Yes were already firmly established within the British rock world when Steve Howe joined the band in 1970. But no one could have imagined the heights they would climb to with the then-23-year-old Howe, already a seasoned musician fluent in everything from rock, pop and folk to jazz, classical and flamenco, installed in the guitar spot.
Howe’s prodigious skills, as well as his ambitious and inventive approach to his instrument and songwriting in general, ignited a new fire in the group. His first album with the band, 1971’s The Yes Album, made it known that there was a new progressive rock force in town, the album boasting now legendary compositions like Yours is No Disgrace, I’ve Seen All Good People, Starship Trooper and Howe’s solo acoustic tour de force, Clap.
Yes has gone through many, many iterations since then, and for most of them Howe has been centerstage, leading the band through some of rock music’s most innovative, adventurous and enduring music.
That journey only continues with The Quest (InsideOutMusic/Sony Music), Yes’ new and 22nd studio album, which finds Howe’s guitar – in most cases, a trusty Gibson ES-175 – continuing to both anchor and push the progressive titans’ sound into new and uncharted territory.
To celebrate the release of The Quest, Guitar World looks at some of the great musical moments from Howe’s 50-year career with Yes.
Yours is No Disgrace (1971)
The Yes Album marked Steve Howe’s debut with Yes, and what a debut it was. The record opens with Yours is No Disgrace, which, half a century later, remains a masterclass in electric guitar excellence.
Howe kicks off the proceedings with plenty of hard-charging riffs and nimble licks and runs, before ramping things up with an explosive wah-drenched guitar break and a moody, jazzy solo. Finally, he wraps the track – after nine thrilling minutes, mind you – with a series of euphoric, and now iconic, triplet runs. For all intents and purposes, Howe starts here.
Howe has always evidenced a wide variety of influences in his playing, but at the top of that list of artists, as he has long publicly declared, is Chet Atkins – “Mr. Guitar” himself. And nowhere is Chet’s nimble Travis picking style better on display than in Howe’s iconic solo acoustic instrumental, Clap, a country blues and ragtime stunner that still delights – and flummoxes – guitarists to this day.
“That piece is the quintessential coming together of all my love for Chet Atkins,” Howe told Guitar Player of his pick-and-fingers masterpiece. “There was basically him and Merle Travis, along with other great guitarists who inspired me along the way. But Chet was the biggest influence on me. I just wrote that out of admiration for him, really. The opportunity came along where I could write that as my first-ever solo guitar instrumental, and it’s a pretty hard one to beat.”
As for how it came together?
“I actually wrote it on the 4th of August, 1969, on the night that my first son was born,” Howe said. “So he was born, and six months later I’m starting to get to know who Yes are – I knew I was going to play with them. So we were writing The Yes Album, and it was one night in this old farmhouse and I said to them – or maybe it was Bill Bruford – I said, ‘I’ve got this guitar solo. What do you think?’ I played it to him, and he said, ‘That’s terrific. Let’s stick it on the album.’ And then they all said, ‘Let’s stick it on the album.’ ”
And like that, a legendary guitar moment was born.
Siberian Khatru (1972)
Yes and Steve Howe were a lot of things, but funky wasn’t usually one of them. Enter Siberian Khatru, a sort of prog-funk amalgam that features Howe at his most slippery and syncopated.
At least, that is, when it comes to the rhythms. At the song’s eight-minute climax Howe unleashes a clean-toned solo that, decades later, found an inspirational home in an unlikely place – the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Talking about his solo in the band’s 1999 song Get On Top, RHCP guitarist John Frusciante said, “I was thinking about Steve Howe's solo at the end of Siberian Khatru. The band sound is really big – and they're playing fast – and then this clean guitar comes out over the top. It's really beautiful, like it's on its own sort of shelf. For Get On Top, I wanted to play something that would create a contrast between the solo and the background.”
Sound Chaser (1974)
Steve Howe himself has said he struggled with Sound Chaser, and it’s not hard to understand why. He unfurls reams of notes across the epic track – and that’s before the band even arrives at the extended unaccompanied Howe solo spot.
“When we get into the song it’s at a very rapid speed, and there are guitar riffs behind it that are totally driving,” Howe once said. “But then it gets the almighty – what I call flamenco rock solo. I don’t know where that came from. It goes kind of pretty bananas out there.”
But wait – there’s more.
“There’s some very sensitive stuff, and when Jon comes back in singing the main song again with different chords, it really tells you that Yes had really learned a few tricks along the way,” Howe continued. “And then we start hammering again and we go nuts again and we go crazy. There are time changes, and it’s a real minefield. But as you say, once you’ve kind of grasped it, digested it a little, then it’s probably okay. But it’s still a big listen.”
Going for the One (1977)
Going for the One is among Yes’ most straightforward, hardest-rocking songs, and yet…Steve Howe doesn’t even play traditional six-string on it. Rather, as evidenced in the stop-you-in-your-tracks, greasy-as-all-get-out opening lick, he sticks solely to pedal steel, delivering plenty of whines, shrieks and screeches – not to mention a killer, raunchy mid-song solo – that pushes the full-tilt tune to even greater heights of musical ecstasy.
A track unlike any other in the band’s catalog, but one that is quintessential Yes.
Tempus Fugit (1980)
Like its title, which translates to “Time Flies,” Tempus Fugit is fast-paced and also frantic, reflecting, perhaps, the new music – namely, punk and new wave – that was threatening to usurp rock and prog as the sound of choice for young fans, as well as the interband turmoil that was infecting Yes. The group had been whittled down to a trio – just Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White, following the exit of Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman – during the earliest writing stages, and by the time the song was finished and recorded it also included Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn, recruited from the Buggles.
To be sure, there’s an air of tension in the song’s grooves (despite the repeated affirmation of “yes” in its lyrics), and this version of Yes dissolved just a year later. But Tempus Fugit has stood the test of time (or test of tempus?), in particular thanks to Squire and Howe’s fantastic playing, with the latter’s Stratocaster work filled with sharply-strummed chords, precision-picked, finger-twisting lines, wailing whammy bar wiggles and blazing, distortion-drenched runs.
Mind Drive (1997)
Originally released on 1997’s live/studio double album Keys to Ascension 2, Mind Drive’s roots were laid decades earlier, in the hands of XYZ, a proposed supergroup featuring Chris Squire, Alan White and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page following the death of Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and the dissolution of Yes in the wake of the Drama album.
Despite its non-Yes origins, Mind Drive is about as Yes as Yes can get. Not only does it feature the full mid ‘70s glory years lineup, it’s also an epic of, well, epic proportions, clocking in at over 18 minutes in length. And if nothing else, Howe signals that, yes, this is classic Yes right from the opening guitar moments, which find him peeling off classically-tinged filigrees over Rick Wakeman’s keyboard pads. Throughout, Howe and his trusty Gibson ES-175 are in top form, resulting in one of Yes’ most indulgent and impressive latter-day compositions.
Nine Voices (Longwalker) (1999)
The closing track on The Ladder is also one of Yes’ prettiest compositions, and it’s highlighted by Howe’s use of a Portuguese 12-string guitar. But it’s not just any Portuguese 12-string guitar – it’s the very same one he used on classic Yes songs “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Wonderous Stories.”
The guitar – and Howe’s playing – forges a beautiful bridge between the past and present of Yes, and the guitarist spices up the mostly strummed passages with flamenco-like runs at the outro.
Some keyboard and exotic instrumentation fill out the arrangement, but Nine Voices is first and foremost a vocal-and-guitar expression. In fact, Anderson and Howe performed an acoustic version of the song at the funeral for The Ladder producer Bruce Fairbairn, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack during the final recording and mixing sessions for the album. Anderson has stated that Nine Voices was a favorite of Fairbairn’s, and the band went on to dedicate the entire album to the beloved producer.
Magnification is known as Yes’ “orchestral album” – the band recorded it with assistance from the San Diego Symphony Orchestra – but the title track nevertheless is dominated by Howe’s always stellar guitar work, from his pastoral lines at the song’s opening, to his jazzy excursions in the middle section, to the more open, rock ‘n’ roll phrases later on.
Throughout, the orchestral swoops and glides only heighten the mood, demonstrating Howe’s ability to adapt to any musical situation, while at the same time keeping his trademark sound and style intact.
The Ice Bridge (2021)
The Quest, Yes’ first album of new material in seven years, opens with this epic seven-minute, C minor exploration of the dangers of climate change. While the subject matter is heavy, the song itself is an uplifting, instrumentally dazzling excursion – classic Yes, in other words.
And it’s all headlined by Howe’s exquisite guitar playing, in particular the extended instrumental outro section, in which he and Geoff Downes go head-to-head in a six-string/synth face-off, with Howe’s rich, round-toned lines providing counterpoint to his band mate’s keyboard squiggles. It’s a thrilling exchange that demonstrates that, 50 years after debuting with Yes, Howe still has it.