Greg Howe Interview: Still Shreddin’ After All These Years

I don't remember how I first became aware of Greg Howe, way back in the late-'80s or early '90s. It's likely some publicist sent me a CD to listen to, or maybe I caught him tearing it up at some music industry trade event, like the winter NAMM show held every year in January, across the street from Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

I know Greg and the super-virtuoso players like him are often to be found wandering the aisles between all the big guitar manufacturer trade show booths, and often jamming or demonstrating or appearing live in the nightly NAMM concert showcases.

I immediately latched on to his sound and style, all shreddin' blues-boogie, and slightly Van Halen-ish, albeit mostly without the finger-tapping, which was highly over-used by rock players back in the day. It was a musical path that I also was on, though admittedly with not nearly the awe-inspiring riffage that was pouring out of Howe.

Fast forward a quarter-century, and Greg Howe is still playing simply amazing riffs with his new band Maragold, featuring powerhouse vocalist Meghan Krauss. Before Maragold, Howe took a long detour through jazz-fusion territory, at which he proved equally adept. And then for much of the past 15 years, he graced world-wide stages as the lead guitarist for a number of big name pop stars, including, to name just a few, Justin Timberlake, Enrique Iglesias, Rihanna, and even, for a time, Michael Jackson.

But along the way he found that he really wanted to be his own boss, as much creatively as for any other reason. And so now, hard at work on the follow-up to Maragold's rockin' self-titled debut disc, and just getting into some new signature model gear, we find Howe charting a new path.

You can catch Greg Howe on a short European and U.S. guitar clinic tour in selected cities through November 17th, with a handful of Maragold dates in December. See the links at the bottom of this article for more details.

In this very in-depth discussion, Greg talks about what he learned working with the superstars, tells us all about his not-always-trouble-free journey through the signature amp and guitar game, and how the ups and downs of the music biz lead him down the many roads he has travelled.

And in this exclusive interview Howe also takes time to explain some very important and highly-useful guitar lesson and music theory topics, sure to give you, the reader, new insight into your own musical expression. Ya gotta try what he says, it will change your life! Hey, Greg, how are you?

Howe: Good. How are you doing? Good. So where am I calling you today?

Howe: I’m at home, I just got back from a bike ride. Las Vegas, is it?

Howe: Yep. Were you riding out in the hills or something?

Howe: Yeah. We live in an area called Mountain’s Edge so it’s kind of cool. It's interesting because you can go five minutes in one direction and be in the mountains, or you go 10 minutes in the other direction and you're in the bright lights of the Vegas strip. Right. I interviewed B.B. King a few years back, and he told me that he lives out in Vegas, and he loves to get into his old El Camino and just drive up into the mountains all by himself.

Howe: I believe it, it’s really serene and peaceful and, yeah, its got a different energy. It's pretty cool. I lived out in L.A. for four years, by the ocean. So for me, I didn’t think that I was going to like Vegas at all. It’s a really cool, very peaceful thing about it. It’s interesting. Right. So this new band of yours, Maragold, its pretty rockin’, dude. I really like it.

Howe: Maragold. Thank you. Always glad to hear that. So does everybody live in Vegas or are you guys around the country.

Howe: No. In fact, everybody just moved to Vegas. And that was one of the things I said to the band because we made this album and we were all spread out, and I was like, "You know, this thing came out really cool and it’s getting good reviews and it looks like we could really do something with this. But it’s going to be almost impossible to do anything significant if we don’t all live in the same area. So I encourage you guys to move out here to Vegas.”

So they did. And it is cool, you know, because before this it was like, if we're going to do a video, I have to get on an airplane to fly to the East Coast. I have to fly my drummer out to the East Coast, and get a hotel. It just becomes a really cumbersome, timely, and expensive endeavor. So it's a lot easier for us to get together and do songwriting, and rehearse, and put videos together. It’s just easier. Right. So the first Maragold album came out a year ago. Are you already into songwriting for the next?

Howe: Absolutely, we’re actually right in the middle of that. And, so it’s coming along great. I never really know what the direction is gonna be. To be honest with you, the album came out more, sort of aggressive rock sounding than I had really anticipated. I didn’t know where it was going to go. When I start the creative process I just kinda go where my intuition takes me and then sometimes I’m as surprised as anyone else to find out what we end up with.

So, the Maragold album was cool because I was actually not expecting it to be that way. I thought it was going to be a little bit more -- I don’t know what I expected -- maybe more stripped down, more almost funk, like a modern funk kind of thing, with a little bit of an edge. But it actually came out much more just straight-up rock than I expected. But it was fun, it was cool. Well, Meghan’s got a, pretty rockin’ voice

Howe: She does, she does. She has an amazing voice. It’s really versatile. I’m really looking forward to doing some more acoustic stuff with her because she can give more than just belt it out. She really has a sensitive side, a lot of control. She’s got a whole other dimension to her stuff that I think could be featured more in the future. It’s been a very long time since you and I last spoke. I don’t suppose you remember, but in the very early '90’s, when you were with Shrapnel, I believe around the time of Howe II, I actually interviewed you for -- at the time there were a lot of 900 phone numbers that were popular.

Howe: I remember. Most of them not in the music industry. (laughs)

Howe: Right, right. Of course. But I had one that was a guitar instructional thing and you and I sat down and did an interview and audio lesson for that.

Howe: Oh cool. The business never really went very far, but it was a very important conversation for me personally because you actually talked with me about certain things that changed my guitar playing for the better, permanently.

Howe: Wow. That’s incredibly flattering!

Guitar: It was you, and I give you credit for that. At the time when Howe II: High Gear had come out, it was a very ballsy, blues-rock, Van Halen-ish, just killing record. There was one simple concept you discussed with me at that time, technique-wise that -- despite college music training -- I hadn't quite figured out before our discussion. You talked to me about playing Mixolydian mode over each of the chords. Over the I chord, over the IV chord, over the V chord.

Howe: Right, right. Thank you so much for explaining that to me all those years ago. After that discussion -- and I was already a pretty good player -- but my melodic playing just took off, not to mention that so many things I'd learned, like from Zeppelin and Van Halen and Aerosmith and Stevie Ray, and so many others, suddenly made so much more sense after our conversation.

Howe: Yeah. It’s interesting still to me, to this day, because people often think of the blues as the simplest, most basic form of music. But in reality it’s only as basic as someone wants to address it. Because, like you just said, if everything is a secondary dominant other than the I chord, and then, in that case a I-IV-V is not really a diatonic chord progression, it’s actually a group of unrelated chords. It’s actually like a jazz song. Every chord is a different key really. Right.

Howe: So, it can be addressed however simplistically or complex or sophisticated. That’s all really dependent on the person who’s toiling over it. But yeah, I’m glad that was -- I’m really flattered that that made an impact. Yeah, it made a huge impact, and I’ve shown it to a lot of people since. Before that, I had -- as a lot of guitar players do, armed with a little bit of knowledge -- tried to force... Let’s just say if you’re playing in the key of ‘A’ and you’re trying to use an ‘A’ minor pentatonic scale over the A chord, and the same A minor pent scale over the D chord, and over the E chord. You actually gave me the insight to realize that “No, you want to slide that scale up and put the D Mixolydian over the D chord, and the E Mixolydian over the E chord.” And that just really turned on a light bulb in my head. That really changed everything for me.

Howe: That’s so cool. And since then there’s another sort of realization that I came to: Back then, my students used to ask me -- because I was getting a handle on music theory back then, and I was starting to really see how all the dots connected.

But there were still a couple of unanswered questions, and one of them was a question that my students back then would ask me which is, “If a Mixolydian scale... If a dominant 7th chord has a major third in it, then why does the minor pentatonic scale sound OK over that?”

And at the time, I couldn’t really answer it because it was kinda like, “Well I have to admit it does." I mean Stevie Ray Vaughan made a career playing that way. But then it hit me, that really, the reason that it works is because of the Hendrix chord. The sharp-9 chord, which really, a sharp-9 is the same interval as the minor third.

So really, what’s happening when someone plays a minor pentatonic scale over a dominant 7th chord, is that they’re creating -- they’re inserting -- the sound of the sharp-9, and that’s why it sounds good.

It basically doesn’t violate anything. Really what it is, is an altered scale. So, if someone justifies playing an altered scale over the I chord and just stays there over the IV chord, really A minor, A minor pentatonic is D mixolydian. So it really makes sense why people stay in that one scale all the time because, in a sense, you can justify how it’s appropriate over at least the I and the IV chord. It’s all technical but it finally hit me that’s why the scale is OK over the I chord, because the minor third isn’t really a minor third, it’s actually a sharp-9. So, you know, it’s just some geek talk here about that. Yeah, and it makes absolute sense.

Howe: That’s cool. So after you and I had that discussion all those years ago, it made me rethink everything I’d learn as a teenager by Zepellin, and Aerosmith, and Van Halen, and all of a sudden everything made so much more sense like, “Oh wow, I get it now!”

Howe: Right. So, bringing it full circle to this conversation, I feel like Maragold is very much in line with the orginal stuff that I heard you do way back then with Howe II. It was an album I loved to death. And in fact I have a cassette tape of it sitting here on my desk right now.

Howe: Thats great. I don’t even have anything to play it in, but there it is.

Howe: Right, yeah. That’s the same with me. I want to get a player too 'cause actually, well, kids are starting to make their way back from the CD, and I do not have a cassette player. And I have a ton of cassette tapes. You did an awful lot of instrumental stuff in between those days and Maragold.

Howe: Right. How did all that happen?

Howe: Well, as you know, probably as well as anyone, Howe II was cool -- I really loved the band, I really thought we were cool. I thought that we had the potential to develop into something even much more than we were. Because like you said, we really were coming from, and our whole learning experience about about that genre of music, was probably 80 percent Van Halen, because that was really one of the only bands of the '80s that I actually liked.

I really wasn’t even into that kind of music that much, but I really dug that band. And there was some other stuff... But we really did fight that pretty hard.

That first album although it was cool, in retrospect, if I had been a record executive back then, I would have said, “OK, cool. You guys have everything we need, but we need to find the pathway that steers you a little bit away from this thing.”

'Cause between the songwriting, and particularly my brother’s voice, and the fact that it was guitar-driven, it was almost like an homage to Van Halen kinda thing. The other thing is that, we came on the scene really late. That album came out right before 1990, which was right before that whole genre sort of ended.

It was almost immediately after that that the big influx of Seattle-based bands and that whole scene started to grow. And as cool as a lot of that stuff is, it just wasn’t guitar-solo oriented. So I had a hard time figuring out where my place was, if we were to evolve differently.

And, the other issue, to be honest, was that my brother started really getting into substance abuse issues. He had a lot of personal problems and got into that. So really, between trying to figure out what to do next musically, and the fact that it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to work with him, until he was going to get himself fixed, I think Mike Varney and I just thought, “Well  in the meantime, in the interim phase, as you’re trying to figure out what to do, why don’t you just get back on that. Why don’t you re-sign another deal with me and we can do some albums and make some money, keep your name out there.”

And that’s really how it happened. In a certain way, I was just trying to figure out what to do, and in the meantime make an album while figuring it out. But it was good for me, because I learned a lot. I learned a lot about music, I was able to push myself musically, push the envelope with my own technical abilities, as well as my own knowledge of music. So, it was a good opportunity to just explore music on a deeper level and learn. So what you recorded for a good many albums after Howe II leaned toward jazz fusion. Is that what you were listening to before you got interested in Van Halen-style rock?

Howe: As a matter of fact, yeah. When I first got signed by Shrapnel records, I sent a demo to Mike Varney that really consisted of three or four backing tracks with me just blowing over the top. They weren’t songs at all, they were just chord progressions. And most of them were not even rock-based.

There was actually an Al Jarreau thing that I had on there that I stole the chords from. It was almost, I wouldn’t say smooth jazz, but just kinda light-hearted jazzy things. And Mike was the one who said, “You know, I really like your playing but obviously my label is known as a heavy label. I've got Racer X, I've got MacAlpine, I got Yngwie. I’ve done all these things that are heavy. I know you guys have a rock band, so I need you to bring more of that rock thing to your guitar playing. Now that we’re going to do an album with you, please go deep into your rock roots as hard as possible and bring that out as much as possible."

So, in a certain way, I don’t want to say I had to go backwards for his label but I had to disregard some of the influences I already had. Because at that point I had already gone through a whole Pat Metheny thing. I’d already gone through a whole Larry Carlton thing, and Robben Ford, and John Scofield, Holdsworth.

I had listened to a lot of these guys and was always, you know, like my days consisted of Yngwie from 10-12 and then, you know, Stevie Ray Vaughan from 2-4, and Pat Metheny later on. So it was, all these different influences. Most of which I had to sort of disregard for that first couple of albums because of the nature of the label.

So, by the time I did the fourth album of my original contract, which ended being the Introspection album, there was a little bit more freedom because he had his blues label by then. Mike Varney had expanded a little bit more musically. So he wasn’t just so exclusively bottled into heavy rock. He had ventured off into other areas. So I had a little more freedom to explore some of the other influences.

That’s why Introspection was so different than the first album, because I had the chance to get all my influences in there. So a lot of people think, “Man, your playing style changed a lot between Howe II and Introspection,” but it wasn’t that it changed a lot, it’s that I was able to bring some of those things out that I had previously not been able to because of the nature of the music business. And you probably have a home studio and you’ve had a home studio for a long time, right? The instrumental stuff was probably something that you could work on more on your own.

Howe: That was another thing, right. When we did the Introspection album, that was the first album I did for Mike that wasn’t recorded at Prairie Sun studios. So part of the deal that we worked out was that part of my payment would be in the form of a small studio. Eventually I was able to build and expand on that.

But yeah, that was the beginning of that whole process of being able to record at home. It was beneficial for everyone because, you know, Mike’s whole business thing had to change a little bit at that point, since people weren’t buying shred guitar records as much by the time the '90s came in. He sort of had to change his thing; he had to lower his budgets. It was actually ideal for him that guys were recording at home and not coming in to the studio. It was beneficial on both sides. I had more freedom. I wasn’t on the clock. I didn’t have some engineer/producer watching the clock saying “Come on Greg, let’s get this done.” It was a different situation, but it was nice. Right, right. I actually spoke with Richie Kotzen recently, and we were talking about Prairie Sun. I had been up there a time or two, and it's a nice studio. Nice area, there north of San Francisco, in Sonoma County. It got rocked by that recent earthquake, right?

Howe: Yeah, that’s right. So you did two albums with Richie and, I know your focus is Maragold, but do you see any other collaborations of that instrumental nature coming up any time in the future?

Howe: I would love to, yeah. You know Richie and I, every time we see each other, we always talk about doing something together. Richie and I have a similar approach to the guitar. There have been things that I have been influenced with by him, and I know there have been things he’s been influenced with by me.

There’s also this kind of weird synergy that we both come from Pennsylvania. We were both sort of on the club circuit at the same time and I think, musically we connect in a lot different ways. And he’s just a cool guy. I really like Richie, and he makes ridiculously talented music. He’s just one of the guys who can... It’s almost like he’s one of those guys that if you just say “Do you think you could be an astronaut?” he can probably just do that.

It’s like he just decides to do something, and then he becomes great at it. So, like “I think I’m going to be a painter now.” And then he starts saying to me “I think I’m going to play the guitar with no pick” and then he plays the guitar and throws the pick out and he’s great. Billy Sheehan, who plays with Richie in The Winery Dogs, just recently told me the same thing about Richie being able to just quickly learn how to do anything.

Howe: Yeah, he’s just one of those guys. But yeah I would love to do something with Richie again at some point. That would be fun. I think even if we went out and did some gigs of those albums that we’ve recorded together. I think people would flip out. I think that would be really cool. That would be very cool. So you guys grew up in the same area, Lehigh valley, that’s like a suburb of Philadelphia, isn't it?

Howe: Yes, north of Philly by probably a good hour. Yeah. Oh, okay. That far.

Howe: Yeah And Paul Gilbert is from that area too, isn't he?

Howe: Paul was more west, he was more towards Pittsburgh. Closer to, like Ohio. We are more East Coast, East Pennsylvania. I see, yeah. Still, it’s almost like that football thing Western Pennsylvania has got going on, right? Didn’t they breed a whole bunch of really good quarterbacks in the Pittsburgh area -- Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino, and Joe Montana, and a bunch of others. It’s known as the “Cradle of Quarterbacks.”  

Howe: Right, yeah. What’s up with that, man?

Howe: I don’t know maybe it’s something in the water or the air. Yeah. So you did a lot of records in the '90s, but in the 2000s you made fewer discs. Almost 10 years went by while you did just three albums. You did Extraction in 2003, you did Soundproof in 2008, and Maragold 2013. You know people would wonder why the slowdown, and I guess your excuse would probably be that you were maybe a little busy touring with Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake and all their friends?

Howe: Yeah. Right in ‘99, I started to sort of venture off into the sideman thing just because it was fun, you know? It really was fun at first. I was out on the road with Enrique Iglesias, I was out on the road with 'Nsync, and Justin Timberlake, and with Rihanna. And then, you know, other smaller things. And that lasted for a good four to five years. And it was fun for a while because it was a lot of travel, it was really good money, and sort of a break from the struggle of, you know, trying to be an artist, which can beat you down after a while, especially in the '90s when it was difficult to try to find a place for that kind of guitar playing. Right.

Howe: So that was probably the biggest reason for the fewer albums in the 2000s. 'Cause you know, in the '90s there wasn’t that much going on and I sort of had a lot of time, and I had a studio, so I figured, “Yeah, I’ll make an album”, then “I’ll make another album," and then “Hey, why not make another album.”

It was easy to bang out albums in the '90s and I did put out quite a few 'cause I did Introspection in ‘93, Uncertain Terms was ‘94, I think Parallax was in ‘95, the Tilt album (with Richie Kotzen) I think was the same year. And then in ‘96 I did an album called Ascend or, no, I did the Five album in ‘96. Then I think Richie and I did another album, Project, around ‘97, and then I did the Ascend album in ‘98. And then also Hyperacuity in ‘99.

So pretty much every year in the '90s from ‘91 something came out. But then in ‘99, I got the Enrique gig and we toured for pretty much a whole year. Then immediately after that it was 'Nsync for two years, and then Justin Timberlake. So yeah, the process inevitably had to slow down. So what did you learn from all those experiences, other than it’s nice to get paid what you’re worth.

Howe: Well, actually, what I learned was that, although it’s fun to travel, and it’s fun to have the experience of a big tour -- and really, honestly, probably the most important learning experience of a big tour is understanding how to interact with people.

I mean, the majority of the time that you’re on tour, you’re not playing. You’re standing in hotel lobbies, you’re waiting in airports, you’re on a bus. You’re in a socially interactive scenario or environment.

So really, what makes or breaks you on a tour is how well you can interact with other people. And that was important to see because -- and I see it with me -- I’d rather have people in my band that I love to hang out with who are decent musicians, than have the greatest musicians in the world who are difficult to work with. Because, like The Beatles, you could see that, you know, there was nobody in that band who would probably be categorized as a virtuoso, but together there was magic. So, that was a big part of it.

The other thing that I learned was being reminded of how important simplicity is to a typical listener. You know, as a musician, particularly someone like me, who’s really explored some of the deepest parts of complex music, you forget that that’s really quantum physics to most people, you know what I mean?

Most people don’t want to have to think about what they’re listening to. They don’t want to have to analyze it and figure it out. That’s just us weird musicians who like to do that. Most people just want to enjoy the song, and so it needs to be delivered in way that’s simple. But then the real challenge is how do I find a way to be simple but not cheesy? Or simple but not predictable? Or simple and not generic? That’s a new kind of challenge, and that’s another big thing that I learned on those tours.

But I think the most important thing that I learned was that regardless of how fun that is, it wasn’t where my heart was. My heart has always been in being a creative artist. So as a sideman, I’m not really often involved in any kind of creative process, I’m pretty much just being told what to play.

And to me the whole reason I got into this was to be able to be creative. So, I learned eventually that there really isn’t any amount of money that somebody could pay me that’s gonna make me feel good about being a sideman. I can’t be content from that because all that is is a nine-to-five job at that point, except that it pays well. So if I wanted, if I was just looking for a situation that pays well, I’d probably be on Wall Street somewhere, you know, making cool investments.

I got into this business because I wanted to play music, and I wanna be creative and create things that people can like. And when someone like you says, “I love that Howe II album,” I mean, that’s worth more than any amount of money. Just hearing, just knowing that I can touch people with something I created is much more valuable to me than any amount of money that somebody can pay me for playing “Dark Horse” behind some teeny bopper. I get that. But at least, certainly, you made some incredible connections out on the road with those particular people.

Howe: Sure. So, were any of those connections able to play a part in what you’ve got going on with Maragold?

Howe: Maybe indirectly. I mean, as of now, nothing significant has come as a result of any of those connections. Although, a lot of people are interested, and a lot of people are like... It’s still kinda new, so I think the answer to your questions will be easier to answer, or I’ll be more qualified to answer it after a little more time goes by. I think there are some things that will evolve as a result of people I’ve met. Cool. You know I think, probably, Greg, when you and I grew up, albums may have meant more to some people than they do now. And the career path, or the catalog, especially of the first two, three, four albums by a band -- a lot of the bands that you and I grew up with, who became legends -- their first albums weren’t necessarily burning up the charts, you know.

Howe: Right. Exactly. Sometimes it took a couple of albums before the world really took notice.

Howe: Right. People are impatient in this day and age. Are the people involved in Maragold going to be patient enough to do 2, 3, 4 albums?

Howe: Well, first of all, yes, I think so. But second of all, I totally appreciate what you’re saying and I understand that. I think there’s a little bit of a twist to it because of the nature of the times that we live in, particularly with the internet. The internet has really changed the game in a lot of different ways, some for the worse, but some for the better.

The difference between now and then is that we don’t have to be as much at the mercy of a record label's decision, or some A&R person's decision, or some producer’s decision about what songs should come out, how the album should be promoted, or what we’re gonna release as the single.

So in other words, to a large degree you can start to dictate your own success based on how much work and effort you want to put into it. And you can get the feedback. I see this all the time. I see guitar players in bands who are making a name for themselves on the internet without needing some executive stamp of approval.

So, I think that on the one hand you’re right in that it may slow down the process. In other words, yes, you may have to wait a couple of albums before this thing starts to catch fire the way you that want them to. But some of that can be dictated by us. I mean, how much, how hard do we want to work? How much do we wanna put into it? How aggressive do we want to be in terms of social media and putting out material and making people aware of what we’re doing? A lot is dependent on us, and I like that because then we don’t have to be resentful to some label that didn’t do what we thought they were going to do. Or we can take more responsibility for our own career and our own success.

And also, when a bunch of people like what we're doing, it doesn’t really matter anymore that the record label doesn’t because, one of the things I’ve noticed that’s happening is labels are sort of in this mindset where it’s like, “We don’t really care if your stuff is good or not. We just care about what the numbers say. So if you’ve got a lot of people liking what you’re doing, well then we like that. And so we like what you’re doing, not because of the music necessarily, but because of the numbers. So we like the numbers that you’re doing and so we can commit ourselves.”

Imagine the person’s job to decide whether or not he thinks the band has what it takes. That’s completely subjective. I mean, nobody knows the formula, right? So for someone to have that job title is like, it kind of doesn’t make any sense. It's kind of like deciding what a good piece of art is. No one knows that, because it’s subjective.

So at least now, we can get the response of the people. If we have a video that’s got a million hits on it, no one can tell us that people don’t like the song. We can say, “Well, actually you’re wrong 'cause I can show you that they do like it.” So there’s no debating opinions anymore. It’s not about opinions, it’s about numbers that show what’s going on. So on the one hand, yes, it slows down the process because if a big label gets behind you and they decide to just dump a ton of money into marketing and PR, then yeah, you can have success that happens really quickly. But often a lot of those bands die out really quickly.

I've seen that happen a lot of times, particularly if you look at the hip-hop world. You see these guys pop out of nowhere and they’re huge and then you know, it’s 15 minutes, and they’re gone. So I think that when you’re doing stuff that’s more like what we're doing, which is more of an organic build-up, I think its also beneficial, in a sense, that it’ll last a lot longer. So I think the band members get that. I think so. I hope so. You are fairly active on social media, I see a lot of tweets that you’ve written.

Howe: Yes. And people can reach out and actually connect with you.

Howe: Absolutely. And in fact, another thing, you do some teaching and you offer instruction through your website, right?

Howe: Yes, I do. So people can reach out to you that way and hook up and actually study with you.

Howe: Yeah, which is really cool. First of all, it’s great for me because one of things that I'm sure you’ve heard other players say is that, “The more success you have, in certain ways, the less time you have to practice.” Because you’re constantly dealing with emails, and you’re dealing with phone conversations, and you’re dealing with meetings and dealing with doing administrative stuff.

So much that it’s like “Where’s my guitar? I haven’t played my guitar all day.” So, that puts in the schedule time slots where I know I have to be playing. And I know I have to be playing fairly well because the guys are gonna be paying to see what I do. So, that’s really helpful to me. And it's also really cool to just be able to talk to people from all over the world -- to just be having a conversation and jamming with some guy from Sydney, Australia, or Berlin, Germany, or somewhere in Japan. It’s just really cool to be able to take advantage of technology in that sense. It really is amazing to be able to just have real time interaction with people who are 8,000 miles away. I think that’s really cool. Right. Yeah, that is pretty cool. I think online lessons with people like yourself provide a great opportunity for players to study with the best of the best. You know in one of the instructional videos on your site, you talked about using contrasts to help create a solo.

Howe: Yeah, that’s right. That's a pretty concise way of thinking, especially to help people understand soloing. You talked about contrasting a fast part with a slow part, or a part where you went off the rhythm to a part that fit right in with the rhythm. Is that type of contrast something you feel like you put into a lot of your playing?

Howe: Yeah, I thinks that’s the nature of any artistic endeavor that ends up being cool. Like if I see a movie that’s just all action from start to finish, and buildings blowing up and people shooting, and it's just action from start to finish, it just gets boring after a while.

I mean there’s nothing impactful after awhile because it just levels off. It’s like a compressor, and it all has just one level. You know, dynamics come with contrast. I mean the only way that something is mellow is next to something that isn’t. The only way that something is high pitched is if it's next to something that’s low pitched. The only way that something is harmonized, nice harmony, is if it's next to something that’s dissonant. The only way that something sounds fast is if it’s next to something that’s slow, and vice versa.

So contrast is always the thing that’s used artistically to help evoke something. There has to be that tension-release, there’s the tension and then the release. When someone’s been at a low register for a long time, there’s a little bit of that adrenaline building up, say, when you go (sings a low note and then suddenly shoots up into a high register) and it’s like, “Ah, thank God.” So there’s always the tension-release in music.

In songwriting, a chorus usually has a resolve to it, where a verse often has a slightly unresolved feel to it: There’s a chord missing, and that you wish they would play. It's all being built up. The chorus is being built up to, and finally plays and resolves that thing you’ve been waiting for.

I’m guilty of just getting into this mindset where if I’m not thinking about what I’m doing, then suddenly I’m just running up and down the fretboard mindlessly playing shapes and licks, and not really thinking about making a statement.

And the statement can be more meaningful if I start to actually think differently. And thinking differently often can be just thinking about contrast. Think about making statements. Think about musical statements as supposed to just looking at shapes. I don’t want my fingers to dictate what I’m playing. I want my head to tell my fingers what to do. That makes a lot of sense. Well said. So I'll let you get out of the deep music concepts for a bit and talk about something lighter. You have a new amp out now, right?

Howe: Yeah, yes I do. Through DV Mark?

Howe: Yes, DV Mark is the company. It’s actually MarkBass. It’s the same company as MarkBass. It’s the guitar division of that. MarkBass has, for the last 8 or 10 years, earned the reputation of, really, I think the biggest selling bass amp in the world. Their stuff really does sound amazing. I play bass a little bit and I know a lot of bass players. I know what bass players like, and I’ve recorded bass myself in the studio. And one of the hardest things to get out of the bass is the combination of the bigness and the focused tone at the same time.

You know having that focus as well as the roundness -- it’s like it’s either one or the other. It’s like Jaco Pastorius, and there is no bass frequency, or it’s just some big, round John Paul Jones thing where there’s not a whole lot of definition or focus.

So to get the two together and have it be real even and with an already sort of compressed evenness to it, it’s what bass players are always looking for. And their stuff really has that built right into it. They figured that out.

And so, I think the whole bass community caught on to that. So, once they became number one, I think they thought, “Let’s move into the guitar.” If I’m to be honest, they approached me two years ago and sent me some of their stuff, which was cool, but there wasn’t anything there that really was working for me. It was all, either really clean, jazzy, you know, jazz-clean, with nothing but just the power stage amplifier amplifying your guitar. Clean power.

Or it was over-driven -- super over-driven, you know -- very Rectifier-like: all the scooped mids. Kinda heavy, heavy metal sounding stuff, which also didn’t really work for me.

And I said that to me them: “Your stuff seems really cool but I don’t think it’s my cup of tea.” And they said, “Well, what’s missing? What would you like? Because we can probably design something that you like.”

So they started talking to me that way. And you have to understand that it’s an Italian company. I don’t speak Italian. It’s hard enough to describe tones to a tone kind of guy who actually builds amps and speaks the language. There’s so much that they actually end up giving strange adjectives to, you know?

That’s why Van Halen’s got like the "Brown Sound." I mean, what does that even mean? It’s just a phrase that creates a visual that hopefully gets someone closer to understanding a correlation between it and a sound. Its all very abstract.

But even talking to a guy who speaks perfect English and he builds amps and he plays guitar, that’s hard enough to do. But to try and translate that overseas to an Italian company that doesn’t speak the language and whose language I don’t speak, is almost impossible.

So I said to them, “If you really want to do something like this, I can’t do it unless you wanna fly me over there periodically and we can work together on this. And with a translator. That’s the only way I can do it because there’s too many variables in the nuances to be able to get this right. It won’t make sense to have you make a tweak and then me wait for three weeks for you to send me the amp, me try it out just to discover that there’s another tweak that has to be made, and send it back to you. I mean that process would go on for years.”

So they ended up flying me out there a few times, just trying to hone in on it more and more and more, and eventually it got to a place where I felt good about it. That’s where we are. So it's called the Maragold. It’s a 40 watt amp, right?

Howe: It’s a 40 watt amp. It’s very basic. It’s very British. It’s very old school. No bells and whistles. It's bass, mid, treble, presence. There’s an effects loop, two channels, and that’s it. It's as stripped down as it can be. Which was another thing that was way different from their other amps. A lot of their other amps had all used boost switches, there’s series and parallel where you can go through the effects loop, and three channels and blah, blah, blah. All this stuff that I’m not... To me it’s like, let’s make an amp that sounds good and if it sounds good we won’t need all of that.

So it has four 12AX7 pre-amp tubes, and we ended up going with the EL34’s for power, although I went back and forth between those and 6L6’s. It wasn’t until the very end that I made the switch from 6L6’s to EL34. The EL34 to me just have a little bit more -- they may not be quite as defined -- but they have a little bit more fluff. They compress a little bit more. They’re slightly easier to play and the notes are slightly bigger sounding. But yeah, that’s how it came about. What other gear are you using these days? What other guitars are you playing?

Howe: Well I was trying to keep this secret but I’ll let the cat out of the bag. It looks like I’m probably going to be heading over to Carvin. OK.

Howe: I’ve been considering them for a while. This gets into a whole subject about the Laguna debacle which you may or may not be interested in but... The what debacle?

Howe: Laguna Oh, Laguna. What happened?

Howe: Well, Laguna was a guitar company owned by Guitar Center. I’ll try to make this quick but it’s important because I really don’t like even hinting at the idea that I’m one of these guys bouncing around from place to place with no real loyalty, because that’s exactly the opposite of who I am. And I go out of my way to prevent these things from happening, but I can’t control what other people do.

So, Laguna came to me in 2006. Keith Brawley was a well known luthier in the industry. He was working in the corporate department at Guitar Center. He had gone to Guitar Center and said, “I want to come up with my own line of guitars, and sell them through Guitar Center.” And so they gave him the green light to do that. He had been at Fender before that.

Howe: What’s that? I knew Keith from Fender. I used to run Fender Frontline magazine back in the '90s.

Howe: Ah OK, yeah. So he’s a really nice guy, and very well known, and very talented. But he was the one who developed the line and then they sent me some guitars in 2006 and again it was like the DV Mark thing.

I said, “These are cool but there’s nothing here that's really working for me.” About a year later, there were two new people that Guitar Center had hired to come on and oversee the Laguna project and they said,  “Greg, it looks like a year ago we sent you some stuff you didn’t care for. We were just curious, why didn’t you like it?”

And I just explained to them that it just didn’t work for me. And they said, “Well, what would it take for you to like it?” and I said, “Well, I need this, I need that, I have to change this, I want blah blah blah.” And they said, “Well, OK. How about if you come in and design a guitar? Your model for Laguna.”

And I said, “OK.” So I had dinner with the two guys. Our first meeting was a dinner thing in California and I sat down and the very first thing I said was, “I want you guys to know that the last thing I need are more guitars. I don’t need any guitars. I’m not interested in guitars. I’m not interested in free stuff. What I’m interested in is a relationship that’s going to be mutually beneficial, whereby my coming on board helps bring awareness and credibility to your line. And you guys being on board helps support me and my career and keeps me provided with great instruments.

And that we’re always working towards bettering the product. That we can have open dialog and ideas when we work together to just constantly make the product better. That it feels like a relationship, and not just some  standard contractual arrangement.

I want it to feel like a relationship where I can call you up and say, “Hey, I was thinking: I was trying this guitar out, you know, and I noticed that when I put this pickup in it, there was a different kind of feel that came to it and, you know, maybe next round we can try this, or whatever, just so we’re always working towards bettering the product.”

So at first, it came out of the box swinging, they just did some big ads, you know, some big stuff. But right after the 2008 economy crunch, Guitar Center just sort of backed out of the whole Laguna thing. Not to mention that Laguna was never available anywhere other than Guitar Center. So you know, you couldn’t get one of these guitars overseas. You couldn’t get this stuff. You couldn’t get them anywhere other than Guitar Center. That's kind of limiting.

Howe: And a lot of my fans are overseas. So that was always a bit of a problem. But then like I said, Guitar Center changed their business model a little bit after 2008. It’s just one of the reasons why, when you walk into one of their stores, you probably noticed they cut way back on their inventory, how much inventory they have in stock. It used to be, you walk into a Guitar Center and you ask for almost anything, and they’ve got it in back. Now it’s always, “We don’t have that in stock but we can order it for you.” So that’s the new M.O. at Guitar Center.” Right.

Howe: And I think that was part of their thing. And then the other thing was, "We really don't want to get involved in anything that’s going to hinder our bread and butter," you know, their accounts with Fender and Roland and Gibson, and all the things that work for them. Right.

Howe: And there was also always, I think, a bit of conflict of interest with Guitar Center putting out a product -- being a retailer and at the same time a products company that’s competing with your own accounts.

I don’t think it makes Ibanez real happy to know that a kid could walk in there and now he’s got a choice between a Laguna that he can get for $400 or an Ibanez he can get for $600. I think there was always a bit of a conflict. So I think Guitar center just decided, “Look let’s just pull the plug.”

They pulled the plug a while ago and the only reason I hadn’t stepped off is because I don’t want the reputation of that guy, you know? I really believed in the LE924, which is the model that I was in on. I still think the guitar is great but I can’t make them release it. So at some point I have to come out and tell everyone that, “As much as I like this guitar, I have to step off because it essentially doesn’t exist anymore.”

So Carvin has been, the company I’ve been interested in for a long time. They’ve been especially interested in me for a long time. The product is great, the quality is great, they’re made in America, so everything is direct order. It’s not cheap stuff down made in Indonesia, it’s made right here in America.

They have a really high standard of quality. They’re one of the few companies that’s actually raising their quality and raising their prices. As opposed to going for quantity and lowering prices and lowering quality. Which is what a lot of the other guitar companies are doing. They seem really interested in, sort of, entering or filling the void of maybe like, what PRS used to be, or like what a Tom Anderson did.

They want to get into that high quality range. They want to be known as almost the boutique market but accessible as a guitar company. Custom order stuff.

If I come on board we’re gonna be doing the first 24-fret bolt-on neck that they have. They don’t have that as of now. The few bolt-ons that they’ve got is 22-fret. Anything 24-fret is neck through.

So, I think it’ll be great. I can serve as a catalyst and so can the model. We’re part of this whole new awareness at Carvin. Not to mention that they’re a great company. They’ve got Frank Gambale, they’ve got Jason Becker, they’ve got Allan Holdsworth. So I’d be in the company of some of the greatest players on the planet. It feels good. They sent me some stuff just to get the feel of their quality. I love it. I really do. Sounds good. And how are they going to service your international fan base?

Howe: Well, they can. They actually have overseas distribution but in the States everything is direct order. So its kind of interesting. So you can buy Carvin guitars in stores internationally? In mom and pop stores?

Howe: Yes. And maybe more than mom and pop stores. I think even more franchise-based places. I’m not positive. I know that they’re very available overseas. So I’ll have to learn more. So you haven’t finalized anything, but you’re really leaning in that direction?

Howe: Yeah, we’re right on the edge. I mean, we’re actually in the negotiation process right now. We’re right on the cusp of doing this, and if we do it, we have to do it quick because we would like my model to be available by NAMM in January, Which means we have to jump on it really fast. Right, very cool. And what are you using these days as far as effects?

Howe: Not much, to be honest with you. One of the companies that I’m working with pretty intently and who also is probably going to end up doing a signature pedal with me is called Carl Martin. They’ve got everything and their quality is great.

I've got a number of different pedal boards and they all have different stuff on them but generally speaking I’ll have like a T-Rex Reverb and delay, I might have an overdrive -- some modified TS9, TS808 kinda green pedal overdrive-boost. Maybe some exotic pedal as a booster thing. The Carl Martin stuff is really, really cool. They have this pedal called the Plexitone, which is amazing. I’ve never seen a pedal behave this way.

I have an old Marshall, just a Plexi head. No master volume, just an amplifier. In order to get distortion out of it, you'd have to turn it all the way up. You’d have to turn every knob to 10, or put an overdrive pedal in front of it. But generally speaking, if I were to put like a Tube Screamer in front of this amp, even that wouldn’t be enough to really get it to crunch out.

With this pedal, literally, it feels like you’ve replaced the whole gain stage with... It feels like you’ve modified the amp. You put this pedal in front of the amp, and it sounds like a real amplifier. And it does the opposite of what a lot of other pedals do. You’d notice a lot of overdrive pedals will get the compression, you’ll get the saturation but it sort of comes at the expense of the bigness, right?

Sometimes the amp, the bigness of the amp, goes away. You get the gain but it comes in a smaller size, right? It’s a thinner sound. Whereas this, it doesn’t do that. This somehow actually makes it bigger sounding, and you have all this gain. It’s really weird, I’ve never seen a pedal with that much gain, but it’s clean gain, it’s not messy. It’s really hard to explain. They’re doing something different. So, the company is really cool and we will be working together. I see they already have your picture on their website there with the Plexitone.

Howe: Yeah, yeah. And all their products are amazing. But the T-Rex stuff is good, so I have a bunch of that. The Xotic stuff is great. There’s a lot of great companies making great stuff. The thing with me is I change my game all the time so when people say, “What are you using?” it’s kinda like, “What’s you favorite lick?”, you know? It’s different today than it will be if you ask me next week, 'cause I’m really not that dead set on anything, I’m always trying new stuff.

We went to Russia last year, as Maragold, and I brought the Axe-FX with me, which is a really cool unit for both modeling and for effects. So if I wanted I could just use that unit for all my effects. It’s really high quality stuff. But we’ll see, you know. I tend to be a stompbox, pedal board guy. On the song "Paradigm Tsunami," I thought I heard a harmonizer or something like that.

Howe: Yeah. I have the new Whammy pedal, what is it called? The one where you can do harmony, drop tuning, as well as all the typical Whammy stuff. Yeah, 'cause I thought I heard a Whammy pedal on "Saturday Sun."

Howe: Yeah, the Whammy DT, which is really, really cool. The guy who owns the studio that we recorded vocals at brought one in one day, and he was like, “We should check this out.” And I plug it in and I’m like, “Wow, this is really amazing!” To be able to instantly drop your whole guitar down a whole step, or half step. That was amazing to me. I don’t know why I freak out over the simplest stuff. I just thought, “Well that saves a lot of problems.” So, yeah, I just bought one and it’s a really fun unit to play with. So, on "Paradigm Tsunami," the harmonizer, what was that then?

Howe: That is the Whammy DT. Oh OK.

Howe: But on the Whammy DT, there are all different kinds of harmonies that they have. They don’t have diatonic third harmonies, so everything’s gonna be a parallel thing of some sort. But it can be parallel fourths, parallel fifths, parallel sixths, sevenths, you name it. So I think on that one, I'd have to listen to it again, I think it might be fifths, or fourths. Yeah, it’s got that sort of Trevor Rabin, Yes thing going on a little bit. Yeah, I was gonna say, what kind of harmony did you have it set for, 'cause some of them sound way out there.

Howe: I don’t remember. I’d have to go back and analyze that. The problem with me is that I get in the studio and I’m in creative mode and I’m just throwing things against the wall trying to see what sticks, and when it sticks I’m like “Yeah, keep it.” But I often don’t retrace the path that got me there. So if we see you live, are you gonna be playing it with that sound? Or you might just decide to do some different sound during that solo?

Howe: Well, we have played it live and I have a setting that seems to get what it is. I think it's fifths. I think so. I really feel retarded right now but if it's probably fifths, or fourths. But actually when I think about it, the solo starts in E, and I play pretending I’m in B, and that works. And B is a fifth above, and it’s a fourth below... So actually, it’s in fourths. So what’s happening is I can play in B or the key of E and I’d get the E sound as well as the fourth above harmony... I think. OK.

Howe: It’s hard to explain. And I’m not even sure that’s correct. Whatever it is, it seems to translate. Yeah. So if I were to ask you just a couple of specific song questions, would you even remember? Like at the end of "Lullaby" it almost sounds like you’re doing almost chicken pickin' kind of stuff.  

Howe: It’s a good chance that I am. I’m playing a Stratocaster on that and one of the things I love, and that I enjoyed about this album was that I had the chance to get into the single coil mode a little more than on most of my albums. But whenever I do, whenever I’m in that 2nd or 4th position on a Strat, I just immediately become... The Johnny Highland starts to seep out of me. It just likes to come out, you know.

So yeah, when I play, I do tend to use the second finger of my right hand a lot. In fact, more than I ever thought I did. Probably about 50 percent of the time, so it’s the pick and the second finger of my right hand, but it’s pretty much equally interacting all the time.

But the finger stuff pops out a lot more. You hear it differently with that kind of sound, with a more single-coil, Strat sound. So, it seems to be highlighted more. It’s not so much that I’m playing a lot differently but the auditory perception of it comes out feeling like I’m playing differently. Right. So you guys posted an unplugged performance of "Story’s Ending" and you seemed pretty comfortable on the acoustic guitar. Do you put in a bunch of time on acoustic?

Howe: Not as much as I should. I really like acoustic, and every time I pick up an acoustic I’m like, “Why don’t I do this more often?” because it’s fun and it certainly makes me play and think differently.

For me it always just seems like I don’t have the time. Every time I’m like, “Yeah, I’m gonna do some acoustic stuff. Let me finish the song, let me finish this project, or let me finish this thing that I’m doing." So yeah, I mean my acoustics are set up pretty comfortable. If I’m to be honest, they’re fairly easy to play because I’m just not one of those guys that want to struggle a whole lot. But I'm not playing that much. There are certain things I can’t do on an acoustic that I can do on an electric. That doesn’t feel that much different to me. To answer your question, I don’t spend that much time with the acoustic guitar. What kind of strings do you put on an acoustic?

Howe: I think for that it’s different. I probably have 10 acoustic guitars and they’re all different. I think on that song, it’s a light gauge acoustic set. So, it’s still a wound G string, but I think it was a really light set, like a .012 to wherever it goes. What kind of acoustic guitars do you play mostly?

Howe: Well, I have a deal with Parkwood. Which is a very affordable but really great quality guitar. John Park is a good friend of mine and when I was living in California, his office was near where I was hanging out. So, I just walked up to him one day and I said, 'cause I was actually having discussions with Taylor at that point, but Taylor was just sort of moving slow and I couldn’t get a read on what they were doing.

So I didn’t really have a deal with an acoustic company. So I just walked up to John and said, “You own Parkwood, don’t you?” And he said, “Yeah, if you ever wanna work together...” “Oh, I’d love to.” So that’s how that happened.

So the guitars are very affordable, and they sound great. In fact, my bass player has a Taylor, a much, much more expensive guitar than mine. But every time he picks up mine he’s like, “Shit, this sounds just as good.” There are certain things about it that I actually prefer. So, that’s the company I’m working with. Yeah, very cool. So, hey man, we’ve talked a lot, you’ve given us a lot of really cool information that will help players improve their understanding of guitar, and what you do. I appreciate your time so much.

Howe: I really appreciate it as well. Take care, bye.

Related Links:

Greg Howe Official Website

Greg Howe on Facebook

Greg Howe on Twitter

Greg Howe on YouTube

Maragold Official Website

Maragold on Facebook

Maragold on Twitter

Maragold on YouTube

Carvin Guitars Website

Parkwood Guitars Website

Greg Howe Signature Amp

Carl Martin Pedals

Xotic Effects

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