone! I ran out to the tour bus, and there they were - loading my amp into their bus. I said to the guys, "We've got a mistake going here!" They said, "That's yours? We thought we were the only ones who had those!"

Marcus Singletary: At the House of Blues on Sunset in Los Angeles, that happened to me - but I don't think that was a mistake. They just tried to off with my amp! So I've been there...

Randy Holden: That tended to start happening, later on.

Marcus Singletary: What other bands did you perform with, before Blue Cheer?

Randy Holden: The Sons of Adam, and the Other Half. I had an opportunity to join the Yardbirds. Some girls said, "The Yardbirds are just getting ready to go on stage, and Jeff [Beck] refuses to go! They need a guitar player right now, and they want you to come down." I thought, "That doesn't sound right. He must not have meant it." I decided I wasn't going to go, [and] Jimmy Page took over guitar that night.

I thought the Other Half might stand a chance of doing something significant, but they were more interested in being rock and roll stars rather than being rock and roll stars, if you know what I mean. Playing a role, rather than doing it. We had one gig, playing on the same bill as the Doors, and they wanted to go in a limousine. We came up in this limousine, and I felt like an idiot! The limo driver pulled up, and he had this goofy sounding horn. I wanted to hide myself in shame. We were getting out, and somebody said, "Those guys think they're rock stars." I said, "You just nailed it on the head for me. That's exactly what this is, and I'm not doing it." It's not sincere. I didn't want to play the role. I wanted to do something that was worthy of doing.

Marcus Singletary: What axe were you playing on stage back then?

Randy Holden: I had a Fender Jazzmaster. I thought it was really pretty and, for some reason, I convinced myself it had a longer neck on it. I had a Jaguar before that; it seemed to have a short neck. I thought the longer neck might give me more freedom, [but] it had absolutely no sustain. It was an impediment to my playing. Later, I switched to a Gibson SG. I actually played with Arthur Lee and Love one night in Hollywood. [Lead guitarist] Johnny Echols couldn't make the gig. I ran across the street, and borrowed an SG from a music store. It sounded really good. I really loved playing that guitar, and we put on a great show! Not too far along later, I linked up with Blue Cheer.

Marcus Singletary: Had you already heard Blue Cheer's cover version of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues"?

Randy Holden: Oh, yeah! They used to play the same gigs we did. I was looking for a drummer. I went to the Shrine Auditorium, because Jeff Beck was coming out with a new album, Truth, with Rod Stewart on the vocals. The promoter had Blue Cheer on the top of the bill, and I thought, "Shouldn't Jeff Beck be on top?" He had a really big name. [But] he came on, and was very withdrawn. He was playing well, but wasn't that wild character he was with the Yardbirds - with all that invention and whatnot. He'd put his guitar up against his amp, and let it feed back, and go hooping around the stage like an Indian! But he was real inhibited, and let Rod Stewart dominate the show - which I don't think he should have done.

Blue Cheer then came on. Paul Whaley [drummer] just wailed, so I went backstage, and met up with him. They arranged it so that I'd come down, and my bass player Mike Port and Paul would play together. We jammed down at the Shrine the next afternoon, and I was just totally shocked. Mike could not play with Paul at all. It blew me away! He just did not fit. He was a stranger among us. There was no connection, so afterwards, Paul and Jerry [Russell, manager of Blue Cheer] said, "Instead of Paul going with you and Mike, you come with Blue Cheer." I understood why. I took the gig.

Marcus Singletary: What was it like, playing with those guys?

Randy Holden: By the time we got to Europe, we just caught fire. Just tore down the house wherever we went. I just loved getting on the stage.

Marcus Singletary: You met Jimi Hendrix during this time.

Randy Holden: He seemed very harried and troubled. He wasn't that happy guy he was known as - the 'happy-go-lucky' free guy. Whatever was troubling him, it seemed to take a lot of that away. When your bands change, and conflicts erupt, magic gets taken away. People don't seem to get along together too well for that long.

Marcus Singletary: Were you influenced by him at all?

Randy Holden: Oh, sure. Everybody was. He took things in a really interesting direction for awhile. He was very creative. He had moments of really fluid freedom and creativity, and some of it was able to be captured on tape. That's really great if you've accomplished that, because most musicians' greatest moments were never recorded. I can say that for myself!

Marcus Singletary: Why did you leave the band?

Randy Holden: There were lot of typical, internal problems. We played gigs across the country, and through Europe. The manager was supposed to bring my money from the tour. My tour earnings went to pay the band's back taxes! He brought me an envelope, but with only half the cash the accountant said I was supposed to have. I just said, "That's it, we're done." We had so much potential to get so much bigger, we could have just been huge. But the negative elements just tore it all apart.

Marcus Singletary: Talk about Population II, a two-man band where Chris Lockheed played drums and keyboards simultaneously.

Randy Holden: We could have been big. It takes organization. I figured all of that would fall into place once we got off the ground. When they didn't release the album after all the time, money, and effort we put into it - that was a real big disappointment. I got caught in a real bad position, because the record company refused to let me out of the contract, and I had another label that was interested in signing us. There was nowhere to turn, no money, no transportation, and no equipment as when the band fell apart, the road manager just took it and sold it all to a music store.

Marcus Singletary: You didn't play for several decades, as a result. What did you do to pass the time?

Randy Holden: It wasn't a matter of passing the time. I decided I was going to paint. I thought this is really what I should be focusing on, and I would have control over that - instead of all these circumstances where I had no control. I went off to just be no longer in the public eye. The failure was a huge embarrassment. When you put everything into it, and it doesn't succeed, there's a bit of an identity crisis, because you're so heavily vested - emotionally, and in every other way. When you're on the avant-garde edge, you're not going to be dealing with a whole lot of people that know what you're doing. I just didn't have any vision for what I would want to do, creatively. So, I got into big game fishing.

Marcus Singletary: You then re-established yourself as a musician.

Randy Holden: Some guy had been hunting me for about three or four years, with the specific purpose and intent of getting me back into playing music. I was suspicious, but finally let him persuade me to accept a guitar as a gift. He kept telling me that I had records selling all over the place. I had no clue. He sent me a T-shirt that said, "Randy Holden, Guitar God." He said, "You're famous," and I said, "Really? How come I'm not rich, then?" I didn't have any idea there were so many fans that liked what I did. I guess at the end of it, I convinced myself I wasn't worth very much.

I didn't play for twenty-four years out of rage. When I returned, the rage reversed, and I had a renewed passion and emotion that came from a very hard place of suffering. I was freer than I ever felt. I could play anything! In other words, I was immediately far better than I was, when I returned.

Marcus Singletary: Tell me about the twenty-two minute guitar solo from Guitar God 2001, "Prayer To Paradise."

Randy Holden: I envisioned this march of humanity through time, and all the music that transpired. The sound of the waves and wind - that's what big amplifiers sound like! That's what that is in "Prayer To Paradise" - big wind and sea. It's horrendously loud hiss. It's not a quiet place. If you notice, it sounds like there are birds in it. I took sandpaper, and just gently rubbed it across the strings.

Marcus Singletary: The song is called "Prayer To Paradise". Are you a religious man?

Randy Holden: Eternity is eternity. That's undeniable. If the universe and the big bang theory are how things started, I tend to think of that as a breath. One breath exhales, and here it is, and it goes until there's the inhale. It all condenses back into this infinitesimal point. The next breath comes, another big bang. I've met people who've said, "I've met you in another life," but I tend to think of that a little differently - as in the cosmic dust that put us together to be what we are in conjunction with memory. The memories fade, [but] here we are, here and now. We do exist. It's mathematically not possible that it wouldn't happen again. The identity of who we are is the part that stays with us on a different level.

Marcus Singletary: How does that relate to music?

Randy Holden: Music is the only thing that transcends this realm. It's the one form of communication that does transcend everything else in the material world. That's probably why everybody loves music so much. One tone is the original tone, and everything comes from that. Sometimes, I'll dream about music, and I'll wake up. Getting to translate from the sleep world to the conscious - that's a real transition. The key is to keep the key of the tone, above all else, in your mind as you're waking - until you get to touch that physical instrument. If you go too quickly out of the dream state into the awake state, you'll lose the tone fast. You have to stay dream conscious while waking.

Marcus Singletary: Is it easy to reach that state in front of a crowd?

Randy Holden: That's tough. I've done it a few times, but the mechanical structure of this world makes it more difficult. I'm sure it can happen. When you get really free, it's amazing what happens. You can do it without drugs. When I reach that place, there's nothing better I could ever conceive of. I don't want to leave it when I'm there!

Marcus Singletary: Are you a guitar god?

Randy Holden: Well, what's that?

Marcus Singletary: The name of two of your albums!

Randy Holden: Fans were saying that. What does it mean? Does it mean something?

Marcus Singletary: They used to say Clapton was God...

Randy Holden: Maybe it has to do with being inspired. When you pull inspiration out of a certain place, I guess you can say it's from God. So, in that sense, it's flattering. But, in other senses, it may not be.

Marcus Singletary: Over the course of the next twenty years, what do you think is going to happen in music? What is it going to sound like?

Randy Holden: Well, it depends on if I'm still playing or not! I've got some albums I'm just finishing that are pretty incredible works of art.

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Most interesting, within the confines of the patchouli-filled dance halls of the late-Sixties, was the audience's hunger for challenging, improvisational music. L.A. had the Doors, New Yorkers were mystified by the Velvet Underground, and San Francisco became the capital of the youth movement's revolution, as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and similar groups deviated from established musical idioms en route to the creation of a brand new stylistic epoch that equated complexity with sensuality while resulting in an undeniable mix that even traditionalists like Dick Clark could not ignore. Clark, whose tastes conflicted with the trend that brought forth Blue Cheer, remarked to the members of the band, "People like you give rock 'n' roll a bad name." Yet, controversy and criticism did not deter ace guitarist Randy Holden from signing up for a tour of duty with the trio, following the departure of original axeman Leigh Stephens. Here, Holden reflects upon his early finger-flashing days, his lengthy sabbatical from music, and his triumphant return to the battlefield as a Guitar God.

Marcus Singletary, who recently conducted this interview with Holden, is a musician, musicologist, and media personality based in Los Angeles, CA. He currently hosts the Far Out Flavors pop culture podcast. Visit for more information, and follow him on Twitter - @IAmSingletary.