Phoenix Rising: Neal Schon Reinvents Journey...Again

November 1, 2008

“IT WAS WEIRD,” SAYS NEAL SCHON. “YOU PLAY A SONG EVERY NIGHT ON stage for years, and you don’t even think about it. Then one day you’re in a studio redoing it, using the same old ’63 Strat you used on the original track, trying to play the parts true to the original, because you don’t want to change anything. By this point, those parts are etched in stone.”

Schon is talking about rerecording “Lights,” one of Journey’s most enduring mega-hits, three decades after it first landed on people’s turntables, in their 8-track car stereos, and all over their FM radio dials. The soulful power ballad was the first of many classic Journey songs that the 2008 version of the band replicated with near note-for-note accuracy for the new album, Revelation [Nomota]. Boasting 11 reproduced Journey hits, 11 new original tunes, and a full-length concert DVD, the three-disc set is also the debut showcase for the band’s powerful new lead singer, Arnel Pineda, the YouTube sensation who sounds so much like former Journey frontman Steve Perry it’s almost creepy.

From its soaring lead vocal part to its famous guitar solo, the new “Lights” is a perfect example of new Journey masterfully cloning old Journey. While most rock and roll fans know that Perry has long been retired from Journey, far fewer realize that only one guy has been in the band since its inception in l973—when Journey was still basically a jazz-rock quintet—and that’s the guitar player.

“I started Journey with my old manager,” says Schon, who reinvented the band when he hired Perry in 1977. “I’ve got a deep-down love for it, even though some people think I’m just doing it for the business aspects of it. When you start something, it’s hard to walk away from it and just let it go down. You want to see it survive, so throughout the years I’ve done everything I could do to keep the band alive, including going through personnel changes.”

It’s hard to think of a guitar hero who’s more fun to interview than Schon. He laughs—cackles is a better word—constantly. He brings along six or seven of his best guitars— everything from his latest Gibson Neal Schon Signature Model Les Paul to his famous “Lights” Strat—and insists you play each. He shows you exactly how he plays his most famous riffs. (For the transcriptions, check out our Private Lesson with Neal Schon, page 126.) And he has his engineer open the raw sessions of brand new songs he’s recorded, and then he zealously plays air guitar along with whatever blasts forth through the studio monitors.

I caught up with Schon at the Plant—the storied Sausalito, California, studio where Journey recorded Revelation—to find out why he puts locking trems on Les Pauls, why his rig is so damn complicated, and what it was like having Eddie Van Halen open for him in 1978. But first, I had to ask him why he retracked all his biggest hits, and why a well-connected music industry kingpin such as himself was anonymously cruising the Internet for bar band singers.

You could have gotten just about any singer on the planet to return your call and come down for a jam with the band. Why were you all about YouTube when it came to finding a new frontman?
By now everyone knows that I found Arnel on YouTube. Ellen DeGeneres loves the story, and there are clips of her talking about it all over the place online. I went the YouTube route because I’ve become frustrated with the more traditional auditioning process we’ve gone through so many other times. For instance, when Perry fired Steve Smith and Ross Valory, we went through every friggin’ drummer and bass player you can imagine, and it cost an amazing amount of money to fly everybody around, put them up, and have all the equipment set up. We did a month of that and it seriously cost a fortune. Also, I didn’t want to sit around listening to a bunch of CDs, because these days you never know what’s real. I mean, anyone can sound good in Pro Tools. You can tune vocal tracks up and make a person sound pitch perfect. You hear it and go, “That’s cool, but can the guy really sing?”

Once I checked out YouTube for a second, I loved it. I loved the idea of watching clips of people performing in truly live settings. I punched in the words “male vocalist rock and soul” and looked at everybody until finally, after about two or three days, I fell upon a clip of Arnel. He was doing a Survivor song. It was a tough tune with lots of vibrato and high held notes, and it was all live. I was like, “Wow, this guy’s amazing. If it sounds this good through a funky little condenser mike in a club in Manila streaming across the ’Net through my computer speakers, then the guy’s got some serious pipes.” At first I couldn’t believe how good he sounded—I thought perhaps I was delirious from being online for three days—so I left, got some dinner, came back, and watched some more clips, and he still sounded insanely good.

I called up [Journey keyboardist] Jonathan Cain and said, “I’ve found our singer. He’s in the Philippines.” I emailed Arnel’s friends, and once I was able to convince them it was really me and not a hoax, I got through to Arnel himself. We flew him over and, from the first jam, everything clicked. And he’s only gotten better. I think he’s with us to stay. He’s a great guy, super nice, and very humble—at least right now. [Laughs.] Check back with me in a year!

What would possess a band that has sold over 75million records and has already released greatest hits collections to rerecord all their hits again with a new singer?
It wasn’t something that I wanted to do necessarily, but it was all part of a Wal-Mart distribution deal that Irving [Azoff Management] put together. See, Wal-Mart is like the new record store. Aside from Target and Best Buy, Wal-Mart’s the only game in town. There’s no more Tower Records. The great thing for the artist is that, when it comes to your royalty rate, the deal is much more favorable with Wal-Mart than it’s ever been with a major label. Sony owns all our old recordings, and they make it very difficult to get a decent deal, even with a greatest hits package, because they’re trying to stay in business—they wanna make all the f***in’ money. We’re now making four times the royalty we made on Sony, and the new album is heading toward platinum.

Initially, the plan was to rerecord the greatest hits and three or four new songs, but once we got a few songs prepared with Arnel, things were going surprisingly smoothly. He was tearing through the tracks—no Pro Tools fixes, none of that crap—so I said, “It doesn’t feel right to just do the greatest hits and a couple of new songs. We gotta write more stuff. If we’re going to have 11 old tracks, let’s have 11 new tracks, too.”

Redoing your classic tracks seems like the ultimate case of “recreating the demo,” and we all know how hard that can be. Was it challenging to recapture the magic of the old tracks?
It was nerve-wracking at first, but once we got rolling, everything just flowed. We’d been performing the stuff for so many years and had done so many different versions of the songs that some of my guitar parts had floated off to somewhere else—which I think is cool for live, but not for a record. I wanted to try and stay closer and more true to the original guitar parts. Some things are just embedded in people’s minds by now—like the “Lights” solo. I did that mostly the same, except for the downward cascading thing [see Example 5, page 128], which, if you listen closely, you’ll hear I harmonized in three parts. The only difference, really, is that the new version of the solo is a little more Hendrix-y—though instead of running the Strat through a [Marshall] Plexi like I did on the original, I used a Diezel VH4 set pretty clean. On “Wheel in the Sky,” I played the middle solo pretty much the same, but when the end solo came, I really let things fly where the old version faded out.

You were gigging professionally, including touring and recording with Santana, by the age of 17. How’d you get so accomplished, so young?
I was just really focused. I really knew what I wanted to do, and I think that was the main factor in everything falling into place for me. It was a pretty mind-blowing and jaw-dropping experience to be in Santana that young—I mean, what a great band! When I first joined up, I was a fired-up speed gun blues guitar player who had studied a lot of Beck, Hendrix, Clapton, and Page. I also loved Albert King, B.B. King, Albert Collins, and Michael Bloomfield, and my goal was to put all those guys together in one style and then speed everything up and make it really accurate. I think I became more tasteful after touring the world with Santana.

One thing that helped me get established so early was being introduced to Elvin Bishop. He and Michael Bloomfield had the old Keystone Korner club here in San Francisco, and I started going there every Tuesday night. It was sort of like a jam night and gun-off for guitar players from all over the Bay Area. I became pretty good friends with Elvin, and I was just 13 or 14. I was playing a goldtop Les Paul reissue with PAFs—the same guitar I later played in the Santana band—and Elvin seemed to be a fan of my blues playing, so he sort of took me under his wing, and next thing you know he takes me to the Fillmore and introduces me to B.B. King. B.B. invited me on stage, so there I was, across the stage from him, paying my respects by using his vibrato and doing his bends, letting him know that I had listened to him a lot. We got a little call and answer thing going that night that I’ll never forget.

What do you like in a Les Paul neck?
Wes Montgomery used to say in interviews that he liked playing after eating a salami sandwich, because the grease acted like Finger-Ease, and that that was one way he got such a smooth sound with his thumb and fretting fingers. I swear to god, every time I get a new guitar now, I take the strings off, get some sliced salami, and rub it up and down the fretboard, and let the grease soak in. Then I wipe off the neck and string it up. With new wood, it works really well. You’d be surprised. And sometimes [wipes forehead and then starts playing] I use my own grease. It’s organic!

Do people ever give you grief about putting Floyd Rose trems on Les Pauls?
They did in the beginning, but now everybody wants one. I was definitely the first person ever to put a Floyd on a Paul—I got the second or third one Floyd Rose ever made—the one after the one Ed [Van Halen] got—and it took some getting used to because a traditional Paul’s neck is angled a bit, so the Floyd’s bridge ends up sitting about an inch above the body. It took a long time for me to finally get together with Gibson and get the neck angle right.

For a guy with so many Floyds, you don’t seem to use the bar a whole lot.
I don’t, but when I do hit it, I hit it hard. I want it to sound like something died. Really, though, one of the main reasons I have Floyds on my guitars is because I play so much during each Journey show, and I don’t like playing a zillion different guitars. I like to play the same guitar all night and not have to tune between songs. I do like the way a regular nut sounds, but the Floyd’s nut locks down on the strings and I know the guitar’s not going out of tune—which is very important when you’re playing with keyboards. You can’t be a smidge out of tune if there’s a keyboard behind you, or everyone will hear it. In a trio, though, you can get away with being a little out of tune here or there. With just a bass player and drums, nobody will ever notice anything.

Are your bridges floating, or do you leave them stopped?
In the studio, I might set up one or two floating because I like to wiggle chords around and encircle notes with vibrato, but on stage I like my bridges stopped. That way, if I bust a string, the rest of the strings stay in tune, and I can still finish the solo or the song.

What kind of setup do you prefer?
I usually use .009-.042 D’Addario strings, because I don’t like my guitar to be too hard to play, and your tone really lies between your guitar, your amp, and your fingers, not your string gauge. But I do like the action to be a little more meaty than some players do. I went to one of Joe Satriani’s rehearsals recently. He let me plug in, and honestly, I couldn’t get anything out of his guitar, because the action was so low. And when Ed showed me one of his new guitars, it was too easy to play—he had .009s tuned a halfstep below standard, and my fingers were just falling off the fretboard.

What was it like having Van Halen open for you in 1978?
It was like getting your ass kicked every night by the best sword-swinging sushi chef in the land. I had seen a lot of guitar players by then, but I’d never seen anything like him. Somebody had given me that first Van Halen album and I remember sitting with my record player and a guitar trying to figure out what he was doing, and for the first time in my life I was stumped. I had no clue until I saw him and realized he had both hands on the fretboard. I’d met Harvey Mandel years earlier, and saw him do that a couple little tapping things, but Ed was taking everything to a much crazier level.

But it wasn’t just the tapping you dug about EVH, right?
It was everything. Ed is one of the greatest rock and roll guitar players of all time, and, as far as being an innovator and taking it to the hilt, he’s right up there with Jimi and everyone else. And he didn’t come any better than on that first tour with us when we were touring Infinity—our first record with Steve Perry—and he was touring Van Halen’s debut. They opened every night, and Ed played with extreme fire and loose abandon. Ronnie Montrose was supporting, and he hated being in the middle slot. I would tell him, “Man, I’m glad you have to follow that and not me.” [Laughs.]

Sitting here watching you do some of your faster picking stuff, what I like is that it’s not too accurate, and it gets looser the faster you go. It’s still bluesy. It doesn’t sound like you locked yourself up in closet with a metronome for ten years.
My dad was a jazz musician, and when I was little he set me up with guitar lessons with a guy named Art Bergman, who taught me picking accuracy by drawing a circle on my pickguard and saying, “Put your pinky in that circle and don’t move it.” I don’t have pickguards on my signature Les Pauls, and you can see that on this prototype I’m holding [above], two different holes have developed in the finish: one where I rest my pinky, and one where the pick grazes the body. I sort of miss having a pickguard, because I like my hand to be lifted a little bit more when I pick. Hopefully Gibson will make me a custom one that fits my special knob layout. It’s funny—more and more lately I find myself playing without a pick. If I want to play fast but can’t find a pick, I just use the tip of the nail on my index finger.

You know who I actually pick like? John McLaughlin. The crazy thing is that even though I was a huge Mahavishnu freak back when Journey first started, and still am, I never learned to pick from McLaughlin. But I caught up with him before a show recently in San Francisco, and when he started warming up, I noticed he was slicing the strings sideways with the pick, and that’s exactly what I’ve always done [below]. I’ve never played straight on. On stage, I use Dunlop [483 Classic Celluloid] medium picks. Heavy picks feel kind of stumbly to me. But when

I’m warming up, sometimes I use those pointy little Dunlop Eric Johnson [Classic Jazz III] picks. Those are really great to practice with, because they build up your accuracy. When I come back to my normal picks after that, it feels really easy, because the other pick is so hard, it’s like playing with a piece of bone or something.

For a “blues” guy, you’ve got one of the most complex touring rigs I’ve ever seen.
Honest to god, I look at my rig and I think it’s pretty simple—simple in the sense that all the pieces talk to each other so easily. Everything communicates through MIDI. My new Marshall JVM heads and Diezel VH4s are almost identical in the way they talk to each other and turn effects loops on and off for different settings. The TC Electronic G-System adds effects and changes everything at once. The Boss GT-6 is mostly for my in-ear monitors mix. The setup runs really smoothly, actually. Sure, the cabinet count has grown and grown, because there’s only one guitar in the band—and sure, I could play through one Marshall in mono and just crank it on 10. But those five cabinets aren’t really that loud—they can’t be, because, honestly, my ears are fried and I’m constantly dealing with tinnitus. The extra cabs are really just there to simulate the ambience of a hall or a coliseum. We play a lot of sheds [amphitheaters] where the sound just goes out and doesn’t come back, so I have some cabinets set wet with effects so my area of the stage sounds like I’m playing indoors.

What was it that damaged your ears most over the years? Your amps? The cymbals? The stage wedges?
Loud instruments, of course, but also, in my case, loud motorcycles. Motorcycles have probably done more damage than all the concerts I’ve played. A bike should be loud so people can hear you coming—that’s what makes you safe on the freeway—but now I ride with hearing protection in. The other thing is that in the ’80s, when we were touring indoors all the time, Perry had four giant P.A. cabinets hung up in the lighting rig facing down at center stage. It was like having a huge P.A. system blasting vocals in your face every night. Those were loud circumstances. Now I’ve got in-ear monitors with 5dB cut filters in the portholes so I can hear a touch of the outside world, and only the instruments I need to hear. I leave them in, and then turn up the amps just loud enough to feel them without things actually being loud in my head.

When you first started Journey, it was called the Golden Gate Rhythm Section, and you guys set out to be a studio A-team that would back everybody who came through San Francisco. Could such a band even survive in today’s climate?
You know, the Bay Area music scene has been dead for quite some time, and music in general isn’t what it used to be, no matter where you are. It would be hard to be a fulltime session cat now. I guess if you get really frustrated, you could try moving to Nashville. It might be the new music capital. It’s funny, when I go there, I run into more people I know than when I was living in L.A., another place that is in pretty much the same drought as the Bay Area. Austin, Texas, is great too— maybe that’s the music capital. There are like 200 different things going on there every night. You can’t possibly see everything.

It seems like everyone’s doing reunion tours these days. What do you tell people who ask you why Perry doesn’t sing with Journey anymore?
I tell them, “Ask Steve.” There was always an open door here. It wasn’t like we kicked him out or anything. He just chose not to want to work. It was either we don’t work without him, or we move on and we do work. Everybody wanted to work, so we moved on.

Weapons of Choice During the more orchestral segments of the Journey set, you’ll find Neal Schon playing his 18.5"- scale Veillette Gryphon High 12 acoustic-electric. (“That guitar is tuned really high and has lots of unison strings, so it rings beautifully,” says Schon’s tech, Adam Day). And when it’s time to play “Lights” or other Strat-powered Journey classics, a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster finds its way in Schon’s hands. But for the bulk of a Journey concert, Schon’s main guitar is a cherry sunburst flametop Gibson Neal Schon Signature Custom Les Paul. And if you think the Floyd Rose locking bridge and nut are the only custom features, look a little closer.
The only truly standard features on a Neal Schon Paul are the tuning machines and the Gibson BurstBucker Pro bridge humbucker. The neck heel has been heavily sculpted—almost erased—to grant easy access to the high frets, and the fretboard is angled more parallel with the body than those on standard Les Pauls so that the Floyd bridge sits flush. The neck pickup cavity is occupied by a single-coil-sized DiMarzio Fast Track 2 humbucker and a Fernandes Sustainer Driver. The knobs are widely spaced and have been rewired to include a master volume, a push/pull master tone (the pull position activates a Vari-Tone-type circuit that gives Schon “wah sounds without a wah pedal”), and a master Sustainer volume. The mini-toggle switches behind the tailpiece control the Sustainer settings. And if you take an MRI of Schon’s cherry sunburst Paul, you’ll discover it has been chambered for weight reduction. “It’s taken many years to develop this guitar with Gibson, but it was worth it,” says Schon. “It just works.” —JG

The World’s Most Insane “Blues” Rig Resonant with lyrical, B.B. King-style vibrato and ornamented with R&B trills, Neal Schon’s guitar playing is still very much alive with the simple blues mojo that gained him notoriety in the Bay Area clubs when he was still in his early teens. It’s the delivery medium that’s gotten more complex. When Schon’s tech, Adam Day, is asked if he can think of a more complex stage rig, he can only cite the Edge’s famously elaborate U2 setup.

Schon’s backline setup starts with a Lectrosonics wireless. (“Neal had been ‘on the wire’ for a while,” says Day, “but when he heard this system, he liked the sound enough to go wireless again.”) From the receiver back in his amp racks, Schon’s signal passes through 45-foot Mogami cables to and from his pedalboard, which includes a Dunlop Buddy Guy Wah, a Boss compressor pedal used mostly for Strat solos, and Xotic ACand RC-Booster pedals. (“Lectrosonics systems tend to run a little bright, so the extra capacitance created by all that long cable actually serves to balance out the sound a bit.”) A TC Electronic G-System controller at Schon’s feet handles all MIDI-implemented effects and amp channel changes, an expression pedal controls the overall delay level (the delay time seems to work nicely for most songs when set to 600ms), and Schon uses a Gibson Digital Echoplex to create the loops he solos over during instrumental interludes between songs.

That’s the simple part. Things get more intricate back at the amp racks where Schon’s signal is split five ways courtesy of Framptone Amp Switcher and 3-Banger pedals. One signal feeds a drawer-mounted Boss GT-6 processor that runs through a Demeter tube preamp into a Roland M-120 Line Mixer feeding Schon’s in-ear monitors as well as a Marshall Dual MonoBlock power amplifier driving two 1960B 4x12 cabinets in stereo. Schon’s signal is also split between two Marshall JVM half-stacks with G-System effects in their loops, and two Diezel VH4 heads running in stereo courtesy of an Eventide Eclipse processor in their loops (used primarily to fatten things up occasionally with “a little detune”). Each Diezel drives a separate 4x12. And because one is run flat out to get a full sound, its cabinet is turned backwards and miked up behind the stage, thus keeping Schon’s stage volume down.

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