By: Marcos Rios
Greg Howe is an amazing guitar virtuoso who has become one of the most in-demand performers, clinicians, guitar teacher, studio and touring musicians on the scene today. Howe has performed with musicians such as Michael Jackson, Enrique Iglesias, N’Sync, Victor Wooten, Dennis Chambers, Stu Hamm among many others. In this interview we talk about Howe’s music, jazz influences in his music, his touring with different pop stars as well as Howe’s thoughts on Allan Holdsworth, success and teaching individuality.
Marcos Rios: What is the difference between your earlier and later recordings both musically and conceptually?
Greg Howe: Well I think the earlier recordings are obviously more rock based. When I first got signed to Mark Varney’s Label (Shrapnel Records), it was definitely a heavy metal label. So it was important to him that I made sure that I use the usual format and style. But at the time I did Introspection, I had really sort of expanded musically. I was listening to a lot more jazz and fusion, a lot more music with harmony that was much more complex, and I wanted to make use of that. And Mark Varney’s label had evolved; it wasn’t just metal.
I think Introspection is probably the beginning of me being able to expand musically, I think. Listening to jazz led to using more complex harmony and borrowing ideas from them, primarily harmonically. I became more involved in terms of the harmony concepts, and the music became more fusion opposed to rock.
Marcos: How much has jazz influenced your music and who are your main jazz influences?
Greg Howe: I think it would be more appropriate to say that I have been more influenced by fusion music in which all the musicians were deep rooted in jazz. I listened to a lot of the Yellow Jackets, Scott Henderson, John Scofield, Tribal Tech and Gary Willis. Those were the bands I listened to the most. I would get the jazz influence. But I do think jazz has played a role in a lot of my music in the latter part.
Marcos: When I hear you play I hear a hint of Allan Holdsworth. What are your thoughts on Allan Holdsworth?
Greg Howe: Allan Holdsworth, of course huge influence. I discovered him back when I was a kid. The first time I ever heard him was in the U.K. album The Dead of Night with Eddie Jobson. Then I heard a few other albums, and I always thought he was on to something right ahead of everyone else. He was always in his own league just as far as his legato approach and as far as musicality. It is very hard to even understand what he is doing most of the time. I can tell that whatever he is doing it is very personal and important to him. I never really transcribed his licks, and I have never learned the specific grooves that he is performing on guitar, but just from listening to him, of course he is a huge influence.
Marcos: I know you have played in a variety of trios. Which of these trios have been the most important?
Greg Howe: I don’t know that any musical scenario that I have been a part of is more important than the other, but I will say that recently I have been performing with Dennis Chambers and Stu Hamm. It’s been a wonderful experience. There is a certain energy that is there and obviously a very high level musicianship, but it is very inspiring to play live with those guys.
Marcos: In 2003, you recorded a record called Extraction with Victor Wooten and Dennis Chambers. How was that experience?
Greg Howe: The experience of Extraction was actually not very pleasant… It could be an interview all unto itself, a long story I won’t get into. I was being asked by the record company to record an album while I was on tour. At that time I was with the band N’Sync because I was doing a lot of the sideman stuff with pop artists. I had suggested to the record label to record the album when I got back from tour, but they didn’t want to do that album because they wanted an album at a certain time.
So I ended up sending Dennis all the tracks, crossing my fingers, hoping he would perform all the parts the way I wanted them to sound. Then he would send them to me while I was on tour and I would be mixing on the laptop. It was a real nightmare, and eventually, to make a long story short, we ended up having to track the entire album that way. I really wasn’t pleased because that wasn’t the way I wanted to do it. I wanted to perform with those guys; and there were just a lot of parts that both of them interpreted differently then I originally intended. So in the end, I convinced the record label to let us rerecorded the album after the tour, something we should have done in the first place.
That is the very short condensed version of the story. There was actually much more, but in the end the product was very nice. I am pleased with the way it came out, but the whole experience was very unpleasant. Probably one of the most unpleasant recording experiences I have ever.
Marcos: How was it to play for Michael Jackson’s tour in 1996? Did you have a lot of interaction with Michael Jackson or was it strictly professional? How was it to work with Enrique Iglesias? Justin Timberlake?
Greg Howe: Starting with Michael Jackson… The Michael Jackson experience was amazing! I didn’t have much interaction while offstage. He was relatively secluded. He in general he was a fairly introverted person, very quiet. I would see him backstage right before the shows. He was very nice and very pleasant, but very quiet. It was amazing to watch him transform into this person, this performing entity, owning the stage he set foot on. The tour was amazing and the crowds were unbelievable. The level of luxury was incredible! We had our own private jet just for the band; we had nice class hotels. Everything was top of the line and very professional. It was an absolute blast to do that.
Enrique Iglesias was a lot of fun. Enrique is probably one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever dealt with in the pop star world. It was very important to him that the tour was very much a family atmosphere. We hung out together. Nobody was superior to anybody else. He was not isolated or separated from anybody else. He liked just to play around with the tour members; he was just one of them guys. That was probably the most fun tour I have been on. No pressure, it was nothing but fun. We just had a blast. I really missed that time frame. That probably overall one of the most fun tours because there wasn’t that much pressure.
Michael Jackson was a lot more pressure; playing for a guy who had very high standards. He hears everything, so it was a different kind of energy. Michael Jackson was amazing, though. At the same time, you felt that you had to make sure you that you were at the top of your game. Enrique of course wanted you to play well, but the pressure was a different kind of energy, a much more relaxed sort of camaraderie environment.
Justin Timberlake was also cool. When I had worked with Justin on his own, he had just left N’Sync and he was starting to form his solo career. That was during the tail end with my work with Extraction. I actually had to stop the work with Justin to finish my work with Extraction for two years. That was one of the problems I had, so working with Justin on his own was something that really never happened. We played a few gigs together but I had to tell him that I had to step off
My work with N’Sync was also great, a humongous production. The N’Sync situation was somewhere between the Michael Jackson and Enrique. They were not as accessible as Enrique but much more accessible then Michael Jackson. N’Sync was a very great big production; it was a lot of fun playing for big stadiums and gigantic crowds. Overall they were great experiences!
Marcos: I believe you also give online lessons? Do you have a format for these?
Greg Howe: No, not at all. I don’t really believe in that at all. I don’t see artistic development being delivered or taught that way. Everybody is an individual. Everybody has strengths; everybody has certain things about them that make them special. For me, the idea of teaching to find what is special in a player is more personal. I don’t want Greg Howe’s lessons to be just a whole bunch of licks that I play. I want to teach people how to develop their own voice.
The other thing is that not every other musician has the same goals. If a guy wants to be a sideman or wants to be a session musician I am not going to be teaching him the same things that I would want to teach somebody who wants to be a writer or a recording artist. There is a difference between great musicians and artists. There are great artists who are musicians and great musicians who aren’t artists, so you really have to identify the goals of whoever is showing up to this lesson.
I don’t really believe in having format; it makes no sense. Why would I want to run somebody through scales if they already have good technique or why would I want to run somebody through harmony concepts if they already have them? I have to identify what it is the person wants to stand upon and try to base the lessons out that. I think that should be the way it is, and it should be like that at schools too.
Marcos: For all the gear freaks, what type of guitars and effects do you use and why?
Greg Howe: Well recently I have been working with this company called Laguna owned by Guitar Center. Since I have been there I have been able to develop this guitar called the LE924, and I really love this model. So I have been using that a lot. They come in two colors, blue and orange, and it is a pretty straight ahead guitar. You know, your basic offset double cutaway strat-style shred guitar with hard rock maple neck. We have a custom pick up I designed called the GH5 from Dimarzio and a Dimarzio single sized humbucker in the neck position. You know, it has an original Floyd-Rose bridge on it. Probably the most unique thing about it is that it has a five-way switch on a two pick up guitar. With the switch, I can get a lot of strat and tele sort of tones without have a third pick up, which I really enjoy. I really enjoy that aesthetically because when I usually have a third pick up I tend to hit it with my pick a lot. I really like the look of that and I ,really just enjoy playing this guitar!
As far as amps go, I have a variety. I have loved Cornford, which is an amazing amp in the sense that for a lead guitar player it is pretty much everything you would ever want, but at the same time it is not very versatile amp. It is basically a one channel amp. But I like the fact that it is one of the first amps I have ever played that I don’t need and overdrive pedal for. I can plug directly in. It has exactly the sound that I have always strived for, so the front end of that amp design almost feels like it is designed for me in mind. It is absolutely perfect, which is surprising to me because generally I don’t get that feel out of any amp. Of course, this amp is more a 6L6 amp with a little bit more head room, but for whatever reason, they are just right and I have been really loving those.
I have some Marshalls. I tend to really like the Marshal DSL version dual channel. A lot of people don’t know this, but the DSL with the extra channel is completely different. I don’t really care much for the DSL. It is just more available then the Cornford, which I wouldn’t like to take on a plane.
My pedal board… When I am doing gigs like that, it is very modest. I’ve got a variety of pedals that I would use, but generally I would use either my Xotic BB preamp as a booster… I also have a Buddy Guy wah, which is basically a standard Dunlop Wah. I’ve got some T-Rex stuff like the T-Rex Octavius which is really really nice, the T-Tex reverb unit and T-Rex delay pedal called the Replica. I don’t think there is much more there.
I have started to incorporate in my rig is the Axe-Fx by Fractual Audio. I can’t really say enough about it. It has some of the most high end reverb, delays and effects you can imagine. It is the only unit I have considered using because they don’t just sound right they actually feel right. I have actually started using it much more because it sounds really good.
Marcos: Do you have any updates on your new record?
Greg Howe: We are going to finish the record I think in October. I am taking the whole month of October off. I have been so busy the last year and a half. It’s impossible to find time, and I really can’t work on the album in between other projects; I need to really block out everything else and just focus on it to finish it. It is the way my brain works; to be in there 100%. At the end of October there will be an album. The question is when will it be released, and I am guessing early next year. All the drums and bass parts are done, I just have to deal with it in October. There will be new tracks that will be developed as well but whatever happens come November it should be done
Marcos: Do you have a recommendation for guitarists trying to reach the level of success you have?
Greg Howe: Well you know, I have had that question addressed to me many times, and the interesting thing is you can’t want to be successful. You are going to have a better chance of success when you just love what you are doing. If you’re doing it with the idea to be successful in mind, that sort of works against you. So with me, music is something that I have always needed, it is not something I had a choice in the matter. If I didn’t have music, I would be a very miserable person. Music is my whole life, so there is nothing else. If I was making three hundred dollars a week doing this it would be better than anything else I would do. Music is the most important thing to me, but I think if you have that mindset make sure that you love it more than anything. You won’t care about success and that’s when the best chance of success happens, when you don’t care about it.