Greg Howe

  • Interview by: Madhav R
  • Date: January 9, 2011

To say that meeting guitar legend Greg Howe was among the greatest moments of my life would be an understatement. To say that interviewing above mentioned legend was an honour would be another understatement. I caught up with guitar virtuoso Greg Howe on the eve of his debut gig in India and apart from speaking about India’s weather and the traffic regulations here, we also spoke about Michael Jackson, Planet X and VSTs. Read on for more…

HB: Hi Greg, I’m Madhav from Headbangers India and we’re the online partners for your India tour.

GH: Great!

HB: Is this your first time in India? How do you like the place?

GH: Yeah, this is our first time here. Everything’s been great, I’m looking forward to seeing more of the place as the tour goes on.

HB: We’ll start with a basic question. What music do you listen to?

GH: Hmm, I listen to everything but surprisingly, I listen to a lot of mainstream music that can be considered pop. Top 40 stuff. I’ve done so much listening to so much complex music over the years that I really welcome music that’s relatable to a lot of people. And I actually enjoy a lot of the stuff. I like the ‘hook’ element that a lot of the music has. But honestly, I listen to everything. Jazz, rock and metal, country, hip-hop; you name it, I listen to it.

HB: So does this also answer the questions about why you’ve played with *NSync and Justin Timberlake as well as Jordan Rudess and Jason Becker?

GH: Yes, I just play music that I like. It’s not about genre. Like I said, I listen to everything. When people ask me what music I like, my answer is, “I like music that’s good,” and that comes in a lot of different styles.

HB: For you as a guitarist, what’s the difference between you between playing your solo Greg Howe music and playing for say, Justin Timberlake?

GH: Well, difference between playing for a pop band like that is the role I take; I play the role of a supporting musician. In those scenarios, I don’t really have a say in the creative process. So my job is just to re-enact whatever is recorded and to bring to life the vision of the artist. And that’s a different type of challenge. Sometimes, it gets very challenging; there are so many different tones, some of the rhythm playing is pretty impressive actually. Playing with a band, that way, is a very different thing.

HB: In another online interview of yours, you’ve mentioned that you decided to make a career in music when you were 15 years old. Now, looking back at that decision, do you feel you were too young to have made such a life changing judgment?

GH: Ah, yeah I’m glad I decided at such a young age that I knew what I wanted to do, because sometimes people don’t figure out what they want to be until you’re older, and you can still be successful then but it’s nice to get a good head start, right.

HB: Your debut solo album ‘Greg Howe’ was ranked in the All-Time Top 10 List of Shred Albums in 2009 alongside legendary albums such as Cacophony’s ‘Speed Metal Symphony’, Joe Satriani’s ‘Surfing With The Alien’, Yngwie Malmsteen’s ‘Rising Force’ etc. At the time of release, did you ever expect the album to have such a global, far reaching effect?

GH: No, not really. I don’t think so. I was just so happy to have a record contract; I was so pleased to know that the album would be in the stores

HB: Back in 1988…

GH: Yeah, cause I was pretty young then. I just thought, “Wow, I have a record deal,” I didn’t think it was going to have the impact that it did. It was great that it did, though.

HB: And you still play stuff from that album?

GH: I think I should, ‘cause that album sold very well and there are still a lot of bands from that era. My music has changed so much over the years that there are different people that like different things. A lot of guys from a lot of bands tell me, “I don’t like your earlier stuff, I love your newer stuff,” and a lot of guys say, “I wish you go back to your early stuff.” So I really try to mix it up and give everybody what they like.

HB: In 1997, you played guitar for Michael Jackson across Europe and Asia as part of the HIS-tory tour, and you were still pretty young then. Tell us about the entire experience as well as being a part of one of the most popular and influential concert tours in musical history.

GH: Well, I was actually just filling in for Jennifer Batten. I was on the road for only 5 weeks, so I didn’t do the whole tour. It was amazing. I had never played to an audience anywhere near that much. I mean, the largest audience I’d played to prior to that was probably 1200, maybe 1500 people and I was immediately thrown into playing in front of 65,000 people, and that was pretty crazy. At first, there was a lot of anxiety. You get nervous, a little. But fun nervous.

HB: It was a big deal…

GH: Yeah, it was a big deal. The tour was amazing. We were treated in the highest fashion. We had a private jet just for the band, you know. Best food, top of the line in that sense. And, oh just being able to watch Michael Jackson up close. You don’t know how brilliant he really is until you see him. It’s really amazing. I’ve worked with a lot of big time musicians but I’ve never had the experience where someone had that much presence that you can almost physically feel on stage. As soon as you walk on to the stage, you could feel it. And he was very humble, and always aware of what was going on. He was the type of person that, in the middle of all that dancing and performing, he would come up to you after the show sometimes and say, “sounds great, just, third song, second verse, there was a part that you played, just try to fix it, work on it.”

HB: He actually knew everything that was going on?

GH: He was hearing everything! He was just, just on another level. Really amazing. Sometimes, I’d get mesmerized watching him, sometimes forget what I was supposed to be playing.

HB: Sounds fantastic. Must’ve been a great experience! Ok, Greg, you also play for another band, Howe II. Have you ever felt that you’d be able to do ‘more’ with your music if you were in a band rather than playing solo? I’m thinking along the terms of maybe Paul Gilbert who was big, very big and he did achieve a lot of fame and recognition with his solo music but Mr. Big, with Billy Sheehan and Eric Martin is really phenomenonally huge, bigger than the solo guitarist Paul Gilbert…

GH: Yeah, whenever you’re doing music that’s more mainstream and appeals to people that are not necessarily in a niche market, then obviously, your chances of success are much bigger. And that’s one of the reasons, I mean, I’m not looking for anything, I feel very successful but I’m not pursuing this thing for success, I’m pursuing for the same reason that a lot of my albums change from time to time, because I always like to get into territory I haven’t explored. I like to do things that keep me inspired. And I’ve done a lot of instruments and I’ve been in that world for a long time and I’m really looking forward to doing things that are very much more relatable and you know, jumping of the drum riser, smiling at people, not concentrating on every note you’re playing…

HB: Just having fun…

GH: Yeah, and I think that’s a good question, perhaps, the answer is yes.

HB: The ‘Greg Howe sound’ is a very unique one. Was it a conscious effort on your part to make music like no one else or did it just happen?

GH: Thank you. I think its something that just happened. I mean, my influences were of such a wide range. I’m literally the kind of person who’d listen to George Benson, then take that CD out and put in Yngwie Malmsteen, take that CD out and put in Van Halen or you know, Stevie Ray Vaughn. All of them were equally enjoyable for me, and I would always hear things from different artists and think, “wouldn’t it be great if that guy did more of this,” or “wouldn’t it be great if that guy had more of that.” So I always liked to take things from all these guys that I liked and put it in a pot and stir it up, and I think that’s where my sound comes from.

HB: Of all the albums and projects and albums you’ve worked on, which one would you say is your favourite or most enjoyable album?

GH: Oh, the most enjoyable album was the most recent one, ‘Sound Proof.’ That was a lot of fun; there wasn’t a lot of preparing for it, just went to the studio, got some riffs, got some ideas, decided to jam it out and see what happens. It was a lot of fun, very relaxing and I think that the album feels very spontaneous, light-hearted, and not very serious. Some of them feel more serious cause I was more serious then, and I wanted to capture something that reflects where I am in my life, and right now, things are going really, really good. Life’s fun and I wanted that in my album.

HB: ‘Sound Proof’ was the first Greg Howe album to get on to iTunes and I think the previous albums are slowly getting there as well. Does this shift from CDs to digital media make a difference for you? In the age of music piracy, do illegal downloads really affect the income and profits you make?

GH: Well, I’ll try to answer the question in a way that doesn’t get into too many things that are not very important. The reality is that the record labels are much more affected by this than the artist, and that’s why in the industry, they always tell artists, “If you’re going to get an advance, get the biggest advance you can.” You want to get the biggest amount up front as possible. Without trying to get into weird territory, record labels have the tendency of getting a little…

HB: Yeah, it is their money at the end.

GH: Right, so I think what’s happening is good for the industry. Every time there’s a transition, things get uncomfortable for a while, so everyone takes a hit but ultimately, it’s good, cause it puts a lot more of the creative control back on the artist. The internet allows the artist to have opportunities without being at the mercy of the record labels. So I think what’s happening is that slowly, record labels are losing the control; creativity, money, everything. So yeah, maybe my record sales are affected by it but the monetary issue is not affected.

HB: And downloading has its benefits too. In a place like India, we don’t have access to the newest releases or anything other than mainstream music. If it weren’t for the internet and illegal downloading, we probably never would’ve heard of Greg Howe!

GH: Yeah, that’s right! The same thing happened in Russia. I had no idea people even knew me there. We have no distribution in Russia. But we went there, and we had all these fans! For me, what happens now is that because people know my music, they want me to come and play live and that’s great. I have no problem with that. It’s just that it’s reversed. Record labels want to promote the artist so that they can sell CDs. I’d rather promote the record to sell the artist.

HB: Alright. This next question is a very personal one. A friend of mine, a very good guitarist, recently started composing a lot of music using virtual instruments and VSTs. His argument was that ‘when you play the guitar, you are limited by your own abilities and the instruments at your disposal but when you program music using software, you are limited only by your own creativity.’ Does this statement relate to you in any way?

GH: Well, that is personal but it is a very subjective idea. I mean, I understand his point and I would never judge that but personally, I have to know that what I do on my records I can do live. For me, creativity is very important but I want to be sure that I’m creating things that are not realistic for me to reproduce live. ‘Cause, I can do that. I can create music that is unbelievable, but I don’t do that because I want my music to reflect honestly what I’m doing. But, that might change. That doesn’t mean I’m always going to feel that way. Someday, I might decide that I just want to create something; create something that I don’t even want to play live. Someday, I just might do that. But as of now, I want to make sure that I’m doing in the studio is a reflection what I want to be doing live.

HB: There were some rumours about you joining and playing guitar for the prog metal band Planet X. What’s the update on that, is that really happening?

GH: No… What happened is that when I first moved to California in 2005, Tony MacAlpine had just left the band, so Derek Sherinan had contacted me about the idea of me joining them. They also had a tour in Australia that was coming up pretty quickly, so they were pretty desperate. So I met with them. At that time, music was very comfortable for me and the thought of doing math on stage, and the amount of time I had to prepare for the Australian tour just wasn’t enough. And as much as I respect that kind of music, it’s not my favourite music to play. I tend to lead more towards funky, improv kind of stuff. That stuff (Planet X) is very calculative, fast, metal stuff. So at the last minute, I decided against it. I respect them very much. We just left to do our own thing.

HB: You were endorsed with the world famous ESP guitars and you recently shifted to the relatively unknown Laguna guitars? Why?

GH: Um, yeah there are some reasons that happened that I shouldn’t discuss publically but yeah, ESP is a great company, they’re still a great company. The people I was dealing with directly are still friends of mine. The issues that came up are issues that are best left not brought up to the public. It was nothing really bad, but, just…

HB: So why Laguna? Why not Fender or Gibson or any other guitar manufacturer?

GH: Ah, Laguna. They’re also a very good brand. Well, I’d got to a point where I thought to myself, “I’ve had some bad experiences.” Now here’s the problem with endorsement deals. A lot of people want endorsements, because they want free gear. That’s it. My thing with an endorsement deal is, I really just want to have a relationship that is mutually beneficial; I’m helping them, they’re happy about me and my artistry, they’re helping me by providing gear. It’s important that we have a dialogue going; discuss game plans etc. That’s the kind of relationship I want. And the truth of the matter is, any company out there can make a nice guitar, a beautiful guitar. So then it comes down to your preferences, and relationships. If you’ve got a company that’s a bunch of nice guys but their product isn’t cool, that’s not going to work and vice versa. There has to be a balance between the product that I like and people I like working with. And I can settle for a compromise; a product that’s not particularly great but works for me, and people I like to have a relationship with. The thing with Laguna is, they actually approached me. I’d decided that I’m going to go back to what I used to do; assembling my own guitars. I’m not going to deal with this any more. Sometimes, there’s just too much political stuff. They (Laguna) approached me with a guitar that I wasn’t particularly crazy about. I told them, “Thank you very much. It’s a nice guitar but not what I’m looking for.” So then, I didn’t hear from there for almost a year. Then, they came back and said, “We’d really like you to come on board with us.” So I told them that I’d tried out their guitar, it just wasn’t my thing, and then they asked what it would take for me to use their guitar. So I just started naming them. “I need this, I need that, I need this…” and they said cool. So they basically let me design my own guitar. That was great, and they’ve been great.

HB: The relationship is very important…

GH: Yeah, it is! And a lot of them are guitar players themselves and they understand…

HB: Laguna’s motto is “By the guitarists, for the guitarists…”

GH: Yeah! The company is really great to work with, the people are very cool and they’re interested in having the dialogue, creating plans. They offer ideas, I listen to it and vice versa. It’s a really fun thing, it’s great.

HB: Ok, this is out last question. Having played so many shows, toured the world so many times and played with so many great musicians, I’m sure you have loads of tips and advice for upcoming guitarists and musicians. Care to share any with us?

GH: My advice is that you have to make sure that this is what you want to do. You have to absolutely love music. The problem that I see with a lot of young, up-and-coming musicians is that they want the cheque, they want the success. And when that’s not happening, they start to get discouraged. You have to really love it. Now for me, there was no other choice. I believe that the music chose me, I didn’t choose it, and presumed it would be just as much fun reaching the goal. When you have that much passion, your chances of success are so much better, and when you really don’t ‘need’ the success, it doesn’t matter any more. If success is all you desire, then there’s a part of you that’s in it for the wrong reasons. You have to make sure you’re very passionate about the music. That would be my advice.

HB: Thank you for your time, Greg, it’s been great talking to you. Best of luck for the rest of your tour!

GH: Thank you!