10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Steve Howe

October 1, 2009

“ALL I KNOW IS THAT I HAVEN’T FOLLOWED THE GENERAL VEIN OF THE STYLE of guitar that people have been playing,” confessed Steve Howe in his first Guitar Player interview back in April of ’73. That’s a bit like Columbus offhandedly acknowledging that he didn’t generally sail normal trade routes. If ever a guitarist was at the precipice of a brave new world of discovery, it was Steve Howe in 1973. At the time, Howe was three years into his tenure with Yes and—alongside singer Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman —was pioneering an inventive style of music that would be christened, for lack of a better term, progressive or “prog” rock. In an era largely defined by the blues, Howe’s fretwork ignored stylistic guidelines, careening wildly between the sophisticated harmonies and chromatic phrasing of jazz, the polyphonic melodicism of classical chamber music, the greasy grit of country, and the raw, driving gnarliness of surf rock. Not merely a breath of fresh air in a climate of Clapton clones, Howe was literally a whole new ecosystem of musical growth. His ringing intro to “Roundabout” introduced the beauty of natural harmonics and nylonstring melodies to the rock masses, while his extended southern-fried runs of “I’ve Seen All Good People” owed more to Jimmy Bryant than Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix. Instead of pyrotechnic lead guitar pentatonic-spasms, Howe’s solos were compositionally balanced and harmonically challenging. Given the chance to step out on his own, Howe was more likely to offer intricate solo guitar vignettes like the baroque-ish “Mood for a Day” or the jaunty Travis-picked “The Clap” than to play behind his back.

Although certain factions of the music press chided what they perceived as Yes’ selfindulgence, tuned-in fans readily accepted extended multi-part tracks like the 18-minute “Close to the Edge” as the natural outgrowth of virtuosic musicianship and an omnivorous appetite for sonic exploration. If the rise of punk rock in the mid ‘70s supposedly sounded the death knell for the “dinosaur” proggies, someone forgot to inform significantly large portions of the music-listening public. Between 1976-1981 Guitar Player readers voted Howe “Best Overall Guitarist” five years running, permanently retiring him from the category and enshrining him in the Gallery of the Greats. Likewise, Yes was fresh off selling out multiple nights at Madison Square Garden at the time of their split over artistic differences in 1981.

Hardly going the way of the dinosaur, Howe next surfaced with bassist/vocalist John Wetton, keyboardist Geoff Downes, and drummer Carl Palmer in prog alumni “super group” Asia. Their 1982 self-titled debut offered a more concise distillation of prog’s learned tendencies and became a chart-topper worldwide. Despite pop success, Howe would leave Asia after a second album and join forces with former Genesis axe-slinger Steve Hackett in the highly-touted but short-lived GTR.

Howe ultimately reunited with his Yes bandmates, first in 1989 as a member of Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, then in 1991 with the eight-man incarnation of Yes (who had re-grouped with guitarist Trevor Rabin replacing Howe in 1983) for the Union album and tour. In 1995, the classic Howe, Anderson, Wakeman, Squire, and White line-up of Yes reconvened to track the Keys to Ascension album. Since then, Howe has maintained his place as the guitarist in Yes despite other personnel shifts within the line-up. He’s also had an extremely prolific solo career releasing over a dozen CDs and DVDs and embarking on numerous tours, often with sons Dylan and Virgil handling drums and bass respectively.


Born April 8, 1947 in North London, Howe’s first guitar was a Christmas present from his parents at the age of 12. “My parents had a weird collection of music which consisted of Mantovani, Lawrence Welk, dance music, and Les Paul and Mary Ford. I got the razzle- dazzle music with Bill Haley and the Comets. My older brother liked jazz, and he’d bring me a Barney Kessel album saying, ‘Stop listening to Bill Haley. This is good guitar playing’,” recalls Howe of his early wide-ranging musical exposure.

He first began performing with the Syndicats in 1963, playing R&B covers at local pubs and youth halls. The band recorded three singles with legendary underground outsider Joe Meek as producer before disbanding. Next, Howe joined the In Crowd and also appeared as a session musician on Keith West’s hit “Excerpts from a Teenage Opera.” West and Howe then joined forces in psychedelic rockoutfit Tomorrow. Their single “My White Bicycle” wasn’t a chart-topper but would become an underground classic and touchstone of British psychedelia. As a member of Tomorrow, and then Bodast, Steve made the rounds of hip London nightspots like the UFO and Middle Earth, and his various musical interests were given the opportunity to coalesce into his singular style. Legend of Howe’s fretboard prowess spread and—in one of the rare instances in his career when he’d forgo musical opportunity—he rejected overtures to join both Jethro Tull and Keith Emersonled combo the Nice. The unfulfilled promises of a record deal for Bodast would ultimately lead Howe to accept an offer to replace departed Yes guitarist Peter Banks.

Despite being largely associated with Yes, Asia, and GTR, Howe’s career has been a revolving door of bands, side projects, one-off collaborations and guest appearances, all seemingly motivated by musical not financial reasons. Alongside multiple solo releases Howe has guested and/or collaborated on recordings by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Dixie Dregs, Queen, Martin Taylor, Paul Sutin, Billy Currie, Billy Sherwood, and Oliver Wakeman.


When Howe first joined Yes in the spring of 1970, he relied mainly on a mid-’60s Gibson ES-175D. As the band expanded its sonic horizons, Howe’s stringed arsenal grew accordingly: a Portuguese acoustic vachalia can be heard on “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Wonderous Stories.” For the title track of Close to the Edge, Howe alternates between a Coral Sitar and a Gibson ES-345. A Rickenbacker 12-string enlivens the solo section of “Awaken,” while “And You and I,” “Siberian Khatru,” and “The Gates of Delirium” benefit from one of Howe’s signature sounds— a delay-drenched, overdriven Fender steel guitar.

A short list of the other stringed instruments Howe has recorded and/or performed with includes Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, a Gibson E-5 Switchmaster, ES-295, L5, and EDS-1275 double-neck, various Steinberger electrics, Martin acoustics, Dobros and mandolins. On Yes’ fall 2008 tour Howe was able to pare down his cache to a mere “dozen” instruments with the help of a Line 6 Variax.


I once read an online post comparing Howe to his successor in Yes, Trevor Rabin. It concluded that while Howe and Rabin were both great guitarists, Rabin was more valuable to the band because of his songwriting skills. I have to respectfully disagree with this assessment. Although Rabin was a fine musician and co-writer of Yes’ biggest pop hit, “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” the band’s greatest musical legacy is its contributions to the progressive rock canon. In this respect Howe, as co-composer of tracks like “Roundabout,” “Close to the Edge,” “The Revealing Science of God,” and “Awaken,” is largely responsible for Yes’ unique and singular sound. Perhaps Howe was not the go-to guy to pen and produce a breezy pop single, but as an architect of music that is pioneering, innovative, unprecedented, and arguably, unequalled in the history of rock, his contribution is indispensable.


Howe’s special brand of guitar gumbo liberally mixed ingredients from multiple musical sources. A top-shelf example of this is Ex. 1, the intro to Yes’ “Siberian Khatru.” Here, Howe sets a classic country faux-pedal-steel lick against a slightly dissonant open E-string and propels it along with some funky scratch work. The riff cycles through the C and D chord changes, cascades down a series of thirds, and finally ends on a D to E major second implying the top of an impressionist-sounding Dmaj9 chord.

For a second helping of Howe, dig into one of the main guitar themes to Yes’ “Awaken” and “Magnification” and catch the flavor of Ex 2. Here, his Howe-liness lays down the baroque-sounding melody in Wes Montgomery-approved octave voicings but articulates them with a hybrid picking technique straight from the country. Notice how the harmonics help define the underlying harmonies, especially the D/E, suggesting an E Dorian modal jazz setting. Part classical, part jazz, part country. Pure Howe.


The three-chord vamp as a backdrop to an extended guitar solo was a staple of early ’70s rock and, on the dramatic ending to “Starship Trooper” (subtitled “Würm”), Howe throws his hat in the ring. Ignoring standard issue barre-chords and diatonic scales a la “Stairway to Heaven” and “Freebird,” the Howe-miester pushes the envelope by grabbing the unique 5th-in-thebass chord voicings of Fig. 1. To sophisticate matters further, Howe doesn’t merely settle for blowing over a G pentatonic minor— instead he weaves between G pentatonic major (for the G/D), Eb major (for the Eb/Bb), and G Dorian (for the C/G), much like the integrated lines of Ex. 3.

The studio take is actually two separate solo tracks panned left and right then alternated at four-bar intervals, but subsequent live versions prove Howe able to navigate the difficult changes for sustained periods. This multiple-key-center solo approach is directly copped from jazz, and is something many of Howe’s contemporaries didn’t dare attempt.


Journeyman guitarists are generally adroit at kicking a lick up an octave simply by playing it 12 frets higher, but Howe’s penchant for whipping a phrase through three octaves at Mach 3 speeds suggests a much deeper understanding of fretboard mechanics. I believe the underlying logic behind many of these runs involves organizing the guitar’s six strings into three separate pairs of perfect fourths, E-A, D-G, and B-E. Play through Ex. 4a using only your first finger to quickly find a G in three different octaves on the first string of each two-string pair. Now turn your attention to the first bar of Ex. 4b—the first five notes of a G blues scale laid out on the lowest string pair. Give the suggested left-hand digits due diligence and you’ll discover that beginning this simple two-string pattern on the corresponding octaves of the two remaining pairs (the circled notes that correspond to Ex. 4a), you can replicate the phrase across three octaves rapidly and without changing fingerings.

By incorporating a first-finger slide to the G octaves of the previous example, Ex. 5 highlights Howe’s cool multi-registered riffage on Yes gems like “Machine Messiah” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” Again, heads-up on the fingering. You’re simply duplicating the same exact pattern in three different octaves, one for each of the three string-pairs.

This “three for the price of one” deal can also be put to good use on mind-bending solo runs like Ex. 6, where a two-string phrase detailing the root (A), third with chromatic leading tone (C to C# ), and seventh (G) of an A7 chord gets the tri-octave treatment. In this example—which, incidentally, vibes Howe’s shredding on “I’ve Seen All Good People,”—we’re working the octaves (once more represented by the circled notes) backwards and leading with our third finger.

Taking a cue from Howe’s marathon lead break on Yes’ epic re-designing of Paul Simon’s “America,” Ex. 7 is our final three-octave triumph. Again it works from the highest register down and leads with the third finger, but now a tasty countrified pre-bend has been added for your listening pleasure.


If you’ve ever been enthralled by the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony then you understand the magic of motifs—short, catchy, repetitive musical phrases that serve as building blocks for larger works by providing compositional unity. Howe was certainly familiar with the power of the motif, whether to inject a quick burst of suspense before the chorus on Asia’s charttopping single “Only Time Will Tell” or to serve as thematic links unifying the four protracted cuts on the Yes concept double-album Tales from Topographic Oceans. Ex. 8 recalls Howe’s motif-laden electrified 12-string runs on “Awaken.” Here a Baroque-ish ornamentation of a D major arpeggio is cycled up the neck through the keys of F, G, and C respectively, ratcheting the drama up a notch with each modulation before resolving to Em via rapid-fire descending thirds.


Ex. 9, an excerpt from Howe’s lead break tour de force on “America,” is another example of the guitarist’s penchant for motivic development through multiple key centers. This time he’s introduced the added element of counterpoint—a second musical line playing concurrently with, but seemingly independent of, the primary melody. Classical guitarists and pianists have contrapuntal chops in spades but rockers and jazzers often miss the boat when it comes to getting their axes to do two things at once. The Howester pulls off his multi-line mayhem by flat-picking the lower notes and grabbing the high ones with his ring finger.


Steve Howe’s multi-faceted talents are an invaluable asset to whatever band he’s with, but they also serve him well as a solo artist and performer. Many of Howe’s most admired recordings are his solo compositions like “Mood for a Day” from Yes’s Fragile, “The Clap” from The Yes Album, and “Sketches in the Sun” from the self-titled GTR release. Howe’s technical prowess and flair for arrangement have placed him among the elite axemen in any genre who are able to give unaccompanied concert performances— something he’s done on a regular basis since the late ’70s! Ex. 9 is an excerpt of Howe’s steel-string re-imagining of Yes’ “To Be Over.” The song was originally recorded as a group performance in 1974 and revived by Howe as part of his solo set during Yes’ 2002-2003 tour. Again, dig the motivic development and contrapuntal bass line.


While assessing his own playing, Howe once informed Guitar Player, “I don’t know whether I’m about 20 years ahead or 20 years behind.” Howe was certainly never a trendy player. By contrast, his embrace of the guitar’s rich heritage and distinctive approach to its interpretation has continually pointed a way forward while creating a unique, compelling, and enduring body of work. He has influenced countless musicians in all genres. And he’s still going strong. Currently Yes are out on tour with a reunited Asia as special guest, and the amazing Mr. Howe will be performing with both bands. The musical legacy of Steve Howe is, in a word, timeless.

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