Steve Howe: Great Guitars and Great Guitarists

Bruce Lindsay By

Sign in to view read count
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."

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 again—because 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 effects—I 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 it—Martin 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 L5s—it didn't stop at one, I had four at one point. I did some nice recordings—'Wonderous Stories' features the L5—but 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."

Howe name checks guitarists from a wide range of backgrounds, all of which have been key to the development of his style: "Charlie Byrd, a player with a more classical feel, I believe. And Laurindo Almeida, another classical player with jazz connections—I saw him on television last night." This was on a re-run of an episode from a 1964 BBC program, "Jazz 625," which also featured the Modern Jazz Quartet. The presenter, pianist Steve Race, had been extremely dismissive of rock and roll guitarists in his introduction to Almeida, displaying obvious contempt for their abilities and styles, condemning their use of "picks and plectrums" and declaring that finger-style was the only correct way to play the instrument. "Yes, wasn't he terrible?" laughs Howe, "His attitude was already old-fashioned and outdated, even then." Coincidentally, 1964 was the year in which Howe bought his beloved Gibson ES175.

Steve Howe Trio, from left: Ross Stanley, Steve Howe, Dylan Howe

Howe briefly adds flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia to his list of favorites before turning his attention to a contemporary, and occasional playing partner, British guitarist Martin Taylor. "He's a highly individual guitarist," says Howe enthusiastically. "I produced his album Artistry (Linn Records, 1993). We also recorded Masterpiece Guitars (P3 Music, 2002) together, using instruments from Scott Chinery's marvelous collection—we played a few live dates after that as well."

Howe's enthusiasm for music and musicians means that he leaps constantly from one admired artist to another. He reveals that he saw Jaco Pastorius at Montreux Jazz Festival in 1979, describing the performance as "amazing." He also speaks enthusiastically about the occasion when he saw Miles Davis, and the trumpeter's abilities had a very strong influence on Howe's ideas about playing and composing.

"Miles was a father figure of jazz—and Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) is a very important album for me. Along with Gil Evans, Miles took Rodrigo's music to another place. Hearing music re-interpreted in that way made me feel that I could do it, too."

Of all Howe's many references to his favorite musicians during the interview, one memory in particular stands out: seeing guitarist Wes Montgomery playing at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London, when Howe was only 16-years old. "Wes Montgomery was one of the most original jazz guitarists," he declares. "But what I remember most about seeing him at Ronnie's was his smile—his smile was remarkable all night long."

In 2007, Howe joined his son, Dylan, and Hammond organist Ross Stanley to form the Steve Howe Trio. This year will see the Trio taking to the road again to tour the UK, as well as releasing their second album, Traveling (HoweSound Records). Jazz features heavily in the Trio's repertoire, as Howe explains: "Dylan started to play drums when he was about 20. Soon afterwards I invited him to play on a recording with me but he said 'No, not yet,' which impressed me. He wanted to find his own sound before we worked together." Dylan went on to play with a range of bands and musicians including alt-country outfit Wilco and also The Blockheads. Playing with the latter band, Dylan met Israeli-born saxophonist Gilad Atzmon: "Dylan introduced us and subsequently Gilad played on Elements (Inside Out Music, 2003)." Atzmon is a larger-than-life character who greatly impressed Howe: "Yes, you really do get plenty when you work with Gilad" he laughs.

"In 1993, Dylan and I recorded together for the first time and we played together on and off after that. Then, four or five years ago at Christmas, we talked about playing together in a small group. We decided to put together a band to play some of my stuff, some old Yes material and a selection of jazz by guys like Kenny Burrell or Jimmy Smith." A desire to play Jimmy Smith material necessitated the presence of a top Hammond organ player: "Ross Stanley—a hell of a musician. He has a terrific ear, which is really important to me. I don't read or write music, apart from occasional chord charts. All my composing is done in my head, so someone like Ross is very important." The Trio released an album and toured during 2007 and 2008, including Canada. The United States has yet to see the Trio in action but, according to Howe, "it's just a question of time."

Howe and his fellow trio members are always looking to introduce new material into their set. "We've just added two new numbers" he says. "Ross Stanley and me are going to duet on the old Hollies number, 'He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother,' and we've also added a Miles Davis number, 'Tune Up.' There will probably be more additions soon—we want to keep things fresh."

Keeping things fresh after 45 years is no mean feat, but Steve Howe's undeniable enthusiasm for music ensures that he'll carry on doing so for some time to come—with his love of jazz as a vital influence.

Selected Discography

Steve Howe Trio, Traveling (HoweSound, 2010)
Steve Howe Trio, The Haunted Melody (HoweSound, 2008)
Asia, Phoenix (EMI America, 2008)
Steve Howe, Spectrum (Inside Out, 2005)
Steve Howe/Martin Taylor, Masterpiece Guitars (P3 Music, 2004)
Steve Howe's Remedy, Elements (Inside Out, 2003)
Steve Howe, Natural Timbre (Spitfire, 2001)
Yes, Keys To Ascension (Essential Records, 1996)
Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe, An Evening Of Yes Music Plus (Fragile Records, 1993)
Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe, Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe (Arista, 1989)
Asia, Asia (Geffen Records, 1982)
Steve Howe, The Steve Howe Album (Atlantic/WEA, 1979)
Yes, Going For The One (Atlantic, 1977)
Steve Howe, Beginnings (Atlantic/WEA, 1975)
Yes, Tales From Topographic Oceans (Atlantic, 1973)
Yes, The Yes Album (Atlantic, 1971)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Ueli Frey

Pages 2, 3: Bruce Lindsay

Post a comment



Shop Amazon



All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded albums and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, limited reopenings and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary step that will help musicians and venues now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the sticky footer ad). Thank you!

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.