With his solo efforts, the Journey ace guitarist explores many musical roads

By Russell Hall 

Neal Schon is not one to rest on his laurels. Despite selling upwards of 80 million albums with classic-rock behemoth Journey, the guitar virtuoso continues to be driven by a restless creative spirit. “In Journey I sort of ride with the flow,” he explains. “It seems to work better if I do most of the more experimental stuff on my own. It keeps me from getting frustrated, and it also keeps Journey doing what we’re good at.”

That philosophy has never been more evident than on his latest, The Calling, Schon’s fifth solo album. The instrumental record shifts nimbly between rock, jazz and blues, all carried on the wings of Schon’s dazzling technical skills and soulful expression. Schon wrote and recorded the album in just four days, working at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif. “We went in with nothing prepared,” explains Schon, who handled the bass parts in addition to guitar. Joining him in the studio were former Journey drummer Steve Smith, pianist Igor Len and keyboard wiz Jan Hammer. “I think making the record quickly helped us achieve things we would have missed otherwise.”

Schon has been following an eclectic path for four decades. In 1971, as a teen prodigy, he joined Santana and spent a two-year apprenticeship honing his six-string skills. Co-founding Journey in 1973, he saw the group’s progressive-rock beginnings give way to a commercial sound that yielded such monster hits as “Anyway You Want It” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Meanwhile, he’s given fuller expression to his love of guitar by releasing solo albums.

“Sometimes you get into the studio and there are just too many cooks,” he says. “In a band that’s fine—it’s more of a democratic situation—but with a solo record there’s no need for that. You can just take the ball and run with it.” During a break from Journey’s latest tour, Schon discussed the new record, the importance of melody and how Aretha Franklin influenced his style.

How is this solo album unique?

Usually when I make an album I love it for a moment and then put it away. This has staying power the others didn’t have. We captured some great energy that translated into different styles of music. It sounds more off-the-cuff. The structure is there but there’s looseness within that structure—it’s a controlled looseness.


Describe the recording process.

Everything was dictated by guitar and drums. All I had was a bunch of riffs on a looping machine. Smith would lay down a groove based on the riffs we chose, and I would arrange with rhythm guitar around his drum loop. He’d listen back and write down my arrangement, with crescendos and everything. After that I would do four or five solos, not knowing what I might come up with. It was all done in sections. It was the one time I actually enjoyed using Pro Tools as a writing tool.


Why did you play bass?

I didn’t have a bass player available. After I played the lead guitar parts I thought, “I don’t know who I can get—no one’s around.” I’m not the world’s greatest bass player, but listening back to a couple of tracks, it sounded in keeping with the character of the album. If I had gotten a better bassist I don’t think the music would have sounded as glued down. I like what Hendrix did in the early days, with Noel Redding playing bass, or even when Jimi himself played bass once in a while—the tuba-style bass, where it’s felt more on the bottom end. Doing that lets the drums—the kick—be the thing that’s more in your face.


Do riffs come easily to you?

I always have an overabundance. Some of the riffs on this album are from stuff I did back in the ’70s but never used. I have hundreds of riffs and other ideas stored on a Line 6 Looper or a Roland that I’m using now. I make up riffs constantly. That’s the form my practice takes. I just jam over the tops of those things, and play some melody. That’s how all the ideas on The Calling got started.


How important is melody?

I’m always thinking about melody. Once I have that melodic structure in my head, that’s when I start messing around with it. That’s when the adventure starts. If you don’t have a strong melody you don’t have anything. When it comes to instrumental records, there are lots of great guitarists who could run rings around me. For me it’s more about expression and having style. There’s a lot of blues and R&B roots in my playing. When I first started I was listening to a lot of Aretha Franklin, and I used to try to make the guitar sing like her vocals. That applied to the type of vibrato, the choice of notes, all of it. Any time I’ve worked with singers, I’ve always tried to make the guitar an extension of the vocal. It’s actually more difficult than writing instrumental music.

How did you learn to play?

I picked up the guitar after seeing my cousin playing in a band. They were doing some Paul Revere and the Raiders stuff at a roller rink. I asked him to show me a song and he played me “Louie Louie” and “Gloria.” And that was it—I was hooked. I started practicing and listening to all different styles of music. I took jazz guitar lessons from a teacher my father found for me. My parents gave me one of those old record players where you lift up the arm. I would take one record and wear it out. I would go to sleep listening to whatever I was studying at the time, learning to dissect things. I reached a point where I could tell the position—where the player’s hands were on the neck—by listening to the differences in the sound.


What did you learn from Santana?

Those guys were the example of great band chemistry. That rhythm section—Michael Carabello, José “Chepito” Areas and Michael Shrieve—created magic. Chepito was the timekeeper. He could play any instrument–make music out of anything you put in his hands. And Carabello wasn’t interested in playing a lot of hot conga licks—he just let the groove happen. And Shrieve was a brilliant young drummer. His youth worked for him, as it did for me, in that we had no fear. Those guys opened me up to styles I never knew existed. I’ll be forever grateful to them.


How are things with Journey?

For the last record we did, Eclipse, I really was stubborn about us not repeating ourselves by writing new versions of songs we already have. It’s easy to go, “Well, we have this old song. Let’s write something new that’s like that.” My thinking was, “Let’s move in a new direction, write grooves we don’t have in the set.” Now we’re starting to implement that by putting more of the Eclipse record into our live shows. Shortly after the first of the year we’ll be going to Europe. The last time we played in the U.K. we put six or seven new songs into the set, and they loved it. To be honest, I think the majority of our audiences in the States would be happy if we just did our greatest hits, with a little rock on the side. But to keep my sanity I have to mix it up once in a while.


Is there a new record planned?

I think it’s likely that the next thing the band will do is work on a song or two for movies, rather than a full album. It just seems hard for anyone to get a new full album out there, in the face of downloading and everything else. Doing a little at a time seems the better route for us right now.


What’s next?

I’ve got another solo record finished. Journey drummer Deen Castronovo is on drums, and [Thin Lizzy member] Marco Mendoza is on bass. It’s more of a power trio album, but musically it’s still all over the map. We’re singing all over the record. There are also two instrumentals. One is a dedication to Carlos Santana. There’s a tribute to Santana on The Calling as well, but this one is more upbeat, and pretty jamming.

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