By Rod DeGeorge
Republished from our American Guitars Part I
I was very fortunate to have the chance to sit down and talk recently, to the one and only Greg Howe. Greg is definitely a master of his craft, pushing the boundaries of guitar and developing a rich catalog of solo recordings. He has also performed with industry heavyweights such as Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, N’Sync and Enrique Iglesias, just to name a few.
Greg is such an enormous talent and yet remains a very down to earth, humble and open guy. Our discussion covers how he got started in music, how he keeps inspired and where he is heading. Greg graciously opens the door for us to get a glimpse into his musical world.
Guitar Connoisseur: Can you tell us how and when you first got into music and specifically the guitar?
Greg Howe: Well, music has always been there, for as far back as I could remember, there was always a natural understanding of harmony and rhythm. My brother and I when we were really young, even before we could play instruments, we used to write songs. One of us would be singing a melody line and the other one would be humming the bass lines that outlined the chord changes. It was always the case, we just loved music. It’s a corny thing to say, but I really don’t feel like it’s something that I chose, it’s something that chose me. It’s just something that had to happen.
And then later, my Dad started getting irritated, because although we did have an acoustic guitar around the house, and we would pick it up, we wouldn’t really play it conventionally. We would just make noises with it. So he said you guys have to take music lessons if you want to be musicians. I actually wanted play drums, and I should say, we had a drum kit for kids, and I could already play Rolling Stones songs and Ringo Star kind of stuff. You know, I could play basic beats and understood the hi-hat, snare & kick drum relationship. So, I wanted to play drums, but my brother sort of raised his hand first and said “drums”, so, I took guitar lessons.
However, I only took about 3 lessons in my whole life, because when I started studying at this local music store, I had a different teacher every week and they were teaching sort of the Mel Bay Method. Basically, you are learning how to sight read. This wasn’t really helpful to me because they were these simple melodies that I would have to go home and learn for the week, but I could play them by ear, I didn’t need to read it. So, I would just come back the next week and sit in front of the guy and act like I am reading it, but I would just be playing by ear. So, I never really learned how to sight read. I mean, I can read music now, but I have never really been good at sight reading.
So yeah, we were huge fans of the Beatles, and then in the 70’s, when we were kids, it was Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, pre-MTV era of music on television. We would see the Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, you know, all these great acts and we just wanted to do that. Literally, we would grab tennis rackets and pretend we were playing guitars and jump around on the bed. So, we were all into that and then my older sister had a boyfriend who had a guitar, and he gave me my first electric guitar. It was like an old Goya. It almost looked like one of those guitars on an old Ventures album or something. It had like four pickups, you know, that whole thing. So, I started learning chords.
My parents had foster kids when we were young and one of them was a guitar player, and he knew chords. That’s really what I wanted to do, I just wanted to learn how to play songs that I heard. He showed me chords and then my brother and I would write music, or simulate music, and then we had an actual musical backdrop. So, that went on for a long time, I didn’t even know what lead guitar was. It wasn’t really until that same foster kid who had left, came back to visit about a year later, and I said “let’s go play guitar”. We picked up guitars, and then he did something that I had never seen before, which was, he bent a note. And that was in my mind at that time, the coolest thing that I had ever seen done on the guitar. So, I was like, “hey, what was that?”, and then he showed me, and then, really for the next 6 months, I was just bending notes, and I kind of inadvertently discovered the Pentatonic scale. Then I just started playing around and simulating solos that I’d hear on the radio. Solos like the Commodores “Easy Like a Sunday Morning”. I remember that was one of the first solos that I learned, that’s a great classic solo.
And then eventually, I started listening to Zeppelin stuff and being able to simulate Jimmy Page and copy his licks verbatim, and it all seemed pretty easy to me. So, I didn’t take it that seriously, I wasn’t really that driven. I was into music, but I didn’t know that was what I wanted to do with my life yet. And the guitar seemed like something that I could do at anytime, it’s easy to do. And it wasn’t really until I was about 15 when I heard the first Van Halen album, and it just completely rocked my world. It completely changed everything, because I was hearing things that just quite literally seemed impossible to do. And so, that became the new challenge for me. I needed to crack the Van Halen code. So then I got really into guitar and I remember Van Halen came to Nassau Coliseum. So,a bunch of my friends drove down there. At that time I was probably still too young to drive, but I had to see what the secret was. Everyone had said that there was something about Van Halen using his right hand on the fretboard, and I actually thought they meant that he was fingerpicking. That the end of Eruption was an arpeggiated fingerpicking thing on 3 separate strings, like a classical guitarist. But I had to see it, and when I saw it, I was like, “that’s what he’s doing”. I remember that night when I got dropped off, I ran upstairs and played Eruption, literally played it that night. Then I became really obsessed with the guitar, because I was sort of the first kid on the block that could play Van Halen stuff. And I was sort of really reinvigorated about the guitar and I really became obsessed, it became my whole life. All the way up through, and right out of high school we had bands. My brother, who was 2 years younger, and I would put bands together. I put a band together called Duke right out of high school, my brother was still in high school, so we had to lie about our ages to get into clubs.
GC: I remember seeing Duke in a club in PA and I was just blown away! I was thinking who is this guy playing Van Halen and all this crazy stuff. Since then, I always remembered your name and when you had your debut release on Shrapnel, I remember thinking, I have to get this!
GH: Ah Man, that is so cool and so flattering to hear! It’s funny, because there was no YouTube back then, so I don’ have an accurate reference point. I’m sure if I saw a lot of that footage, I would be like “Ouch”
GC: I remember being blown away. Actually, where we were in PA, there was some incredible talent. I would go out to a club and see you one week, Richie Kotzen the next week, there were just killer musicians in that area. Growing up in that area, the bar was set so high, basically on a world class level. So, just to get noticed in your home town, you had to have something going on.
GH: I think your right. I have been in a lot of different parts of the country, and lived in different parts of the country. I think you are actually right, that area seems like there is are a lot of high level musicians out there.
GC: Vinnie Moore wasn’t far away in DE
GH: And Paul Gilbert was in PA as well
GC: Yes, that’s right. Now, you have already touched on this next question, but I’d like to talk a little more about this if you would. Listening to you play, you have so much musicality, it seems like your influences are much broader than just the guitar. Was it music that led you to the guitar, or was it the guitar that led you to the various styles & elements of music?
GH: Sure. When I said earlier that the foster kid showed me chords, you know to me, that was everything, I had no idea what lead guitar was until the “bent note” incident. I had never thought about it. It wasn’t my thing, I wasn’t really a “guitar player”. And I think honestly to this day, there is still some of that with me. The 90’s was that era, right after I got signed, pretty much immediately afterwards, the whole guitar thing died. So, I made a lot of these fusionesque albums really just to keep my name out there while I try to figure out what to do. I didn’t really have a plan. It was an odd era for me, writing music for the sake of designing a backdrop for lead guitar was so far from anything that I had ever intended. So, it’s always strange to me that people think of me as a Fusion guitarist. Then, if I do something like a Maragold project, they are like “that’s different for you”. But really, that is much more of where I come from. Even to this day, with so much of the stuff I write, it’s almost like I have to search for places to put the guitar in there. I have written tons of music, that doesn’t even have guitar. So, it’s a little bit of a struggle because I have this reputation as a lead guitar player, and part of that came from just the need to get something happening. When we were Duke, we tried to get signed by every label. We did a bunch of showcases and we were huge with the under age crowd. We had a big reputation and we were under the wing of CBS records for a minute. We had a lot of “almosts”.
So, when I submitted my tape to Shrapnel Records, it was really just sort of a “I doubt very much that he will even notice me”, but he is a record label. So, it was more about “lets get someone interested”, than I want to be recognized as a guitarist.
So, once I got on Shrapnel, I realized there was this whole other level of playing, that was just like, I mean, I had heard Yngwie at that point, and to me he was the first guy that really took the whole Van Halen thing to the next level from a technical place. And I didn’t ever really think of it being beyond that, then suddenly I am hearing these guys from Mike Varney like Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore & Tony McAlpine, I hadn’t heard of these guys, I lived out in the sticks. When I started hearing these guys that were taking it to brand new places, it was good for me because it force me to have to take it to a new place. I had gotten really comfortable being able to do the Van Halen kind of thing and getting some of the faster picking stuff happening because of Yngwie. But, this was a whole other level, so it forced me to have to really step up my game.
When I got out to CA, I ended up recording my record at the same time Jason Becker was recording his, so he was there at the studio. And his technique, especially at that point, was almost beyond comprehension. It was insane. And it was a really great experience for me because, first of all, he is an amazing person, but he was so good and he was young, I mean I was young, but he was even younger than me. His techniques were just things that I hadn’t seen, so just in those brief couple of weeks that I got to hang out with him, it really elevated my playing to a completely new place.
So, in that sense the whole Shrapnel Records thing has been good, but I do feel like on some level, it has be a little bit of a distraction from my real intent, if that makes sense?
GC: Yes, definitely. One thing for me as a listener, and from talking to other people about music from that era, your albums are ones that people are still talking about. The thing that stands out is the feel that you had, you had amazing technique, but it seems like the feel and the vibe came first for you. It seems very natural and organic, more so than a lot of people that came after that initial Shrapnel blast.
GH: Thanks! That’s hugely flattering to hear. My influences were never those types of players. I would lean more towards Van Halen than I may Randy Rhoads, or more John Sykes than Yngwie. Whenever I would hear those neoclassical type players, I would always remember watching my thoughts and going, these guys have such amazing technique and if I had that technique, I would apply it to a more soulful backdrop. So, once I started to get my chops up there, and I got the deal, I was really looking forward to having it be in a context like I just described.
GC: What would be your ideal musical situation where you could really be yourself?
GH: I am working on and off with a guy named Michael Grimm whose got a ridiculously soulful voice. It’s very casual right now and we’re just doing it for fun. We’ll see where it goes, if anywhere. But it’s definitely fun writing this kind of soulful music. It’s got a lot of blues and funk elements to it. I am putting a band together with a guy named Michael Grimm, and it’s real soulful, his voice is ridiculously soulful. And the music is sort of following his step, you know. It’s going to be real funky and real soulful. When I think about an ideal scenario for me, the type of musical situation that will just be always fulfilling and satisfying, it would be a funky soul band with a vocalist. That’s where I live, that’s my ideal thing. I think the Maragold thing was very cool, it ended up going musically to a place that I didn’t really steer it to, it kind of just went that way. It ended up coming out a lot more Pop/Rock than I had originally thought it would. This current project however, is coming together almost exactly how I planned it.
GC: Although everyone knows you as this amazing lead player, listening to your material through the years, and hearing the different elements and rhythms underneath your leads, this seems like a place where you would feel right at home with.
GH: Well thank you. These are all very flattering words, you are a great guitarist yourself, so these are all doubly flattering.
GC: Wow. Thanks man!
GH: Sure, of course. And again when I think of my influences, Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Hendrix, the rhythm thing was as big as their lead thing. It was a complete package of music. So, I’ve always been that way, I remember, especially with Van Halen, when I was really studying his stuff, I’d study his rhythm stuff as much as the lead stuff, because it was sometimes just as challenging, and just as musical, if not more sometimes.
GC: Yes, the rhythms between he and Alex (Van Halen) were very unique and interesting, and such a big part of their sound.
GH: It was a huge part of their sound. And he was one of the only guys, especially back then in the rock realm, who could really swing. I mean, they would have the whole element of swing so pronounced in their music. You just didn’t really hear that from Black Sabbath or even Jimmy Page back then.
GC: You have had an incredible career thus far (touring with Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, N’Sync, Enrique Iglesias etc), and have created a such a deep body of work, can you tell us some of the moments that stand out for you personally.
GH: That’s a good question. I’d say almost all of it, you know. All of it is exciting. Obviously, to have played with Michael, that has got to be one of the highlights, if not the highlight. It was really a sort of dual sentiment, because it was one of the most intimidating things and also one of the most exciting.
GC: That’s right, you didn’t have much time to prepare, did you?
GH: No, I did not. I did not have much time. Actually, I did have time, but I didn’t take advantage of it. Because after months had gone by, I didn’t believe it was going to happen, so I just stopped preparing. Months had gone by so I wasn’t that prepared when they called. That was a definite highlight though. I think getting the Fender deal was also a highlight. That happened early on, and Mike Varney was very instrumental in negotiating that. That was big. You have to understand, I went from building my guitar because I couldn’t afford to buy one, to having this amazing endorsement deal with these great HM Strats. And then suddenly full page advertisements, clinics and wide spread recognition. It was really sort of an overnight thing for me. I went from being this kid from Easton (PA) to suddenly being recognized around the country, or around the world. So, that was a big one, and that took a minute to adjust to. Let’s see, other ones, there are so many, it’s hard not to forget some big ones.
GC: As far as recordings that you have done, are there ones that still jump out at you and make you say, “I’m glad I got that on an album”?
GH: Yeah, there are a lot of moments, and it’s interesting that you ask that. I do webcam lessons, and I do have students that want to learn some of the older stuff. You know, things off of like Five and Parallax and stuff. And my style has changed, it keeps evolving all the time, so, a lot of times when I go back and listen to that stuff, it sort of feels like I am listening to someone else, or I have to listen as if I am learning someone else’s solo.
One of the things I will say is that I really do feel good about all my albums, despite the fact, that some of the earlier ones especially, were pretty under par as far as sonic delivery. I do spend a lot of time on songs, so, I don’t just throw an excuse for soloing together and call it a song. I have to like a song, I have to like it before I put guitar on it.
As far as specific moments, the Extraction CD, every moment of that thing really blows my mind because of Dennis and Victor. It really fell together in a way that was more than I could have asked for. I expected it to be really great, but it actually came out being better that I anticipated.
GC: That’s great!
GH: Yeah, it’s a great feeling. I have done some albums where I’ve sequenced the drums and played bass and done it all, and the nice thing about that is, you get to have things exactly the way you want them. But, the cool thing that I am always reminded of when you have other musicians, especially great musicians, is that allowing their influences and input, sometimes takes things to a place that they never would have gone to otherwise.
GC: Listening to you throughout your career, you continue to evolve and expand in different directions as an artist, as opposed to just progressing down the same road, or within the same style. With that, and with you starting out at such a high level of both technique and feel on your debut album, how to you challenge yourself to continue to evolve with your writing and playing?
GH: That’s a really good question. And I don’t know that, if maybe I am a little strange when it comes to this, but I am inspired mostly by roads that I have not yet traveled. What inspires me most is to take on a musical endeavor that’s different than what I have taken on before. Even if it’s not hugely different, but just different enough to feel like new territory. I’m simply just not satisfied hearing myself sound like I sounded last year. I’m just not, I can’t roll with that, whether it be songwriting or lead guitar playing. Without that challenge, or without me challenging myself, I lose inspiration. For me the standard is way up, my own standard is way high, sometimes to a fault I think. I have recorded so much material where I spend a whole day on it and I say, “this is it”, and then I come back the next day, listen to it and go “this sucks!”
I feel like when I am writing music, or doing anything creative, I honestly feel like what I am looking for already exists, and so I have to just find it. Do you know what I mean?
GC: Yes, exactly! That is the same for me.
GH: So, if I find something that doesn’t feel like “it”, it doesn’t work for me. I mean yes, I can connect this bridge to this chorus with this part, but this part isn’t the one that is supposed to be there. So, I will pace the room, or go outside and take a walk, and think about it in my mind. So, there is a constant or perpetual burn, I need to remain excited. In order for that to happen, I need to keep challenging myself.
GC: The way you were talking about creating, like what you are looking for, is already there, that is the exact process I go through when composing. It’s almost like an archaeologist, searching in different areas for individual parts to put it together as a whole, the way it was supposed to be.
GH: Yes! Exactly!
GC: That brings me to another question. When the things that are coming to your mind, although they may work, but aren’t the “it” that you were looking for, is there a special process you go through to try to open up to allow the right parts to come through?
GH: There are some strange, sort of abstract things that I do in my mind, that I guess I will reveal. One of the things that I do, is I imagine a guy on some busy highway, probably like the 405 in LA, driving to his mundane job, and he’s stuck in traffic and he just wants to escape the craziness. So, he grabs this CD, which happens to be mine, and he puts it in. Then I hear the music coming out of his speakers, and I literally hear it as though that is the album that is done. So, when it gets to the section that I was looking for, it sometimes just shows up in my mind. Does that make any sense?
GC: That makes perfect sense, I can’t believe how similar our approaches are. In my case, it is me in my car listening to the final mix waiting for the part to come.
GH: Wow, that’s so interesting!
GC: Can you talk a little about your signature guitar and amp?
GH: Absolutely, You know, you probably know better than anyone, my taste in guitars are very basic. I am not looking to reinvent the wheel. I like the basic electric guitar layout. So, I’m pretty easy to work with when it comes to working with a company. We are doing another signature model with Carvin/Kiesel and this is going to be more of stratocaster, a 24 fret strat type of thing. I am discovering as I get older, I am leaning more towards a Fender direction, sort of moving away form the harder edge, British thing. I’m even switching to a lot of single coils now, so my mood is just changing. My goals about guitars are just different. As far as searching for that tone that I hear in my head, that is a lifelong search. I mean, I am constantly evolving, and I like the fact that you made the distinction earlier that evolving doesn’t necessarily mean progressing. It just means evolving, or morphing into something that is a bit different than what you were. So, there is always that, when looking for tone. You may nail the tone that you were looking for, but by the time you nail it, you are kind of looking for something else. I am kind of going through that right now. There’s something about that full sized humbucker thing that’s starting to get old to me. So, we are experimenting with some twin blade stuff, and even single coils. Hopefully, noiseless single coils. But, there is a certain attack you get with a single coil, I call it a “foot foot” attack that is not as clackity as a humbucker.
GC: Are you talking about a soft consonant vs a hard consonant, like an “f” sound as opposed to a “k” sound?
GH: Yes! yes.
GC: Now, we spoke briefly about this when we caught up at NAMM, but do you find that some amps may have great tone, but just don’t respond well for you and your style of playing? Is there a certain criteria that a amp must meet for you, to fit your style of playing?
GH: Yeah, that dilemma is the dilemma of my life. That is the amp dilemma. That’s why there aren’t many amps that really do it right. Because, yes, getting a tone or sound is one thing, but getting it to feel right is something entirely different. The big thing for me is if I get it to sound good, it doesn’t feel right, once I get it to feel right, it’s lost the tone. So, to find that balance is a tricky place. We are actually doing another version of the Maragold amp, but it won’t be called that because it’s entirely different. But we are designing something now, that will honestly blow the Maragold amp away. And the Maragold amp was released prematurely, so I don’t feel like we quite hit the mark the way I wanted to. I think it’s a very cool amp, but it didn’t quite get to where I wanted it to get to. So, I think this new one will.
But I will say, even DV Mark is discovering that what I am asking for, is much deeper than just tone. I actually use the analogy with amp guys, because amp guys will talk about tone, and gain stages, and eq’ing. So, usually, tone comes down to what manner will we achieve gain, and what the eq structure is going to look like. And to me that doesn’t address the character of an amp. It doesn’t address the immediacy of it or how quick it responds. I said this to a couple of the amp guys, let’s not deal with eq, or compression, or saturation, or gain, let’s just deal with the characteristic of the amp. And I will ask them, who is your favorite singer? And they say something like, I don’t know, Michael Bolton. And I say, you like Michael Bolten, let me ask you this, do you like him because he sounds like him? And they say “yes”. So, if you hear him on a $3,000 stereo system, you know that it is him. And, if you hear him on a 1’ AM radio speaker, you are still going to know that it is him, because there is a characteristic in his voice that is before the tone. If this was as simple as eq’ing, then according to that theory, you could take anyone off the street and make them sound like Mariah Carey with the right eq. So, there is a deeper characteristic that has to be achieved first, and all the great amps have that. Especially the older Marshalls, they have a characteristic that even if the tone of the amp is different from amp to amp, there is still a character in how it behaves and responds. There is a characteristic that remains. Same with Fender amps and Vox amps. There is a fundamental characteristic that is before the tone. And yes, that is also where the response and how it feels under your fingers comes from.
GC: Exactly. If you turn the guitar volume down and you play a run just hearing the strings, and then you play the same thing through the amp, and it doesn’t respond the way the strings did, it can mess with your technique.
GH: That is exactly right! And if you are an amp builder, and you are not a guitar player, man, it is so hard to describe to them what that issue is. Because it isn’t really descriptive, you have to just know what it is.
GC: Yes, you have to experience it, to really know it
GH: Yes, right. It’s an experiential condition that’s not something that you can describe, it really isn’t. And it is so important, and this is the challenge I think. When I am dealing with amp builders, how can I get them to understand these abstract ideas? It’s sort of like describing the color blue to someone who has never seen it. There is no reference point.
GC: I know one of your early influences was Eddie Van Halen, and he did a lot of reworking or rebuilding his guitars early on. Did you find yourself experimenting a lot with different bodies, necks, frets, and pickups, to achieve the sounds you were looking for?
GH: I didn’t do it out of the same reasons he did. Honestly, when I started getting serious about guitar, I didn’t have enough money to buy a cool electric guitar. So, I would take these old beat up guitars, like a Hondo or something, and then order a neck from like Warmoth or JB Player. I actually started to piece together these guitars and learning how to wire them, getting a hold of schematics and that. So, I took the more economic approach, but at the time I didn’t mind, because I was into Eddie and I knew that he did that. So, I could pretend I did it for the same reasons, even though I was doing it out of necessity.
GC: What is on the horizon for Greg Howe?
GH: I’m working on an instrumental album which is due to be out at the end of this year. It’s pretty exciting for me since I haven’t put an instrumental album out since 2008. It’s coming along nicely, but it’s hard to tell exactly where the direction of the album will be at this point because we just started recording the basic tracks. Oftentimes the real feel of the song starts to take shape after my guitar parts get recorded and tracked, but more than likely it will probably be an amalgamation of my style collectively over the past 20 years. Well the album with Michael Grimm is going to be out this year. Now, I don’t know if it would be realistic if tour dates will be set up for this year though. If so, they would be towards the end. But that is where the majority of my time is being spent, writing and recording with Michael. Also, I am going out on a European tour with Stu Hamm towards the end of the year, and then I will be participating in Guitarfest in South America. Argentina and Chile’ I believe. But the majority of what I am doing, is really focusing on this record.
GC: Great! Very cool. Are you producing this yourself or are you bringing someone else in?
GH: That is a good question, both are being discussed. I would like to hone in on some of the songs a little more before bringing someone in, if we do. I don’t know if we need to, but there are some people we know that I think would be interested and that could quite possibly offer some really helpful input.
GC: Either way, I know a lot of people will be looking forward to hearing some new stuff from you, for sure. Well, I want to thank you for taking the time and sharing your experiences and thoughts on these subjects. It was, as always, great fun catching up with you again.
GH: Yeah, It was great! Great to see you again.
GC: Thank You!
To learn more about Greg Howe please visit: greghowe.com
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