Steve Howe of Yes Introspectively Philosophical

By Roy Rahl

Steve Howe is a legendary guitarist with a phenomenal career spanning over forty years. He is one of the most respected rock guitarists of all time. As the guitarist for Yes, Asia, GTR, and numerous solo projects, Howe has seen it all, done it all, and doesn’t need the stinkin’ tee-shirt!

Yes is currently on tour promoting their new album, Heaven And Earth. The album delivers the first written contributions from Yes’ newest member, lead singer Jon Davison. Its musical approach marks a departure of sorts from the material of the past. It is more subtle, laid back, and presents shorter songs than most previous releases. New listeners of the group will hear fresh and interesting explorations. Like all fans of dynastic groups with long established styles, diehard Yes fans will determine on their own if this new direction is a good one.

Classic Rock Revisited spent some time talking with Steve Howe on a wide array of topics. At times Howe is philosophic and introspective. Other times he is opinionated, straightforward and blunt. But like his music, he always delivers a strong message worth hearing.

Roy: Full disclosure from the top: When I was about ten years old I listened to Close To The Edge and I said I want to play guitar and I want to play like that. For about forty years now I have been trying to imitate your music. You have been an inspiration to me.

Steve: Well, that’s very nice. Thanks.

Roy: How was your personal approach to songwriting different on Heaven And Earth compared to some of your previous albums?

Steve: Well, I mean, I had songs, you know, I had plenty of songs. I could have written, like Jon [Davison] could’ve, either of us could’ve written the whole album. But, we didn’t want to; that wouldn’t be Yes, and so we had plenty to collaborate on and plenty for my next project [laughs]. But, having said that, it’s what people go for, you know, in the songs. The guys heard “It Was All We Knew”, Jon liked it, and we did “It Was All We Knew”. I didn’t know whether it was going to make it through the sometimes dubious course of being talked about, being recorded, and then being overdubbed and then being mixed. There were places along there, with all the songs, there were risky moments.

But that’s the way albums are constructed. I mean, I have not changed. I just do the same thing. It just so happened that “It Was All We Knew” was a song that stayed like it was originally, more or less. Then the other two songs that I helped with … I wrote most of “Step Beyond” and Jon collaborated with me. And in reverse, Jon wrote most of “Believe Again” and I collaborated with him. So, you know, we have done that and maybe we’ll do that a lot more together in the future.

So, as a guitarist, we make albums. I held back a lot ‘cause I said we need a lot of material. Well, we only had enough for an album by the time we were ready, but most of it had been semi-approved and very, very little had been throwbacks from prior from here.  So in a way we tried not to do that - just do things that were throwbacks prior from here that we didn’t do then - because we thought that the material needed to be fresh. And, for the most part, that’s what we did. So that material was not only comparatively fresh, it was recorded starting January and then it was released in, what, July-August. So, the fact is it could be the freshest Yes album ever as far as it being created and then released.

Whether that’s a good thing I can’t say. In a way it isn’t totally a good thing because we could’ve spent a bit more time on it. We were up against the wall. We had a tour coming and we just tried our hardest. We worked incredibly hard to bring the album in. But we could have spent another week on mixing and refining it. But, there again, we didn’t; and we couldn’t. So, we had to kind of move on. That happens.

Roy: Between Yes, your solo tours, and your personal appearances, when do you have time to write? It’s like you never stop working or traveling.

Steve: Well, I mean, it’s not really quite true. If you stand back and look at the sum of the schedule it does look a bit that way. We’re actually, this year, a lot better than last year’s. So each year I’m determined to get them better. In other words, if you look back four years or six years, when Yes started up, and obviously in Asia, it was just crazy! I didn’t have time for solo concerts. I did some recording projects in between, like all the Homebrews. And even Time, which I am very, very proud of, got finished in that period. I don’t know quite how. I mean, my wife understands that I work pretty hard, But basically there’s a sort of a plot that goes around this where I get time. I force time off. This year has been a little bit tighter than it was supposed to be and I actually lost a week off where I would have been having a week off. So I lost that and that was pretty gruesome because that wasn’t in the plan. Having said that, I can see that it’s pretty tight.

I’ve got two weeks off before I do my solo stuff. But you see, they’re different creatures here. A solo tour to me [laughs], it’s the luxury of music there that I can do, because I can play tunes on my own. And I’ve written, I don’t know how many, twenty-five or thirty pieces for the solo guitar. In fact, it’s a golden opportunity for me to go out and I am pretty relaxed. There isn’t any pressure; I don’t have to ask anybody if it’s okay to do this. So I’ve got complete musical freedom and that takes a load of stuff off my mind, ‘cause I’m not relying on anybody else, but I also make all the choices and all the mistakes myself [laughs].

But similarly, In October when it appears I have the whole month off I’m going to be doing recording, and finishing up a new trio album. It may be called The Steve Howe Trio in the future, although we may modify that a little. We’ve got a fantastic new recording that’s all original in music. No direct Jazz music in it at all. But we do swing, and hopefully that’s the whole point: it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Roy: That’s with your son, Dylan [Howe], Right?

Steve: That is with Dylan, and the fabulous Ross Stanley. He is such a brilliant player. Plays the Hammond with me. Plays the bass parts as well. I’ve seen him do things that two people struggle to do in Yes, but he can do it and he’s one person. Like, he plays the bass of “Heart Of The Sunrise” at the same time as playing the chords of the instrumental section, which I definitely could not do. I love working with people who never fail to surprise, and he’s a great guy.

So, to try to find a quick end to this answer is [laughs], yeah, it does look like I’m crazy and I’m bent over and everything, but in fact there is a little bit more space in there that I do enjoy and I love spending time with my family. And, I’m now a double grandparent. I have a granddaughter of two and a grandson of less than a week.

Roy: Congratulations!

Steve: We’re very excited and we’re very much family people, basically. They’ve been very understanding. They're probably the most understanding people in the world, my wife and family. Somehow they’ve been part of this, I was going to call it a collusion, I don’t quite know why. You can’t call it a game either, but it’s part of why music is very demanding. And my sons have found that in their work. And it’s not like you get all the options, all the freedoms, all the downtime you want. If you got a career you got to meet the demands. If you’re in demand it’s not the time to say “I think I’ll go away for a year and have a holiday”, because when you come back things may have changed a bit and you might not be in demand [laughs]. It’s something you’ve got to watch, that you don’t want to take five years off when, in fact, everybody wants to see you.

But, there again, I also respect people like Bill Bruford immensely for deciding that for him, he played what he wanted to play, he reached the top of his game, and I say top of his game as a drummer, and then he quit, you know. We were all flabbergasted. He just said “no, no, I’ve done it”, you know. He wasn’t going to plow into another era of his career when he wasn’t playing as well, maybe. You know, and he had some other things that he wanted to do which didn’t involve as much playing. But, you know, he’s a very methodical and creative person. So he’s still doing that but he’s not on the road slogging away and meeting people.

I don’t know if you read his book, the autobiography, but it does tell you a very tough, dark side of the business. Maybe you wouldn’t think “hey Bill Bruford, you know, just a groovy drummer who came into Yes and played with King Crimson and played with Genesis and played with King Crimson again and played with Yes. But Earthworks, and Bruford was his own, and UK of course was much more his own. He did all those things!

Now, much like I’ve done an immense amount of different music, he’s done a lot of music and he quit because he wasn’t going to end up being anything less than the best that he was.  And I think that’s the other side of it. I was using that as a parallel side to say you’ve got to be there when the demand’s high, but also you’ve got to work within the framework of when you’re hot to trot.

Roy: It’s always the delicate balance between work and family.

Steve: Well anybody has that. I see a guy driving a semi down the I-95. Do I ask myself what his life is like? Well, I do. I stop and think that his life is not that much different from mine [laughs]. There’s a lot of tough things that we have in life. And it’s not all just men who have to do this tough life, because the toughness falls on the rest of the family. And sometimes obviously women. Women have jobs that are very demanding and some of them are very very successful at it.

Roy: How does it feel to play alongside your son?

Steve: Well that’s one of the best. I played with Virgil [Howe] as well, my other son. He’s also a drummer and plays keyboards and production. Dylan is just a wonderful drummer to play with. I’ve always been a very drum-orientated musician. I look at the drummer and I can’t help it. It’s a bit like television. You know, when the television’s on you can’t help looking at it. I can’t help looking at a drummer. He’s hitting things and that helps to give me telepathy of what’s going on. So, working with Dylan isn’t dissimilar to working with Bill Bruford actually. Dylan is a very conscientious, very hard worker. He practices for hours. He learns whole albums because he thinks it will be good experience. So he’s not shy to work extremely hard.

He’s got his own project now called Subterranean. which is a take on a David Bowie album, I think it’s Berlin, but I might be wrong. I do appear on it. I play on a koto on one track. Also, David Bowie had a koto player on that song. He’s dreamed up his own kind of music, really. He’s been a band leader for a long time, and he knows, and I do, how hard that is, how tough that is, ‘cause you know, the buck stops with you so to speak [laughs]. But he’s an all-around dedicated musician and I’m very proud of him, as I am also with Virgil. Dylan’s put in the extra years. He’s now forty-five, so he’s about seven years older than Virgil.

That’s quite amazing that I have two sons that both do fall in love with the drums, which was an instrument I loved, you know. I said to somebody yesterday, I said maybe I should have been a drummer because I’m so opinionated. I love Chico Hamilton, who’s a really subtle jazz drummer. I think he passed away not long ago. He used to play with brushes, only who plays with brushes, you know? He played on some great records with Jim Hall and Howard Roberts on guitars.

So I love drummers that can be understated. But in understatement it is sometimes not too subtle. I mean, take Alison Krauss. One of my favorite bands is Alison Krauss and Union Station. I mean, if she’s not understated I don’t know what is. She’s just a wonderful singer. And Jerry Douglas, of course, virtually reinvented the Dobro guitar. I mean, I don’t think anybody’s ever played it like him. They know I love ‘em. I managed to run into some of the gang in Nashville quite recently, so I’m happier because of that. 

I like the way the industry’s gone for people like myself, and hopefully for many other people. That music still has a sense of freedom about it. That’s why Elvis went Heartbreak Hotel, ‘cause he was free to do that. I mean, he was singing the wrong music! I mean, people said to him “you shouldn’t be singing this. This music belongs to another set of people”.

So, that’s how free Presley was. I love Presley. I love loads of the classic musicians. But also I’ve got Chet Atkins. For me, Chet, like Wes Montgomery, like the late Paco de Lucia, like the zillion guitarists that I love so much, and I’ve already mentioned Jerry Douglas; class, you know.

It’s not about technique. It’s not about “oh, hasn’t he got a good technique”.  Technique is almost an encumberment if you don’t know what to do with it. It’s taste. It’s style, it’s influence. It’s not technique. I hate people who haven’t thought they’re technique is, you know “what’s their problem?” They’ve got such good technique that they don’t know what to do with it. So, technique is just part of the story of being a musician. In fact, it’s being a musician and not being a techno-whiz freak.

Obviously, a lot of good successful musicians know how to play. That’s fundamental. But don’t let that get in the way of knowing what to play, because that counts for some people. They can’t cross that line. “Okay, now I’ve got technique, what is there I’d like to do? I’d like to do this, this is beautiful”. Instead of “Oh I want to go and show off.” Because showing off is nowhere. It’s about as nowhere as music gets.

I was accused of all sorts of indulgences in the seventies, which fortunately ceased. Maybe partly ceased because I learned from the seventies a lot more about music and being a musician than I did about being a guitarist. I found that the Gibson ES-175D was the best guitar I needed. So, why did I need all these other guitars? You know, I’ve still got a hundred. But basically they're all about a few guitars that are quintessentially wonderful and the others are kind of safety valves [laughs]. You know, in case I needed them. So, I’m lucky to be able to do that.

Roy: Well, I believe that the seventies were the golden age of rock music because you had that ability to express yourself. You didn’t have record companies saying this has to be done this way and this must be done this way. Yes was definitely in the forefront of all of that.

Steve: And Yes was not the only Prog group that got criticized for being rock dinosaurs as soon as punk came along, and we weren't the only musical form to be criticized. Music is always being criticized. Think about how everybody slagged off the eighties. You know, all those disco beats, all those Synclavier tracks with the drums on. When you look back on every era the critics were wrong. There was something to take with you from whatever decade you were most influenced; or maybe you were influenced by them all.

Basically, you just can’t knock music. Because some of these jerks, you know, decided that .. even somebody decided Fragile was a load of rubbish when we released it. Even Melody Maker, one of the most supportive magazines of Yes up until that point, slagged off Fragile. And, in fact, Fragile was a very creative record. We did things. I loved playing “Five Percent For Nothing”, which is thirty-four seconds of total madness. That is a wonderful thing to play. Thank you, Bill! [laughs]. That basically echoes my last statement about freedom. Each era has the freedom to develop, partly due to the technology, but partly the writing and the style of music.

And of course, the nineties and the 2000’s saw all sorts of things coming back. Grunge wasn’t punk, you know, they didn’t spit on you, but basically Grunge was a revitalization of guitars coming back into music after the eighties was all digi-synths and Howard Jones and lots of people I like. I mean, I like Go West, the most phenomenal pop band I’ve ever heard. And I like the Buggles. Yes chose both members of the Buggles to join us. So we weren’t really, if there’s such a thing, as politically musically motivated. We didn’t say “oh, these guys are pop artists, we can’t play with them”. We play with anybody.

Roy:  Last one: For all the guitar junkies out there, including me: If you could keep only one guitar in your collection which would it be?

Steve: Well, I don’t have to stop and think, really. I mean, assuming electricity is still possible, it would be the [Gibson] ES-175D, the 1964 one I have. But it’s very close. The decision would be if there was no electricity then I would have to take the Martin OO-18 which is a 1953. That’s the first Martin I bought. So the first Gibson I bought and the first Martin I bought are primarily my favorite guitars. It doesn’t mean to say that I’m not awestruck quite often by, you know, even things like the [Gibson] ES Artist that I played with Asia. Awestruck! That is a dynamic guitar! And several guitars, I mean the ESY that I have and the [Gibson] Super 400 that I don’t play in public a lot that I adore. I have a lot of very high quality guitars like the Les Paul Custom I was playing, the Black Beauty. I have wonderful guitars. I’m so lucky.

But, yeah, it would be a hard call, but like I said, electric: 175, acoustic: the OO-18. Both are the best guitars I’ve ever played and I’ve still got them. So, I am lucky guy.