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.
Steve, what did you feel yesterday in Lima with Your fans singing all of your songs? Did you expect such reception? How do you feel was the crowd yesterday?
We were pleased with reaction that the fans had, and certainly singing along with us is a nice thing that they do, and we made a very nice start in South America at the show, so thanks very much.
At the very end of the fade out of A Venture from The Yes Album one can hear the start of a blistering electric guitar solo just before the song ends. How much longer was A Venture originally, and is there any chance of the full version being released one day?
Good question! I don’t remember how much longer it went on. The guitar break did start to happen but I can’t remember if it was really good high-quality. One day we might be able to look at the end of that, but I guess you must have turned it up quite loud to be able to hear that start of the guitar break. But it’s a nice balance, and we faded it at a good place.
Lee Edward McIlmoyle
It’s almost ridiculous to ask this, but is there a musical instrument you’d still like to master?
Yeah, there is. It’s funny, but I’d really like to play the flute, but it may not happen; it may be too distracting to try and play a new instrument; it’s a totally different world, you know: breath control, the way you use the buttons on the flute, but concert flute is a lovely sound. I’m a big fan of Jean-Pierre Rampal, he’s French and I think he may have died a while ago, but he recorded all of Bach’s flute sonatas, which is one of my favorite pieces of music. So I’ve always loved the flute; it’s a very close instrument to the voice, but technically and breath control-wise … I’ve tried twice, but I haven’t yet succeeded.
Liz Lewis Joseph
Do you still practice each day in spite of the fact that you are an uber-poly-virtuoso??? (I made up that awkward term, obviously!!!)
I never usually practice every day in the general context of the word, but I like to improvise. Certainly after a tour, I do like three or four days off when I don’t play. But then I realize that I need to keep in trim and keep up to speed, and my hands seem to like if I just keep playing and actually don’t stop for weeks, because it’s not very good for me to stop playing. So I like to get back to the guitar with a short break if I’ve got some time off, then I play the guitar several times a week, and I might be working on music for several days within that week by playing or constructing or writing, so I’m usually around the guitar quite consistently. But I’ve never done the long, arduous scales; they’d be good for me, but it’s better for me to improvise.
Your unique plectrum you use – can you talk about and show it? Anything out there like it?
Back from the 60s to about the late 80s, I was using very unique plectrums, but then I started to run out of them, and couldn’t find anybody who could make them; they were made of plexi-plastic stuff. Ronson Lighters used another form of plastic in advertising in chemists or drugstores for Ronson Lighter Fuel, and that plastic is like pinky-red and I used to have plectrums made out of that. But in the last twenty years I’ve simplified things, and I’ve been using a plectrum either light, or if I can get hold of them, the Fender medium-hard plectrum—medium in the sense that it’s medium thick. There are different sizes of them; I don’t use the small one. And now recently, a company has been making some for me, which are more or less the same. They’re kind of heart-shaped, more regular kind of plectrums. The thing about plectrums – if you want a bright sound, then don’t use a thick, heavy plectrum. If you want a warm sound, then use something thicker than the regular plastic pick.
Hi Steve, I noticed your live show ES175 sports a middle pickup. What prompted the modification, and how often do you get to that middle pickup? On which songs can we hear that middle pickup?
That guitar is the Gibson ES-175D Steve Howe. it’s actually the Number One model, the first one they ever made of the production line. I later had it modified with the middle pickup because it simulates a guitar I have called the ES-5 Switchmaster that I used more or less throughout Fragile. So if we do Fragile, I will definitely use that guitar. The time when the texture of that three pickup combination is really noticeable is on the song Long Distance Runaround. It’s also on Roundabout, South Side of the Sky, I think it’s on Five Percent For Nothing, but it’s not on Heart of the Sunrise. But going back to the guitar I modified, I modified it so it could copy the ES-5 Switchmaster sound, mainly for Long Distance Runaround. But that is a stand-by guitar now, because I now use a 1963 ES-175D that has a slimmer neck. It’s slightly lighter, and obviously it’s an early 60s guitar, so it has a nice characteristic sound.
Hi, Steve! Apart from being the most innovative all-around guitar player I have heard, you have, in my opinion, incomparable solo-writing abilities. The guitar solo is as much a staple of rock music as anything else, but yours seem to raise a middle finger to all the rules and conventions. My favourite one of yours is the outro to Ritual. I am wondering how that part was written. Who came up with the dark, dreamy chords? How did you approach the composition of the solo?
Interesting question, because the end solo in Ritual was a structure that the group together sat around and dreamed up this kind of moving chord sequence that never really got back to anywhere. Eventually it ends; everything has to [laughs] — but this chord sequence goes round and round; it’s really quite hard to remember. What I originally did, was play a quite jazzy sort of improvisation across it, and much to my surprise and slight horror at the time — this was obviously 1973 — I got a bit of a thumbs-down from a couple of the band members, who said to me “hang on…” And I said, “That’s how I saw it…” I think Jon Anderson said to me “Since it’s the end of Topographic Oceans, why don’t you pick the different themes from the album and play them?” And I said “yeah, that makes sense, let me do that.” So that’s what I constructed. The whole solo made up of themes used in the previous sides of Topographic Oceans, and I just kind of wander from one to another; stating them. Basically, that’s how it came out – a rejected jazzy improvisation turned into a more concise, more thematic approach. So now I split my solos when I am choosing to do a guitar solo, whether or not it needs to be thematic, whether or not it needs to draw from the music that already exists, or whether I can just go off on my own.
I consider Relayer to be one of the greatest Yes albums, not only for the level of playing and writing, but also for the quality of the recording. It stands up to almost anything done currently with digital technology, IMO. How did the band achieve such an amazing sound?
Well it is surprising that that record sounds good, because we went about it quite an experimental way. Chris lived in a place called Virginia Water, I think it had a basement or garage that he’d started to convert into a studio, and Eddie Offord had mobile equipment. We’d been rehearsing and thinking about making Relayer and we came up with the idea of putting Eddie’s gear in Chris’ house and going down there. So it was really risky; sonically it could have been horrendous, but in fact, Eddie was great and we got the sounds we wanted. It was a little bit of a makeshift but we got in there and we started recording. What we did in those days – the way the mix was done — was that there might be one member missing, but most members would be with Eddie at the desk, he would be at the center. He would be in control, but we’d all push our faders as we liked [laughs] and we’d argue about it and Eddie would say “Chris, if you put the bass up, Steve’s going to put the guitar up, you know…” and he’d kind of steer us through. It was a fascinating process — something we did on YesSongs and all the albums we made, really up until I left the group after Drama. Drama was done pretty much the same way, although due to unforeseen circumstances Trevor Horn and I got a bit ‘left holding the baby’ to mix it. But Relayer was a brilliant album, we did songs that we haven’t played for years; Gates of Delirium, of course, came back as the big challenge — the big Masterwork, really.
You played a guitar solo on Queen’s song, Innuendo. How did that come to fruition, and was it fun to do a session with them?
Well, of course it was fun to do a session for them. It was joy! How it happened was that I was working with Paul Sutin at his studio in a place called Gland in Switzerland, near Geneva, and just for fun I’d gone to Montreux for lunch, which was a long drive, over an hour and a half drive, but I like Montreux, I like to go back there sometimes. I was just sitting there in a restaurant, and one of the crew walked by spotted me and he invited me back to the studio where we’d recorded Going For the One, so I said “yeah, I’d love to come if the guys are there.” So, after lunch I go in, and they played me the album, and the last track they played me was Innuendo. So when it ended, I said “Fantastic album! Really great! Loved it!” And they said “yeah, but we’d like you to play on that last one”. And I said “you don’t need me; Brian’s done a great job; you’ve got lovely things on there.” And they said “no, we want you to play this bit here…” So I said “what do you want me to do” and they said “just for something… just improvise …”. I think one of the ideas, I think Brian and I agreed that Paco de Lucia at that time was playing some great flamenco guitar, and basically Brian said “I don’t really get going like that on the Spanish guitar, can you do something?” So that’s what I did, I kind of raved around, improvised a bit. I really enjoyed it. I went out to dinner with Queen after that; had some nice conversations with Freddie and everybody was just sweet as pie. And that’s how it was; it was lovely.
Read previous #askYES Q&As here.
Next week… Alan White.