Yes Guitarist Steve Howe Discusses the Making of 'Fragile' and 'Close to the Edge'
“Somebody called me the granddaddy of prog-rock,” Steve Howe says with a laugh.
“I’m not ashamed to be called that. But the thing that matters most to me is musicality. I don’t think prog is all about technical playing. Much more important are your musical ideas. What choices and decisions are you making in the music? If that’s still an intelligent force within the music, then I like being considered a part of prog.”
More than just a part of progressive rock, Howe is one of the music’s great originators.
From the moment he joined Yes in 1970, he staked out a bold and vast territorial range for the guitar in a musical form often dominated by keyboard virtuosos like Keith Emerson and his former Yes bandmate Rick Wakeman. What those guys needed banks of pianos, organs and synthesizers to achieve Howe could often attain with just six strings and a boundless imagination.
His contribution, moreover, transcends prog-rock or any single musical genre. Steve Howe is one of the most distinctive and original guitarists in all of rock, a brilliant musical colorist whose evocative volume pedal swells and echoey textures possess all the subtle and complex expressiveness of the human voice itself. Howe’s palette has always been incredibly broad, drafting everything from classical and flamenco fire to psychedelic expansiveness to jazzy archtop electric abstraction into the rock guitar vocabulary.
At age 67, he’s still in top form, as can be clearly heard on the brand new Yes album, Heaven & Earth. On the disc, Howe is joined by longtime Yes members bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White and keyboardist Geoff Downs, who has been an on-and-off Yes-man since 1980.
On vocals is the group’s newest member, Jon Davison, who joined in 2012 and does a superb job of channeling the dulcet melodicism of original Yes vocalist Jon Anderson. Davison even shares Anderson’s spiritual perspective on lyric writing and fondness of Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda.
While some tracks on Heaven & Earth evoke the prog symphonic majesty of Yes’ Seventies heyday, others skew in a lighter pop direction more in keeping with radio-friendly Eighties Yes recordings, such as their 90125 album. But in working with legendary producer Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, the Cars, Smashing Pumpkins), on Heaven & Earth, Howe had one supreme mandate.
“I told Roy, ‘It’s gotta be Yes.’ ”
The prominent presence of Howe’s guitar work on the album is a sterling guarantee that the disc does indeed sound like Yes. Howe’s inventive melody lines and otherworldly textures are woven deep into the polychromatic musical fabric. Never an overtly flash player, Howe will nonetheless sometimes conclude a tuneful guitar passage with a brief burst of sheer incandescent brilliance. The effortlessness with which he executes these dazzling little interludes offers understated testimony to his mastery of his instrument.
“I don’t think guitarists should concentrate on being guitarists,” he says. “They should concentrate on being musicians. Being a guitarist can be a dangerous thing if you just want to race off and steal the show all the time on bended knees with your tiddly tiddly tiddly. I think that’s pretty dead in the water. I daresay most people agree.”
Once famed for bringing a vast arsenal of guitars with him onstage and in the studio, Howe has taken a more streamlined approach in recent years. His rig is based largely around his Line 6 Variax guitar and Line 6 HD500/Bogner DT50 digital modeling amp and pedal board, which allow him to cover a wide range of traditional guitar and amp tones.
“I think the Variax is one of the most overlooked instruments in the guitar universe,” he says. “The first time I saw it, I knew it was made for me. I like affordable guitars that can make lots of sounds and textures. I’ve got to tell you, the Strat, ’58 Les Paul and [Gibson] ES-175 models, in particular, are sensational on the Variax. Okay, it doesn’t feel like a Les Paul. But when you plug it in and it sounds like one, what’s the problem?”
Howe does augment this digital setup with several “real” guitars in his live rig, however, all of which made it into the studio for the Heaven & Earth sessions. These include his mid-Eighties red Fender Stratocaster; a 1955 Fender Telecaster which he has modified with a humbucker in the neck position, six-saddle bridge and Gibson-style toggle switch; a Martin MC-38 Steve Howe signature model acoustic; a Fender dual-neck steel guitar; and a Gibson Steve Howe signature model ES-175 electric archtop.
“That one is actually Number One—the first-ever Steve Howe production model 175,” he says. “And I added a third pickup to it, because at the time I was using it cover the sound of the [Gibson] ES-5 Switchmaster that I used on Yes’ Fragile album.”
This signature model 175 is based on Howe’s 1964 ES-175D, his first serious electric guitar, purchased new when he was just 17 and an instrument with which he has been closely associated ever since. These days he uses the guitar only in the U.K. where he lives, “because the airlines have been such an effing pain in the butt over the years,” he says. “But I have actually got a ’63 175 as well, which a friend of mine in Fort Wayne [Indiana] found for me. That was there with me in the studio as well.”
Another key instrument for Howe onstage and in the studio is his guitarra portuguesa, or Portuguese guitar. Heard on the track “To Ascend” from Heaven & Earth, it is also featured prominently on classic Yes tracks like “Your Move/All Good People” and “The Preacher The Teacher” and “Wonderous Stories.” Strung in six double-string courses, the instrument is tuned unconventionally by Howe: [low to high] E B E B E Ab.