Neal Schon Interview - Journey to the Stars
Greatest Hits Live from Journey
Few guitar players resumes are as deep and impressive as Neal Schons. He joined Santana as a teenager before moving on to Journey, a group he continues to lead and which will release a new album -- its first in four years -- this fall. But his vitae also includes a pair of albums with keyboard whiz Jan Hammer, short-term collaborations with Sammy Hagar and Paul Rodgers, stints with Bad English (which also featured Journeys Jonathan Cain and British vocalist John Waite) and Hardline, and some instrumental acoustic albums for the Higher Octave label that show an entirely different side of his artistic personality. And even as Journeys latest lineup cranks out the hits to a still-faithful body of fans, Schon is immersed in side projects such as the blues band Piranha Blues and an unnamed funk outfit that features former Prince associates Rosie Gaines and Michael Bland. He's sometimes overlooked in lists of rock guitar virtuosos, but during the past three decades Schon has certainly made his mark.
Guitar.com: You played in Santana as a teenager. How did that come about?
Schon: I was playing in another band in the Bay Area, and some of those guys, like Gregg Rollie and Michael Shrieve, used to come and see us play, and sometimes they'd get on stage and jam with us. They were always very complimentary, and I guess when there was talk in the band about getting another guitar player, they really pushed me on Carlos. I don't think he necessarily wanted to expand like that, but they really wanted to do it and really wanted me, so they went to the mat for it.
Guitar.com: Where do you see yourself as a guitarist today?
Schon: I'm at a place where I'm not gonna chase whats going on now, and I never really have. I feel like I have built-in fans out there. There's definitely built-in Journey fans, built-in Santana fans. There's built-in Bad English fans. There's fans all over the place for different bands I've been in. So I'm just gonna stick to my guns and do what I do best and not try to follow trends.
Guitar.com: You started Journey as a musician-oriented band and moved in a more commercial direction when Steve Perry joined. Was that a tough adjustment?
Schon: We were in a Catch 22 position. We had done five years on the road. We managed to get quite a great audience just playing live with the material we had, without a lead singer. But we were on the road for nine months out of the year, barely getting by. Everybody was starving. Our record company was getting ready to drop us. We had completed three records at that point, and they were selling less and less every time; we were selling more tickets every time, but less and less records. So the record company was like, Look it, either you guys get a lead singer or were gonna drop you. So we went OK, lets try it.
Guitar.com: In a way it was a gamble because you did have a devoted, if cult-sized, audience that really liked the instrumental stuff.
Schon: Oh, yeah. We were in a nice place for where it went to. A lot of people I talk to these days are still like, Man, I loved you guys when you were really into the jamming and instrumental side. And so did I. Unfortunately, we couldn't make a living out of it. We'd all have to be selling shoes on the side or something. That was just the cold, hard facts of it.
Guitar.com: While Journey was inactive you did some acoustic and instrumental albums. How does that factor into your playing?
Schon: It's a side of me thats been sitting there forever, ever since I joined Santana when I was 15, with songs like Song of the Wind that I did with Carlos. It's funny; I came with a record however many years later, and everybody goes, Oh, hes jumping on a bandwagon to copy Craig Chaquico, and I'm like, Hey, motherfucker, I was playing this shit when Craig Chaquico was in diapers. That's where I was at. I was playing instrumental music forever. I just got back to it, thats all. I mean, a lot of the early Journey stuff I consider instrumental even though theres a few vocals here and there. It's definitely on the lighter side, cause thats what the genre was.
Guitar.com: How does your acoustic playing different from your electric?
Schon: The acoustic stuff speaks for itself, I think. You pick up the acoustic guitar and there's a few things you can do. You can finger-pick it. You can do the froogie-dude thing, which is what every band is doing now, that whole rhythm thing. The acoustic guitar speaks in so many different ways. You have no electricity to deal with, so I tend to do more classical type of picking on it, finger-picking, and it just brings out a different side of you just because of the sound of it. Its definitely a softer sound.
Guitar.com: How does that fit into the Journey sound?
Schon: That stuff can work in very easily. If were constantly rocking or something, or I need a fresh new avenue to go in, I'll go somewhere light like that. I play a lot of acoustic guitar in my house when I'm sitting around watching TV or if I'm writing songs. I like to write on acoustic guitar now a lot more than electric guitar, just because Im thinking more about the song when I'm playing acoustic guitar than when Im playing electric guitar.
Guitar.com: It seems like the best guitar players through history have been able to play both electric and acoustic.
Schon: Yeah, I definitely think that great players have the ability to play both, and in different styles. I love guitar players that can play anything, that have the dexterity and ability to play any style. You take an Eric Johnson or a Satriani or whoever. These guys are like the best that are out there and capable of playing whatever guitar you stick in their hands, or any style. But I can't say I'm more into listening to somebody who can play the different styles than I am into listening to Jimi Hendrix. I mean, Hendrix was a great acoustic guitar player, too, but it was just different; it was more in the blues thing than what were talking about.
Guitar.com: Does the instrument you're playing affect what you play?
Schon: Oh, sure. The guitar is a voice; thats the way I look at it. Each instrument has its own voice. You take that voice and you pick up the guitar and it has a sound to it. That's what a lot of players miss out on. They don't understand what it is about the guitar and how to get that sound out of it. The sound is sitting there, and you have to noodle with it and figure it out, what the voice of that instrument is. I can pick up any good instrument and find the voice in it. You have to sit there and dial it in and learn what the instrument is about, cause each instrument is different. Theres certain notes I can play on my guitar that just happen to be in a certain key. If I stretch a note up to a B from an A, itll sustain forever in certain guitars. And on some other guitars theres a certain note that just rings throughout the body. It's like playing a woodwind instrument. I played oboe for years, and every oboe is different.
Schon: Yeah. I played it in high school. What a difficult instrument that is -- plus I got a huge neck from playing oboe, just all the air thats not coming out that youre blowing into that reed.
Guitar.com: So what led you to guitar?
Schon: I picked up guitar when I was 10. My dad was a woodwind player -- he played sax, clarinet and oboe, and he was very accomplished at it. It was tough for me to be on the side there and take lessons from him, so I decided to play something that he didn't play.
Guitar.com: Who were your influences?
Schon: That was a time when the Beatles were really coming about. I listened to a lot of AM radio like everyone else was as a kid. I was digging on what the guitar was doing. And then within two years Cream was out there and Hendrix was out there and Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, all the bands from England I was completely inspired by. So by the time I was 12 all that stuff was out there flying around, and I was sucked into the instrument completely.
Guitar.com: You didn't get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Santana. Do you think Journey has a shot at getting in?
Schon: I think weve got a good chance of getting in. We're still around; whether you like us or not, man. We're still around. We're selling tons of records, still. It's all over the radio. It's become classic rock, you know? But, really, I'm just looking forward to getting some new stuff out there. I think its important to have it come out and show people that we're still a great band. And the Hall of Fame, it's not a big deal. That stuff is so trivial to me. It's not like my life depends on being in the Hall of Fame at all.