Rock-Jazz guitar virtuoso Greg Howe thought he had it all figured out by his mid teens. “It seemed relatively easy. The first solo I ever learned was from the Commodores song ‘Easy.’ After that, I quickly learned all the Jimmy Page solos and a bunch of others. I was learning solos by the guys who were considered the best, so, of course, I thought, ‘Here I am at the ripe old age of 15, playing these solos. I must be one of the best.’”
But then along came a certain legend in the making. “My thoughts were rudely interrupted by the first Van Halen record,” he added. “Once that came out, I went from just messing around with the guitar to becoming serious because I thought ‘I have to tackle this mystery.’ And there was clearly something there I could not get.”
Being a quick learner, all it took was an in-person view of the music to solve the mystery. “I hadn’t been able to figure out ‘Eruption.’ Me and some friends went and saw Van Halen live. When they dropped me off at home afterward, I ran upstairs at three in the morning and played ‘Eruption’ note for note.”
Howe’s new record, Sound Proof, is the latest in a string that has allowed him the space to show off the chops that have given him a reputation as a versatile shredder. And it progressed a bit differently than other recent efforts.
“The last record with (bassist) Victor Wooten and (drummer) Dennis Chambers ended up being really difficult because the three of us never tracked in the same place,” he noted. “In that way, it was kind of a nightmare. Even though it came out cool, it was one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever been involved with. So on this one, I just wanted four guys who knew each other to get into a room and see how things would come together. A lot of the stuff was written right before I went in the studio and when we were in the studio.”
One of the record’s unique twists is a track that uses hilarious phone messages with “information” only the most extreme guitar geeks will appreciate. “There’s this kind of mystique about me,” Howe acknowledges. “A lot of times people think I’m thinking deeper than I really am. That was a side of me I wanted to reveal, you know? I’m just a guy like anyone else and I run into those issues. The phone calls are just me poking fun at myself and some of the people I’ve run into in this genre.”
Howe is equally at home with metal sounds as he is playing through the changes of a jazz standard. His intro to the jazz world quickly followed his Van Halen revelations. “I really fell in love with music at that point. I was fortunate enough to run into friends in the jazz world and almost had a snobby outlook on my influences. I would challenge that, but at the same time they’d turn me on to guys like George Benson, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, John Scofield, and Pat Metheny. At first I didn’t quite understand what was cool about that stuff, but after a while I got it. So my influences ended up coming from all these very different directions. Anything I heard that was fresh or new, regardless of what style it was, I’d spend a significant amount of time absorbing it.”
Another unique aspect to Howe’s outlook some guitarists may find a bit odd is that he has no “favorite” axe. “As much as I love playing guitar, I never get emotionally attached to any instrument.” So he has used various instruments through the years, including many Fender Stratocasters and other offset-double-cutaway solidbodies, including ESPs. On Sound Proof, he made heavy use of an ESP Snapper. “It’s a real cool Strat-like guitar,” he said. “It’s pretty typical, but it’s got a tone that’s really, really nice. So I used that for all the stuff on the new one that has that spanky Strat thing going on.” He’s working with a company on a new guitar design, but at the time of our interview wasn’t able to discuss any details, though he says it’ll carry the Laguna brand and should be available this fall.
Howe has also now found the amp that allows him to forgo most preamp effects. “I’ve been using the Cornford MK-50,” he said. “It’s the only amp I’ve ever played that didn’t require some kind of stompbox in between. Every other amp I’ve had, regardless of how good it sounded, the best results with them were always modifying the gain with a pedal. With the Cornford, there’s a lot more subtle, expressive things happening between the notes in your fingers. It doesn’t have as much of a compressed, evened-out feel as it would have with a stompbox.”
Howe and his band are hitting the road this year and plan to do some work in Europe.
When he listens to music for enjoyment, it may surprise fans to learn what’s in his listening room. “Because my brain is kind of odd and I write things that tend to be a little more out there, I actually listen to a lot of mainstream stuff. I listen to a lot of stuff on the radio. It helps reel me in and stay dialed in to the ‘hook factor’ of a song. And that’s good, because regardless of what you’re doing musically, if you want to reach people, you have to have something built into your creation that people can relate to – like hooks. So you’re as likely to hear me listening to a Kelly Clarkson song as anything else.”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s December 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
Greg Howe Performs “Come And Get It”