Interview: Neal Schon on "The Calling"
Premier Guitar caught up with Schon to get the details of making this album and talk about what gear he’s into these days.
After a year of scandal in the tabloids, Journey guitarist and founding member Neal Schon got down on one knee this past October and popped the question to his girlfriend, Michaele Salahi (of The Real Housewives of D.C. fame), onstage with a 11.42-carat diamond ring valued at well over a million bucks. After a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd, the band launched into their mega-hit “Faithfully.” While that spectacle might have been one straight out the Journey power-ballad playbook, left to his own devices, Schon is about more than just sappy love songs and compact, melodic, pop solos.
His latest all-instrumental solo album, The Calling, recorded over a four-day period immediately after recording Journey’s Eclipse, sees him jamming out to his heart’s content in a wide range of contexts, sans the shackles of the radio-friendly format. From the in-your-face “Back Smash,” to the new age-meets-jazz-meets-movie soundtrack “Fifty Six,” to the contrapuntal, classical-sounding “Irish Field” (which he wrote for Salahi), The Calling showcases a side of Schon that isn’t often represented on Journey albums. Of course, for fans that long for Schon’s soulful, “Lights”-esque melodic playing, tracks like “True Emotion” and “Blue Rainbow Sky” fill that void.
For The Calling, Schon handled all of the guitar, bass, and production duties and called upon an impressive cast of old friends including former Journey drummer Steve Smith and keyboardists Igor Len and fusion legend Jan Hammer. Premier Guitar caught up with Schon to get the details of making this album and talk about what gear he’s into these days.
What inspired you to record The Calling?
I was inspired because I was over there at Fantasy Studios, where I had done so many other records. After I had done Eclipse, I decided to stay in there. We started within half a week or something like that. We moved from one room to another room because there were some other artists coming in there. I got re-setup and got Steve Smith in there, and we just started working. I had four days to cut everything with Smith because he was committed to a tour with his band, Vital Information, I believe.
So The Calling was done on a whim after inspiration struck?
Yeah, kind of blindly, and sometimes that’s where the coolest stuff comes from. It’s timely, heartfelt, and for real. Sometimes I think that the more time you have to think about something, the more time you can mess it up actually, by overthinking.
Since you were just coming out of Journey mode at the time of the recording, did you have time to prepare any music for this project?
There was nothing planned at all. There were no songs, just a million riffs. We just improvised and wrote it in the studio. I didn’t know if anything worthwhile was going to come of it. All I brought in was a couple of Line 6 looping machines. I just compiled a bunch of riffs and that’s sort of where everything was born from.
Is that how you work on your riffs?
I loop all the time at home, and a lot of times when I’m out on tour. If I come up with a riff, I just lay it down because that’s the easiest way for me to remember a groove or an idea that I have. Smith and I sat there and listened to all the loops then I went, “That’s a cool riff, why don’t we work on this one?” So I’d have Smith come in and loop himself for about eight bars in Pro Tools and then I said, “Give me a little time to landscape this with guitar and organize the parts, as well as writing new parts.” I would do that and he would take a little break. He would come back after I arranged it and he would write out a chart.
Did having only Smith, rather than a full band, in the studio make it easier to get into a creative headspace?
It was easier to envision, record, and arrange everything without a lot of other musicians around. Sometimes it’s just easier to grab your ideas and lay them down that way. Like sometimes when I’m working from home, if I’m working on a demo or something, the first thing I do is lay down the guitars and a drum machine. So I’m used to working that way with just drums and guitar.
You also produce and play bass on The Calling. What prompted that decision?
Because it came together so abruptly and really wasn’t planned out, I didn’t know who I wanted to play bass, at that time. I considered using Marco Mendoza but he was on tour at the time so there was nobody around that I thought of that was in the Bay Area. I was digging freelancing with just guitar and drums.
The Calling is more rockin’ than your previous solo records.
For one thing, before I was on a new age label. Every time I pulled out an electric guitar, they looked at me like I was an [inaudible]. I on U started going there. It was a little more of an electronica-type record. This one is a little more organic and rockin’. Had we recorded I on U the same way as I did with The Calling, with real live drums, that record would have been rockin’ too.
Songs like “Back Smash” showcase some vicious shredding.
I created this record for guitar. I wanted it to have melody—people that do know and enjoy my playing like the melodic side of my playing as well as the fiery side. I wanted to turn up the heat a bit for the fiery side and for the melodic side. I was just going to do what I do.
On the other hand, “True Emotion” showcases the soulful side of your playing. Who has influenced you in that direction?
“True Emotion,” that’s like definitely my inspiration from Albert King, from playing with him years back. It starts out on an Albert King riff.
“Blue Rainbow Sky” was written for Ronnie James Dio. How did this song come about?
It was wild. I didn’t have any titles for these songs. The record was way done and titles were the last thing that came to me. I met Ronnie way back when we did the record, Stars [Hear ’N Aid], with all the other guitar players. We became friends and we didn’t see each other all that much but we always had mutual admiration for each other. He apparently really loved my playing. I was going to bow out of that project because I’d been up all night partying and wasn’t feeling so hot [laughs]. I said to Ronnie, “You’ve got a zillion guitar players down there. What do you want me for?” He said, “No, you have to come. You’re one of my main guys.” I was like, “Really?” So I threw a guitar in an Anvil case and jumped on the next plane to L.A. from San Francisco. I said to him, “You gotta promise me that you’re gonna move me to the front of the line so I don’t have to wait around all day to do my parts. I’m falling asleep here.” [laughs] I ended up sitting next to Yngwie, and he was real cool, man—we had a great talk. I was listening to a lot of people overdubbing and overdubbing—punching in solos for like, an hour straight, and I was literally falling asleep in the line. I told Yngwie I was going to go in and do two takes all the way through, no punching in, and that’s what I did.
You played really aggressively on that track.
I listened to what I played and I was like, “Man, I was shredding.” I rose to the occasion. What I’ve noticed about myself is that, whoever I’m playing in the room with, I rise to that occasion. I bounce off of what’s around me, the overall vibe. With 10 different drummers and 10 different bass players, you’re going to get a different sound out of me with each of those groups.
How was “Irish Field” conceived? It’s got a really unique sound and texture to it.
I didn’t have a song yet, and this one wasn’t originally a loop, I just kind of winged it. There are two guitars. I like the sound of classical chords, so I just started playing around with it for like 10 minutes and that’s how it came out. I laid down a rhythm guitar, and then I laid down a melody over the top.
What did you use for the octave sound on that track [“Irish Field”]?
It was an octave box that a friend of mine brought in for me to check out. I thought, “Wow, it sounds cool.” I like the sound of a guitar an octave above. It sounds like a high-tuned tenor guitar or something.
Which octave pedal was it?
Let me think. I’m so bad at this and it’s not like I don’t like to give up secrets. I just can’t remember. I have a box of pedals and I barely ever use them.
Tell us about your Paul Reed Smith Neal Schon LTD Private Stock guitars.
I have two models coming out with Paul. There’s a 15" model, the bigger one, which has a spruce top and two f-holes, and a 14" that’s a little bit bigger than a regular single-cut, and has a curly maple top and one f-hole. With the 14" one, they’ve been working on my neck joint and I believe it’s going to be the first guitar that he’s putting out with a neck joint like that. I came up with an easy access neck joint where there was no hump in the back of the neck, like there are on a lot of Gibson and Paul Reed Smith guitars.
You had a Gibson signature model previously. You’re no longer with them?
No. We had a falling out. It was over a neck joint that I turned them on to. In the ’80s I was working with Aria in Japan for a long time, and I came up with an easy access neck joint on those guitars as well.
What’s unique is that your guitars are semi-hollowbodies outfitted with Floyd Rose tremolos.
It wasn’t like I was trying to be a freak by putting a Floyd on a semi-hollow, which isn’t so freaky anyway—I’ve had them on 335s before anyway. I’ve been using Floyds for years. I like them because I like locking down and not having to switch a zillion guitars during a show or tune guitars between songs. That was one of the original reasons that I started using them.
Do you have a preference for the sound of a Floyd Rose-equipped guitar?
I listened to the same guitar with one of Paul’s stock bridges and I really felt that because of the guitar’s semi-hollow design, I preferred the way the Floyd sounded on the guitar. It gave the guitar a bit more stout.
What about amps?
I’m using a Fractal Axe-Fx [II]. I use the amp simulation on the Fractal and go direct into the board.
Are you using the Axe-Fx in place of a traditional amp?
Well, I’m using an amp too. I always use a straight amp. Right now, on the Journey tour, I’m using a Blackstar [Series One 100]. It’s one of the first ones they gave me and it has three channels—a rhythm channel, a clean channel, and a lead channel. I dig them, man. For one, they hold up and two, they really simulate an older Marshall brown sound. It’s a little more saturated. Actually, much more saturated than an old Plexi head. But most people that play through old Plexi heads will put a drive in front to get the juice out of it.
What about effects?
I’m using the Fractal in stereo for effects.
Are you still using the Boss GT-6? That was a mainstay on your board for the longest time.
No, I actually retired the Boss. I like the way it sounds sometimes for recording certain parts. I spent a lot of time programming that thing.
Did you work with the amp modeling or just the effects on the Boss?
The effects, I think, are great. Roland always had great effects in all their pedals. But the effects in the Fractal are stupendous. They’re amazing.
With a new solo album out, and being recently sober and newly engaged, do you have a new lease on life?
It’s been a great year. I’m in a good state of mind. Michaele and I have known each other for like 16 years and have been best friends. We’ve always loved each other as friends and we’ve just grown into this. It’s a very comfortable situation for both of us. We’re both really happy, man. I think anybody who’s happy in their everyday life will always play better. But you can still play the blues [laughs].
Neal Schon is one of the rare guitarists who can make the instrument both sing and sizzle equally well. For a taste of him in action, check out the following clips on YouTube.com.
Neal Schon’s solo on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” is perhaps the most memorable guitar solo of all time. Here’s classic footage of Steve Perry-era Journey performing the mega-hit in Japan.
Schon performs a gorgeous, lyrical, unaccompanied solo sans flash, leading into Journey’s “Stone in Love” at the Bell Center in Montreal, Canada on November 5, 2012. This clip demonstrates Schon’s signature melodic approach. However, if you absolutely need the speed, wait until 7:44 to see Schon deliver a final flurry to close out the number.
Footage from 1980 of early Schon going bonkers in a live, unaccompanied solo in Osaka, Japan. This clip reflects the fiery, aggressive side of Schon’s personality.