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Greg Howe is one of the most influential players in the world of modern guitar. Having received huge attention with his first self-titled album from Shrapnel Records in 1988 and setting new standards for instrumental guitar with “Introspection” in the early 90s, he has continued to release astounding solo guitar records, featuring his unique rock-fusion tone, incredible technique and intricate rhythms. At the same time, he has recorded and toured with numerous artists in the rock, fusion and pop world, including Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Richie Kotzen, Dennis Chambers and Victor Wooten. We caught up with him a few weeks after his amazing masterclass at the Guitar Institute in London.




It was really good to see you in London Greg, your masterclass at the ICMP was fantastic. Are you currently touring or doing more clinics?

I am not touring right now, but I’m going to be playing in Russia next month with Dennis Chambers and Stuart Hamm. Mostly this month I’m trying to get the guitar tracks for my new album down – it’s taking a bit more time than I expected but it’s going well.


I’d like to go back to when you actually started playing. Who was the first guitarist to inspire you to pick up the guitar?

When I was a kid it was probably Jimmy Page. He was the first guy I first started to feel comfortable mimicking. At that time I was not that serious about the guitar, I was just playing when I came home after school. But I was able to mimic Jimmy’s parts so I started to feel that guitar wasn’t that difficult! Then suddenly I listened to Van Halen which was another level of guitar playing. I was so determined to figure out what he was doing and wanted to be the first kid that could play that stuff. That’s kind of when my playing switched from being a part-time hobby into a serious thing. I started playing a lot more and was practising for 8 hours a day.


Speaking of practising, do you still practise? If so, is there any specific technique that you’re working on at the moment?

I’m always practising, it’s just that I practise different things today. From a technique standpoint, I’m pretty pleased with the way things are. I’m not really shooting for more technique but I am shooting for more mental technique – addressing chord changes, playing lines more cleverly when improvising and generally practising more nuance-based things more so than playing scales and arpeggios. I’m always trying to put licks together that are more musical than just shred runs. It never really ends and there’s always something to shoot for… looking at Tommy Emmanuel for example, that definitely makes me want to practise now!


If you had to pick one favourite guitarist for blues, rock, shred, jazz and fusion who would they be?

The guy that does if for me in blues is Albert Collins. He plays some of the most unorthodox lines and he’s one of those guys to remind me that playing blues licks is not necessarily playing blues. He basically never played traditional blues, instead he kind of redefined blues, and his playing is absolutely infectious for me. For rock it would be Van Halen. For straight up shred, even though the reputations have turned, I still think Yngwie is great at what he does. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone else do that particular thing better than him. In jazz, I love John Scofield and he’s one of my favourite guitar players ever. And if you think that I actually don’t like his tone, I can’t imagine how much more I would like him in that case. He probably crosses over into fusion, but I really like Scott Henderson in this one as well.


Who of all the great musicians you’ve worked with has had the strongest impression/influence on you?

Of the people I’ve worked with, I think honestly Dennis Chambers has had the biggest impact on me. He’s one of my favourite musicians in the world of any instrument. He is just so musical, everything about him is made of music. I can’t really put it into words, but I know I’m most inspired after playing with him or during playing with him.


How do other instruments influence your song writing? Have you ever composed a song on an instrument other than guitar?

Yes, many times. I’m not a great keyboard player but a lot of the times I will just get on the keyboards and play around with chords. Very often that’s where a lot of my songs come from and, as a matter of fact, most of my song writing doesn’t happen on guitar. It’s not good for me because I tend to become restricted by the guitar limitations and think more about shapes and not about what I’m hearing in my head. So when I step away from the guitar, the ideas are a lot easier to come out.


What’s the most memorable gig in your career so far?

Well, honestly, this question has been asked before and I never have a great answer. There’s been so many times that I walked off a gig that was amazing, but probably if I had to choose the most memorable, that would be the very first gig I did with Michael Jackson, just because it was so outrageous. There were certain things that were so crazy – I was so overwhelmed and scared, plus I was wearing a blonde wig and performing dancing moves! I’m not saying it was the best, but definitely the most memorable.

What equipment do you use for recording and live gigs?

My Cornford is a great amp – I also have a Marshall JCM 2000 Dual Super Lead and a modified Fender Dual Showman from the late 80s/early 90s, when Fender reissued them. It’s not like the original Dual Showman from the 70s, but it’s a great amp and I got it modified by a friend of mine, who basically gave it almost like a Marshall gain stage. Most of the albums that I did around the 90s like Parallax, Five and the stuff I did with Richie Kotzen were recorded with this amp. Also, I’ve been using the Axe-Fx lately. I’ve had it for two years and once I plugged into this, I started to recognise that it is another level of amp modelling, a higher level of technology than almost everything I’ve had before. I’ve had tons of Line 6 stuff and never really liked it that much, but Axe-Fx is the real thing, it feels more like an amp plus it sounds amazing. It comes with its own foot controller, so I can use it straight into a power amp on a gig. A nice thing about it is that I can run the unit in a post and pre format. For example, I could take the Marshall (or the Conford) and plug the Axe-Fx into the front of it, making sure that the only things going in are the ones I would normally have there, like an overdrive pedal, flanger or chorus. Then I can take two other cables and go into the effects loop, where I can send all my delays, reverb or other effects I usually place in the loop.


So far you’ve produced all your albums except the first one. How has this procedure changed throughout the years with the new technology available?

When I did my first album, they were using a 2 inch tape machine and then mixing the half inch. I was very young then, didn’t have a lot of experience in the studio and it was the record company that owned the album recordings. Mike Varney wanted to make sure the arrangements were good and the guitar playing was meeting certain standards. The first 3 or 4 albums I did were like that, but then I eventually started to build my own home studio. By the mid 90s I had an ADAT studio, and the first album I recorded there was Introspection. It was scary because I was just learning about it and didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I was also a little nervous because I had grown very accustomed of having Mike Varney sit there and tell me what sounds good or bad. It was weird in the beginning, but then something happened in my brain almost overnight – somehow I was able to disconnect myself from myself and imagine being a listener, which made be objective about my playing.


I believe you’re one of the first highly respected players to launch skype lessons. How easy is the interaction between teacher and student online and what are the most common topics you’re asked to teach?

Unless there are problems with the connection, it works almost exactly like a real lesson and feels really comfortable. I honestly love teaching on skype and it’s good for me because it keeps me on top of my game. I can easily get caught up in youtube, facebook, online gaming (laughs) and the next thing I know is that it’s 8 o’clock and I haven’t touched the guitar… so it’s really good for me to have this situation where I have to pick up my guitar and be ready. Some of the students are actually very very good players, and it’s great because people seem really appreciative of the fact that they can get a one-to-one answer to their question and be located halfway across the world. The advanced students will usually ask me about improvisation and how I’m thinking about it when I play. Other guys will want to improve on their left hand technique, others will want to learn some harmony and theory… it’s a mixed bag really. Some people want all of it, so I even have students that have been with me for 2 years now.


You’ve said many times that you’ve never been properly trained yourself. Do you believe that sometimes musical training can restrict creativity?

I honestly do! And I’ll be honest with you, even though this is probably the most non-scholastic statement you’ll hear… I actually have a lot of students that have already gone to the MI or Berklee and they got all this information in their heads. They have so much information sometimes that they don’t know what to do with it or how to make anything happen. I’ll always say to them: Listen to your favourite guitar players – Pat Metheny, Yngwie Malmsteen or B.B. King, whoever they are – and you’ll notice that they don’t have a lot of stuff that they do. They have a few things that they do but they’ve mastered. Any guitar player is going to always sound much much better if he masters seven or eight concepts, than he will if he has fifty things sort of half-there. And that’s because the world of music is endless, I mean any door you open there’s six doors behind it. You can never learn everything, but at some point you have to stop and ask yourself: “What can I grab from this array of endless stuff that’s going to suit to deliver my vision of music?” A lot of times when I have people stuck I will say this to them, and they’ll immediately go “yeah… that seems true”. You don’t have to have an inversion for every arpeggio or play every scale that is known, you just have to figure out what you want to do with your music, then find what’s out there for you to learn in order for you to best deliver it. So yes, I do think that sometimes players can be over schooled.


What’s the best way in your opinion for guitar players to promote themselves and manage to stand out nowadays?

When I was coming out, the advantage that I had was that I was part of this small group of people like Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore, Tony Macalpine and Richie Kotzen. This group of us were at that time doing things that were pretty fresh on guitar, or at least not common to hear on guitar. So, in a sense, we had a gimmick and the gimmick was that we were doing things that people hadn’t heard. Today a lot of people do that stuff so, at some point, someone has to be able to bring something special. It has to be special; it has to be more than just running your fingers up and down the fretboard and it has to be meaningful. It can be a gimmick or it can be a great song. You don’t have to put a bucket over your head, although you can see that Buckethead has a great career just from having come up with a crazy thing to do. I’m not saying that people necessarily have to go to that extreme, but he makes a good point. Also, if you see somebody like Steve Vai, you understand he’s not just a guitar player but a whole presentation – the wind blown hair, the crazy-looking guitar, everything. You know, people have to remember that this is the entertainment business and realistically, you have to bring something more than just the music, which could be for example in your playing. Van Halen was special because he was doing things that sounded like nobody else and was playing music that sounded innovative. People have to realise that if they are going to stand out, being really good is only a small part of it. You have to be special and you have to be conveying something that people can relate to and that’s going to affect people. It can be more superficial like Buckethead or organic like Van Halen or Hendrix, but somehow it has to be unique. My advice is to take advantage of the internet as well. I mean you see people like Guthrie Govan, who’s a great guitar player and even with only one album out there’s so many people who know him. If it weren’t for the internet, I think people still wouldn’t know him. The internet has even been great for a lot of other artists in the pop world. It gives people a lot more ability to take control of their own career and not be at the mercy of a record company making decisions about them.


What do you think is the future of instrumental guitar? Taken that there are so many good players releasing instrumental records, opportunities for solo guitar gigs are restricted and mainly available to big names.

The question you’re asking could have been asked twenty years ago about B.B. King for example. Why is B.B. King playing big shows when you can see so many great blues players in a local bar that aren’t big? The difference is that there’s something more than just the playing. There is a whole B.B. King persona, with the music, the look, the history, the playing, the tone. There’s a whole thing that you can’t get anywhere else except there and that’s the trick, that’s the real secret: “What you can you do that someone can’t get across the street?” I listen to new guitarists and I think, he’s a great player, this guy sounds great, well constructed songs, good technique… but if I can hear 4 other guys that sound just like that, there’s nothing special. Something more than just that has to be delivered and this has to be a real goal for every artist. What can you do that when people walk out of your show they remember that they will never see that anywhere else? It doesn’t have to be because it was better, just has to be something that can’t be acquired by anyone else. Sometimes I see guys play my songs better than I can play them, but I also know that I have a sound where if I play a couple of notes you almost immediately know that it’s me playing. So I think that’s the thing – there has to be something that people can find in themselves that makes them special. Everybody has it, but they have to find it, then exploit that as much as possible and make sure that’s where they centre their artistry around. That’s the real secret behind emerging as an artist and that’s the difference between being a good musician and being an artist. An artist makes something that you can’t get anywhere else, whereas a good musician can do a lot of things, but that doesn’t make them special.

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