Steve Howe: Great Guitars and Great Guitarists
One of Howe's most famous compositions is a solo instrumental, "The Clap" (The Yes Album), written to celebrate the birth of his son, drummer Dylan Howe. "That's right: I wrote it the night that Dylan was born."
With Howe's love of jazz in mind it's striking how the rhythm is reminiscent of stride piano: "I think you might be picking up on some very subtle things here," Howe suggests, before seeking to correct a misapprehension. "It's called 'Clap'the 'The' was never intended, but Jon [Anderson, Yes vocalist] called it 'The Clap' on the live recording." In fact, on the recording Anderson introduces the piece by saying "This is a song called 'The Clap.'" "Yes, he does," laughs Howe, "and I didn't like it. It's a shame he didn't edit that bit out."
"It was a celebratory experience to write the song on the birth of my first child. As far as influences go, Chet Atkins was quite a driving force at that time. He plays some very jazzy things and I love the overlays and things that he does. So I wrote 'Clap' primarily in a Chet Atkins style." There's another, lost, version of the song that Howe is keen to rediscover: "There's a recording I made at home where I jazzed-up 'Clap.' I took the rhythms and added some jazz elements and found a way of playing it which I'd like to hear againbecause I couldn't re-invent it. There was also a time when I'd play it and I could hear be-bop elements in the timing of some of it."
Howe's distinctive sound was emphasized on stage with Yes by his choice of guitar. While most rock and prog players sported Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, Gibson Les Pauls and SGs, Howe's full-bodied electric-acoustic Gibson gave him visual as well as aural distinctiveness. The visual image resulted from his conscious choice of instrument, as he explains: "After I'd been playing for five years my parents said to me 'You're doing really well, have you thought about going further?' and I thought, 'Now I need a really great guitar.'"
The "great guitar" was the Gibson ES175 that Howe still uses. "The decision to buy that guitar set me on a course" he continues. "By the time I was in Yes I had a Gibson ES5 as well and I started to use multiple guitars of that style. I didn't consider myself to be someone who played solid bodied guitars at that time. It was a conscious decision because I loved the look of the 175. It's here with me today, it's a remarkable instrument and it's helped me to forge an identity as a guitarist with a full sound that isn't reliant on distortion or tremolo or other gadgets. I use the multiple pickups with the groups I play in but when I play with the Trio I only use the front pickup really. I might use another pickup once or twice but for the most part it's the pure front pickup with no effectsI can play like that for the whole evening. This guitar has proved itself to me time and time again."
Howe's love of his 45-year-old ES175 leads him to be very protective of it: "I've been very precious with this guitar. Only a few people have ever played itMartin Taylor has played it, Chuck Berry, one or two friends, that's all. When people do play it, they can't believe how well it plays. And it's true that part of what makes that guitar so good is its playability. But I have done tours without it, using other 175s. And as you pointed out, in 1972 I started buying L5sit didn't stop at one, I had four at one point. I did some nice recordings'Wonderous Stories' features the L5but eventually I found that they weren't for me. In the end, I love the 175 and it's very enjoyable to play possibly the greatest guitar that Gibson ever made."
Outside jazz, Howe's early influences came from the country scene and from the first days of rock and roll. "Bill Haley's guitarist, Franny Beecher, was one of my earliest influences. I think he played a Les Paul Custom." Beecher also has a jazz connection, having played with Benny Goodman in the late 1940s. Of course, many rock and country players were fans of hollow-bodied electric-acoustic guitars: Scotty Moore, Elvis' guitarist, is an obvious example. "Yes, I'm glad you mentioned Scotty Moore. He was a major influence on me, with that country picking kind of style. Chet Atkins as well, of course. And also, I see Hank Garland as almost a link between country and jazz."