He bought his first electric guitar, a solid body Guyatone, around 1961, and one of the guitars he is most identified with, a Gibson ES-175D, in 1964. About this guitar, Howe said: "No one was playing archtop, hollowbody guitars in a rock band. People laughed at me and thought I was really snooty. To me, it was an object of art, it wasn't just a guitar." He made his first recording, Chuck Berry's "Maybellene", in 1964 with The Syndicats, who were produced by Joe Meek. He and other members of Tomorrow took part in a pie fight in the 1967 comedy about Mods in London, Smashing Time, starring Rita Tushingham, Lynn Redgrave, and Michael York. In 1968, he recorded albums with both Tomorrow (initially called The In Crowd) and Bodast.
Howe declined offers from both The Nice and Jethro Tull while waiting for a record deal to materialise for Bodast, but the group's prospective label went bankrupt. He was then approached by the members of Yes as a possible replacement for Peter Banks, who had appeared on the group's first two albums.
In April 1970, Howe joined Yes and after retreating to a farm in Devon to rehearse and write new material, he played his first show with the group at the Lyceum on July 7, 1970 (where the version of "Clap" on The Yes Album was recorded). Howe was pictured with the group on the non-Europe jacket of their second album, Time and a Word, which was released in August, although it was Banks who had actually played on the recording.
Beginning with The Yes Album, Howe's electric and acoustic guitars, combined with Jon Anderson's vocals, Chris Squire's bass, and Tony Kaye's keyboards were seen as an essential part of the band's early sound. The addition of Rick Wakeman after the departure of Tony Kaye for the following album, Fragile, created the classic Yes sound of Anderson-Howe-Squire-Bruford-Wakeman associated with the peak of the band's early achievements. To his already-formidable assortment of electric and acoustic guitar sounds, Howe added a unique prog-rock approach to pedal steel guitar in the next album, Close to the Edge. His classical and jazz influences, along with his penchant for ongoing experimentation, helped produce a playing style unique among rock musicians, while the group as a whole took a position as a leading progressive rock band.
Although the band underwent some personnel changes in the 1970s, Howe, Anderson, and Squire were the constant elements for the entire decade. In early 1980, however, Anderson and Wakeman left the group and were replaced a few weeks later by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. This second departure of Rick Wakeman was particularly difficult for Howe, who believed the two produced their best work while they were together. Howe continued with the band until Yes officially split up on 18 April 1981, only to see the band re-form in 1983 with Trevor Rabin on guitar. Over the next few years, Howe contributed to several albums produced by Horn for other artists (including Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Propaganda).
In 1988, Jon Anderson asked Howe, Wakeman, and Bill Bruford if they could take part in his next project. Howe contributed several song ideas to the eventual Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album. The new quartet was virtually the Close To The Edge Yes line-up reformed, leading to minor legal battles over ownership of the name "Yes". Eventually, under pressure from both management and label, they all joined forces with the members of the "official" Yes (which still included Anderson, plus Tony Kaye, Trevor Rabin, Chris Squire and Alan White) as a "mega-Yes" lineup to record the album, Union, which was released in 1991. In 1993, Howe performed guitar parts on and co-produced the Symphonic Music of Yes album of orchestral arrangements of classic Yes tracks, and then left the band after the Victory Music label left him out of an invitation to participate in the studio sessions that would lead to their next album. In 1991, he contributed a flamenco inspired guitar solo to the epic Queen song Innuendo, which would be featured on the album of the same name.
Howe rejoined Yes in 1995. Since Keys to Ascension, Howe has again appeared on all the albums recorded by Yes.
Despite the troubles Yes was experiencing at the time, Howe was voted "Best Overall Guitarist" in Guitar Player magazine five years in a row (1977 - 1981) and was inducted into Guitar Player's "Gallery of Greats" in 1981. The only other two guitarists to win the "Best Overall Guitarist" category for the "Gallery Of Greats" are Steve Morse and Eric Johnson.
Gibson Guitar Corporation, the maker of Howe's second electric guitar (which he was still playing forty years later), said that Howe "elevated rock guitar into an art form" and "helped define a new style of music known as art rock." In a tribute to Howe and his personal favourite ES-175 guitar, Gibson produced a Steve Howe Signature ES-175 in 2002.
In 1981, Howe, King Crimson's John Wetton, Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Geoff Downes of The Buggles formed the band Asia, but after two popular albums and a few hit singles, Howe left the band over differences with Wetton.
When Geoff Downes reformed Asia in 1992, Steve returned to play guitar on Aqua playing on 6 of the album's 13 tracks, as well as playing on their Aqua Club tour as a special guest. In 1996 he played on a song called Ginger meant for Arena, which was released on Archiva Vol. 1 later that year. He also played on 2 of the songs from Aura, released in 2001.
Some disagreements have since been reconciled as Wetton embraced sobriety and a new found appreciation for life, and Howe rejoined the other three founding members in a 25th anniversary reunion tour in late 2006. Since that time Asia have released a DVD called Fantasia and also released a new CD of music entitled Phoenix in April of '08. All 4 members have expressed a desire to continue their working relationship in the future.
In October, 1975, Howe released Beginnings, his first solo album. It featured Yes band members Alan White, Bill Bruford and Patrick Moraz and reached number 63 in the US and number 22 in the UK charts.
His second album as a soloist, The Steve Howe Album, was released in November, 1979. Howe played alone on half of the tracks, while others again feature White, Bruford and Moraz, along with vocalist Claire Hamill. Since 1991, Howe has released a solo recording almost every year, ranging from acoustic to progressive to a Bob Dylan tribute. In 2001 was released Natural Timbre, exclusively with acoustic guitars. His son Dylan, now a respected jazz musician, played the drums on his 1998 all-instrumental solo release, Quantum Guitar, while Elements, released in 2003, featured both Dylan and Howe's younger son Virgil (keyboards and vocals), as part of a project called Remedy.
Howe's personal web site, Guitar Rondo, was launched in May, 1996. The guitarist takes an active role in the site by conducting auctions for gold albums and selected guitars, and answering questions from fans.
On 24 May 1996 Howe received an honorary Doctorate in Musical Arts (DMA) from Five Towns College in Dix Hills, New York.
In 2007, Howe founded the Steve Howe Trio, a jazz band completed by his son Dylan on drums and Ross Stanley on Hammond organ.