Steve Howe once took a chisel to a 1955 Fender Telecaster to make it more Gibson

Steve Howe's modded 1955 Fender Telecaster
(Image credit: Dick Barnatt / Getty)

Steve Howe has been showing off some of the choice instruments used on Yes’s forthcoming album Mirror to the Sky

The most attention-grabbing among them is a unique 1955 Fender Telecaster, which was the subject of some heavy mods in the 1970s – including a Gibson-style neck humbucker and a toggle switch on the upper horn.

“In the 1970s we were about to record the Relayer album,” explains Howe. “I’d decided that after several albums featuring Gibson guitars that I’d bravely go into the area I hadn’t used before, which is the fantastic sound of Fender guitars.” 

Howe seems to have loved the sound of the guitar but felt the need to bring it more in line with the Gibsons he had relied on in his early career, perhaps inspired by the Tele Deluxes that launched in 1972. 

Howe does not explain extent of the mods in the new clip. However, the Tele is discussed in Tony Bacon’s (now out-of-print) book, The Steve Howe Guitar Collection.

Additional mods included routing for the aforementioned humbucker and toggleswitch, a replacement pickguard, an additional pickguard on the upper horn (bringing it more in line with the aesthetics of the Tele Deluxe) and new Schaller tuners. 

The guitarist does not detail the function of the switch, though popular speculation among Howe geeks is that it’s a phase switch or coil-split for the humbucker

“At the time I had no second thoughts about... all this irreversible work,” says Howe in the book. 

“I wasn’t really thinking that I'd done anything particularly corrupt, because my style had always been to do what the guitar is telling you to do. But today, I can’t say I’m entirely without guilt.”

Howe apparently paid $500 for the Tele in 1974. Even adjusting for inflation that would be equivalent to around $3,080 in today’s money – and still represent a good deal. 

For comparison, a Fender Custom Shop recreation of a 1955 Telecaster will set you back the best part of $4,000-$5,000, depending on finish, and an original ’55 Blond Tele is currently listed on Reverb for over $35,000.

Regardless of whether Howe regrets his Tele’s modifications or not, it’s fair to say that the instrument has done the job required of it since the ’70s. As such, it has seen continued rotation in Howe’s recordings and performances – even if it doesn’t have the profile of his beloved Gibson ES-175. See it at work in the opening section of the montage below.

If you enjoy musings on past gear from the Yes man’s immense guitar collection, you might want to check out Steve Howe on his greatest guitar hits and misses.

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Matt Parker

Matt is a staff writer for GuitarWorld.com. Before that he spent 10 years as a freelance music journalist, interviewing artists for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.