While soul can’t be instantly taught any more than a tree can be grown overnight (in either case, it’s all about roots), we can learn a lot about the perfect intonation, sweet bends, relaxed phrasing, and smooth glissandos of a great player by examining the sounds that nourished his or her style. In Schon’s case, a lot of his mojo lies in his vocal-like vibrato—which, not surprising, was only remotely inspired by other guitarists.
“I listened to a lot of Aretha Franklin,” says Schon, singing her famous chorus lyric from “Ain’t No Way” and then reinterpreting it on guitar. While Ex. 1 will show you the general contour of Schon’s instrumental emulation of Aretha, it can’t truly convey the power behind it, or the years—the decades—of inspiration and emulation that gives it the emotional wallop you feel when Schon is in the room playing the line for you face-to-face.
“I was reading an interview with Derek Trucks in Guitar Player and found out that he actually listens to a lot of the same people I did, especially singers like Donny Hathaway, Aretha, Bobby Womack—soul singers,” says Schon. Perhaps he best showed his love for the soul genre when he did instrumental versions of great soul songs on his 2001 solo album Voice. “More than listening to actual instruments, what turned me on when I was starting on guitar were voices that had that great vibrato, that sting, and that smoothness. I would listen to their voices and try to cop their melodies. Doing Voice, I found out it’s more difficult than I thought it would be to play a tune’s entire vocal melody on guitar and not have it come out sounding like elevator music. The first thing you have to do is learn the vocal melody and cop the singer’s inflections, turns, and vibrato. And you need to know when the melody is supposed to sail. Then, you have mess with the melody—twist it up a bit—and find ways to stick some of your own stuff in there to set your version apart a little bit.”
Of course, Schon has also taken inspiration from more than a few notable 6-stringers—everyone from Albert King and B.B. King to Eric Clapton and John McLaughlin. “I listened to a lot of Clapton’s vibrato,” says Schon. “I liked how he would often bend into a note, sit on it for a second, and then waver it a couple beats later [Ex. 2].”
With a ’60s Stratocaster running into a Marshall Plexi, Schon’s famous chordal intro to “Lights” [Ex. 3, from Infinity, 1978] certainly invites comparisons to Jimi Hendrix’s intros on “Wind Cries Mary” and “Little Wing.” Really, though, both guitarists are drawing from a deeper R&B well that dates back to early Isley Brothers (whom Hendrix worked with briefly) and other soul acts coming of age in the wee ’60s. The trademarks of this soothing guitar style are relaxed, behind-the-beat phrasing, a wide range of dynamics within each phrase (some notes are leaned into, while others are barely sounded at all), and, most important, the fluttery trills and hammers/ pulls that ornament the chords— chords which, in the case of “Lights,” change every two beats.
A further testament to Schon’s immense capacity for single-note lyricism lies in the “Lights” solo, where, just before he wraps things up with a few climactic high notes, he uses the major pentatonic scale in a repeating “down two notes, up one note” melodic sequence that would sound utterly mechanical in the hands of a less soulful guitarist. Though Schon typically uses two positions to play the move, the easiest way to nail it is using the standard D major fingering in Ex. 4 throughout the downward sequence, remaining in the tenth position [Ex. 5]. “When I redid this solo for Revelation,” shares Neal, “I actually overdubbed two extra parts during [the sequenced part] to create three-part harmony.”
By the time Journey was done touring Infinity, they were certified rock stars. 1981’s Escape would catapult them to stratospherically higher levels of fame. Unless you’ve been living without electricity for the past three decades, you’ve probably heard the album’s recognizable arena rock anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’” a jillion times. Being a guitar player, you can probably hear in your head Schon’s famous repeating fill that enters the mix in the instrumental break after the second verse—the fill that features four notes [Ex. 6] looped over and over, first slowly and quietly, gradually building in speed and intensity. Ever wonder how Schon fingers this four-note phrase? I count at least a half a dozen possible ways.
“I play it starting with my 2nd finger right here [at the 17th fret of the second string], playing two notes per string,” reveals Schon. It’s fun to watch the guitarist gradually launch into the fast part of this phrase [Ex. 7], because while it achieves a blazing hot sound, it’s not overly precise. It’s somewhat scrappy. It’s street. “Every note is picked, with no pull-offs,” says Schon. “I can actually get pretty much the same sound without a pick. I just play the lick with the same motion, grazing the strings with the tip of my 1st finger as if I was holding a pick, and it works almost as well.” The lick crescendos with a little blues bend [Ex. 8].
No sonic snapshot of Neal Schon would be complete without taking a peek at his self-described “power classical ballads,” because it’s in these songs that Schon demonstrates his talent for making entire chord progressions sing. A perfect example is the rippling arpeggiated passage in Ex. 9. It drives the Escape epic “Mother, Father.” The general chord shape associated with each phrase is presented in the corresponding grid above the staff. The key to Schon-style arpeggiation involves, once again, delicate dynamics and a loose pocket.
“The vocal melody is embedded in the chords,” says Schon. “That’s just how I write. When it comes to phrasing this stuff, I try to think like a symphony.” Schon also suggests “wiggling the chords around” to get a bigger, more orchestral sound. Ex. 10 shows this wiggly three-notesat- a-time vibrato as it applies to the Keith Richards-style grips that hit 1:05 into “Mother, Father.” After playing this phrase twice as written, shift it down five frets to the seventh position and repeat the same moves.
“I like putting interesting classical sounding changes into our songs,” says Schon, moving to Ex. 11. “This is a little bit of the song ‘What I Needed’ off the new album [Revelation].”