The predominant six-string wizard behind Yes and Asia, Steve Howe is as unique and animated a character as his all-embracing, inimitable guitar style would suggest.
Ahead of next year's UK and Europe tour (which will see Yes play 1971's The Yes Album, 1972's Close To The Edge and 1977's Going For The One in full), MusicRadar sat down with Howe to discuss his gear, his uncompromising approach to live shows and his enduring love for the instrument that made his name.
On the forthcoming tour, you'll be playing The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One in full. Why those albums?
"I've said to the guys for a long time, 'Why not do albums as opposed to just songs?' Then it was, 'Well, which albums?' The Yes Album has always been part of our general setlist, but we've never done A Venture, so there was one little magic piece in there that was always ignored.
"Then Close To The Edge was on and off the setlist, but rarely all three pieces, and Going For The One had been played much less. So we had a balance of familiar and not so familiar. The other goal was to not play the albums live like we always did, but to play them more like the records. To bring something closer to the record is crucial to this show, but we've still got breaks to improvise, because I do need that."
Have the techniques you learned since recording these albums allowed you to approach the old material differently?
"One of the initial limitations was tone. I'd have a pedalboard with 21 switches operating racks and boxes and I thought I was always going to stick with it. Then in 2006, when Asia reformed, I said, 'Let's play the first album exactly' - like Yes are doing now. I got in touch with Line 6 and I got a Vetter II amp and I sat down with a brilliant guy I know called Steve Bernette [to program the tones].
"Now I've got all of the programs for the HD500 pedalboard and once Yes got back together, I thought, 'I can't go back to the old box-stomping lark.' So now I don't have any racks: I've got a Bogner amp and a pedalboard and that's all my equipment."
Presumably, that takes some of the stress out of the live performance?
"Exactly. I'm not asking myself which box to press - I did all of that at home. That's a big belief of mine: 'Why worry when you go onstage?' If you're worrying then, well, it's fucking too late! When I worry is when I'm at home trying to get it to work. When I got it to work, I ceased worrying and now I'm a free musician."
Which of the three albums do you look back on most fondly and why?
"Of the three, I would say Close To The Edge. It was the quintessential moment when Bill [Bruford, drums] was still in the band and Jon [Anderson, vocals] and I had just written a 20 minute piece and we were brave enough to play it. We were all immersed in each other's lives [then].
"We're not now and we weren't soon after it, what with all the success and the 'I think I'll move to LA'. Everybody got married and had kids, or bought a house, then we changed bands… Then we came back to the band, but when you come back, it's not the same, I'm not going to kid you, but it's nice. We revel in it. But, also, you know what we revel in? Our own privacy."
Do you all have separate dressing rooms these days?
"I do, particularly. I use my dressing room more than anyone else and that applies to Yes and Asia. I don't get stoned or drink a bottle of whiskey. I do exactly the opposite - I clear out my system, I clear out my head. I use a meditative approach and I do exercises and I have peace and quiet around me. I don't like people talking to me before going on stage. If you want to piss me off - talk to me!"
We spoke about your amps and Line 6 pedalboard. What else is in your key live gear?
"In Britain I can play my best ES-175. When I go out of the country I use another - it's a '63, so it's actually one year earlier - because nobody's going to mess with my guitar. When I go to another country, somebody at an airline, or at a hotel - SOMEBODY, SOMEWHERE - will mess with my guitar. And they're not allowed to! So, here, it's the the 175 - the real deal - other places it's the '63, which is indistinguishable to most people.
"Then I have the ES-345 Stereo for Close To The Edge. Then Going For The One is a real mixed bag. It's a Stratocaster for Parallels, a '56 Les Paul Custom for Turn Of The Century and then the famous Fender Steel Guitar. Then there's a '55 Tele, my Martin MC-38 Steve Howe and a Portuguese 12-string guitar that my sister gave me in 1962. It's a little lute-looking thing, but it's all over Yes. It's on Wondrous Stories, Nine Voices, 'Good People. Finally, there's a spare 175 - a Gibson Steve Howe model - which I'm very pleased to say they're just reinvigorating."
Are you a believer in the idea that guitars grow to reflect the tonal personality of their players?
"I think that is true. One thing I know is true is that, when you pick up a guitar that you haven't played for a while, don't judge it straight away. Give it 20 minutes of playing, let it get used to you playing – and then it will start to respond."
So it's - quite literally - foreplay...
"It's guitar foreplay! The guitar needs to warm-up as well. They've proved this scientifically, but it's enough for me to know it's true. But the guitar, it would be silly to say that it's the best instrument in the world - but I think it is! I think guitarists have the golden opportunity. Look at Hank Marvin - only he sounds like that on his Strat. Or a guitarist like Martin Taylor, when he plays it's just like, 'OK Martin, take me away…' The guitar is a wonderful voice for a human being."
Yes are touring in 2014 on the following dates:
29 April Oxford, New Theatre
30 April Southend, Cliffs Pavilion
2 May Glasgow, Clyde Auditorium
3 May Newcastle, City Hall
4 May Birmingham, Symphony Hall
6 May Leicester, De Montfort Hall
7 May Sheffield, City Hall
8 May London, Royal Albert Hall
10 May Manchester, O2 Apollo
11 May Bristol, Hippodrome
13 May Paris, Gran Rex
14 May Zurich, Volkshaus
16 May Monaco, Opera Garnier
17 May Padova, Palageox
18 May Milan, Teatro Della Luna
20 May Luxembourg, Rockhall Box
21 May Brussels, A B
22 May Tilburg, 0 1 3
26 May Mainz, Phoenixhalle
27 May Berlin, Admiralspalast
28 May Leipzig, Haus Auensee
30 May Prague, Congress Centre
31 May Bratislava, NTC
02 Jun Warsaw, Sala Kongressowa
04 June Aarhus, Train
UK Ticket prices are £37.50 for all Venues except for London £50 (boxes), £45, £40 and £35. Agency and Credit card bookings are subject to booking fee. Showtime is 7.30pm and tickets are available from Bookings Direct or via 24 ticket hotline on 0844 338 0000.
For more information, visit the official Yes website.