Our first interview with Howe was recorded in the middle of the night, while Howe was in a studio with guitarist Martin Taylor (both talks appeared in the September ’96 issue), recording an album that featured instruments in the Scott Chinery Collection. This time around, our one-on-one was in-person following a Yes concert. The band had welcomed keyboardist Rick Wakeman back into the fold for an extensive tour, which meant the quintet (Jon Anderson, vocals, Chris Squire, bass, Alan White, drums) was performing many of the extended, exhilarating songs they’d first purveyed 25 years before.
Howe was in an upbeat mood while discussing his many releases from the mid-’90s to present day, particularly his late-’02 solo release, Skyline (Inside Out Music).
Asked his opinion of how the Chinery album turned out, Howe pronounced the results to be “…just wonderful!”
“It was a great thing to do,” he added. “In two weeks, we did so much work, played so many guitars, and invented so many tunes and arrangements… We had done a lot of preparation, though, and I’m really pleased. It was sad that it didn’t come out for so long, but it gave me a chance to go back two or three times and work on the mastering. I love Martin’s work on it, and I liked my tunes. It’s the kind of recording I’ll love in the future, whenever I hear it.”
There had been allusions to touring with Taylor, and Howe says it could happen.
“We’ve got a lot of ideas; a lot of possibilities,” he said. “We did do one live show, when we did a little show on the blue guitars (archtops commissioned by Chinery) for Scott at the Smithsonian Institution.”
Since the mid ’90s, Yes has released three studio albums, Open Your Eyes (’97), The Ladder (’99), and Magnification (’01).
“The Ladder was a great experience because we got to work with the late (producer) Bruce Fairbairn,” noted Howe. “And he actually re-educated us! Magnification was a very big project; a lot of work, since we had an orchestra. I like some of it; I think that now that we’ve got Rick (Wakeman) back, we may go in a bit of a different train of thought.”
A couple of unusual albums also appeared in the not-too-distant past. Keystudio incorporated the studio tracks from the mostly-live albums The Keys To Ascension (Volumes 1 and 2). Howe described such a concept as “…kind of a twisted approach, but I rather like it.”
1998′s Friends and Relatives was an eclectic mix.
“Those things are just put together by a label,” Howe emphasized. “We get involved occasionally, and sometimes they ask me to add something else to some tracks. They’re just compilations.
“I love Bob Dylan’s music, particularly his old music,” Howe said.
And that’s why he opted to record a solo album of Dylan songs with his own interpretations. His son, Dylan, played drums, and Howe played all other instruments, and assorted guests on selected tracks included Jon Anderson, Geoff Downes, and Phoebe Snow, among others, most of whom handled vocals. Portraits of Bob Dylan was released in 1999.
Another selection of Howe material, titled Homebrew 2 , was released in 2000.
“Those are my ‘pre-tapes,’ sort of demo tapes,” he said. “But sometimes my demos are surprisingly elaborate for eight tracks. Usually, the ideas and arrangements are utterly, if not totally different, and that makes [the demos] valuable to me. I conceived it one way, and released it another way. Then I listen to the demo again, and think ‘That was pretty far out. Maybe I should have released it that way.’ Volume one and volume two were recently released in Europe as a double set.”
We noted that title of 2001′s Natural Timbre implied that the album was acoustic.
“Yes, it was,” Steve said with a smile. “That was an opportunity to shut down part of my collection, and I really enjoyed it. I’m using my collection in different ways – not like we did with the Scott Chinery Collection; not so ‘mentally’ – all the electrics had gotten boring, but it was still tempting on occasion to play one, but for the most part, I ‘lived in an acoustic environment.’”
Recent touring with Yes has seen Howe utilizing his almighty 1964 Gibson ES-175 and other instruments. But we harkened back to the band’s “Masterworks” tour in 2000 to inquire about a unique (for Howe) performance guitar. The band has opened with “Close to the Edge,” and Howe played a red Gibson Les Paul Custom with gold hardware.
“My [Gibson ES-345] Stereo became unreliable,” Howe said. “Some nights it would sound absolutely great, and other nights it would let me down; the pickups didn’t have the power. So it was repaired by Hugh Manson, and during that period I played the Les Paul, which I liked in some respects, but wasn’t giving me the sound I wanted. It’s a very friendly guitar to play, and now I’m using it more than ever in the background of my project work.
“I like to be able to go further with one guitar than having to use multiple guitars,” he said. “I don’t play a Rickenbacker; I’ve got a nice 12-string, but I prefer to use a Steinberger 12-string, which is fantastic to play – like driving a new car, especially the neck. The neck on the Stereo and the 175 are ones I love, obviously.”
We then discussed the return of Wakeman.
“Well, it was time Rick came back because we had been doing other stuff so much,” said Howe. “This brings back the musicality and the dependence of five individuals working together. Rick’s ‘flavor’ really helps that.”
Howe was recently involved with the production of another boxed set titled In A Word , and validated his propensity to hang on to all sorts of primeval and preliminary recordings.
“To be honest, the (rest of the band) aren’t great collectors of tapes… but I’m a hoarder! The label and management got in touch with me, since I was reputed to have all these tapes. They put me in charge of finding some versions of some songs; researching unreleased music. We presented it as a different idea; I had a lot of discussions about what we would include, and we had a lot of things to take into account. There was the other boxed set (Yesyears ), which was by then out of print.
“It was time to re-state what Yes is about. When push came to shove, a lot of the original masters were used, but there had been a lot of checking to see what the differences are in my stuff and the masters. And some of my versions sounded quite good, so we used quite a few of them in the boxed set. ‘Parallels’ is a version that had a longer introduction; we’d cut it off. It’s two minutes with Rick and I and some sound effects.”
One of the tapes that didn’t make it onto the five-disc set is the original 28-minute version of side one from Tales from Topographic Oceans .
“I do have it,” he clarified. “And the other guys have never heard it. But if they did, they wouldn’t want to release it because it’s not a finished product. It doesn’t compare to the original side one; it’s a backing track, and doesn’t quite warrant attention.”
Howe’s newest solo effort, Skyline , is an instrumental album with the exception of one line sung on the opening and closing tracks. The cover photo of the Vancouver skyline was taken by Howe, as were others in the liner note booklet. Keyboardist Paul Sutin, who has recorded with Howe on Voyages and the Polar Shift benefit album, appears on eight songs. Howe plays all instruments on four others.
“I wanted to shift gears after Natural Timbre ,” he explained. “On a lot of tracks, I used the Steinberger 12-string; I wanted an approach that sounded bright, but smooth. I played a lot of steel guitar, as well; that’s a branch to jump onto from guitar. There are times where I played steel guitar instead of guitar, in the same kind of way.
“This album is more relaxing, ambient, soothing… no drum kit, so much, as just rhythm and percussion. It’s about establishing a mood that isn’t so much about getting to the end, but more about finding your way as you’re going.”
On Skyline , the phrase “File Under ‘Progressive Rock’” dictated where the album should be placed in a music store, but Howe’s preceding comments (and the album’s contents) would make most listeners think “New Age,” which is seen less and less as a separate category in many stores that proffer music.
“Well, it’s got my name on it, and it is an unusual take,” Howe observed. “But it would be hard to put all of my solo albums in one particular category. Something like Turbulence should probably be categorized as ‘rock instrumental.’ There are acoustic albums.
“So I’m really happy I’m hard to define. From Chet Atkins I got the idea that a guitarist could be any kind of guitarist. I learned that I wasn’t destined to have just one kind of sound. In fact, acoustic guitar is the backbone of my whole plan and approach, and my writing as well.”
The liner notes booklet in Skyline includes a list of the instruments Howe used, and he noted that when it came to accoustics, he played “…much fewer than on most of the albums, like Natural Timbre , but I used some of the same guitars. Martins, including a 00-28 and my MC-28, which I also use on my solo part of a Yes concert. There’s an Epiphone Howard Roberts I like very much, a (Martin) 00-18, and a Martin 12-string I used onstage.”
A mandolin is heard on some songs, and according to Howe, “It’s a Gibson F-4 dating from 1903, I’m told. It has incredible inlays on the tuners.”
Howe played his Fender Precision Bass on the entire album, but said, “I played a Rickenbacker on some of my other albums. On the earlier albums, like Beginnings and The Steve Howe Album , I always played a Danelectro six-string bass; I also had a (Gibson) EB-6 bass at the time, and I played that on a track called ‘Penance’.”
Regarding Howe’s observation that a lot of the material on Skyline is of an ambient style, we noted that songs like “Moon Song” and “Resonance” are meditations on one chord.
“‘The Anchor’ also,” he concurred. “I wanted to go there, in a serious kind of way. I’m not going to make many albums like this, and music like this should be beautiful. You can’t say that about rock and roll, which sometimes has distortion. Well, there’s no distortion on this album, but maybe the first track has a bit on the guitar. I did it a couple of years ago, and I got the idea of that small vocal part in it. It was more up front, but I wanted it to be more immersed.”
“Resonance” also has a riff that sounds like an older guitar synthesizer such as a Synthaxe, but according to Howe, “It’s a mixure of two instruments -a Steinberger 12-string doing it mandolin-style, and a steel playing the same thing. When you put the two together, it kind of of turns into ‘Telstar’!” he laughed.
Does he have any personal favorites on Skyline ?
“I like ‘Meridian Strings,’ because it kind of sums up the album; it carries the mood and it’s got that walking bass.”
The opening track, “Small Acts of Human Kindness,” and the closer, “Small Acts,” are the same tune performed in alternate versions. The grandiose nature of the song at the outset was intentional.
“It was meant to be an overture for this album,” he stated. “And that’s why it closes with the small, acoustic one. I meant to present this properly, and I wanted to make a small statement. So, just having that one line in the song adds a bit of a twist that lets you know the whole album isn’t going to be ‘regular.’ By the time ‘Meridian Strings’ starts on that ES-175, it’s settled in.”
The current tour will continue through the summer, and Howe predicted that “In September, we may start a record once we’ve worked out a few things, like where we’re going to do it, how we’re going to do it, how we’re going to write it, who’s going to produce it, how much we’re going to rehearse.
“As for my own plans, I did a lot of writing in the early part of last year, then I finished Skyline and jumped on the Yes tour. I may stick my neck out again sometime by doing some workshops, and in the future I’d like to play music from my own records with a band, but I keep putting on the one-man shows! I think it’s time I had my own band.”
The venerable guitarist also had some concluding thoughts about instruments as well.
“Guitars don’t get any better than a lot have already gotten,” he opined. The sheer joy I find about collecting isn’t about the numbers; it’s about when the numbers get smaller and the collection gets refined. Each piece stands for what the whole collection is about. My collection used to have more instruments, and now a lot of my guitars are from the ’50s and early ’60s. I play a ’64 175, so I’ve always kind of vouched for that era.”
“Quality over quantity?” we asked.
“Very much! I have been extravagant,” Howe chuckled. “And I certainly enjoyed trying to cover every part of the Gibson guitar catalog, although when I decided I had too many guitars, I decided that I’m not really just a collector, I’m a guitarist, and I like to have guitars that have something in them that will, for the most part, help me create the best music I can.”
Howe has been creating guitar music in the public eye for over 35 years, and has no intention of tapering back. Lovers of great guitars and great guitar music can anticipate a lot more from the venerable fretmeister in the future.
Above Photo: Willie G. Moseley
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Apr. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.