Interview With Greg Howe June 14 2023
Got a chance to catch up with Greg Howe and talk about the upcoming tour, his gig playing for Michael Jackson, his current setup and thoughts on playing over changes vs. playing over vamps. He is playing the Triple Door on Wednesday July 26, 2023 to start his upcoming tour.
What inspired the recent tour?
Well, I don’t know that anything specifically inspired it. We had been planning on doing a tour since 2020, and then Covid hit, and then we had to cancel literally 2 years in a row. In 2022, I was going to do the tour, and my fiancee passed away. So I cancelled the tour. It’s been a crazy few years, for everybody. It felt like, well, I haven’t been out since 2018 and it’d be nice to get out there again.
Can you talk about the people that will be on the tour with you?
Sure. I have Stu Hamm on bass, who has a long history of all kinds of crazy, amazing accomplishments. We’ve played together quite a few times, and he knows a lot of my material. Then we have a drummer named Joel Taylor, who is renowned, a crazy drummer, amazing. He was the primary drummer for Allan Holdsworth and been on a lot of tours with him.
So I’ve got the luxury of a real hot band.
You’ve been described as a shredder and part of the guitar shredding culture. What’s the state of shred culture?
Being called a shredder is the equivalent to being typecast as an actor. I came up through that era, and I acclimated to it and it helped me get discovered. It goes back to when I sent a tape to my Mike Barney back in 1988, when he was running the spotlight column in Guitar Magazine where they would feature 3 unknown guitarists every month. Simultaneously Mike Barney also had a record label known as Shrapnel, which specialized in young guitarists who were pushing the envelope of technique and who were specifically in the genre of heavy metal. It was very aggressive music, “guitar on your face” stuff. Some of the some of the stuff these guys were playing was amazing. I was never super drawn to the actual genre, but I was drawn to the idea of getting a record deal.
See I had already been turned down by pretty much every label as a standard rock band from the eighties era, and and my brother and I were about to move to Florida because we figured, if we’re gonna be a cover band, let’s go somewhere it’s nice and warm and fun. We were about to do that. Then I got signed by Shrapnel. But I did pull way back from the genre of neoclassical-based hard rock. I’ve seen many guys who can sit down and tear it up and they’ve got all these arpeggios and and all these very mathematical, sequential sound. I’ve never been that guy. I always came much more from a blues rock thing.
Shredder was a word that came about in the late eighties I don’t know even what it means. If it means having a lot of technique, and you can play faster, then that’s not anything at piano players and saxophone players haven’t already been doing for decades.
I was listening to some of your records, and it seems to come through that you’re not pinned by a genre.
I appreciate that. And I think that some of the maybe the fireworks aspect of my playing is the result of having come up through the Shrapnel and been acclimated to “note density.” Interestingly enough, some of my very favorite guitarists don’t do that at all.
When I was young, I might listen to an AC/DC album in the morning, and then a Larry Carlton record, and then listen to an RnB record. The question I always ask myself is, Why are all these genres so compartmentalized? Why can’t you take the fire of Yngwie Malmsteen, and attach it to the sophistication of John Scofield. Can’t we take the good things of that and the good things of this, and put it together? That’s how I always thought, even when I was young.
I have to ask about touring with Michael Jackson. How did you get that gig? And what was it like working with Michael Jackson?
It was amazing. It was surreal in a certain way, and I was young, and it was a fast moving, fast paced ordeal. Jennifer Batten basically got me that gig. She was pretty much like “If I don’t do this anymore, you have the gig.” She told me that she’d probably be stepping off the tour and if so, she would recommend me. She said, “Please give me your 8x10, and your press kit, and let them hear the ‘Beat It’ solo.”
And and so I gave her all that, and Michael seemed cool with it. His management seemed good with it, but then they didn’t, because they said they wanted to have a female replacement. Well, unfortunately, back then–and I think it would be different now–there simply weren’t any female guitarists that could do what she does. And so they ended up hiring her to coach these girls that they brought on. So now she’s on tour as a coach. But I’m not sure it was working. So, she let me know she still might be stepping off the tour because of her mother’s health.
The thing is, Jennifer didn’t know if and when she was going to be leaving the tour. So I didn’t want to miss the gig, but at the same time I was turning down all these opportunities because I’m waiting for this phone call and I didn’t want to miss it. There was one instance I was supposed to go to Japan and do some stuff, and I turned it down, and it would have been my first time in Japan. Then there were a couple of things that came up that I turned down, and then many months went by, and so finally I stopped listening to the stuff that she’d given me to listen to to prepare. I wrote it off, thinking I’m probably not gonna get this gig.
And then on a Monday night, 8:00 PM–I’ll never forget this–I was teaching a guitar lesson, and I got a phone call, a frantic phone call from the music director, whose name is Brad Buxer. And he said “Greg, we’re going to need you on a plane tomorrow morning to fly into Amsterdam and do a gig with us on Wednesday.” So its Monday, right, I’m gonna be on stage and it’s like 65,000 people in less than 48 hours. So I said, yes, and I wasn’t ready.
It was crazy because I was living in Easton, Pennsylvania, which is right on the border of New Jersey. So the nearest major airport was Newark, which is about 2 hours from where I lived, so now I’m in a situation where it’s 8:00 PM. They want me on a 6:00 AM flight, which means I have to be there by 4:00 AM in the morning. I have to leave by 2:00 AM so I’ve got 6 hours to be completely prepared for Michael Jackson tour. I don’t know how I pulled it off, but somehow I did, and ended up being out on tour with him for about 5 weeks.
It was amazing, but like I said, it was fast paced, and such a whirlwind that I didn’t get a chance to actually say to myself, wow, you played with Michael Jackson!
Well, let’s switch to the present. What your current set up for the tour?
For my amp, I’ve been working with Markbass for about 10 years based out of Italy. They are the biggest bass amp company in the world. They have this sector within their company for guitar and we’ve done a lot of stuff over the years and we’ve been designing a guitar amp. It’s important to me that things are right, and I am very affected by nuance. Like I can tell the difference in the size of a neck, even if it’s a thousandth of an inch. I can feel the difference between various output tubes and pre-amp tubes. We are doing a brand new amp and it’s basically a pedal platform. So this is not a high gain amp. It’s not going to have a lot of front end gain. I’ve played through it, and it’s beautiful. It does all that spanky, clean Hendrix strat thing. And when you put a pedal in front of it, it’s a beautiful sound.
That’s a lot different than what I typically use. Because typically I’m a high gain amp guy, which means that I’m relying on the the gain to come from the amp, but in this case it’s going to be pedal driven. It’s a beautiful sound. The name of the amp is going to be called the Professor.
Markbass probably the best company I’ve ever worked with in terms of their dedication and loyalty, and their effort in trying to make me happy and always trying their best to do the right thing.
For my guitar, I have a deal with Kiesel. We did a signature model. It’s an offset double cut away. So it’s a strat-esque, but with a considerably shorter horn. It’s made from alder wood. There’s also a super signature version, which has beautiful poplar on top of the alder, and it came out stunning. I love the way that this guitar feels and sounds. The specific model is called the Lyra. There are a variety of different pickup configurations. You can pick and choose from a bunch of different colors and other options.
And then I have my pedal board. So I have probably the most simplistic rig of anyone I know: guitar, cable from the guitar into my pedalboard, out of the pedalboard into my amp, and then out of the amp into a speaker cabinet, and that’s it.
Kind of old school. Especially compared to some of the things you see lately of what people are doing with technology and amp modeling.
I think a lot of it’s great. The biggest problem I have with amp modeling is that it doesn’t feel right. I mean they’ve nailed all the sounds, but they haven’t nailed the feel.
I hope some day they will. I would love that, trust me. I get no pleasure of carrying big cabinets, you know. I’d love to be able to plug in some small box.
I read some of your past interviews and I know you’re also a teacher and you said something in context of playing over changes. It’s a lot easier to play over Cantaloupe Island than it is to play over some Cole Porter tune. What are your thoughts on playing over changes versus static vamps and the spectrum in between?
You know I was a gamer for a while right, like hardcore. I was in a league. So one of the things that’s fun about being a gamer is that you go into these new maps. You go to these new places, and sometimes look around, and you’re amazed at the graphics. You think, wow! This is so much fun to walk around, even if I’m not fighting against somebody or whatever. And then there are other times when you get good at doing things, and you’re like, Okay, well, this is a little boring. So let’s let’s turn up to skill level. “I need a challenge.”
So it’s a matter of what mood are you in. Sometimes I’m in the mood to challenge myself creatively. Sometimes, I want to play over a static chord vamp for a while, and I’m practicing licks or timing. But sometimes I’m like, “Okay, all right. This is getting a little boring. Let me challenge myself with something.”
As a teacher, I’ve had a few situations with students that would come down from Berkelee and usually these guys would be very knowledgeable with regards to music and terminology and more advanced concepts. And there’s this philosophy in jazz that you you want to outline the chords that you’re addressing right? Because you want to play in a way where you’re pretending that you don’t have that harmony backdrop. So you’re the guy who’s responsible for letting the listener know what’s happening simply by virtue of your playing, and that’s a great thing.
But where that becomes an issue for me is that one of the most beautiful things to do when I’m improvising is to target color tones, and not target the chord tones. So the exact opposite of the outlining the changes. But at the same time you need something there as a reference.
So it’s 2 separate schools.
If I’ve got a keyboard player in my band, or rhythm guitar player, I can get away with a lot more. I can hang out on this 13th, or this flat 13th, for a long time. If it weren’t for the band, I wouldn’t be able to do that without making people wonder what I’m playing.
So, I find myself wanting to be in combination of both of those worlds a little bit. I don’t want to be too far into the changes but I don’t want to be thinking about them all the time. I want some head nod. I want to feel stuff. But at the same time I don’t want to be bored, and I don’t want to sound overly predictable. So I like to have a balance between exactly those 2 worlds.
There’s a great line from Allan Holdsworth, from his so-called “instructional video.” It’s a fun video to watch. It certainly is not instructional! One of the things he says is, “You don’t shout the changes at the people.” What he means is you don’t explain the chords in your solo to justify what you’re doing. You somehow have to make it happen. Now it’s interesting coming from him because his music is so strange, and his chord changes are so weird, and he often plays without a keyboard player. So when he starts off into solo land, he can get away with anything.
For this upcoming tour, it is gonna be a 3 piece situation. One of the things I like about playing with Stu is that he does fill in the harmony. So, when there is more of the harmony in the bass line, it makes my thing a little bit more musically logical to the ear.