GT Greg Howe Interview by Martin Goulding

Q1: Hey Greg, congratulations on the excellent new album Sound Proof that has just been released, I know the last album Extraction was a long and frustrating recording process for you, how did you find the writing and recording process went with this album?

A1: Thanks, the album fell together very quickly and with very little effort, and I think it sounds a little more relaxed, a little less urgent. I had probably five tracks written prior to going into the studio and they weren’t entirely put together, and there were songs that i wrote in the studio while we were there recording. So we were really pushing the envelope, we only had four days to track everything, a lot of times the drummer would be recording something while I’d be in the hotel room finishing writing another thing!

Q2: When you write your albums, do you have any favourite methods or certain processes that you use to compose? Do you base the initial ideas on the instrument or start with programming up a rhythm section groove? How do you start and develop your ideas for a new tune?

A2: There really is no method, every song has come about from completely different approaches. Sometimes I have to sit there and really work on it, plot through the changes, figure out how to make it turnaround, analyse whether the opening riff or melody is hooky enough. A lot of the time, its just sitting back away from the instrument and waiting to see what shows up in my mind. I don’t write very much with the guitar, once I’ve heard the idea in my head, then I’ll approach it and try and figure it out.

Q3: Do you ever start by programming up a groove, or do you start with melodic ideas first?

A3: A lot of the time, it’s the groove first, I really think that Joe Satriani understood a long time ago that if you’ve got a foundation that feels good, you can do anything with that as a basis, so I tend to come from that place. Melodically, I really try to take the role of the vocalist position. I know there’s a lot of players that write based around their guitar playing and that’s also interesting, every so often I stumble across a riff or lick that I think sounds pretty cool and make a song out of it, but I tend not to do it so much that way round.

Q4: How did you find the transition as you evolved from your earlier rock style into a more fusion based style. How did you take on board the extra harmonic knowledge needed to develop this aspect of your style and who influenced this area of your playing?

A4: Its hard to say, so much of it comes from the listening, listening to Scott Henderson, Frank Gambale, John Scofield, Wes Montgomery, George Benson, all the great players. Its not really that I’m learning licks, but what I can do is If I hear enough of something, all of a sudden I’ll start hearing my own version of those things. The transition was a natural thing, challenges keep me inspired and I’m always trying to take on new ideas, I really feed on getting into unexplored territory.

Q5: How do you visualise the fretboard and see intervallic relationships change as you improvise through changes?

A5: Well, the fretboard lights up per key, the trick when I first learnt to do that was to get comfortable with the fact that every key exists anywhere on the fretboard, and knowing how to play through chord changes without having to disrupt your ideas. It’s just a matter of knowing all the different shapes. One thing that has helped me a lot is that I probably see arpeggios first more than anything, so that’s what I’m looking for as I play through the changes.

Q6: When you were developing the outside aspects of your improvisational style, did you go to the source and transcribe the old masters or was it a less formal and more intuitive process?

A6: A lot of trying to really absorb the sound through listening and experimenting, when I started to look at outside playing it really involved nothing more than sidestepping up or down a half step out of the key and then resolving back. It’s still one of my favourite methods, even over some of the more legitimate approaches. I think outside playing is less to do with the actual notes themselves and more to do with the actual phrases, the contour and the rhythm.

Q7: You have integrated a fair amount of Hybrid Picking into your style, how did this come about?

A7: I remember around the time I was doing the Tilt album with Ritchie Kotzen, and he was doing a lot of fingerpicking. When I asked him about it, he told me from watching Michael Lee Firkins he was getting into a lot of that, so I started experimenting with that, then I saw players like Brett Garsed who were taking the idea even further. I didn’t really do that many exercises with it, it just started to work its way in to my playing and I became comfortable with it.

Q8: At what age did you start to do serious practice and who were those initial influences? How did you set about building your technical skills?

A8: I was in my mid teens. Van Halen was the first guy that was doing things that I felt were way ahead of anything else I’d heard at the time. I pretty much transcribed every single solo he ever did! Then afterwards Yngwie appeared on the scene and that was a whole new thing so…It was important for me to keep up with every guy! When Yngwie’s first album came out I had to learn Far Beyond the Sun, it took me a while, that stuff really helped me. But I’d listen to Yngwie for three hours and then George Benson for three hours! I was really into everything. Not wanting to master any particular style, I’ve always wanted to just melt them together.

Q9: Did you have a rigid practice routine, working individually on the various technical areas?

A9: I never did, I wish I had but I never really practiced in an organised regiment. I played a lot, sometimes I would say to myself I’ve gotta get this one thing down and I’d sit there and run a lick for an hour, but a lot of it was just based on improvisation. I’m not saying I never did exercises, but I never had like an official routine. I’d pretty much just try to mix everything together, and in the lines themselves mix the different techniques together to create contour and dynamic. Sometimes its cool to stay on one technique and just burn off, that can be fun, but on the whole, I like to mix the different elements of technique together when I’m improvising.

Q10: Over the last decade, you’ve gone from being primarily on the radar of high level guitar players, to the commercial arena of hired gun, working alongside such artists as Michael Jackson, Enrique Iglesias and Justin Timberlake, what has this experience brought to you?

A10: When you’ve been on tours like that, it gives you the opportunity to see high level organisation. You get to see how artists interact, travel the world, see beautiful places. The parts that I play at those gigs are not particularly difficult but they’re still challenging at a different level. I have a lot of respect for pop music because, for me, its much easier to write an instrumental song with no real boundaries, than work within the confines of a pop arrangement which is more challenging due to the limitations, like coming out with a song that is familiar enough for you to think that you’ve heard it before, yet its never been done before. That’s a lot more difficult. It’s a lot to do with having the right tone and knowing the role of the guitar in the song.

Q11: What gear are you using at the moment?

A11: I’m using the Cornford MK50, it’s a great amp, the first I’ve used where I don’t need anything between the guitar and the amp. Guitars, I’m using a lot of different ones, ESP custom and an ESP Snapper strat type guitar with a five-way switch which I used for a lot of the single coil type stuff, and 10-46 strings and a fairly low action.

MG: Greg, on behalf of all the readers, many thanks for taking time out for the interview and good luck with the new album Soundproof.

GH: Thanks a lot.

Check out the Greg Howe Solo Study Here.