My Interview with Steve Howe of Yes, 1999

This article Copyright© 1999 by Wheat Williams, III. All rights reserved.

Steve Howe in 1999
Steve Howe in 1999

In 1999, I was commissioned by Guitar Player Magazine to do a short feature on Yes guitarist Steve Howe. I got an interview with him, in person, while he was on tour with Yes. Unfortunately, Guitar Player was only able to run a very short piece. I contacted Progression Magazine, a publication for fans of progressive rock, and they agreed to publish an edited version of my full interview with Steve Howe. What follows is the manuscript that I submitted to Progression; it’s a bit longer than what they actually published.

Yes press photo, 1999
Yes press photo, 1999

In 1999, Steve Howe was amazingly prolific, seeing the release of his solo albums Quantum Guitars and Portraits of Bob Dylan, in addition to Yes’ 18th studio album, The Ladder. And the 1968 album from his pre-Yes band, Tomorrow, became available on CD. As a fitting tribute, Martin Guitars released a limited edition of 250 Steve Howe-model acoustic guitars, based on his beloved 1953 00-18 model. Beyond Sound also released the Steve Howe Interactive three-CD-ROM package for Windows and Macintosh computers. It contains extensive interviews with Steve, and demonstrations where he performs his signature licks, as well as “Clap” and “Mood for a Day” in their entirety, on high-resolution video. This would be useful to any guitarist trying to cop his licks. The third CD in the set is a digital version of his 1994 coffee-table book, The Steve Howe Guitar Collection, with audio narrations.

I spoke with Steve Howe at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 16, 1999, hours before Yes’ second performance of the American leg of their tour supporting The Ladder. I had a specific mission: to learn about Steve’s formative influences as a guitarist, and how he brought those influences to Yes. I posed the daunting question, “What is progressive rock?” As you’ll see, if you want to really understand where Steve’s playing comes from, it’s not just jazz; you’re going to have to go out and get a lot of country music from the 50s and 60s. And after more than two years of having Billy Sherwood as a full member of Yes, Steve shares his not-so-cordial reservations about having a second guitarist in the band.

Wheat: I just spent the afternoon going through the Steve Howe Interactive CD-ROM collection. The information on there was so good that I feel that I’ve already interviewed you, and in my own office.

Steve: Great!

Wheat: I guess the CD-ROM project started two or three years ago?

Steve: Yeah, at least. It took awhile. We kept thinking it was going to be this, and it was going to be that, and then we redid a lot of it, so it all had continuity. At one time we’d done some shooting. I thought I was done, but it didn’t really turn out good enough. So we got clever and the ideas got better, and we did it again. Hopefully it was worthwhile.

Wheat: So how is the material from the new album going over with audiences?

Steve: Well, we’ve done a bit in South America and we’ve done just one show here. Obviously America’s had a chance for some people to listen to it, and that helps us when we play. In South America they didn’t know what we were playing. Sometimes the language lost them a bit because it makes transitions difficult. In the weak space between songs they would start shouting.

We were going to so many new countries in South America that we decided to drop a few new songs because we felt they were struggling. We’d never played there before, so we stuck “Close to the Edge” back in there instead. We wanted to give them the kind of show that they were hoping for, not too much–you go to see a band and you’ve been itching to see them, and they don’t play your favorites. So we just worked, you know, to be as audience-friendly as we could.

Judging from last night, I would think it’s going to go reasonably well. I mean I think we’re going to find out what’s good and bad in it. Not every track that we record always necessarily works on stage.

Wheat: How would you define progressive rock? What is it?

Steve: Well it’s a pretty dangerous thing to try to decide. It’s almost about not having such a clear definition, but it being the beginning, if you like, toward much more openness towards crossing the music. Psychedelic music sort of started that; Indian music came in, and jazz then got kind of on the fringe of it because it was improvisation. Then psychedelic improvisation was brought in to jazz players. And then a lot more things started happening, I guess. Progressive seems to be more of a continuation of psychedelic, in my mind, than anything else, because it just opened up the idea that you could bring in influences that were much broader. Whereas classical music is part of a convention, progressive rock was broadening the music by bringing in something that was unconventional to be made a part of it, but in a way a convention of its own: classical music. I think that’s part of what happened.

But you could blame it on synthesizers. You could blame it all on Bob Moog!

Joining Yes was the opportunity for me to start fulfilling a dream of being in a group that had high musicianship, had strong individuality. And certainly we were a part of that progressive movement because we were allowed, or we allowed ourselves, if you like, to expand it into things like Close to the Edge and Relayer for instance.

When Patrick Moraz came into the band, we realized that in a way the band was like an orchestra, because it wasn’t limited by its personnel. The personnel could change and we could still kind of carry on the same concepts. So we had a certain style.

We did shut ourselves off from Genesis. They were a bit close for comfort after awhile. We didn’t want to hear them too much because in a way we didn’t want to be influenced. We didn’t want to be like them. Because they were formulating their own sort of style, you know. It was great for me later when I wasn’t in the middle of it to look back on what Genesis did, in particularly on the albums that Steve Hackett played on, and to find out more about what they were like after the fact.

Wheat: When I think of Genesis I honestly feel that their music is just very, very English.

Steve: Yeah.

Wheat: I mean anything from William Byrd up to Edward Elgar or this whole long line of British classical and church music composers. I seem to find some sense of that in there.

But specifically looking at things like multiple odd time signatures that change, frequent key changes, long form compositions: do you think that the people that were the architects of progressive rock, even the members of Yes before you joined, were they consciously looking to Bartók and Stravinsky and that sort of thing, or did that come afterwards?

Steve: Well, I think people just brought their ingredients. When I joined, and Jon and I began to talk about music over the first few years, we found we had quite different things we listened to. He liked classical music but a different era. And I was still kind of caught up in the Baroque era at that time and really influenced by Telemann and Vivaldi. Not influenced necessarily, but I listened, and I thought it was really bright and pure, and then the moody things I liked. The second movements from all those concertos was the other side of it. I liked those contrasts.

So I don’t know. I really can’t define it. But certainly as much as it was one kind of music, it was another kind of music. It was jazz as much as one thing, for me to come in and find that Bill [Bruford] was really into jazz. What he was talking about was something I enjoyed. And you know when we played “Siberian Khatru,” when we played that tune (hums second theme) that was one of Bill’s. When I play that, I still feel like I’m playing Bruford as much as I’m playing Yes.

Yes is hopefully a useful musical melting pot, where people just mix their ideas. I think that we weren’t really governed by what progressive rock was supposed to be. It didn’t almost exist. We were helping to invent it. We weren’t that conscious that we were doing something that was going to be called a name like that. We were certainly aware when we got to the mid seventies that there were two kinds of success for Yes. There was the immediacy of Fragile, and The Yes Album. Then Close to the Edge surprised everybody first, by just having three titles on it. We realized by the results of [Tales From] Topographic Oceans that a division was happening. Our popularity was going to the dedicated fans. The common man was going to say, “Oh no, Yes have got too much for me now.” So we just worked with the fan base and they seemed to be enormous. And in America so loyal, and in Europe so deceptively loyal.

Wheat: How’s that?

Steve: Yes didn’t pay a lot of attention to Europe. It was conceived that they weren’t really than interested in it. But as soon as we started to work there, and I did solo tours there, as well, then we realized that the Yes audience were really just dormant, waiting for Yes to return. So we did very well last year when we toured Europe. And we’ll go back next year. So that’s the kind of plot, why we do that thing: because people stuck with us and people kind of developed along with it. And clung to the memories that are surely deep in our minds. When we played “Perpetual Change” last night I was very surprised at how I felt about thinking that we wrote that song, and we played that song, and we arranged that song.

Wheat: That’s my favorite cut off that album.

Steve: Good. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

Wheat: If I can go back to one more question about the birth of this whole thing, would it be accurate to say that you guys were trying to avoid the Delta blues-influenced Rolling Stones to Cream and Eric Clapton kind of thing when you were starting, that you were trying to skirt around those blues-rock clichés and find something that was entirely different, but still used the same instruments?

Steve: Yeah, I mean, that affected me a lot because obviously I played guitar, and everybody else was playing guitar in a different style–and I wasn’t. I had done that in the early Sixties, and I was in a couple of blues bands then. And it was great fun. I dearly loved the blues. I want to return to the blues at some time. But the thing is that I got so caught up in not playing other peoples’ cliché guitar lines, but actually working out other guitarist’s lines, very short parts. I mean, I couldn’t concentrate on the whole track, so I’d learn maybe thirty-two bars from Tal Farlow, from Kenny Burrell, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian. I learned little bits from all of these guys but I didn’t attempt to learn vast amounts of each of them. I listen to them. I hear them. And I learned a few things.

I did make a conscious decision not to play blues after The In Crowd changed to Tomorrow. When I was working with people who wrote songs, then it was much easier to put original guitar into new songs than it was to put in old songs. So Keith West and I started writing songs, and then I wrote with another group before Yes called Bodast. That experience wasn’t enough for me because there wasn’t the instrumentation going [Bodast was a power trio].

When you first mention progressive, I think of King Crimson. I think Yes were conscious that Crimson were very close to them in the timing of it.

Wheat: Much darker, though.

Steve: Yes. I suppose that was what intrigued Bill, and we lost Bill, because he wanted to play in Crimson. We learned a lesson from Crimson in a way. We learned about music and certain people. And peoples’ decisiveness about their musical direction. We all admired Bill for his decisiveness. But he actually thought that Yes were getting too commercial. To think that we could have gone into a stage of writing Tales from Topographic Oceans with Bill might have been very unlikely in a way. Besides the fact that it’s not more commercial, which is kind of what Bill thought, it was certainly more time consuming. It was more meandering and more structurally fragile in its scale [spreads out arms wide]. For Bill it most probably would have been hard work on that record. But he may have been good for us.

Wheat: I have noticed one thing, though. I’ve met Robert Fripp on a couple of occasions. Both he and you state very clearly that [Elvis Presley’s original guitarist] Scotty Moore and [Ricky Nelson’s guitarist] James Burton were very motivational. Not necessarily for the licks but just because that made you want to run out and get a guitar and play it.

Steve: But it did also make me want to play exactly like them, which I couldn’t! You know, Scotty, and James Burton, and also, the other guitarist I’ve realized plays a big part in that is a guy called Jimmy Bryant.

Wheat: He played with Tennessee Ernie Ford, is that right?

Steve: Yeah. I know that Albert Lee often mentions him and Hank Garland. Make sure you get the mono version of Hank Garland’s The Guitar Artistry of Hank Garland. It’s moving. It’s so brilliant. On the fake stereo version, it’s swamped with reverb and you can’t hear the guitar. It just begs the question. There’s been so many brilliant guitar records made. And Hank Garland is definitely one of the most brilliant.

Hank Garland
The Guitar Artistry of Hank Garland

Jimmy Bryant’s records have come out on CD now, from the label. You should get those. Jimmy Bryant is just one of the all-time greats. Well, a lot happened before the 50s.

That guitarist Roy Smeck, he played some very inventive stuff. He played stuff overdubbing on records and playing multi-guitar family instruments way before it. But when you get to the electric guitar era, somebody invented the guitar solo, the brilliant guitar solo. Obviously Charlie Christian was one of those people. Django was doing it almost before as well, but then there’s Jimmy Bryant. He made the guitar solo stunning. A guitar break in a song from Jimmy Bryant was all over the guitar. It was so great. I can’t say how much that inspired me. And everybody else was only almost as good as him. Every rock guitarist after Jimmy Bryant. But he was really a cross between hillbilly, R&B, and just great guitar.

Wheat: I was privileged three years ago — DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore came out of retirement and did an album. I got to interview them, and spend a day in the studio with them.

Steve: Yeah? I played with them not long ago. They came to England with a band. Yeah, I played with them. I played one song, Scotty played “I Got a Woman.” Yeah, and a lot of guitarists popped up with him that night.

Wheat: Did you record?

Steve: I think they videotaped it, yeah.

Wheat: Meeting him was the most unbelievable thing. I was absolutely frightened.

Steve: No, he’s lovely. I wouldn’t have thought. I met him about three years ago for the first time and he was fantastic. Just fantastic.

Wheat: How is it working out playing with Billy Sherwood? I know that he’s been associated with Yes in some form or another going back to the Union album. He’s obviously been around a long time. And he’s also brought a lot of engineering and producing skills. But what is it like having him as a second guitarist on stage?

Steve: Well it kind of varies. I mean, things in the Open Your Eyes period were a little bit of unknown territory. We had to forge a different kind of Yes. Certainly Chris [Squire] was backing this idea of having two guitarists.

I said, if I want to play with another guitarist, how about [Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple guitarist] Steve Morse? Because to me there’s world class guitarists who I’d like to spend a lot more time with. Steve is one of the people at the top of my list. Because he’s amazing. But the concept here wasn’t to have two dazzling guitarists.

I had to redevelop where I should be in the group, and hope that Billy’s position wouldn’t either intimidate, threaten, or undermine me. He’s providing more fundamental parts than me, with my embellishments and solos and anything like that. So when we got to The Ladder, we kind of defined it a little more clearly. We couldn’t really go into the record not knowing who was playing what kind of guitar. So I suggested that we clarify it and make it fun for me, not to have to consider Billy in the lead guitar area at all.

But when we got back on stage, other things start to come into it. And other threats come into it and things get confusing. And it sometimes can remind me of the Trevor Rabin era a little bit and that’s obviously a problem for me. So I’m kind of working towards it all working out great. But I mean given the opportunity this group works for me better with one guitarist. The fact that Billy’s in the band as a full-time member is not a problem unless his guitar work interferes with what I’m doing. I imagined that he was going to become more of a multi-instrumentalist within the group. Because he has that capability. And that’s what I believe we were opening ourselves up to.

Wheat: Playing keys, playing bass?

Steve: Yeah. A variety of things all of which he does with a nice style. So seeming that guitar’s rather inseparable, obviously there are times when I’m watching how things are going. So it is a fluid situation where we need good intent, and fair use of what this group is. Optimizing on the group. That’s about all I can say. It hasn’t worked, it has worked, it can work, it is working, but it might not work. Not that it might not work, but that it might not be as easy as people would like to think.

When I played “Perpetual Change” last night, I was hit emotionally about the fact that we were playing that music in 1970. We wrote it in this beautiful place that I lived nearby. There was a lot of sentiment in it, a lot of romantic thoughts and a lot of awesome concepts of what life was like then, and how much time we had and how much space we had, and how much freedom we had. It’s quite an eye-opener when you find yourself playing a piece of music that somehow encapsulates some of that era. Deep, deep!

Wheat: You seem to be in a phase where you’re not interested in working with the latest technology. You’ve never gotten into the Roland VG-8, that physical modeling device that takes an input from any electric guitar and creates the sound of other types of guitars and amplifiers?

Steve: Oh, that stuff. Well, you know, I was very excited when I first heard of it, but then I saw David Bowie and his guitarist [Reeves Gabrels] using it. I thought, that’s very nice, but I’m not going to go over to it. It would be a fascination to use that stuff. And I reckon I could use it pretty well, but, the strange thing is, I’ve got really back into what amps are all about. What two guitar amps are supposed to sound like. And I think I enjoy that more. The purity of the mike. So a DI sound going into the PA doesn’t really interest me compared to the sound of an amp. A good guitar going into an amp; somehow that’s the sound I want to hear. I’m not using a great deal of processing, either. It comes in now and again, where it has incredible effect for me. But look at the gear. There’s the guitars, you know, I mean one or two effects might be on the standby making a stereo delay, but there’s basically the guitars, the amps, and a simple pedalboard I’ve been using since Keys [to Ascension]. I’ve still got a huge pedalboard that’s 24 switches, three volume pedals, lovely. It’s a bit big, and it’s really for the larger venue work. So on this tour I’m relying much more on what I like, which is the guitar and an amp.

steve howe book
The Steve Howe Guitar Collection coffee-table book, published in 1994

Wheat: Have you got any new guitars, since your Steinbergers, for instance?

Steve: Well, I got a lovely present from Scott Chinery; he gave me a marvellous Martin 00-42H, a Hawaiian guitar from the 1930s, and that was stunning. ESP gave me a beautiful Telecaster a couple of years ago that I like very much. And also Sans Amp gave me a very nice Tech 21 amp. Roland have been great and they’ve supplied me with two Jazz Choruses–the amp I never thought I’d use. But it’s actually a terrific amp. I like Jazz Chorus amps now.

Wheat: Still using a Fender Twin?

Steve: Yep. Can’t seem to replace them, but certainly for the solo shows the Jazz Chorus is great.

I think that guitars have become more a discovery of what I’ve got than the constant search for something else that I haven’t got. And that’s something that you realize in a collection. That by keeping on collecting and expanding you never really get to the core of why you did it. So I went back and started moving parts of my collection at various times. And I like that because it gets smaller, more manageable, and the things that are there I’ve got time for. Because the other maybe eighty guitars I used to have I didn’t have time for. I had no time at all for. Can you imagine how to get time for those guitars? It’s impossible, really. So a player’s collection, which mine’s becoming more and more, is more refined. And once a guitar has been tried numerous times for a particular various ideas and it doesn’t really do anything to you then there’s actually no point in keeping it. Because somebody else might find something in it.

Wheat: What was your reaction when Eric Clapton got $450,000 for his first Strat in the auction? I thought tha was pretty terrifying myself. I thought, well, I’ll never own one, will I?

Steve: I suppose I’ve got a lot of feelings about that as a one-off thing that Eric did. I understand that it wasn’t something he thought of automatically, and it wasn’t something that was easy for him to do. Having said that there were some reasonably conventional guitars in there that did go for some astronomical prices. But I think that just shows what the spirit of giving can be in this world. And it’s something that Eric, bless him, has always had, ever since I’ve known him, or met him, back in the 60s. He’s always been very generous and kind in that situation. So to see him do something like that wasn’t so much of a surprise as you might have thought. That says more than what’s already been said about Eric, so I feel admiration and respect for him and for the pleasure that he raised so much real money in terms of supporting his cause. And serious money it was. But I think that collection is so exceptional that one can’t relate it to any other sales. It wasn’t a sale so much. It was much more of an event.

Wheat: And a charity also.

Steve: That’s right. That’s what I mean. It was a multi-media thing that helps a need very much. But some of his obviously great guitars, and ones that he used, like Blackie and Brownie, and all those, deserve to go for very, very high prices. Those are high prices that they went for. They’re very high, truly top end, but then again, who did you think could sell guitars for more?

You know, it does show something, like when David Bowie went on the stock market with his songs. It shows that in reality a musician has to think what he’s worth, because he’s got bills to pay, and he’s got ideas to fulfill. You can’t just sit on wealth. It’s very negative. So in a way Eric’s a leader in a cause again, like [Princess] Diana was. I just love him. He’s a wonderful guy.

This article is Copyright © 1999 by Wheat Williams, III. All rights reserved.

Originally titled "Becoming a Guitarist"