Greg Howe speaks out about influences, innovative technique and that amazing Michael Jackson experience!
By Jon Liebman and David Sands
June 7, 2016
Guitar wizard Greg Howe leapt onto the shred rock scene of the late ‘80s with his self-titled album released on Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records label.
A funky sensibility — honed through years of playing clubs with his brother Al —immediately distinguished Howe’s blazing guitar work from the prevailing neo-classical sound of that era. Warmly received by the guitar community, his instrumental debut won him both accolades and endorsements. In fact it was eventually ranked the tenth best shred album of all time in a list compiled by Guitar World Magazine.
The guitarist followed up his freshman effort with 1989’s High Gear and 1991’s Now Hear This — a pair of studio albums amplified by his brother’s vocal talents — and second solo album Introspection, released in 1993, that saw him stepping out in a decisively jazz-fusion direction. His more recent efforts have found him going deeper into fusion territory with a series of albums that pull from rock, funk, blues and jazz traditions, while exploring the boundaries of what’s possible on a six-string.
Over the years, Howe has also developed a solid reputation as technical innovator, particularly for his strong utilization of tapping, unusual time signatures and his “hammer-on from nowhere” legato method. He’s made a name for himself as a stellar sideman and session musician with artists like Michael Jackson, N’Sync, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, P Diddy, Tim McGraw and Salt-N-Pepa.
FGPO’s Jon Liebman recently reached out to Howe to find out more about his guitar origins and his unique perspectives on the instrument.
FGPO: I’m intrigued with your background, including all the stuff you did with your brother. Why don’t we start there? How would you describe your musical upbringing?
Howe: There was virtually nothing academic about it. My brother and I loved music. We always loved music, and it was a natural part of our existence. It was something we always understood. … Even before we could play instruments, my brother and I would write songs, which was interesting because it meant one of us would have to be singing a melody while the other one was sort of humming what represented the bass notes of the chord change that would accompany the melody.
When I was around, say, 10, my parents started having foster kids at the house. And one of the kids who stayed there, he played guitar, acoustic guitar, and I really learned to play chords from him.
We had an acoustic guitar lying around the house, but we didn’t know how to play it. … My parents finally were like, “Do you guys want to … learn how to actually play them?” I wanted to play drums. And I already had a natural tendency to play drums … But my brother raised his hands real quick and said, “I want to play drums!” So I was forced to default to guitar. … I took three guitar lessons, and I didn’t learn anything at all whatsoever because … the objective is to get you to sight read, but it doesn’t work for people who have good ears … I would just pretend to read the book, but really I’m just learning by ear. And I put my fingers in the right place. I just quit, and, like I said, this kid started staying at the house, and he taught me chords.
FGPO: Were you more influenced by guitar players, or maybe songwriters or bands? Who were your influences?
Howe: Mostly songwriters. Guitar playing was not at all a big deal for me until the kid with the guitar. He left eventually. These kids would stay at the house for three months or so. They’d leave and somebody new would come in. … I look at it as a major influence on music, because these were all different kids, different ethnicities, different backgrounds, so we were really exposed to everything from R&B, all the way to heavy metal, and everything in between. We really got a heavy dose of all this stuff, you know?
FGPO: Did that shape what you wanted to do with music, who you wanted to sound like and where you wanted your career to go?
Howe: I think it did. I think everything does. But I guess that remains to be really known, because the next thing that happened was this kid came back to visit. And at this point, I was like 11-years-old, maybe 12, and I said “Let’s go play guitar. Let’s share it around.” And during this little jam session, there was an epiphany. He bent a note at one point on his guitar, and I was like: “What the heck was that?!”
FGPO: A whole new world!
Howe: That was really the beginning of lead guitar. Because once he showed me what he did, I thought it was just the coolest thing I ever heard. And, up until that point, I had never really noticed lead guitar. … So for the next few months, I was just playing notes on my guitar, bending them, trying to do cool things, bending notes, and I sort of inadvertently stumbled across the Pentatonic Scale. … I was able to start improvising over any song that I heard. … Then I discovered Jimmy Page, and that was when I really started to have a defined guitar soloist I could now start copying and really learn from.
Back then, it wasn’t something I really wanted to necessarily do. It wasn’t until we started to in junior high school or middle school, to put bands together. And around the age of 15 was when the first Van Halen album came out. That was ’78, and that’s when I really decided I wanted to play guitar. I remember this specifically because a friend of ours picked us up to drive us to school. … He’s got the 8-track player. He puts in the Van Halen album, and I’d heard some of it because a lot of people were playing it, but I wasn’t really a big fan of the band. It wasn’t until the “Eruption” instrumental piece … and I remember thinking, “Man, this guy’s really fast and cool. He’s really doing stuff that I haven’t tapped into yet, but I could really figure it out if I put some time into it.”
FGPO: Did you say “tapped” into? Did you mean to say that?
Howe: No pun intended [laughs]. Well, actually, I was getting into that point, the tapping part. When that came up, I leaned to the front seat and said to the driver, “What? What was that?” And he said, “Well, that was Eddie Van Halen doing a guitar solo.” And I said, “Well, I know, of course, but at the end what was that?” And he said, “I don’t know. I figure it was guitar.” And I said, “No, no, clearly that was not a guitar.” So I was just trying to [figure it out]. Was that an effect? Was he playing a keyboard? It was so un-guitar-like. I was sure that there was no way he was playing that with his fingers. … [Later] some friends of mine were going to see Van Halen at New York’s Nassau Coliseum.
FGPO: You’re from the New York area?
Howe: Yeah, I come from New Jersey. Right. I was in New Jersey. So I went to see them – and again, I wasn’t a huge fan of the band – I was just really intrigued with the guitarist. So when we got there. I had my binoculars, and we were way far away. The very first song – I don’t remember which song they opened with – I just remember he unleashed the technique during the first minute of his guitar solo and I was like, “I know what he’s doing. I knew the secret.”
I couldn’t wait to get home and play that on guitar. So they dropped me off at my house at 3 o’clock in the morning, and I ran upstairs and played “Eruption.” I knew that I was the first kid on the block that knew what was happening. … So once I had cracked this code, I was determined to be the cool guy who could play Van Halen stuff, so I put a band together with my brother and another guitar student [who became the bassist]. … We found a drummer, and we put a band together called Duke. And really out of the gate, we just started playing all the time. So we started playing clubs. And my brother’s two years younger than me. We literally had to make fake IDs to get into the clubs to play.
FGPO: Would you say the deal with Mike Varney and Shrapnel Records is what really launched your career into high gear?
Howe: Absolutely, that was the official beginning of my career. We had tried to get record deals, and in a very short time we were a real popular band in that area. … We were writing originals at this point. We were recording originals. We had demos. We had a press kit. When I say at this point, I’m talking around ’85-’86. We were really trying to get a record deal, and we did have some momentum. … But by the time of my record deal with Mike Varney, it was ’88. And I remember he had a column call called “Spotlight.”
FGPO: I remember very well!
Howe: So just for the heck of it, I figured I’d send a demo tape to Mike Varney. I was thoroughly convinced I would not be selected. In my mind, I’m from a small town. There’s gotta be just so many great guitar players in this world that are sending demos to him.
But I was so determined. I essentially thought, “Well, some people get recognized by him. I certainly won’t get featured, and I certainly won’t get a record deal on Shrapnel, [but] I’ll send one anyway. And, just for the heck of it, I’m going to send one not only to his P.O. box, which is what he recommended, but I’ll also send one to connect through Guitar Player magazine.” This way, I know somebody has to sign for it. Someone will have to physically be holding this cassette tape in their hands. And, if by chance, Mike Varney is there at the magazine office, he’ll have it in his hands.
It worked out. I sent a demo FedEx on whatever particular day it was, and I got a phone call from Mike the very next day. And he said, “Yeah, I heard your demo, and I like what you’re doing. And I’m going to feature you in a “Spotlight” column.” And I was like, “Wow, this is crazy. And then he said, “Also, would you be interested in doing a record deal with me?”
And that just blew my mind. He was basically just offering me a record deal [to do instrumental albums]. At that point, you have to understand, that’s all we really wanted. … And I thought to myself, “This is great. … Well, first of all, I’ve never written an instrumental song, so I don’t really know how to do that. And second of all, I can’t just abandon my brother and my band.” So the original contract was for four albums. We negotiated, so that two of the albums would be with my full band with my brother, and the other two would be instrumental.
So it turns out [the first] one was instrumental, and it really did launch my career. Because the way that Mike did it, it was a really impactful record. … This was the point where Mike was like: “I have a lot of these guys that are really great at doing this sort of post-Yngwie [Malmsteen] kind of neoclassical kind of thing.” I was really the guy who he wanted to deliver that same kind of technique, but with a bluesy musical context, which was good for me because I was never into the neoclassical thing.
FGPO: Tracing the progression of your career, it almost seems like there was some kind of metamorphosis, from the early shredding stuff to the more fusion-y stuff, to Maragold, which is almost more of a rock and pop thing. Would you comment on that?
Howe: Absolutely. I love every kind of music, and when people ask me, “What kind of music do I like?,” it’s always a strange question because I don’t differentiate what I like by genre. It’s either good or it’s not good. So what do I like? Good music! Good music comes in all styles, and bad music comes in all styles. I’m actually very inspired by new territory. I actually tend to get a little bit complacent or bored when I’m doing the same thing over and over again.
When I’m listening to some musician who’s coming from a perspective I haven’t explored yet, that’s what inspires me. So it’s always been that whatever I do next has to be different than what I did now. It doesn’t have to be drastic, but there has to be some new twist, or else I won’t be inspired. I’ve been bombarded my whole life with so much extremely basic guitar playing that it’s just listening to the guitar sort of being transcribed. I tend to seek outside that world, when it comes to inspiration.
I get more out of listening to Michael Brecker or Herbie Hancock. I can listen to Coltrane and get ideas. I tend to not to listen to guitar players as much for the purpose of being influenced as much as I used to. I listen to different types of instruments because playing a different type of instrument usually means there are going to be natural things that tend to lend themselves to what a person plays. So usually it offers unique perspectives when I transcribe those ideas to the guitar.
FGPO: Tell me a little bit about your technique. You’re known for taking that tapping concept a little farther than what most people are used to hearing and seeing, particularly with this “out-of- nowhere” thing where you’re tapping on a string that hadn’t already been played.
Howe: I was giving private lessons, back when I was living out in Pennsylvania. I had to come up with notations for certain things I was doing that didn’t seem to exist. Almost everything I’ve ever done on the guitar that people consider to be unique and different are things that came as a result of being unsuccessful trying to do them professionally. So, it wasn’t like I was out there trying to be innovative. It was more like that I’m out there trying to be story-oriented. How can I get what I envision in my mind to come out of my speaker cabinets? Because I can’t sweep pick like that, or I can’t alternate pick that. I don’t have the technique that would enable me to do it.
A great example of this would be my very first song, off my very first album. The song is called “Kick It All Over.” The chorus has this descending triplet pattern that sort of outlines the chord changes. I wrote the song in my mind, and when I went to play it, I couldn’t play it. My technique was not able to provide me with what I need to [do]. I started to play around with hand ideas, and I discovered I could create exactly what I wanted to do in my mind if my approach to tapping became [that] the left hand, the fretting hand, would lead the sequence, as opposed to the right hand. So as opposed to the right hand arpeggio tube tapping that Van Halen did, what I was doing was now looking for ways to actually produce lines and melodies. And so it really worked out great.
It was a simple concept: just hammer with the left hand, tap with the right hand, and then pull up. And then if you take that sequence and devote it to an extreme you can go: hammer-tap-pull, hammer-tap-pull, hammer-tap-pull. And that’s how I was able to finally play the melody that I’d heard in my head. And it also helped open other doors, because once I started to realize, “Wait a minute. I can use tapping in a way that’s totally different in more of a linear fashion, when the left hand becomes more the hand that initiates the sequence.”
FGPO: I want to ask you in particular about the Michael Jackson gig. That must have been pretty special.
Howe: That’s definitely a highlight. That’s in the top five, if not three.
FGPO: I don’t even know what to ask you, so just tell me about it!
Howe: Well the story’s pretty funny. I ran into Jennifer Batten. This is shortly after my first album, early ’90s. I ran into her at a NAMM show, and she said she liked my playing, and she had my album. And then I watched her play. She’s an incredible guitarist, and she said that she was thinking about stepping off that tour, and at some point and she was going to recommend me. And I thought, “Man, that’s the coolest thing in the world to do for me!”
Fast-forward a couple years. It turns out that she was going to be stepping off the tour at some point because her mother got ill. So she sent me the demos, and she was really, really gracious in making sure [I got the gig]. The recording device she used [was] put next to the amp for the rehearsal of the whole show. I was able to hear her specific guitar parts louder than everything else. She also was using a Digitech floor pedal at the time [and] marked down all the settings for every song each part of the each song. This was before cell phones, so I didn’t want to blow this gig. The music director said, “Yeah, we will be calling you later, ’cause Jennifer will be stepping off at some point, but we don’t know when.”
Literally months had gone by and I didn’t hear anything, so I just went back to my normal life. I was giving a guitar lesson one night, a private lesson around 8 o’clock, and I get this frantic phone call from the music director who said, “We need you on a plane tomorrow morning. We need you on the plane at six o’clock in the morning.” This is Monday night, and he said, “We need you to perform in Wednesday’s show, which will be in Amsterdam in front of 65,000.”
And I hadn’t been listening to the music, so I didn’t really know the stuff. And I said to the guy on the phone, “Can you have me come into the Friday show? I promise you I’ll be ready.” He said, “No. If you can’t do this Wednesday gig, then we’re gonna get somebody else.” So I had to do it.
It was crazy, because the airport’s about two hours from where I lived. So it’s 8 o’clock. I’ve got six hours to learn the set and pack my clothes. Yeah. It was insane. I’m walking around. I’ve got my Walkman on, and I’m folding shirts, while I’m picking up the guitar case and trying to listen to this instrumental. It was just really a frantic, crazy experience.
Anyways, I get to Amsterdam, and I have a little bit of time to turn over some of it a little more, but not much, because they have to introduce you to management, and they have to show you around and explain how these things work. The very next day, they want to do a run-though just to make sure the new guy knows how to play each song. And that’s the next day, maybe 11 o’clock in the morning, maybe noon, the whole band and Michael himself go up to the big stage and go through the set.
So it’s a really very exciting and scary thing for me. I get up there and I’m just playing. I’m focusing. I’m concentrating, and I’m playing out all my notes. I’m getting through the songs. I get through four or five songs, and I’m starting to feel I think I can do this. I feel good. Then the production manager says, “Yeah, sounds great! Sounds fine!” And I was just about to sigh a sigh of relief, when the very next words were, “Now let’s talk about the choreography.”
And so I had to learn all this stuff and learn it quick, and one of the things I had to do was handle this pyro-guitar. It was literally an explosive device that you can hurt yourself with. So he comes up to me and he says, “This is a pyro-guitar … What’s going to happen is you hit this switch and you’re going to go to stage right. And you’re going to wait for the dancers to go to stage left. And you go to the front of the stage. Go to the right, and then hit the second switch. And at this point you want to be careful because you’ve just ignited the blah-blah-blah. And then you wait for Michael. He’s going to come out from behind. And then both of you come from the front of the stage. And you point this out into the audience and then you hit the third switch and it’s going to explode. And make sure you point it away from your face, because you don’t want to blow your face off.” And so all I really heard is: “This is a pyro-guitar. Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. Don’t blow your face off.”
FGPO: What about Michael? Was there any interaction with him? He was known for being pretty reclusive.
Howe: He was very reclusive. He was very private and quiet, but very respectful and just absolutely the genius that everyone talks about.
This was a true story. Just imagine what the show looks like. The show was one of the most outrageous ever to this day that I’ve ever seen, let alone been involved in. I mean there’s dancing, there’s things that fly, there’s things that come out of the stage. It’s a ridiculous show, the amount of backup singers, dancers, musicians and props. In my world, I’m the new guy, and I’m nervous. I’m playing a part in “Wanna Start Something” that goes: one-two-deh-deh-deh-deh-deh, one-two-deh-deh-deh-deh-deh. And [that’s] all it does and that was my role in that song. Michael comes up to me after one of the shows, and it was really weird, because it’s like, “Wow, this is Michael Jackson, and he’s going to come over and talk to me.” So he says, “Hey man, I just want to say you’re doing a really nice job, but when you’re playing that one part in “Wanna Start Something,” could you just pull it back behind the beat a little bit more. That would be great.”
And in my mind, I’m thinking, “During the song, you’re spinning around, flying on stage and flying in some aircraft. How in the world are you paying attention to what I’m doing with this small little part?” And the truth is he is he’s listening to everything. He hears everything, because you realize when you see him live that he is literally energized, is powered, by the music. And so the band has to be on-point, because if it’s not, he knows it, and he’s unable to feel it the way he needs to.
FGPO: Tell me about your equipment, Greg. I know you’re a big fan of DV Mark amps.
Howe: I’ve been working with DV Mark. We are actually in the process of developing another amp right now, so I’m going to be going back there in July. So I did an amp called Maragold, and it came out pretty cool, but there’s a whole ‘nother level that I kind of want to bring things to, and it’s been a good relationship.
They’ve had a super amount of success with their bass (amps), starting with Markbass. DV Mark represents the guitar sector of their company. I love the company. Why do I like the amps? Because I like the company because they’re willing to try to design whatever I’m looking for. They’re really just a great company, in terms of really going above and beyond to make sure they’re getting for me what I want.
FGPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
Howe: Right now, I’m actually working with an artist named Michael Grimm. He’s an amazing singer. He’s actually the winner of a whole season of America’s Got Talent. Incredible soul. It’s classic blue-eyed soul. Turns out he lives right in my neighborhood in Vegas, right here. So we’ve just been working together. Not sure where this will go but it’s definitely fun, at the same time I’m working on an instrumental album that will come out later this year.
My direction on guitar, which relates to one of the questions you asked earlier, is about getting into different things, different styles, always kind of turning the corner on myself. And it’s happening again, because the Maragold thing. I won’t get into the details of Maragold, but I thought we did a really nice album. But that band we didn’t get along with each other. There was some chemistry missing.
FGPO: Sounds like a touchy situation.
Howe: A lot of people have asked me about it. I would just simply say that when you put a band together – and I’ve had this happen many times before in the past – yes, it’s important that you have musicians that are good, but what’s equally important, if not more important, is that the energy of the band is one in which everyone’s vision, not only about what the goals are, but about the [fact that the] route to achieve those goals is approximately the same. You have to be on the same page.
My point is just this: In Maragold, the people in the band are super talented. I wish them all the very best. I have no animosity. I’m not mad at anybody. I want the best for people. It’s just we weren’t on the same page. We didn’t connect.
FGPO: What about the future? What else would you like to do?
Howe: Honestly, not much. I’ve accomplished so much of what I’ve set forth to do. I feel very blessed in my career, but maybe just a bigger version of what I’ve been doing. I’d like to do fantastic songs that really impact a large number of people, not just other guitarists and musicians. I don’t have any complaints about my life.
FGPO: What would you be if you weren’t a guitar player?
Howe: I don’t know. I think I’d be a lawyer. I’m pretty good at that. I’m pretty good at back-engineering a lot of processes and getting to the bottom of things and using logical reasoning to identify the undeniable conclusion about something. I’m also really into physics. I love reading physics and reading about String Theory and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and all these amazing breakthroughs we have that are happening in physics, getting to the bottom of how reality works. I love that. I think I’d either be a physicist or I’d be a lawyer.