Listeners who know Greg Howe from
his hard-rocking Shrapnel releases, his fusionistic
work with Dennis Chambers and Victor Wooten,
or any number of other instrumental albums might
be surprised to hear his latest band, Maragold. It’s
a vocal-driven band with pop-rock melodies (belted
out by star-in-the-making Meghan Krauss), lush
harmonies, and tight, radio-friendly arrangements.
Of course the tunes are packed with Howe’s funky,
intricate rhythm playing and dazzling solos, although
those guitar parts never detract from the vocal. It all
makes sense when you consider that Howe has spent
a good chunk of his career backing up great singers
during his stints with Justin Timberlake, Enrique
Iglesias, Christina Aguilera, and Michael
Jackson. At press time, Howe was in the
process of having the other Maragold members—
Krauss, bassist Kevin Vecchione, and
drummer Gianluca Palmieri—move from
all over the country to his base of operations
in Las Vegas, to further solidify what
is clearly already a cohesive unit.
“Some people hear Maragold and think,
‘Wow, Greg Howe has a vocal band. How
unique,’” he says. “In reality, what was
really unique was ever getting into playing
music that didn’t have vocals.”
Talk about your songwriting process. Do
you hear the melodies and harmonies as
you’re coming up with your chord progressions?
It happens multiple ways. Sometimes
stumbling upon an accidental riff will trigger
the whole chain of events that leads into a
song—the melody line and the chord changes
and everything will literally show up in my
mind. Sometimes it’s a chord progression
and I don’t necessarily have a melody line
in mind, and then I have to find it. I will
say that the majority of things I write that
I end up feeling good about are the ones
that happen when I don’t have an instrument
in my hands. It’s usually when I’m
just walking around or driving or doing
something that has nothing to do with my
instrument. If I have a guitar in my hands, I
tend to think within the parameters of the
guitar’s limitations, so I’m often confined
a little bit by it. If I don’t have the guitar
with me, I’m much more open to ideas. I’ve
written both vocal and instrumental music
where I’ll hear something in my head and
then I have to go learn it on guitar.
Are these single-note lines or will you hear chord progressions
that way too?
I do hear chord progressions, but honestly, the first thing that
comes to mind is rhythm—the groove and the feel of the tune. It’s
very easy for me to become inspired to write a whole song just by
listening to, imagining, or sequencing drum grooves. The drums are
the foundation, much more so than music. The second thing would
probably be attaching something hooky to that rhythm. When I say
hooky, I’m not necessarily talking about harmony, either. It could
be a sound, or anything that has an attractive auditory quality to it.
Then the third thing that happens is the melody, and that’s probably
the most challenging part because I don’t want it to just be a
melody. I have a lot of admiration for pop music and I’ve always
been inspired by it because I think it’s amazing that people can use
the same notes over and over again and write new things. In a lot of
ways, when you write instrumental music, it’s a lot easier because
there are no boundaries.” You can go wherever you want with your
creativity, and nobody’s going to hold you back. But when you’re
trying to appeal to a broader audience there’s a balance that has to
be met. It’s got to sound unique and fresh but at the same time there
has to be an element of familiarity. It can’t be too strange, or else
people don’t get it. And it can’t be too inside the box, or then it’s
generic. So it’s finding that balance.
How did the intro to “Lullaby” come
about? It sounds like two tracks, one playing
low-string power chords, and then the
higher part playing a moving line.
That’s exactly right. I’m following the
bass line with one of the guitars and the
top part is the very last thing that happened.
That moving part turned out to be the
big hook of the tune.
That’s often the case with me. It’s like
the afterthought becomes the whole premise.
So that was definitely the case with
that. Once I found that, I knew that that
was it. It’s strange, but when it’s right, you
just know it.
You said it was a Stratocaster for that
tone. What was the rest of that signal chain?
I used a bunch of different amps on this
record, and I also used the Fractal Audio
Axe-FX quite a bit, so I would by lying if I
said I remember what I used on every song.
I was experimenting with a lot of different
things. I’m guessing that the clean stuff
was probably either the Strat or my Laguna,
which is set up like a Strat with three single-
coils—DiMarzio Area series pickups—
and they sound incredible. I have a feeling
I used that for the clean stuff, and I think I
also used the Axe-FX direct for that.
What other gear did you use?
For the power chord stuff I used my
Cornford MK 50 quite a bit. That particular
signal chain—you’re going to laugh—is
a guitar, a cable, and the amp with a 57 on
it. There are no pedals, no nothing. The amp
just comes out sounding that way. It’s one
of the few amps I’ve ever used that really
seems to have the whole package delivered.
I also have a few Marshalls, and I used my
modified JCM 2000 on some things. I occasionally
plugged into my old Fender Dual
Showman that I used on most of my albums
in the ’90s. The signal chain was different
on everything, and a lot of it I don’t remember,
which makes it a little difficult for live,
having to go back and find some of these
How will you replicate these tones live?
We did some shows over in Russia earlier
this year and I only brought the Axe-FX for
everything, which was really scary. Without
a tube amp, I feel like I’m naked. But that
unit is pretty powerful and I was able to do
some really cool stuff and got very close to
matching everything. When we go out for
real, I’m likely going to play the amp that I
just got done designing with DV Mark. It’s
incredible: a very organic, classic British
sound. It’s basic—two channels, 40-watts,
EL34s, and no bells and whistles. It was patterned
after some of my favorite amps, and
we did a lot of back engineering and testing,
tweaking the EQ, tweaking the gain stage,
and getting things perfect. We’re going to
call it the Maragold.
You play an amazing solo in “Oracle.” You end it on a fast run that has this huge
interval skip that comes in really quick, with
a high note that comes out of the stratosphere.
Did you tap that note?
That high note is tapped. It’s not a difficult
lick, and that’s why I love the whole
“shred” role, because some of the easiest
things to do on guitar are the crazy sounding
licks, and that was not an exception. It was
based on a sort of partial arpeggio. So much
of what I do on the guitar is a combination
of small arpeggios and scales. So typically if I
played like a D major triad on the 12th, 11th,
and 10th frets on the D, G and B strings, I
might then play single notes on the 10th,
12th, 14th frets on the high E string. So in
other words, it’s a combination arpeggio/
scale thing, and that tends to be the way I
navigate the fretboard almost all the time.
For the run you’re talking about, I ascended
through one of those patterns and then tapped
on the high-E string.
Your acoustic work in “Story’s Ending”
is complicated, but it doesn’t sound complicated.
It’s still hummable. You’ve
always been able to strike a cool balance
between things that are complex and
interesting, but don’t sound like some
kind of exercise.
I really appreciate that. I’ve always admired
people like Stevie Wonder, who will play these
really bizarre chord changes, but it’s all held
together by something simplistic, usually the
melody line in his vocals. I’ve always thought
that was cool. In my subconscious I think
I’m trying to appease my guitar fans as well
as people who aren’t necessarily guitarists.
Van Halen was a master at that, doing these
really cool parts that would impress guitar
players but at the same time, didn’t distract
from the hookiness of the song. That’s always
somewhat of a goal.
Is “Story’s Ending” the only song with
acoustic guitar on it on this record?
I believe so, which is odd because Meghan
has such a beautiful voice and we talk all the
time about doing acoustic songs and acoustic
blues. It just didn’t happen. We’ve got
tons of other material that we’re going to
be releasing soon that will have a lot more
acoustic guitar, but it just kind of worked out
that the stuff we selected was more electric-guitar
You layer clean electric tones in the same
ways a lot of people might use an acoustic
guitar. To my ears, it seems like you’ve
always gone for sort of those funkier, in-between,
two-pickup tones, even back in the
day when almost every rock tone was just a
hot humbucker into a Marshall. What do you
like about those two-pickup, Strat-y tones?
I gravitate towards anything that contrasts
with my lead guitar tone. It’s like
when you have several guitarists on stage.
There’s so much sonic masking tape and you
end up getting into this battle where everybody
keeps turning their amp up because
they can’t hear themselves. Well that’s not
usually because they’re not loud enough,
it’s because they’re in the same frequency
range as the guy playing rhythm. Nobody
can hear anything because the frequencies
are masking or covering each other up. And
on a recording it’s no different. I tend to
like to solo over things that aren’t going to
be getting in the way. I also just love those
tones. I love the second and fourth position
on any Strat. I love that stank, that
sort of instant compression type of feel.
It’s always appealing.
You’ve had a lot of big sideman gigs
over the years. You said you got the call for
the Michael Jackson gig on a Monday and
you had to be onstage in Amsterdam that
Wednesday. That seems impossible. Had
you at least been woodshedding the tunes
prior to that?
I had gone through the stuff a little bit.
Jennifer Batten was really helpful in getting
me not only all the material, but getting it
from the perspective of the microphone on
her cabinet. She recorded herself at rehearsal,
so I could hear the band, but I could hear
her guitar parts loud and clear. So I did a
little bit of work on the tunes, but no one
could tell me if or when I was going to get
the call. Months went by and I really wasn’t
listening to his stuff at all. So, when they
finally did call me, it was completely out of
the blue and a little scary. They called me
Monday night and I had to be on a plane at
6:00 in the morning Tuesday. The airport
was about two hours from where I used to
live, and I had to be there two hours before
my flight. So I really had to be at the airport
by 4:00 AM, which meant I had to leave my
house at 2:00. So I only had about six hours
to pack and learn the songs from the time I
got the call. There was also a lot of switching
of patches on my DigiTech unit, and choreography
I had to learn by Wednesday morning.
I had this gigantic, poster-sized cheat
sheet that surrounded my pedalboard. It had
notes that said, “Song 1: preset 14 verse,
chorus preset 57, end of second verse, step
out, spin around, wait for Michael, wait for
dancers to pass by, guitar solo, preset 71.” It
was very stressful, but it went okay.
We get a lot of projects at GP, but this
doesn’t feel like a project. This feels like
When we’re together, there really is a
chemistry, a magical thing. It feels right to
me, now more than ever. In a way, having
gone through all this complicated instrumental
music and pushing the envelope
of my own musical limits, this feels like
I’m well within my comfort zone, and it’s
a lot easier to focus on the chemistry and
the delivery. I don’t want it to be a project.
That’s part of why everybody is relocating
to Las Vegas where I live, so that we can
hang out, rehearse together, eat together,
get in arguments together, and become a