GREG HOWE DECIDED TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT playing guitar after seeing Edward Van Halen while in his early teens. He practiced like a fiend, and in 1988 inked a deal with Shrapnel Records, which led to a string of releases that distinguished him as one of the most original players in a crowded field of shredders. In addition to his successful solo work, Howe landed a gig filling in for Jennifer Batten with Michael Jackson’s touring band—which included playing EVH’s “Beat It” solo every night—followed by stints supporting Enrique Iglesias, *NSYNC, and Justin Timberlake.
Howe’s latest recording, Sound Proof [Tone Center], is an incendiary instrumental workout featuring fiery funk-fusion originals and a smoking cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Tell Me Something Good,” interspersed with bits of comedic chatter. He has also launched GHWorkshops.com, where students can learn about harnessing the creative process and get practical gear and performance advice in addition to lessons and theoretical instruction.
How did you choose the musicians that played on Sound Proof?
I recorded my previous album with bassist Victor Wooten and drummer Dennis Chambers, and while it was obviously great working with high-profile guys of that caliber, and it introduced me to a different group fans, it was a novelty record in that the “band” doesn’t exist apart from that album, and you never get to see us live. This time, I wanted to establish a band, and be able to take it on the road without worrying about extreme schedule conflicts. I also wanted the musicians to be truly unknown— young, hungry guys that were great players and were interested in stepping up. There’s a certain energy that comes with younger players that are really hot and anxious.
It sounds like a lot of the tones are pretty much guitar straight into an amp with wah here and there.
That’s basically it. It’s as simple and straight ahead as my sound’s ever been.
What guitars did you use?
For the most part, I used a custom ESP that’s patterned after their Horizon model, with a 24-fret maple neck, two humbuckers—the one in the neck slot is stacked—and a Floyd Rose tremolo. For the twangier, single-coil-sounding stuff I used an ESP Snapper, which is very much like a Strat, with a five-position switch, but it has a humbucker in the bridge. I used more of those out-of-phase kinds of sounds on this album than ever before. I also used a Parkwood PW370M acoustic-electric and a Parkwood Hybrid electric-acoustic.
How about amps?
I used several different amps, but on about 75 percent of the album I played through a Cornford MK50. It’s a 50-watt amp with 5881 output tubes, which is really different for me, as I usually play through 100-watt amps with EL34s. I actually had Paul Cornford install an instant bias switch so I could put EL34s in, just assuming I would like them better, but I wound up not using it.
What were the other amps?
I have a couple of Marshall DSL100 JCM 2000s that I had modified to make them sound smoother, mostly by tweaking the gain stage and EQ to tame the mids and eliminate the harshness that Marshalls have, particularly the newer ones. I also used a VHT Deliverance amp a little bit, and my old red-knob Fender Dual Showman, which is the amp I’ve used on most of my previous albums.
What effects pedal did you use to get the nasty, growling solo sound on “Emergency Exit”?
That was a Dunlop CryBaby wah combined with a Boss OC-2 Octave pedal. I was really surprised at how different that sounded, and it was pretty easy to achieve. The really nasty distortion sound at the beginning of the song is actually a keyboard doubling the guitar part, so it makes it seem like I’ve got a killer guitar tone.
What’s the effect at the beginning of the solo on “Reunion”?
That’s a Boss PH-3 Phase Shifter. It’s got a knob called Stage, with three settings— Fall, Rise, and Step—and Step creates this weird robotic-sounding effect that oscillates between different octaves.
Were the reverbs and delays added while mixing?
Yes. I really hate using stuff in an effects loop, because whatever is happening in line between the gain stage and the output stage significantly affects the tone and the feel and response. I didn’t notice it so much until I went to a dry/wet configuration—with one amp dry and the effects coming through a second amp—and the difference was huge.
What strings and picks do you use?
I’ve been using D’Addario strings, gauged .010 to .046, for the last 20 years. Picks are very much like flavor things for me. I mostly use heavy Dunlop Tortex picks, though sometimes I’ll I pick up a Fender Medium and like the way it feels, and I’ll use it for a while— but I always end up back with the thick ones.
You’re generally classified as a “fusion” guitarist, but you’re not really a jazz player. How do you perceive your relationship to the jazz idiom?
Oh man, I honestly feel like the guy with the Metallica t-shirt at the jazz session, where everyone’s rolling their eyes behind my back while they read the charts in front of them. I love listening to jazz, but I never spent a lot of time doing the whole Real Book thing and learning lots of standards, and that was deliberate. There are certain sensibilities and harmonies that I have always been attracted to, and I think some of that has filtered into my music just as a result of listening.
Is it true that you don’t have any licks?
It is true [laughs]. I really don’t. Well, I probably have some, but when I think about artists like Scott Henderson or John Scofield, who have really cool lines that are intellectually conceived, I don’t have many of those. And they have them memorized and know how to access them, which is incredible to me. My approach to soloing has always been based on seeing shapes—not so much scale shapes, but intervals and arpeggio forms— and just navigating my way through those with a lot of intervallic bouncing around just to see what happens.
What are a few techniques that you feel are characteristic of your style?
A lot of what I do results from accidentally stumbling across ways to play things that I couldn’t play conventionally, particularly the two-handed stuff, with the left hand really leading the way. On my first album, for example, in the chorus to “Kick It All Over,” there’s an arpeggiated sequence where I hammer-on with my left hand, tap with my right hand, pull-off, and then move to another string and do the same thing, which gives you two inversions of the same arpeggio— one played with the left hand, one tapped with the right hand. Most players lead with the tapping hand, which reveals what’s happening, but when you lead with the left hand it is much less clear.
Another technique involves what I call “hammer-ons from nowhere,” which involves hammering-on notes that weren’t previously fretted. [See the “Hammer Time!” Master Class in the August 2007 issue, and the accompanying video at guitarplayertv.com, for an in-depth look at this technique.]
You also do a lot of sliding back and forth between frets with your index finger to produce vibrato.
I saw George Lynch do that in a Dokken video when I was a kid. Years later, when I was in the studio with Mike Varney, recording my first album, he didn’t like the last note on one of my solos because he felt the vibrato wasn’t aggressive enough. So I thought to myself, “Let me try that George Lynch thing,” and Mike loved it. After that it became a big part of my style.
Do you have any tips for practicing?
When I don’t have a lot of practice time, I will take the advice of Billy Sheehan, which is to work on the most difficult things, or the things that I can just barely play, first. Then, during the last 20 minutes, I’ll just play some stuff to have fun, and those things seem way easier at that point.
How do you approach improvisation?
My approach to improvisation is ultimately just to try to affect the listener, which is also my approach to songwriting. And that can take any form. For example, when I go to the Baked Potato and watch these amazing musicians solo, they usually start out playing sparsely, gradually building into something with a lot of motifs, and eventually they climax, probably with a repetitive lick that everyone applauds. That’s an approach that’s very effective, but when you have structure in something that is about improvisation, then there’s a conflict. And that’s why I love guitar players that are off the wall. Because instead of following a formula, they’re thinking, “If I have to come out of the box flying first, or if I don’t play anything, or if I just make a weird noise, I’m just going to move you,” and to me, that should be the bottom line. If I can affect you in a conventional manner, fine. But if the conventional manner doesn’t seem to be doing it, then I’m going to come at it from left field if I have to— whatever it’s going to take.