Greg Howe – The Quintessential Fusion Guitarist
The era of modern fusion guitar lasts for decades and Greg Howe is definitely one of the most important figures of the genre. Known for his amazing ability to combine excellent technique with an unparalleled sense of groove, Howe is definitely one of the most distinctive guitar players in history. The playing style and impressive writing skills made him a quintessential jazz fusion guitarist, a role model for many fusion players around the world.
Solo Work, Collaborations, Studio Sessions and Tours
Howe started playing at the age of 10. Just a couple of years later, he was a skilled player, who started to play gigs right after high school. Along with his brother Albert, who’s a singer, he played in a couple of local bands, in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
After a couple of unsuccessful band projects, he decided to send a demo tape to Mike Varney, a legendary producer, founder of Shrapnel Records. Just a couple of demos were enough to him to hire Howe. Interestingly, Howe didn’t have experience in composing at the time. Even the demo tapes were just simple jams, so the whole process of making music for a debut album took a little bit more time than usual.
However, Howe showed excellent composing skills. Combined with his spectacular technique, the debut album called “Howe” made pretty good commercial success. Interestingly, Howe was still far away from fusion at the time. This is rather a typical shred album, in the manner of other famous names from Shrapnel Records, such as Vinnie Moore, Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker etc.
The second album with Shrapnel was completely different. Howe insisted on the inclusion of his brother Albert and other members of Howe II band, so this was rather a typical vocal album. The second album went out a year later, in 1990, and that was the time it became clear that the band won’t make commercial success, despite two national tours. It was time for something new.
After a couple of years of break, Howe started with something completely new. In 1993, he released an album called “Introspection”, which was definitely a turning point of his career. For the first time, we can hear notable jazz influence in his playing. Complex harmonies, more fluid phrasing and a lot of funk flavor are some of the most notable things you can hear on this record. At the time, this was something completely new in the guitar world. Of course, there are many guitar players who combined different genres before, but this was a completely new dimension, something that will eventually become a modern jazz fusion.
Howe’s new approach was instantly recognized, so he continued to develop his new style. The following albums “Uncertain Terms”, “Parallax” and “Five” have brought a whole new spectrum of ideas, including more and more complex harmonies, odd rhythms and time signatures, and a lot of “outside” notes, which eventually became Howe’s trademark.
This period is also famous for collaboration with Richie Kotzen, another famous guitarist recruited by Shrapnel. Two albums have been released, “Tilt” and “Project”, both in an instrumental rock/jazz fusion manner. Both albums made nice commercial success.
Few years of break and there was a new album called “Ascend”. However, this was something completely different. It was a typical shred album with lots of neoclassical elements. It didn’t get a great reception and even Howe said once that this is his least favorable album.
Fortunately, Greg never had the intention to carry on with this new approach. Just a year later, a new album called “Hyperacuity” came out. This was a genuine jazz fusion album, with some of Howe’s best works so far.
The next stop was a collaboration with two big fusion names, Dennis Chambers and Victor Wooten. After two years of recording, “Extraction” finally came out in 2003. Despite the amazing work of three musicians, critics were mixed.
In 2008, “Soundproof” came out. Without any doubt, this is one of Howe’s finest albums so far. Typically for Howe, there is a lot of amazing guitar work and groove here, but the thing that impresses most about this album is a variety of different writing approaches.
After more than a decade of waiting, the latest album came out in 2017. “Wheelhouse” definitely brings novelties in Howe’s playing, but the recognizable flavor is still there. Once again, a jazz fusion masterpiece.
Greg Howe is also well-known for his work as a session and tour guitarist. In this aspect, he is most famous for his work with Michael Jackson. In 1996, he came as a replacement for Jennifer Batten on the Asian and European parts of the famous HIStoty World Tour. A couple of years later, he was on tour with Enrique Iglesias. Eventually, he worked with many other big names in popular music, including Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera and others.
In 2012, a band called Maragold was formed. Besides Howe, it included Gianluca Palmieri, Kevin Vecchione and Meghan Krauss. The bend was active between 2012 and 2016. In 2017, he joined a band called Protocol, featuring Simon Phillips, Ernest Tibbs, and Otmaro Ruiz.
Without any doubt, Howe is one of the greatest guitar virtuosos of our time. He is a geniune fusion player, with a huge arsenal of playing approaches and techniques.
As I’ve already mentioned, one of his trademarks is the usage of so-called “outside” notes. The thing is that Howe likes to combine a variety of scales and arpeggios, which are typical for jazz music. All kinds of modes are included. Of course, melodic minor dominates, but you can hear a lot of chromatism in his playing, as well as diminished, altered and the whole tone scale.
Besides a whole spectrum of different voices, the thing that separates Howe from the crowd is an extraordinary sense of rhythm. Unlike traditional jazz guitar players that usually lack in rhythmics, Howe brings tons of funky groove into his melodies.
The technical aspect of Howe’s playing is also hugely important. At his young age, Howe was influenced by Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen and other shred guitarists, so it’s no wonder his technical skills are at an impressive level. Fast runs are an essential part of his playing, and he is mostly relying on techniques like two-hand tapping, legato, hammer-ons and similar “fluidic” techniques, rather than on alternate picking, for example.
Howe is a multi-instrumentalist. On many of his recordings, he also played drums, bass, keyboards etc.
Through his career, Howe has been using various types of guitars, amps and pedals. These days, most of the gear consists of his signature models.
When it comes to guitars, he prefers superstrats, with humbuckers and Floyd Rose. Currently, he is endorsed by Kiesel Guitars. He has two signature models, GH24 and GH3. Both guitars feature typical strat shape, but 24 frets and HSS pickup configuration.GH3 is also available in SSS pickup configuration. Also, he occasionally uses his old Carvin model.
When it comes to amplifying, Howe has his signature DV Mark 250W head. Interestingly, it is a solid-state amp, with a pretty compact housing and a built-in reverb. Also, there is a signature 212 cabinet.
Although Howe’s setup isn’t very complicated, there is still a fine amount of effects he uses. The most important is his signature “Lick Box” from Carl Martin. This is practically a 3-in-1 pedal, with boost, crunch and hi-gain effects. Of course, there are several more effects on his pedalboard, such as reverb, delay, compressor, chorus etc. He prefers brands like T-Rex, Boss, Pigtronix, Carl Martin etc.
Other things we should mention are strings and picks. When it comes to strings, he prefers D’Addario 10-46 gauges. Like most guitarists, he uses various picks, although there is a signature Dunlop Gator Grip model.