On the Mount Olympus of Gibson guitar greats, Yes’ incendiary fretman Steve Howe is an often overlooked six-string god — in part because prog rock isn’t as popular as it was during its 1970s heyday, and in part due to his low-key demeanor. Even while playing licks and lines it would normally take three hot players to cover, Howe seemingly never breaks a sweat or steps too far into the spotlight.
So let’s train the brights on Howe, who turns 64 on April 8, and look at his impressive collection of classic Gibson models and his 10 greatest recorded musical turns with Yes, the band that has remained the foundation of his career since he replace Peter Banks, the group’s first guitarist, in 1970.
Howe’s main musical squeeze has been a Gibson ES-175 since he bought his first one in 1964. “No one was playing archtop hollowbody guitars in a rock band,” Howe told Gibson.com a few years ago. “People laughed at me and thought I was really snooty. To me, it was an object of art, it wasn’t just a guitar.”
Howe’s history as a performer vindicates his perspective, and that was affirmed in 2002 when the Gibson Custom Shop issued a Steve Howe signature model ES-175. The ES-175 debuted in 1949 and was the first Gibson electric to feature a Florentine cutaway beneath the neck for easy access to its 20 frets. The first runs had a single P-90 pickup. In 1953 the first two-P-90 models were produced, and in 1957 dual humbuckers, which Howe prefers, became standard issue.
The Yes man has used a wide variety of Gibsons over the years, including ES-345s and the Les Paul variation known as “The Paul” (built from 1978 to 1982 as a lower-priced model with a walnut body), or, more recently, an ES-335. Occasionally with Yes – on the band’s 2004 35th Anniversary Tour, for example – he’s been spotted with Gibson Les Paul Standards and Les Paul Juniors.
Howe’s guitars were immortalized in a the 1993 book The Steve Howe Guitar Collection, which depicted more than 125 instruments including a vintage Gibson L-5CES, a Gibson Chet Atkins Country Gentleman and many more. That volume provides the best way to feast one’s eyes on his treasure trove, but the best way to feast one’s ears, and dig Howe’s encyclopedia-like hybrid style that melds pick work and fingerpicking, a wide variety of tunings, slide and rock, jazz, classical and country approaches together, is to hear his classic recordings with Yes.
Here’s a list of 10 of Howe’s most skull-spinning performances with the band:
This tune is a good place to start, since its legacy of 40 years of radio play makes it familiar. Howe’s use of harmonics on the intro and his filigreed playing throughout are its signposts, and his steel guitar break screams like a banshee. Ending in E-minor and tagging the tune with an E-major chord doesn’t hurt, either, in making Howe’s trip through “Roundabout” a real journey.
“Starship Trooper” (1971)
The third track of The Yes Album is one of the group’s early suites. The third section, “Wüm,” is mostly Howe’s contribution, built on a G-Eb-C chord progression with layers of electric and acoustic guitar. If you’ve only heard the single that was edited down for radio, based on the Jon Anderson-composed “Life Seeker” section, you’ve never heard the tune’s guitar climax.
“I’ve Seen All Good People” (1971)
On another The Yes Album radio smash, Howe first enters on 12-string lute, but his gentle arrival gives way to explosive rock guitar blasts from his ES-175 as the song progresses to a rave-up finale.
“Siberian Khatru” (1972)
The closer of Close to the Edge is a touchstone for Yes fans. The song is inspired by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and features a blazing, clean-toned solo by Howe at its apex.
“The Revealing Science of God” (1973)
This composition by Howe and singer Jon Anderson, a union that assumed the balance of control in the band by the time it was recorded for Tales From Topographic Oceans, is part of that double-disc’s series of suites and is among their most demanding works for listeners. Howe perfects a textural approach through this album, which mixes majestic performances with spiritual themes and Tolkein-esque playfulness.
“The Gates of Delirium” (1974)
The opening track of Relayer takes up the album’s entire first side and clocks in at 22 minutes, featuring a blazing instrumental section with Howe at the fore, starting at the eight-minute mark.
Going for the One was crafted to be a commercial breakthrough for Yes, but that didn’t stop them from releasing the 15-minute “Awaken” on the disc’s second side. The tune is a showcase for Howe’s abilities as a team player as he moves through ripping ensemble work with bassist Chris Squire and keyboardist Rick Wakeman.
“Going for the One” (1977)
This is arguably Howe’s most overt “rock” recording. The track was an FM radio hit and features Howe’s ripping steel guitar, which moans and glides through dramatic high points.
“Release, Release” (1978)
This is a super-demanding ensemble piece from an album that many Yes fans dismiss as overly commercial – pandering, even – to music-biz success. But in reality, the album features astounding passages of virtuosity. Drummer Alan White claims “Release, Release” was dropped from the group’s live repertoire after only six performances because it required so much energy to execute.
“Machine Messiah” (1980)
Howe took a hiatus from the band after Drama, their 10th album. But before he left, “Machine Messiah” answered hard-core fans’ concern that the group would abandon the long song format. With its 10-and-a-half-minute duration and dark features, the song shows Howe at his virtuosic and textural best.