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In the 1980s, Mike Varney was one of the hottest scouts for new Shredders with his Spotlight column in Guitar Player magazine. His Shrapnel Records label unearthed talents like Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore, Jason Becker and Tony MacAlpine. One guy that never made it into the column before getting signed was Greg Howe.
Howe: In 1988 I sent a tape to Mike Varney to get spotlighted in his column in Guitar Player and I didn’t even expect to get picked. I had FedEx’d another copy to the magazine just to be assured that somebody had to sign for it. So the very next day I got a phone call from Mike asking me if I wanted to record an album for him, and I was shocked! I didn’t, says Greg who embraced the guitar at a young age.
I started when I was about 10. I always had a desire to play, and don’t know where it came from. I wasn’t interested in playing lead, but more to have an instrument that could accompany me and my brother singing. When I first started learning it was just to learn chords and to write beautiful songs like we heard on the radio. It wasn’t until I was about 13 that I saw an older guitarist bend a single note, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. So after that I became obsessed with lead guitar, which I didn’t even know existed or never paid attention to prior to that point.  Shortly after that I started being able to transcribe and play along to Led Zeppelin-albums and a lot of rock albums.

It was relatively easy for me and it wasn’t until 1978 with the first Van Halen album that I felt I had finally got a challenge as it was something completely different. When I heard that album it was the point I became kind of obsessed with the guitar. It was really the beginning of my career in the sense that I wanted to be a guitar player. 

In 1982, shortly after he got out of high school, Greg and his brother started playing clubs, mainly doing songs by Ozzy, Van Halen, Ratt, Dokken and all the stuff that was guitar oriented in the early 80s.

Howe: Along the way of my career it’s important to know I was always learning. I come mainly from a rock background, and shortly after acquiring all the Vah Halen licks, I also got way into listening to jazz players. I went through a big Pat Matheney phase, a John Scofield phase, a Stevie Ray Vaughan phase, Allan Holdsworth, George Benson. I was listening to a lot of these guys at the same time as I was listening to new and up-coming rock guys like Yngwie Malmsteen. So I spent half my days learning arpeggio-licks from Yngwie and the other half absorbing Larry Carlton licks. That phase, which happened between 1982-88, was really the melting pot where my style came. I didn’t want to be a guitar player that would sit around and mimic these preserved styles that had been around for years. I really wanted to assure I had my own style.

I had four lessons when I was about 10 and I learned silly little melody lines for songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Mary had A Little Lamb, but that wasn’t what I wanted to learn so I quit very soon after wards. When I started learning lead I used to slow down the turntable with my thumb and figure out a fast sequence someone was playing and then transpose it back to the original key and try it. Along the way I would do things wrong but I think that’s a big part of my style the fact that I had the incorrect fingering for things I heard, but in the process I was coming up with my own things. There were a lot of times I later learned I was playing things completely wrong or different than the original artist (laughs).

Maybe that’s why your albums stick out a bit from the traditional shredders.
Howe: Yes, that’s cool. Being different and having a signature style is something I felt I wanted more than being the best or the fastest. The biggest compliment I can ever get from someone is when they say: "By four notes I know it’s Greg Howe." That’s the biggest thing for me, because all my favourite guitar players have that, like Vaughan, Holdsworth, etcetera.
So how did you develop your sound and style?
Howe: I don’t think it’s something you can deliberately try to get. It’s something you have to be open to, and to be willing to not sound like anyone else. I think there are a lot of great players who will never necessarily go down in history because they don’t have their own thing. They’ve been good at mimicking. But I think what is important is that you hear something, acknowledge it for how great it is, and at the same time acknowledge that copying it directly will not benefit you in any way. When I was young I could mimic Eddie Van Halen. When I say mimic I don’t mean just play the notes, but the same exact vibrato, tone and nuances. Even if I played an improvised solo I would have all those nuances and it would sound like him playing, so I really decided I had to stop listening to him and be open a lot of things. I had to be open to incorporating a lot of different things and really it was a process of a lot of different influences that lead to a unique thing. It’s like taking a lot of different flavours and putting them into one soup bowl and eventually you come up with a unique flavour that doesn’t taste like any specific thing, but has its own flavour because of all these different things, he explains.
Did you study music, sight reading and so on later on?
Howe:  No. I don’t really sight read that well, so I don’t write stuff. But what happens is that musicians can generally understand my language, so when it comes time to write, I will sit there with the players, have a guitar in my hand and emulate what I. For instance, what I want a keyboard player to do, or I can sequence a drum machine to give the drummer an idea what I’m looking for as a foundation rhythmic idea. Or I just play drums right on the table to show the groove.
Maybe that’s why your music sounds more alive than many other fusion acts?
Howe: I think musicians tend to get into the mindset that there are correct and incorrect ways of doing things. The truth is there is no such thing as that. It’s a creative atmosphere. There’s nothing that isn’t correct. The only thing that isn’t correct is delivering music that you don’t like and nobody wants to hear. Once you step outside the rules a bit -- I'm not saying it’s not important to know the rules -- you need to know them to know how far you can go. For me it’s always important that the things I hear are new, even things I haven’t done before. It needs to be fresh.
There’s quite a diversity between your albums. Ascend, for instance is more prog metalish in its style.
Howe: The Ascend album actually has a story within itself. It was kind of a departure from my ordinary routine and it’s way different the other ones. Because I was asked by Mike Varney to produce an album by keyboard player Vitalij Kuprij, and he was releasing his first solo album and I was only going to produce it. It was exciting and they were going to use some guitarist from Sweden, I think, a super fast neoclassical wizard, and I was just going to record, mix and produce. But as fate would have it the guitar player didn’t show up. It didn’t work out for him, and it didn’t work out for the bass player either, so I ended not only producing and engineering it, but I also ended up playing guitar and bass on it. I ended up having more input on the album that Vialij. Of course, he wrote the songs, but the album was a big success in Japan. So there was a lot of pressure from the Japanese label to have me do an album using Vitalij in the same genre. I wasn’t that excited about it but I thought it would be a good idea, as it would benefit me financially. So it was kind of a record I necessarily didn’t feel in my heart, but I knew I could do it. It’s one of the few albums I’ve done that I feel isn’t really a true representation of who I really am. There are some moments that are cool on it though.
What about Parallax?
Howe: That album I like. It came out really easy and it was also at a point in my development where I was really pushing the envelope with my technique, and I also was on the verge of getting into more complex harmony concepts. So it was a pretty important album for me. Maybe some of the songs aren’t as catchy as on some other albums, but as an overall project that one I’m more proud of.
In the beginning you also did two vocals albums with your brother.
Howe: Well, it was kind of a rock band situation. We were a well known band on the east coast, mostly as a cover band. I signed a four album deal with Varney and he wanted me to do all instrumental albums, and I didn’t feel I could live with myself if I just abandoned my band and my brother. I said I wasn’t signing unless I could do two albums with them. So that was the deal. Fender was a bit disappointed when I came out with a vocal album as they saw me as the next potential Eric Johnson or something, the next big instrumental guitarist.
You have never returned to vocal stuff after that?
Howe: I haven’t yet, but I love vocal music. I probably listen to vocal music a lot more than instrumental music. I don’t know if I’d ever return to that genre of late 80s type metal, but I love vocal music and I’ve worked with a lot of vocalists over the years and been in a lot of side-projects and recorded with a lot of singers, so I’m always talking about the idea of doing a vocal album again. It’s still something I’d love to do.
What happened with the Planet X project?
Howe: When I first came here to California three years ago, Derek Sherinian was working on a solo album. Tony MacAlpine was leaving to do other things and they thought I would be a good replacement. So I met with them a bit and talked about it, but our schedules at the time didn’t permit it. It was very complicated music and I had other things I had to do and felt I didn’t have the time to devote to it, so didn’t pan out.
You also did two albums with Richie Kotzen, how did these come about?
Howe: Those were ideas the label had in mind. I knew Richie a long time ago. We both used to live in Pennsylvania and we were in sort of rival bands. After I got singed to Shrapnel, he submitted his demos to Shrapnel, and Varney asked that I’d get together with Rithie as there were a few things he wasn’t sure about, and Mike wanted me to hear Richie. We got together and played quite a bit and became friends. When I heard him I thought he was fantastic. When Mike asked me, I said he was great and he got signed shortly afterwards. We were friends then and now I’m back out here in California so we live about 20 minutes apart again. Originally it was just an idea Mike had, as he thought our two playing styles would go good together, and a lot of people liked those two albums. We sometimes talk about doing another.
So the new Soundproof album. It’s also a bit different. Tell us about it.
Howe: When I recorded this album my attitude was that I wanted it to be a much different experience than the previous album I did -- which was very very stressful and difficult,  because it involved trying to piece together different takes and different performances from musicians who were all over the country. We never were in the same room together and we didn’t have an opportunity to play together. That situation was very difficult because I had written most of the material in 2000 and then during January 2001, Dennis Chambers was scheduled to come to my house and record the drum parts. Then I got a phone call to go on tour with N’Sync and I couldn’t record the drums, because I just couldn’t turn down that gig. The tour was 5-6 months. The record company wanted me to record my parts while I was on tour, so the idea was I would send the material to Dennis. He would record drum parts while I was on tour. They would send me those drum parts, and I would track my guitar in a hotel room or whatever. It got very difficult as a lot of the stuff I got back from Dennis didn’t fit with my vision. And the same thing happened with bassist Victor Wooten. Victor’s parts didn’t happen until after Dennis. To make a long story short it was a very long difficult drawn out process that involved trying to line up different formats of audio files that didn’t necessarily fit and we had to make them fit and after two years we ended up re-recording everything from scratch. The way we should have done it the first time. But so much time had gone by by then that there was a lot of pressure on me to make the record great Because the fans were thinking: It’s Dennis Chambers, Victor Wooten, and Greg Howe, and it’s two years over due, so it better be great.

That was a pressure I felt. I spent a lot of time on every detail. I never want to do it again. It was one of the most unpleasant times of my life. On this album my whole goal was to make it a very fun, relaxed experience, so I didn’t take that much time in songwriting. A lot of the songs were written during the recording process. I wanted to get a brand new band together with young guys that were really anxious and ambitious. Up-and-coming talents who were gonna be available when we were gonna tour, and so that we could all record in the same room together. I wanted everyone’s input and influence on it and I wanted it to just be a fun relaxed record. I think what people are hearing that sounds different is part of that being reflected. Even some of the silly skids we had in there, the purpose of that is to drive home the fact that we’re really not taking ourselves too seriously.  I think artists often take themselves too seriously. Music is something you share with people, it’s not something you attach to yourself to prove anything. That’s kinda the message I wanted to get across.
You do cool version of Steview Wonder’s Tell Me Something Good
Howe: Cool! That was an afterthought. It was not an idea I had. When we were recording, because we only had four days in the studio to track the basic tracks. When it came time to add up how much time we had it seemed we were still short. During the whole recording process the keyboard player, Dave, had been playing the intro to that song whenever he was trying out new patches or sounds. So eventually someone suggested we should do that song. At first I thought how can you make that an instrumental song, as it’s kinda the opposite of an instrumental song, but that’s what made it fun. It was a new challenge that had me thinking differently and as a result I think it came out pretty cool.
How did you record the guitars?
Howe: Some of the rhythm guitars, and especially the cleans, were recorded at Prairie Sun Studio, during the original takes, but most of the lead guitar work was done at my studio -- a little humble digital recording studio. I did all the guitars in one week. It was the first time even that I used an amplifier that I was able to plug just straight it without having some elaborate pre-gain situation with stomp boxes, none at all.

It was just a cord from guitar into the a Cornford 850 amp.  It really felt different for me. It was a little bit challenging, because the amp has certain characteristics to it that really feels like a non master volume amp cranked up very loud. So there’s a lot more interplay with the fingers. There’s a lot more expressive things that happen, it’s a lot more sensitive to touch, there’s a lot more tonal fluctuation and it’s just a lot more expressive in general. You don’t have that evened out signal that’s hitting the front end of the amp the way you would with a, let’s say, Tube Screamer. So it’s more difficult to play and it doesn’t have that super easy, super fast feel to it, but at the same time if you can get accustomed to it, I think there are certain things you get out of it that are more expressive.

So for me it was challenging in a fun way. I don’t know if it’s the amp I would always use, or even record my next album with it, but I really liked the idea of doing it this time, because it really captures the essence of guitar. It sounds almost old school. Like a straight ahead guitar plugged in to a Marshall no frills tone. I miked a 2x12 cabinet with an SM57 and ran the mike cord directly into the mixing board.
And the guitars you used?
Howe: I used a couple different ones, both of them were ESPs. One was the custom Horizon one that ESP built for me a few years back. It records really nice and feels great. It’s alder wood, 24 fret maple board, Floyd Rose, bridge pick-up a prototype that Steve from DiMarzio built for me called the Sunnycaster It’s a little bit hotter than medium output pick-up, that’s got a lot of highs rolled off of it, a bit of warmth built into the tone. The guitar is kinda bright so it needs that. Most of the leads you hear that doesn’t sound like single-coils is that guitar. The stuff that sounds more Stratocastery, more twangy, is another ESP called The Snapper which is also blue 3 pick-ups, 5 way switch. It’s got a humbucker in the bridge, and two single coils. They’re all ESP pick ups, so I don’t know what they’re called. It’s got a chambered body, like a Strat, it has its pick guard and it’s front loaded. Some of the Strat-like tones are more Stratty than a Strat. On most albums I don’t explore that twangy bluesy Strat territory that much so I had a chance to do it a bit more this time, especially on songs like Morning View and even on Tell Me Something Good.
You also use a wahwah in some places.
Howe: Yes, that just a straight ahead Dunlop classic wah Cry baby.
What do you use live?
Howe: It changes every time, as there are gaps between my live things. I guess touring live and the equipment I use depends on when you ask, but we’re working on an amp for me now. We’re in the process of designing an amp and then we’ll be talking to a company who will hopefully want to put it out. It will actually have the ability to do a wet-dry-wet configuration all self-contained, so if everything goes right it will be two amps in one which will be great because typically live, no matter what amp I’m using, I’m gonna wanna run a wet-dry-wet configuration. I just hate putting anything in the effects loop of an amplifier. It’s hard to say what I’ll be using, but maybe the Cornford, it’s a great amp. It does what it does very well. It’ll be a situation where I have a dry cabinet and two stereo wet cabinets that are probably 1x12” and that all my effects will be powered from a separate power section.
When you work session jobs, how do you prepare?
Howe: Those gigs are not necessarily that demanding, but fairly easy. But at the same time, there’s a lot of memory issues that have to go into things, with a lot of patches and presets and sounds you have to remember and how to get to. That’s the preparation mostly, so it’s learning the songs which is not that difficult, but it’s like – ok, in the verse I have to switch to patch 48 on my DigiTech whatever and then kick the chorus pedal on for the pre-chorus. It’s always these things. Also guitar switching, open tuning, de-tuning, acoustic. The things to prepare are more about memorization than execution. The biggest challenge in preparing for those gigs is making sure you can be awake in time for the bus to leave. A lot of the times it leaves at 7.30 in the morning and you’ve been out partying all night until 4.30. It’s important to be disciplined and responsible enough to regardless what happens, you can be where you’re supposed to be when they say. That’s the most important thing. Self-discipline.
You also have a website in the making, on-line video lessons?
Howe:  Yes, the GH Workshop. This is a thing I think is cool. I wanna say it’s a lesson site, but it’s actually gonna be a lot more than that. We’re really gonna explore, and talk about and deliver information that has to do with a lot of other aspects of being a musician and an artist, not just how to play licks. But how to interact with band members and how to become inspired for writing songs and how to structure songs, how to come up with writing, how to build melodies, how to find a record deal, how to get into line of being a session player, how to mike a cabinet, how you use recording software, how to build racks and put effects together and of course we’ll do licks. There are a lot of things we’ll be getting into. We’ll have some cool shred things, too, but I feel in the instructional world, even in school, there’s a big void in the industry when it comes to delivering this type of street oriented information. This is really where people learn. Every time I talk to a, say engineer, in a studio and I ask him how he got into this line of work, they never say it’s because they went to school. It’s always they started off being the errand guy that went and got coffee for everyone, sweeping floors and one day someone asks them to clean the heads on the tape machine and the next thing, three years later someone ask them to be the assistant. It’s about making connections, relationships, obviously having skills, but it’s only part of it. I will have other great people doing things on the site, like Carl Verheyen, Richie Kotzen may be on it, and other people.
Finally, the connoisseur things on the new CD, was that guy for real?
Howe:  Haha, no, it was a friend of ours by the name Dale Fisher. We wanted it to sound like a real guy so we worked hard on making sure that it would. We had to have him call and actually the message that he left was about 12-15 minutes long so I had to edit it down. There was a lot of information and I may release the other parts on the website. I have received actual phone calls that have been similar to that.
Interview by Janne Stark for FUZZ magazine

We at the Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Greg Howe and Janne Stark for this interview. Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved.