By Dave Anderson
As we enter into the new year and reflect on what was 2020, it’s almost impossible to say that Covid-19 and being locked down hasn’t disrupted our everyday lives in some way. For musicians, it has been life-changing and still is. Pretty much all touring acts were halted and then canceled for the year. Working musicians left without a stage to play or an audience to play for, and everyone in between, from engineers to club owners, left scrambling to keep some sort of semblance of work flowing.
For Journey guitarist Neal Schon, he seized his downtime as an opportunity. An opportunity to make some business changes, some of which have resulted in a new lineup for Schon’s legendary band. A chance in a more fundamental fashion, as well. Being stuck at home allowed Schon to get reacquainted with his vast guitar collection and revise his gear. Writing new tunes, giving his fans some time via social media, and preparing for what we all hope is a year that allows Neal Schon and Journey to hit the stage and do what they do best.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Neal and talk about some of the gear he’s acquired and work on new tunes with the band during Covid-19. We also dig deep into his history and discuss how he started playing guitar, his days with Carlos Santana, touring with Van Halen, and more.
Guitar Connoisseur: How have you been? How are you dealing with Covid?
Neal Schon: I’m alive, healthy, playing guitar, making records. And that’s all you can hope for, Right? We’ve been through so much in the last few years. And so everybody’s kind of in the same boat. So I’m no different.
I’m just happy to be healthy and alive.
GC: I’ve been following you on Instagram. I’m digging the daily playing sessions.
NS: It’s so funny it just became a hobby. Like collecting guitars I’ve never collected before, I decided I was going to invest and collect some older guitars that I’ve never really owned, and it got a bit out of hand. Like seven mil later. Now I’ve gone through a lot of them. And I have a few favorites, but I’m going to whittle it down to a good 15 maybe out of, I don’t know, I bought like maybe 350 in the last year.
NS: Yeah, and at one point, they were all crammed in our house, believe it or not. I don’t know if you know, Gary Brawer?, He’s a guitar whiz in San Francisco that works on everybody’s guitars. But he used to have this little shop in the city. And I mean, it was like a tiny closet. And he had guitars stacked to the ceiling, so our house kind of started reminding me of that, like crawling over everything. And it’s a pretty big house. I was like, ok, stop, put on the brakes. But, you know, with the pandemic, there was nothing else to do, we’re used to traveling and touring, and everything else that we do, you know, recording and just busy. Before the pandemic, we had already taken a year off. And so two years, in one place, was something I was not used to, and I decided to get reacquainted with some older guitars that I maybe tried out before but never really invested in or learned everything about them. And I started working on them in the house here, learning how to do the work myself because Gary was not around. And it was kind of hard to get out because of the pandemic. I stayed put; I didn’t want to get sick. There’s too much good stuff coming out. So I want to be ready for that.
GC: Did you find some of those guitars to be inspiring, pulling out some new stuff from you?
NS: Absolutely. I’ve got Broadcaster. I’ve got like, five Blackguards from the Broadcaster up to 53, you know, and so…
GC: You’re speaking my language, sir.
N.S: Yeah, I dove into those; a couple were Teles, they had a lot of top-end compared to an Esquire or Broadcaster, which were wired completely different. It took me a second to figure that stuff out. But, yeah, amazing guitars, they all kind of bring out a little different—something in your playing. You know, because they sound different. They react differently to you. Besides not playing through an amp, I got used to playing through a Kemper at the house here, which is very close to an amp because I had used one in the studio before; I’ve actually sampled my amplifiers and put them in there. Some other units, like the Fractal that I’ve used for years, are also very great; I ended up transferring some of the samples that I had made in the Kemper to the Fractal. Because I knew the Fractal was roadworthy. And I’d never really used the Kemper on tour. The only test I could do at home was to leave it on 24-7 for months at a time and wait to see how long it takes before it crashes; the Fractal will never crash. Again, for the older Kempers, they crashed quite a lot. But, I’ve gotten a couple of newer floor controller Kempers, and I haven’t had any problems at all. And they’re both great units; both serve their purposes. On Instagram, people are always yelling; they don’t realize that I’m sitting in a little tiny bedroom at home, I don’t have a studio, a real studio, and nothing is going directly into the board. I’m just playing through a Kemper into two little KRK mixing speakers. I have a stereo looper with a chord keyboard going into that, and I make my loops with that. I go through a little mixer with the Kemper, and I get a mix going on; it’s straightforward. I just put my cell phone there and record through the condenser mic, which is old school like a cassette used to be, you know, I’ve never taken the time to learn Pro Tools. And now I wish I did because there was a lot of good stuff that I did this year. And you know, I can recreate it and recreate it better, but some of the stuff was worth keeping, in Pro Tools, you can do that. But, they’re just ideas and improv.
GC: Well, that stuff doesn’t go away. It’s cool to revisit it down the road and see what you had.
NS: In the olden days, I used to write stuff for the band and just put it on cassette and bring it to Jonathan; I would bring him a box of cassettes, and It had riffs all over the place. And it’s kind of cool to revisit it way later down the road. And you see what cream floats to the top. And so you kind of figure out what is cool, what is just kind of like, “Well, that was fun for a second, but that’s not going to be a song.” But, I felt like it was a way to keep entertaining the fans and my friends, who were following me, people going through hard times in this pandemic. Many people started writing in, “This has been the highlight of my day every day. So please keep doing it.” You know, it was like medicine. So I just got in the habit of doing it and not being afraid of, if you make a mistake, big deal. It’s just; it’s what I do at home. And that’s how I practice. I don’t practice scales because I don’t know scales. And I just kind of, you know, I can play freeform just guitar too, but I find it a little boring, you know? So I like playing with backing tracks so I can have a blow, that’s it.
GC: Cool. Can we turn the clock back and dive into your history? I’ve read a little bit about you and seen some podcasts and interviews with you. How did you get started in guitar? I know your dad was a big band leader, and your mom was a singer.
NS: Yeah, that’s right. They were based in the Airforce in Oklahoma in Tinker Air Force Base. And my dad was a bandleader. My mom was a singer. They obviously got to quit. And I was born in the Air Force back there. Then shortly after that, we moved to New Jersey. I grew up there till I was about five. And then we moved out to the west coast and moved down south to Hollister, California, where they have Hollister Gilroy. They have all the garlic peels and festivals and all that stuff. My grandmother (from my mother’s side) lived down there. And I had a lot of cousins from the Italian side of my family. While my folks were getting situated in the city, I lived with my grandmother down there and hung out with my cousins. My older cousin, Steve, played guitar. And I used to go rollerskating with my cousins. On a Thursday or Friday night, I can’t remember a little tiny town in San Juan Bautista. They have a lot of rodeos. And my cousin was playing in a cover band, Paul Revere and the Raiders cover band. And so I was like, guitars are kind of cool. And so I asked him to show me a couple of songs. And he showed me, Louie, Louie, and Gloria, and then I was off and running.
GC: How did you end up starting to play with your dad and his band?
NS: Well, I kind of dove in really seriously when I was 10. And I got just so involved in it. I mean, the friggin guitar was attached to my hip no matter where I was. And I was dissecting records with an old turntable; I would sleep with the record player on whatever record I was listening to and pull the arm up. So it would just repeat while I was asleep. And it was wild because I would wake up in the morning, and I would know a lot of it, even if my fingers didn’t know exactly where to go. I was starting to memorize it in my mind. And as soon as I figured out the fingering, I was set. One of the records that really opened me up to improv was “Wheels Of Fire”; the cream stuff and Hendrix. And then all the earlier blues stuff I had listened to before that, a lot of B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Junior, Wells, and Muddy Waters. I was really attached to the blues; I then started taking lessons from a jazz guitarist in Burlingame that my father introduced me to; his name was Art Bergman, an excellent, older jazz guitarist who was well-educated, just knew jazz backward and forwards. He taught me to sight-read staff notes and different chordings. And I started learning about theory.
I used to warm up in a room down from where he was teaching; it was not soundproof. And so one day he had a student in there before me, and I was warming up just playing like Mike Bloomfield blues, I got really into Mike Bloomfield, and the Paul Butterfield stuff was great, and I loved electric flag. I felt like Bloomfield had a serious voice on the (Les)Paul. Back then, it was different than Clapton or Page or Jeff Beck or Hendrix for electric blues. And it was with a bigger band with Buddy Miles playing. I loved The Electric Flag and got so into Bloomfield that I actually could just, I could sound like him. I could emulate him. And people like Pat Raul used to be amazed. He said play that Mike Bloomfield thing. He’d go, “Wow, man. You got his stuff down.”
Three or so months into my lessons with Art, I played some Mike Bloomfield stuff, warming up for my lesson. And I come in, and he says, “You’re one of my best students; you come in here. You’re always really well prepared, you learn every lesson that I send you home with, and you got it down when you come in here, but I’m going to suggest something to you. And I don’t want you to take offense to it. I don’t think you should study this anymore, listening to you, down the hall, that’s your heart, man. That’s where you’re coming from, I can hear it; you have a lot of blues, R&B, and Soul in your system.” And so I listened to him.
But to answer your question, you asked how I started playing with my dad. I was able to read the charts because he had set me up with art. And when I was like, twelve and a half, I played with his big band, when they would rehearse. It was only for rehearsals, though, in his music store at a music store called Plus Music off El Camino, ugh, I don’t remember the street. But it was down in San Mateo. And he would get a lot of the best horn players from San Francisco, that were playing with a lot of other big bands, guys that could blow man, they could really play, great trumpet players, sax players. And so, my dad had a great following as far as musicians were concerned. He was hilarious; he was a true jazz artist, in the sense that he got offered a lot of commercial work that could have made our lives easier, my mom’s life easier, because she was the breadwinner back then, and remained like that because he just didn’t want to conform to it. You know, he was like a true jazz artist, and he felt like if he did anything commercial, that it was copping out. With that said, I understood where he was coming from. And I didn’t want to cop out and do stuff that I didn’t believe in either. But I also wanted to make a living.
I decided that I would be a bit different, and I would be very dedicated to making a living, playing guitar, and playing like I love to, but still not have to have another job on top of it.
GC: You had a foundation with your mom, a singer, and your dad, as an arranger/saxophonist. And then you have this teacher, who’s pretty amazingly telling you to follow your passion.
NS: Yeah, It was great advice. I have no idea if he’s still around today. But if he is and reads this, I want to thank him again because it was the best advice anyone ever gave me. Just follow your heart, follow what you love to do, as opposed to learn, learn, learn, he said, you’ll learn what you want to learn, and he said, the honest to Gods, truth, I’m well-schooled, and I’ve learned everything about theory and everything you could know. Once you understand all that, Art explained, most people’s struggle is they’re so used to reading, and they get stuck in a box.
I’ve heard that from many people who knew Miles Davis, I know, miles used to tell them to play like you don’t know how to play. You know, like, forget everything.
GC: Listen to the instrument; that’s what it sounds like he’s saying.
NS: Imagine Miles saying that when he first met John McLaughlin, and McLaughlin silently playing with him on that record? He’s saying, “Play it like, you don’t know how to play it, man.” That’s where it all came from when you do not think I found that is the real you.
All the rest of the stuff I’m getting quite bored with; the gymnastics of the guitar. Man, and the ability the new generation, has these days, is quite astounding. They have so many different ways of learning now; back when I was learning the roots of what I wanted to do was just a record player. If you couldn’t understand what was going on; I remember slowing down the record player and have it just dropping out; I was listening to Wes Montgomery or Larry Coryell to pick out some riffs that I couldn’t figure out. And they moved by so fast, they weren’t blues riffs. Now they have all these devices where you can speed it up, slow it down. And then there are all kinds of online ways of thinking, and I see dots all over the neck. And, man, everybody is just so into this sweeping thing. And scales sped up, beyond belief, with two-finger hammer-on’s or three or four finger hammers. Like Jeff Watson was doing way, way back, you know, after Eddie (Van Halen), when I met Jeff, I was like, Man, that’s insane. What he was doing, he was doing four fingers on the fretboard and four fingers on the other hand, with the early Night Ranger stuff. And when I saw it, I was like, cats insane man, I said, you might as well play keyboards. It’s pretty astounding that you can do it on guitar, but you’re playing separately, the way keyboard players could play.
There’s no other way to do it on guitar without hammering like that. Eddie showed me a bit of what that was about. We toured with Van Halen on their very first tour. They opened up the show; it was them and Ronnie, Montrose, and Journey. I remember I got a little record; I knew many people in the record industry that were friends of mine. And one of them happened to work for Warner Brothers. So he gave me this record. A teaser that went out to radio stations that was red, an E.P. size record that had “You really got me” and “Eruption.” And I knew I was going to tour with this band, and I’m hearing about this kid in L.A., that’s turning his back on the audience and doing all this crazy stuff with two hands, but nobody could figure it out. And I think, in those days, he kind of hid it. It was his thing. He didn’t want anybody picking it up. Right? So I sat down with a record player like I usually did in a bedroom with an amp and a guitar. And I’m trying to dissect it, which I was generally pretty good and able to do that with many records. Even with Mahavishnu, I was like, I have no clue what this guy is doing. There’s just no way you can do it on guitar. Until he showed me when we were out on tour, I was like, that is just insane. I said that drove me nuts, man.
GC: It probably made sense once you saw it because then you realize, oh, your right hand is doing that, It’s not picking.
NS: Yeah, and that triplet thing. The other thing I discovered was a lot of people picked up on it. But, I’m always really aware of nuances that happen with strings and how things feel for you to stretch and do your vibrato. He was always in E flat, like Hendrix or Stevie. When you’re in E flat and playing with .009s, on a strat, or a Charvel in those days, it’s a lot easier to use your index finger to pluck the string. And the strings aren’t as stiff. It’s harder to do. Like, if it’s in E, it’s much harder to do.
You know, you can do it, but it’s not as easy. And it doesn’t sound as slinky. So I was able to figure out stuff like that after he showed me what was going on. And when I told him, “I know your little secret about E flat.” He just smiled at me and said, “Don’t do it!” (Laughs) He didn’t like people doing what he was doing in the beginning. So I did stay away from it. I mean, everybody started doing it. And so he had to confront that; then a lot of videos started coming out of early guitar players from, I believe, Italy? I can’t remember the guy’s name. I saw some older videos. And these guys were doing tapping, like way, way back.
GC: Right, I’ve seen those black and white videos of these guys doing that.
NS: He developed his electric style and took it to a new level, in a sense, as Jimi did, you know, electrifying the blues and taking it to a whole different level that people could never even imagine. Same with Jeff Beck, they’re innovators. I think those three guys were foremost innovators and Jimmy Page, as well, as a writer, and a landscape artist. I love all the stuff that Jimmy wrote, all his concepts. He had to picture the music in his head before creating it, which is pretty wild. It’s like a painter and a blank canvas. What are you going to paint? He’d envision these songs; after knowing him for years now and talking to him quite a lot. I asked him, and we got into some good talks. And, he wouldn’t give anything up to me, I said, I think I know what you were doing with miking (Laughs). Like, in the back of the amp, and off to the side, and he just kind of smiled. He wouldn’t tell me anything.
GC: He was such a studio musician before Zeppelin got famous that…
NS: Yeah, he had a lot of studio chops. I studied him and Jeff beck, probably the most as well as Hendrix. But, you know, those early overdubs they did were very interesting to me, like on Zeppelin one, you know, the first record? They wrote these heavy, blues-oriented metal songs. And they just blow, the band was just like on fire. And, you know, John Paul Jones is such a fantastic bass player with John Bonham. You know, I don’t think he could have a better rhythm section for that type of music that they did. I thought Paul Jones and John Bonham was the secret weapon, and they just allowed Jimmy to fly. And I loved like the overdubs, the subtle overdubs he did like if he was in the middle of a solo, and just wanted a specific couple of notes to stick out; he’d overdub, the same part of that solo, so it kind of stuck out. And I guess if you’re not a guitarist, and you’re listening to it, you go, Wow, that’s really wild. What is that? Ya’ know? Jeff Beck was very good at that too. And just noises, sounds, mixing sounds in and out. Nothing that stays constant, I find a lot of the music today; everybody makes so many tracks, right? And it’s just layered on top of layer, and it doesn’t come and go. I like it when it’s stripped-down. There’s not much there, just seldomly come in with something that’s subtle, that affects you and the point you’re trying to get across.
GC: It’s a less is more approach, and it sounds so much bigger when you don’t have all those tracks. Take Jimmy Page, for instance, and go back and listen to those recordings; there’s not a lot of distortion on those guitars and not over-saturated.
NS: No! The drum and bass sound so big because he’s playing through a little friggin amp, like an Ampeg. Or what’s the other amp?
GC: The Supro?
NS: Yeah! The Supro! Oh, but there was also a little Ampeg that had a brass…You know, my old manager, “Herbie” Herbert, had one. (Neal is referring to the Ampeg Jet J-12)
GC: Yeah, it looks like a space heater. I know exactly what you’re referring to.
NS: That thing sounded incredible. I remember the first time I plugged it in, and I went. There’s the sound man, you know. So little amps, one small speaker create a massive sound for the whole band. Because now the drums sound ginormous. They did many old-school miking techniques that they’ve been doing on R&B records from the beginning when they didn’t have mics on all drums. And you can tell that’s pretty much what Bonham; if he wanted the bass drum louder, he kicked it louder, you know. And it’s from a distance; it’s an overhead mic in a room that’s got quite a lot of ambiance in a live room. Many years later, that makes sense when you go back and dissect it and listen to the sounds. It’s so much different. I mean, everything’s Pro Tools now. We don’t have tape saturation; there was so much sound, great sound that came from that, from skilled engineers that knew what they were doing with it. When I first met, Roy Thomas Baker and Geoffrey Workman was the engineer.
We did the Infinity record with them; we worked at Elliot Mazer’, his Master’s Wheels in San Francisco. And they had a beautiful (Rupert) Neve board. Couple of 24 Studers. And they had a semi-large room, wooden floors. But Roy Thomas took me and stuck my Plexi in a small room, like a closet. It was very echoey. Everybody’s like, how did you get that sound? for The lights? And I go? Well, you know, it’s a 63′ strat into a Plexi, but I wasn’t using a lot of compression in front of it; I was going for a pretty clean sound back then. Especially for that record. And Roy asked, “Don’t you have any overdrive pedals?” I go, well, don’t you have any compressors? Because I brought out a couple of distortion pedals. He goes, No, not like that. He said, “We need a compressor. Go out and buy him a compressor.” So they went and got me a little blue Boss compressor. They just cranked it on 10. So if you hear the guitar by itself, when I’m playing the solo, before it comes in, the buzzing is so loud, where the single coils and the amp are cranked. But they also use long micing, in an echoey room. So that’s where the size comes from. That’s something I discovered; you can emulate with a Kemper or Fractal; by moving the microphone back from the modeler or the samples, and when it comes to a Kemper, you move the mic back, and all of a sudden, things are big. You can’t do a lot of overdubs like that. But if you want to strip down one guitar, you want a massive sound; that’s the way to go. I think that is more of a, like a long-distance mic, that’s picking up the vibe of what you’re doing. And not so much the intricacies. Like we were talking about, there’s no way, like a lot of new guitar players, that the speed is just beyond light. And there’s no way you’d ever be able to hear that if it wasn’t really direct into the board, with zero effects, which is cool, it’s a different thing, but it just wears me out really quickly, no matter how good they are.
GC: I used to tell students, imagine somebody’s talking to you as fast as they can, after a while, you can’t listen to what they’re saying; you’re just hearing how they’re saying it.
NS: And, you know, for 12 to 48 bars. When you see what somebody can do with that dexterity, they have you go. Ok, what else you know? And after a while, you just want to hear a good song. And some good melody played with some soul and blues, and then throw in some fiery riffs is what I kind of try to do. I’m still so into that. Aretha Franklin really got into my system. When I started listening to her, I really practiced vibrato and stretches, trying to emulate a lot of her vocals on all the songs she did.
GC: I think you can hear that Bloomfield thing too with your phrasing and dynamics.
NS: Definitely, you know what’s wild? While I was collecting all these guitars in the last year and a half, I think I bought ten relic’d 59 Les Pauls; Mike Bloomfields, because I bought one. And I thought it sounded so fucking good that I couldn’t believe it. And I put it next to another 59 that I had, that wasn’t a relic. And I thought this guitar sounds as good if not better. He had something interesting going on in the pots, where there’s a bigger knob on his model in the back. And there was a pot back there. I haven’t taken it apart to look at it yet. But I know that there are bumblebee electronics in there.
GC: The capacitor, right, ok.
NS: Right, and you roll off, that would be the bass tone knob. And that affects when you put it in the middle position. It doesn’t do that middle tone thing that most Les Paul’s do, where it’s trying to sound like a strat, but not really, you know, what happens is that it gets really thick. And it sounds like you are ready pre-mixed on the bass pickup, and pulled it back just a bit and rolled off some of the tones. But meanwhile, the volume is all the way up. And the tone is all the way up on the bass pickup. So it’s really wild how he had it. And you can hear it in his records. He used that middle position a lot. So it was full, but it still had that sting through a Super Reverb.
GC: He, Eddie, all these guys we’re talking about, they were masters of taking that gear and making it work for their voice.
NS: Yeah, Eddie, I’ve never seen anything like it, man. Just soaking down the power, I don’t think it was anything anybody had ever thought about. He had this power attenuator hooked up to it. He’s pulling everything down. So the amp runs hotter. And it’s not as loud. But it gives you this dark compression naturally by taking the power down. I first experienced that, years ago, when we would go to Japan. And I’d be playing one of our first shows in Tokyo. And the generators or power converters that we had to play through to convert to their voltage. It totally chocked the guitar and the amp to where it was like; it felt so difficult to play. And I hated them. And the last few tours that I’ve done there in the previous, I think ten years. I said, unhook that shit. Just plug it in. I want to see what it sounds like just plugged in. And they were like, oh, man; you’re gonna blow it up, you know? And I said, Hey, I don’t care. I can’t stand this. So my tech just plugged it in. And it did the same thing. And it sounded great. So since that, I don’t use the power converters.
GC: Wow. Well, amps sound best when they’re about ready to blow up.
NS: Yeah!, that’s when they sound badass.
GC: When you hit that note, and you’re enjoying it, and all of a sudden you go, what happened? And the amps dead.
NS: Yeah, you don’t even know how many; I used to have a friend that ran SIR in San Francisco. Where Journey rehearsed, and I rehearsed with Santana for years, and he used to have all these blackface twins when I was into twins. When Santana disbanded at that point, I was working on putting a new band together, and it was, you know, I didn’t know it was gonna be a journey at the time, but I was jamming with a lot of different people. And instead of bringing my own amp down, I kept using his twins that he had in there, they had a bunch, but they would blow up within 30 minutes. His name was Michael Johnson; he would go, “Neal, what the fuck are you doing with my amps. They’re all blown up.” And I go, “Man, all I’m doing is playing through them!” I had them cranked on 10, and I had a couple of pedals plugged into the front. And they were just, viciously loud, you know?
GC: Yeah. I can imagine! How did it come about that you connected with Carlos?
NS: That came about when I was living down in the peninsula after I had moved up from Hollister, California, living with my grandmother. My folks finally got situated in San Mateo. And I moved up to San Mateo. And I started meeting a lot of musicians around that area years later, and I met this bass player playing in this band called Ole Davis. And his nickname was nine-year, like number nine-year, his real name was Bob Woodridge. And he took an interest in me, brought me by they had a band together that was very good. This kind of mixture of old rock and roll, a little bit of country and rock. It was a wild mixture but a soulful little unit. And they were musical. So they asked me to play with them. I was playing with them. And I started getting a lot of attention in this band. I wrote a song. And they had me singing it. And I remember playing for a college like San Mateo College. One year, I got a standing ovation. And it was the first time I ever sang. And I was like, this is wild. And that’s about the extent of me having confidence and not even knowing what I was walking into as a singer, that I ended up working with so many great singers after that, that I was just like, oh I can’t sing, I don’t want to sing. But I played down in a club with them down in San Carlos, and the club was called the Pop Peacock. And it was a club I had been in before; my father had taken me in and introduced me to Vince Guaraldi. He was friends with Vince and the Peanuts guy and had me jam with Vince that night in the same place. So I had been there. But years before that. I went down and played many years later with Ole Davis, and nine-year was friends with Greg Rolie and Michael Shrieve. And so he called them up, and he says, “You should come down and check us out, you got to check out this new guitar player. I’m working with Neal.” So Greg and Michael came down. And I guess they liked what they heard as they hung out. And the club owner was very, very cool. When everybody was rushed out of the place or escorted out at 1:45 am before closing time, it was a bar, you know, he closed the place. And he allowed us to jam, and we’d jam to about four in the morning and had a great time. At the time, I was still in high school, going to Aragon High School, and not really attending class that much. I was a pretty good artist as well. And, I was doing both. I was hanging out in the music room a lot. Practicing Guitar. And I was hanging out in the art room. And my teachers were really cool. They knew that I was really into the arts. If the dean came looking for me, they would hide me because I was not going to my classes. (Laughs) “Ok, The Dean’s coming, man, go behind this wall, go in the backroom and just be quiet.” So they come in looking for me, and they’d hide me, and I’d just hang out. And I’d continue to work on my art, you know. But Rolie started picking me up at high school. And his father had an apartment down in Burlingame, so those little cities are attachés, San Carlos, San Mateo, Burlingame, Belmont. You know, all these little towns. It’s kind of like Marin County, where I live now. A lot of little cities connected. Anyway, so he picked me up at high school. And his father had a place in Burlingame, an apartment; he had a baby grand piano in there. Had a little amp in there, and I would go there and jam with Greg. And we just jam, you know? And get to know one another and started hanging out more and more. There’s the gentleman that I met by Jackie Villanueva, who actually is the guy who found me. I was working in a studio and trying to record some ideas. And the owner of the studio his name was Paul Curcio. And it was down on El Camino Real in San Mateo, and Santana had just recorded their first record in their same studio. They got the first Santana record. And so Jackie had come in one day, and he heard me playing, and he took an interest, so he started picking me up. I would tell my folks I was going over to a friend’s house to jam, and he would pick me up and take me into the city. And he started introducing me to all the club owners, and they allowed me to sit in at Keystone corner labs, Mike Bloomfield’s old club, to jam with anybody that would let me jam with and introduced me to Elvin bishop. You know, Elvin had a great band, and Mike Finnegan was in the band; the guy was just a monster. And Elvin was another monster player too. So I was getting to jam with these guys. And then Elvin started having this blues, showdown gun off with guitar players from all over the place. And it would come, I think it was on Thursday night, either Tuesday or Thursday. I can’t remember so far back. I held the position for about a month and managed to be the fast gun in the West with Soul. (Laughs) So Elvin went to me after I had won the contest, and said “I have a surprise for you. We’re going to go to the Fillmore West tonight. And we’re going to see B.B. King. And you’re going to meet him. And we’re going to sit in; we’re going to play.” So I went down there with him. I think I was like, I don’t know 13, almost 13. And I met B.B. backstage; he was very, very kind, very, like, awesome. I met Bill Graham for the first time. And went up on stage; I was on the left-hand side of the stage B.B. was to the far-right. And you know, I had studied him, his vibrato, his choice of notes, how he choked the note and not playing too loud. And so I paid him a respectful dedication that night; I didn’t play anything else that I knew; I stuck to all his riffs. And when it came time for us to have a little fun, he would play a couple of riffs. And he looked over at me. So I answered them with the same couple of riffs. And then he started smiling. Because he knew that I understood his language, and I studied it. And so it continued like that for about a half an hour. And then we became friends, very good friends after that, and I jammed with him quite a few times. And the same thing happened with Albert King, you know, not at the Fillmore. But I played with Albert at a bunch of different little clubs around Europe and the Bay Area.
GC: There’s a lot of stories about Albert around here. I’m in St. Louis, and I’m from the metro-east side. A lot of the musicians that I met working in music stores had played with Albert on the road. And he was a character for sure.
NS: He was a character man. I overstepped my bounds one day; there was a club here in Marin County called George’s. It was one of the only clubs in Marin County that had a cool room, and Albert was playing, and he invited me to come play. He said I’m taking a soundcheck in the afternoon come down. So I went down and brought a guitar, a little amp and had the soundcheck with him. And then he took off for a second he went up to the bar, he laid his V against his amp. I decided when he left to pick up his guitar and just feel the neck. And he saw me from a distance do that. And he screamed across the room. “WHAT ARE YOU DOIN’ BOY?” And I just about jumped out of my clothes, you know, he was a big guy. And he was screaming really loud. And he was clearly perturbed with me. (Laughs)
GC: (Laughs) Probably packing a gun too! (Laughs)
NS: (Laughs) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, a bottle of wine in the back of the amp. And a gun, too (laughs). So, you know, I said, “I just, you know, I just wanted to feel the tension on the strings.” And he goes, “NOBODY KNOW MY TUNING. PUT IT DOWN… NOW!” And so that was it. And I was like, Ok, I’ll never do that again.
GC: I’ve heard a lot of stories about Albert, and some didn’t end great. Some were just learning lessons for people, I think, but he was a character.
N.S: He was a character, just a monster player. It amazes me that so many people never grasped the fact that Stevie Ray Vaughan was… Albert probably was one of his main influences, you know. And then after that, a bit of Jimmy but really Albert.
GC: That phrasing, yeah! The way he attacked the guitar and the sustain the vibrato that’s absolutely true. I honed into Albert as a young player and B.B. When I was learning, I couldn’t play at the speed that Eddie was playing. So I put it on the shelf, and I focused on blues guys, and I focused on Albert real heavy, he just has…
NS: They made every note sing, with this “Watch me kill 10,000 notes with just one” approach, a Slayer, you know?
GC: Yeah, it’s so true. And Bloomfield is right there with it. And I hear it in your playing. When I knew I was going to do this interview, I went back and watched some stuff through the years of you playing. And that transcends that phrasing the dynamic attack you have; you’re really able to just pull a note and push it and push it.
NS: A lot of people have been asking me because I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately because of my record that just came out, “Universe,” with Narada Michael Walden, and it feels like the guitars are the vocal of the record. And everybody’s asking me like, “Man, you are just, the notes are soaring. Even (Steve) Lukather wrote me the coolest note the other day. He’s a brilliant player. He’s been a great friend of mine forever. I love the new song I just heard that he did. “I Found The Sun Again.” And he’s just really musical. He’s always been very musical. But he wrote me the coolest note the other day. And he says, “Man, I just had time to sit down with your record. And you are just like the shit; you pumped my mind. You and I have so much in common with loving to play melody and then burn in between.” But just you know, it was very complimentary. And he’s, you know, I love guys like that, man. He’s been on more records than most people probably even know, him and Mike Landau.
GC: Right. Yeah, he’s a sweetheart of a guy. I’ve had a chance to meet Michael, and he’s super nice.
NS: Yeah, he’s one of my favorite players of all time to play. I used to go see him when I lived in L.A. I would go down to the Baked Potato; And talk about a tone monster man. And he’s he had some interesting, simple rigs. That he just got amazing tones out of it. It’s, it’s in the fingers, man. He definitely loved the Fuzz Faces, and the Marshall heads. But what an incredible player, man. All those guys Lukather and him.
GC: I want to go back to Carlos just a little bit. I don’t want to dwell on it too much. I want to get to what you’re doing now too. But what was the relationship like with you and Carlos, you know, two top tier guitar players in the same band? I mean, how did that work out?
NS: Once I was asked to join the band. We became very, very tight. I was with him almost every day. We hung out; we played all the time. We drove around together; we went to see music together, he introduced me to Gábor Szabó, the Gypsy guitar player that wrote Gypsy Queen, at the end of Black Magic Woman, and I went and jammed with him, off of Broadway, in a little jazz club with Carlos. And, he just turned me on to so much really incredible music, and we’re still, we; we are becoming better friends every day as life goes on. We stay in touch; we talk all the time and get to play once in a while. He’s not around a lot. He’s been staying in Hawaii while this whole pandemic has been going on. But he wanted me to recheck some tapes that we did at the Crater Festival years ago with Buddy Miles, maybe rework them a bit. So I’m swamped right now working on journey stuff. But you know, I spoke with Greg Errico the other day, the original drummer from Sly and the Family Stone.
I had done a lot of playing with Greg and Larry Graham, stuff that never made it to a record. But it was cool stuff, man. It was like a jam and trio that was funky, bluesy, and electric, with Larry singing lead vocals. And it’s too bad it never made it to final because it was great stuff. And then, many years later, I remember playing with Journey in Europe, and I heard “Mother’s Finest.” And I was like, son of a bitch. These guys were amazing. And I go, it sounds a lot like what I was doing with Greg and Larry.
GC: You have revamped the lineup with Journey, right?
NS: Yeah, we had a falling out because of business. Stuff that I just disagreed with what was going down. And I’d been through quite a lot. In the last, I’d say ten years, eight years, with older management. There was just a lot of scenarios going on. I always felt like people were trying to make me crazy. So I would try to leave, I was actually asked to leave. By Irving Azoff, he said, Why don’t you quit? I said I’m not quitting, man. I’ve been here forever. You just got here; why don’t you quit? So he did, but then he came back. And things continued to be crazy, so I finally just drew the line and said, “Man, I can’t do this anymore.” I found Arnel Pineda by myself; I felt like I was managing the band, by myself, to a big part of it. You can’t do anything without the talent. You know, our booking was happening from CAA. We made one-two records the whole time with our analysis; we were with that management. The first record we did with Arnel. Irving did a great deal with Walmart, which was very profitable for us and enabled us to get going. When I found Arnel, they wanted us initially just to do a remake of the greatest hits, and I was not keen on that; I thought, “That sounds sacrilegious to me,” and as good as Arnel is and as much as I know he can do it. Why would we want to do that? It was so we’d have another record out there with our songs. And it would have nothing to do with Sony, who owned our catalog at the time. I thought about it, and I said, Ok, so I understand where we’re going with this. I said it might be a good way to show the world that Arnel can do our whole catalog, at least our greatest hits, right? So I agreed to do it. But I said we need to be able to put some new music on it. They agreed to 1-2-3 new songs. And I said, No, I want to do a whole new record. I want to do a double CD, one greatest hits, and an entirely new record, Revelation. And then they put in a little short show from one of our early shows from Las Vegas. I think it was only an hour-long, but it served its purpose. And that was the one thing that I felt that Irving did for us. That was helpful to get us jump-started. But without Arnel, it would have never happened. You could have picked a zillion different people, man, there were a lot of emulators out there. And I wasn’t looking for a Journey cover band. I just felt like I want to find the singers who can do it, and they can pull it off. More like a chameleon, who can do a lot of different stuff. When I found him on YouTube, and I checked out everything that he was capable of doing. I was like, This guy’s got it. When I told management about it, and they go, “Oh, great. So where is he? L.A. or N.Y.? And I said, Well, he’s in Manila. Manila?… Manila?. And people started laughing hysterically. Like, I’m crazy. You know? Everybody in the band two, they were like, that’s insane, man. And Jonathan was even going well, does he speak English? And I go, who cares? He’s singing, he’s singing in English, we can teach him. I said, “He’s got the pipes,” he’s got the overall tone. The right slot. Where he can sing like a tenor? A soprano. He can cover everything. And I wanted them to hear him. Do you know the different artists he was doing? Steven Tyler, Robert Plant? I was Like, what? This guy is insane, able to morph himself into these different voices. So I just felt like his capabilities were off the hook. And so yeah, the new record that we’re working on sounds pretty amazing, man. I’m loving it.
GC: So you’re still working on the record?
NS: Yeah, we’ve been working on new journey material with Narada, Randy Jackson, myself, Jonathan, and Arnel during this pandemic. It’s been a virtual record so far except for Narada because we live in the same city. And so his studios close by, so I feel lucky that he and I can play live in the studio. So you got, you know, Drums and Guitar.
GC: That’s huge!
NS: Yeah, that makes things gel from the get-go. I worked with many drummers like that in the past. I find it very easy to get organized; put together a good arrangement without having to teach everybody stuff, and then you lay it down, put it in the form you hear it, put the melodies on top, and shoot it off to Jonathan. He writes the lyrics, and sometimes he comes in with a full-on song, that’s brilliant, too, you know. Still, Narada and I have done a lot of work on this record with everybody else, just in a different way, and it’s pretty amazing how it’s turning out. When it’s finally mixed, it will sound like we’re all in the room together. Even though Arnel is in the Philippines, and Randy Jackson’s in L.A., and Jonathan’s in Florida or Nashville, usually Florida, but Narada and I are in the studio together. So we’re working, I think, on our 22nd song.
NS: And, it’s work in progress, but we have, like, 15 very honed in amazing songs right now. And Arnel is continuing to sing every week now that the holidays are over; we slowed down a little bit with the holidays. But he just sang two more the other night, and I believe Narada is going to work with him. And Narada has been producing the vocals. And it’s been great for Arnel as I experienced with Narada as a producer for myself, with universe, where he treated me like the vocalist, lead vocalist for the band, you know, 40 songs. And he’s an amazing producer. He’s a fantastic songwriter. And, I’ve known him for years; I’ve always known that he was an amazing drummer because I played with him, years ago, with Journey in the early stages, in our original band with Aynsley Dunbar. We opened up for Mahavishnu after Narada was in the band. And I’d seen him live. I’d seen Billy Cobham, and I was like, wow, this guy’s monstrous, you know, two different drummers, but both complete monsters. And, I played with him throughout the years, because we live in the same town. And we’d always end up jamming, but never worked with him. And so it was my first experience working with him. And it was awesome. I decided just to sit down and just be the student and let him produce me. I didn’t write anything; I might have written a couple of short little pieces on the record, that we’re pretty much just freeform, but the songs, the original songs on there, that were not classic, older songs that I covered. He wrote everything; I improvised on my solo sections, except for a few different places within the songs. But for the most part, he sang all the vocals with his voice, and I had to emulate his voice.
GC: Wow. That’s cool. That’s, that’s such a unique process.
NS: It was different for me. For a solo record. I usually go in blindly, with drums, and I just kind of create stuff on the spot. And I like the feel of that too, it’s avant-garde, and it’s Rockin, and some things turn out better than other things. But this was very honed in because he comes from a song place. And he’s been involved with so many great artists as a producer. And I had no clue what his ability as a songwriter and, as a keyboardist and drummer, so the first time I found that out, I was like, wow, this is incredible, you know,
GC: With people like that, and yourself, you learn about placement, where everything should sit in a mix, where everything should sit in the song, it makes it easier to be prolific, I think. Especially with a band like yours and having such a legacy career. It can be pressured to try to come up with new stuff or to come up with something inspiring,
NS: You know, the hardest thing, I think, for any rock band to come up with?. For us anyway, the ballads come in two seconds flat, you know, Jon can write a ballad, from beginning to end. So can I, so can Narada, and they come effortlessly because the power ballads are all melodic, and I quickly fly over stuff like that. I don’t even have to think about it. The first time I played faithfully, I wrote down a chart, learned the song in 10 minutes, and then did two takes, and the second take was it. I had no clue what I was doing; you just fall into it very easily. The Rock stuff is always the most challenging. Because there are such fine lines, I feel as to where it’s gonna sound? It can sound jaded. It can sound over the top; it can sound not melodic enough, not soulful enough, and find that balance, especially with two major new guys, a rhythm section, which has quite a different feel. It helped, I believe, in the rock aspect of what we came with because there’s a new stout and strut to the band.
GC: Yeah, well, and you have this fresh ability to jam, and that can be super inspiring.
NS: Yeah! Completely inspiring. And Randy Jackson’s an amazing bass player. He’s worked with Narada for years. When all this stuff was going down with our band, and Jonathan and I didn’t care for how the business was being managed. We just decided to make a move, and I believe we made the right moves. Some people just wanted to retire and get paid a full share forever. And it’s just not going to happen, you know? I mean, everybody’s gonna get taken care of; I got to the bottom of a lot of stuff, though. That was neglected from the very beginning. I found out that our trademark for merch had never been filed. EVER!
GC: Oh man.
NS: EVER!!! Can you imagine, man, like Paul McCartney, after all the years after the Beatles are over going, “Oh, we never had a trademark for merch?” I’m talking significant amounts: I think I got a quarterly check. That was to the whole band from one of the bigger companies epic, that was due to us for $900. And I was like, “Get the fuck outta here!” My wife spends more than $900 a night handing out t-shirts to fans.
GC; Yeah, no kidding. That can be stressful trying to deal with the business aspect of things, the personnel aspect of things, and then still find inspiration to create some music at the end of the day.
NS: Yeah, it’s definitely been challenging. But you know what, I’m the only guy who has been here since the very beginning. And been on every show, every rehearsal, every record, anything that we’ve ever done, I’m the only guy that has been there that’s still standing. That has been there from the beginning. And it’s my ship. There is a mothership and its Journey, and everybody’s entitled to what they’re entitled to. But you know what? I’m not ready just to fold because people try to make it uncomfortable for me and push me out.
GC: Yeah, Well, it’s you, right? This whole thing of playing guitar and music. That’s your life. That’s you. Why would you want to stop now?
NS: Guitar has been me, but you know, Journey has been a big part of that my whole life. I’ve rocked and rolled through all the changes. We’ve had many changes, as the one thing that’s cool about the name of the band is it is forever changing, like infinity.
GC: Defining, right! So I guess this year, with the way things are, things appear to be looking up with vaccines, and such, are there plans to tour?
NS: Yes, we’re just waiting for everybody in the States and elsewhere, for everybody to get back on their feet. To get healthy. I mean, this is just insane. The last year everybody’s been through, because of the lack of vaccine and lack of anybody giving a shit to make people safe again, and just kind of write it up and act like it doesn’t exist. It’s insane at this point, man. Four hundred thousand people dead, that’s just insane, man.
GC: It’s unbelievable. We all got locked down. And then I know early on, it was like, July. Maybe things will be back by July. But then you realize in August and September; you’re like no, no, things aren’t coming back that quick at all.
NS: We’re scheduled right now to headline Lollapalooza in Chicago.
GC: I was going to ask you about that.
NS: We’ll see if it happens; if the vaccine gets out there and people start feeling good, then it may well possibly go down. Otherwise, I think they’ll just push it back. And we’ll end up playing whenever it happens. But I know that we’re planning on near the end of 21′. Besides that one gig, I just mentioned that things would startup. But definitely 22′. You’ll see me making a lot more little tiny videos from my cave? (Laughs)
GC: Hey, man, every day I’ll watch them, I’ll try to learn what I can off of it. It’s like going to a masterclass for me. What’s it like doing something like Lollapalooza. We have such a younger generation of people mixed in. It’s such a mix of people.
NS: We very seldom played festivals like that, even though I asked management to put us on them all the time. And they would always say, there’s not enough money in it, blah, blah, blah. We dominated when we played, whether it was with Marilyn Manson or with whomever we were playing with and found that our music is just kind of universal, no matter where we go. We’ve seldomly played out of the United States and Asia. So we’re going to when we get up and running, we plan on being out there, coming with a new album, a full album, a single should be released, I think, near the end of February. 1st single, and then, a few months later, another single, then a few months later, another song. And then before we go out, we’ll release a full album. And we’re gonna play the world. And we’re gonna go on a lot of the markets we’ve never been to; we’ve never been to South Africa. And I hear we’re huge there. The first time we ever played in South America, where Arnel did his first gig with us, it was in front of 30 million on T.V., And the place went nuts; it was the first time we ever played there. They knew all our songs. And I was like, why haven’t we been here? You know, for some reason, they only wanted to keep us in the buildings that they ran.
GC: There are people looking at their pocketbooks, and then people wanting to get out and create music, and sometimes that’s oil and water. It’s cool that you’ve been able to do it and that you’ve been able to do it decade after decade, generation after generation.
NS: Yeah, we’ve gotten bigger and bigger, man. It’s quite astounding. How big this band has become with younger generations. And it keeps getting younger.
GC: It makes sense to me; I’m in my 40s. When I was growing up and learning, whether I was seeking out Journey or not, back then, in the 80s, you didn’t have the internet; you had the local rock station. I was hearing Journey, probably every day, right. So it was just ingrained in me and became part of my foundation. So when I went back and listened to the songs, some of the older stuff, I was like, “Hell Yeah! This is totally ingrained in me.” I think a lot of people in that era have that. And then they produce kids. So this legacy lineage of what you have, your essence of what you’re doing, gets passed through, you know?
NS: You know, I experimented a bit by myself when I was very disappointed with what was going on in the band and with management at that time. I chose to go and do my own thing for a second. There was some downtime. We hadn’t made Journey through time until they started filing motions that I couldn’t use the name Journey. Some of the members and I thought this is ridiculous, man. I have a book coming out called Neal Schon’s Journey through time. Like, nobody uses the name journey?. Give me a break! We have a journey car, an infinity car, an escape car, a frontiers car, a captured car, a departure car; I mean, they made cars under every name of every album plus the band’s name. So while I found out, there was no trademark on any of our merch ever, which is a huge finding. And there’s a lot of people that are probably sweating bullets right now because I will be going back to a lot of the mechanical sales, and I looked into Journey too. There are some trademarks that they kept up with under Journey, but it was mainly for recording, live performances, and video. But there are 40 other journey trademarks out there that I found that could have been locked down a long time ago, like all these different cars and shoes made with the name journey, there are so many things. Had they locked it down correctly. There wouldn’t be all this stuff unaccounted for. But it is what it is. And I’m just glad I found out what I found out.
GC: Yeah, man. And like you said, In the beginning, you’re healthy, you’re happy, you’re working. You’re winning.
NS: Yeah. I mean, I just want to play music, man. It’s the only reason I’ve ever been here. Since the get-go is something, I love doing. Something people love to listen to, and I feel it’s my purpose here on earth to entertain and bring a smile to somebody, you know?
GC: Final Question! Do you have any advice you want to give us?
NS: My only advice I’d have since it’s a guitar player magazine, for guitarists out there is. I would strongly advise that they go into some older records of some of the older players that are not about speed and sweeping and playing faster than Yngwie; There are a few younger blues guitarists I’ve heard that are digging in, and they’re killing it. I’d like to see more people doing that, you know, just so that things get more musical.
GC: I would agree. As you said earlier, the cream rises to the top. There is so much noise, and people are just doing calisthenics and gymnastics on the fretboard. The people who stand out have longevity; they rise to the top and stay, for sure.
NS: You know, when Les Paul was still here, we became really good friends. And I sat in with him quite a few times. And he was a hilarious guy, man. And I’d be in New York, in his club at the time and watching the whole concept before I played, like the first time I didn’t even know he was going to call me up to play. But you know, there were a few people that were playing before me. And I won’t mention any names. But they went up, and they just tried to play every note on the fretboard. And it was a very simple jam. And he would kind of look at him. He goes, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be humming that one all day long.” (Laughs) In the end, that’s what it’s about, man. Give people a melody, even if it’s a guitar solo, you know, they can hum, and it will stick in their mind.
GC: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, my mom used to listen to me practice and would say, that’s great, what you’re playing, but why don’t you play something worth listening to, or that would be nice to listen to. But she had a point she’s like, I don’t care about the guitar calisthenics. I want to hear something melodic. I want to hear something that I can hum to. Most people we forget, you know, most of the crowd doesn’t play guitar. They’re not guitar players.
GC: You know, connecting on that level, so you got to give everybody a little bit of something. But with your influences and history, you have no problems in that department. It’s obvious.
NS: Honestly, I think the best stuff is yet to come. And I’m really proud of the last record I did with Narada. I wasn’t focused; the record had been done for three years, but I didn’t focus on needing a major record deal, or I have to have all my P.R. and ducks in line. I just went man, this has been a really long year before the holidays, and I want to listen to the record because I got away from it. Usually, when I finish something, I don’t listen to it for a long time. And when I put it on, I was pleasantly surprised. And I went, Wow, this is some uplifting music, you know, and stuff I feel that has a healing element to it, along with soaring riffs and melodic and beautiful. And so I said, I think the time is now, so I set up Strax AR a few years ago with some friends of mine who do some Hendrix stuff as well. And they have a lot of things under the hood. It’s cutting edge technology and, like nobody’s ever seen before, very futuristic.
As for the record, I did. I just said I’m going to put it out there, you know. We’re just starting to step on the gas now; I put it out before the holidays, never expect it to get a lot of attention. Because it’s one of those years, man, that has been tough on everybody, fun wise and everything, but I just felt this is like a gift at this point. I’m getting a lot of great reviews, which is really great to see. It wasn’t like I was trying to get them. I’m getting them from all over the world. They’re giving me five-star reviews in France and all over the place. And I’m like, this is so cool.
GC: That’s super cool. Well, Neal, I appreciate you taking the time and talking to me.
NS: Thank you, David. Appreciate your time.