In the 50 years-plus that Steve Hackett has been making music, his keen observations of sights and sounds he’s absorbed from across the globe have richly influenced his expansive catalog.
One of the many striking things about the British native rock icon is the deep passion he continues to carry for writing and composing songs that don’t fit inside a tight genre box. Ultimately, Hackett loves to craft songs and play shows that reflect a part of his creative past, present, and future. Many fans know him from his early years when he helped launch British rock band Genesis into international fame. He went on to become a globally adored musical tour de force in his prolific solo career.
From the age of 16, Hackett began placing ads to land some gigs and hopefully, form a band. After about five years, he grew frustrated when nothing clicked. He revised his request to read, “guitarist-writer seeks receptive musicians determined to strive beyond existing stagnant music forms."
Peter Gabriel answered the ad and their time together in Genesis changed the trajectory of Hackett’s life. He remembers the call and his wish to shake up the status quo back then.
“Peter Gabriel gave me a call at that time I think because I put something in which was idealistic,” Hackett told AXS in a recent exclusive interview. “I was extremely frustrated by then. I wasn’t getting people who were really interested in shaping music and going for this pan genre thing of using influences from everywhere, from jazz, from classical, from pop, and rock. I was very interested in that – the wider or broader the base of ideas and tastes that might form at any band. It was really important to me that we tried to surprise people.”
At the time, Genesis consisted of Gabriel on lead vocals, keyboardist Tony Banks, bassist Mike Rutherford, and Phil Collins on drums. Hackett easily fit the bill as a new lead guitarist, and he liked the band’s willingness to evolve and stand out in the changing music landscape. Back then, emerging bands heavily leaned toward the blues and standouts included established artists like Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles.
“No one could afford to be The Beatles it seemed. Their music started to change towards the end of the ‘60s,” Hackett said, “You started to get this kind of hybrid in a band. There was Procol Harum and Jethro Tull and King Crimson and YES. Genesis was on their way to be part of that change – of that kind of all-inclusive music, I like to think of it. So, I was lucky to meet them.” (*)
Hackett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 as a member of Genesis. He helped the group shape their sound by suggesting that they start using a Mellotron. He also pioneered the guitar “tapping” technique, later used by Brian May and Eddie Van Halen. Fans and critics alike praised his exquisite guitar solos featured on epic Genesis tracks like “The Musical Box,” “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight,” and “Firth of Fifth,” among many others. (*)
The latter track appears on the band’s seminal 1973 album, Selling England by the Pound. Hackett is currently playing the collection live on tour in its entirety, along with selections from his acclaimed solo album, Spectral Mornings, which hits its 40th anniversary this year. Furthermore, he's performing material from his latest solo album, At the Edge of Light. Hackett's North American tour leg launches on Sept. 12 (Tickets).
The charismatic musician reflected on why his “Firth of Fifth” solo remains a cross-generational fan favorite at shows around the world. He shared that Tony Banks originally wrote the music for the piano. He started playing it on the guitar one day, and it turned into a timeless, globally treasured piece of work.
“It happens to be a gorgeous melody. Therefore, I don’t have to play fast on it,” Hackett explained. “It’s a very slow melody. It’s got one little fast phrase in it. But in the main, before I get to play that, if I remember, I put a little talcum powder on my fingers so that I can slide around more efficiently on it and that makes quite a bit of difference on that solo. There’s something about it. It gives me a light touch; it means I can slide around. It’s a very kind of evocative solo. It sounds like a high-flying bird or something. There’s something about the long-sustained note, and then it goes into the solo. It happens to be a really good piece of music.”
Music lovers everywhere will likely agree that solos give guitarists a chance to shine and they are often what an iconic musician like Hackett is remembered for. A brilliant multi-instrumentalist, Hackett is a consummate musician’s musician. Many reviews justifiably brand him as a musical maestro and virtuoso.
When asked to name his favorite guitar, Hackett confessed that he has a deep relationship with four of them: A 1957 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, a Japanese Fernandes Goldtop (that used to belong to Gary Moore), a Zemaitis 12 string (that notably “sounds like a whole bunch of instruments”), and another Japanese model, with his Yairi Nylon.
“I think I’m probably married to four of them and it would be really hard to part with any of them. It’s a kind of polygamy of sorts, isn’t it?” he joked, adding, “Some of these manufacturers have now passed on, and they’re in guitar workshop heaven, many of these guys. So, you can’t get any more of these.”
Hackett harbors a love of classical music. As such, these influences are sprinkled throughout his critically acclaimed, sonically diverse body of work. To date, he's released around 30 solo albums (some of them being live albums). Composing and arranging music takes talent, passion, and skill. The prolific UK-native singer-songwriter has proven his prowess at doing it for over 50 years.
He discussed crafting solos and the way he weaves international flavor into his songs.
“In recent years, I’ve enjoyed Middle Eastern music, and I use a solo in a way where I might come up with a figure that cycles on itself in an unusual way but comes back to the melody when you least expect it," Hackett said. “So, it’s a kind of style or technique, but it tends to borrow from other instruments, and I won’t be thinking necessarily of the guitar. I often think about the violin. I often think about Indian music and Arabic music and the kind of harmonic minor type scales. I find them to be very evocative."
"Also, I‘ve noticed that when you hear the late 19th century or the early 20th-century Russian romantic composers, there’s something of the East in what they’re writing," he continued. "You get it with Tchaikovsky. You get it with Rachmaninoff; you get it with Borodin.”
Sweeping guitar solos can transport listeners and almost conversationally tell part of a song’s story. Hackett said, “There’s an invisible or subliminal story being told through what I’m playing – sometimes through what I’m singing. The way the chord shapes and rhythms work with all that stuff. It’s a strange invisible world with lots of rhetorical conversations.
I can’t tell you where it comes from at the end of the day. Everyone waits for this moment of divine inspiration, and when it finally comes, it’s a wonderful thing. I do tend to wait for it. I don’t want to be too conscious when I write stuff. I want to be able to hear it. I don’t really want to be able to write it. If I get a spark that might be really personal, but also really universal, then I can do the rest. But I need that spark. Usually, two phrases that work together. Then I say ‘That’s transcendent. The rest can be human.'”
In the face of his success, Hackett remains humble. He readily credits everyone he’s worked with as an ongoing source of inspiration.
“The people that I work with have proved to be a great source of inspiration and support,” he told AXS. “Roger King, who engineers the albums and puts them together with me. My wife Jo, and all the people who contribute. I write a lot of stuff with Jo. She’s pretty concerned that I get it right. And then there’s also the 20 or so people that are on the album from the four corners of the globe.” (*)
He named countries like India, the United States, the UK, Sweden, and more, adding, “The last two albums have got people from all over. It’s a United Nations band. I’m proud of it.”
Music impacts different people in different ways. Hackett feels strongly about its healing power and “ambassadorial” nature as an art form.
“It’s a bit like the subtext of music. It’s to reenergize. It’s to heal. It’s to do all of those things,” he noted. “Typically, people want to have a great time and forget about themselves, for a while, for the duration of the song or the concert.
I’m always reminded of the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, who’s now passed on. But the great work that he did with the movie “Awakenings,” based on the book that he wrote. He’s studying the outer reaches of mental health, and he talks about one woman who suffered from akinesia, the inability to move. She would freeze like a statue. She’d only be able to move when she heard music that moved her emotionally. Then she could move again physically. There you get the idea of music as medicine that’s healing. That’s just one example of it.
I think that’s what music is for and I also think it’s an ambassador for peace and multi-culturalism, building bridges between nations. The fact that in England, we’re listening to the Americans. For many years, the charts were dominated by what was going on in the USA. Then a tide turned at a certain point. It’s ambassadorial, isn’t it?”
Hackett makes bold lyrical, political statements with At the Edge of Light. The record hit the Top 40 in the UK, and an array of international artists and instruments appear on the album, including on “Underground Railroad,” which he co-wrote with his wife and Rodney King.
Durga and Lorelei McBroom (Pink Floyd) provide vocals, and Hackett plays dobro, harmonica, and the guitar. The stunning result takes listeners back to the time of Harriet Tubman’s courageous mission to free slaves and lead them to safe houses via the Underground Railroad.
Sheema Mukherjee appears on sitar on “Shadow and Flame,” Malik Mansurov plays tar on “Fallen Walls and Pedestals,” and Rob Townsend plays an Armenian instrument, the duduk, on “Beasts in Our Time” and “Under the Eye of the Sun.”
Hackett candidly discussed the underlying theme of balancing darkness against the light on the album. “I think the whole album flies in the face of modern politics, where the ugly rise of nationalism is being touted as the answer to the world’s problems,” he stated. “I can’t see how, when we’ve got the level of technology for the world to be able to stay in touch with itself, to be able to work together.”
He added, “I think music, it knows no borders, and it builds bridges. That’s why we’ve got over 20 people on that album from everywhere, from India to Azerbaijan, the United States, the UK, Sweden, and the album before that. That had 20-odd people from everywhere. From Iceland, from everywhere. I work with Swedish guys in my band live. It’s been amazing doing that. They’re all brothers and sisters – that’s how I see it.”
“Those Golden Wings,” is an epic romantic standout on the album. Stretching 11 minutes long, it features multiple musical sections. Hackett wrote the song for his wife, and she ended up co-writing it with him.
“I was trying to write a simple love song for my wife. It was lyrically about her, and I played her what was potentially the verse and a couple of choruses,” he explained. “She said, ‘Would you mind if we wrote the third verse together?’ And I said, ‘Okay, fine, happy to share it.’
We kept picking with ideas, and every time I thought the song was finished, I thought it could have another section with this piece, and this piece. When it was all done, I thought, I’ve got this idea of an introduction to it that could function a little bit like a short overture in a sort of Russian ballet — thinking again of Tchaikovsky, the way the scene gets set at the beginning of something.
I wanted to have this writing figure at the beginning of it, and she wasn’t at all sure about that at first, that it belonged with the song. I thought well, I’m going to persist with this because I think people might like it. In other words, to allow the song to become as multifaceted as possible."
I guess it’s not that revolutionary if you think that Genesis songs were often 11 minutes long and that was the world that I came from," Hackett observed. "So, with this song, we have solos, we have moments of rock, we’ve got moments that sound more like classical music and different choirs coming in and out. Sometimes they’re real and sometimes they’re sampled. But they’re written with samples, and I wanted to mix and match and make the whole thing something worthy of her. So, it really is the big epic track on the album. Lots of changes.”
For several decades, Hackett has been putting out albums at an impressively fast clip. For instance, there is a short gap between 2017’s The Night Siren and At the Edge of Light’s January release this year. As expected, he confirmed that he seems to be in a sort of constant “creative mode.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer shares a common plight of many writers. Inspiration can strike him at very inconvenient times.
“I write everywhere, and basically it’s when I’m on the run,” Hackett said. “Sometimes, the best ideas come along when I’m almost too busy, and I can’t find a pen. It’s really annoying. Suddenly, an idea comes in [and I] try and get it down somehow. The best ideas always come to me when I’m late for something or getting on a plane, and I’m already running late. A great idea comes in [and it’s] terrible. I think, just try and make time – make sure the moment you get in the taxi, you write it down, before you speak to people.”
Above all, Hackett loves playing live shows and connecting to audiences all over the world. His North American Tour launches on Sept. 12, and he’s already sold out multiple venues.
He’s thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive response from his audiences thus far. He’s also excited to play sets filled with tracks from what he considers to be his three favorite albums.
“It’s been wonderful. The response has been fantastic. Attendance has been brilliant. I’m playing stuff from three favorite albums," he said. "Selling England is my favorite Genesis album, from the time when John Lennon said, ‘Genesis is a band I’m currently listening to.’ So, for that alone, it gives it a literal sanction that can’t be bought. It was a happy time musically for me.
Spectral is an album that -it was a very happy time – my first touring band outside Genesis. We’d all put together that, already test-driven quite a lot of that material live before we made the album. So, that again is a favorite of not only mine but of many fans.
The Edge of Light, the current album, is another favorite. I think the two rock albums, of the solos, are the best I’ve ever done —the most recent one, At the Edge of Light, and Spectral. I think they’ve got a kind of freshness. It’s also a feeling that you’re on a journey and that wherever you get to on that journey is just as interesting as the places you just visited. It’s a continuous journey or dream.”
From his early Genesis years to his enduring solo success, Hackett appreciates the large international fan base he’s connected with along the way. He's also grateful that they enable him to continue “making noise” for a living, which he considers to be a privilege.
When asked if he wanted to send out a message to everyone who has followed his incredible journey, he replied, “I’m really looking forward to coming to play, once again. If they’ve enjoyed some of the previous shows, I think they will love this one. I like to think it’s an amazing show, the band is incredible. I’m really proud to be taking this show out in front of people. I mean every word of it.”
*Editor's Note: Minor edits made due to transcription errors