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Forty-Plus Years of YES: Steve Howe Talks Guitar-Playing


Ask any guitar aficionado to cite the most important players of the past 50 years, and it’s a near-certainty that Steve Howe’s name will come up before they take their second breath. During his amazing career, Howe has recorded 19 solo albums as well as records with Asia, GTR and others, but his most indelible mark has been made as a primary force in the legendary prog-rock band, YES. A key composer and player on such classic alums as Fragile, Close to the Edge and Going for the One, Howe is to “prog” what B.B. King is to the blues.

YES’s latest album, Heaven & Earth, finds the group furthering art-rock traditions with beautiful arrangements and the vintage “YES” sound. With new singer Jon Davison handling lead vocals, Howe, bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White and keyboardist Geoff Downes offer up sweeping melodies and shimmering aural landscapes that rank with the band’s best work. In addition, the group is currently on tour performing Fragile and Close to the Edge in their entirety—along with songs from the new disc and an encore of greatest hits. Recently we spoke with Howe about the new album, the tour and his legendary ES-175—a guitar he’s owned and played for half a century.

How did you approach recording the new album?

We had already done a lot of writing—demos, and so forth. To stimulate the process, Jon visited everybody, spent a week with me and time with everybody else as well. He got a feel for what each of us thought about what was circulated, bits and pieces of music. It wasn’t all about sitting in a room, saying, “Well, shouldn’t we write a song together?” It was more like, “Let’s listen to this bit from this person. What do you think? Do you like that bit? Should we take that out?” There was that sort of fine-tuning, ahead of time. We did a week’s rehearsal—played in a room together—but that was almost pointless. It’s the sort of “old” thing you feel you have to do, and then you tighten it up in the studio. The album is a mixture of collaborations and solo ideas. It’s a fine balance of various things we do.

Did you sense Jon was feeling any pressure, as the new guy?

I suppose he was under some strain, but he didn’t show it. We were quite sure he could handle it. He isn’t one to shy away from things—he’s a very consistent and strong person. It’s true he was tested, not so much by us but by the recording process--the hours you have to put in, and the repetition. He put in an awful lot of time to achieve what’s on the album. But that’s what production is all about. You go in, you sing, and someone might say, “Well, how about singing it more like this?” Everyone has an opinion about vocals, and everyone has an opinion about drums.

Have your thoughts about the role of the guitar in YES—it’s place in the arrangements—remained consistent through the years?

Well, there has to be some consistency with YES, in general. We couldn’t go out and make a hip-hop record, for instance. (laughs) We make albums in a certain style, and they require, generally, five people with different ideas to kind of agree on something. Sometimes that’s difficult, and other times you pleasurably discover that someone else in the band shares your preference for something. A lot of my guitar work is built around the vocals, but I do take the opportunity to do a lot of single line stuff that’s almost built around everybody. There comes a time when you get clarity and you get the payback of the guitar being strong enough to push the music onwards. I like being able to use various dynamics to accomplish that. I use various textures and I have a landscape to move around on. With some of the songs on the new album, I tried different approaches. On one track I did a whole New Age sort of guitar piece, but then I thought, “Well, I could do that, but maybe I should do this other thing.” So I went off and did something entirely different. There wasn’t enough time to do that on every track, but here and there I might have tried out an idea and thought, “Well, that’s fun, but it seems not quite right.”


Can you talk a bit about your history with the ES-175?

I bought the original in ’64. Prior to that I had played various guitars--mostly small solid-bodies—but all along I had the idea I was going to get a 175. Once I did get it, everyone said, “Oh, you’re going to play that guitar?” Everyone thought I was weird because I wasn’t playing a ‘regular’ guitar.” But I liked that sense of identity that it immediately brought me. I thought, “Wow, everyone’s looking at me.” I played the 175 all through the ‘60s, and then on The Yes Album it was all the 175. Then I went forward to the ES-5, the stereo guitar, and eventually back to the Les Paul and other things. I rambled through the ‘70s, trying out various guitars, but the ES-175 never went away. It was always the fundamental Steve Howe guitar sound and approach, and I loved that. Eventually I thought, “What am I buying new guitars for? This one is better than them all.” (laughs) The 175—all the Gibsons I play, for that matter—are just perfect for what I use them for. I’m still mainly a Gibson player.

You’ve talked elsewhere about how you play the ES-175 for about 20 minutes to “warm it up.” Can you elaborate?

That’s from an article I read in Science Today, or New Scientist or something. Apparently some tests were done on guitars in Japan, where they found that until it’s been played for about 20 minutes, it’s not fully resonant and fully responsive. That’s especially true if it’s been sitting in a case, where it hasn’t been played for months. But in a larger sense, if you haven’t played a guitar a lot, then you’re not going to get a lot out of it. You have to put something in to get something out. That’s what I discovered with the 175. After putting five or six years into it I had a fantastic guitar. Whenever I let someone play it--and there were only about three people who were allowed (laughs)--they went, “This is an amazing guitar to play!” Partly it was because of the strings I use, the gauges, but also it was because I had played it so much. I only had it re-fretted after having played it for about 45 years. That’s another amazing aspect.

Chuck Berry was one of those people you allowed to play it. What’s that story?

That was at the Albert Hall in London in the late ‘60s, before I joined YES. I was in a group called Bodast. We had been booked as Berry’s backing band. It was an amazing thing that happened. We went on-stage to rehearse, and Berry walks in, points at me and says, “We don’t need you.” I said, “Okay, alright, I’ll step out then.” So I did, and he went on to play—just him on guitar. Often he had a rhythm guitarist, but he didn’t that night. Either during the interval, or just before the show, I bravely tapped on his dressing room door. He shouts “Yeah!” and I walk in. I said, “It’s Steve, from the band. I just want to show you my guitar.” I played it for a few minutes, and he got this look in his eyes. He says, “That’s amazing, an amazing guitar!” It truly is a great guitar.

Do you take it on the road with you?

I used to take it on the road all the time. Now I don’t, except for when I’m touring the U.K. No matter what the airline rules are, they’ll tell you there’s some other rule that prevents you from keeping it with you. I used to buy a ticket for it. I remember showing up for an Air Canada flight, in London, and I had my guitar with me. They went, “Oh, this isn’t a person.” I said, “So what?” They said, “Well, you can’t have a seat without a person in it. We can’t give it a boarding pass.” I told them to just give it a pass and call it “Mr. Gibson.” (laughs)

On current tour you’re playing Fragile and Close to the Edge in their entirety. Which of those albums presents the bigger challenge?

The one we haven’t played, which is Fragile. Actually it shouldn’t be that difficult. We already know two of the songs—“Heart of the Sunrise” and “Roundabout”--very well, although we’ve generally played them in a slightly different way from the album. For this tour we’ll adapt to playing them closer to the record. It’s going to be all about the album, and our appreciation for the talent we had then, and the talent [producer] Eddy Offord had to pull that sound together. Nobody else really knew how to do that, except Eddy.

How much thought do you give to your legacy? Do you ever reflect on your impact, and all you’ve accomplished?

It would be egotistical to say I do that, but there is a scale there that I’m proud of. I do feel a sense of achievement, but it’s not a question of sitting and thinking, “Wow, look at what I’ve done.” I’m not a critic. I’m a performer and a writer and a guitarist. It’s also true there’s some music of mine that I like more than the music most people associate me with. It’s not as if I always like everything I’ve ever done, but I do have the pleasure of having that repertoire. It’s all very rewarding.

Photos: Rob Shanahan

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The Day in Rock 11/14

James “J.Y.” Young-guitarist for Styx born in 1949
Alec John Such-bassist for Bon Jovi born in 1956

2000: Rush singer & bassist Geddy Lee released his first solo album called My Favorite Headache. It basically flopped.

1992: Judas Priest singer Rob Halford performed the first of two concerts fronting Black Sabbath opening for Ozzy Osbourne. The reason? Ronnie James Dio refused to perform because Ozzy was re-forming the original Sabbath lineup, as these concerts were advertised as Osbourne’s farewell concerts.

1991: Aerosmith were inducted into the Boston Garden Hall of Fame.

1990: Pete Townshend revealed he was bisexual in an interview with Newsweek, but changed his tune in a 2002 interview with Rolling Stone. Townshend said he experimented in the 1960’s, and that he's heterosexual.

1989: Aerosmith kicked off their first European tour in 12 years at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. David Coverdale of Whitesnake joined them for a cover of The Beatles’ “I’m Down”.

1987: Billy Idol peaked at number ten on the Billboard 200 Album Chart with his first compilation album Vital Idol which went on to go Platinum in the U.S. "Mony Mony" was a big hit from the album.

1977: Kiss kicked off their tour in support of Alive II in Oklahoma City.

1967: The Jimi Hendrix Experience & Pink Floyd kicked off a U.K. tour at Royal Albert Hall in London.


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Hear the New Eric Clapton "Gotta Get Over"

Eric Clapton is back with one of two new songs off the forthcoming album Old Sock. It's called "Gotta Get Over" and it's catchy as hell. Funky, bouncy and fun, scooted along by a nice keyboard riff. Also, some decent fills by Mr. Slowhand himself.
See what you think of it. Hear it here.
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Why Do We Love Keith Richards So Much?

I don't know what it is about Keith Richards that makes him so likeable. Maybe it's the obvious, like all the great riffs he's came up with over the years. Maybe it's his cool demeanor, one where you could take him to the bar, make fun of the chain link fence in his hair and he would laugh right along with you. Maybe it's the fact that no matter what, he's still living, or it could be the fact that we wish we could be as irresponsible yet successful as he is. People like to take down successful people, but does Keith look the part? Not one bit.

One thing I like about Keef is his underrated vocals. Here he is with Norah Jones doing a nice version of "Love Hurts." The harmonies are fantastic. 

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What Are the Eagle's Albums of the Year for 2012?

You may have noticed many "Best of" lists have shown up through popular websites and blogs over the last couple of weeks. We asked our own staff if they could give us some of their favorites. Here's what they came up with. 
Feel free to comment below with your favorites or disagreements. 
Kat Maudru-My new favorite...dont' judge... Mumford & Sons – Babel. Love the quirky uniqueness.

Chris Rice-While 2012 brought excellent new music from 2 bands I love - Muse and Soundgarden - I'll turn my attention to 2 new artists that really impressed me: Gary Clark Jr and ZZ Ward. Gary Clark Jr is an Austin, TX kid who's been hyped for some time as the next young blues savior. His debut album "Blak & Blu" finally surfaced this fall and delivered on its promise, with a diverse mix of blues, rock, soul, and R&B, including a scorching Hendrix cover. ZZ Ward also has a decidedly retro sound, and while she draws some comparisons to Adele and Amy Winehouse, personally I hear a bit of Johnny Cash in her. Her debut album "Til The Casket Drops" gives a bit of a pop sheen to a heavy dose of blues... tracks to check out are "Put the Gun Down" and "Move Like U Stole It". Also feel I should mention an older album that was definitely one of my best purchases of 2012: Cheap Trick's classic "Dream Police"... I've always loved this band but for some reason had never bought this album... really glad I finally did, as it's now my fave of theirs.... vintage power-pop with a dark edge is always a winning combination for me.

Bob Keller-The Doors 40th anniversary edition of LA WOMAN
Man who hasn't cruised down the road with the Doors LA Woman blasting out of the speakers? LA Woman is the final album from Jim Morrison and the Doors. It was a beauty. The sounds of the title track blasting out of car speakers in 1971 was one of the joys of that year. In a way, it was one of the first indie albums. The Doors decided to produce it themselves and recorded in tight quarters in Ray Manzarek’s house. It was done in the same way their first record was done, up close and lots of breathing on each other. The 40th edition came out this year and it contains two DVD’s. Disc 1 is the original studio album, disc 2 is alternative takes, studio chatter and a rare glimpse into the creative process of one of America’s most original units. I love the comments Jim makes, like just before recording the song The Changeling..”This is my favorite song boys, let’s really rock it”…If you are a Doors fan, check out this 2 disc set. It’s the final farewell of a truly great band. There is a little pamphlet with some pictures of the studio and the guys actually working, plus pictures of the other two players on the record…legendary bass player Jerry Scheff and guitar virtuoso Marc Benno.

Tom Nakashima-One of the up and coming blues men of the last few years was Michael Burks. He could play some incendiary guitar… and if you closed your eyes, you would swear it was Albert King. I recall how excited Mike Balma was when he brought the then-unknown Burks out here to play. Sadly, Michael Burks died suddenly in May of 2012, cutting short what would have been a marvelous career. In his memory, I’ll select his final album… 2012’s “Show Of Strength.”

James Jobe-The Lumineers (self-titled) was released on April 3, 2012 on Dualtone Records. Wesley Keith Schultz - vocals, guitar, Jeremiah Caleb Fraites - drums, percussion, mandolin, vocals, and Neyla Pekarek - cello, mandolin, piano, vocals. Rustic, folkish, AAA material, a lot of charm. Their single Hey Ho went to #5.

Brian Lopez (Assistant Program Director)-There wasn’t a bigger musical event from the rock world than Van Halen’s return with David Lee Roth, “A Different Kind Of Truth.” Yet, beyond a couple of songs that sounded like depth tracks from their hey-day, I found a good chunk of the CD to be uninteresting. To my ear, there wasn’t a GREAT release from start to finish in 2012, but I liked Joe Perry’s playing on Aerosmith’s “Music From Another Dimension.” Honorable mention to the Scorpions “Comeblack,” specifically their scorching cover of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Derek Moore-I loved the Alabama Shakes record Boys and Girls, and yes that's a woman singing. There's some great soul with a modern twist on that album. On that same front, Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton approved Gary Clark Jr.'s "Blak and Blu." It's loaded with great riffs and some nice guitar work. There's even a Hendrix cover. 

Honorable mention for you Foo Fighters fans, Bob Mould's Silver Age. A power house of a record.  
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