Steve Howe: A Roundabout Way to Yes
RR: Let’s talk about some of the Yes work, specifically your latest studio album, Fly From Here. Chris Squire said that was the first album that you felt that everyone in the band had all actually liked the album.
SH: Yeah. I did said that. What did he say? I think I said that. I can’t remember. (laughter) The thing about that was that there were stages in the development that were incredibly troublesome and difficult (laughs). None of us completely lost sight of where we were going, so we worked up a system that all of us are renowned for where we soldier on through various situations and, then, the mixing started to come and we had a complete album. Because of Trevor [Horn]’s assistance with the vision of how this would work, and how Fly From Here would become a much bigger piece and include different songs like “Bumpy Ride” from me and other things along the way, he helped that development because we were a bit stifled by changing our keyboard players and looking at our material and wondering, “What are we going to do?” It was a great thing that Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn came in with a fresh batch of songs for us to look at. It was very empowering. It was all happening almost like shifting sand—nobody knew exactly (laughs) what we were targeting, but we were going to get there somehow. We had to go around certain twists and turns and certain falling-outs and certain making-up-agains, so it was a developing album.
I said, “How about some solos?” to Trevor, and he said, “Well, everybody has a solo. That’s nice. Go off and do one.” So, of course (laughs), I was the only person who did go off and do a solo. “Solitaire,” to me, was a golden opportunity. I could record it myself; work on it a bit with Curtis [Schwartz], my audio friend [and engineer], and, then, give it to Trevor. He didn’t edit it. He copied it, basically. I played it on a Dutch guitar I had for about 20 years, an SKD guitar, a handmade maker called [Theo] Scharpach. He makes guitars that really have moments in your life where you’ve got to play it, where you are searching for what guitar to play it on, and this was kind of a crossover solo piece, which is kind of a bit flamenco-y, and, yet, you need a sort of auditorium for the guitar. To round up the album, we did “Hour of Need,” which was supposed to be called “In the Hour of Need,” because I have an instrumental called “Hour of Need.”
RR: You are playing your Portuguese 12-string guitar on Fly From Here’s “Hour of Need.” Is that right?
SH: That’s right. That guitar…I kind of saved that song for Yes as time went by because I felt that I don’t often write things on that Portuguese guitar, and, of course, there’s “Your Move” and “Wonderous Stories,” and it has quite a lot of notoriety (laughs) with Yes. It’s quite a thing that I like to do. It’s an unusual guitar. I don’t tune it conventionally. Lots of guitars use tunes. I don’t actually use any tunes. All my guitars are conventional tunings; my favorite guitar is an E chord, which isn’t really conventional, you can see it on the guitar—it’s got to be used. But on the Portuguese, the top string is A flat, which really gives it a certain sound.
RR: Let’s talk about the unconventional nature of your talent, especially at such an early age when you began playing guitar. You had such a strong skill set so soon.
SH: I see. That’s an interesting phrase. When I look back, it’s quite surprising that ten years after I started playing, I was touring with Yes. (laughs) In a way, that’s quite remarkable…I guess, after about five years…let’s see…12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17…yes, five years, when I started making records, that’s when I got very excited about the guitar. Before that, although I was in a band, I also wanted to be a sort of strummer in the background of a band. And that is what a guitar has done all the time. But, mind you, from an early age, I was influenced by Les Paul and learning Chet Atkins when I discovered him when I was 13. I think I heard guitarists who my friends and I sat around saying, “That has to be two guitarists,” and I said, “No, surely it’s one.” Eventually, I learned to play how you could sound almost almost like two guitars—one accompanying and one playing the tune.
First, of course, in England, we were very naïve about learning about rock ‘n roll and about learning the guitar; although, we had great guitarists like John Williams and Julian Bream, and we had some good rock guitarists, actually, and the famous Mick Green from [Johnny Kidd &] the Pirates, and Brian Griffiths from The Big Three, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton, and there were a lot of great players—you could go on all day; there were a lot of great guitarists coming through at that time. Within about ten years, I was playing with those guys on tour with Delaney & Bonnie with Eric Clapton & Friends. I was sort of sharing the stage with them—not actually playing with them; but, I might have been able to do that—I was seeing what the future could hold and, lo and behold, the next two months later, I am in Yes.
So there was a fascinating drive from me to play the guitar. Within ten years (and, they say that they think ten years is what you need to learn an instrument—a hundred thousand hours of playing), so that is pretty on target.
But the one thing I was was different (laughs) from other guitarists. That was troublesome, in a way, to be honest. When I started, I was almost terrified that I wasn’t like anybody else, but, in a way, however much I struggled to be like other people, I never sounded like them. (laughs)
When I did The Yes Album, which was my first major recording (I had done a few other things, a lot of things in the 60s), that was a very unusual record. Tony Kaye [Yes keyboardist on The Yes Album ] was very brilliant at supporting me, letting me open out and play a lot of lead lines. Yeah, those first ten years were a real education, but I was recording with Joe Meek after five years and I was learning about playing on stage for those ten years, really, because I was pretty busy.
RR: Your distinctive sound has been very influential, but never really imitated, and I would think that must be a satisfactory feeling to have as an innovative guitarist.
SH: Well, I know a lot of guitarists and some of them do say to me that they love to steal bits from me and they like to copy me. One of them even said to me, not long ago, on a recording they sent to me, “Can you hear that?” What he meant was ‘could I hear that he was mimicking me a bit?’ That is quite flattering, but what I do is not really about one particular sound. Somebody might do something similar to what I might do on a certain kind of guitar, but, there again, I did bring acoustic guitar and steel guitar forwards a little bit into the spotlight, so to speak, in rock and progressive. (laughs) Not that I was the only one doing it, but I did bring something to it, and that was exciting because I’m really a guitar family player and I don’t just play one guitar, one sort of guitar, as we talked about when we discussed Time. I purposely avoid doing that. When I play the trio, I don’t avoid it because I play one guitar all the time. The trio has a wonderful consistency of sound, and it really is the way to do that kind of music. You don’t fool around with the sound too often. That’s also very nice, so I get the best of both worlds, I hope.