By Waldo L. Jaquith
Election night, November, 2000.
Greg Howard and I are sitting in Mudhouse, a popular
café on Charlottesville, Virginia's Downtown Mall.
It is unusually slow, even for a Tuesday evening in
November. Presumably, people are at home, watching the
presidential election results come in. About a dozen of us,
mostly complete strangers, are comfortably spread out in the
quiet restaurant. Periodically, as some bit of news is
announced by a newcomer, we find ourselves engaged in
conversation with our fellow election-watchers.
Inevitably, Greg and I discuss the presidential race, and
politics in general. I'm sporting an "I Voted!"
sticker on the breast of my leather jacket, and I notice
that Greg is not similarly adorned. I ask him about it.
"I'm fundamentally opposed to the whole system."
Whoa. I'm not going there.
. . .
You may have heard of Greg Howard. You may have even heard
of the instrument that he plays, the Chapman Stick. Perhaps
you've heard snippets of his music, often played between
segments on NPR's "All Things Considered." But
you probably know probably very little about him. Didn't he
once sit in with Dave Matthews Band after Stefan hurt his
hand? In fact, didn't he tour with the band for a while?
Is he the same guy Leroi is saying "hey" to at the
end of "The Last Stop" on "Before These
How about this: Greg Howard is one of the keystones to Dave
Matthews Band's existence. I'll bet you didn't know that.
. . .
"My father was a musician, by avocation. Early in his
life, he was a trumpet player. He played in big bands in
North Carolina, mainly while he was a university student.
He was a pretty good trumpet player. My first specific
musical memories are of him playing along to big-band
records. Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Bunny Berigan, stuff
like that. Both of my parents always encourged me to get
into making music."
Greg's first instrument was the Magnus Chord Organ, which is
essentially an electric harmonium. (Years later, he found
out that this was also DMB saxophonist Leroi Moore had one
of these when he was young, too.) His father's inspiration
and his own interest kept him busy with music through
school. He played clarinet in fourth grade, he performed in
the school band. At thirteen, Greg wrote his first
composition - it was performed by his Junior high school
"It was hideously bad," Greg says, smiling.
Greg, in his inexperience, forgot to transpose each
instrument's part to the right key, so no two of them were
playing along. Also, he later realized, he wrote all of the
Perhaps not coincidentally, Greg discovered improvisation
the following year. Having seen Oscar Peterson
perform, he turned to the piano in the school band room.
Soon, he was performing original songs in rock bands,
singing, and making tapes of his bands' jams.
In the early 80s, by way of King Crimson's Tony Levin, Greg
encountered a brand-new instrument: the Chapman Stick. The
Stick was invented in 1969 by California's Emmett Chapman.
An aptly-named instrument, it's pretty much a stick, with
ten strings running the length of it. The strings are
tapped, not plucked, and it is played with both hands.
Imagine playing electric guitar by simply chording, but not
strumming, with the volume turned way up. Now imagine that
you can play bass, rhythm and melody, all at the same time:
that's the Chapman Stick.
Greg got into the Stick when his band, "Continental
Drift," broke up. He decided to give up the keyboard.
He preferred the piano, but that wasn't practical for gigs.
He'd played saxophone, and had grown to love its
expressiveness. After reading about the Stick, he realized
that he could have the best of both the sax and the
keyboard. In 1985, at age 20, Greg acquired his first
credit card (putting him in debt for the next half-decade)
in order to buy his first Stick. He immediately cut back on
sax and keyboards and focused in on his new instrument. To
accommodate his new passion, he chose the non-time-intensive
English as his major at Charlottesville's University of Virginia.
Greg immediately started writing music for the Stick,
finding that it "took him out of the box that [he'd]
been in," and made him "think about music in a
In short, it was love.
. . .
"Looks like Gore's gonna take Florida."
Smiles all around the room.
C'ville Music >>
1, 2, 3, 4