By Oscar Jordan
When Greg Howe came on the scene in 1988, he offered listeners a much-needed break from the classically influenced marching music that dominated Shrapnel Record’s shred heavy catalogue. He brought the funk, the swing, the groove, some blues, and the beginnings of a harmonically rich fusion vocabulary that would dominate his later work.
Since then he’s consistently released album after album of stunning instrumental music with his trademark legato, idiosyncratic sense of time, feel, and composition. He’s lent his unique style to pop acts such as Michael Jackson, Rhianna, Justin Timberlake, and rapper T.I., and appeared on some great project records such as Tilt and Project with Richie Kotzen, Visions of an Inner Mounting Apocalypse: A Fusion Guitar Tribute, and A Guitar Supreme. His last release titled Sound Proof continued his ongoing evolution blending fusion with pop covers, and his wacky sense of humor.
Greg Howe is always on the run, but Guitar-Muse.com went the distance and managed to track him down to find out what he’s up to, and get the inside story on his next record.
You’re a tough man to track down.
I just got back from Italy and Israel. I’ve been out doing shows with Dennis Chambers and Stu Hamm. We were in Russia two months ago. Next month we’re going down to Argentina.
That sounds like an incredible rhythm section.
It’s fun. It really is. Dennis Chambers is my favorite musician in the world.
What’s on your set list?
It’s mixed. It’s a variety of stuff. We’ve been doing some things off Extraction and some stuff off the last album Sound Proof. Also some stuff off Introspection and the Five album, so its kind of spread out.
What kind of response are you getting?
It’s unbelievable. Particularly on this last outing in Italy and Tel Aviv. I’ve never seen a reaction like that. I was just so flattered. It’s overwhelmingly positive and kind of crazy. Everyone seems to really like it.
Are you doing any covers?
I do some on my albums. I did a remake of “Tell Me Something Good” by Stevie Wonder and I have a popular video on YouTube were I do a remake of the standard “Sunny,” so we put that in the set.
So you guys aren’t doing any Bad Company tunes or anything like that?
(Laughing) Not as of yet but what’s great is that we’re all open to that. I wanted to do an encore with a Hendrix tune the other night. I was begging Stu to sing but he didn’t want to do it, but it almost happened.
You’ve also been doing clinics. Are the questions different in Europe than they are in America?
That’s a tough question. It has less to do with what region I’m in, and more to do with the vibe of the particular audience that I’m in front of. Sometimes I’ll do a clinic and for whatever reason everybody’s asking about improvisation. I’ll do another clinic and everybody’s asking about technique. In another one everybody’s asking about composition. It seems to be that each clinic audience has it’s own little energy to it.
Which country weighs in more in terms of soul, composition, and technique?
It’s a subtle difference but in America there seems to be more inquiries about the more nuanced aspects of playing that have to do with feel and soul and the delivery of notes that are going to affect people. There are less questions about, “Do you always use the Melodic Minor Scale over an altered chord” kind of thing.
In terms of composition, it’s a creative thing as opposed to something you can tab out. How do you help people with composition questions?
I do a lot of online teaching with Skype so I’ve become accustomed to addressing that question a lot. It is somewhat abstract so you have to think about ways to draw analogies. The main point I try to make clear is that I’m not looking to do anything specific, so much as I am looking to make sure that whatever I deliver compositionally, is going to have an affect on people. I’m not writing from a technical standpoint.
When I write songs I never set forth to write a rock tune or a fusion song, or a jazz song. I don’t sit down and write for a certain genre in mind. What I will do is ask myself, “What auditory experience would I want to have if I put a CD in my car stereo?” What would I want to hear? What will excite me right now? So I’m drawing on that. Sometimes that means it’s going to come out as a funk tune, sometimes it’s going to be an unaccompanied acoustic guitar instrumental, sometimes it’s going to be something with big production, sometimes something very raw.
I really try to emphasize the point that I’m just trying to create things. The majority of what I write is never done on my guitar. I hear things in my head and then I try to find that on the guitar. As a result of that, a lot of times I discover that there are things that I hear, that I sometimes can’t play or that don’t necessarily fit any musical criteria in terms of theory.
A lot of what I talk about seems a little bit unorthodox because even though I know a lot about music, I think sometimes all that knowledge can be a restriction because you tend to feel like you need to operate within those parameters. I don’t agree with that. I think that creativity is it’s own thing. Music theory is good because it helps you to see a certain symmetrical and mathematical consistency that happens within the western music design. It doesn’t mean you have to adhere to them. It’s just nice to know of them and sometimes it can be helpful.
A long time ago Van Halen said in an article, “If it sounds good, it is good.” I pretty much live by that. There are a lot of things I do that I can’t necessarily explain from a technical place. I just know that I like the way it sounds. I really try to emphasize that that should be your goal. To make sure you’re providing a listening experience for people that they’re going to enjoy. If that means you have to break rules then so be it. It doesn’t matter. There are no real rules in creativity.
Have you ever written songs because you thought it would please your fan base?
There’s a balance that has to be met. At the same time, I don’t necessarily agree with the position of artists who don’t compromise. As if that’s something very honorable. I respect somebody who doesn’t let their music be messed with so much that they end up selling out, or becoming something that they’re not, but at the same time there has to be a balance.
It’s like a relationship. I have a relationship with my audience. They have certain expectations of me and I have certain expectations of what I would like from them. If I just ask them what they want and then give it to them, then in a certain way I’m just selling out. I’m not being true to anything about myself. On the other side if I just say, “This is what I do, love it or leave it.” That’s being equally as irresponsible.
I look to find that area where I meet my own needs as well as what I envision what my audience wants. There’s always an area where it can be done where everybody comes out happy. I’m definitely not one of those people who says, “I will not compromise.” And I’m not one of those people who think that there’s anything really that admirable about a musician who will not compromise.
When I hear certain players who’s name I won’t mention, I sometimes think, “What a phenomenal player. If this guy would just compromise a little bit, the whole world could know about him.” The whole world could be exposed to this great talent. But because he’s not going to compromise at all, he’s only going to ever remain in this little isolated box and it’s not doing him or a lot of would be listeners any good.
A song like “Child’s Play” is a good example of something that sounds really catchy and could appeal to a lot of people who aren’t necessarily guitar aficionados, but at the same time delivers enough for those people who are guitar aficionados that they’re satisfied. There are a number of songs on the Five album that do that as well.
Even on Introspection, “Jump Start” is appealing to a lot of people who aren’t necessarily guitar fanatics. There’s a way to do it, it just requires getting into the mindset of a listener who’s not engulfed in guitar. That’s sometimes difficult for musicians to do, particularly when we start becoming advanced and we start wanting to meet certain challenges of ourselves. I feel blessed in the sense that I’ve have had so many albums. I’ve been able to express myself in a rather self-indulgent manner. I’ve gotten all of that out of my system. Whatever I’ve needed to prove to myself in the past, I’ve done. Now it’s a lot easier for me to not be operating from the standpoint of having to prove anything.
Are you a slow writer?
Not necessarily. As a matter of fact I feel like I have a lot of ideas all the time. If anything it’s just finding the time to organize my thoughts and get them into some kind of cohesive presentation. I don’t really ever run out of ideas, so I feel good about that.
The Extraction CD was different for me in the sense that it was the album where I wanted to push my own limits of my harmony knowledge as far as I could. There was a lot of thought that went into the compositions. There were a lot of counter melodies and chromatic lines that would serve as foundations for re-harmonization. A lot of thought went into that album and it was a good learning experience for me because I got to see that in the end, there are a lot of songs that I’d written that I put no thought into that I like a lot more, than other songs that I had put a lot of thought into.
These days I’m not a slow writer. I would consider myself fairly prolific in the sense that I always have ideas. Usually I can’t have enough time to record the stuff I hear in my head.
Your compositions don’t seem bound by traditional verse, chorus, etc. Your compositions flow.
Exactly. A lot of times people will say to me, “Don’t you think it’s unfair that a lot of these pop artists write these silly songs and get all this air play, but you write these magnificent songs with a lot more complexity in composition, and you don’t get that kind of air play?” I don’t agree with that.
I think that to write a pop song where the whole thing has to be done within certain parameters and expectations of listeners, with all this familiarity attached to it, and yet it has to be something brand new, is much more of a challenge. You have to some how deliver something that sounds familiar to people, and yet not be something that has already been done. It’s much easier to have free reign to do whatever you like.
Writing something catchy that will stick in people’s heads is very difficult.
I give a lot of respect to people who write hit songs because that’s a whole other type of art form. A lot of people think there’s not a whole lot of integrity in that but I think there is. I think it requires a special type of talent to do that.
So I guess we’re going to be hearing more pop songs on your albums.
My new album is a vocal album so I’m in that mind set right now. I really am looking forward to getting back to a live performance scenario where I’m not having to approach each show from the standpoint of addressing solos and melodies perfectly. I really enjoy smiling at people and jumping off drum risers and having fun. (Laughing)
I started in rock bands and I really enjoyed that. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve been doing as an instrumental guitarist, but at the same time I pretty much feel like I’ve said everything that I have to say on the guitar at least thus far. I just really want to get back to music that moves as many people as possible. I don’t know that I would say I’m going to be doing stuff that’s more pop. Pop really just means popular music.
I just want to do stuff that has a broader appeal. When I listen to music I listen to stuff that most people would consider pop. I went through my stage when I was much younger where I only listened to progressive music or only listened to jazz or advanced harmony based material, exotic rhythms and odd time signatures. So much of that has gone into my head that I think I’m really looking to getting back to music that can move as many people as possible.
Where are you in the process of the new record?
We have a lot of basic tracks recorded. We tracked these over a year ago. I’ve been so busy that it’s been tough to have a whole lot of progress on that. So the whole month of October I’m taking off to finalize this record.
As far as the direction, I have a feeling that there’s going to be a lot of new material that comes about during that month. Since we’ve done these basic tracks, I’ve had a ton of new ideas, so it’s very difficult to really be able to tell where it’s going to go.
Who’s going to be the singer?
I have some ideas that I will refrain from mentioning. (Laughing)
Give us a hint.
It’ll be a male singer.
A lot can happen between now and the end of October. You might scrap the whole thing, start over, or find one of those Nordic metal chicks from Europe with the flaming red hair and the bustier.
This is very true. That can absolutely happen. (Laughing) You know Greg Howe’s world well.
Anything can happen in Greg Howe’s world.
That’s right. (Laughing)
What kind of rig are you traveling on tour with?
Because of the fact that I’m not on a Madonna or John Mayer type of budget, it’s tough to have exactly what I would want to have with me at all times. Generally when I go over seas I’ll bring my pedal board, which is very basic. There’s a TS808, a couple of the T-Rex pedals for reverb and delay, an Octave pedal, and a Wah pedal.
Usually I’m playing through a Marshall JCM2000 DSL. That’s the one they provide me. In a perfect world where there was a budget that really afforded me the opportunity to have exactly what I want, I’m still in love with the Cornford MK50 amps.
I’ve also been playing a lot with the Fractal Audio unit called the Axe-FX, which is absolutely incredible. It’s the only digital unit I’ve ever played where I could see actually using that full time. It’s by far the best multi-effects unit I’ve ever played through. All the reverbs, delays, choruses, flangers, and phasers, is the height of quality.
It also does amp modeling way better than anything else I’ve ever plugged into by a long shot. The problem I’ve always had with amp modeling is that a lot of times they’ll get really spot on with the sounds, but when you sit down and play, it doesn’t feel like it. I’ve recorded stuff with certain units where I’m hating the experience, but when I listen back I think, “Oh, it doesn’t sound too bad.” It doesn’t feel good while I’m doing it. The response is not being addressed.
Whatever the nuance is that you get from playing through tubes, it’s not being felt under my fingers. With the Axe-FX, they seemed to have addressed that. They understand how important that is, as well as how good it sounds. You’ve got pretty much any amp you can ever dream of, and every effect you can ever dream of.
What’s on your pedal board?
I’m using the Dunlop Buddy Guy Wah. I like it a lot because it sounds pretty much like a Crybaby but it’s supposedly true bypass. I don’t know for sure if that’s the case, but if not, it’s the closest thing they have to true bypass. I also use the T-Rex Octavius, the T-Rex Replica Delay, and the T-Rex Room Mate Tube Reverb. I’ve also been using the Arion SCH-1 Stereo Chorus pedal. The Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer, pretty much in front of any amp always sounds great.
Are you still playing the Laguna guitar?
For the last three or four years I’ve been using the Laguna guitar. The bridge pickup in it is something I developed with Steve Blucher called the GH5. It’s basically a high output pickup that doesn’t sound high output. It feels great because there’s so much hitting the front end of the amp.
The main reason for that is because the Cornford is not an easy amp to play. You can’t fudge through it. It’s not a compressed high gain amplifier. It’s reminiscent of the old British pre-master volume stage amplifiers running at high volume. It’s not easy to play them but at the same time the benefits are amazing. When it’s right and you’re hitting on all cylinders, it’s another realm. It’s really fulfilling. The notes are so tight, and so fast, and so separated, and dense – but the price is that it’s tough to play. Recently I’ve been using the Dimarzio Chopper in the neck. It’s got a great twangy thing about it.
What happens next before you take a break for the album in October?
I’m going to Argentina in a couple of weeks. I’ll be upgrading my studio a little bit more and doing webcam lessons. I’m still developing the online video teaching thing, which is going to be a series of videos available for purchase, which is a slow process but it is steadily being worked on.
Last question. What’s your favorite song by the band Lover Boy?
I would probably have to say “Turn Me Loose.” It’s a great song.