Yes and Asia: Nearly Fifteen Years at the Forefront of Rock
Courtesy of Brian Nunney, Roland UK
Roland Users Group, Volume 2, Number 4, 1984
In Steve Howe's nearly 15 years at the forefront of the "artsy" contingent of the rock cadre, he has been an avid experimenter with the sound of the guitar. He has never lost sight of the essential qualities that make the guitar such a powerful sound in rock music. At a time when Howe is finishing the third Asia album, he is using the GR-700 Guitar Synthesizer to extend, but not replace the Howe sound.
"I'm fundamentally a guitarist" he pronounces with a degree of understatement. Still a little resentful of the media term "techno-flash", he maintains everything he does is a result of his relationship with this one, highly individual instrument. "Technology is fine, provided it doesn't take away your identity as a guitar player. McLaughlin did two albums using equipment that made him sound like a keyboard player. But why go to all that trouble just to play a keyboard sound on guitar? There are some things you play on a guitar that a keyboard player couldn't come near. That's what I always wanted. I can remember once saying to Robert Moog, that what was needed, what's always been needed is a guitar synth that's wholly unique. The GR-700 is really the first. It's somewhere we can start from.
Music, for Howe, begins and ends with the guitar. He plays mandolin "adequately" and has a more than nodding acquaintance with keyboard synthesizers, but a Martin 0018, Gibson ES Artist, or Roland G-505 are his real creative outlets. Regarding technology, he's adamant, "Listen to Segovia or Julian Bream. Listen to the emotion they put into playing. Who's going to replace them? Not a computer, Me!" The last word escapes suddenly, as though Howe surprises himself by this revelation. The guitar synth and all the experiments preceding it are valuable precisely to the extent that they play a part in this guitar player's personal Odyssey.
"The pedals were the first thing; a fuzz box or maybe two fuzz boxes, a wah-wah and a volume pedal and footswitches for the reverb and tremelo on the amp. Then I started playing a lot of steel guitar and the pedal board was adapted to an effects side and a steel side. Then I thought, 'Why not use the steel side and that amplifier with the straight guitar amp and work with a stereo sound from two amps on stage.' Later came rack mounted effects and a period when I used the echo a lot. Always oiling and changing heads, it was a bit like looking after a baby. To me, Yes was a great opportunity to experiment with equipment."
"Guitar synthesizers? Well, at first they were just a horror story. I had someone approach me with a system which was very expensive and was easily the most unreliable, inconsistent piece of equipment I ever owned. It was terrible. It was supposed to be polyphonic, but it only worked in mono, and it tended to disintegrate when it was taken on the road. In fact, I looked inside and there wasn't anything holding it together. So we had problems getting it serviced. The makers wanted to back out of service commitments and brought in all this red tape and, of course, guitarists don't keep very elaborate paperwork. In the end, that escapade finished rather badly."
What kept him trying after the bad experiences? "The synth was unpleasant to play. When I played it, I couldn't wait to play an ordinary guitar, but when I listened to the tape, back, in amongst all the glitches, there definitely was something there."
"After that there was a gap of two years when if anyone said, `guitar synth,' I'd say, 'Go away!' Electro-harmonix produced a monophonic system which I used on Tormato. That was the one before Drama. It was, possibly, the most dreadful album Yes did. But, at the time, we were in Mickey Most's studio and Chris Spedding had a GR-500, Roland's first guitar synth. This was about 1979 and everyone's reaction was, 'Wow, what's it sound like?' But nobody really knew, at that time, what to do with it."
There were others. Steve recalls one that involved "About six amps and six speakers; it was really all over the place." Significantly, he had no time for such stuff, reaffirming the guitarist's view that, "A guitar is a force coming from one place."
"When the Roland GR-300 came out, I bought one instantly. It was good, but at the time, I wasn't very keen on the particular guitar that came with it. Then the G-505 came along, the Strat-type guitar controller, and for me, that was it. I go through periods where I dabble with Strats; I'm a secret Strat player. I like the clarity of the chords for some things. So when the G-505 came out, I started doing quite a lot of Stratting, with the GR. It's particularly good, because you can switch back and forth between `straight' and synthesized sound. The guitar's sound works well with the synth sound."
With the advent of the GR-700, Howe became a confirmed GR man. "Roland has built the standard instrument now; the starting point."
Howe continues to control his new GR-700 module with the G-505 he acquired for his GR-300. "I'm basically a conservative and the new guitar (G-707) with the tie-bar doesn't fit with the way I look at guitars. I like 'huggable' curvey shapes." He is, however, taking advantage of another Roland service. One of the prized ES Artist guitars, already full of active electronics, is currently in the process of having its circuitry rearranged for the additional electronics of the Roland GR controller (LPK-1). Modifying a favorite axe in this way is testimony to how seriously Howe takes the new concept.
"I think for the music we're making, the GR can be used to great effect. All those built-in sounds and the ability to modify them; it's something that just hasn't been available before. The whole effect is fascinating. I've see Midge Ure on stage with one and it's really weird to see a guitarist hit the strings and the sound of a bell rolls out."
But if you have a synth player in the band, particularly one with the skill of Geoff Downes, is there any need for a guitar synth?
"The thing is to remain in control. Our best music is me sparring with Geoff. He usually writes things that are hell on the guitar and I write things that are hell on keyboards. We spark each other off. I don't want the same things he does, but it's amazing that this guitar synthesiser can open up so much. Over the last four years I've watched Geoff with his typewriter (Fairlight) open-mouthed about how a musician like Geoff can contain all this technology. I want that, but I don't want to copy him. I still want not to sound like Geoff. But now he's all MIDIed up and the GR-700 is MIDI, so you have all sorts of new possibilities.
"Howe foresees exploring sequencers through his new setup. "Riffs are the greatest thing for a guitarist. The other day we were in the studio playing (he hums a guitar riff from Lennon and McCartney's "I Feel Fine"). What a riff! A sequencer can do all those things that you'd have to spend hours putting down on tape. I've already done a lot of that using the Hold on echoes. I use Roland echoes too."
"My idea is to be the Vangelis of the guitar. He has this remarkable ability to improvise and make it sound like it's not improvised. That's an ability of mine that was hidden in Alpha, but it shouldn't be hidden." "The guitar synth is something I need to assist me. To assist me in becoming a guitarist who's great, and who's remembered. Success now, is not so important to me. I'd be content to be unrecognized now, but recognized later. And the greatest honor, would be recognition as a great improviser."
Howe values spontaneity and emotion and is wary of technology that gets in the way. He laughingly describes a potential studio conversation degenerating into an alphabet soup of anagrams. "Put the CMI through the MPU with a CMS MIDIed to an MSQ." Howe is wary of becoming a preprogrammed artist that strolls on stage, pushes a button and "spins it off."
The relationship between the player and the instrument is too important, the problems are too important, the struggle is too important. Howe recognizes that an audience's response depends on their appreciation of the artist's skills. They can be thrilled by the way a guitarist rushes a fast scale up the fretboard, but not by the way a computer does the same thing.
The guitar synth, to Howe, gives the best of both worlds because it maintains the unique articulation and playing techniques of this very personal instrument while opening the timbral vistas and data handling sophistication of modern electronics.
"Fundamentally, I'm a guitar player. I never knew I had a sound until recently, but I do and I don't want to lose it. So now I would say I work with three sounds, or sound dimensions. First of all, the straight guitar; second, the guitar through the pedalboard; third, the GR-700 guitar synthesizer. Switching between the three and letting them interact is my biggest inspiration for writing and improvising."
Asia's third album is being recorded now, possibly for release for Christmas.