For nearly 35 years, Steve Howe has been at the forefront of guitarists in popular music. Actually, simply referring to Howe as a just a guitarist is limiting. In addition to being a songwriter, he plays more instruments than just the guitar. If it has strings and a fretboard, Howe has mastered it and recorded with it at some point on one of countless albums he's been a part of as a group member, solo artist and special guest.
Stephen James Howe was born on April 8, 1947 in Holloway, North London, England. The youngest of four children, music was a constant from Steve's early age; he was an energetic child, marching to 78 RPM records of brass bands that he played on the family record player.
As a teenager, Steve was influenced by the guitar generation and the excitement of rock 'n' roll. This led to his receiving his first guitar at age twelve, a Christmas present from his parents. It was an an F-hole acoustic, which prepared him for his signature Gibson ES-175. Inspired by artists as diverse as Bill Haley and the Comets, Les Paul, Jimmy Byant, and Tennessee Ernie Ford (whose band included Speedy West), Steve taught himself to play the guitar, eventually performing with friends first at youth clubs and later at local pubs and ballrooms.
When he bought his first electric guitar, a jazz-style Gibson, in 1964, “No one was playing archtop, hollow-body guitars in a rock band. 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 said about his ES-175. He made his first recording, Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”, in 1964 with a band called The Syndicats, who were produced by Joe Meek. In 1968, he recorded albums with both Tomorrow (initially called The In Crowd) and Bodast.
Howe declined offers from both up and down The Nice and Jethro Tull while waiting for a record deal to materialize for Bodast, but the group’s prospective label went bankrupt. He was then approached by the members of Yes as a possible replacement for Peter Banks, who had appeared on the group’s first two albums.
In the spring of 1970, Howe joined Yes and played his first show with the group at Queen Elizabeth Hall on March 21, 1970. Howe was pictured with the group on the non-Europe jacket of their second album, Time and a Word, which was released in August, although it was Banks who had actually played on the recording.
Beginning with The Yes Album, Howe’s electric and acoustic guitars, combined with Jon Anderson's vocals, Chris Squire's bass, and Tony Kaye’s keyboards were seen as an essential part of the band’s early sound. The addition of Rick Wakeman after the departure of Tony Kaye for the following album, Fragile, created the classic Yes sound of Anderson-Howe-Squire-Bruford-Wakeman associated with the peak of the band’s early achievements. To his already-formidable assortment of electric and acoustic guitar sounds, Howe added a unique progressive rock approach to pedal steel guitar in the next album, Close to the Edge. His classical and jazz influences, along with his penchant for ongoing experimentation, helped produce a playing style unique among rock musicians, while the group as a whole took a position as a leading progressive rock band.
Although the band underwent some personnel changes in the 1970s, Howe, Anderson, and Squire were the constant elements for the entire decade. In early 1980, however, Anderson and Wakeman left the group and were replaced a few weeks later by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. This second departure of Rick Wakeman was particularly difficult for Howe, who believed the two produced their best work while they were together. Howe continued with the band until Yes officially split up on April 18, 1981. Over the next few years, Howe contributed to several albums produced by Horn for other artists (including Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Propaganda).
In 1989, Jon Anderson asked Howe, Wakeman, and Bill Bruford if they could record some tracks together. They released an album and completed a tour under the name Anderson/Bruford/Wakeman/Howe, leading to minor legal battles over ownership of the name “Yes”. Eventually, they all joined forces with the members of Yes (which still included Anderson, plus Tony Kaye, Trevor Rabin, Chris Squire and Alan White) as a “mega-Yes” lineup to record the album, Union. Howe left Yes after the tour.
Howe rejoined Yes for good in 1996. Since Keys to Ascension, Howe has again appeared on all the albums recorded by Yes.
Despite the troubles Yes was experiencing at the time, Howe was voted “Best Overall Guitarist” in Guitar Player magazine five years in a row (1977 - 1981) and was inducted into Guitar Player’s “Gallery of Greats” in 1981.
Gibson Guitar Corporation, the maker of Howe’s second electric guitar (which he was still playing forty years later), said that Howe “elevated rock guitar into an art form” and “helped define a new style of music known as art rock.” In a tribute to Howe and his personal favorite ES-175 guitar, Gibson produced a Steve Howe signature model in 2002.
In 1982, Howe, King Crimson's John Wetton, Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Geoff Downes of The Buggles formed the band Asia, but after two popular albums and a few hit singles, Howe left the band over differences with Wetton. Some disagreements have since been reconciled, as Howe has announced his intenion to join the other three founding members in a 25th anniversary reunion tour in late 2006.
In 1986, Howe formed the super group GTR with ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. Their only album went gold, but Hackett's interest in pursuing solo interests spelled the end of the group.
In 1991, he contributed a flamenco inspired guitar solo to the epic Queen song “Innuendo”, from the album by the same name.
In October, 1975, Howe released Beginnings, his first solo album. It featured Yes band members Alan White, Bill Bruford and Patrick Moraz and reached Number 63 in the US and Number 22 in the UK charts.
His second solo work, The Steve Howe Album, was released in November, 1979. Many consider it his best solo recording, with some of his most original compositions. Howe played alone on half of the tracks, while others again feature White, Bruford and Moraz, along with vocalist Claire Hamill.
Since 1991, Howe has released a solo recording almost every year, ranging from acoustic to progressive to a Bob Dylan tribute. His son Dylan, now a respected jazz musician, played the drums on his 1998 all-instrumental solo release, Quantum Guitar, while Elements, released in 2003, featured both Dylan and Howe’s younger son, Virgil (keyboards and vocals), as part of a project called Remedy.