By: Matt Warnock
As the ‘90s dawned and Grunge and later Alternative rock replaced Shred and Metal at the top of the guitar world, many of the premier players of the day saw a decline in their careers as listeners began to move away from instrumental guitar albums and albums with virtuosic guitar in general. While many of his contemporaries watched as their fans drifted away and their gigs vanish, at least for the time being, guitar virtuoso Greg Howe was able to maintain and even grow his audience and reputation during this tough period for guitar, which can be seen in his clinics, concerts and online teaching materials that continue to be popular today, many years after the “peak” of the instrumental guitar genre.
One of the things that helped Howe stand out from his contemporaries, and brand himself as unique in the instrumental guitar genres, is that he has branched out from the Shred genre of his early years and has embraced jazz and fusion in recent years, something that has helped him reach a more diverse audience than some of his contemporaries. As the numbers of views on his YouTube videos show, where he plays jazz standards such as “Giant Steps” and “Sunny,” there is still an audience out there for great instrumental guitar music, and right now there may be no bigger voice in that style than Greg Howe.
Guitar International caught up with Greg Howe recently to talk about online teaching, his new transcription book and his new album that’s planned for a 2011 release.
Matt Warnock: You’re getting ready to head to Europe to do a series of guitar clinics. Can you give us an outline of what these clinics will entail? What’s the basic outline of a Greg Howe guitar clinic?
Greg Howe: Generally, what I do is start off the clinic by playing some popular songs that I’ve recorded along with a backing track. Then I go over some specific techniques that I use that are unique or unusual. After that, I play some more and take some questions. The questions usually move into deeper subject matter such as harmony and composition. So the clinics move between me playing and then answering questions from the players in the audience, that’s the basic format.
Matt: Do you ever do clinics that are based around a pre-determined subject, such as the harmony of John Coltrane, or left-hand legato, or do you always let the audience’s questions lead you once you get in the room for the clinic?
Greg Howe: I usually just let the audience lead things. I have done that in the past, where I had a clinic based on one subject, usually technique, but with the internet and especially YouTube, people have unlimited access to lesson videos. So I feel it’s more beneficial to let them into my mind and get into those more specific questions, because answers to most of those other questions about technique and so forth are easily found on the internet today.
Matt: You’re going out on this tour with just yourself and a backing track, as opposed to a full band and road crew when you do a concert performing tour. Do you have a preference for either situation?
Greg Howe: I prefer a band and a gig touring scenario just because it’s so much fun to play music. I got into this to play gigs and play with people. I didn’t intend on doing instructional tours, those things just came up later. The whole camaraderie thing that one gets when they’re on the road with a band is great, but I also like doing clinic tours as well. I like them both, but I prefer to be out on the road with a band playing shows.
Matt: You also teach private webcam lessons. What’s been your experience so far as you’ve delved into the world of online teaching?
Greg Howe: I love it. It’s really amazing because for the first time I get to connect with people from all over the world. In the past, when I taught private lessons I would get people coming over from maybe a 50 to 100 mile radius, but to be able to have quick and easy access to people in England, Japan and South America, is a great thing. It’s also great for me because I have to play guitar every day to keep in shape. [Laughing]
With my schedule it’s easy to stop for a second and realize that I haven’t played guitar in a few days, so it’s a really great motivator for me as well as the students. It’s really like a one-on-one private lesson, except that you’re separated by a screen, but if people want to see how I do something slowly I can do that.
I can also move the camera angle so that they can see my hands from different angles if they want. It’s almost as good as an in person lesson, and in some instances it may even be better because the student gets to play on their guitar, their amp and in the comfort of their own home.
In the past I’ve had students that were nervous because they were meeting me in person, and that effected their playing. But, that doesn’t seem to happen when the student is in the comfort of their own home and working with me online. I think a lot of times the students even prefer it this way. I’m loving it so far and I think the students are enjoying it too.
Matt: You recently released a tab book with backing tracks for your album Introspection. How closely did you work with this project as far as the transcribing and editing was concerned?
Greg Howe: I worked directly with the two transcribers, both were amazing and both are amazing guitarists as well. We took advantage of the internet, so we’d get on the webcam and go over things. It was never a matter of notes, those they got easily, but sometimes there were fingering issues that we needed to work out. So I’d say, “Yeah, that’s right, but I actually used this other fingering for this reason.” So it was just a matter of tweaking some of the fingerings after they had written out all the notes.
Matt: Is this the beginning of a series of books, where you’ll transcribe and add backing tracks to some of your other albums?
Greg Howe: There will be more of these in the future. There are litigation issues with songs that I’ve recorded in the past, as far as publishing rights, that sort of thing. So it all depends on what I can work out publishing wise with the record label. Depending on whether or not we come to terms with an agreement that we’re both happy with, that will determine which books come out in the future. Regardless, there will be other instructional books, but whether or not we do more albums like this will depend on working things out with the label.
Matt: Since you’re producing these projects yourself, and selling them on your website, do you think the days of working with a record label, distributors etc. are over for you and you’ll just move forward as your own business entity?
Greg Howe: It’s going to depend on what is being offered and what is able to be negotiated with the middle men. There’s an advantage to working with a record label in terms of distribution, marketing and PR, but you give up a lot to have those benefits. If you can make just as much money selling 20,000 albums as you could selling 200,000 albums with a record company, then I need to start weighing those things. On one hand, it’s great to reach 200,000 people, but on the other hand it’s good to make money off of your albums.
There’s also so much piracy out there these days, that I see releasing an album as a means to justify a tour. I’ll give you an example. I have a much bigger fan base in Russia and India than I knew about, and I had no distribution in those places. So fans were able to access my music via the internet.
I’m not really opposed to people accessing my music, whether they pay for it or it’s free, because it’s a means to an end. I will always have some control over my music. I don’t like to hand over total control of my music to anyone, so I’ll always maintain some level of control regardless of which path I travel down the road.
Matt: It seems that downloading has hurt labels but helped musicians in a way, because like you said, people hear the music and then you can book a tour in India because you have fans there that you wouldn’t have had if they couldn’t access the music for free. What are your thoughts on this?
Greg Howe: I’ve always been in a niche market, I’m not an MTV sized artist. It’s not like I have Gold or Platinum albums, so for me being an Indie musician, it’s a big advantage. With a label, they would pay me an advance based on their projected sales of the record. For the most part, you want to get as much money up front as possible, because it’s not common in this genre that you’re getting monthly checks for record sales. For me this stuff is great, but not for the labels.
Not to get too opinionated in an interview, but artists have been taking a hit for the past 50 years, and labels have been doing great. The artist really gives up an enormous amount for the benefits of working with a label, the label always makes much more than the artist. If you’re Beyonce or Justin Timberlake then it makes sense to work with a major label, but for smaller artists this doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
Matt: You’ve said recently that there is a new studio album that should be out in early 2011. Can you give us a progress report on the new record?
Greg Howe: It’s going great, but a little slower than I had anticipated. I tend to be an optimist with this stuff. It’s a vocal project which is cool. I’m not the kind of guy who just throws out records for the sake of making an album. Maybe I’m too overly analytical with things so it’s taking a bit of time to get out. The tracks are laid out but I’m still tweaking it a bit in the studio. I’m definitely thinking 2011 for the release of the album.