A Conversation With Neal “Vortex” Schon
Neal Schon is my favorite guitarist and, in my opinion, the greatest melodic rock guitarist of all time. He’s written classic songs, played legendary riffs and had a prolific solo career that is unparalleled in the music industry.
On the heels of the release of his latest solo album, Vortex, which is terrific, Neal took the time to grant me an interview. Speaking with him was an absolute honor, and we covered a lot of ground in our discussion. We spoke about everything, including his thoughts on working with Steve Perry, John Waite and Deen Castronovo, as well as how his latest masterpiece, Vortex, came to fruition.
I hope you enjoy the interview. And don’t forget to pick up a copy of Vortex. If you’re a classic rock fan, or just someone who appreciates inspired instrumental music, you’ll love it.
Your new solo album, Vortex, has been well received by critics and fans alike. And you’re one of the most prolific artists I’ve ever seen, regularly releasing new solo material. In your free time, when you’re not on the road or in the studio with Journey, are you always creating new music?
Well, I’ve always done it. I did The Calling and then I did So U back-to-back. And I did them much like I did this last record, Vortex. I had free time on my hands. I’m really set up at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, where they give me my own locker now. So, I have my whole set of gear and guitars hanging out there. So, I can pretty much go in any time I want.
There have been a zillion times in my life where I felt like I should be recording but I was doing something else. So, I’m trying to take advantage of this time because I feel inspired. When you’re inspired in your life, good things come out musically.
I found a great, old connection with Steve Smith where we just completely collaborate and create what we’re doing from nothing. I find Smith to be one of the most amazing drummers like that, where we can talk about something we haven’t even created yet and he has the vision to see the landscape like I’m seeing it. Then he proceeds to go out and play it. I’ll just lay down a rhythm guitar with a click-track and organize and arrange the tune. Then he’ll come in and we’ll talk about it and write everything down. We’ll talk about which sections are gonna’ be what – where I’m gonna’ play a heavier solo or be cruisin’ out. We’ll talk about all that, the crescendos.
It’s funny. We just found this way of working together and it’s kinda’ like what I’m doing by myself when I’m working in the little rehearsal studio at the house. I make up loops. That’s pretty much where all these records come from. I just plug in a guitar if I get a base idea or a guitar riff idea, and I create a loop. When I go into the studio, I bring a rhythm machine and three or four looping machines that are full with about a 100+ ideas on each one of them; and I plug it into the board and scan through until I find a riff or two that I feel is like something I want to do. It’s just a seed of what’s about to grow into a tune.
One thing I can say is that what people are getting from this record is that it’s something that’s happening on the spot. It’s really not premeditated. You can feel that. When people spend way too much time in the studio or too much time writing, everything starts to sound like that. Vocal tunes are different. Sometimes you have to spend extra time. But, yet again, some of the best tunes we did for Journey came out in no time at all. So I think if you feel that you’re on the right track and you’re inspired by what you’re doing, it usually pops out. It just comes out of nowhere. For a long time now, I’ve been wanting to get out there doing a solo instrumental thing and it’s finally happening.
One of the reasons why I find your guitar work to be excellent is because people can actually sing your guitar solos. Your playing is so melodic and has such a distinct tone that it’s easily identifiable. Was this intentional or did it come about organically?
I had a lot of great times with Les Paul and like he told me, it’s all about melody. And he had chops that were way beyond what anyone was thinking of doing at that time. Real, real talent. When I first listened to Les Paul, it wasn’t until way later. But I noticed certain things and said, “Oh, that’s where Jeff Beck got that from.” The moment I heard it, I got it.
Les was such a genius with his imagination. Such a creative person. You have to be able to imagine things before you can play them. So, I think that’s where a lot of people struggle in music today. Most of the new guitar players I hear today, they’re very schooled and educated. But really, it’s a dime a dozen anymore. I can’t tell them apart. They all sound like they’ve got incredible dexterity and chops, but I don’t hear a lot of personality.
While there’s a lot of great guitar players on YouTube doing scales, I think there’s something to be said for the good old days when you didn’t have YouTube. When you just had to listen to things and those things that you loved stayed with you. You copped a riff here, you copped a riff there and then it became you in the end. That’s pretty much what I did in the early days. I’d be in my bedroom listening to all my favorite guitar players and be playing guitar. That became the early Neal in Santana in 1970.
To hear you and Jonathan Cain go back and forth, playing a variation of the same melody in a song – for example, the ending of “Who’s Crying Now” – is just amazing.
Jon is a melody man. He really is, and he’s been that way since day one with the band. When Gregg Rolie decided he needed a break from the band and from being on the road, I had been watching Jonathan with The Babys when they opened up for us and I saw that he clearly had something. He had something really interesting going on as a member of that band and as a songwriter, and I noticed it. He was the glue that held The Babys together. That’s Jon, he’s a songwriter.
I’ve become a better songwriter. But Jon and I write different things. For example, I wrote the guitar solo at the end of “Who’s Crying Now,” which was probably the simplest thing I’ve ever written (laughs) but now it’s considered a classic. I thought it was gonna’ suck when I played it (laughs) but everyone in the studio loved it.
Back then I was trying to impress with chops. Now, today, I realize I have chops and I can pull them out anytime I want. And I love mixing it up, especially on my solo projects, with bass, lead guitar and melody. On the Vortex record, in the eleventh hour, I came up with the acoustic tune. I hadn’t planned on writing it at all. But I realized I needed a mood break in the record. Whether you’re doing a single record or a double album, you have to have mood breaks. This way certain songs sound as powerful as they should when the listener hears them. They can all be powerful, but you need to separate them a bit, just like a live show. Having them all back-to-back reduces how powerful they sound. So, I decided to come up with some acoustic stuff right on the spot.
Journey is known for countless classic rock songs, many of which you wrote with Jonathan Cain and Steve Perry. What was it like working with both Steve and Jonathan to write these songs?
Well, when Jon came in he added a whole new dynamic to the band, which I thought was good at that point. We had done a lot with Steve, Gregg and I, all the way up to the Captured record. So, at the point when Gregg decided that he wanted to get off the road and have a family, I felt as though we had taken that dynamic about as far as it could go. And Jon brought a whole different thing in, and we went with it.
The Escape record was amazingly diverse from a musical standpoint. One of the things that Gregg hated at the time was that they couldn’t classify us, but they would anyway. They would call us soft pop-rock. But really, anyone that knew us knew that we weren’t. We could be completely ballistic live, but at the same time we could play something that was softer and had a big melody.
It was great. Obviously, we wrote some amazing tunes, one of which everyone knows. “Don’t Stop Believin'” went on to become the most downloaded song in the history of music, which is just incredible. We were doing something right. And that song, we wrote it in an afternoon. Jon brought in the opening chords and the bass line, and I wrote the mid-section and the bass line for the rest of the song. Then I came up with the train guitar solo part that dictated the lyrics that followed. It was the kind of thing that only happens when you’re in a room with your bandmates writing music.
What was it like reuniting with the classic Journey lineup for Trial By Fire, and are there any unreleased recordings from those sessions that might eventually see the light of day?
There’s no unreleased material (laughs). They’ve exhausted that. I’m certain that there isn’t; and if there is, I don’t even know about it. As far as writing it, it pretty much unfolded like anything we had written together. It wasn’t like pulling teeth. It kinda’ just came out.
I love Trial By Fire. We had a #1 single with “When You Love a Woman” and the record entered the charts at #3. The only thing that was frustrating was we didn’t get to play it live. Everything happened with Steve after that. He hurt his hip and the whole tour we had planned at that time got called off and was never put back together. So, that was very frustrating for all of us because it had been so many years since we had been together, so many years since Steve had wanted to do anything and when it did, it happened again, like, bam. Then it was gone, that fast. And we had to decide at that point what we were gonna’ do.
Leading up to that point you were keeping yourself busy with music projects, including the two fabulous Bad English albums. What was it like working with John Waite?
John is another tremendously talented singer. A poet. He’s very much a poet-singer, the way he talks and sings really conveys a story. I love working with Waite. I always loved him in The Babys. I loved his solo material. Great solo records. Him and I had great chemistry. And, of course, Jonathan and him had built-in chemistry from their days together in The Babys. Ricky Phillips from The Babys was there as well. There was a lot of history in the band.
Waite and I talk from time to time. We’ve been talking about getting together at some point and doing a blues-rock record. That’s really kind of where we fell apart, after our first record. We couldn’t agree on which direction to go in. I felt some of the strongest points of the first record were the bluesy rock songs like “Rocking Horse,” and stuff like that. I told John, “That’s the direction. This is what we have to do to gain a way bigger audience.” And he wanted to, but then he didn’t want to. We were sort of going there, but then we changed directions mid-stream and everything kind of fell apart.
We had a bad experience in the studio on the second record with the producer. Waite got in a fight with Ron Nevison and he took off for three weeks (laughs). Never came back. And he left us in the studio to cut the record with Ron, which was no day at the beach because we didn’t like him either (laughs).
When I interviewed Jonathan Cain last year, I mentioned to him that I really enjoyed Revelation and Eclipse. However, I pointed out to him that, for whatever reason, Eclipse didn’t seem to resonate as well with the fans. He responded by saying: “We strayed from the formula. We strayed from classic Journey. It was really Neal’s concept album. It was all guitars. It was pretty much a guitar album and Neal’s concept. I knew the American public wasn’t going to get it because it’s not pop enough.” What are your thoughts on Jon’s opinion of Eclipse?
I’ll tell you what I told him. I said, “Jon, you wrote more than half of that record.” (laughs) That’s the truth, man. If you look at that record, Jon wrote more than half of the songs. Did I want to do a record at that point with six or seven ballads on it? No. Did I want to repeat what we just did on Revelation with Arnel? No, I didn’t. I wanted to try something that was a bit heavier and harder. I think the songs are really strong on Eclipse. But they weren’t recorded properly, all the way down to the basics. Like, making sure you have the right drum tracks, the right vocal tracks. I mean, it was a rush job.
I remember Kevin Shirley only had, like, three weeks to do a certain amount of work. Then he had to move on to another project. Well, we weren’t done. And it ended up being a record we pieced together. A little here, a little there. We had Arnel come back in and re-sing some things in Nashville. We just didn’t have enough time to focus and pull together the type of record I wanted. But the songs are better than they sound on that record, for real. We just needed a little more time to make it work.
It was also hard with Arnel living in the Philippines. We needed him there to rehearse, and we really didn’t rehearse. I’d make up stuff in the studio, much like I did for Vortex. I’d create something, give it to Jon and he’d bring it home and write lyrics. Then I’d get out a microphone and hum a melody and he’d write lyrics to my melodies, and we’d give it to Arnel and he sang it. But nobody really owned it. It was really premature, and I was pretty pissed off about it. But when we play those songs live now they sound twice as good.
Knowing that you weren’t satisfied with the way Eclipse turned out, are you interested in creating more new music with Journey?
Absolutely! I’ve been trying to motivate everyone in the band to get them to want to do it as well. I know Arnel is with me; he’s ready to go. I’ve already shot him ideas. But where I’m at is I don’t want to keep making the same record over and over. And if there’s nothing creatively different than what we’ve done in the past, even if it’s a great song, why keep writing the same kind of song over and over? We already have a great catalog of songs that we have to play live. It just doesn’t make sense to me. So, what I’m looking for are different grooves that we don’t already have in our live show. They have to sound like Journey, but we have to keep pushing ourselves in new directions. I don’t think you can keep on re-writing the same hit over and over.
After Trial By Fire, Steve Perry and Journey went separate ways and you brought in Steve Augeri as the new lead vocalist. When Steve Augeri had vocal issues in 2006, he was replaced by Jeff Scott Soto. But Jeff Scott Soto was only in the band for a very short period of time. Why?
It was nothing major at all. We had just run our course. We did the Soul SirkUS thing together. Went out on tour. Did that tour. There was a lot of drinking on that tour. It was creative but it just kind of fell apart. I was fronting the bill for the whole thing, and I wasn’t getting anything back. So, it was a losing proposition for me.
Jeff has obvious talent as a singer. But do I think he was the right singer for Journey at the time? After Augeri fell down and his voice went away while we were in the middle of a tour, Jeff was the only guy I could think of to come out and do it at a moment’s notice. He filled that void, and I thought he did a good job. Did I think he was the right singer or the right personality for the band? I don’t think anyone felt that he was. After we finished the tour with Def Leppard, it just wasn’t what everybody was looking for.
I believe his voice wasn’t as high as what we needed. We needed a high tenor to still sound like Journey. We could have gone in a completely different direction, but then why even call it Journey? It’s gotta’ sound like Journey, and Journey is a tenor voice.
Speaking of great tenor voices, I interviewed Deen Castronovo earlier this year. He’s just a phenomenal singer, drummer and musician. However, he got into some trouble over the past few months that resulted in him taking a hiatus from Journey. What’s Deen’s future with the band?
He’s getting back on the right track. And you’re innocent until proven guilty. I can’t reveal anything at this time, but I think that he’s going to be fine. I think he has some things to work out within himself, and Deen is a tremendously talented guy. We all want the best for him. But he needs a lot of time to work it out. That’s just where that’s at. It’s a tough situation.
It sounds like it’s safe to say that when Deen is back in a healthy place that he still has a home in Journey.
I can’t comment on the future. I have to see where Deen is at and where we’re all at down the road because I don’t think it’s going to be any time soon. Possibly in a couple years, three years, who knows. We have to see what happens at that point. He knows that we all support him and love him, obviously. It’s been like that since day one. Deen’s been like my little brother. I’m the one that got him into Bad English, and all the projects that I worked with him on. And I’ve been working with him for close to two decades in Journey. So, we’ll just have to see how he does with getting himself together.
Will Journey be hitting the road in 2016?
We are going out next year. I think it’s going to be really interesting and really fun.
On Vortex you have a terrific track dedicated to your wife called “Lady M.” It seems like she’s been a great inspiration for you.
Yeah, I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. I’ve known her for 25 years. We’ve been great friends for that long, and now it’s even better. And she’s consistently been out on tour with me for four years now. She’s my rock, and provides me with the love and support I need. It’s just awesome, man.
“Triumph of Love” was written by Jonathan and I , and we performed it at the wedding. It’s an epic song that just sounds amazing.
On Vortex you clearly had a great collaborative effort with Steve Smith. And you’ve collaborated with other artists, including Sammy Hagar and Jack Blades. Is this a conscious decision or do these collaborations just come about organically?
It kind of just happens. For example, Sammy Hagar and I, back with the HSAS stuff, I had jammed with him for years at his shows in San Francisco. I would always come on and do a Montrose tune. “Rock Candy” or something. And we just knew each other forever and talked about doing something whenever time permitted. Many years later, I had time off after a tour and he had three weeks off, so I said, “Let’s do something.” And we put together the HSAS record. I loved the material. But then I had to go back on tour and so did Sammy.
What are your thoughts on Jack Blades? He’s a terrific musician.
Jack is great. He’s never lacking when it comes to ideas. When I did the SO U record, it just kind of came together because everyone was available to be part of it, including Jack. We just started carving some of those tracks. We really didn’t spend much time on it at all. The record is kind of all over the place. (laughs) But there are some interesting moments on that record.
For us to pull it together, I knew I needed to bring in someone who was strong at writing lyrics and melody. Jack is that guy. We’ve always been good like that. We bounce ideas off each other. He’s very quick. I called him, and he just came in. He picked up a pen and paper, I strummed my guitar, hummed a couple things to him, and we start writing songs. If I work with him for half-a-day, we’re always going to come up with a cool tune. For example, we came up with “Higher Place” off of Arrival in an afternoon. He’s a good songwriter.