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Steve Howe: Jazz Guitar…A Central Role In My Life



The iconic Yes guitarist Steve Howe talks to Jazz Guitar Today about his many jazz influences – and about what he is currently up to today.

Steve Howe is brilliant, unique, a true artist and a gentleman.  He has composed, recorded and performed with in one of the most successful, influential, seminal progressive rock bands (Yes) in music history.  His style includes jazz, classical, bluegrass and folk. Please note I didn’t say rock or blues, and he has accomplished all of this on the most unlikely of instruments, the Gibson ES175. Almost all of his tones are of the clean variety void of overdrive distortion that is the mainstay sound of rock guitar… It is so unlikely and hard to believe but there it is on some of the most popular “rock” songs of all time.

While many of his contemporaries are satisfied touring performing the music that made them household names, we salute Steve for continuing to push his boundaries and creating for us all wonderful works of new musical art.  Please enjoy our Steve Howe interview.

Jazz Guitar has been a really central role in that in my life. And certainly my listening pleasure – to fly off with a nice jazz guitar…

Excerpts from the Jazz Guitar Today interview

See full interview above

Homebrew 7 marks the 25th anniversary of Steve’s first album in his Homebrew collection. 

“…as the years have gone by, I picked up many more influences from other people and it’s been fascinating. One of my main guys is Chet Atkins. I mean, really, he’s central to everything I do and everybody else is a branch from Chet.”

“I came up in the Ventures, Shadows, Duane Eddy era – that was my foothold. At first, it was all about those kinds of tunes – the tunes were fairly easy to play but the sound was great. So I got into ‘sound’ and that really did effect my choice of guitarist as well, in jazz. A lot of great players, but some of them have the unique sound that goes with it.”

Steve’s first Django record

A guy where I lived said to me one day, “I’ve got this record – I don’t want it anymore – you can have it for five quid.” I said, what is it is? He said, “a 10 inch by Django Reinhardt – you won’t believe it.” I had heard the name and I knew there was something about it. So I bought it and played it – a lot! And I thought, wow, these jazz players are way ahead – it’s ridiculous. 

An early influence, Kenny Burrelland an influence with his current trio.

“So what happened was I got the Django record and then I started doing my own sort of research, which was led me on to Jim Hall and Kenny Burrell. They were a couple of the guys that I found pretty early on and I love Kenny’s sound. I play Kenny’s sound in my trio (The Steve Howe Trio with his son Dylan on drums). So I’ll do that. It was my dream to play this kind of stuff.”

Steve – You can’t erase Wes from my life because he’s so important. He’s so wonderful. 

“Then Wes Montgomery came along… when I first heard Wes, it was like, “oh my God, what is going on here”.  You know, the octaves, the flying around that he did was so beautiful, but the warmth of his sound…Low and behold, when I was only 16 – I’d only been playing for 4 years – I’m sitting in Ronnie Scott’s and this smiling guitarist comes out of the dressing room – everybody’s head turned. He had this radiant smile, radiant!  He sat down (I think) with the Stan Tracey Trio. And he starts playing.  Well, I already had a few of his albums, so I knew what to expect…”

“But Wes, like Chet Akins, is irremovable from my life. You can’t erase Wes from my life because he’s so important. He’s so wonderful.”

“So by the time that 16, I’d played for years and everybody was talking Rock & Roll. I was walking around thinking to myself, I want to get an ES-175. So when I was 17, just a year later, I got a 175. People said, what are you going to play that guitar? You know, it’s for jazz. And I said, well, okay, I’m going to play rock and roll or anything I want on it. And I found that guitar so versatile – it’s never held me back.”

Steve’s first solo album in 1975 – playing his ES-175 among other guitars.

“But like I said to the very beginning, everybody relates back to Charlie Christian.”

Charlie Christian

“There is no way Wes, Tal, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, etc.  These guys most probably would’ve never existed if we hadn’t had Charlie Christian. That is definitely the way I feel about it. And then there was Hank Garland and other guitarist like Howard Roberts and Charlie Byrd on the classical guitar. All these guys had some sort of role for me, some sort of excitement – like buying a new guitar. Finding a new guitarist was equally creative and exciting.”

…along came Martin Taylor, from Scotland. We basically hit if off from the start.”

The 1990 kind of frighteningly difficult album called Union by Yes.”

“When I released ‘Masquerade’, which was in 1990 on the kind of frighteningly difficult album called Union by Yes. Arista Records asked me to contribute a solo. So I played them three on a tape and they picked ‘Masquerade’ –  which is a solo 12 string guitar piece. Well, Martin Taylor said to me sometime after we met, “I would like you to produce me because when I heard ‘Masquerade’ – that was the sound!”  So I produced his album called ‘Artistry,’ which has started a lifelong friendship and respect for each other.”

Martin Taylor’s Artistry produced by Steve Howe

Masterpiece Guitars – Steve Howe & Martin Taylor

“A rare kind of obscure record and was very exciting development for Martin and I to play together on somebody else’s guitars. Scott Chinnery at the time had a collection of 750 guitars. So we basically picked about 50 of them to record on a record.”

Masterpiece Guitars – Steve Howe and Martin Taylor

Reflecting on the classic Yes song, “Roundabout” –

“Well, one of the things that really opened that up was it was the first time I said, “I think I’ll play some of this on an acoustic guitar”. Normally, the acoustic guitar strums in the background and adds that wonderful depth to the sound or you play on your own. But basically, I was kind of replacing my 175 or as it was at that time, the ES-5 Switchmaster. I kind of took that out in the frame and put the folk guitar, the Martin 0018, out in the front. I thought, wow, this is risky… I don’t know that anybody will know who it is playing because I could start to feel my electric playing had a certain style, but never had I stuck my neck out so much as to have Bruford, Squire, Rick Wakeman, Jon Anderson all playing, and all I’m doing is playing the acoustic guitar. Yeah. It was adventurous and the risk paid off.”

If you haven’t heard this classic album for awhile, you should definitely give it a listen. Great guitar work – along other things

The Steve Howe Trio

Steve formed the band in 2007 with his son Dylan Howe on drums and Ross Stanley on Hammond organ.

2019 studio album by the Steve Howe Trio with his son Dylan Howe on drums and Ross Stanley on Hammond organ.

For the full Steve Howe Jazz Guitar Today interview

You can always find out more about Steve Howe and what he is up to at his website.

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