Flying High with Steve Howe

“Perpetual Change” is one of Yes’ hallmark songs, but the title is also emblematic of the British prog rock group’s history.

“Perpetual Change” is one of Yes’ hallmark songs, but the title is also emblematic of the British prog rock group’s history. Yes has seen no less than 16 members pass through its ranks since forming in 1968. Its most recent shifts are the addition of new lead vocalist Benoît David, and the return of keyboardist Geoff Downes, who was last a part of the group for its 1980 album Drama and accompanying tour. What hasn’t changed is guitarist Steve Howe’s perpetual commitment and drive towards raising the band’s game, including reestablishing it as a force to be reckoned with decades into its career.

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Yes’ new disc Fly from Here [Frontiers] has gone a long way in achieving Howe’s goal. The recording, produced by one-time band member Trevor Horn, is Yes’ biggest-selling release since the early ’90s, having graced Top 20 and Top 40 charts worldwide. The album is a significant return to form for the band, with a focus on extended musical structures. Fly from Here is named after the album’s 23 minute-long centerpiece. It’s a six-part suite full of the epic twists and turns, extended soloing, and instrumental workouts that made Yes arguably the most influential act in the history of its genre.

Howe also just released Time [Warner Classics] a solo album that combines his acoustic and electric guitar playing prowess with a small orchestral ensemble. Years in the making, the disc is a collaboration between Howe and producer Paul K. Joyce, a renowned British television, film, and theater soundtrack composer. Howe considers Time among the most important recordings of his solo career. It’s situated in the classical universe, but in true Howe style, the music embodies an eclectic aesthetic by also veering into jazz and country territory.

Fly from Here received a warm response from fans and charts alike. What do you attribute its success to?

We managed to make a record we’re all happy with. So, the sense is the reception is due to the strength of the record. I think that’s something people will wake up to in terms of what’s happening in the record business: The quality and consistency of recordings still affects sales. Also, Fly from Here runs just under 50 minutes, which is a pleasing length of time. Albums over an hour long are sometimes a huge test. With our new album, you go somewhere, get there, and come back—and you’re not tired at the end.

What guitars did you use across the “Fly from Here” suite?

At the start and throughout the suite, I���m playing my red mid-’80s Fender Stratocaster. There are also some rich-sounding, acoustic overdubs that I mostly did with my Martin MC-38 Steve Howe Limited Edition 6-string and a Martin J12-16 12-string. I played a ’50s Gibson Les Paul Junior on the intro to “We Can Fly,” because the pizzicato sound I wanted wasn’t working on the Strat. I couldn’t position my plectrum where I could really bite into the strings, or use my hand on the bridge to deaden the strings. The bridge on the Les Paul Junior is near the rear pickup and provides a more consistent sound when muting.

I played a Ramirez 1a Spanish guitar on “Sad Night at the Airfield,” following the vocal melody quite closely. As the piece moves along, you also hear my Gibson ES-175. I consider it essential because it’s got a big, fat tone and chords played on it sound wonderful. I also played a Fender Dual 6 Professional lap-steel guitar on that track. It has two 6-string necks—the front neck has a slightly fatter sound than the nearer neck—and goes up high because I added frets to its already enormous fretboard to get an octave above what’s usually accessible.

Describe the rig you used to record the album.

I used a Vox AC50 as my main amp, like the one I used to play through in the ’60s. I got one again after realizing it’s the sound I like best with the ES-175 and most other guitars. I also played through a Line 6 Vetta II amp sometimes, Boss GT-10 and Line 6 Pod XT Live effects processors, and a Cakewalk Z3TA+ 2 software synth, which I used to get a Close to the Edge-type sound. I relied a lot on the Pod XT Live to get the noises I needed, including using it to get a Big Muff fuzz sound with the lap-steel.

How did the solo guitar piece “Solitaire” come together?

I wanted the piece to surprise and move forward without going back. It employs themes and guitarisms to create variations that reference other styles of playing by people such as Tony McManus and Flavio Sala—musicians that have really turned me on. There’s also a bit of a sense of Villa- Lobos at the beginning of one of the later movements, and some folk and flamenco parts. I love juggling styles, and that’s what “Solitaire” is partly about. I played it on my Theo Scharpach SKD, which is a remarkable, beautiful-sounding handmade steelstring acoustic that Theo built for me in 1989. It’s large with very wide string spacing that enables my hands to find all the things I want to play. I don’t like being cramped up like on a Rickenbacker 12-string.

What was the concept for your new solo album Time?

It’s my 12th solo album, but it doesn’t sound like any of my others. The material is very eclectic, including music by Vivaldi, Villa-Lobos, and Bach, along with several originals. I’m not saying I’m Julian Bream and John Williams all in one, but I’ve taken these works and interpreted them on my own terms—not so much in the music itself, but in the textures and instrumentation. I worked with Paul K. Joyce, a writer, composer, keyboardist, and arranger. There’s no drumming, but the pieces offer a full sonic picture, with lots of pulses, some percussion, and an overall sense of rhythm.

What instruments did you play on the album?

On the Villa-Lobos piece “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (Aria),” I played the Fender lap-steel through the Line 6 Vetta II amp setting we created for “And You and I.” On “King’s Ransom,” Bach’s “Cantata No. 140 (Wachet Auf),” “Apollo,” and “Rose,” I played a Kohno Spanish guitar. On “Orange,” I played a ’30s Gibson banjo-guitar, which is quite ancient and lovely, and on “The Explorer,” I played my custom Steinberger 12-string electric that I use in Yes for playing “Awaken” and anything involving 12-string. It has the same body as the 6-string version, is wonderfully musical, and possesses a slightly bell-like sound.

The ES-175 is the featured sound on “Purification,” with a little Martin J12-16 hobbling around, and my Martin MC-28 is featured on “Steam Age.” I play the ES-345 on “Kindred Spirits,” “Concerto Grosso in D Minor Op. 3, No. 11” and “The 3rd of March,” and there’s also a bit of National Dobro in the center of the latter track.

How did you create the orchestrations?

All of the tracks were initially created using a virtual orchestra. Paul and I used digital samples and synthesizers within Pro Tools to ensure the arrangements were perfect and that the guitars would be really detailed within them. Some of the guitars were recorded in my studio in Devon, and some in Dinemec Studios in Geneva. Once everything was complete, we booked a 12-person orchestra—which included violins, cello, viola, harp, horns, glockenspiel, and double bass—and replaced the parts we’d created with real instruments. That’s how we got the record to the level it’s at, which we feel is very, very high.

Everybody that worked on the album put in a lot of time. It’s the same as the new Yes album. When you work your backside off, you get a better result. I’m feeling really good about the album and hopefully it’ll open up some ears. It isn’t about me trying to be a classical guitarist. It reflects my desire to continue learning in several areas, as opposed to picking a subject and going down that particular river all the way.