Greg Howe Interview - Fusion Maestro
Greg Howe burst upon the international guitar scene in 1988 with his eponymous self titled debut album. Greg’s brand of hyper kinetic rock guitar was a combination of world class technique and jaw dropping virtuosity with a bluesy and funky sensibility that clearly separated him from the herd.
This was the golden age of shred guitar, when every week a new speed picking and arpeggio wielding guitar master would arrive on the scene. Greg was initially presumed to be part of the same mould as Vinnie Moore, Tony Macalpine, Jason Becker and a host of other of lesser known players – being discovered by Mike Varney and signing to his “Shrapnel Records” label only reinforced this image. However, as even a cursory listen to any of Greg’s early albums will attest to, Greg was approaching this “shred” (for want of a better word – as this is mainly used in a derogatory sense nowadays) genre from an entirely different angle.
Since 1993 Greg has become essentially a fusion based rock guitarist, with a steady stream of increasingly sophisticated and well received albums culminating in 2004’s “Extraction” which saw Greg team up with two colossus of the jazz fusion world, bassist extradinaire Victor Wootton and drumming legend Dennis Chambers. This album has sold extremely well for the genre, and had a host of excellent reviews from the guitar press and media throughout the world.
Greg has also had a very successful career as a touring guitarist to some of the Pop worlds biggest and most iconic stars: from Michael Jackson and NSYNC to Justin Timberlake via Enrique Iglesias.
Alloutguitar.com talks with Greg in early summer 2006 and holds a lengthy discussion about his life and career in which Greg sheds light on what it was like to be a leading light in the golden age of shred, how he fared when grunge laid waste to an entire generation of musicians and just how he got some of the most coveted gigs in the pop industry. Greg also shares with us some his plans for the future, including an exiting new Internet teaching resource that is very close to being launched. We start, predictably enough, at the beginning…
The Early Years
How old were you when you first picked up the guitar?
I was about 10 years old and it was really just a part time hobby thing for the first couple of years or so. I would say that I was about 14 or 15 when I got very serious about it – and that was entirely due to hearing the first Van Halen album.
Did you have any formal lessons?
I had about 3 or 4 lessons when I first got a guitar, but they were mostly just single string melody playing – not real exiting so they didn’t last!
What sort of players and music were you into in these early days?
Well, before Eddie, my main thing was to play songs and solo’s that I heard on the radio, players such as Jimmy Page – and I found it pretty easy to duplicate that sort of playing. But it really wasn’t until Van Halen came out that I really got fired up – it was really challenging to get down all that crazy stuff. Van Halen was absolutely my main influence for a long time – it was like no one else was worthy of working on!
But, after 3 years or so of this, I started to branch out and got into George Benson, Lee Ritenour, Pat Metheney and all of a sudden I was listening to, and getting into, this whole new world of guitarists from an entirely different perspective and place.
A lot of players in a similar vein as yourself have talked of 12 hour plus daily routines, did this apply to you?
Oh yes, it was all day every day; when I was that age – which was my early to mid teens living with my mom – all I was really doing was playing the guitar, from when I first woke in the morning through to last thing at night.
In the states during the late 70’s and early 80’s there was a large increase in guitarists going on to study at establishments such as Boston’s famed Berklee School of Music, the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, and The University of Miami. Did you ever look into doing this yourself?
I never thought about it; it never really seemed to me – at that time – to make a lot of sense. I was able to slow down records and cassettes and work out what was going on and my ears sort of understood what these guys were doing, and why – I may not have known all the technical terms, but I never had any problems in getting the playing down.
So, for that reason it never made sense for me to go, and it wasn’t until I was older – and started to really understand harmony and music theory – that I thought it would be a cool thing to do.
When did you start to play live?
Immediately after High School we were out playing; in actual fact I remember that while I was still in my senior year at school (I graduated in 1982) we were out gigging some. Because my brother (Al Howe, vocals) is a couple of years younger than me we had to do a lot of lying to get into the clubs we were playing! So, literally as soon as I stepped out door of High School, we started hitting the club circuit heavily.
What was the local (Greg was born and raised in the small town of Easton, Pensylvania) music scene like, and what sort of venues did you play at?
These were basically local bars, with a few larger places that we used to beg to play at – we would annoy a lot of club owners because we were like these young kids nobody took seriously, but finally we would get a break because some band would cancel at the last minute and we were there waiting to slip in there and make our best impression.
Back then it seemed to me like you were either a rock guy or a new wave guy – you were either listening to The Clash and Blondie, or Van Halen and Dokken. Now me, personally, I was into everything – and lots of my buddies used to get annoyed because I was just as into the new Sister Sledge song as the new Ratt one!
What sort of numbers were you playing in your club sets at this time?
Mainly covers and a special 90 minute Van Halen set that we really became known for – as one of the few bands around who could carry it off. The other covers we did were very guitar orientated, and were basically anything on the radio at that time that had a lot of guitar – luckily for us, at that time on the radio there was loads of cool guitar based music!
In 1983 a certain Yngwie Malmsteen broke through in the States. Were you aware of this and what effect (if any) did it have on your playing and career direction – as suddenly virtuoso playing is back in the limelight?
Well, at that time I was so much of a Van Halen fanatic that if anyone mentioned any other players I would be like “Yeah, but Van Halen this…but Van Halen that…” I just did not want to know! But, when Yngwie came around, I remember hearing it for the first time and it was like “…uh, uh, it looks like someone really has taken this to a new place”. It was strange because at that point, to me at least, it seemed like that sort of shouldn’t be possible – everything had already been done that could be done, as far as technique and flashy playing on the electric guitar – but here he came and tore up the rulebook.
How was the band progressing in this mid 80’s period?
After a few years we’d become much like a lot of other bands, we’d been at it a long time – from the early 80’s through to 1988, when I was discovered by Mike Varney. And we’d done a whole lot up to a certain level – we’d conquered the club circuit and were one of the very top bands in the area; we had showcased for record labels and had some real pro management. Briefly, we were under the wing of Larry Mazer who was looking after some big 80’s rock bands (like Cinderella) and he set up a load of showcases – you know, we were really pushing this thing – but nobody bit, although we came close a couple of times.
Mr Varney and The Golden Age of Shred
Mike Varney was one of the best known – and most controversial – figures in the 80’s US rock scene. A talent scout, impresario, and owner of Shrapnel Records, Mike had the famed Spotlight Column in the (at that time) biggest selling Guitar magazine in the world “Guitar Player”. Here Mike would spotlight players from all over the world, who had been sending in tapes by the thousands for inclusion. Often credited as the founding father of the Shred movement, Mike launched the careers of, amongst others, Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, Tony Macalpine, Paul Gilbert and the legendary Jason Becker. Greg was another addition this list…
I ended up sending a tape off to Mike Varney’s Spotlight column in Guitar Player magazine. It was something that I had absolutely no thought that it would amount to anything – at this stage we’d sent out so much stuff that we were all kind of resigned to nothing happening.
What was on the demo that Mike reviewed?
The demo itself wasn’t really songs, just jams over a kind of corny drum groove, silly diatonic changes, and me just blowing over the top. I had an excuse for a head, or melody, at the beginning of each track but the rest was just me cutting loose – no real structure to speak of.
So what actually happened next?
Mike called me up and said: “I’ve got your tape, I really like it – would you be interested in doing a record with me? Now I’m going to need you to write some proper guitar instrumentals”. Well, this really caught me by surprise, and I was so not ready for it! While I had a lot of experience of song writing, it was pretty much all vocal orientated – so to be asked to do a whole record of instrumentals was pretty intense. I was really not ready for this, I didn’t know what to do – I had no idea how to actually write a proper instrumental – and had to take almost a crash course on the genre.
So I went out and got a load of instrumental albums, and Mike recommended that I listen to some newer players that I hadn’t heard of like Vinnie Moore and Tony Macalpine. I also went back to Yngwie and listened deeper than I had previously, and also The Dixie Dregs – basically anything guitar orientated that was a non vocal album. I really tried to cram this stuff into my brain and to understand it all as it was pretty far out of my comfort zone – I mean my listening was Prince, Van Halen, George Benson – and suddenly I have to get into this really intense instrumental stuff and write a record in this style! Once I got a handle on it I found that the stuff that I was more attracted to, and felt most comfortable with, were the tracks that were almost designed like vocal songs. I remember listening a lot to the Macalpine stuff (particularly the “Maximium Security” album) and thinking “Wow, this is really cool” – because these are actual songs, with a verse and a chorus, a bridge and a main solo section, and I was most comfortable with that. Probably because this was more similar in form to the stuff I was already listening to – just with guitars taking care of what would have been vocals.
How did you go about the actual song writing process?
Well, now I was under orders to write a whole albums worth of material, and almost every day I would Fed-Ex 3 or 4 song ideas to Mike in California, and wait for the feedback. It was a really intense time, writing, playing and recording non stop, trying to find my “voice”. But, through a lot of trial and error – but in a fairly short space of time – I developed my own approach to this genre. I mean, the first few songs I did were, looking back, very Vinnie, very Tony – with the neo-classical type of chord progressions and very symmetrical melody lines. Mike basically said that they were fine, but sounded like B sides to a Tony or Vinnie track – and he needed something in a different ballpark.
Personally, I was never really into the idea of me following a neo-classical approach, so I said to myself: “You like bluesy, jammy sort of stuff – and you love “Hot For Teacher” – so how about writing songs like that – just do what you naturally do”. So I tried that approach and the very first track that came out of this was “The Pepper Shake” and I sent it over to Mike, thinking that this he would really hate, it’s so not what he’s about! But he called back really excited and it was like “We’ve found it – this is your thing…now write the rest of the album in a similar way”. I was like “Great, if this is what you want I can write songs like this all day”. After that it was an easy ride.
I was very relieved that I wouldn’t have to play in that Shrapnel Neo classical style because it just wasn’t me. To be honest with you, at that time and even though I was around a lot of these guys and on the same I label, I had a real hard time differentiating players. These guys were producing stuff that was so similar that I felt that they had to have been told to play and write that way…why people would want to keep on buying albums by different artists that were, basically, the same kind of escapes me!
Looking back now, I can hear a lot more of the differences; particularly Vinnie and Tony – they clearly have very distinct styles and wonderful traits that are unique to them, but as a whole genre there was so much repetition that I was real glad to be out of it, doing my own thing.
What happened when you had enough material?
Mike flew me out to Prairie Sun Studios up in San Francisco where they had a big rehearsal room set up with Billy Sheehan and Atma Anur waiting with all their kit. We spent a few days jamming through the tracks, and you know it all felt a little weird…I was just a kid and suddenly I am playing with Bill – who’s on MTV all the time with Dave Lee Roth – and he’s working with me on my record – it was very cool and it was very exciting!
The thing is that, despite all of this, I wasn’t really “nervous” because, in a funny way, it also felt right somehow – I should have been there, having worked at it for so long, it was my time. One thing that really kept me grounded was meeting Jason Becker, who was recording his first solo album at the same time (Ed note: Jason Becker achieved notoriety as one half of a blazing guitar duo in the US metal band Cacophony with Marty Friedman, who would later join Megadeth. “Perpetual Burn”, which included the masterpiece “Altitudes” was released at the end of 1988, and cemented his reputation as an unbelievably good and original voice in electric guitar. Possessor of a unique melodic approach, and with some of the most accurate and blazing examples of sweep picking and speed picking that the guitar world had ever heard, Jason seemed set for world wide fame when he joined Dave Lee Roth replacing the role that Steve Vai had found real fame with. Tragically, Jason was struck down with Lou Gehrigs disease, and is paralysed from the neck down. alloutguitar.com intends to conduct an extensive feature on Jason’s career, and today Jason is still composing and preparing for a movie about his life.) I sat down in front of him – and he is such a super, super person and one of the nicest guys that I have ever run into – and he was so, so incredible a guitarist that it was…I had not seen anything like this.
Being from a small town in Pennsylvania, where I was the guy that everyone came to see, and seeing up close and personal someone who was taking those rock techniques to a level far surpassing Yngwie (which I had only in recent months really got down myself) was pretty amazing. Here’s a kid who had apparently been totally comfortable with all of those playing techniques for 4 or 5 years, and he’d taken it to a whole new place…meeting Jason and hanging out, with him showing me some of those techniques and what is possible on the electric guitar was devastating for me – and it really opened my eyes to a whole new world.
Being a teenager learning guitar in the UK at this time, and seeing all these crazy guitarists appear from Shrapnel it seemed as if there was a big Shrapnel factory where you all hung out and swopping crazed shred licks…
Well, for me it wasn’t quite like that! Most everybody was west coast based so it was always “There’s that guy from the East” you know? But, now that I’ve moved to LA I think that mingling thing will happen a lot more – I recently went up to see Tony and Dennis in CAB and spoke to Richie Kotzen on the phone about getting together – I am sure that in the future I will be doing a lot more mixing with fellow players.
“Greg Howe” was released in the summer of 1988 and had an immediate effect on guitar fans and players the world over. This album was filled with some, at the time, almost unmatched technical virtuosity – highlights must include Bad Rackets relentless assault on the senses – stunning! – but the whole thing had such a cool, deeply groovy, feel that many previously cold to Shrapnel product were won over. Despite this, it is well known that Greg was slightly “dissatisfied” unhappy with the production of the album…
Well, it wasn’t that I was slightly unhappy with the production…I was entirely bothered by it! I didn’t know a whole lot about recording back then – we’d been in studios a lot, but I didn’t really know about the actual recording of guitar sounds. The thing was that, by the time I sent that demo to Mike, I had already sort of grown up as a musician, and as a guitarist, in my approach to tone. One of the tracks on that demo was an Al Jarreau remix with me jamming over it. My guitar tone was very smooth and liquidy, kinda Holdsworthy, and I was using a lot of Maj7 type ideas.
So, when Mike wanted to do this one of the things he said was that he needed me to be a “proper” rock guitarist: “I’m basically a Heavy Metal label, bands like Racer X, so I can’t have that Jazzy Jeff stuff – it’s got to be a high energy rock album, guitar in your face sort of thing”. Because I was new to all this, I went along with it and we used this extremely overdriven souped up old Marshall, and it was like “keep turning the drive up”.
And the recorded end result was way too fizzy; so that kind of means that I don’t have the best feelings towards that record. But, I know what your saying in that there was a certain chemistry that the record has – even though I have issues with the album sonically it definitely captured a cool feeling.
Any idea how much this actually sold?
Well, I’ve never known quite how much that record has sold, but I know that it did 50,000 right out of the box, as regards long term I have no real idea – best to ask Mike!
When the album got released did it change your life at all? In a very practical sense were things radically different in your lifestyle before and after?
My everyday life did not change a whole lot because I was still dedicated to my band. The contract that I signed with Mike was a 4 album deal, and I insisted – and had written in – that two of the four albums would be band releases, as opposed to Greg Howe the solo artist. And, in order to achieve that concession, we actually had to get into it a bit legally as Mike really was not excited to be doing vocal projects. However, when I signed I was very straight up with him and said that I would not sign this deal if my band were out in the cold. I was very clear that I would not leave my band hanging as these guys had been with me for years, and so if he was going to sign me he would have to include the band – that’s the deal. So after doing a lot of promo stuff for the Greg Howe – Greg Howe, record it was pretty much straight into working on the first Howe II record.
As the recipient of good press the world over, did you ever think to capitalise on this new found fame and consider joining a “big” band?
There were some cool offers, and some initial talk about working with Dave Lee Roth – which of course Jason Becker got – but the truth is it never occurred to me to do anything outside of my band. I certainly never went out looking, I was fully committed to Howe II. It was very flattering to have some of those offers but it was very much “Ok I’ve got this chance now, lets use it and go full on with the band”.
Into The 90’s
In 1989 Shrapnel released the debut release from Howe II “High Gear”. With vocals by from Greg’s younger brother Al, this was a solid album of groovy Van Halen flavoured rock with plenty of Greg’s outrageous guitar, but it failed to match the impact that “Greg Howe” had achieved a year earlier. For Shrapnel fans it would seem that the existence of vocals on an album by their favourite axeman actually proved to be a a drawback. The same thing would happen with Tony Macalpine’s “Out of This World “ release in 1990, and Vinnie Moore abandoned his project to get a vocal led album off the ground after 1988’s “Time Oddyssey”. Out of the original shrapnel players, arguably only Paul Gilbert, and to a lesser extent Richie Kotzen really made the transition to vocal albums with much success. Were Shrapnel behind Howe II, and did you have much tour support?
Well, Howe II did two national tours that were both pretty successful – particularly the first – with virtually no help form the label whatsoever. We had to look after all the finances, travel arrangements and what have you. The first tour was very successful actually – I was blown away. If you can imagine, having spent many years as a local act and then, in the space of less than a year, you suddenly find yourself 3000 miles from home in front of hundreds of people on stage in a city you’ve never been to, and everyone’s there all holding your record in the air, it was just great – the coolest thing ever. We had a pretty major set up, a huge truck, road crew – the whole nine yards. And, you know we did better than break even which was a real achievement. The second tour was not quite as good but we still broke even – but it was around 1991/92 and things were changing.
When was it that you really began to feel that there was a musical climate change, and when did you first sense the storm clouds coming from a certain north western state?
It was that second tour that convinced me that something was going to have to drastically change here, or we were all going to be out of work for good. On the first tour we would pick up the local hot acts to open for us and the first time out they were all 80’s band with the 80’s look and lots of guitar solo’s and everything, but on the second tour – about midway through – there was like this sea change, and the bands suddenly became very what would become to be known as “Grunge”. The audience reaction to us noticeably cooled, particularly out west, towards Seattle. We had gone from having a fantastic response, to playing the same club 12 months later and it being nothing like as good.
1990’S “Now Hear This” would prove to be Howe II’s swansong…
Well, after that tour reality really kicked in for all of us. One of the things was that my brother has always been battling a lot of substance abuse and personal issues, and it became very difficult for me to continually deal with. That, coupled with the fact that we were going to have to make a major overhaul stylistically if we were going to try to carry on, and without us joining the bandwagon. I just wasn’t going to put out an album that sounded like Soundgarden – I couldn’t have done it.
So when we got back we spent time experimenting with different musical approach’s, and some of it came out sounding really cool, and in retrospect pretty ahead of its time. Then it got to the point where I had to get on with pushing my solo career as well, or go and get a regular job. I went back to Mike and signed a short contract to make a few albums and that was really just going to be a way me to make some money while we as a band decided what to do.
However, the band became a heavy weight to keep carrying around, and a lot of it was down to my brother. I mean, at one point, we lived next door to each other, and that should have been great, we could have written load of stuff, really developed our sound…but it just didn’t happen.
By 1993 Grunge had well and truly achieved prominence, and there was an absolute and concerted backlash against 80’s style “Hair Metal”. This also affected “proper” guitarists and “shredders” in particular …
Well, because of the fact that I had been teaching throughout the period that I wasn’t touring or recording, I had always kept my finger on the pulse of what was happening musically. I was constantly talking to young players – anything form 13/14 upwards and so I was really staying in the loop as far as what people think is cool and what’s not. Around 92/93 I realised that the anti 80’s thing wasn’t necessarily about the music itself, but more the image and pretentiousness that became particularly pronounced towards the end of that period.
I remember seeing Poison for the first time and thinking it was a Saturday Night Live sketch! And then there were loads of Poison copyists, with the hairspray and make up – really just an image with no musical integrity – and it ended up bringing down a load of valid bands who’d unfortunately got lumped into that genre. As far as the guitar goes, it also got to the point that it seemed anyone who could play a fast arpeggio ended up on the cover of a guitar magazine, all the music production really started to sound similar and airbrushed…you know, I understood why it all changed. It was about bringing back that rebelliousness, that “rock’n’roll”; the 80’s scene really had became very “corporate rock” and so the grass roots knee jerk reaction to all that was Grunge.
Suddenly melodic, or “80’s” rock – or whatever you want to call it – had all become a joke, a big costume party, and so anything affiliated or associated with that time became untouchable. I really looked at what was happening here deeply, and tried to analyse and understand what was going on here.
For instance, I would write a piece of music that was designed to appeal to students who I knew were into this, you know a generic early 90’s Stone Temple Pilots sort of thing. But I would still try to get in some more technical stuff in than was the norm – you know, a proper guitar solo!
I found out that if I prefaced this with a melody that was more simplistic – angry even – and then sort of sneaked in these other more technical elements in – and played the whole thing with real conviction and attitude, then you could get away with it. What they were sick of, playing wise, was the generic guitar solo on all those 80’s power ballads – you know the high bends and big vibrato, the fast alternate picked runs and everything. It was apparent you could still play good as long as the listener’s perception of you wasn’t the ripped jeans, hairspray, make up and all that.
A New Direction
In 1993 Greg released “Introspection”, a musical change of direction with a much increased level of harmonic sophistication and a ratcheting up of the Funk quota. Was this records fusion approach a response to the anti technique attitude of a new generation of rock fans by sidestepping the whole issue, and moving into fusion – and a newer, more sophisticated (and thus probably older) market. In a notoriously elitist arena, did you encounter any stigma from the Jazz traditionalists…
I would say that, for the most part, it was received well. For myself I really needed to continue learning and expanding my musical vocabulary – I needed a change. I had grown up, and I knew that a lot of my existing fans had so I hoped that they would follow me into this new style. I intended this to still be recognisably “Greg Howe”, but more sophisticated.
I had also realised that there was really not much more you could do, as regards shredding on the guitar in an aggressive fashion, that was going to take you into new territory. This time it really did seem as if what was possible had been done, and that there were no new frontiers left.
So it was simple: “What do I want to do, what sort of music do I want to listen to?” And it really was as simple as that, I was listening to more sophisticated players harmony wise, and I wanted to follow that direction myself as an artist.
How was it received? Well, of course for some of the rock guys it was clearly too jazzy for them and I lost them, and some of the Jazz fans would say it’s not “real jazz”, or simply not jazzy enough – and nor was I trying to be like anyone else or indeed a traditional jazz guitarist – I was just trying to further my art and create something new that in time would become identifiable as “Greg Howe” music.
Who were you listening to help mould your new style…
Well, like many people, I was really combining everyone that I liked. I do remember listening to a lot of Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale, and really trying to dive into the more advanced harmony direction. I would listen really closely and constantly ask questions like “how is it that these guys sound so sophisticated – no matter how simple a phrase it is that they are playing?”
By really listening and figuring out how to play this stuff I gradually started to understand a lot of things, particularly about chord structures, the way that they play their lines, and the way and why that these lines are designed – all these sorts of things I’d never had a handle on before and it all began to really make sense. I was really, really, excited and looking forward to using this; and the way that I achieved this stylistic development was really by immersing myself in players like Henderson for a long time – and it opened everything up.
After Introspection was released in 1993 Greg achieved a prodigious album release schedule with ‘94’s “Uncertain Terms”, ‘95’S “Parallax” and ‘96’s “Five” as a solo artist, and ‘95’s “Tilt” and 97’s “Project” in conjunction with Richie Kotzen. What was your general lifestyle like during this period? A lot of your peers retreated to lots of teaching and clinics, and appearances at music trade shows such as NAMM…
I was teaching privately at my home studio and doing a lot of seminars, although I somehow missed out on that whole playing at NAMM thing that a lot of the guys did. Now that I am living out here on the West Coast that will probably change, but back then what kept me out of that was simply living almost 3000 miles away from what is the centre of the guitar industry in the States. There was always a conflict in schedule, or something would come up that meant I never did NAMM back then.
Back at home I also had a band called “Full Blues Jacket” and we would go out and have fun, just playing at small local places, you know grab a combo and a 3 piece drum kit and jam…and it was funny because we would make way more money doing this than when I had played all the bigger gigs! It was an absolute blast…improvising without any boundaries. And we ended up doing this a lot…but regarding anything bigger? No, it was such an anti guitar period that I just kept it small and concentrated on earning a living.
During this period what was the general attitude like from students?
Well, I found it fascinating to watch this complete change of attitude as guitar playing, and those coming to the instrument, seemed to have gone to this weird place where everything was just anti being good. I really used to wonder what they were here for, because every time I would play a really cool lick or something there would be like this dirty look!
One student who has become quite well known is Prashant Aswani…
Well, Prashant was studying up at Berklee College of Music up in Boston, and he used to drive down to see me for extra lessons. When I first heard him he was very much “I wish I was Vinnie Moore, but I’m nowhere near the player” and he didn’t really know what he was doing. He had a load of potential but he had never had any structure to his learning, and he had a real vague approach everything. I would ask “What’s your best lick?” and he’d play something with an unformed fast playing technique, and no real direction or identity – he really needed an overhaul. So I would do stuff like “Today we’re going to listen to funk, and we’re going to get you to learn how to groove, and your going to understand why this stuff is important”. A lot of that hadn’t occurred to him. He progressed fabulously quickly, and he went from being one of those Berklee shredder types to a real mature player with a defined style and approach, his articulation and precision much cleaner – it really was very rewarding to have been part of it.
Were you a big proponent of using the metronome in order to facilitate improvement to technique…
Weirdly enough, it’s only very recently that I have started messing around with a metronome – just for fun – because I had never really done it before. What I’ll do is take an exercise or lick, and just push myself over a week or so to see if I can push this thing up a couple of notches – and I am finding some real good benefits. Not only is it very good at keeping you in time and increasing accuracy at faster tempo’s, but it takes no prisoners on slower playing – I often find it harder to play complex things at slower tempos and keep it rhythmically correct, so using these can be very beneficial in this aspect. But in other ways…in all honesty rhythm is more how I think and over the years I have developed a strong in-built metronome so they are not essential, merely another tool to help improve certain aspects of my playing.
In ’95 and ’97 you released two albums with Richie Kotzen, how did these come about?
A suggestion from Mike Varney, I think Mike thought that if it was my intention to belt out as many albums as possible without touring – making a lot of my living from recording – then it would make sense to do some collaborations. We considered both Reb Beach and Allan Holdsworth at one point, but then Richie’s name came up and it seemed ideal. I already knew Richie a bit as we were both grew up Pennsylvania, and I think his style had certain similarities to mine, so the general feeing from everyone was that we would be very complimentary. The records came out and they were amazingly well received – to this day I can be in another country doing a seminar or something and someone will say “Hey, when are you and Richie going to do another album?” It’s something that could happen – and this time it would be nice to gig it!
The King Of Pop
At this time came arguably Greg’s highest profile gig so far, replacing Jennifer Batten as Lead Guitarist in Pop Superstar Michael Jackson’s touring band. As one of the most coveted gigs in the industry how did you achieve this?
This was through Jennifer Batten’s great loyalty; she was a fan off my mine – as I am of her – and we’d met at a few trade shows in the past. She’d often said that she felt that this would be an ideal gig for me and she told me that if she were to leave she would recommend me for the job. In fact Jennifer left the year before I got the actual gig, and had called me and said that she would be walking off the gig and the job would be mine…well, I don’t know exactly what happened but having been really excited about this the next thing I know is that she’s back on the tour.
Anyway, a year later she calls me and says that she was stepping off for a while as her mum was ill, and she wanted to spend more time with her while she either recovered or passed away. And this time it all went through.
What actually happened next?
It was pretty crazy because I got the call suddenly; Jennifer had told me at the beginning of the summer that she would be stepping off, but after a couple of months without hearing anything I thought it wasn’t going to happen again. All of a sudden, I get this phone call from the musical director: “Is it possible for you to get on a plane tonight as we need you for a concert Wednesday?” Now, this was a Monday evening and I was home in Pennsylvania, but the gig was in Amsterdam! I thought that this was simply impossible, even if I could get on a plane that night there was no way that I could learn all those songs.
Yet when I even hinted “Could I possibly, you know, do this by Friday?” they weren’t into it – they would have walked away. They were desperate, and since you don’t turn down an opportunity like that, I found myself on Concorde flying to Europe with my Walkman on, trying to learn all the songs. I stayed awake all night and managed to get through it, but just when I was beginning to feel good about the whole thing they were like “That sounds great, now we need you to learn all the choreography”!
And there was loads throughout the show – one bit required me to handle a prop pyro guitar that if I don’t handle correctly will blow my hand off…It was insane! I had this big Bradshaw pedal board for all the sound changes that I had to quickly figure out how to use; next to this there’s like a 10 foot square area on the floor of full notes on how to use the rig and when. This listed things like all the switching that I needed to do song by song, with the at exact times written down when to push what button…Alongside all this I had notes on the choreography, which again was really detailed like “Bar 3 you have to go there to do this or that”…Luckily my tech was very on it and would keep giving me cues and coming up and whispering in my ear things like “Remember that on this one you’ve got to run up to sage left at this point” …I got through it in the end though!
It must have been an amazing experience to suddenly be working with the biggest performer on Earth…what was that first actual concert like?
Well, 65,000 people going crazy, I’ll never forget the feelings that I got from being on those stages…unreal! Financially it was unbelievable, I couldn’t believe it…Absolutely everything was first class – if you want to go for gigs like that you don’t want to start with Michael because nothing else comes close after that – including the pay! In the end I only did the tour for five weeks or so before Jennifer returned, but it was an amazing once in a lifetime experience.
Did you gain much as a player?
Well, a lot of these guys who play technical guitar, you know “shredders” for want of a better description tend to skip over a lot of things that are important – like playing in a band, playing in time to a real solid drummer.
I had been focusing on the ability to groove for years now and the opportunity to do so in such a band was fantastic. And to play with a band who are that tight, while only playing, say, a two chord vamp, is not easy at all. You have to be able to fit in the pocket, slot in there just so. These kind of things are priceless as far as I’m concerned – too many times I have seen a guitarist with blazing technique who, when asked to play rhythm – or to comp chords – has absolutely no idea what to do.
It was a great experience and the musicianship was faultless, I remember Jonathan Moffat on drums – who was really cool – and David Williams, who had been Michael’s guitarist for years was great. The overall tightness and togetherness was fabulous to play with.
What were your real spotlight moments…
The “Beat It” solo with my blonde wig, the pyro guitar…there was also several times that I had to interact very closely with Michael and the spotlight was on just the two of us. Taking over Jennifer’s role, a lot of it was pure theatre and with that goes a high level of choreography – pretty different to a normal rock show.
After the Jackson tour Greg next worked on the neo-classical “Ascend”…for someone with an avowed disinterest in the genre this was a curious release…
Well, despite my general misgivings it was a conscious decision to pursue a neo classical direction on Ascend, and it was one of the worst decisions of my career. The way it happened though, is not straight forward at all. I was hired by Mike Varney to produce a Neo Classical record by Vitalij Kuprij and I was kinda exited that for once I was going to be the producer only. The idea was that they were going to get this hot Swedish shredder in to do all the guitars while and I could wear my “Producers Hat”, sit behind the mixing desk, and take it from there. But, typical of how a lot of the Mike Varney situations go, the guitarist cancelled at the last minute and suddenly it was “Oh, by the way, your going to have to play the guitar as well, and as we haven’t yet really figured out what we’re going to do about a bass player, if you don’t mind your going to be doing the bass as well.” All of this, but still for my original producers fee, of course! From being just the producer suddenly here I am doing all guitars, bass, engineering and arranging!
Now, Vitalij’s album ended up selling really well, particularly in Japan, so Mike was particularly relentless about pushing us to do another album in this style, but releasing it under my name. We’d use the same team, with Vitalij on keyboards and everything. As before. They were all really coming at me on this, and I began to think “Maybe I should do this as I’ve never done one before” – but, as I said earlier, it was probably the biggest career mistake I have made in my life – and I have made a few! It was an album that was so not me that to this day I do not want to hear it. I really do not like it.
The problems really began because everything was being arranged as it was being written, and there were all these expectations of a big pay for everyone. Then there was a big falling out with Mike; I had a new manager who was trying to get money owed out of Mike because we were all aware of how successful Vitalij’s record had been. So there’s a big argument and Mike walks off the project. Now I am stuck in the middle of all this with an album that I didn’t really care for, and no label to release it on! I ended up having to release it myself, and got it out on some other labels who licensed it for release in other markets. Mike eventually came back to the record and released it, but the whole thing was an ugly experience – I had done something that I personally had never believed in and I should have known really – every time I do that it comes around and bites me!
The turn of the century saw further high profile gigs with Enrique Iglesias, and over the next year or so Justin Timberlake and *NSYNC. How did you get into this very select company?
At this point in time I had found out that there was this really loyal, sort of a “cult”, following that I had all over the world. A lot of the guitarists in “the know” knew of “Greg Howe”. Now, this was pretty intimidating but also really cool. I would fairly regularly get these random calls like “Hi, I’m the guitar player with Christine Aguilera and I just wanted to let you know that I really dig what you are doing” or the guitarist from Wynton Marsalis or whatever – and this happened quite a lot.
Now, one of those guys was a guitarist called Skip Dorsey, who was the guitarist with Britney Spears. When they were playing near my home town, Skip called and asked if he could come by and have some lessons. So he comes around, we end up hanging out for a couple of days and became friends. Skip introduced me to guy called Kevin Andrews, who was probably about the most in demand Musical Director in the pop world at that time. He was setting up the sequencing and musical arrangements for Britney Spears, *NSYNC and all sorts of acts generally associated with the Johnny Wright Management Company.
Kevin got to hear my playing and he was like “Well, if you ever want to go out and make cool money, I’ll hook you up with an act”. I was obviously “Yeah, I feel like going out and earning cool money!” And, through him, I was recommended for the Enrique gig which was real fun. He was really big for a time around the turn of the century, and a lot of what I did with him in the States was TV/Radio performances – a lot of Tonight shows, Good Morning Americas, televised gigs that sort of thing. The biggest part of the tour was in Europe where we did some large concerts.
Was this a lot different to the Jackson juggernaut?
Well, I had more freedom musically, and yes, there was a lot less choreography. Enrique was like a big kid, always mucking around and really having fun up there. Michael was different, and he had the most amazing ears – even with that whole enormous production and all these players he heard everything. Sometimes it would be like he would come up to you after the show and say “You did a couple of things in bar whatever of Song 17 – can you tighten those up a bit?” Enrique was far more about having a blast – obviously if something was bad he’d say, but it was a much smaller, more relaxed kind of a family thing – although I didn’t get to meet Julio!
How did playing for the *NSYNC and commencing work on Extraction co-exist?
As this all happened at the same time, the battle between my *NSYNC work and putting out my Extraction CD ended up being one of the worst periods I have ever gone through.
How did you come to hook up with Dennis Chambers and Victor Wootton…
I had recorded an album, and played live, with a Japanese bassist by the name of Tetsuro Sakurai. With Dennis playing drums on all that I’d known him for a while by the time we were planning Extraction, and Mike was really exited about the idea of working with Dennis on a Greg Howe album. Mike had also been playing some of my stuff to Victor Wootton, and Victor was interested in getting something together so all these elements came together. Mike really pushed for this, and I was more than happy to work with these two!
What was supposed to happen next?
Dennis was scheduled to come over to my house at the end of 2001, and we were going to record the album, I had everything ready, the songs all written and arranged, the drums mic’d up. Then I get a call from *NSYNC’s people asking me to do this tour – and again, like the Jackson tour it was a last minute call – I had to jump on this thing now if was going to do it at all. Dennis was literally scheduled for the next week, so I called up Mike to explain what was happening: “*NSYNC were asking me to go out and tour and were offering crazy money” – I would have been mad not to do it, so I suggested that we postpone this thing for six months, and then pick up it up again. Mike wasn’t having this, and I ended up again being pushed into something against by better judgement. If I had put my foot down then, all of what happened over the next couple of years could have been avoided…
I ended up agreeing to work on the album while out there touring. Mike asked if we could track the drums and get the basics down in my absence. Just before I left for the tour, I sent Dennis the demo’s of everything played to a click track with detailed performance notes; the idea being that Dennis could take this music and play drums to it at his studio and then send it back to me. The problem was that without me it didn’t work out.
First of all, I just didn’t like the way the engineer had sonically recorded the drums and, as great as Dennis is (I love him, he’s one of my very favourite drummers) without me physically there to interpret what it was that I wanted and personally producing his playing it wasn’t going to work. We ended up with amazing performances in their own right – but just not what I knew we needed for the material to work best.
Instead of waiting until I was back and laying it all down again, I attempted to use pro tools to “bend” the drums, cutting and pasting – literally trying to create on the computer the version of the Dennis that I could have captured if I had physically been there! I was stuck trying to do this a long time – because with still going out on tour and everything else it took so long that the fans were getting irritated, and I was going crazy over trying to do this. A bad sequence of events…
It must have seemed like you were never going to get the album finished…
Well, after two years of this everyone knew that we had to go back and record it all again – so it ended up being much later than if I’d had my way and we’d simply put it on hold for 6 months, come back and done it all then! It was one of those things where…With my record company there have been times when I’ve been asked to do things that go above an beyond, and I’ve pulled through. You know, Mike has often gone to me as someone who can, within his timescales and budgets, get the job done – even if it became “also we need you to play guitar, bass, arrange, produce and mix it”. Mike had grown accustomed to me doing this, and I think he thought that if anyone can pull this off, I could.
In 2004 Extraction was finally released with UK’s much lauded “Guitar Technique” magazine giving it an excellent review, and the US’ prestigious Guitar Player magazine naming it instrumental Album of The Year…
Extraction had some great reviews, and it’s done really well; that along with what seems a rebirth of guitar in the last couple of years has been a pretty major thing. I feel that this is the beginning of the second phase of my career. It really seems as if there has been a big time change in the whole way that guitar is being received now, and what with me moving out to LA I am very confident about my career from here on.
In 2005 Greg finally relocated to California. What prompted the move out west almost 18 years after you first hit the scene?
Honestly, I would say that the move has been prompted as much by a need for a change of scenery as anything else. Pennsylvania is pretty cold and it’s often raining! Whenever I’ve been out to California – whether it’s to record an album, do some producing, play some clinics, or rehearse with a boy band – I’ve loved it. And, with it being far more the centre of things here, there should be many more opportunities for me in all areas.
Almost as soon as Greg arrived speculation arose over involvement with Instrumental Progressive Metal band Planet X – a super intense outfit based around uber drummer Virgil Donati (Steve Vai Band amongst others) and keyboardist Derek Shrenian (Ex Dream Theatre), with Greg rumoured to be taking on the guitar duties of the recently departed Tony Macalpine…
I met up with Derek and Virgil a couple of months ago. Tony left the group – I am not sure why – and the feeling that I was getting was that the record company was freaking out because they didn’t know what to do with the band. They had a load of plans and money invested in Planet X, so I think they were happy for me to come in and take on Tony’s role, as they didn’t have a guitarist ready for their touring schedule. Much as I would have liked to have done it, it just didn’t seem possible with my schedule. We talked about it a lot, but it was just too much for me to take on.
My main priority is to launch my Internet teaching business, which is called “Players Playground”. This was one of the main reasons that I came out to live in California in the first place and launching this has become one of my biggest goals ever. My main partner in this lives out here and when Tone Merchants were so hot on the idea of me basing myself here, and working with them and everything, it all seemed to come together.
Greg also offers one to one web cam guitar lessons, and is a month or two away from the launch of the “Players Playground” online video lessons…
The general concept is that each month there will be a total of 2 hours of instruction, or “sessions” as I like to call them. There will be 10 separate lessons of 12 minutes, and the five categories shall be things like improvisation – which will be instruction and insight from my perspective – Technique, Harmony & Theory, excerpts from my material and lots more. That is what you will be accessing, as well as tabs and downloadable stuff, and an exciting on going guitar contest. Guitarists will be able to download backing tracks, and then upload themselves playing over them. These will then be featured on the site, so they will be able to gain recognition amongst other players, win prizes, and lots of other cool stuff. This is the basic concept, although obviously we are going to have to try and find a way to prevent people selling their stuff over the Internet and people hacking in. We are a fairway into it, but it’s a lot of work. I would like to have something like three months of lessons don by the time that we launch. We are speaking with some people from Apple and are hoping to have them really get behind this. They are the kings of multimedia and streaming and all of that, so if we can get them exited and in our corner it would be unbelievable.
Have you any advance information on the next Greg Howe album? projects….
We are supposed to be tracking drums for my new CD in June (Ed Note: this Interview was conducted at the and of May 2006) and over the summer. I am a year late on my new CD already! We are trying to get Dennis again, and this time there is talk of Stanley Clark – which would be amazing!
On Greg’s first release “Greg Howe” he showcased a world class technique in all disciplines, from alternate picked scale sequences to sweep picking and legato. Arguably, though it was Greg’s refreshing take on Two Handed tapping that was first noticed, with a hitherto unique reciprocal two handed tapping approach to arpeggio, pentatonic and modal playing. This created lines of astounding fluidity, which was miles away from the standard triplet Van Halen derived cliché that many mid 80’s rock and metal players peddled. In order to come out of the box with such a developed technique Greg must have been experimenting for years…
I was such a Van Halen fanatic, and my right hand spent a lot of time over the fretboard. I sort of on a constant quest for finding new ways of playing cool stuff using tapping, and I also used it to mimic things that I’d heard or visualised that would have been impossible for me to do conventionally.
What sort of playing style comes to you most naturally?
If, for example, I had to put my guitar down for three months and then come to it cold and play a show, the most natural stuff for me would be some Hendrixy type stuff combined with all the rock that I woodshedded when I was young – the Eddie, George Lynch and Warren Di Martini school of Dorian hard rock stuff – that mixed in with a lot of legato type phrasing is so engrained that it comes very easily to me.
What is your approach to using arpeggios?
On the first album it was mostly Triady sweeps and that came most from Yngwie – at least to begin with. As I developed I listened to more harmonically adventurous players and around ‘90, ‘91 started getting more into the 4 note (May7, m7, Dom7; m7b5, dim7) arpeggios.
These I actually found a lot easier to play, and as they were also more musical sounding they sort of took the shred element out of it. Then I started to really get into arpeggios very deeply, and I really loved using these, superimposing chord tones over other chord tones and everything. Nowadays I approach arpeggios using a combination of legato, string skipping and tapping rather than sweeping. I’ll often structure arpeggios using a two notes, then one note, then two notes, then one note (as you go across the strings) type of pattern. I find this a lot easier and it requires a lot less practise for me to maintain fluidity.
As someone who utilises a lot of legato playing in your style, were you at all influenced by Allan Holdsworth?
Allan Holdsworth is always a player who – from when I first heard Eddie mention him – really got my attention. But, because he was so far ahead of anything and everyone else, it seemed almost silly to try even think that I was ever going to walk away with any of that! Still, I listened up, and tried to absorb it and – for fun – I’d try and sound like him. I think that every guitarist – in our genre anyway – listens at some point to Allan and thinks “Wow, that whole legato trip can be really cool”. Which it can be – especially if it sounds anything like he does!
What was your theoretical knowledge like when you first became known – your playing approach on the first few albums definitely sounds modal in nature compared with the later albums – and were you yet adept at playing over the more non diatonic changes that characterise your later work?
Well, my theory was pretty much there – I didn’t (and still don’t) sight read or anything, but I understand how to read and the rules of theory. I guess that, particularly back in 87,88, I was a lot more of a modal player, just then I was really starting to get comfortable with what these different modes sounded like and how to use them. You know, how and why you would use a Mixolydian, or a Lydian. I had never had any formal study of the sort of mathematics involved in a lot of this stuff, so I found it really interesting when I came across it, and really very logical. The older I get, and the more I delve into all of this, the more fun it seems. Almost everyday I will think of a new way of approaching something that seems very logical and worthy of trying out on the fretboard.
How did you first get a handle on playing jazzier lines…
Unlike many players, I have never learnt the jazz standards to a proper degree – although it’s something that I keep intending to do! Also, I never really transcribed other jazz guitarists – I just listened a lot. I know a lot of rock players now are looking to get down some elements of jazz into their playing; but it’s hard to just get, like, some cool lick or something. When you break down that stuff it is based so much more on the phrase, rather than the actual notes, and it’s all to do with the way that the notes interact with each other.
It’s the non linear aspect and the rhythmic structure that make it all seem so cool, and if you listen enough to this stuff you can start to reproduce stuff along similar lines yourself. Once you can understand this, you kind of don’t need to copy other peoples jazz licks, instead you find yourself thinking along similar lines yourself, thinking in that “jazzy” way. It’s just that it is really hard to explain what “that” is!
Lets just say that there are certain intervallic jumps and placement within a rhythmic framework that rock players tend not to do, but jazz players do all the time. It’s a different vocabulary that they’ve probably learnt from jazz standards or wherever – these kinds of lines can often be part of a melody line, or some Coltrane type improvisation that they’ve learnt or absorbed. To get this down, I would say that I do recommend that you learn the standards – and then really listen to John Schofield, Mike Stern, Pat Metheney, Scott Henderson – listening is as important as anything here.
It would seem then that you didn’t build up a lick library of cool jazz licks?
Even though I still very much consider myself a rock player, one of the things that I don’t have is a lot of licks – in fact I have hardly any, in any style, at all! It’s something I need to have, often I’ve found myself watching other players who can whip out these really cool lines and things, and I realise that a lot of this is licks that they have built up over the years. They put these licks into some sort of library, or category, in their brain ready to be recalled, or gained access to, whenever needed – and what a really helpful resource to have at your disposal!
I really don’t have that at all. What I do have – which makes people think that I have many more things at my disposal that I actually do! – is a way of using conceptual and sequential things through shapes randomly as I improvise. I will use a lot of rhythmic and note displacement – when, where and in what order, or speed, I execute all of this will vary every time that I play. I really come from an approach where I see, or visualise, a shape and play within that shape to improvise.
Can you give an example of this?
Well, for example if you take a standard Em7 arpeggio laid out so its 7th to the 10th fret on the A, 9th on the D, 7th to 9th on the G 8th on the B and 7th, 10th and 12th on the Top E. What I’ll do is play around with the order, for example I might play the 7th to 10th on the A, 7th on the G, back to the 10th on the A, 9th on the D, then 7th to 9th on the G, 7th on the Top E, back to 9th on the D, 8th on the B and so on. By not always staring on the down beat, but often on the upbeat instead, and then alternating this every few bars as well, means that the possibilities are pretty endless – and the way the rhythms play against each other can be really cool. It’s a device that I use a lot.
Compared to many a guitar soloist, Greg has a very defined usage of very wide intervals and has a very defined groove and rhythmic approach to improvising….
My playing – and the development of my playing – is 90% the result of me addressing the things I can’t do very well. There are loads of things that I don’t do proficiently, so in coming up with ways to address these problems I end up, often by mistake, creating new things that are cool, and stylistically unusual. These then become “my style”. For instance if a line or phrase requires me to have to pick a note on the B string, then go to the A string and then back up again to the B, all in time and without making a fair amount of string noise – well I just find that pretty hard. I thought what if I just whack it hard with my left hand, and not worry about picking – how will that sound? And then if I can do that successfully, how about expanding that new principle to other more adventurous things? And suddenly you’ve got these wide interval lines all over the place. Another example is that I can’t sound like Holdsworth playing a line conventionally, but by bringing in the right hand to tap out those larger intervals it gets me closer – and the next thing I know it’s integrated into my playing style. And that is how my own style has always developed, as part of dealing with all my limitations. And it is almost always those particular things that most people find coolest in my playing!
Do you use a string dampener when recording/live a la Jennifer Batten?
When recording certain parts I pretty much always do now. I first learnt this from Jason Becker when I was recording the first album. We were hanging out, and I saw that he had a handkerchief around the first fret area – “What is that for?” So Jason explained how cool it was too tidy up really tricky solo sections, and what a great idea!
At first, when I started to use it live, I tried to disguise it a little in case people thought I was cheating or something! What started as a useful tool to help clean up string noise when recording solo parts has now become essential to my general playing style. As the two handed stuff has become much more advanced, with you string skipping all over the place, you need something to keep those open string’s from taking off on you.
Another development in the 90’s was your increasing pick and finger approach in your playing, how did this occur?
When I did the “Tilt” album with Richie – which was around 94/95 – we had a photo shoot together one time, and both of us had guitars in our hands. Waiting around between photos, I saw Richie start playing the song “Tilt” without a pick really comfortably, and I was like where did that come from?! Richie said “From hanging out watching Michael Lee Firkins doing his stuff”.
I was like “Man, I gotta start doing that!” Soon after this, I saw Brett Garsed play, and seeing his whole thing…It’s such a great idea, and it seemed that between Garsed and Firkins suddenly I’m hearing it in a lot of players – I’d better start getting this down! It’s got a unique sound, and when you get familiar with it, in many areas it makes life a lot easier.
When playing over non diatonic changes do you think in terms of using particular melodic minor modes and altered scales?
I do use melodic minor modes and altered scales, but I use them in conjunction with arpeggios and substitutions when faced with non diatonic changes. To really get up on this, I recognise that I need to get out there and gig much more, playing material that requires me to use these. All this stuff really gets ingrained when you are using it in front of an audience on a regular basis. I find that when I record an album, I might find myself playing over a Dominant 7th type chord and suddenly I’ll be thinking “Man, I’ve been doing this for a while and I haven’t even thought to try something else, like a Lydian Dominant”. Then I have to go back and re-record so that I can try these other options.
These are the sorts of things that would become second nature, if I was only putting myself in a position where I was doing it live regularly. I find that when I am recording albums, it takes a while to get myself back into the proper “improv mode” that I need in order to record solos utilising my knowledge naturally. To answer your question specifically about modes: Yes, I do still sort of think in a modal way – but it’s in conjunction with being very highly arpeggio based now – much more so than I ever was in the early years of my career.
Here are a couple of hypothetical musical situations that many pro and semi professional players might find themselves in the world over. You get called up to jam over a Dominant Blues in E, how would you approach this?
Well, first of all I would quickly get up to that 12th fret! No, seriously, I would be more comfortable addressing the chords than simply blowing through the whole thing using the minor pentatonic. I find it amazing how Stevie Ray Vaughan could retain such interest and uniqueness – and sound so great – basically just using pentatonics. In order for me to sound semi-intelligent I would need to outline at least the Major thirds and the flat sevenths – all else depends upon the songs dynamics and atmosphere, tempo and style.
Now you are at a recording sessions and, and this time it’s a generic Rock ballad in Am Aeolian, requiring a big wind swept 80’s style solo …
Aeolian is about my least favourite scale to use! But here, honestly, is how my mind works. The way I would see it, especially in a situation like this, is that home base is the blues box. Then I would see the relevant arpeggios, and they would remind me of other shapes that are more linear based. For instance if I am in A minor and I want to emphasise the sound of the 9th’s I would play the G7 or a Dm7 shape and they will exaggerate the 9th; or to get a 13th Dorian effect I would play an F#m7b5 to really hone in on this particular feel. In this way the fretboard lights up for me. If I want to sound a bit more grown up in Am, then I can play Bm pentatonic or Bm7 arpeggio shapes and they will help me to play a more colour tones, and keep me away from the standard chord tones at the same time.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things that I need to really work on is that I see shapes all the time, but don’t really have a lot of licks, and seeing other players who do have a these at their disposal really brings it home to me. I had the great opportunity to watch Guthrie Govan when he was here with his band and it was wonderful, he’s one of those players who is able to whip out perfect lick after perfect lick – this in addition to being a great improviser. It seems like a lot of my personal favourite players always have some “go to” licks if all else fails, and it’s another thing that I need to really look at!
Finally, a cool Jazz Bar, someone recognises that Greg Howe is in the audience, and they try to coerce you up on stage to sit in on a few a Jazz Standard…..
Well, I’d be the one sitting at the back of the room with lots of shots of tequila! No, again it depends on the song. I wouldn’t get up there unless I was at least familiar with the song – I would have had to have done something with it in the past to make it worthwhile getting me up there!
In the late 80’s Greg Howe was the most prominent endorsee with Fenders HM Strats and featured in loads of advertising at the time. This was a pretty big deal for a new player – how did this happen?
This all happened through Mike Varney. I was in the studio recording my first album, and Mike was in the process of hooking me up with a company. Back then a lot of the guitar manufacturers used to run big magazine advertising campaigns, so it was really in our interests to get something sorted as this would provide loads of free advertising. A lot of the other guys who had come out a bit before me had already got good deals with Ibanez – back then Ibanez were featuring a new shredder every month it seemed. We thought that Ibanez would probably jump on this, but let’s try something a bit different. Mike reasoned that my approach was bluesier than a lot of the other guys, so we should try for Fender. Fender were late in the game trying to catch up with “modern” guitars, so when they were putting their own version together of an Ibanez type guitar it seemed be a perfect fit. Fender were getting ready to release what was to be known as the HM Strat, and they went to Mike to ask who’s a cool guy to front a campaign. There I was, so it was really all down to timing.
I remember the meeting well, we were all sat down at dinner and Mike was making all theses really big demands – guaranteed full page adverts in all the magazines, and lots more to. I sort of kept my head down in the corner, thinking that these guys were going to get up and leave the table because Mike was being so demanding! I didn’t want Mike to blow it, I just wanted a free guitar! Mike pulled it off, though, so everything was cool.
I still use a load of these to this day in combination with some ESP’s, and my own personal collection of guitars such as my Les Pauls and Strats.
At the time of writing Greg is in final talks with a well known major guitar manufacturer about a new deal which we cannot go into here, but one thing we can discuss is Greg switching over from using Fender amps for the last twenty or so years, to Cornford Amplifiers. How did a US based players forge such a close relationship with a small (if amazingly respected!) operation from Whitstable, Kent in a corner of England?
Back in 2004 I was at a Cornford sponsored Tone Merchants show, and I really loved what I was hearing – particularly Richie Kotzen’s sound. I was astounded by what I was hearing out of that speaker cabinet! I met Paul Cornford and as we talked I mentioned that I would like to try one of his amps; about a month later I received a MK50. Quite honestly it’s the first amp ever that I’ve been able to plug straight into and not need a little green box in front of it to hone it in. Guitar straight into amp, and I’ve got a tone that I am super comfortable with, and it sounds and feels cool.
Tone is way more than just what something sounds like. And this just great, especially when you crank it up a bit – and I’ve never had it like that before. I did a whole clinic tour in Italy with nothing but my guitar and amp and it sounded fabulous, which would have been unheard of before – I never left home without my Tubescreamer….
To conclude, what about strings, picks and any Effects……
I use 10-46 D’addarios, and the really big 2.0 Dunlop Tortex picks. With strings and picks I tend to go through phases, not necessarily attaching myself to one brand, as I still experiment a lot with every element of my sound and equipment.
As for effects, well I’ve never ever been a gear head; you know, I’m still coming from that whole Eddie Van Halen school, and I always thought that it was so cool that he was using nothing but an Echoplex and a Phaser. I never did have a rack, never did that whole Bob Bradshaw thing. At this point, maybe I should add that Noel at Tone merchants is building me a pedal board for a really cool live rig, and Paul is sending over a couple of 1×12’s so I can run it in stereo, so it will be interesting to see what this is like.
Bottom line for me, though, is it should always start with just a guitar and a cool amp!