Finding His Voice
by Don Zulaica
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
Bocellis Caruso and Mariah Careys Hero, was recently nominated for the Best Pop Instrumental Album Grammy.
But dont 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 drivers license, enough to be invited into
both of their respective bands. The resume stretches from Michael Bolton
and the Allman Brothers to heavy metals 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, Im 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 Whos Face Dances.
I hope you can forgive me.
NS: [laughing] Youre forgiven!
DZ: Nice to see youve 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, Ive 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 its just a personal preference from the board, I dont
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 dont know that many people even know that its
out there-- theyre starting to now. Since the nomination Ive
watched my record sales go up. Im just completely blown away. When
Higher Octave called me they said, Congratulations, youve
just been nominated for a Grammy. I said, Yeah? For what?
Even though Id completely given up on that stuff, on ever getting
nominated for anything. It wasnt the biggest thing in my life, Ive
made it that way. But...to really be nominated, its unbelievable.
Its like youre finally getting a nod from your peers. And
whats even weirder, this is so freaky, but my birthday is February
27th, which is the night of the Grammies, and Im turning 48. At
this point in my career, Id pretty much given up on receiving any
awards for anything. I figure, Ive done my duty, Ive had a
lot of fun, Ive had a great career, and Im not saying anythings
over, but...Im not expecting anything. I just want to be happy and
play what I want to play and thats about it.
DZ: Im 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. Im 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 its like, if youre 20, your too old-- okay,
DZ: Wheres 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 Id recorded a record for them,
because Ive 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. Its not like its a new idea, but
I dont think many guitar players have done that before, with this
type of pop record. Ive 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-- hes 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 thats how good the
So when I went to play on this stuff, in ProTools youre 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 didnt hear one bit of difference or movement, thats
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 Bocellis 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. Thats
my favorite tune, I think, on the record.
DZ: What about Mariah Careys 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, Im 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 didnt have to sit there and just-- you
know, the hardest part for me was to try to find that voice. Thats
why its called Voice, because thats what I was looking for
in each song. I wanted to capture that original voice, but also, theres
a fine line where if Id played it too safe on these songs, like
had I played with a really clean, jazzy tone...
NS: ...it would have sounded like muzak, exactly. I was so scared of that.
Ive been in a million elevators in my life. [laughs] And I never
wanted to make a record like that, thats 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: Im 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 wasnt giving you that you had
to go out and get by yourself?
NS: It wasnt so much that. Im the kind of guy who likes to
write with a view, like when Im on a plane. When I started writing
stuff for [1995s] 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 thats
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 its completely
thrash metal, and other times its real melodic or more subtle.
I never played guitar to be a rock star. I never considered
myself a rock star, I didnt like that title, and when people say
that it really sort of pisses me off. Luckily though, I didnt attain
that type of rock stardom like a Bon Jovi or something like that, and
I have no regrets, believe me. Ive always felt like a true musician,
my dad was an incredible jazz musician and writer. It sort of was in my
blood, Ive 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 wouldnt be able to tell you what it is, but at the time
I was going in that direction. But as hed listen to me practice,
I mean Id 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
dont know it, but Im 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 dont 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, Id 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
thats where my approach came from, from trying to emulate a voice.
DZ: What is the story with meeting Clapton? Id 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, wasnt in Santana yet, but
we were in Wally Hyders studio in San Francisco, jamming and having
some fun. You know, Clapton walks in [sighs], and Im trying not
to shit my pants. [laughs] I was so shy and dumbfounded, I didnt
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, Its really nice to meet you, blah blah
blah, and I went home and I was just on a cloud. So freakin high,
I couldnt believe what had just happened.
So Im 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 couldnt even believe
it. I didnt even have a drivers license at the time, didnt
have a car.
I basically talked someone into giving me a ride over from the studio.
So we got there, and by the time wed 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! Ive got an amplifier for you on
stage. Let us get into the set a bit, Ill play like about five numbers
and then Im 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, hed turn to me and say,
Play. And so Id 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 dont think Im 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
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 hed 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,