Steve Hackett in 1976 (photo by Alan Perry)
Steve Hackett is one of the most revered guitarists in the rarified realm of art rock.
The former Genesis and GTR six-stringer – who also has more than 25 solo albums on his resume – is a world-class Gibson Les Paul slinger whose sensibility has always valued sound and texture over notes and technique. Nonetheless, his talent as a musical technician is estimable and includes innovative work in tapping and in employing sustaining technology for the guitar.
“I guess I’m a purist at heart, still longing for pure sound,” Hackett relates over the phone from his home in England, where much of his new album, collaboration with Yes bass player Chris Squire, was recorded. Exhibiting a shared sense of humor, Hackett and Squire call their new project Squackett, and the title of Squackett’s debut A Life Within a Day reflects the disc’s Zen-like approach.
Although it’s song-based, the album exhibits Hackett’s and Squire’s mutual taste for expansive sonic topography, but as on classic Hackett solo albums like 1979’s Spectral Mornings, the music mostly evolves at a much gentler and harmonically rich pace than Yes’ or Genesis’ historic recordings. (For the record, Hackett joined Genesis before 1971’s Nursery Cryme and departed after 1977’s live Seconds Out.)
At times A Life Within a Day
sounds like Brian Eno’s 1970s experiments with ambient music cross-pollinated by Eastern melodicism and the wild streaks in Hackett’s and Squire’s craft. Typically of Hackett’s work, the disc extends well beyond the reach of pop, striving for and succeeding as art.
We began by speaking about his relationship with the Gibson Les Paul, an instrument that has fascinated him since childhood.
On your website, you’ve got two Les Pauls prominently displayed under the heading “These are a few of my favourite things…”: a ’57 Gold Top and a modified sunburst Custom. You also used several Les Paul Custom Black Beauties during your early years with Genesis.
In the early days of Genesis I had two Les Paul Customs stolen within two weeks of each other. And down the line there was another one stolen. But then when you consider that Eric Clapton lost that fabulous Les Paul that he played on the “Beano” album… I could cry when I think of that.
I’ve loved Gibsons and loved Les Pauls and I still do. For a guitar to be really magical, especially when you’re young, it has to be something that you first heard in the hands of another player. For me, the Les Paul’s tortured cry, but it’s strength as well, spoke to my heart and gave me the strength to carry on. That voice tells you you’re going to get over that girlfriend and carry on, especially after you’ve had a few beers.
When I first picked one up, the weight of it, the neck, the feel, the look… all those things. I just couldn’t believe it. When I was in my teens staring at shop windows and I could see Les Pauls and Marshall amps for sale, my take at the time was anyone who owned that equipment had already made it. They had the magic wand. You knew the guitar could do it all.
I can’t fully describe all the magical things hearing the Les Paul did for me, but it just seemed the epitome of excitement – and young excitement as well. I thrilled to the sound of it and knew it was my life. It was oxygen. It was fire. It was everything I wanted to be. It was what I was made for, and it was made for me.
How do you get such incredible sustain? It’s been a signature of your playing for decades.
In the early days, technology was pretty hit and miss. With Genesis it was a matter of turning up the amps. If you stood in rough proximity to the amp you’d sustain something, although not necessarily the right note. It would work nine times out of 10, but the one time it would let you down would probably be live.
Then the E-bow came along and you could hold that over the strings of your guitar and sustain notes with that. The E-bow is still a very useful device. You just need one plectrum stroke or a hammer-on to get it going. You can arpeggiate with the thing if you find the sweet spot.
At the time when we were recording [1976’s] A Trick of the Tail I was using a Synthi Hi Fli and it would give you the impression its sustain would go on forever, but there was a point where it would fizzle out and flop. But it was an interesting device.
The next thing was the invention of the sustainer pickup by Fernandez. When I’m recording an electric guitar I usually use one of those and it will allow you to sustain but also give you a harmonic of that note as well. It’s very controllable and it’s really become part of the way I play, also using the tremolo arm at times. You get to know what it can do.
Your melodic sensibility has always been distinctive. Unlike a lot of other English guitarists who emerged in the 1960s, you’ve never sounded blues based.
I listened a lot to other instruments, not just guitar. I noticed that with a lot of other guitarists, in the middle of an otherwise great tune they would always use the blues scale and it seemed to me that although it would often sound brilliant – I loved blues when I was growing up, and I did one blues album myself – I always wondered, “Well, couldn’t that guitar sound more like a voice?”
I also have this thing in my head about the violin and the cello. The electric guitar does all sort of things wonderfully, so why impose limitations on it?
For my solo stuff, I specialize more in the nylon string and the 12-string acoustic, but I think the acoustic guitar is more akin to the harp. The timbre is infinitely variable, because of vibrato and other qualities you can bring to it. It’s a fragile art. Recoding one is like trying to photograph fairies’ wings, but it is a beautiful world if you can access it.
It seems like your access points in developing your style were more through classical orchestral and guitar music than most other players of the era in which you arrived.
Sure, I was listening to a lot of classical stuff – a lot of orchestral stuff, and a lot of the chords and changes you hear in classical music, and also in film music, which is sort of an extension of the classical realm. I love orchestras. There’s always something growing, something changing.
That quality of evolution – especially slowly evolving textures of harmony and melody – is something I associate with you guitar compositions as well as the early ambient recordings of Brian Eno.
There are many things music can do and much of what people do is fall back on the formulaic. I think it’s a more interesting route to pursue textures and the way those textures interact. Eno’s clever with that.
It’s difficult to describe what motivates me as a musician. It would be nuancing, at the end of the day. Somebody who makes a guitar sound slightly different is going to get my attention – someone who makes one note sound unique, rather than plays cascades of notes. I can fall in love with someone’s commitment to the sound of one particular note. I prefer hearing somebody hold back and build a solo rather than display the technique needed to jump through various hoops. I find a lot of players are interested in proving they can play at a superhuman level, and then you don’t get any of that textural ambiguity that can make a guitar sound like another instrument or the human voice.
You were in several bands before Genesis, but how did your membership in Genesis compel you to grow?
The experience with Genesis initially was that we were on the road for six months before we tried to record anything with the new unit, which included Phil Collins. Once we started recording and writing together the band was quite demanding harmonically. The music had to be thought through. There was very little spontaneity at the time. Solos had to be fully written. That was what they wanted, I found as the new boy.
Over time my confidence started to grow. I don’t know why. We started to shed members. Peter Gabriel left. I thought that might be the end of the band. I did a solo album that was well received. We did a couple studio albums and a live one. But the development in that period was invaluable. We went from being a band that were not particularly popular – I remember playing to three people one night – but then we built it up to the point where in South America we were playing to 40,000 people a night and had done about 60,000 in London.
That was as far as I thought I needed the band to go, in terms of getting out of the clubs and to the arena and stadiums. I felt there was something a little too safe at that point about the work always being accepted, about the record sales and publicity machines doing their things. The video era was about to explode. That was not necessarily a good thing, I thought. Music can conjure pictures the same as a book if it’s well constructed. At that point it became apparent that I should consider doing something else.
How has your playing continued to evolve since Genesis?
Technically, I’m able to do many more things, particularly with right hand finger style techniques. I got very interested in that. At first I rejected the notion that guitarists should play with their fingers. I felt the plectrum was all that I really needed. But I became tired of that and wanted to be able to play more than one note at a time.
I think the electric tends to sound best playing single note lines, so you may as well use a pick with that instrument. However, I’ve gotten to the point where I use my nails on the electric most of the time, which gives me a slightly different approach. With the nylon string, fast arpeggiation is something that can be gripping. I first heard Segovia doing that and I was knocked out with it. It seemed as if the possibilities were unlimited, and his tonal palette was spellbinding. I was astonished by his economy of movement. It’s like an eagle in flight – maximum mobility, minimum effort – although it’s damn difficult to develop that technique.
Beyond that I’ve amassed a few moves of my own. The tapping technique, I’d come up with several years before Eddie Van Halen named it – and he credits me with it, which is nice for me. He’s a terrific player so it’s nice to have mutual admiration there. I came up with that and thought I’d use it occasionally, but it’s become part of the language of shredders. Playing extraordinarily fast on one string is the beauty of that. It’s a way to get the absolute most out of one string.
Tell me how the debut Squackett album with Chris Squire came about?
We first met back at the time of GTR in the mid-’80s. He contacted me toward the end of 2007. He wanted some guitar on a Christmas album he was doing with a choir. I did that for him and he was very pleased. So I said, “Instead of paying me for this, maybe you can pay me back by playing on something of mine.” He did, and that work we did together ended up getting distributed over three different album projects of mine. And it was the beginning of what became the Squackett project.
At first we gave each other the pick of material we’d been working on, and reviewed that together. We spent time together socially, which was very nice. Our wives got on well. A lot of the album was recorded in the living room I’m calling you from. In a way, it was an anti-studio album. We recorded some bass parts and drums in the studio, but most of it was recorded in a domestic environment. We did a lot of writing face to face. Pre-fabricated slices of work were brought to the table and expounded on. Some friends of mine put strings on the opening tracks, which added to the kind of exotic, Eastern feel.
How do you and Chris relate aesthetically?
We did things that were out of character for each other on the album, but the similarities were we both love harmony singing and we both love orchestral textures.
Yes and Genesis had a number of key similarities as well. The similarities were greater than the differences. Both bands paid a great deal of attention to detail and made highly produced albums. I loved the 90215 version of Yes, which had all these different events happening in the production every few seconds.
And of course I’ve played with Steve Howe in GTR, which I very much enjoyed. And I’ve worked with Pete Banks, the original guitarist of Yes, and done some live work with Rick Wakeman. And Phil Collins was a huge Yes fan. He loved syncopated, accent-driven music. It goes back to Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton and the big band era. Those are all connections.