Top 10 Steve Howe Guitar Solos
Yes guitarist Steve Howe may very well be the most stylistically diverse guitarist in rock music history. At the very least, he's the most adventurous to sell millions of records. Howe has consistently made a deliberate choice to avoid rock and blues cliches, instead coloring Yes' elaborate soundscapes with influences drawn from jazz, classical, folk and country music – often within the context of a single piece of music.
Howe also went on to play in the multi-platinum supergroup Asia, and he extended his musical experiments to guitar synthesis in GTR, a short-lived project that paired him with former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. But his career with Yes contains so much groundbreaking playing that Guitar Player magazine's readers voted him Best Overall Guitarist every year from 1976-1981, obliging the publication to retire him from consideration and instead place Howe in its Gallery of the Greats.
Our list of the Top 10 Steve Howe Guitar Solos focuses entirely on his work with Yes, but you should also check out his solo albums, other bands, and pretty much any other piece of music that Howe has ever committed to tape.
In 1977, Yes responded to the emergence of punk with Going For the One, adopting a somewhat more modern approach that mingled some shorter songs with expected epics like "Awaken." The most successful merger of old and new is the title song, on which Howe takes an uncharacteristically aggressive approach to the guitar parts. Eschewing the pastoral textural layering that characterized much of his earlier work with Yes, Howe instead sprayed burning, screaming pedal steel guitar all over the track. The juxtaposition of a Nashville influence with a more in-your-face tone and posture results in a truly unique track that could have only come from Howe.
Yes followed up their breakthrough LP The Yes Album with Fragile, much of which showcased solo work by the individual band members. But the album also featured their first real radio breakthrough in "Roundabout," which remains a staple of classic rock radio to this day. The song brought together all of the band's diverse influences in one place, featuring Howe with an opening acoustic guitar figure that repeats later in the song. Howe mingles acoustic and electric rhythm figures for the ground track, topping it off with a series of furious electric runs and a bizarre, atonal solo that typically refuses to adhere to traditional rock forms.
The studio version of "Don't Kill the Whale" on Tormato was stiff and somewhat clumsy, but the live version on Yesshows comes alive, featuring Howe with blazing, fleet-fingered electric solos that are a perfect amalgam of chops, tone and melodic taste. It demonstrates that Howe can still play well in the context of a shorter, less progressive track, and it points the way to some of the better aspects of his work with Asia – that is, if Asia had written songs about, y'know, not killing whales and such.
After two well-received but less-than-successful albums, Yes broke with The Yes Album, which was Howe's first record with the group. He wasted no time imprinting the band with his unique sensibilities, contributing heavily to the album. "Clap" (which was incorrectly credited as "The Clap" on the album sleeve, but is not intended to be about venereal disease) was recorded live at a gig, and has become one of Howe's best-known solo spots. The piece showcases the country influences of players like Merle Travis and especially Chet Atkins, featuring Howe playing with a mix of fingers and pick, intermingling repeated fingerpicking patterns with rapid single-note runs in an astonishing departure from standard rock fare that deserves a spot in the Top 10 Steve Howe Guitar Solos.
While Fragile focused on solo spots from the band members, its follow-up, Close to the Edge, was a true group effort. "Siberian Khatru" is an example of each band member contributing heavily to a single track – especially Howe, who lends a funky (if that's a word allowed to describe Howe) repeating riff to the proceedings before taking a pedal steel solo, followed by a series of clean-tone runs that demonstrate Howe's exceptional pick articulation.
Howe has always drawn from a wide array of not only musical influences, but also sonic textures to create his performances. "Yours Is No Disgrace" begins with sharp chording before giving way to a series of clean jazz runs that are so perfectly phrased that you almost don't notice how technically difficult they are. But the centerpiece of Howe's performance is a solo break where he uses the wah-wah pedal to throw down a series of scratches, trills and percussive notes that are so cool, it'll have you instantly rewinding to hear it all over again.
Howe has always been given to solo guitar pieces. "Mood For a Day" – along with "Clap" – is one of the best-known, and arguably the piece of music that helped to popularize the use of nylon-string classical guitar in a rock setting more than any other. The piece is a perfect amalgam of Howe's chops and compositional sense, unfolding in perfectly thought out lines while letting him display his considerable right-hand technique. A must for any overall assessment of the Top 10 Steve Howe Guitar Solos.
After losing key members Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, Yes made one of the oddest hiring decisions in rock music history by teaming up with the Buggles for Drama, which kicked off with the often-overlooked masterpiece "Machine Messiah." The track features an opening riff so heavy it could have come from a lost Black Sabbath track, and Howe goes on to blaze through a series of distorted solos, as well as jaw-dropping unison and harmony lines with the keys for one of the most unexpected tracks of his recorded career.
Improvising guitar solos over a three-chord vamp is one of the oldest tricks in the rock and roll book – but not everyone does it quite like Steve Howe. The final movement of "Starship Trooper" finds him blowing freely over three repeating chords, but he's voicing those chords with alternate bass notes, and he's also changing scales every time the chord changes. That kind of multiple-tone-center soloing is relatively common in jazz, but practically non-existent in mainstream rock music, and Steve Howe is arguably one of a tiny handful of rock players who could even begin to pull it off.
Nowhere was his country influence more apparent than on the climactic solo section of "I've Seen All Good People," where Howe takes every other rock player of his generation to school for an extended lesson. The rave-up is like a master class in pick attack, phrasing and tone, with not a single tired blues cliche in sight. That left-of-center approach to the material easily lands at No. 1 on our list of the Top 10 Steve Howe Guitar Solos.