Greg Howe Finds His Voice with Maragold

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.

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 sounds again.

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 oriented.

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 a band.

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 family.