Steve Howe's Fretboard Geometry: An Exploration of the Long-Distance Licks and Runaround Secrets from a Prog-Rock Guitar Genius

By Brewster, David | Guitar Player, September 2018 | Go to article overview

Steve Howe's Fretboard Geometry: An Exploration of the Long-Distance Licks and Runaround Secrets from a Prog-Rock Guitar Genius


Brewster, David, Guitar Player


WITHIN THE HALLOWED CATALOG of progressive rock music created during the late 1960s and early' 70s, a handful of groups are responsible for a surge of excelled musicianship and composition that flourished during the birth and heyday of this highly creative and musically and lyrically sophisticated sub-genre of rock. This pantheon of pioneers includes extremely talented and forward-thinking musicians, well known for routinely pushing their musical abilities to new heights of creative and technical achievement. While there are several bands and individual musicians that come to mind, it's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees and progressive rock legends Yes that arguably take home the largest trophy, as they've built their respected legacy using a distinct approach of artistic discovery and musical self-expression for 50 years, which is extraordinarily impressive. While it's true that any member of Yes could have an entire book written about them (and several Yes-alumni do have their own published biographies), it is the contributions of guitarist Steve Howe that really helped the band achieve its original sound, style, and direction when he joined Yes in 1970, notably replacing original guitarist Peter Banks. Howe single-handedly introduced generations of rock fans and musicians to the wonderful worlds of classical, jazz, country, bluegrass, and folk guitar music, by wielding an eclectic blend of influences and a mastery of shifting among various styles with ease. The guitarist instantly elevated himself above the pack of blues-based rock players that emerged during the '60s and '70s by using this interesting combination of styles and approaches.

Howe's adventurous exploration of sounds and textures are driven by his fascination with non-mainstream musical styles, unusual rhythmic concepts, and classically-flavored melodic ideas. He is notoriously quoted for taking great pride in being different, musically speaking, and many of his riffs, licks, and solos feature left-field phrasing, finger-twisting fretboard gymnastics, and precisely crafted fingerings, which routinely leave traditional blues and rock players in the dust, so to speak. Howe's insightful approach to the fretboard and ability to combine different elements from various musical styles creates his signature sound and musical identity. It's an approach of style fully-realized during his tenure with Yes in the '70s. Compared to the average rock guitarist, Howe's playing is noticeably different, but that's what makes it so interesting, fresh, and inspiring. With influences including 6-string legends such as Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, and Barney Kessel, the icing on Howe's musical cake comes with the foundation of learning a mountain of classical, bluegrass, and folk guitar music, which fed his appetite and love for the acoustic guitar. This lesson will focus chiefly on Howe's electric playing, but he is an equally accomplished acoustic guitarist, a feat documented by his acclaimed acoustic guitar compositions, such as "Clap" (The Yes Album) and "Mood for a Day" (Fragile), the former presenting a notable and beloved hybrid-picking (pick-and-fingers) workout for acoustic guitarists all over the world, and the latter having become a modern standard within the classical guitar repertoire.

It's interesting that Howe's brilliance on the electric guitar is sometimes misunderstood, but part of this is due to his complete awareness of the fretboard and a personal quest to locate efficient fingerings for everything he plays. Searching for specific and refined fingerings can lead to various performance issues when attempting to learn how to play his music authentically, and these calculated fingerings can leave uninformed players confused and with twisted digits. As you study the material in this lesson, be sure to use the fret-hand fingerings indicated in the standard notation for each example. If you cannot read standard notation and rely on the tablature, you can still benefit from following the fingering directions, which indicate which fret-hand fingers to employ. …

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