Melodic Journey: A Look at Neal Schon’s Soulful Lead Playing

June 15, 2017
Neal Schon’s distinguished résumé details a 40-plus-year career highlighted by legendary recordings, hit songs, inspired live performances, creative side projects and collaborations, and, most recently, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The guitarist joined the big leagues as a member of Santana, and famously declined an offer from Eric Clapton to join Derek and the Dominos before going on to became a founding member of Journey in 1973—all while still a teenager.

Schon’s celebrated lead playing has always been very melodic, aggressive, and soulful—from his earliest licks and solos alongside Carlos Santana on songs such as “Everybody’s Everything” and “No One to Depend On” to his many recordings with Journey. His signature style is marked by outstanding technique and facility, but he has always found a way to blend technical ideas with a healthy dose of blues sensitivity, raw emotion, and impeccable phrasing. This lesson will focus on the modal “melodic pocket” approach that Schon has used throughout his career, with the goal of teaching you how to employ it in your own playing. The concept involves locating and targeting a small fretboard pattern for a scale, and finding various ways of repurposing the notes over different relative chords and modes to create a variety of appealing modal tonalities from a single handful of notes.

To begin, let’s focus on the G major scale (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#) played in only one octave in the 12th position, as shown in Ex. 1. This “pocket” of notes will easily work over a G major chord and any progression in that key. After you become familiar with this pattern and shape, play the lick shown in Ex. 2, which is built directly from it. As you play through this lick, notice the abundance of finger vibratos applied to specific, targeted notes (the high G#). Schon is a master of vibrato, and this lick captures a little of his magical touch. A smooth, wide, even vibrato technique, applied to catchy melodic phrases like this one is a very effective device for making your guitar come to life and sing, so to speak, and for creating memorable lead lines and solos.
 

 
 
 
 
Ex. 3 demonstrates how you can repurpose this same handful of notes over an Em tonality and chord type, such as E5, Em, Em7 or Em9, and create the sound of the E natural minor scale, also known as an E Aeolian mode (E, F#, G, A, B, C, D), which is the sixth mode of the G major scale. The fingerings and notes we’re using here are exactly the same as with Ex.1, but the sound created by playing the same notes over a different chord alters the musical mood and flavor, and moves the pocket into a new tonality and modal fingerprint.
 
 

Play the Schon-inspired melodic lead phrase in Ex. 4 and notice the expressive use of string bends and vibratos as the line unfolds, bringing to mind the guitarist’s soaring licks on such Journey classics such as “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” and “Stone in Love.”
 


 
Ex. 5 expands this concept to another relative key and modal tonality, A Dorian (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G), which is the second mode of the G major scale and comprises the same seven notes as both that scale and E natural minor. It can be played over A5, Am, Am7 or Am9 chords and A Dorian-based progressions. Schon no doubt learned much about how to use this mode to great musical effect from his tenure playing alongside Santana, himself a Dorian master.
 
 
 
 
 
The melodic lick in Ex. 6 features several Schon-style ideas, with lyrical bending movements in the first bar that beautifully set up the arpeggio movements that follow. As you play through this phrase, notice how our targeted root note has now shifted to A, which brings out the Dorian flavor and sound.
 

 
 

Ex.7 applies this concept to the exotic and modern-sounding Lydian mode—the major scale’s fourth mode and a favorite of players like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani— and places the pocket over a Cmaj7 chord (C, E, G, B), effectively creating a C Lydian flavor (C, D, E, F#, G, A, B). Again, notice that we’re using the same seven notes as in the previous examples, in this case all oriented around a C root note and tonal center. To really emphasize a Lydian sound, play this kind of idea over chords that include a #4, or #11, such as Cmaj9#11 (theoretically spelled C, E, G, B, D, F#), which will match the sound of the raised fourth found in this mode. Ex. 8 showcases this sound with a busy, melodic rock lick that incorporates an abundance of finger slides, finger vibratos, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.
 


 
 
 
 
 
Ex. 9 reveals another expansion of our pocket, which takes us to the popular and bluesy sound of the Mixolydian mode, in this case D Mixolydian (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C), which is the fifth mode of G major. Here, our now-familiar fretboard shape is played over a D7 chord (D, F#, A, C), creating an appealing sound heard in plenty of Journey songs, especially their bluesier material, such as “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin” and “Walks Like a Lady.” The melodic phrase presented in Ex. 10 is based on this same re-purposing of the notes, and brings to mind licks Schon plays in the Journey classic “Only the Young,” with the dominant ninth, E, emphasized at the end of the phrase.
 
 


 
 
 
 
 
As you experiment with superimposing scales over various chords and progressions, you’ll come to realize that there are countless guitarists out there, like Schon, who make great use of this approach to crafting lead melodies. Becoming aware of the different musical “colors” that you can create using this concept will give you useful phrasing options and tonal variances to apply to your own playing. As we did here, select a specific scale and fretboard pattern, and try repurposing the notes to fit over different related chord types and progressions. In so doing, you will learn to hear how you can re-appropriate and adapt licks you already know to different keys and musical settings.

While you can certainly benefit from studying larger, two- and three-octave scale shapes all over the fretboard, there’s something important to learn from taking a small scale-fragment and discovering how to create phrases and melodies using a limited supply of useful and targeted information. As your familiarity with this concept expands and improves—and as you study the examples presented in this lesson and use them as springboards for creating your own licks and phrases—try to remember to keep things basic and “in the pocket.” Eventually, this study will arm you with a highly effective approach to crafting expressive and musically effective ideas.
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