By Jack McDonoughWhen Neal Schon was 16, he was playing and touring with Santana—one of the biggest-selling bands of all time. He did that for three years, and cut three albums with them. Now, he is the central figure in a new band—Journey—that has already established a national reputation. Neal is 21 now.
The obvious question about Schon is, how did he get so good so young?
Well, like many other players who got very good while very young, he had two things going for him: He started at age ten, and he had a musician parent—his father Matt—who got him started, helped him along, and, most of all, provided Neal with an example of how to make one’s living out of a love for playing.
His father, a woodwind player who does one-nighters at San Francisco hotels like the Fairmont and the Hilton and teaches music in San Mateo, California, had Neal playing piano when he was five. Neal took up the guitar at age ten, and later played oboe in his high school band.
“I could read music, and I learned theory,” says Schon, “but it took me away from what I wanted to do, and what was natural for me to do. I can’t do any of the theoretical stuff anymore. I could if I brushed up on it, but I haven’t had any reason to go back to it, because now things just flow out of me naturally.”
At those early stages, Neal was pretty good on the oboe.
“I was first chair oboe with my high school concert band,” he recalls. “I got to play all the solos, and there are a lot of oboe solos in concert music. I was getting that down until, one day, I dropped the oboe, and the whole thing went out of line. See, no two oboes are ever the same. You have to learn which notes are a little bit sharper or flatter, and compensate with your mouth. So after I dropped my oboe, it was like starting all over again. So I just went off to my guitar.”
When he went off with the guitar, Neal brought along a few famous records.
“Cream and Hendrix had come out,” Schon remembers, “and I heard these sounds corning out of a guitar that amazed me. So I decided to sit down with the records. I spent a couple of years sitting in my little room with a record player and my guitar, and I went over and over two albums: Wheels of Fire and Are You Experienced? Wheels of Fire blew me away. Clapton has been one of my main influences. I just studied the records so many times that I got to the point where I could play every one of his solos exactly like on the record—same fingering, same vibrato, same tone. I was also into fiddling around with the electronics, even though I didn’t know anything about it. I’d add fuzz boxes and other components just to see what I’d come upon. I started using a preamp so I could get the right tone, and still play at a low enough volume to play with the records. That’s real important—to have the same tone happening as the record you’re listening to.”
Schon’s “first decent guitar”—the one he had while studying Clapton and Hendrix—was a Gibson ES-335. He later tried a Gibson Barney Kessel model (“I hated it”), and then a Les Paul Standard. He now has a Fender Telecaster with a humbucking pickup in front and a single-coil in back, which he considers “one of the best guitars I have for studio work.” However, he still mostly uses a Les Paul.
“I did a couple of tricks with the pickups,” Neal says. “But the guy who showed me made me promise I’d never pass along the tricks to anyone else.”
With Santana, Neal used an old goldtop Les Paul with P-90 pickups, although now he prefers humbuckers. He still has the goldtop, but hasn’t used it in the studio since he left Santana. For acoustic work, Schon uses a Guild.
With Santana, Neal always used Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings, gauged .008, .009, .011, .022, .030, .038.
“I can’t play with those anymore,” Schon says. “Now, I use Gibson Extra-Lights. They’re not much heavier—.009, .010, .012, 022, .030, .038—but it’s a big difference to me. They don’t go dead so fast.”
Neal has switched picks from the Santana days, when he used a Fender Light.
“They’d bust all the time,” he explains, “so now I use a nylon Herco Light.”
Neal says that in getting his sound he uses a lot of different things: “They’re not all the same, and I don’t use them all the time. I have about 20 amplifiers, and I use different ones for different things. For example, I have a Fender Super Six loaded with four 12" Celestion speakers, and three Fender rotary speakers, each carrying a 12" Altec speaker.
“I haven’t found a top yet for the three rotary speakers,” he says. “Until a while ago, I was only using two, and hooking them to the Super Six top with an extra Super Six top driving them. I’m looking for a top now—a tube amp of about 200 watts.”
In addition, Neal uses a large Yamaha rotary speaker, a Vox wah-wah, a Roland Sustainer, an old gray Echoplex, a Fender Blender distortion box, and a Fender Deluxe Reverb for studio use (with 10" and 12" JBL speakers hooked out of phase).
Neal keeps the action about 1/4" off the fretboard at the 12th fret.
“It’s really low and light—really easy to play,” he says. “I like to have the whole thing under the control of my fingers.”
Schon’s association with Santana began when he was playing at a Palo Alto, California club called the Poppycock with a local band. Santana members Gregg Rolie and Michael Shrieve—who knew the bass player in that band—came into the Poppycock one night and, as Neal tells it, “ended up jamming with us at the end of the evening. After that, I started hanging out with Gregg and going into the studio, and eventually I started playing with the band. I came in on the third LP, which was just called Santana, and I played on Caravanserai, and on Live!. It took me a while to get into the band, because my rhythm was so weak. I had been used to playing heavy rock and roll, and Santana’s rhythms were difficult for me to do, at first. Then, after I locked into them, I more or less heard my own parts, and I added them to what was already there.”
Though Clapton influenced him greatly, Schon states: “Hendrix was number one to me. In jazz, my favorite was Wes Montgomery. Technically, George Benson is great—he’s all over the axe—but Montgomery was the only cat. He could play so many notes, but every note was as meaningful as one note. I also listened to Mike Bloomfield, B.B. King, Harvey Mandel, Peter Green, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. When I didn’t really have my own style, I’d come to a solo in Santana, and I’d take pieces from everyone of these guys, and stick them into one riff. I’d think to myself, ‘It would sound hot if Beck were playing right there, doing some nasty thing, and then Clapton here, and Hendrix there. I was really into English music.”
Neal spoke briefly about his departure from Santana: “When Carlos and I first got together, we were really tight, and we sounded that way on record. But after a while, it got to be like a battle on stage. It was a drag, so I decided to split. Gregg Rolie split at the same time. He went and opened a restaurant for a year.”
Schon and Rolie eventually formed Journey at the prodding of Walter Herbert—better known as Herbie—who had done equipment work with Santana. It took quite a while for the band that was to be known as Journey to come together, but their first album, Journey, came out this spring, and the band went on the road.
“The people who have bought the album,” says Neal, “aren’t really kids. It’s people 20 to 35, and a lot of the bands we’ve been performing with haven’t been the right chemistry for us. We did a tour with Hunter-Ronson which stiffed. That’s really not our audience. We played with Hot Tuna, and that’s not the right chemistry, either. But if you can get the Hot Tuna diehards to listen to you, and turn them around in the middle of a set—which we did—then I figure we’re accomplishing something.”
Neal, who has been composing a lot on piano (“It’s often a lot easier to hear things on piano and adapt to it”), has particular methods for working with the band.
“I don’t like to practice that much—except when I have a brainstorm for a tune,” he says. “Sometimes, I’ll have three parts: one part for a solo, one melodic part for vocals, and a bridge that glues them together. I like to rehearse with the band, because that enables me to stick the parts together correctly. A lot of times, I can’t hear the parts quite right myself. Then, the band grows as a whole. That’s what I’m into now. I’m not interested in being the hottest or fastest guitarist around. There are a million guitar players now trying to be the hottest. That’s what I was like when I was 16. I played with Elvin Bishop a lot—I was really into blues then—and I knew I was hot. You can call me conceited if you want, but I was playing rock and roll that I can’t even play now. Every time I played, I’d get into a trance. My music is my total outlet for everything. If I couldn’t play, I don’t know what I’d do.”
See more from this GP Flashback Series:
- Carlos Santana Revisits The Rock Classics On Guitar Heaven