Every week a member of YES takes your top twenty questions from Facebook and Twitter.
This week, it’s the turn of guitar virtuoso, Steve Howe.
Armando Jorquera Mariani
What was your favorite kind of music to listen to as a child and what music do you like to listen to now when you are not working?
I didn’t listen to music until I was about ten, and then it was pop music, dance band music, and guitar music soon after. Now I listen to the broadest possible choice of music from country to classical to jazz to rock.
How Alan joined the band is famously documented with Jon and Chris (jokingly?) threatening to throw him out of a window. And Rick joining by Chris calling him at 3:00 AM and Rick showing up at rehearsal,and driving you home after, simply asking what time he was going to pick you up the next day. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a detailed story about the circumstances of how you joined the band. Could you please share this story with us?
Well I don’t know that the previous stories are true, and what I remember is that I got a call from Chris saying that he and Jon Anderson had seen me playing in different groups, and would I come and play with them. I went to a place called Barnes, where the their manager at the time lived, and he had a basement, and I walked in, and we played, and we liked each other, and we started work on The Yes Album. After we’d done some rehearsing, we went out and played some of Time and a Word and then we played a few new Yes songs. That’s all there was to it – it wasn’t all that intriguing or unusual.
You and the lads were in your 20’s when The Yes Album was recorded. It was groundbreaking not only for the band, but also for rock music. At that point, did you feel you were part of something special, something bigger than yourself? Did you have any inkliing that life as you knew it would never be the same?
We were ambitious and the guys were great. Of course we thought we had a chance, otherwise if you think you haven’t got a chance, you wouldn’t bother doing it. So, in a way, we thought we had a chance. Obviously we didn’t know what would actually happen. We didn’t have a crystal ball, and there were risks involved—maybe we wouldn’t break through, but The Yes Album helped us break through.
Is it true that you are so connected to your guitar that when you fly that you buy and extra seat for the guitsr so you dont lose it during your travels?
[Laughs] There is some truth in this, but not recently. Airlines have become more and more annoying and keep changing the rules of whether you can or can’t bring guitars on board. In the 70s, we used to fly Trans-Atlantic and I’d buy a seat for it. And then Concorde came along, and I don’t really think I was stupid enough to buy a seat for it, but I certainly took it on Concorde. But then things were nice because they would say “oh, a guitar—no problem.” And now it’s “Guitar? Oh, where is that gonna go?” So basically they’ve broken the musician’s rule that a musician has the right to carry his personal instrument on the plane, and they keep breaking that rule. So consequently I don’t fly with guitars anymore because it’s just too much of a pain in the neck. But it’s true, I did used to buy seats and they used to call it Mr. Gibson, I think. That’s where that name came from.
Hi Steve, I recently read that you are self-taught and do not read music. I was blown away by that, for I assumed, being the stellar musician that you are, that you must have been classically trained. How did you do it? Did you learn the scales first? Did you learn any music theory, or did it all come from trial and error? I just want to thank you for the many years of inspiration. You were the one who inspired me to pick up the guitar in the mid 70’s and I am still playing to this day!
Thanks. I didn’t want to do it any other way. Music was a revolt against school and schooling, and education, and aggression and people ramming things down my throat. So I thought music gave me a great sense of freedom. So I do everything by ear. I listen to tunes and work them out by ear. The only thing I did learn were chord charts—how to read those—you’d have to be pretty stupid not to be able to read a chord chart, but like you said, I didn’t read notation, tablature, or any other form of music. It just seemed I wasn’t really into looking at a piece of paper and playing my guitar, so that’s how I did it—I did it by ear, I did it because I love music, and I did it because I learned technique without sitting there playing scales all day—that was too boring—so I played tunes and now I improvise instead of rehearsing. I don’t really practice per se, but I do enjoy playing.
Hey Steve, what does music look like in your head?…since you don’t read music, how do you remember sounds? Is it like a road map?
I don’t really know the answer to that. It’s a memory capacity I’ve built up gradually by learning how to play Duane Eddy, The Ventures, The Shadows kind of 7/4 twangy tunes, and then I learned more about chord inversions, and then I was in bands playing tunes. I can remember how to play “Maybelline” by The Syndicats, or “My White Bicycle” by Tomorrow, I can remember how to play—really any music that I’ve been a part of, I can remember parts of it, or most of it, or all of it. It’s just a memory capacity—I told myself I wanted to learn this stuff, so I learned it. Notation just blinded me, it was like school again—I loathed it—and I haven’t done so badly. There are many other fine guitarists and other fine musicians who never found it necessary to read music so it’s one of those fallacies.
When you are interviewed, you are very calm, collected, intelligent, organized, thoughtful and seem overall like a conservative and relaxed sort of guy. When you play, the music takes on all sorts of soaring emotions, with great variety. Musically it’s an amazing talent, but what happens in your head when you play? What feelings go through your mind? Do you get lost in your emotions and feeling or can it sometimes become (and I don’t mean to sound insulting) mechanical because you play the same songs repeatedly?
Absolutely none of the above; none at all. This is a question that usually don’t answer because I don’t know either and I don’t want to know, and I would say everything you’ve just said is wrong. I play because I enjoy it, and yeah, I have memories but I don’t think about the memories when I’m playing. There’s this whole thing about emotion—it’s not a way I recognize. I’ve been playing for over 50 years and so you see playing somewhere else, it’s about connecting not all those known things, it’s about connecting with something completely unknown. And thank goodness, because if it was any of the above, I would have given up years ago. It’s not about thinking about the meaning of the song while you’re playing it, it’s about another concept—broader and wider—I don’t understand it; you don’t understand it, and nobody understands it. And thank God, because it’s a mystery.
Hey Steve, thanks for some of the greatest, most inspirational music on the face of this world! My finger work has gotten better with extensive practice and exercise but, I would certainly take any advice you would give on making what I see in my head, get delivered a bit faster and more accurately to the fret board. Any advice on how I might improve my technique and, maybe someday be able to play all the parts of say, Turn of the Century or South Side of the Sky?!
Don’t do it the way that you’re doing it. Stop trying so hard and get into the spirit of the thing because the spirit of the thing is a combination of technique—yeah, you’ve got to have technique—but it’s also a conversation you’re going to have with other musicians, and with your audience, so it isn’t something that you can sort of say this or that or the other. To make that leap, you’ve got to stop thinking and start playing. I don’t know how else to put it. Fortunately, because I’m self-taught, that’s exactly what I’ve always done, is just get on with it, and stop thinking about it, because I don’t think it helps. But then again, I can’t be in your mind, and you can’t be in my mind, because these are personal experiences. So maybe everybody experiences music a little bit differently, but certainly, it’s not mechanical—maybe the physicality of it might be mechanical, but that’s only a tiny bit of why we play music.
I have been playing guitar for almost 30 years, and I still can’t play Johnny B Goode. What is the secret to playing Chuck Berry riffs?
Look at a video, look at his finger positioning. Get your guitar in tune with his records, maybe his records aren’t perfectly in tune. Take it from where it comes. Try Down the Road Apiece, that’s a pretty interesting tune, and he’s got some pretty interesting guitar work—he didn’t write it, but everything he wrote is exactly the same. They’re more or less the same: Johnny B. Goode, Carol, they’re virtually the same two string chords.
Kevin Michael Anderson
Mr. Howe, I’m a monstrous fan of your guitar technique. I’ve bought most of the available sheet music for your guitar parts, but I’m afraid that most of your guitar parts from Yes go unpublished…Will you ever partner up with someone to publish some transcriptions? My regards…Kevin.
Two things; there is a transcription out, I think it’s called Guitar Pieces or it was originally called ‘Eight Guitar Pieces’ and then it might have been expanded to more and I know that there are people around who send more charts of more transcriptions, and it might come together, but because I don’t read music–I do appreciate other people playing my music, so I’d love them to do that—but when you’ve only so much time to put into getting some of my music into music on a stave. I do care about it, and it would be nice, and I will endeavor to get a bigger portfolio of pieces that are more recent and things, like my album Motif.
There are also transcriptions and individual tracks for the YES albums ‘Fragile’ and ‘The Yes Album’ available on Jammit here. You can listen, play along, slow down, and read the transcriptions, all at the same time.
Paul A. Schroeter
Once and for all how is the Portuguese 12 string you use in Wonderous Stories and Your Move tuned? How do you prevent feedback when playing your hollow body ES 175. I would probably write better questions but I am at this very minute getting ready to leave and drive up to Detroit to see the band tonight.
From the high strings, the top two strings are both A-flat above top E, and then the second set of strings-courses, they’re called, the second course is two strings tuned at E, the same as a guitar. The third course is B, exactly the same as a guitar. The next course is E, it’s a mixture—one of the strings is E like the top of the guitar, and the other one is E but the second fret at the fourth string of a guitar. The same thing happens with B below it- we’re going down now, so the fifth course, the top string of those is B- the same as the second string of a guitar, and the second of those is B, an octave below that. Then on the bottom course is unison, and that means that they’re both the same as holding E on the fourth string on a regular guitar. So it’s an E chord with an A-flat at the top.
I think I was lucky in getting good 175s that tended not to feedback as much as things like L5s and Super 100s because jazz guitars definitely do feedback. And also, the other ingredient is you mustn’t have too much bass or middle on your amp, otherwise that will encourage the bass to feedback. Obviously don’t stand in front of it in a way that produces the feedback. The fourth reason that I thought of is that I use a volume pedal, so if it does feedback, I can control that. I always use a volume pedal—that came from hearing steel guitar players. And the volume pedal means I’m always under control; I can turn the guitar off, tune it, and have it quieter when I want it when the singer is singing. Also, I can voice my notes, so they’re not like Perpetual Change—it starts with voiced chords as opposed to just chink-chink-chink. So there’s a couple of ideas; get lucky with a guitar, tune your amp so that it’s not got too much bass end, and use a volume pedal.
Robb Hindle @RC_Hindle
Steve, do you use much in the way of effects pedals, and if so, which?
That’s an enormous question, yeah for the first twenty, thirty, maybe forty years I used a lot of pedals, I always had to have the latest–which wasn’t always the greatest–sometimes the older ones are better. Now I just use Line 6 programming, in other words the HD-500, is a programmable pedal board, it does everything you could imagine. I don’t use separate pedals anymore, everything I use is in that HD-500, which is, as I say, a small pedal board that does everything. You have to learn how to program it and you store sixteen banks of four sounds, and I’m in heaven.
Hey Steve! Have you ever gone through writers block? How do you get past it? Are there times when you don’t want to pick up a guitar? I’d love your advice as I’m going through a moment where I feel my playing has gotten stale and when I pick up a guitar I end up playing the same ‘ol style and licks.
The first time I ever thought of writer’s block is when you just mentioned it, so it’s a bit like a problem you can create yourself. I don’t get it, but there again I don’t expect myself to be writing music every day and every hour of my life, I’ve got other things. I’ve got a life to lead. I’ve got performances to do and records to make. Somewhere in there I find time to write music, which is fine. Lyrics can make you stumble a lot because they’re very, very difficult to write. Again, you need an idea to set the wheels in motion. Without an idea, you haven’t got any lyrics. Every player gets to little plateaus where you don’t progress, and what you’re waiting for is you want to progress, so if you’re not patient enough then you’re not going to progress. If you are patient enough, then you will progress. Don’t play the same pieces. Improvise or just play some nice chords or see what fun you can have with chords that you don’t normally put together or things you don’t normally do on the guitar. The guitar is a fascinating instrument which you can plug in about fifty different ways, so if you’re not using many of those ways, you’re going to get bored. So damp the strings, bend the strings, put the guitar behind your head and set it alight, I don’t know, but just don’t think of it as a limited instrument or of something you can’t progress on, because we do progress and its endlessly unlimited.
What is your favorite Yes song to play? Which one is the most challenging for you to play?
I don’t really know what that is, most likely things we haven’t played would be more challenging like Sound Chaser would be very challenging—exciting, but challenging. There are arrangements to hold together with other people that are difficult. I don’t, strictly speaking, have a favorite Yes song, but yeah, if I had to, I like To Be Over—that’s another great unplayed Yes song that one day might get played again, but I don’t fancifully keep looking for favorites, there’s too much great music. What’s your favorite Bach piece would be the most impossible-just one person, one composer wrote more music than anybody’s got time to listen to.
With the new tour and having to relearn songs that you never played live what was the hardest part about playing and learning these old songs?
Well, nothing was really hard, we’re very lucky to be musicians to be able to do something we like. Doesn’t mean that in the sense it’s hard like you mean. Getting your memory completely up on a particular tune, getting fingering right is all over the place. Turn of the Century is quite a challenge, so I could just have said that, but it’s not the only thing that’s difficult. Holding music together is difficult but you’ve got to do that with other people. There’s a connection you need to make which is taken for granted in some ways. It helps you to play the music. Obviously if you don’t play the music you’re learning, then there’s no point in learning it because you’ll forget it. The way my memory works is that I play it, and then I remember it. If I didn’t play it, I’d forget it as soon as I’d worked out what it was. So it’s really as simple as A-B-C.
Sergio De Acha
Steve, almost all of the questions posed to you in this forum you have answered already at one time or another. The fans would really like you to answer the question about the handling of Jon’s departure. Enough time has passed and I’m sure your thoughts have settled quite a bit on this topic. What would need to happen for you and Jon to collaborate again?
The current members of Yes respect and regard and appreciate the enormous contributions that our past members have made, not the least of all Bill Bruford, Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman, Patrick Moraz, and the late Peter Banks, Billy and Trevor and so many people and they’ve all been contributing to the past. And what you have now is the Yes that is functioning because of multiple reasons: we want to, we’re able to, we have the energy, and we love the music.
Steve, we are thankful for your commitment to Yes and the current tour. Over the course if years, apart from Yes, you’ve created wonderful solo material. Is there any chance of a retrospective Steve Howe tour in the future? Thank you for this chance to pose questions guys!
The DVD called Steve Howe’s Remedy LIVE is a bit of a take on that idea. It’s available and kind of mellow and very much an arranged musical concept; it’s not so free an improvising, it’s more about structures that I wrote, and I’m pleased that I did it. It features my sons Dylan and Virgil. Virgil’s on keyboards and Dylan’s on drums, and a couple other guys helped us out. There are things in the pipeline that I’m not going to disclose. Any of my solos shows, which I am doing in the UK in June, is, in a way, is a retrospective because I play solo guitar music from my career.
The Grand Scheme of Things contains many nuggets of environmental wisdom and insight (especially “Blinded by Science”). Do you think of yourself as an environmentally conscientious person? And if so, could you please elaborate and share some of your thoughts on issues or topics that you find to be important in this regard? Thanks!
Well, kind of yes and no. On the album, I have voiced my opinions about the environment. Joni Mitchell, in the sixties, said “stop spraying those apples”. And when I became vegetarian, I realized that I was also fighting pharmaceutical interference pesticide interference, and factory farming, and all the things that I don’t like about the world in the way that we consume foods and substances, some of which are not good for us at all. The biggest one of those is sugar, because we’re all brought up to like sugar and it’s really quite poisonous. So I could rant on for ages but I’m not really here to do that, I’m here to do that through my music. I’m not going to get a soapbox and go to Hyde Park corner and start yelling at everybody through a megaphone. That would be tedious. Yeah, I’ve got opinions, everybody’s got opinions; doesn’t mean that I’m going to stick them out there in front of my music and let them interfere. At the appropriate time and the appropriate place, I’m quite able and free to voice my opinion, and I think what I’ve said gives you a general idea. I’m not going to say, as a rant or as some sort of “you must do this people, based on what I say”. I don’t really like that approach. I think people need to find their own way to their own spot and then they’ll like it. I don’t think I want anybody to tell me what to do, but they do, and I don’t like that.
Neil Brewitt @redpola
What’s it like to have kids who are amazing musicians?
That’s a real joy! It’s an endless joy. It’s great to see and play with them. It’s great that their careers have similar paths to mine, and of course we wish them a lot of luck, more luck than they’re having. We’d like them to get opportunities; we’d like Dylan to be playing with Sting, and we could go on with “we’d like this and this idea” but basically their career is their own path, and we’ve been supportive. And they’ve encouraged me by doing what they do; the encouragement is not one way. It’s not just me looking at them and thinking “wow”, which it is. I look at them and they inspire me as much as, maybe even more so, than I’ve helped inspire them. When they were young, we just played music, we didn’t talk about it, we didn’t say “you can’t play that because you don’t know what it is”. We just got an instrument of their choice and we played together and that’s given us a very good rooting for them.
Hi Steve, no questions I can think of right now. Just a huge THANK YOU for continuing to share your gifts and talents with the world, and giving the world timeless, beautiful & powerful music. You have been and always will be my favorite guitarist. A heartfelt thank you from a life-long fan of yours and of Yes.
Thank you very much. That’s very nice, it’s a lovely sentiment, and I am flattered. It’s not going to go to my head and we’re going to keep trying to do the same thing so I hope you like the next phase of my solo work, my trio work and the Yes work.
Next week… Alan White.