In our preliminary discussion with respected British guitarist Steve Howe prior to going “on the record,” the interviewer noted that the main focus of the questions he’d prepared were oriented at accomplishing the, …um, “concept” that’s the subtitle of this article, because guitar lovers and music fans around the globe are probably familiar with the musical stylings of the man whose amazing guitar technique made such memorable recordings with such bands as Yes and Asia.
So, in an interview somewhat along the lines of previous Vintage Guitar conversations with guitarists like B.B. King and Duane Eddy, we asked Steve Howe for information concerning his instruments and recordings that would be of the most interest to guitar lovers, which might not have been detailed earlier by the erudite and gifted Howe. When VG spoke with Howe, he was in the middle of a recording project utilizing guitars from the Scott Chinery Collection; the CD was slated for release in conjunction with the collection’s photo book. It was after midnight when our cassette recorder started work, and Howe was still in the studio (he’d already been there for over 12 hours).
The available information concerning Howe’s music and instruments includes the excellent photography book showcasing his amazing guitar collection; the photos were taken by Miki Slingsby, who also photographed Duane Eddy for a Vintage Guitar cover (an article showcasing Mr. Eddy’s historical instruments appears in the current issue of VG Classics; those guitars were also photographed by Mr. Slingsby). Our initial inquiry to Steve Howe concerned a comment he’d once made about modification of vintage guitars:
Vintage Guitar:You stated in the past that you didn’t have a problem modifying older instruments if it helped their sound. Do you still stand by that viewpoint? I’m asking this because of your current effort with the Chinery guitars.
Steve Howe:I can give you a classic example that happened about a half hour ago. I was playing a 1934 Martin OM-45; it’s one of my favorite guitars from Scott’s collection. It’s in original condition, but the tuning pegs slip. That’s where I’m coming from; if a great vintage guitar is meant to be played and something about it doesn’t work, it could be frustrating. New machine heads would be vital to some guitars; after 40 or 50 years, some parts wear out.
I liken it to having an old car; would you want to drive one for years without changing the tires or the oil? I went a bit far with my Broadcaster; it’s my most modified collectible guitar, but it still works for me. And I’ve learned things; I don’t claim that everything I’ve done is right, and some guitars in my collection had already been modified when I got them. Practically all of the guitars in my collection have had their tuning pegs replaced; the replacements are much better than the “three-on-one” heads.
How much of your “pre-Yes” material is available on Compact Disc?
There’s a really good CD that I put out in England last year called Moth Balls; it’s available from a distributor called Feedback. There are 25 tracks from the ’60s on it, and a large amount has never been released until now. I was very happy with the consistency of these tracks; it’s a lot of fun. There are tracks from Bodast, Tomorrow, The In Crowd, and even the Syndicats; all seven tracks I recorded with them had never been available before. There are also two solo tracks that had never been released; I’d forgotten that I’d recorded one of the solo tracks called “You Never Can Stay In One Place;” I thought I remembered everything I’d ever recorded (laughs)!
Is it fair to say that the most complex recording you’ve ever done would have been Tales from Topographic Oceans with Yes?
Yeah, within Yes. I’m one of the few lucky people who has the 28-minute version of Side One, which was never released. Back then you had to think of a record in terms of about 20 minutes per side. It was a very good project, and was a bit like what I’m doing now and like I’ve done all the way through my career; I’ve looked into my collection and played lutes, Danelectros, Spanish guitars, Les Pauls, 175s, L-5s.
Topographic was a big deal, and I just played Side One live on stage recently with Yes; it’s a nice piece to play. In a way, we were getting complex with “Close to the Edge” and “Awaken” as well, and I think one track that “sums it up” for me is “To Be Over,” from Relayer. Not only does it have some writing that I did that I’m fond of, Jon also wrote around it and wrote for it. The complexity and arrangement is such that it’s multilayered; bells, guitars, drummers. To me, that’s a classic track that doesn’t get mentioned often. It doesn’t have the wonderful Rick Wakeman on it, but it certainly has a group that was tight.
What’s the story on your recent performance with Yes? That’s the first I’ve heard about it.
We did three shows in early March in San Luis Obispo, California; we recorded them and also did two studio tracks which total 30 minutes. There should be a double CD with live material and the new studio tracks out this summer; it’s called The Keys to Ascension.
Who’s in the band?
Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman, Alan White, and myself.
Speaking of live performances, I’m aware that the “Asia in Asia” MTV concert was released on video, but why wasn’t it released as an album?
That’s a good question; I think it will be released sometime soon. Sometimes there was a very “dull” approach to managing groups in the ’70s and ’80s; it was kind of mundane. We did albums, we did tours; we were creating “bits of history” at times but nobody really thought of exposing such things through all of the formats that were available.
Another example is an album of mine due out soon on Caroline; it’s called Homebrew, and is a collection of my own studio tapes. There are five or six songs from the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe period that should be quite surprising to listeners, and other tracks. I wanted to put this out to show how I write songs; “this is what I do at home.” It starts outs with six instrumentals that feature a lot of guitars; there are times when I’ll be playing two electric guitars in a duet, for example.
Your previous solo albums were released in ’75, ’79, ’91 and ’93. What were the similarities and differences in them, and was there one where you were more satisfied with the results?
Well, there was also the 1994 album, Not Necessarily Acoustic, which was a live album from my first solo tour of America. To be honest, I like all of the music I’ve recorded to different degrees, but the one that I still like a lot is Turbulence, because it was something that I “detailed;” I recorded the album then went back and “touched it up” by adding a bit here and there, and I did the same thing when I mixed it. It’s satisfying when you do things right; there have been some albums that I’ve done with bands like Asia and GTR that weren’t mixed in my style.
I’d waited a long time to do an album like Beginnings, and I kind of went mad and did a “variety” album (chuckles). The Steve Howe Album was a little more streamlined but still had the same breadth, and that’s why I enjoy Turbulence; it’s much more focused and is mainly about one style of music. The Grand Scheme of Things, the ’93 release, was a big project that didn’t get much exposure, but I think the instrumental work on it is enjoyable; it was kind of a synopsis of my work up to then. It had a lot of influences, and inspired me to release different kinds of albums after that.
There was the live solo tour album, and I did an album with Paul Sutin called Voyages on CNC Records; it features a lot of Danelectros and a Steinberger 12-string. It’s a bit more “New Age-y” and melodic.
New Age-wise, you were also on a benefit album called Polar Shift.
Paul Sutin was on that track, as well. I’ve also been working with Annie Haslam; she used to sing with Renaissance. We did a jazz gig in New York called Lilies in the Field; it was a benefit album to raise money for the children in Bosnia.
Some years ago I interviewed Jeff Berlin, who was the bass player for an Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford & Howe broadcast concert; he said he was called in because Tony Levin couldn’t do the performance. Berlin said he had to learn the material very quickly; what’s your perspective on that episode?
Tony was the perfect bass player for us at that time, but he got a mild case of hepatitis. We didn’t know who to call; we may have even talked about calling Chris Squire, but that didn’t happen. I like Jeff, but in a way he didn’t have enough time to settle in and make as much of a contribution as he was capable of doing. He did a fine job and got all of his parts right.
Have you ever done any instructional videos?
I did one that I don’t care for too much, called “The Turbulent Plan;” I think it’s a bit “flaky” (chuckles). Some parts of it are fun, though, and I still do guitar clinics. I enjoy doing those, but sometimes I think I’m going to talk for a short time, then I go on for ages; it’s almost like someone is tempted to drag me off! I like being able to prepare thoughts on a certain angle of guitar playing, and being able to share those thoughts. Since I’m self-taught, I can’t really talk about learning how to play the guitar.
Any comment about how the 4-disc Yesyears anthology turned out?
Well, I think there were some mistakes made on it; I really pushed for the complete version of “America,” with the introduction and the guitar solo, but the version that was on the anthology was the one that had been released as a single to try to get some airplay.
One thing that I was happy about was the inclusion of “Montreaux’s Theme;” it’s the only existing copy of a very intricate piece of music that we wrote. I enjoyed that kind of playing; I think I played a Stratocaster on that piece. I didn’t play a Stratocaster much with Yes; I recall using one on “Parallels.”
Your book also noted your use of a Strat on the Drama album.
That’s right; I view the /I>Drama album as having been made by a special and unique band, almost like a “supergroup Yes,” since the Buggles were in with us. Having Geoff and Trevor was like injecting Yes with liquid mercury!
There was also a Yesyears video.
(chuckles) I could talk a lot more about the CD anthology. I think there’s a lot of “chat” on there that is unnecessary. I don’t think musicians look that good when they’re talking about themselves, particularly on television. Radio’s not a bad medium for talking, but sometimes even that gets overdone. What a musician plays is important.
How did the project with the Chinery guitars evolve?
I met Scott through some friends in New York; we did some guitar business, and then he asked about playing his collection on an album. I though it was a lovely idea, but I told him I had a bit of a problem with the repertoire. I don’t play tunes by other people all that much, but I know a few songs. So after some exchange of ideas, it was decided that I’d produce the album and make some appearances on it, and I approached Martin Taylor about being on the album as well; I’d produced his 1992 album Artistry. He’s an exceptional jazz guitarist, and it’s a good team. We’ve gotten 17 tracks done as of today. We do some duets, and there are a couple of tracks where I’m on my own, but the bulk of it features Martin. This is a showcase for Martin, and for Scott’s guitars as well.
The record is almost wrapped up, but we haven’t recorded the track with the “blue guitars” that Scott commissioned; we’ll do that when all of those guitars are ready.
Any plans to tour with Taylor to promote the album?
This has been fun; it could be interesting to see what develops. Obviously, Martin and I don’t need the Scott Chinery collection to play duets, but this collection has presented an opportunity for us to play together, and there are some amazing instruments that we’ve been able to use. The Chinery collection is quite astounding; it’s quite broad, and we had a lot of guitars to choose from when we recorded.
As for any other possibilities in the future, what about plans for Yes? The news that you recorded in San Luis Obispo was a complete surprise to me, and it will probably surprise a lot of our readership as well.
I think we’ll record again, although when and where and who will be involved isn’t settled. There were some rumors that Rick wouldn’t be able to go any further, but I think he was quite excited about doing the shows and the recording, so maybe there’s a future in it for everybody who was together in early March.
Steve Howe’s recording projects are as eclectic as his playing style, and he’s passionately dedicated to doing his professional best with whatever instrument he’s playing in whatever genre, yet Howe’s playing simply can’t be pigeonholed. That’s always been the case for the veteran guitarist, and considering his future prospects and projects, the breadth of Steve Howe’s stringed instrument abilities will also mean that it’s highly unlikely his playing will ever be pigeonholed. And thank goodness for that.
Steve Howe with a Gretsch Custom. This guitar belonged to Chet Atkins c.1960. It has added pieces at the end of the fingerboard, beneath the 5th and 6th strings, which was part of an octave divider effect.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’96 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.