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This article was originally published in issue #18
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Unlike some of his early contemporaries, Howe was able to channel his talents into making a successful living as session guitarist, putting his solo career on hold whilst working with a wide variety of mainstream pop artists.
Greg Howe’s latest project, the long-awaited ‘Maragold’, is a surprisingly commercial take on hard rock. Tom Quayle meets the shred pioneer, while Tim Slater profiles a guitarist whose CV covers everything from Shrapnel Records to Michael Jackson, Rhianna and Justin Timberlake!
New York City native Greg Howe first exploded onto the international scene in 1988 when he released his eponymous solo album on Mike Varney’s legendary Shrapnel label. As GI has detailed before, Shrapnel was launched in 1980 with the express intention of the label becoming the major hub catering for an emerging generation of high-tech Rock and metal guitarists, but even among the illustrious company he was in at Shrapnel, Howe stood out by virtue of his extraordinary abilities as both a guitarist and composer.
While his early work was strongly rooted in the then popular neo-classical/shred style, (ably demonstrated by the tour de force, Bad Racket - seriously rivaling his label-mate Yngwie Malmsteen for sheer bravado) Howe’s subsequent recordings were markedly more fusion-influenced, which unfortunately alienated some fans of his earlier more metal-focused material.
Howe’s debut album still stands out as one of the most outstanding records of the early Shrapnel era. Yes, it largely functions as a self-serving platform for Howe’s lead work but it nevertheless does carry a certain panache and swagger - a groove, if you like - and also a sense of fun that is lacking from some of its hyper-intense contemporaries.
Unlike some of his early contemporaries, Howe was able to channel his talents into making a successful living as session guitarist, putting his solo career on hold whilst working with a wide variety of mainstream pop artists. The call to work with Michael Jackson is the type of opportunity that only comes once in a lifetime, and Howe’s reputation as a versatile and accomplished player who could quickly process and memorise complex material, led him to audition for the superstar’s 1996 HisStory world tour. Replacing Jennifer Batten as Jackson’s lead guitarist, Howe was occasionally obliged to go onstage wearing an enormous white peroxide wig as a kind of in-joke relating to Batten’s trademark hairstyle!
Howe appears on the posthumous Michael Jackson album remix ‘Immortal’ (2012), which features Howe’s guitar work on imaginative re-workings of Dancing machine and Beat it. Subsequent stints with N’Sync (Justin Timberlake’s former band) and Enrique Iglesias may have helped Howe to gain a better insight into how to operate a more commercially viable setup outside the confines of instrumental Rock fusion and Howe’s current project, the four-piece rock band Maragold, presents his music in distinctly radio friendly form.
Maragold’s debut album was released on Howe’s own GH label in April 2013. The band features Howe alongside longtime collaborators bassist Kevin Vecchione, drummer Gianluca Palmeri and the previously unknown female vocalist Meghan Krauss, whom Vecchione had discovered working on the local LA club circuit.
A vocal album is something of a departure for an avowed instrumentalist like Howe but the 49 year-old guitarist seems surprisingly at home with the role of simply being a guitarist in a Rock band, as opposed to fronting a muscle flexing collective of virtuoso musicians.
“For me (this album) is really refreshing.” Howe explains on the Maragold website. “Our approach is very similar to my approach to music in general in that I always try to convey something. Of course with a guitar I’m not being literal because there are no words being spoken but people can feel what I’m trying to say!”
Instrumental guitarists have tried sharing the limelight equally with other musicians with varied success. Joe Satriani’s collaboration with Sammy Hagar and Co; Chickenfoot demonstrates than the format can work but attempts by noted instrumentalists to integrate with a fully-fledged band more often than not tend to fizzle out once the initial creative pace begins to slow. Howe is adamant that Maragold is a far more democratic band, with his own urge to lead often requiring a more delicate democratic approach in deference to the input from his own equally talented band-mates.
“I haven’t been so excited about a project in a very long time”, Howe insists. “I didn’t just want this to be a ‘project’, where people get together and do an album and it’s just a novelty item. I wanted this to be a band! I wanted something that represented a new phase in my career. I can only do something when the time feels right and right now the time feels right!”
Maragold certainly proves Howe’s instincts are correct: Meghan Krauss is a powerhouse vocalist, whose range and quality breathes life into the band’s stirring muscular pop-rock. Any fears that Howe has decided to forego his trademark shredding in favour of radio-friendly sounds are allayed from the off. His blistering playing - peppered with silky runs and, yes, even that sense of humour - is well and truly to the fore and makes a great counterpoint to Krauss’ earthy vocals. Howe’s solo on the track Saturday Sun is a particular standout; its playful Van Halen-esque pentatonic runs are punctuated by some really cool sounding pitch-shifted octave leaps, climaxing in a swooping whammy pedal riff that sounds more like a synthesiser than a guitar.
Howe’s choice of gear through the years has seen a clear preference for highly evolved guitars that reflect his coming of age during the peak of the shred era. Initially favouring ESP guitars and a Fender HM Strat that featured all the appropriately pointy trimmings, Howe currently plays and endorses Californian brand Laguna guitars, which has honoured the guitarist with his own signature model. The Laguna LE924’s AAA flame maple top and one-piece maple neck reflects the current trend for highly spec'd electric guitars whilst also tipping a nod to Howe’s 80s shred-head roots, courtesy of a Floyd-Rose Licensed locking vibrato and a pair of DiMarzio pickups; an Air Norton S mini-humbucker at the neck and a GH5 humbucker located at the bridge.
His amplification history is as eclectic as Howe's playing, including VHT, Line 6 and, of course, Marshall, as well as the small British maker Cornford. But recently he has broken the mould entirely by joining forces with Italy's Marco De Virgillis (the creator of bass legend MarkBass) to develop a signature model for the company's DV Mark brand. The new signature amp has yet to reach the market, but for now, Howe is using DV Mark's Triple 6 with a DV Mark C412 cab.
Greg Howe's fusion influences and his various sojourns into pop have probably contributed to a relative lack of profile among hardcore guitar nuts, but to underestimate his abilities, either as a guitar or a composer would be a grave mistake. Maragold may well be about to change that lack of profile once and for all!