Solo and with Yes, guitarist extraordinaire Steve Howe continues to cover a wide Spectrum …
Steve Howe and Fender, onstage with Yes.
After four decades of incredible music, Steve Howe never ceases to amaze. Certainly, he is a legend of rock guitar, and yet it would be grossly inadequate to refer to a player of his stature and dazzling ability merely as a rock guitarist.
Those familiar with his mercurial, jaw-dropping playing in Yes and his many solo outings know that it’s not at all uncommon for Howe to expertly and effortlessly draw on influences as diverse as Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, Albert Lee, Andres Segovia and Speedy West in the course of a single song. His musical vocabulary seems to know no bounds, and to experience his unique command of musical muscle and finesse at a live performance is simply stunning.
Steve Howe is a giant of the guitar, period.
And it isn’t even just guitar; Howe routinely records and performs using all manner of stringed instruments, from the common to the exotic. As his website notes: “If it has strings and a fretboard, Howe has mastered it and recorded with it at some point on one of countless albums he’s been a part of as a group member, solo artist and special guest.”
He is known worldwide not only as a player, but also as a collector of guitars and other stringed instruments, the vast lot of which is detailed in his 1993 book, The Steve Howe Guitar Collection.
Howe was born in London in 1947. When he was 12, his parents gave him a guitar for Christmas. He taught himself to play it, influenced by his earliest heroes, Atkins and Reinhardt, plus Les Paul and Mary Ford. He caught the rock ‘n’ roll bug from Bill Haley and His Comets.
A wide Spectrum: The new solo album.
Early bands included the Chuck Berry-esque Syndicats in 1964, followed by the In Crowd and psychedelic heroes Tomorrow, one of London’s biggest bands during the summer of ’67. Short stints with Bodast and PP Arnold followed, and in 1970 Howe accepted an invitation to join Yes. Howe rocketed to stardom as the ferociously talented guitarist of the world’s preeminent progressive rock band, and he had a major voice in the sound of Yes’s revered and prolific ’70s recorded output. He released his first two solo albums, Beginnings and The Steve Howe Album, in 1975 and 1979, respectively.
Howe played with chart-topping but short-lived pop/progressive supergroups Asia and GTR in the early and mid ’80s. In 1981 he became the first player inducted into Guitar Player magazine’s Hall of Fame after readers voted him Best Overall Guitarist for five straight years.
The late ’80 and early ’90s saw the start of an amazingly varied and prolific series of solo albums and collaborations, plus his return to a revived and reinvigorated Yes. His many subsequent solo recordings have included home-studio demos (Homebrew, 1996 and Homebrew 2, 2000), Dylan covers (Portraits of Bob Dylan, 1999), duo collaborations (Skyline, 2002, with friend and keyboardist Paul Sutin), and eclectic full-band outings with Steve Howe’s Remedy, which includes his sons Dylan (drums) and Virgil (keyboards).
His latest album, 2005’s Spectrum, features Dylan and Virgil, plus bass superhero Tony Levin and keyboardist Oliver Wakeman, son of a good friend and longtime Yes bandmate—legendary keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman. And of course, Yes continues to record and tour, sounding as fresh and ferocious now as it did 35 years ago, due in no small part to Howe’s signature playing.
Throughout it all, Fender® instruments and amplifiers have been an integral part of his considerable guitar arsenal, and he has long been very enthusiastic about making different Fender sounds a big part of the Steve Howe sound.
Unfortunately, the unusual fall 2005 “More Drama” tour by Yes-men Howe, drummer Alan White and bassist Chris Squire had to be called off at the last minute, but that just gave Howe a little more free time to talk to Fender News about guitars, amps, Spectrum and other recent albums, influences and inspirations, the fate of the More Drama tour, Yes, what it’s like to be in a band with your kids, and how Fender fits into his amazing sound …
FN: You’ve been amazingly prolific and varied as a solo artist. Where on Earth do you get so many ideas?
SH: Well, thank you. I guess I get a variety of ideas due to my broad interest in or appreciation of most musical forms. I still do like some pop music, rock, jazz, and country, as well as classical. Each of these can fuel my interest and influence my own music. Having said that, love, family and the world at large are always impacting what I decide to play, too. It’s a strangely interconnected place that we live in!
FN: Is Spectrum its own album, or have you intended any kind of stylistic or thematic arc with it and your past few albums—i.e., Skyline, Elements and the Homebrew albums?
SH: Because I produce these recordings, I hope to achieve continuity between them. Then, each one contains a selection that I get a lot of pleasure from, within each project. To me, they are each quite conceptualized, within a particular vein, with an overall shape that I’ve designed. It is less important to me how much that comes through, as music ought to be open to interpretation, and a little vagueness adds to the mystery.
Howe onstage with full-on Fender setup.
FN: How does the Fender sound fit into the Steve Howe sound?
SH: Fender has been an important contributor to my sound for as long as I care to remember! It started with your amps. My first was a piggyback Fender Tremolux®. It was cream with cream knobs and was terrific! This was around 1964, and I thought it sounded amazing—great for rock, but I could also get a great “Kenny Burrell” tone, too. In 1967, I was using a Vox AC50, but after their transistor 100-watt broke down all the time, I used an old Gibson amp until I played with PP Arnold on the Delaney and Bonnie tour with Eric Clapton, when I used a Fender Dual Showman®. This was 1969.
Soon I was to join Yes, and as soon as we could, we all bought Dual Showman amps! Tony Kaye (keyboardist) and I each had one, and Chris Squire (bass) had two. We fanned out our extension cabinets to create the perfect monitoring. Around ’73 I added a Quad Reverb for steel guitar and one side of the stereo setup.
I continued with Showman amps until the round stage arrived, when I began using two Fender Twins®, as they sunk better into the stage. Sound engineers generally prefer Twins, due to the 12-inch speakers (the Showman amps had 15-inch speakers). During my Asia period, the first tour was the Twins on their ends, one on top of the other; then for the second tour I used the Dual Showman heads with custom speaker cabinets with 15-inch speakers. In 1986, GTR with Steve Hackett toured and I returned to two Twins. ABWH and Yes’s Union, Keys to Ascension, Open Your Eyes, The Ladder and Magnification all utilized the Twins.
On my DVD Remedy Live, you’ll notice the two Twins right behind me, as usual, raised to ear level. I did use the tilting legs on the floor for a while, but I much prefer ear level.
The guitars came in to play in 1974, when Yes recorded Relayer. The main guitar across the whole album was my 1955 Telecaster®, customized with a different toggle switch and a humbucker in the neck position. The Dual Six Professional steel was used for “Soon.”
Howe: “Teles play many riff parts …”
“Parallels” from Going For the One saw my first featured use of my ’67 Stratocaster®. It was stolen from me, but I have used and enjoy the replacement American Reissue that Fender gave me, along with a Twin Reverb® 11.
All my recordings—with Yes and on my own—have used Fender sounds, along with all the other various identifiable guitars, to contrast one another. For more detail, my CDs have info on what instruments are used on each track, and there’s info in my book, The Steve Howe Guitar Collection, particularly pages 40 to 45 (this is also on my CD ROM Steve Howe Interactive, soon to be a DVD).
FN: What’s it like to play in a band with your sons?
SH: There is no way that I have found to really explain it! It’s very special and extremely calming. There seems an added dimension to the feeling, and an ease to the communication. It’s hard to beat! It’s one of the best things that has happened. Thanks to Dylan and Virgil!
FN: As far as assembling material, touring and simply functioning as a single unit, does Yes work the same way now that it did 30 years ago?
SH: No, absolutely no. So much has changed that we attempt to find new ways to make it work, as there is no going back. It would be nice to, but we work differently and live and reside in different spaces. Once there was only one space, London. We were all in there, liking it and what it offered. But now we are much more independent and sure that our way is the right way. The ’70s were great—I know; I was there!
FN: You’re a big Dylan fan. Ever play with him? Did you read his book?
SH: Bob Dylan wrote in such a way as to touch most of us by reaching into the intimate level of relationships. On Portraits of Bob Dylan, I selected songs that carried the love forlorn plot, but made some changes as it progressed. No, I haven’t played with Bob, but his manager was very cooperative. I really enjoyed his first volume of Chronicles.
FN: What’s the status of the More Drama tour—canceled or merely postponed?
SH: Cancelled it is. A lot of momentum was lost in its cancellation, and we sort of threw the towel in, so to speak.
FN: What do you consider to be the most “Fender-y”-sounding music you’ve done, solo or with Yes?
SH: Well, I mentioned Relayer; that’s very Fender-y. There’s “While Rome’s Burning” from Turbulence and 100 others—it’s vast! Any steel is generally Fender, and Teles play many riff parts.
FN: What are you listening to lately? Any newer inspirations, or do you return to those who’ve inspired you for years?
SH: OK, of course I mainly have great players that I have and will forever listen to: Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Tal Farlow, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Chet Atkins (!!!), Les Paul (!!), Hank Garland, Jimmy Bryant, Speedy West, Albert Lee, Steve Morse (!!!), Julian Bream, Andres Segovia, Martin Taylor, Jerry Douglas and so on and so on. Frannie Beecher, who played with Bill Haley, was my singular inspiration for wanting to be stage right, playing lead guitar!
But yes, new players and bands feed me with the enthusiasm to keep going, not forgetting that the fire starts young!
FN: Do you consider your understanding of the guitar complete, or are there still areas you feel you haven’t explored yet?
SH: It’s not complete, that’s for sure. I am pleased with what I might now be capable of—working with other player illustrates that there is room for each voice. No one person could be all things. I know; I’ve tried!