CRR archive interview by Eric Sandberg — Steve Howe of Yes
For anyone who spends time on this site, Steve Howe should need no introduction. Suffice it to say that Steve is a guitarist's guitarist. His versatility, originality eclecticism and mastery of his instrument(s) are the stuff of legend. Though known as a guitarist, Steve is a composer, songwriter, oft uncredited lyricist and a devoted family man. As Steve prepares to embark on a summer tour with Yes, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band, Steve took a few minutes to speak with me from his home in the west of England.
Eric: It is an honor to speak to you. If you will indulge me for just a moment, I am compelled to tell you that I have been an admirer of yours for over forty-five years. I've avidly followed your exploits with three very successful bands as well as your prolific solo work. You've really been a part of my family for a big chunk of my life.
Steve Howe: That's really nice of you to say that. I'm pleased to hear that you've been listening so much.
Eric: Yes is back out on tour this summer, celebrating 50 years since the band began. Over the past several years you have been doing the album tours which have gone over very well. This last live album you released, Topographic Drama, is really terrific. The band sounds tight. How are you going to approach the setlist for this tour?
SH: Well we're not giving that away until, obviously, the very first night. Basically we are selecting from things we know how to play, some things we're learning how to play and some things we're going back to play.
Eric: And you've got Tony Kaye (founding keyboardist) playing with you on this tour?
SH: That's right. He's our special guest. He's going to come on in the encore phase and play some things with us. We've got quite a big encore section at the end of the show and Tony's going to be there. It's great. We did it a little of that on the Cruise To The Edge in February and it worked, so it's a tried and tested formula. And Patrick Moraz is going to join us in Philadelphia and here and there, if he can. I don't know if he can yet, but he wants to. Trevor Horn is going to join us as well and do a special piece of music at some point.
Eric: You've been touring for fifty years now, and I imagine you have it down to a science. I remember reading about an incident some years ago where much of your equipment was damaged during a tour and you had to scramble to replace it. I've seen you since then with Yes and Asia and I was amazed at how simple and uncluttered your backline was. Just a pedal board and one amp. Can you talk a little about the gear you're using these days?
SH: In the very early days I always had a volume pedal because I played a full-bodied guitar and I wanted something that gave me a bit of control. I like the way they allow you to mute the guitar on attack. Then also out comes the Fuzz Box, so I had these things on the floor. When I realized that we were going to be touring so much I invented my own idea of a pedal board which got bigger and bigger with Asia and by the time of GTR I had twenty-four switches on my pedal board, plus we had effects racks...it was a ton of stuff.
It continued for a bit like that, with two Fender Twins behind me. When Yes stopped in 2004 and I didn't really do anything until 2006, when I got back with Asia, I thought, maybe there's another way. Maybe I should look into programming. About that time, Line 6 had come out with an amp called the Vetta II which came with a pedal board and all the effects were in the amp. Then Line 6 got really clever a few years later and came out with the HD-500, a really small pedal board where all the sounds were being made, not in the amp.
So I'm kind of done using the Vetta amp. I've got one amp, a small pedal board and everything happens. I just press the button for a song title, I have a selection of sounds, usually four, that I need to play that song. When I press, say, "Yours Is No Disgrace" the first sound I need is for the start of the song and the next one is the second sound, and the third sound and I can go back and forth as I need to. They're always creating the right texture at the appropriate time. This is what I am really enjoying about playing live shows is this programming that allows me to recreate the sounds that were on the records.
To my ears, that really helps me a lot when I'm playing the parts when it's actually got the sounds that I want to hear. Instead of pressing a selection of independent boxes, and you have to press three of them to get the next sound, that's over. I stopped doing that in 2004. Since 2006 I've adopted digital technology.
And now Helix just came out last year, which is another innovation from Line 6 so I've been using Helix and it's even better. It's going to get even better this year because now we understand Helix more. So we're using a Line 6 Bogner amp, a Helix pedal board and that's it, nothing else at all. We've got spare amps and spare pedal boards and about ten guitars, which makes it nice.
Eric: I imagine if you told me which guitars you were bringing I could begin to guess what might be on the setlist...
SH: (Chuckles) Yeah. That's right.
Eric: Do you still bring "Mr. Gibson" (1964 Gibson ES-175) on the road with you?
SH: It's been a while since I've taken the original. I've still got that wonderful guitar and I use it a lot myself, but I don't take it out of the country because it always travels with me. Airlines have gotten so messed up about guys with guitars. It used to be that you could buy a seat if you needed to and they would give you a boarding pass for your guitar, but now they only give boarding passes to people.
You can't buy a seat for it anymore. So if you can take it on, usually they're fine once you get it onto the plane. But before that it can be a real wrestle. It's actually against the law to stop me carrying my own tool of the trade. We won't go there (Laughter).
I've got another ES-175 from the same year, 1964. So that is one of the ten guitars, and I've got a spare of that one (the Steve Howe model) because it's such an important guitar. It just goes on from there, steels, acoustics, different things.
Eric: There was a fairly recent Twitter drama where Dave Davies was reporting that an airline took his guitar away from him before boarding and he was quite distraught about it. The Twitterverse was all a twitter about, "How could you do this to a legend?" Fortunately, he got it back intact.
SH: I'm pleased to hear that. I know Dave and we've both now had that experience and it's typical...typical.
Eric: When I was studying for my MBA, I had to create a fictional project to demonstrate my ability to utilize Microsoft Project and I centered the whole thing on the idea that Mr. Gibson had a close call with a clumsy studio engineer and you had sent it to the Gibson Custom Shop where they would measure and study it in order to create an exact replica. I got an A plus!
SH: Well done! That's interesting. You know that's kind of what happened. The idea was to create a Steve Howe 175, but they only got so far when it comes to replicating it. Nobody today can make a guitar like they did in 1964. They can try, and have some luck.
Eric: OK, let's address the elephant in the room. There are two bands touring this summer going by the name of Yes. I honestly look at your outfit as being the one that holds the straight line from 1968 until now. Of course there are some negative people out there that have their slogans about what constitutes Yes.
The current Yes really has more pedigree than many people give it credit for. You have Alan White, who is the only living member who has never left the band, Geoff Downes goes back to 1980, Billy Sherwood has been involved with the band for decades and Jon Davison sounds fantastic. He has really grown into the role. And, of course, there is your guitar style, which cannot be replicated by anybody out there.
I imagine you tune all that out, but I wish people would be mature and just be grateful that there is so much Yes activity going on. People should accept that, after fifty years, the song remains the same but people come and go out of necessity.
SH: When ABWH went out, Bill, Rick and I basically wanted to carry on being called ABWH. We weren't really interested in being called Yes, but there was a contingent in the band and the management that very much encouraged us to rejoin Yes. Actually, the three of us ended up with nothing. That lineup didn't continue after Union so we lost everything.
ARW (Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman) came out and they justified their existence. They're ARW. Nobody can deny them the right to do that. Now there's a bit of game playing going on, adding that particular thing. I don't know if they are going to make things more interestingly confusing by calling it quintessential Yes.
It's up to them what they do. They're free, we're free. We're tolerant and they're tolerant. Hopefully, people won't go around saying "We don't like those guys." We never said that. We want to be sharing and positive about everything we can generate, which I think is important.
If the fans have got a choice, now, to see different versions of things, then so be it. I can't see a problem.
Eric: I remember seeing Yes on that last tour in 2004, with Jon and Rick, and there was a moment during the show, I forget which song, but suddenly there was this backlit stage behind Alan and there was somebody's wife, banging on a tambourine and dancing to the music (Steve chuckling in the background). My friend looked at me and said "That sure looks like a compromise!" You start thinking about Spinal Tap and, when you get to a certain point in your career; you just don't want to have to deal with things like that.
SH: Not if you can help it. No (Laughter).
Eric: I've got one last question that I have been sitting on for about forty years and I want to know if you remember this. It was the Tormato tour, In the Round, at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. You guys were about twenty bars away from wrapping up "Awaken" when this 6' 5' hillbilly in overalls sauntered up onto the stage and grabbed Jon from behind in a bear hug. The music stopped, the lights went up and dozens of people poured onto the stage...they were popping out of the floor...but no one could get that guy to release Jon.
All you could see was a crowd of people with the assailant's head poking out because he was taller than everybody. After a few minutes, I saw a Billy club come down on the guy's head and they dragged him away. Rick helped Jon collect himself, the lights went down and then it was "High vibration go on..."
SH: In a hazy way I might. I don't particularly remember that incident, but it may be because I didn't want to remember it. There are things that happened and each one was unique. Sometimes it was a girl running up, or a guy...people worried. We needed to worry. It's not clever when people decide to take advantage of that situation. So we have to watch out.
There is a level of that that isn't acceptable when people try to engage with us at the front of the stage. That does happen at quite a few shows where people are really making their presence felt instead of being part of the audience and listening to the show.
Eric: Just be glad that Saturday Night Live never did a comedy sketch about Yes. They did a sketch where Blue Oyster Cult was recording "Don't Fear the Reaper" and Christopher Walken was their producer who kept demanding more cowbell on every take. Now, wherever they go play, some clowns are always up in front of the stage banging on cowbells.
SH: That must be just dreadful for them. Worse than the Beatles having jellybeans thrown at them!
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.