With Yes, Steve Howe’s legacy is firmly cemented as the six-string force behind some of prog rock’s most indelible songs, from Roundabout and Close to the Edge to Starship Trooper and his classic acoustic instrumental, Clap.
Howe still tours and records with Yes – in fact, he’s the sole remaining member from the classic early Seventies Fragile-era lineup – but he has also kept up an active schedule over the years with other acts (among them Asia and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe) as well as working as a guest musician and, of course, as a rather prolific solo artist.
His latest solo effort is Love Is, and it presents 10 new Howe compositions, half of which are instrumental and half featuring his own vocals. Howe plays electric, acoustic and steel guitars on the album, as well as keyboards, percussion and bass, with help from current Yes singer Jon Davison on background vocals and bass and Howe’s son, Dylan, on drums
And while the songs range from trademark bright-toned, nimble-fingered instrumentals like Fulcrum and Sound Picture to the textured ballad Love Is a River, the slide-guitar-focused The Headlands and the distorted riff-rocker On the Balcony, the sound and guitar style is 100 percent classic Steve Howe.
“Building tracks is basically what I enjoy doing,” he says. “I get ideas, and some of them come from years ago, and some of them came yesterday. But in the back of my mind the idea is always very steeped in my persona, if you like. In an indescribable way, everything is sort of the way that I do things.”
Howe sat down with Guitar World to discuss the way he did things on Love Is, taking the time to offer a wide-ranging look into the songwriting process for each of the album’s 10 tracks, as well as the assortment of guitars he used on the recording.
And while he was happy to expound on each song individually, he also warned: “With me, a song is never – strictly speaking – about one thing. I draw in things that I find to be personally meaningful, but I don’t really mind if they’re a bit vague for the listener. I like a bit of disguise.”
“The album starts with acoustic guitar, because acoustic guitar is very important to me. Most of my music starts on some sort of acoustic, whether it’s a playing idea or a chordal structure or a melody. So I start there and I’m strumming away, and then I bring in a steel guitar that plays the top line of the melody, and another steel that just sort of goes ‘wheee.’
“I was thinking about Santo & Johnny, their great tunes like Sleep Walk, and how they would have intros and little subtle bits, so there’s a little of that going on.
“Then we get into the main section, which was actually recorded on a MiniDisc in a chalet in Switzerland. I took that piece of music and laid it into a track, with the front and the end of the song constructed around it.
“I play the intro on my [signature] Martin MC-38 Steve Howe, and that guitar runs through the whole song. Then the melody is played in two-string movements on my Steinberger GM4T, which is a lovely instrument from a guitaristic point of view. It’s so well made. And when it gets to the sort of bridge section you get the two pickup sound, which is my Les Paul. It’s one of my standby sounds, with a little bit of depth and color to it that I like.
“With that guitar I’m doing these melodic additions which are very casual and relaxed. It’s not in a hurry, not too dazzle-y, but just kind of adding little notes of reflection. And then at the end it comes back around to the acoustic sound.”
See Me Through
“We get a bit more energy and a bit more drive going here. But once again it still starts on the acoustic – the drive is in the riff with the droning A string. Then when it splashes out into where the song is going, the steel guitar comes through in a different way, with that sort of heavy, slide-y, delayed sound. It’s very thematic.
“The lyrics on this one are very straightforward: ‘See me through / till tomorrow / give me the strength I need / to follow and to follow.’ A simple, straightforward message there. A good thing to remember about your time is that there’s a lot of happiness with simplicity.
“There’s some single-line guitar work that I’m doing on my Les Paul Junior — it’s a ’55 or a ’56, and it’s a remarkable instrument. I feel so at home on that guitar that I can rock out on it. “At the end of the song I’m really having a good time and the track’s rocking away, and I use the themes that are implied in the acoustic guitar part to embellish and have a lead guitar break.”
Beyond the Call
“This one starts with acoustic again. I set up a chord pattern and then I use the Steinberger with a volume pedal, which allows me to get a sound that I first heard from steel players in my youthful time.
“Chet Atkins is the biggest thing in my world of guitar, and he used a volume pedal very nicely – his idea occasionally was to use the volume pedal like steel players did, so you don’t hear the attack. So when I start playing this tune, you’re not really hearing the full frontal attack of the notes, because I’m taking them out with the volume pedal. That’s a stylistic approach I like very much.
“As for the title, the expression ‘beyond the call’ is the times in all of our lives where we’re asked more of us than we expected. With instrumentals you can call them anything – I could have called it Cheese and Eggs. But why not find something… not eloquent, but sort of descriptive?”
Love Is a River
Love Is a River is sort of the central strength of the record. It’s not your average ‘lovey dovey’ thing, but it is about the challenges of love, and it’s using the comparison to a river – you’re sort of flowing through your life and you’re sensing the waves, you’re sensing the calmness, you’re sensing the drama and you’re sensing the sunshine. Love is a flowing, ebbing and tiding and fluxing and moving sort of thing. Besides the fact that it makes people really happy [Laughs].
“Musically, there’s a Martin 12-string acoustic, which is a really robust-sounding thing. So it kicks off, and then the steel guitar comes in with the bass and drums and the other instruments. It’s a lilting sort of tune because it doesn’t do a lot – it’s not wasting about being melodic. It is melodic, but it’s melodic in a purposeful way.”
“This one has a fairly complicated little nifty idea at the front end of it that is more ‘orchestrated,’ in the rock sense. It’s a complex little guitar phrase. And when it settles, an interesting thing happens because, and I’m going to get really simplistic here, I had this tune I wanted to play, and I didn’t realize until I finished it really that it’s sort of this Shadows type of thing.
“I’ve not often talked about Hank Marvin, even though he’s a big influence. So I do this song as a sort of updated Shadows take, which is a very funny thing to say. I’m playing a Fender Stratocaster and then I harmonize with another Strat as the tune builds. And there is a bit of whammy bar on there too, which isn’t something I allow myself to do too much of… because then you will definitely do too much of it!” [Laughs]
It Ain’t Easy
“This is a song where the hook is more in the verse than the chorus. But basically the idea of having a question and answer – the lyric, ‘You know it ain’t easy,’ is a statement, and then you get the lines after it – appealed to me. The way I built the chorus was really to take that idea a little further.
“We go through a couple of sections, and some of them are quite intricate – it starts with a guitar part not dissimilar to Sound Picture, in terms of the ‘phraseology’ of the intro. And there are a couple of hooky bits of guitar – the Strat is very evident here – one of which I use for the backing bits of the chorus.
“And the message, just briefly, is about loving your children and your grandchildren and watching them walk away from you. They walk down the beach, go in the water, you have to let go of your feelings of nurturing and protection and you’ve got to see them walk out into their lives — ‘You know it ain’t easy.’ ”
Pause for Thought
“This starts off with a simple rolling, picking acoustic guitar figure — not in the country style, but more just fingerstyle guitar. And it moves in stages.
“After that, the featured guitar is a Line 6 Variax with a Boss GP-10 guitar processor on a synth setting. The GP-10 is great because it has a speaker in it, so while you’re selecting sounds, you can hear them coming out of the unit and then say, ‘Oh, I like that sound!’ But it’s important to note that there’s not a synth keyboard in sight on this. It’s all in the guitar.
“Basically it’s a casual song that’s got a slightly melancholy feel, I guess. As for the title, when you ‘pause for thought,’ you might think about the good parts of the day, but, you know, you might also think about the not-so-good parts. Basically you can decide which way you’re going to go with it.” [Laughs]
“Imagination was another nice challenge for me. It took a while to come together because originally it had all these various intros. But then I realized it just needed to get to the song a bit sooner. So it took some editing.
“When the actual intro comes back I use the Steinberger to add in some very high notes, which I love. And I know there’s a bit of the old flanged rhythm guitar, which is an ingredient that’s stock in my sound basket, if you like.
“Overall, Imagination is a gentle rock song and it’s about when my granddaughter came along, but it’s also most probably about my wife. There are lyrics about riding the big storm, riding the big wave, you were so brave… people have to go through difficulties as much as learn how to feed themselves with happiness.”
“I really like the sense of polish about this one. What happens is it’s got that kind of ploddy ‘eighths’ thing, but before you know it, the whiny steel guitar comes in and it starts giving you an idea that the song hasn’t quite started yet, that we’ve got to get past this point. And then the theme comes in with the melody.
“The key changes are very important to me – the major seventh here or the way the melody plays the ninth – the musical mix is just to my liking. Then about two thirds in I start moving in different ways. I’m sort of leaping around on the guitar and finding different ways to exploit the moment. To me this song is really about my love for chord structure, how a melody moves across chord structures, and how I like to develop that.”
On the Balcony
“This track was really important to me, and it was an exciting one to work on. There’s a fair bit of Strat on there, and also a Les Paul Junior and a Line 6 James Tyler [Variax]. It’s a weightier song and I enjoy that.
“The idea of the lyric I found compelling – being on a balcony and finding freedom. You can think of the stage being a balcony and how, when you get on there, you’ve got everybody looking at you. But on an actual balcony you’re escaping being seen because you’re kind of concealed.
“I was thinking partly about a hotel in Hawaii that I stayed at, which had a balcony that looked out over a lovely beach. But it wasn’t a crowded beach with punters with transistor radios and ice cream – there really wasn’t anybody there. It was quite joyful. [Laughs]
“This could have been the opening track on the record, but I thought I wanted to end on something very solid and big and kind of noisy, really. So I saved it till the end to kind of send the album off.”
- Steve How's new solo album, Love Is, is out now via BMG.