It took little more than an effortless, chiming 12th fret harmonic for guitarist Steve Howe to mesmerize the world. But the simplicity of that opening guitar riff to "Roundabout", the classic gem from the breakthrough 1972 Yes album, Fragile (and probably his most well-known recorded track), belies the monstrous talent many early Yes and Howe fans had already recognized.
Fragile was the bands fourth album and introduced new keyboardist Rick Wakeman, not to mention cover artist Roger Dean, whose dreamscape, sci-fi illustrations became synonymous with the groups adventurous music. The nine-track platter made Yes the progressive rock band of the era and, with solo cuts like the flamenco-tinged fingerpicking workout "Mood For a Day", marked then-24-year-old Howe as a genre-hopping virtuoso.
Three decades have done little to diminish that perception. If in doubt, check out any of the two-dozen-plus Yes releases, the 15 discs by Asia (the supergroup Howe formed in 1981 with John Wetton of King Crimson, and Carl Palmer and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) or any of Howe's 15 solo discs. The glory days may be past for the thinking mans rock band, as one prominent rock magazine branded Yes in the pre-punk '70s, but Howe continues to thrill guitarists and non-playing fans alike.
As Yes prepare a new album and ready for a tour, Howe sat down in front of the Guitar.com cameras to discuss his most recent solo album, Homebrew 2, his songwriting and demoing techniques, and the legendary guitarists who still inspire him to this day. And we've spiced up our four video interviews with footage from the March, 1996, Yes reunion concert in San Luis Obispo, California, the live shows recorded for the groups successful Keys to Ascension albums.
Guitar.com: Steve, Yes is working on a new disc and preparing for a tour this summer. In addition to that, what have you been working on and what has kept you inspired lately?
Steve Howe: Well, Homebrew 2 is the most recent thing I've released. I make music more or less because I like to, you know. And I don't specify when or what it's for. I just kind of get things down. So, recording as I do in my electric studio, which is mainly set up more like a sort of a Les Paul studio than a rock studio it's just set up around what I do. I make these tapes, and I sit on them, and then somebody hears them and says, "Oh I like that." Let's put that on this record and let's collaborate.
So Homebrew 2 was trying to describe very accurately how this music sort of started, and the idea that I record it, and then sort of shelve it until such time as it looks like part of something else. And I get collaborated on most famously with Jon Anderson, which is always a pleasure. Homebrew 2 touches quite wholly on Keys to Ascension, so that was the Yes reference. And then I'd throw in something maybe from the '70s as well some old recording.
But, what I'm looking for is, I dont want to put out tack, Im not interested in doing that. I like to put out things that help explain my music, my writing approach. And occasionally, like on the first volume of Homebrew, that album was partly about my lyrical work as well, because that gets quite concealed. You know, for those that want to look at what was written, obviously they might see that I've written certain things that they might've thought were written by others. In other words, I add lyrics to my music, usually. And if it becomes a song, then some of my lyrics might stay. So, it's quite intriguing for me to be able to get the opportunity to say, hey, this is how I saw it. It's a very fulfilling thing.
Guitar.com: So do a lot of your demos sit unheard?
Howe: Sure a demo, most demos, are put in a bin and never heard. And I felt that there was something lacking in that direction for me. As far as my tapes having hours of work on them, quite knitfully constructed on 8-track. Sometimes they're very elaborate things, other times very simple things. So, Homebrew is a continuing story of the way I write and the way I record at my own leisure, and it gets grouped together later.
Guitar.com: When you say that Homebrew 2 is based on Keys to Ascension, you mean that Homebrew 2 looks at the musical thoughts that we're going on as you were writing that material especially the newer material that came out on that album?
Howe: Exactly. It's just the studio tracks I'm referring to; it says that on the CD. The studio tracks from Keys were written at a time when I hadn't been writing with the guys, at that time, at all. They'd done Talk; Union was another story altogether. And therefore, it seems that when I was putting together Homebrew 2 it was nice, again, to have an essential theme. I think about seven of the tracks are the tapes that the guys heard and said, "Oh yeah well stick that in this song," or I said," Lets put this in there." Sometimes they didn't use all the piece, or sometimes we changed the piece so much. Because most of Homebrew 2 is instrumental, it's only three songs out of the whole CD. So, that instrumental work, obviously sometimes I think I get it better when I get it at home, you know when I'm sitting there playing, Oh this is a nice idea, I'll do this. The band comes along and says, "Hey we like this, let's play it." And sometimes I'm thinking, "Ummm, nobody really noticed that the bass did this, or that the keyboards did that, or why didnt we keep that separate percussion?" So it's not a get-back, it's more of a fun thing to clarify.
Guitar.com: When you lay down your tracks at home, you put down guitar, bass, drums, keyboards?
Howe: Well, there's nothing I've ever done that's really exactly the same as the way I did it before. But, often if I'm doing a demo, the tempo is the first thing I establish. I tend not to like to put down a kick drum. I like to put down a click and start playing to that click, venting the ideas that will make the arrangement work. So, I've done it all different ways. I've started with a drum machine, starting with all these intricate patterns where I've done fade parts of this and that and then adjusted the tempo. I drove myself crazy and then hated it later, anyway. So my drums, at the studio, are always going, you know. They're just an idea. They might even be just a click but I'll add everything very tightly to that click, imagining, in my head, where I'm going to have this, where I'm going to have that.
So, it's really hands-on, non-computer, non-sequenced. All my music is played [manually]. And that's most probably a good side of the fact that I'm not really hands-on with computers and technology. I'm a bit lagging behind, but I guess the thing I like about it is, I'm not interested in what it sounds like in the end. I'm not really interested. I mean from a production point of view, I'm very interested if it's in time, and it's in tune -- the two Ts. And also most probably the feeling. So, sure I could probably make even more music, if I'm sitting there with something like that. But I'm happy with the way I work; it's within my means. It allows me to be completely independent. And I guess working in bands, as I have done since 1962 or something when the Syndicate started, all that time except a few occasional years Ive been in a band working with people, compromising my ideas, trying to get them to compromise their ideas so it can be more like we want it to be.
Guitar.com: What have you learned from the producers and engineers and your fellow bandmates in the recording studio?
Howe: Everybody I've worked with teaches me something and is doing something with the guitar that I hadn't thought of yet and you always think you've thought of everything. And of course, you haven't because there's just a zillion tricks. And there are the tricks of the trade, I like to call them, more than trickery. So, I always had this thing in my mind, when I was a kid, that whatever my trade was I would learn all the tricks of it, you know that was my mentality. You know, can I get into something in my life that I can really learn about. I guess the guitar, even when I was just fiddling with it and fantasizing, I didn't know that it was necessarily going to be it straight away. But I suppose, by the time I started making records, I started to think, "Yeah, this is it." This is everything that I want to do now.
I think once I got in the studio because I played live in rehearsal and in my bedroom, I heard people say, "Shut up! Will you stop playing that thing?!" And I think if you're going to be a musician, that has to be like water off a ducks back because at all times in your career you'll meet the reverse psychology. You'll meet people who say, I don't like this, take it off. And I think you have to learn to be non-precious but there again, true to your idea, as much as you can get. So, studio work is most probably a kind of saving grace with touring. If you just toured all the time, I think you'd go completely mad. And maybe if you just made records, youd never know why you make records because these are the people who buy them. I'm looking at them every night and that in a way is fulfilling for me as an artist, to be dualistic like that. To have had some success with records and some success with touring. So I like that that's rewarding, that's the result. If people ask, "What was the best thing that happened, what was the biggest thing that ever happened? Was it this award, was it that gold album?" I just think it's not any of those sort of earmarked moments. It's really the result of your work thats satisfying.