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Steve Howe

The year was 1986, and two prog rock superstars, Steve Howe of 'Yes' and Steve Hackett of 'Genesis', decided they had had enough of keyboard-based groups, and struck out on their own in a new direction. GTR was to be a band of the future, centered around guitar synthesizers. Specifically using the new Roland GR-700 guitar synthesizer to replace those troublesome keyboardists. The original lineup was to be guitar, guitar, bass and drums, but the realities of the error prone GR-700 required a keyboard player for the live tour. Nevertheless, their chart-topping eponymous album GTR and hit single 'When The Heart Rules The Mind' showcased the GR-700 in a way no album has done before or after.
Steve Howe and Steve Hackett from Guitar Magazine, August 1986

Steve Howe & Steve Hackett

GTR stands for guitar

by John Stix

Guitar - For The Practicing Musician - August 1986

In the annals of rockdom, there have been plenty of two guitar bands, but a quick glance at the writing credits inevitably turns up such guitar/vocalist pairings as Tyler and Perry (Aerosmith), Smith and Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Schon and Perry (Journey), Page and Plant (Zeppelin), or Bono and The Edge (U2). Which is why the recent pairing of guitarists Steve Howe and Steve Hackett as co-leaders and co-composers for the new group, GTR, which includes vocalist Max Bacon, bassist Phil Spalding and drummer Jonathan Mover, is more intriguing. Their personal histories, grounded in Yes and Genesis respectively, are certainly compatible, as is their mutual love of the guitar's complete spectrum, from acoustic fingerpicking to guitar synth extravagance. The key is that their collaboration is between guitar voices, either of which is capable of being used as an orchestra.

Hackett's recent solo projects have included an electric guitar album recorded in Brazil, using all Brazilian musicians and a record of solo acoustic guitar pieces. Both records are available in Europe and Japan. Howe, having left Asia with the comment, "You can work better in a creative environment than a non-creative environment," has compiled material for a solo album and popped up on last year's smash Lp Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Their first attempt to build the guitar army/ orchestra is chronicled on the GTR album for Arista Records, and in this, their first interview.

GUITAR: At what point did you know that you and Steve Hackett could make a go of it?

HOWE: It was during the best phase of rehearsals, which happened early in the first three months of '85. We used to send the guys out and the two of us would work out guitar parts. That was when we formulated the basic parts for what we did on the album. Though a lot of things changed in the studio, that was when we started getting the idea that we could work out and that the two guitars were complementary. I like working closely with one other person. That was the original flame, that we knew we could work closely together on songs. I suppose we were helping each other's songwriting and by doing that we were able to feature each other's guitar playing. It was really a question of developing new sounds. What I didn't want was for the guitars to be in harmony all the time. I didn't think that was going to be interesting. I was interested in doing a lot of texturing and Steve has his own heavy sound and things he likes to do. It was an exchange of ideas and techniques.

GUITAR: This is the first band you've worked with that has two guitarists. How does it feel?

HOWE: In a way that's true, but most of the songwriters I've worked with also played guitar. This is different. I got a little taste of it when I jammed one night with Steve Morse, and I liked it. Playing with another guitarist is another opportunity to cover a lot of guitar textures, as opposed to just doing the obvious, which for me is playing harmony with a straightforward part. I'm more interested in having the whole sound created by guitars. Steve and I create the total spectrum. or as much as possible. 95% of it is from the guitar. I didn't see it as getting together with another guitarist, I saw it as collaborating to make an overall guitar sound. Working with keyboard players was always very interesting and I learned a terrific amount, but at the same time its nice having another guitarist who can understand and work toward that guitar front.

GUITAR: A lot of the sounds on GTR, which seem to come from keyboards, were actually triggered by the guitar. Did you do a lot of experimenting to choose the right equipment?

HOWE: On 50% of the sounds, I knew what I wanted and how to get it. The other 50% was a what-the-hell-are-we-going-to-do situation? We had a whole band of MIDI keyboards around so we could select between, say, the Memory Moog, Emulator and the Synclavier. We had a fantastic array of things, but I didn't want to lose sight of actually sounding like a guitar group, so a lot of the time the synthesized sound is mixed with the guitar and there's a halfway meeting between the two. There's an odd piano that's Emulator triggered from the guitar. Geoff Downes helped find the way, on a production level, in obtaining the total sound.

GUITAR: Has the guitar synth liberated you, where before you couldn't play the flute but now you can?

HOWE: I find it to be intriguing and inspiring. The important thing is to organize those sounds yourself and put them to some use. For 25 years the sound of the guitar was just that. I played the guitar and made that sound. As soon as I could change it, I did. I bought volume pedals, echo units, whatever. I've always wanted to change the sound, so getting a synth is the next stage. Then it's sampling, and it goes on and on. I don't have to change my style of playing to use either the new Ibanez guitar or the Roland.

GUITAR: Is there an artist who has done an outstanding job of using the guitar synth?

HOWE: Not really. I'm hoping that, partly through my dissatisfaction, it might sound better here because we're not pretending to be flutes. We are trying to make them sound like guitars. I'm at a weird stage with that progression. I'm still slightly tantalized by just being able to play the guitar and have more of anything I want as a sound. It expands my thoughts. The guitar, after all, is a musical instrument, and when it crosses over there is something to discover. The first guy I remember was John McLaughlin. When he hooked up with the Moog, I thought it sounded like a Moog. There are developments in the pipeline that might change that and give the guitar synth a little more of its own identity. It's also up to the player, because, after all, we're talking about music. If you hook up to some violin patch it could sound like Stephane Grappelli or it could sound like a three-year-old kid. There is an incredible spectrum here. It opens your mind, but remember, it's an instrument, so let's play the thing and have some fun.

GUITAR: You said you don't have to change your style too much when you play a flute patch.

Steve Howe and Steve Hackett on the cover of Guitar Magazine, August 1986

HOWE: You must get very familiar with each new piece of equipment. It's much like getting a new car. It feels strange at first. After 10,000 miles you know what to expect. That's a bit like a synth 'cause at first it doesn't seem to have much going for it and is full of problems. There are things on the horizon by companies like Ibanez and smaller companies that are going to change that view. Even the SynthAxe is considerably difficult to play. It isn't just a guitar, and that, in some ways, is disappointing to me. I'm a bit of a traditionalist. I like the Telecaster and Les Paul and all the traditional guitars. I can't really sit with a Flying V. Likewise the SynthAxe poses the same sort of unfamiliar ground and I don't know if I like synths as much as when I can just plug into a conventional synthesizer. But eventually the guitarist wants to be in control at the guitar. That's a totally different thing to adding bits. I've got the Les Paul Roland guitar which is very good, but I still have to adjust to it.

GUITAR: What instruments will you bring on the road?

HOWE: I'll try to keep it to half a dozen. I've used the Tele and the Gretsch Chet Atkins model, which after a little tweaking, is one of the best guitars I own. The Gibson Artist is a lovely guitar. It seemed to suit Asia for whatever that meant at the time. The Gibson 175 is something I've been using for 22 years. My Strat will make it and I'd like to use my 12-string Rickenbacker. I may need two guitar synths, the Les Paul and the Roland. I hope to have the Ibanez guitar by then.

GUITAR: Are you excited at all by the new sounds coming out of L.A.?

HOWE: Yes. Steve Vai does astounding things. There is a constant barrage of guitarists who are doing their own thing and actually inventing their own kind of guitar playing. They are the people who end up being the best because they are not stuck with the dilemma between performing a set work or being emotionally involved with whether it's too perfect or if you're not playing well. That must be dreadful. To be a guitarist who is playing his own way—what do you compare it to? You just compare it to music. It's a new voice. Those guys should all get out there and keep doing it.

GUITAR: Have you made your mark in this way?

HOWE: A little bit. I think playing the 175 and the Switchmaster for a whole tour was a way of holding onto my identity. Yet, I feel the sound you make transcends one instrument and you should be able to play anything. Having said that. it's still nice to play on your favorite instrument. The instrument should be part of the makeup, but so much of it is your personality, the way you play. Guys who are out racing about the fingerboard doing things that have never been done before, will, maybe as they develop, find ways to incorporate those things in backgrounds that are not so busy. I see it more as a production possibility. I believe Steve Vai thinks like that. He makes the guitar sit on the speakers like it was a person. He's very clever. When I saw Santana ten years ago Carlos turned his volume down and played quietly and it was unbelievable. Sometimes I'm moved by the gentle things. When somebody cleverly turns around all that high energy into powerful passages, then they've got me. I'm on the edge of my seat. But I also love the rock 'n' roll dream of loud music. It should be listened to at a volume that reacts with you as opposed to just being a passive background noise.

GUITAR: Having established the criteria for what you find the most interesting, which of your compositions falls into this category?

HOWE: One of my favorite things, that is still a treat for me to listen to, is the opening minutes of Turn of the Century. The opening to Close to the Edge was a great thing to play on stage. Yes offered quite a few openings that didn't exist until we went on stage, like on Siberian Khatru. The ending of that solo was, for me, a nightly delving into ideas. On GTR I feel we both play in a lot of places. but I'm not particularly precious about any one bit.

Steve Howe from Guitar Magazine, August 1986

GUITAR: Which tune do you feel is your best collaboration with Steve Hackett?

HOWE: There's some good stuff on Only the Hunter. The group helped motivate Jekyll and Hyde. It's a good perspective on a rhythm track and we worked on it quite a bit in rehearsal.

GUITAR: While GTR stands for guitar, it seems like songwriting is what brought you and Steve Hackett together.

HOWE: I need an outlet for songs rather than a need to get in a bus with five people and tour the world. I needed to find a creative outlet so I could perform and record in an environment where I'm working with great people.

GUITAR: Is the guitar fire still burning within you?

HOWE: Songwriting means that my guitar playing has a constant outlet. Because I can work on my songs. I can record them and play parts. I can also sit down and write guitar music. which I do a great deal. I split my activities between writing as few songs as possible and as much guitar music as possible. I am very much a guitarist. I listen to a lot of guitar music and jazz guitar. It's not really a pull. I got the desire to be a songwriter in the 60's, but it's very secondary to being a guitarist. I'm much more interested in doing a session for somebody as a player than spending all night writing a new song, although a new song will come when it comes. The nuisance is, it comes. I'd quite like not to be distracted by writing songs and just concentrate on the guitar.

GUITAR: Have you done any sessions besides your guest appearance on Frankie Goes to Hollywood?

HOWE: I played on Propoganda, a fantastically produced record by Steve Lipson. I'm working with an old friend, Keith West, as well as other songwriters. The main thing is, I still go back and listen to Charlie Parker and Charlie Christian and think I've still got a lot of other places I want to go. There are pieces I've had in progress for five years, solo guitar pieces that I need to know so well and be so sure about that they will only be finished when I've learned to play them. I'm still interested in that virtuoso level. That's important, and the only way I can see the guitar going into all the realms I want it to. I've got to be in top form, but believe me, after playing for more than 25 years I believe that I don't have to sit down and practice for two hours every day to be in top form. Playing nightly on the stage is a very good outlet. I've given the guitar incredible amounts of time and I can still turn it on when I have to. But by enjoying my life and my family, I enjoy my guitar playing more. I'm not thinking that all I've got to do is play guitar and I'll be a great guitarist. That's a fallacy. You've got to have a life outside of that to be sure you maximize your emotions and fantasies. There are channels that music comes from. Channeling your music might come from doing something refreshing and unmusical. I don't think it's just a question of living out the rock star dream. That went away a long time ago. Maybe I would have done that if I had a hit record at 17. Maybe it's good to wait, good to struggle and be able to call the shots about what I want to do.

GUITAR: How did GTR evolve?

HACKETT: It evolved out of the frustration of doing albums which weren't getting a look in the American market place. I had done these things which were a labor of love, but in America I got the usual response of, "We'll take it if Phil Collins is on it". I found that more and more people were interested in what I was doing only by association. I found the idea of doing GTR came out of the mutual frustration of two guitarists who felt the same way. So we decided to combine forces and put together a band which certainly had the potential for longevity, as opposed to doing the usual couple of acoustic guitars type project. That's what people have come to expect out of putting a couple of guitar mates together.

GUITAR: Were the two of you friends before GTR?

HACKETT: I had spoken to Steve Howe a few times over the years, but about 22 months ago we sat down and had lunch together. The meeting of the minds came about over a vegetarian meal.

GUITAR: Could it have been any guitarist or was Steve Howe a natural match?

HACKETT: I certainly felt that Steve Howe was probably the most compatible choice, in terms of people often saying in the past that our styles were similar. I would say that certainly in terms of someone who's known for his acoustic playing as well as his electric playing. I found him to be a natural choice. Plus, the two bands we came from, if you like, did have certain similarities.

GUITAR: How did you approach your collaboration?

HACKETT: The first thing we did was sit down and listen to each other's recent tapes and demos. Then we got involved with songwriting. We approached it from the point of view that we would like to write songs together, with an accent on the vocals as well as the guitar parts. We wanted the thing to communicate to a wide audience. We didn't want to fall into the elite esoteric bracket filed under folk music.

GUITAR: What have you enjoyed of Steve's previous playing and what did you find to be the most fascinating thing about his approach to playing?

Steve Hackett from Guitar Magazine, August 1986

HACKETT: I very much enjoyed the YES album when it was first released. To answer the second part of your question, I would say the thing that struck me about Steve Howe was the amount of time he would use to put on his lead line, and his desire to find a space for rhythm guitar parts. I find that rhythm guitar is fast becoming a forgotten art form. Steve liked to use a chunky Telecaster sound. I had thought perhaps of leaving space in, so we did have slightly different approaches to that.

GUITAR: GTR is a heavily guitar synthesized album. I recall you once feeling that the guitar synth had a small place in what you wanted to do.

HACKETT: Guitar synthesizers are a wonderful tool, but the amount of mistakes they make is frustrating. If you play anything the least bit percussive or any chime-like sonds, you find that the fretboard simply misreads it or is too sensitive. In the main, I have found that the Roland 300 is the most reliable in terms of triggering. I can play it almost like a guitar and it does very beautiful brass effects

GUITAR: What will you do to idiot-proof the least bit percussive or any chime-like sounds, guitar synths for the road? You find that the fretboard simply misreads.

HACKETT: This has been a bone of contention. We may use the Noah's Ark theory and take two of everything. Plus there is always the sound of the guitar. Although I have been surrounded by all these wonderful guitar synths, I found that towards the end of putting the guitar tracks on the album, I was going back to my Les Paul more and more. I like this guitar because it hasn't got a whammy bar to make motor car noises that end every fourth bar. The Les Paul is still the sound that sets my soul on fire. I still consider it to be the finest electric ever conceived.

GUITAR: Are you still using Marshall amps as well?

HACKETT: I tend to favor a combination of Marshall and Roland amps. I use the Marshall for a rock 'n' roll sound. For a clean sound I favor the Roland Jazz Chorus, which is a transistor amp and happens to suit the guitar synths. I think I'll be using a Schecter and the Les Paul as my main synth guitars.

GUITAR: You've mentioned that Steve Howe and yourself have different views of how to fill or not fill space. Was there a lot of give and take in the collaboration?

HACKETT: There was a tremendous amount of give and take under the circumstances, because there were not many schools of thought that came to bear on every subject. Obviously, my experiences as a solo act have led me to certain conclusions and I think the fact that Steve Howe has decided to stay within the group framework for most of his albums has shaped his views of how things can be done. Some of the issues were fought out extremely hard between us. Other times we had a very natural type of band vibe and it seemed to take care of itself.

GUITAR: What were you at odds about?

HACKETT: In the main, I was pushing for more instrumental music on the album. I'd been slightly more influenced by that. There hasn't been any one particular musical area that we said we won't touch. It's been more a case of going to a song and finding that it reaches a certain stage, even taking it into recording and then finding certain things we had to scratch because they weren't met with all around enthusiasm. The most interesting fact is that the first thing we ever wrote together, which was practically on the second day we worked together, was our best collaboration. That song is When the Heart Rules the Mind.

Steve Hackett from Guitar Magazine, August 1986

GUITAR: What background do you like behind you when you solo?

HACKETT: There's a certain speed for songs that has always excited me, I find it applies to Steve Howe as well. We found a number of the songs were heading for the same speed, which when you read it on a click track, is something like 120 beats per minute. I can't remember the exact number, but it's a speed where you can play blinding semi-quavers (16th notes), as it were, and the pulse really pushes along the track.

GUITAR: Let's talk about some of the songs on GTR. When the Heart Rules the Mind is obviously a special one for you.

HACKETT: I have tremendous hopes for this one to become a hit single. I do love the song and you can hear both of us playing nylon guitars on it. As the man said. "There's only one thing more beautiful than a nylon, and that's a pair of nylons."

GUITAR: There are some wistful reed-like sounds that end the tune. How were they made?

HACKETT: The guitar is triggering a cello sampled on the Emulator. The sample is reversed, so I'm playing it backwards. It comes out sounding like an oboe. The whole song is heavily overdubbed. It's a wired-together piece of music.

GUITAR: The Hunter has a bit of blowing on it.

HACKETT: The end of this song has solos from the both of us, which is quite interesting, because there aren't too many places on the album where both of us solo over the same chord sequence.

GUITAR: What else stands out in your mind?

HACKETT: Steve and I agreed that we would both do an instrumental on the album. Steve's is Sketches in the Sun. My piece is Hackett to Bits. I was wailing away on my Schecter, which is the guitar I use to trigger the guitar synths. It's got a Kahler and Bill Lawrence pickups. The song is a taste of avant-garde heavy metal, with some out-there harmonies. Jekyll and Hyde has a grandiose beginning and a guitarist's interpretation of a Tamla/ Motown approach to the choruses. At one time those lines would have been done exclusively on brass, but here they're done on guitar. We stacked up the guitar harmonies to the nth degree. I'm proud of that track.

GUITAR: Still Get Through has that funk rhythm with a pastel background. It's a real ear catcher.

HACKETT: That's right, most of the rhythm tracks, apart from the guitars, were done on the Synclavier. In fact, we recorded it as a group and decided it didn't sound as sharp and techno as we could get it mechanically. It's the nearest thing to a dance track and I felt we should go totally in that direction for this particular track. So we went back to the sequencers. The beauty of recording digitally with the Synclavier is that you can put in a totally new section, which is what we did. There are lots of samples on this one, from the Synclavier's version of a Brazilian rain stick to its version of a washboard.

GUITAR: Steve Howe doesn't care how a record is made as long as it's good, whereas I know you use the albums as an excuse to play live. Is every song on GTR playable live?

HACKETT: They are all performable in their entirety. Most of them were rehearsed in a rehearsal room for a period of months, so to some extent they were designed with live performance in mind.

GUITAR: Why did you choose Geoff Downes as your producer?

HACKETT: We wanted a keyboard player's sense of harmony and knowledge of synthesisers for programming. The idea was to have a keyboard player's influence as input without having his hands on the keyboard. We also both decided that we needed someone in the position of virtually refereeing between the two of us. We needed the producer to say. I think this is the best way of doing something. Otherwise you would have two people pulling in different directions. We tried to avoid the battle of the giants.

Steve Hackett's Dream Roland Guitar Rig: GR-300, GR-700 and Schecter Strat with STK-1

Steve Hackett with Schecter Strat with Kahler Trem, Bill Lawrence Pickups and Roland STK-1 guitar synth electronics for Roland GR-700 Steve Hackett with Schecter Strat with Kahler Trem, Bill Lawrence Pickups and Roland STK-1 guitar synth electronics for Roland GR-700 Steve Hackett Roland Guitar Synthesizer rig: Roland GR-300 (left), GR-700 (middle) and Schecter guitar with STK-1 Steve Hackett with Schecter Strat with Kahler Trem, Bill Lawrence Pickups and Roland STK-1 guitar synth electronics for Roland GR-700 Steve Hackett with Schecter Strat with Kahler Trem, Bill Lawrence Pickups and Roland STK-1 guitar synth electronics for Roland GR-700 Steve Hackett with Schecter Strat with Kahler Trem, Bill Lawrence Pickups and Roland STK-1 guitar synth electronics for Roland GR-700
Click on any image for larger view.

Live in concert and studio pictures from the GTR documentary showing Steve Hackett playing his custom Schecter Strat with a Kahler Trem Bridge and Bill Lawrence pickups, plus the Roland STK-1 electronics card to connect to the Roland GR-700.