By David Barrett
Guitar Connoisseur: Yes and Asia are known for having very sophisticated arrangements, could you elaborate on your approach to arranging music for progressive rock?
Steve Howe: When I joined Yes, I found other people that enjoyed arranging. If somebody wrote a song, you did things to it to make it a group song. There was a sense of arranging, and you learned it from producers. Writing comes out of this sort of well inside people, but to arrange it is a skill you learn over years, every time you meet new music, you have to make decisions about it, and nobody can really prepare you for that, you learn that over years, I don’t think you can learn this at music school. There are certain guidelines, the importance of intros and outros, I love a great intro, there’s games you can play to avoid the obvious verse/chorus scenario. And it’s all about people skills, arranging is hearing what someone does and being able to compliment them with the boldness to shape music. In Yes we were always trying to feature different people at different times, and that’s what arrangement is, not allowing the singer to start the song and go all the way through and end it. There has to be some sort of growth.
GC: Your Homebrew recordings (compilations of home demoes) are fascinating examples of your ability as a songwriter and arranger.
SH: Thanks for saying that. I started the Homebrew recordings because I really liked some of those early versions of my songs. When I worked with Queen on Innuendo, they explained to me that all their records were demoes, and they just keep working on them until they were finished. On some records like Grand Scheme Of Things, I used the demoes as my master. I’ve noticed that sometimes we’ve done records that sounded better in the studio before it was mixed, than when it came out, you can loose the personality. When the keyboards are fighting the guitars, and vocals are fighting the harmonies, and once you get it all sterile, and go “Oh yeah, that’s nice”, it looses something, and nothing happens!
GC: And if you have a great part but you can’t hear it, it’s kind of wasted?
SH: Don’t go there, that’s always a loss for me, I’ve always wanted to remix records like Union, or ABWH, without me being there, it’s usually not right. There’s so many things you could say, as well as, “Could you turn it up…?” That’s the last topic of my discontent, but that’s to be expected with the amount of records I’ve made (laughs).
GC: Lets talk about your process of recording and logging ideas.
SH: I like the process of doing it where you don’t have any expectations of quality. It’s good to have a top shelf and a bottom shelf where you can draw ideas from. When I started, I wanted to be a songwriter as much as I wanted to play guitar, and when I joined Tomorrow I knew the means to get my songs in the group was by recording my ideas on a Telefunken reel to reel, and that’s what I called songwriting (laughs).
GC: Can you talk about some of your antique guitars, and do you use them on recordings?
SH: Well, there are three of them that are usable. The Panormo, I played on “The Little Galliard” (Natural Timbre), it’s a wonderful guitar and it plays great. The guitar that I call “The Shield Guitar” is really a lyre guitar that is shaped like a shield, it plays fine, and you can tune it right up to pitch. And there’s a marvellous guitar that is a ten string (five courses), but none of the other lyre guitars dare I tune up, because I wouldn’t want to chance it! They’re usually tuned to a very low pitch like F or C, just to convince me they’re really strung up, it seems unfair to test them. These are very unique instruments that are very undervalued. One of my favourite ways to enjoy them is to take five of the lyre guitars and place them on the fireplace and this is how they’re quite often displayed in France, of course you didn’t light the fire with them there!
GC: Do guitars sound better over time?
SH: You know what’s important? You got to play it. You see that’s what’s great about my Gibson ES175D, I liked it so much I played the hell out of it! Time, performance and something we really don’t understand about our personalities and about our sound, all make us have a different sound. When you get used to a guitar, like when I gently play my Martin 00-18, I can’t help but think it sounds great, because in a way my head, my ears, believe it’s great. There are some very strange intrinsic things going on that we don’t understand, and perhaps for a good reason, and I’m quite happy about that.
GC: How can you become a better musician?
SH: I usually say it starts when you start making decisions for yourself, real decisions. Once you do, you find a lot of other decisions get easier. I’m totally instinctive, I go with my feeling. You’ve got to have some perspective on whether your music has an inner voice that says something about you, and if it’s bottled up and not coming out, you have to find a way to get it out. So when you look at how to prepare for music, I use meditation, it’s the only way I can come out of it and be in a great state of mind, you’ve forgotten your problems and allowed yourself to get properly prepared. Its a very slow and healthy process that is affecting one part of your life, which is the way you think.
David Barrett is a Canadian instrumental guitarist who in 2010 formed the David Barrett trio. Th eir first self titled album was produced by Alex Lifeson, Alan Parsons, and Richard Chycki. Th ey collaborated again with Lifeson, as well as Canadian prog icon Michael Sadler and Celtic guitar virtuoso tony McManus, on their second studio album David Barrett trio II. A Whisper to Thunder – David Barrett trio Live In Concert, is the bands current release, a live DVD. In addition to the trio, Barrett produces instrumental guitar albums, performs solo concerts throughout Canada,and hosts the annual Guitar Summit at Ravenswood, a northern retreat in Bobcaygeon, Ontario.