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Steve Howe: Great Guitars and Great Guitarists

Bruce Lindsay By

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Steve Howe has been a major figure in contemporary music for over 40 years. He first came to international prominence with Yes; he's a key figure in rock supergroup Asia; and his distinctive guitar style makes him one of the most recognizable players on the scene. His love of jazz is less well-known but it has been a crucial part of his life since he was a teenager. His work with the Steve Howe Trio now gives him a chance to interpret some of his favorite jazz compositions. Jazz musicians, composers and guitars have inspired much of his work, and his enthusiasm came across loud and clear during this telephone interview.



"I'm in the studio at the moment, recording a new album with Asia," says Howe, as he finds a quiet corner where he can relax and talk. In his biography on Guitar Rondo, his website, Howe talks of buying a Gibson L5 guitar in 1972 and immediately going home to record a Wes Montgomery tune. Clearly, his love of jazz was already established at that point but it goes back even earlier, as he explains: "A long way before that, actually. I got my Gibson 175 guitar in 1964—actually I'm playing it today, in the studio—and it's fundamentally a jazz guitar. I use it with the Steve Howe Trio. I got it because I was particularly keen on the sound of Kenny Burrell. I took the guitar home and plugged it into a Fender amplifier and was thrilled to think that it sounded like him."

Howe's earliest exposure to jazz resulted from the advice of his brother and sister, who were determined that the young Howe should broaden his musical experiences. He began playing guitar in 1959 at the age of 12, playing pop tunes like many other youngsters at the time.

"It was only after about two years of playing that jazz started to creep in. After a couple of years of putting up with me being a beginner pop and rock guitarist my brother and sister got really fed up with me and they said look, this stuff you're listening to is really no good, this is what you should be listening to. They pointed me to jazz first of all and then to classical, to great guitarists that they wanted me to listen to."

"The first jazz guitarist I really heard was Django Reinhardt. A chap who lived across the road from me was selling a 10-inch album with just a guitar string pictured on the cover—when he played me the record I just said, 'I'll buy it off you.' When I got into more mainstream jazz guitarists the first one I heard was Barney Kessel. I thought he was fantastic—I love his Poll Winners albums with Shelly Manne and Ray Brown. When I heard Kenny Burrell, I really did think 'Wow': this was all about me having building blocks to a real knowledge of jazz guitar. Tal Farlow was another favorite, and Joe Pass, who I saw play live."

"In 1972, when I got the Gibson L5 guitar— maybe it's a bit of a silly thing to say—but I realized that there is much more to jazz than jazz guitar. I saw it much more broadly—I started to see the effect that Gil Evans had on Miles Davis, for example. I think that I'm a bit of a sponge musically, I absorb a lot of different musical influences, but it's funny how jazz has occupied a bigger space in my life as time has gone on."

Forty or fifty years as a jazz fan has given Howe a lot of time to absorb the music's influence—in what ways has it influenced his playing? "I think it comes back to sound ... What got me about jazz guitar was how much I liked the sound. I like the sound of all guitars, to be honest, but when I heard jazz guitar my ears tweaked to those kinds of textures. Barney Kessel would have a very acoustic sound. Kenny Burrell was more electronic and how he cared for that sound was fantastic: I'm sure he produced that sound consistently through his career, his guitar really does carry that sound. So I got interested in sounds, really to the point where I can recognize a lot of guitarists within a few seconds of hearing them. I loved seeing these people playing as well—it wasn't just about sitting at home listening to the records. Some of these people I was too late to see, of course. Hank Garland, another favorite, retired quite early [after a car accident] so, sadly, I never got the chance to see him on stage."

"That jazz sound is something I would try to get, even on the early Yes albums in the 1970s. You can hearing me switch to the front pickup, maybe even have the tone off—on Tales From Topographic Oceans (Atlantic, 1973) for example. I kept getting Yes to buy into me being able to play bits of jazzy music: there's some on 'Perpetual Change' and 'Yours Is No Disgrace' on The Yes Album (Atlantic, 1971), which was the first album I did with the band. There's also country picking—I'm in no way a purist—but jazz guitar has a very special sound, something that's continually remarkable to me."

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