Neal Schon
Finding His Voice

by Don Zulaica

To many, the name Neal Schon conjures up one singular musical entity-- Journey (this kind of thing happens when said entity has sold 40-million albums). For better or worse, the 47-year old guitarist is best-known for his lyrical, melodic solos on pop classics like “Open Arms,” “Faithfully,” and “When You Love A Woman.”

Aptly, that approach has also helped Schon launch a successful career in the guitar-instrumental genre. His Higher Octave releases “Beyond The Thunder” and “Electric World” are adult contemporary staples. And his 2001 release "Voice," featuring covers of Andrea Bocelli’s “Caruso” and Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” was recently nominated for the Best Pop Instrumental Album Grammy.

But don’t let the touchy-feely vibes get to you. For all the subtlety and grace on the outside, inside lies the heart of a fiery shredder who first picked up the guitar at 10 while growing up in San Mateo, California. And a man who truly understands the blues.

He jammed with BB King when he was 13, and floored Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana before he had a driver’s license, enough to be invited into both of their respective bands. The resume stretches from Michael Bolton and the Allman Brothers to heavy metal’s answer to Live Aid, Hearin’ Aid with Ronnie James Dio.

So what if he had the audacity to start a stupifyingly successful band-- Schon is a player, a guitarist, first. Regardless of the genre, his personality is what you hear when he plays.
And when he talks.

DZ: Gotta say this first, I’m a Bay Area native who grew up with Journey, and right off the bat I have to apologize for something I did in the fifth or sixth grade. My school newspaper interviewed me and a few other kids, asking us what our favorite records were. Three kids said Escape, and I-- for some retarded reason --said The Who’s Face Dances. I hope you can forgive me.

NS: [laughing] You’re forgiven!

DZ: Nice to see you’ve recovered.

NS: No problem. I love The Who.

DZ: Congratulations on the Grammy nomination.

NS: Thank you.

DZ: Had any of your previous solo work been nominated?

NS: No, I’ve never been nominated for anything. It seems really ironic, you would think that Journey would have been nominated at least for Escape or something, way back, since we sold so many records. And I remember, at the time we had a number one record that was sitting up there for months in a row, selling millions, and watching other artists get nominated. And I was thinking, “Man, what does it take to get nominated?” I guess it’s just a personal preference from the board, I don’t really know how it works.

I was completely flabbergasted when somebody called me the other day and told me about my nomination, because I was sure that Voice was just going down the drain. I don’t know that many people even know that it’s out there-- they’re starting to now. Since the nomination I’ve watched my record sales go up. I’m just completely blown away. When Higher Octave called me they said, “Congratulations, you’ve just been nominated for a Grammy.” I said, “Yeah? For what?”

Even though I’d completely given up on that stuff, on ever getting nominated for anything. It wasn’t the biggest thing in my life, I’ve made it that way. But...to really be nominated, it’s unbelievable. It’s like you’re finally getting a nod from your peers. And what’s even weirder, this is so freaky, but my birthday is February 27th, which is the night of the Grammies, and I’m turning 48. At this point in my career, I’d pretty much given up on receiving any awards for anything. I figure, I’ve done my duty, I’ve had a lot of fun, I’ve had a great career, and I’m not saying anything’s over, but...I’m not expecting anything. I just want to be happy and play what I want to play and that’s about it.

DZ: I’m sure it was nice for you to see Carlos [Santana] sweep it like he did.

NS: I was so happy for him, for so many different reasons. The man has been around forever. Clive Davis had beautiful ideas about how to construct that record for him and get him back on top. Clive is a very talented man. I’m not taking anything away from Carlos, but Clive is the guy that masterminded that whole idea with different singers. Rob Thomas happened to have number one hits on MTV at the time, I thought the whole thing was just a brilliant idea. [Santana] deserves it, if anybody does, and it was great to see somebody older get back in front of so many people on MTV. Usually it’s like, if you’re 20, your too old-- okay, buh-bye.

DZ: Where’s your backwards red cap, man?

NS: [laughing] Right!

DZ: Voice is your third record for Higher Octave?

NS: Voice was my third, fourth if you consider my second one two records, since that was a double-CD.

DZ: I read in another interview that they called you, you were overdue to get them a new project?

NS: Yeah, it had been a while since I’d recorded a record for them, because I’ve been so busy being on tour with Journey. I came up with a concept of how I could make a record for them and not have to be there, since I was on the road for most of the year. So I came up with doing an album of classic songs that were huge hit singles, just playing them on guitar, without a vocal. It’s not like it’s a new idea, but I don’t think many guitar players have done that before, with this type of pop record. I’ve seen a lot of guitar players, like jazz guys, cover Beatles tunes and re-do them in their own way, or whatever.

But these, besides the Andreas Bocelli and Leon Russell (“Your Song”) tunes, are all classic pop songs. It was a challenge. So I ran it by the record company and they liked the idea. At that point I hired the best guys I knew that could orchestrate and put all the music together, before I even played on it. Gary Serimelli was able to do all this stuff and set it up for me-- he’s just an outrageous ProTools genius producer. The record is really the two of us, with the exception of a keyboard player on three tracks. It sounds like a lot more, but that’s how good the guy is.

So when I went to play on this stuff, in ProTools you’re able to lay the original track in the background, and then you put your track on top of it. Well when I listened to both of the tracks on top of each other, I didn’t hear one bit of difference or movement, that’s how accurate he was. I told him to do them all in the original keys, which now, I probably would have checked out a little bit further. There were a couple of songs, like “Killing Me Softly,” that was in such a weird key for guitar, it was just bizarre.

DZ: How did you decide which songs to cover?

NS: The first song that I chose to do was Andrea Bocelli’s “Caruso.” I remember, when his record came out Romanza, I played that record and that song just caught my ear, two or three years before I even decided I wanted to do a record like this. When I heard that song, I remember playing it to someone and I loved the melody and the chords, it reminded me of something that Carlos would do. Sounded very European and romantic. There were no drums on it, it was pretty free-form, and I love that. So I thought if I slow it down a little bit and orchestrate it more like a Jeff Beck Blow By Blow record, that it would be really beautiful. That’s my favorite tune, I think, on the record.
DZ: What about Mariah Carey’s “Hero?”

NS: Same thing. When that record came out, I was living in LA at the time. I think I was still in Bad English [with John Waite and Jonathan Cain]. At the time a good friend of mine, bassist Randy Jackson, was doing A&R for all the R&B stuff at Sony. I remember after I heard that song in particular, I called him up and said, “Man, I’m listening to this song, and the hair is standing up on my arms. I love this song, and you should let me play a guitar solo on this song-- tell Mariah it needs a guitar solo.” [laughs] So that song was always stuck in the back of my mind, a classic slow pop tune.


That one and “Caruso” were the two easier ones for me to play. I pretty much plugged in after Gary had programmed the whole track, and they were like one take. One take with a couple little fixes here and there, and that was it. Pretty much, this record was really easy and fun for me to make, because I didn’t have to sit there and just-- you know, the hardest part for me was to try to find that voice. That’s why it’s called Voice, because that’s what I was looking for in each song. I wanted to capture that original voice, but also, there’s a fine line where if I’d played it too safe on these songs, like had I played with a really clean, jazzy tone...

DZ: Muzak.

NS: ...it would have sounded like muzak, exactly. I was so scared of that. I’ve been in a million elevators in my life. [laughs] And I never wanted to make a record like that, that’s totally frightening to me. It was not an easy task to make the guitar sound as soulful as I tried to make it, on these already-written songs.

DZ: When did you make a decision to do the solo instrumental albums?

NS: I’m trying to think of the year, I was living in LA at the time and had just finished being in a band called Hardline. And I was on tour with Paul Rogers after that for about three years, on and off. I really felt like I needed to get out of LA, needed to get back up to San Francisco, and I did about five years ago.

DZ: Was there something that Journey wasn’t giving you that you had to go out and get by yourself?

NS: It wasn’t so much that. I’m the kind of guy who likes to write with a view, like when I’m on a plane. When I started writing stuff for [1995’s] Beyond The Thunder, my first record for Higher Octave, I had a house in Calabasas, up on top of a mountain. It had this really cool window that I could look outside and watch the birds fly around. I used to just sit there and noodle with a little four-track cassette recorder, and I came up with most of the material that was on that record. I was just following the natural intuitions that I had, and that’s what happened. Ever since then, I feel pretty much like a chameleon every day when I get up and pick up a guitar. Some days it’s completely thrash metal, and other times it’s real melodic or more subtle.

I never played guitar to be a “rock star.” I never considered myself a rock star, I didn’t like that title, and when people say that it really sort of pisses me off. Luckily though, I didn’t attain that type of rock stardom like a Bon Jovi or something like that, and I have no regrets, believe me. I’ve always felt like a true musician, my dad was an incredible jazz musician and writer. It sort of was in my blood, I’ve always played because I love playing music.

DZ: When did you start playing, and what were your early influences? With your dad you probably had music all around the house.

NS: I started at ten, and really I mainly taught myself by listening to records that I liked. My dad did hook me up with this great teacher in San Carlos, his name was Art Bergman. He was an older guy that taught jazz. I still was learning to sight-read staff notes clumped on top of each other and playing chords up and down the neck, which now if I looked at that I wouldn’t be able to tell you what it is, but at the time I was going in that direction. But as he’d listen to me practice, I mean I’d always come in with whatever lesson he had me prepare, but when I warmed up he just heard me play blues. I was really into blues, and finally one day he said, “You know, I think you just ought to follow your heart and play what I hear you warming up with every day, because that sound is your voice.” And you know, a lot of people don’t know it, but I’m really more of a blues guitar player. Those are my roots.

It just so happened, you know, Journey was sort of a fusion band when I first got into it and it turned into a pop band. And I slowly learned how to play in a pop entity. People don’t realize, I'm not a big pop fan, never have been. I enjoy it more now than I did back then. I grew up listening to great guitar players and instrumental guys playing sax, my dad was always playing Miles Davis, John McGlaughlin, Larry Coryell, Wes Montgomery. Then the whole English invasion came in, and I listened to Jeff Beck, Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, BB and Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy. When I heard the electric blues, rock blues, I was, “Oh, this is me.” That changed my life.
But you know, the one person who really taught me a lot about phrasing on the guitar? Aretha Franklin. I remember listening to her when I was very young, I’d go see her at Fillmore West, off of Market Street in the City. I remember going in there and getting chills all night long, the fur was standing up on my arms. She completely turned me on. Still does today. She is the one that twisted my head around, her soul. I remember listening to her records and trying to pick up her phrasing, so I think that’s where my approach came from, from trying to emulate a voice.

DZ: What is the story with meeting Clapton? I’d heard about this, you were like 15?

NS: I was a major Clapton fan. When the Cream album came out I think I was about 12, and had been playing for two years. I was starting to rip on blues guitar, knowing how to get around the neck in the different positions and stuff like that. When I heard Cream, that just messed me up, especially when Wheels Of Fire came out. That was the record that taught me how to stretch out and improvise. I loved sitting down with that record and playing with it. So Clapton was my guitar hero.

At the time [I met Clapton], I was 15, wasn’t in Santana yet, but we were in Wally Hyder’s studio in San Francisco, jamming and having some fun. You know, Clapton walks in [sighs], and I’m trying not to shit my pants. [laughs] I was so shy and dumbfounded, I didn’t know what to do. So he came in and plugged in and played, and he and I jammed, we exchanged quite a bit on solos that night. At the end of the night I said, “It’s really nice to meet you,” blah blah blah, and I went home and I was just on a cloud. So freakin’ high, I couldn’t believe what had just happened.

So I’m going back in the studio the next day, and there was a message for me at the front desk that Clapton had called. He wanted me to go to the Berkeley Community Theater that night and jam with him and Derek and The Dominoes. And I was like, “What?” I couldn’t even believe it. I didn’t even have a driver’s license at the time, didn’t have a car.

I basically talked someone into giving me a ride over from the studio. So we got there, and by the time we’d gotten there it was about 15 minutes before they were going on stage. So I walk backstage and he was all, “Oh great, you made it! I’ve got an amplifier for you on stage. Let us get into the set a bit, I’ll play like about five numbers and then I’m going to call you on stage and introduce you as a good friend of mine. You just stay on stage for the rest of the night and jam.” And I was like, “No problem!” [laughs]

So I went on stage, and I knew all of his songs, and I knew all of his solos. Every time a solo would come around, he’d turn to me and say, “Play.” And so I’d play his solos and then I would add all my Beck and Hendrix influences, and sort of twist it into what was mine, you know? And he really enjoyed my playing, I guess. After the concert, he took me back to his hotel and basically asked me to move to England to join his band. It was shortly after Duane Allman had died in the motorcycle crash. I think he was looking at me as the replacement.

I was just completely taken aback. But I said, “Well first of all, I don’t think I’m really ready to move to London right now.” I was still living with my family, and I had also been hanging out with the Santana band for a while, and I had a feeling that they were going to ask me to join up. Sure enough, the next day they asked me to join them.

All in all, when I look back now, part of me kicks myself in the butt for not going with Eric. But by the same token, that band did not last more than a couple of months after he’d asked me to do that. So I think I made the right choice, because I was with Santana from 1970-72. And I really, really enjoyed playing with Santana, it was a worldly band. You know, African and Cuban rhythms, it opened my mind up so much.

And I also picked up so much from playing with Carlos. I was real fiery and sort of the new kid on the block, trying to be a machine-gun guitar player. Carlos really taught me to slow down and play more melodically. He rubbed off on me, big time. I completely cherish those memories.



Don Zulaica is a freelance writer and photographer in Menlo Park, California. He has been published in Down Beat, Drum!, Bassics, LiveDaily, Request, and Musician.com.

 


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