What You Gotta Do to Play like Steve Howe

By Demasi, Vincent | Guitar Player, December 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

What You Gotta Do to Play like Steve Howe


Demasi, Vincent, Guitar Player


"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 nylon-string 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.

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Although certain factions of the music press chided what they perceived as Yes' self-indulgence, 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.

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1 SAY YES TO MUSICAL OPPORTUNITY

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. …

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