American fusion guitarist Greg Howe’s (8 December, 1963) first eponymous album was released in 1988, and was soon declared one
of the top 10 shred albums of all time by Guitar
Howe has pioneered several guitar styles including fast left-hand legato passages and the “hammer on from nowhere" technique, in which a note is produced from a different string without first being picked.
The guitarist has released 10 solo albums and has played with a host of top artists including Michael Jackson, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. Guitars Exchange catches up with Howe one morning in early October 2018 while he is in Las Vegas, preparing for his upcoming European tour. Later he will take his dog for a walk and practise on his six string, but right now he has a cup of coffee in his hand and is keen to go deep about his guitars, the creative process and his latest record.
GE: How has your latest album ‘Wheelhouse’ been received?
GH: Really well, I was pleasantly surprised, because you never know if it will resonate. All I can do is to try and create music that I hope people will like, so it is very gratifying to find out that people generally do. It’s been received really well; I am delighted.
GE: You started off your career with a more rock-oriented record and then moved into fusion, how would you describe this album?
GH: That’s a good question. It is very hard for me to be self-analytical. When my second instrumental album came out I suddenly found it was being written about like something Scott Henderson might do – and I thought ‘do they hear me like a jazz artist?’ I don’t think of myself as being in those categories, I just create music in my head, and it comes out a certain way. I guess some may describe the new album as fusion - and maybe it is a little bit of a throwback, as it has certain qualities that people who enjoyed the stuff I did in the 90s would probably enjoy.
GE: This album represents a return to solo work after working with bands like Maragold – what motivated you to return to solo instrumental work?
GH: To be honest I was disappointed with what happened with Maragold. I was really excited about that band and I thought that musically we did some great stuff, but we just could not get along with each other, we had such different views about everything, so we weren’t able to do it. I then tried to work afterwards with one of the best singers I’ve ever heard, but again there were certain things that didn't work. So at that point I thought I’ve got to get back on the train and do something with my career. But it was a helpful experience because it gave me a fresh perspective.
GE: On this album you play again with Ernest Tibbs, on bass, and Gianluca Palmieri on drums…
GH: Yes, I fell in love with Ernest’s bass playing in Protocol because he has really got everything that I wanted: he has got a deep, deep, pocket; his feel is one of the best I’ve ever heard; he has got jazz and harmony knowledge; and he has also got chops. And he is a super nice guy, great to tour with. And Gianluca I’ve worked with for a long time: we are great friends and he is like family, so he was a natural choice for drummer.
GE: Do you have a favourite track from the album?
GH: I don’t know if I have a favourite track; that’s like being asked to choose your favourite kid! I was pretty pleased the way 2 in 1 came out because I am very attracted to unchartered territory as it helps the motivation. That song was going to have a female vocalist on it who I worked with, but it came down to the wire with the release date, and I had to release it before my last US tour, so it ended up as an instrumental. If I was forced to live on a desert island and had to only take one song from the album there is a good chance I might take that one (laughs).
GE: Going back to your childhood, you started to play guitar acoustic in your house at 10 years old; what make was it?
GH: It was just an old beat up acoustic with high action, I don’t even know if it had a brand name.
GE: What music were you into at that time and what made you choose guitar?
GH: I was first into rock n roll. My brother and I were huge Beatles fans, all the funk stuff, Sly and the Family Stone, and all that. Then there was a show called Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that came on in the 1970s, so you’d get to watch the Rolling Stones or Sly; my brother and I just loved it. I just wanted a guitar in my hand and to bang out aggressive chords. The first time I plugged an electric guitar into an amplifier I just thought ‘Wow, this is rock n roll!’ For a few years I didn’t want to play lead, I just wanted to provide a musical backdrop for some kind of vocal thing my brother and I were doing, trying to write songs.
Around that same age my parents were taking in foster kids and one of the guys played guitar. I was 10 and he was 15 and he showed me a lot of chords. A year later I said ‘let’s go and play guitar together’ and at one point when I was strumming he bent a single note and I stopped and asked him what he had done as I thought that was the coolest thing; so for the next six months I was bending notes everywhere. And then I inadvertently stumbled across the Pentatonic scale, so I started playing lead guitar and that led instantly to Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
GE: So you then started playing solos?
GH: Yes. One of the first solos I ever learned was the Commodores’ song Feel Like a Sunday Morning (hums the melody). It was so much fun to be able to mimic it. I discovered I could play Jimmy Page stuff and then I heard a Van Halen album and I remember thinking ‘this guy must be a classical guitarist’ - and believe it or not I took classical guitar lessons around the age of 15 because I wanted to learn how to play Eruption. I thought the end part was done on three separate strings using a right hand technique that is used by flamenco players, and in the tablature books back then that is how they had it written because noone really understood the tapping thing, so I took lessons. My guitar teacher could play Eruption and yet my ear could tell me that even though it was impressive it wasn't the same, so eventually I went to see Van Halen play live. When I saw him I then understood what they meant when they said ‘use the right hand’, so when my friends dropped me off home at 3 am in the morning I ran upstairs and I played it. I was the first kid on the block who could do it, and then I got serious because I thought ‘Eddie Van Halen is so cool; this is what I want to do with my life’.
GE: Which was your first electric guitar?
GH: I think it was called a Goya, it was a copy of an old Rickenbacker guitar with covers on the pick up.
GE: Did you choose it?
GH: No, my sister’s boyfriend gave it to me, it was pretty beat up.
GE: Do you still have it?
GH: No! (laughs) I wish I did, I really do.
GE: You are known for tapping, unusual time signatures and’ hammer on from nowhere’ – how important are these techniques for you?
GH: Very important, because one of the things that I discovered in my formative years was that there were certain things that my fingers could do that other guitarists couldn't, and others can do things that I can’t, but I was almost always guided by an auditory vision in my head. In other words I would have an idea about what I wanted to hear coming out of my speakers and if I couldn’t make that happen in a conventional way then I would start looking for alternative methods to help deliver whatever that is. So to have a run that goes [mouths a run] and not have any sense of a triplet being revealed or one note generally on a tight linear largato run you can kind of hear triplets a little bit and there was something about that that wasn't the same as a piano player or sax player doing a run, and I wanted to hear that, effortless, every note with the same velocity and density of sound, so I just experimented. I had done so much stuff, I had already been experimenting with new ways of tapping, but it was a breakthrough for me, as it had never occurred to me before that I could reorder the typical tapping sequence, which would have the left hand or the fret hand initiate the sequences. That was really what the big difference was, with most of the Van Halen type-tapping the sequences are being initiated with the right hand, but with a lot of the stuff that I am doing the sequence is initiated by the left. So the left essentially has to hammer without picking, and let the hammer start from a ‘no starting place’. So hammer ons from nowhere and tapping work together to create things like the chorus of Kick it All Over. The strange thing was that the chorus was not something that came about from experimenting on the fret board so when I went to play the chorus I couldn't really do it, I couldn’t make it happen, so I had to start experimenting with ways to get the melody to come out and that's where a lot of the unusual tapping sequences came from, because I thought ‘hey, wait a second, I can outline a triad or an arpeggio position with my left hand and then tap the notes, and then if I use a sequence as simple as hammering with the left hand, tapping with right hand and then pull off I can move to new strings knowing that the left hand is going to initiate the new hammer tap pull sequence on the new strings’. It was a very easy and logical way to execute this melody.
In many cases there were songs that I would have had to have changed had I not been able to come up with some technique that mimicked what I heard in my head. So to answer your question (laughs), yeh, they are pretty important to me.
GE: You said in one interview that sometimes you wake up and have a song all ready in your head, like a gift, but other times it is more complicated. What do you do when the inspiration does not seem to be there?
GH: Very good question. I look anywhere I can get it. Listening to a lot of different music is often helpful, stuff that isn’t what I would normally listen to. Unexplored areas, different perspectives help a lot. Another thing that helps a lot is drums. I tend to be good at sequencing drums and part of that is because prior to being a guitarist I wanted to be a drummer. So in some ways I think more like a drummer. When it comes to compositions and even soloing, a lot of times I’m thinking about the contour of a run, for example [Hums a melody] when I sing that there is no key structure in my mind I am not thinking about harmony, I am thinking about rhythm and contour, where it goes up or down and what the rhythmic context would be and then that can be applied … you know the harmony would be the last thing that would come into place. I might say to myself ‘this is what I want to hear in terms of the broad delivery of notes, now what is the specific context that I would put that in?’
When it comes to drums if I can sequence drum grooves that are unique, that aren’t quite as normal as just a pop song or where the foundation of the groove is not so predictable, that can sometimes induce new ideas. If I hear a drum groove that is pretty unique I ask what would have to happen in order for that groove to work in the context of a real composition, and sometimes that will immediately inspire an idea.
But probably the most effective source of inspiration is simply to imagine being someone who wants to listen to an instrumental album and hear something that they haven’t heard before. So I picture a guy driving to work to a mundane office job and he’s stuck in traffic, and irritated, and he wants to listen to some cool unique music and when I picture that scenario sometimes I almost hear what is coming out of that guy’s speakers. It sometimes feels like I’m accessing music that is already there.
GE: Thanks for that great insight into your creative process. Now turning to one of your most popular Youtube videos ‘Sunny’ – I was wondering why you think that strikes a chord with viewers?
GH: Good question; you know I could not be more elated by that. I originally did it for a video thing that I was working on at the time. I bought a new camera and we were testing it out just after I had seen Joey DeFrancesco, John Scofield and Pat Martino performing that song live, and it really inspired me. Standards are interesting because often they have a quality that allows you to play them simple if you want; or real sophisticated if you prefer. So that allows the improvisor to dictate what level of sophistication they want. You could essentially play a minor Pentatonic over that whole thing. So when I was watching it I was fascinated by the three different styles of improvising - one coming from a place with a lot of trad jazz; Scofield more left field, way behind the beat, and then Joey DeFrancesco just playing the perfect bunch of notes; everything is so clever and witty and musical. So I played about 15 versions of it in front of camera and then I looked at the last thing and thought ‘you know what that wasn’t bad, it might be cool to upload it’.
I’m not really sure why people like it, it is a bit of a departure from what I normally do, but I think it was responsible for bringing me a lot of new fans. The beauty of the free market with the Internet now is that something really cool tends to rise to the top.
GE: Talking of ‘something cool’, you replaced Jeniffer Batten on Michael Jackson’s tour; I understand she recommended you?
GH: Yes she did, which was amazing of her, and I will forever be grateful.
GE: Do you feel you had any kind of friendship with Michael Jackson?
GH: I don't think so. Michael was kind of isolated; he had a small group of people. He tended to be a very private person, very guarded, and probably with good reason. He was certainly a nice enough guy but he was very introverted, quiet, and complex, and frankly he just wasn't around, you didn't see him until right before a show, so it would have been impossible to become friends with him even if you wanted to.
GE: Did he have to persuade you to wear Jennifer’s huge peroxide wig on ‘Beat It’?
GH: (laughs) Yeh, that was not me coming along saying ‘hey give me the wig!’ I was certainly hoping with all my might I wasn’t going to have to wear it. And it was funny because at the first show they gave it to me but it didn't fit, and I was like ‘Yes, thank God!’ So they had a lot of fun teasing up my hair making it look really crazy, but then I think around the third show they just got a new wig and they presented it to me. And I was like ‘Oh, no… I guess I have to do this!’ But for that experience and for what it represented and for how much money they were paying, in the grand scheme it was a small thing.
GE: What is the first thing that comes into your mind when I mention the following artists who you have collaborated with?:
Justin Timberlake? If I was to describe him I’d say he was someone who really understands what the masses want in the form of entertainment on mutltiple levels, and that is a real gift. As a songwriter, performer, dancer, even as a comedian, he just knows what things resonate with people.
Christina Aguilera? Great voice. Diva, but very talented.
Rhianna? Also very talented. I hung out with her; she was only 22 at that time. It is amazing because in this industry I have been around many other super young talented artists and being with them you realise why they’ve made it, because they are very smart, very sophisticated for their age. Rhianna was very normal, checking out Facebook, laughing about comments, checking out guys she thought were hot, you know just a typical young girl, which I actually liked about her. She was down to earth; she was cool.
GE: Turning now to current guitars, what would you say is your favourite today?
GH: I don't really have a favourite because I like different things about each. The goal is to try and get it all in one guitar, but we have to remember that you cannot predict when you are dealing with wood, the quality of materials, so many variables that you have no control over; it is an exercise in futility. I have had guitars put together for me that have all the right ingredients and they just don't work; and I have had other guitars that seemingly have no features that would interest me and yet when I pick it up I think ‘this is fun, I don't know why but this is really feeling great under my fingers’.
I am still amazed about how unpredictable these instruments are. I have been in situations where I have seen two identical guitars from boutique manufacturers who claim they can give you anything you want. I remember one instance when there was a very high quality guitar hanging on the wall right next to another of the same brand - they looked identical, even the maple top was of similar design and both sounded great, but one had a deep resonance, the notes were very big, and the other was almost exactly the opposite the notes were very focused, very tight, very quick, much more upper mid range much less of that deep fluffiness and completely different; and yet they looked identical.
GE: Which guitar will you play later today?
I’ll probably be playing the guitar I intend to take on tour. I want to feel as comfortable with that as possible. The guitar I have been using is a second round of signature guitars that I did with Kiesel; it is essentially a Super Strat, it is an opposite double cutaway guitar with a Humbucker in the bridge, two single coils, 24 frets, and it's a no frills guitar. I don't mean that in a bad way it is just that as I get older I find myself becoming more traditional and liking older amps that have no effects loops and no gain stages, and I like old guitars without locking tremolos and fancy switches, that is where I’m being pulled to.
The one I have been playing on tour, it is reddish with a poplar top on it that is multicoloured. One thing I like about it is it has a very prominent upper mid push so it really cuts through on stage, it has a little more weight, but not too much because that focusedness becomes cold, there is not enough bloom to the note. It responds very quickly.
GE: And what gear will you use?
GH: We are in the midst of working on a prototype right now. I don't know why DV Mark still has me around because I am nothing but problems for them! But Marco, the owner, has realised that the guitar and amp are what I play so they both have to work together. Frank Gambale, for example, is nowhere near as meticulous as I am, because with me if certain things are not right it affects the decision about what I am about to play. If I am trying to avoid a lick because it doesn't feel right on the neck then that is a distraction from the creative stream – and I don't want that. I need it to come out the way I want it to.
One of the biggest challenges about working with a company is that they have an agenda and I have an agenda and they may not coexist comfortably. Because perhaps the company wants to make it affordale and offer reverb, and this and that, and there’s a big market for that, I understand it, but when you are dealing with someone like me, there hasn't really been anything that comes near an old style amp. I would love to have an old fashioned Plexi that is in a box the size of an overdrive pedal. I would love that more than anybody, because I don't like hauling around heavy things. The prototype amp I have been playing has no frills, it is volume tone – and that is it. I use a pedal in front of it to get distorsion. There aren’t too many people today willing to spend 2,500 or 3,500 bucks on an amplifier when you can get very good stuff in a unit for 500 bucks. When I play my favourite tone in front of my fiance, versus plugging into an old line 6 pod, she doesn't hear the difference at all, but for me they are light years apart.
DV Mark has been wonderful working with me. In a perfect world this amp will be released at NAMM and it will be determined between now and then whether or not there will be a gauge stage, but Stevie Ray Vaughan would just love this amp – it is just pure tone.
GE: After your tour what plans do you have for 2019?
GH: I have a bunch of material that I want to put together for a new album and I would like to collaborate with another artist. I live in town here with Carlos Santana so I keep thinking to myself ‘I wonder if he would be interested in doing an album with me?’ but I don't know for sure. Also I will be going out on tour with a band with Dennis Chambers and David Sanchez and we will try and put something out.
GE: Thank you for sharing so much detail with us; best of luck with your tour.
GH: It’s my pleasure.