"Mood for a Day": Yes' Steve Howe on His Classical Prog-Rock Masterwork

"'Mood For A Day' is quite a mixture of influences and segments of music," says Steve Howe. It's almost exactly 50 years since the release of the Yes LP Fragile, and Steve is talking about his classical-guitar solo spot on an album that now sits among the prog masterpieces of the '70s.

It was the drummer's fault. Bill Bruford came up with the idea that each member of Yes should have a solo track on the record where they might, as Steve recalls, "command the band." Or, in his case, adjourn the band.

And so it was that Steve had his Spanish spot, Bill conducted the brief, tortuous "Five Per Cent For Nothing," Chris Squire foregrounded his bass for "The Fish," Rick Wakeman went all symphonic synths for "Cans and Brahms," and Jon Anderson tracked multiple vocals for "We Have Heaven."

Steve had joined Yes in time for their previous long-player, The Yes Album, where he also had a solo spot, "The Clap," although he performed that on his steel-string '53 Martin 00-18. His main instruments in the band were certainly electric, and many fans will know him as primarily an electric guitarist. But here was an opportunity to showcase his growing interest in nylon-string classical guitar.

It was a rare inclusion on a rock record at the time. Among a select few others, George Harrison played a Ramírez classical on "And I Love Her" for the Hard Day's Night album in 1964, Robby Krieger of The Doors had a go at Albéniz for "Spanish Caravan" in '68, and José Feliciano hit with Krieger's "Light My Fire" the same year. Around the time Yes were recording Fragile in '71, Tony Iommi comforted Black Sabbath fans with "Orchid" on Master Of Reality, and Jan Akkerman set a classical guitar amid Mellotron strings for "Le Clochard" on Focus II (a.k.a. Moving Waves).

Steve Howe's interest had started when his older brother, Phil, switched him on to Vivaldi and the classical guitar world, including the two British titans of the instrument, Julian Bream and John Williams. "To me, they were both astoundingly brilliant," Steve says, "but there were differences. Bream was a very intense, emotional sort of player. On stage, it could seem like his emotions were pouring out on the guitar."

John Williams plays the second movement of Concierto de Aranjuez

John Williams, meanwhile, possesses something else that Steve admired. "He has this incredible professionalism to really focus on what he's up to and what he's doing, and not to be fussed—a more calculated sort of player. I did eventually meet him, and I'd always wondered what he'd say if I asked how hard it is to play Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. I said, 'How does it rate; will I ever play it?' And he replied, 'Well, it's actually pretty damned difficult!'"

As he had done with "Clap," Steve says that when it came time for Fragile he considered his influences and what he might do with them. "I thought, well, I can't play that, this, or that very well. But I could write my own tune. I met my wife Jan, we settled down in Hampstead Garden Suburb in London, and I wrote 'Mood For A Day' for her."

He reckons the piece, like many of his compositions, is something of a mixture. "It has several ingredients, and for me the art is always in finding how I can make them fit together. It starts with that flamenco-esque G to F-sharp-7, so I immediately set myself a mood. You knew you were somewhere," he says with a laugh.

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What were those ingredients? He cites the classical guitarist Carlos Montoya as one. "My opening phrase [sings the sequence], well, Carlos did that kind of thing lots of times. So I felt that was a movement I could do. But the biggest influence on my Spanish guitar work was Chet Atkins. The second album of his I bought was The Other Chet Atkins, and there was a drawing on the cover of a guy with a Spanish guitar."

Following on from the Teensville album, which he loved, Steve would buy more or less anything by Chet. "The Other Chet album is all Spanish guitar, though it wasn't serious classical music, it was the popularized side. He even starts off with 'Begin The Beguine.' That album showed me what a versatile guitarist Chet was, and that made me want to be the same. I wanted to do this kind of stuff as well."

Steve says that today he finds it hard to listen to that original recording of 'Mood For A Day' on Fragile, when he sat alone 50 years ago in front of a mic at Advision studios in London. "My ears are a little deaf to it" is how he puts it. "Because soon after that, I started playing it in a much more controlled way—not so slashy-clashy flamenco, but more classical. I really beat the hell of my guitar in that studio."

The guitar in question was a Conde flamenco, though not long after that Steve got fed up wrestling with its wooden tuners, and a few years later he hit upon an excellent Kohno No. 10 classical while Yes were on their first Japanese tour. It remains a treasured instrument. He did play "Mood For A Day" live sometimes on his steel-string 00-18, before he'd considered taking a classical out on the road and messing with the relatively crude amplification measures available back in the day.

His favorite captured live performance of the piece features in Yes's 1993 Symphonic Live film, when he picks up the Kohno (by now with a decent onboard pickup system) and plays some Vivaldi followed by 'Mood for A Day.' "That to me was a high spot," he recalls. "I was on stage, I was classical, and I had my gear. I adore that video."

Howe plays "Mood for a Day" live in 1971 with his steel-string Martin 00-18.

He also used the Kohno for on-stage classical pieces when he did solo tours, starting in '93, and around that time with Yes he tried using a prototype Gibson Chet Atkins CE. "That's also the model I play on my most talked-about guest appearance, on 'Innuendo' with Queen," he adds.

Steve happened to be in Montreux in 1989, working with his friend Paul Sutin, and one day he had some time off and went for lunch near Mountain studios, which Queen owned at the time. A chance meeting there with an old Yes tech, now working for Queen, took Steve into the studio, where the band played him their work in progress for the album that would become Innuendo.

"They played the 'Innuendo' track last—it ended, and I'm blown away, in awe," Steve remembers. "And they said, 'Well, that last track, we want you to play on it.' But Brian May had already done some incredibly good arranged guitars in the middle, where all the Spanish things start happening. They said, 'Yes, but we want something else.' They wanted me to go kind of ape a bit on top! I think they mentioned Paco de Lucia, and I went, 'Ah, right, yes.'"

He recalls using one of Brian's Gibson Chet Atkins nylon-string guitars, improvising for maybe three takes through the section. "Then we talked a bit, and went to have dinner. When we came back, we did some editing between the takes, got the best of the bunch, and then I thanked them and left—I remember Brian gave me a lift somewhere. They wrote me a letter, said thanks very much, added me to the PRS performance thing, and that was it. It was an honor that I've never forgotten."

These days, the current version of Yes features Steve alongside drummer Alan White, keyboardist Geoff Downes, vocalist Jon Davison, and bassist Billy Sherwood, and their latest album The Quest was released in October. Steve's solo work continues, too, and he is full of praise for the Italian classical guitarist Flavio Silva, who he's recorded with. For classical guitar today, Steve still plays his favored Kohno, and for stage work a more recent Martin 000C.

"Give me a Fender, give me a Gibson, give me a classical, give me a Martin—I'm still so excited by the sound. I can't believe that's possible. When will it end?"

He remembers another of the big names in classical guitar from the time back when he was starting to pick up the instrument. "I had an Andrés Segovia vinyl EP, a very important record to me. It only had four tracks, but it started me off. And I was lucky enough to see him perform when Yes were recording in Switzerland, probably late 1976 or early '77."

On to the stage in Lausanne stepped the great man, one of the most famous guitarists in the world. However, during the first half, Steve wondered what was going on. The maestro, then in his early eighties, did not seem to be on top form. "Then he came back from his interval," Steve remembers. "And he had it all reserved for the second half. He stunned everybody. An incredible performance. Then, right at the end, he did this great thing. After playing an encore, he went to the microphone and said, 'My guitar is tired.' And that was it. His guitar's a bit tired, so he's off! It was spellbinding."

Steve shows no signs of tiring of the guitar. "I'm amazed," he says. "I'm 74, and I still love the guitar. Give me a Fender, give me a Gibson, give me a classical, give me a Martin—I'm still so excited by the sound. I can't believe that's possible. When will it end?"

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include The Steve Howe Guitar Collection, The Ultimate Guitar Book (happy 30th birthday UGB!), and Legendary Guitars. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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