Neal Schon

Groupology

  • Santana
  • Journey
  • Schon & Hammer
  • HSAS.
  • Bad English
  • Neal Schon
  • Hardline
  • Abraxas Pool

Jurassic

Watch Neal Schon in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous for: Being a teenage guitar prodigy. At age sixteen, Neal Schon (son of a music teacher), faced the enviable dilemma of having to choose between offers to join either Santana or Eric Clapton in Derek & The Dominoes. Schon chose Santana and hooked up with the band for their self-titled third album. However, Schon is best known as the super melodic lead guitarist of AOR rock band Journey. Neal has played on more multi-platinum albums than most people could ever imagine being on in a lifetime. Journey's worldwide sales alone have passed the 40 million mark! His thick, super-smooth solo tone is one of Neal's trademarks, and his unmistakable melodic soloing will pop up daily on any classic rock radio station.

Infamous for: Dig that 'fro, man! (see above) It's as big as anything ever worn by Billy Preston or Bootsy Collins! OK, so he hasn't worn it in years, but it's hilarious. And at some point in the mid 70s, Ron Jeremy called Schon and demanded his mustache back. Neal's famous for feuding with Steve Perry. Schon tried to keep Journey a heavier band. Right up until the truckloads of money came rolling in. Then Neal decided it was probably better to be stinking rich. So Journey morphed from being artistic fusion rock to the ultimate AOR rock band. Despite being a world class guitarist, Neal's never been in a truly heavy guitar band. He just thinks he has. Neal has a hard-core following that doesn't like to hear anything negative said about him. If you're one of them, you better bail out of this profile right now. Remember, we run everything through a hard rock/metal filter around here!

Influences

Obvious: Carlos Santana was undoubtedly a huge influence on Schon, you can hear it in his smooth melodic sense. That Schon went on to surpass Santana in some aspects shows what a talent he is. Undoubtedly Schon picks up ideas from every guitarist he has jammed with, the influence of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Lukather (who in many ways is similar to Schon) are very evident.

Not so obvious: Blues guys like BB King, Clapton and Page have all been mentioned in interviews, yet blues is not a format associated with Schon. Keyboardist Greg Rolie has been present through much of Schon's career — ensuring that Neal's guitar never becomes the music's primary focus. I'd say that's an influence. You could make a similar argument (but to a lesser extent) about Jonathan Cain.

Strengths

Soloing. Virtually every Journey track is crammed full of stunning solos that run the gamut from delicate (After The Fall), to blazing chops, (Where Were You) to just indispensable extended work outs where melody and chops combine wonderfully as in Stone In Love, Lights, Separate Ways, Who's Crying Now. If you want to learn how to play guitar to enhance the track, listen to Schon's definitive solo on the extended work out on Journey's Who's Crying Now. It's on a par with Steve Lukather's solo on Roseanna. For screaming rock, check out Line Of Fire from Departure.

Melody. The guy is a walking melody machine. Journey's two best known albums, Escape and Frontiers are full of melody. The slower and mid-tempo tracks like Send Her My Love, Open Arms and Faithfully all have minimal guitar work, yet what is played has impact.

Diversity. If you can stomach Steve Perry, the late 70s early 80s Journey material contains classic AOR pop, but also some great rocking tracks like: Where Were You, Line Of Fire, Wheel In The Sky, Anyway You Want It, Separate Ways and Mother Father. Recent output on Arrival and especially Red 13 are (thankfully) heavier and pretty riff-fuelled in places. Check out tracks such as Higher Place, I Got A Reason and To Be Alive Again. HSAS (Hagar, Schon, Aaronson & Shrieve) is the hardest rock Neal's done, but his tone isn't great on that. The Schon & Hammer stuff is predictably reminiscent of Hammer's work with Jeff Beck — though not nearly as good. Hardline had it moments as did Bad English, but as neither band is any heavier than say, Bon Jovi, so you might as well stick with the main act and pick up the Journey triple CD anthology Time 3 for a great showcase of the numerous styles Schon excels at.

Weaknesses

Balls. As in Neal hasn't got any. Great player — absolutely — but no balls. Not for Dinosaur Rock. Sorry. We don't fault him for being in Journey — he made piles of money in Journey. Good for him. We fault Schon because when he does projects outside of Journey such as Hardline, and Bad English, none of these show any balls either! Schon's solo albums are often painfully lame. Contrast this to Steve Lukather — another guy who's main gig (Toto) is also pretty limp-dick stuff. But unlike Schon, when Luke's doing his solo stuff, he's a monster. The bottom line is this: While he comes tantalizingly close at times, Neal Schon is really not a hard rock/heavy metal guitarist. Neal clearly has the talent and ability, but he doesn't possess the heavy guitar sensibility or attitude.

So why are we bothering to profile Neal Schon here at the Home of Heavy Guitar? Because Neal could kick holy ass if he had a pair. Here's a perfect example: In 1985 Ronnie James Dio put together his STARS project to provide hunger relief in Africa. Basically the heavy metal version of We Are the World, at a time when metal was at its peak. Many young guitar heroes of the day lined up to cut leads on the song. Yngwie Malmsteen, Viv Campbell, George Lynch, Brad Gillis, Craig Goldie, and others all did their bit. Then Neal Schon came in and smoked all of them — and they all knew it! Schon was a man among boys that day, both figuratively and literally. So where is that Neal Schon when he's not in Journey? Who knows? Neal Schon is like a gorgeous stripper who's always wearing a trench coat. You know there's something great under there, but you can get so frustrated waiting for it that you eventually just lose interest.

Riffs. A riff, a riff — my kingdom for a heavy guitar riff! Alas, no one is gonna confuse Schon with the likes of Blackmore, Iommi, Angus Young, or Wolf Hoffmann. Why? Because guitar doesn't really drive Neal Schon's music. Electric World is perfect example of a nice album with a few good guitar moments. But while Neal's understated playing creates a lot of ambiance, the atmospheric, keyboard-laden music sounds like the soundtrack to some nighttime police drama. By all accounts Neal lives and breathes guitar. He really needs to stick it in our faces more. He came closest in HSAS.

Keyboards (related to the above). Look, keys aren't a bad thing. Neal's always in a band with keys. So was Ritchie Blackmore for that matter, but unlike Blackmore, Schon always defers the dominant role in the band to the keys — which really pisses-off us fans of heavy guitar! In Perry-era Journey, Schon usually let the keyboards take priority over the guitar. Doing so sold a shitload of albums to moony-eyed girls (and guys who get misty over Open Arms). But fans of Schon's guitar work wish he would rip it up more, because when Schon gets to cut loose, it's a joy to hear.

Tone. Not always a weakness, but Schon's tone suffered a bit in the mid 80s, when the influx of rack gear, guitar synths and endless possibilities diluted the basic great tone he had earlier. Mid 80s Journey albums are laden with chorus, phasing and a generally unpleasant digital edge. The most recent Journey releases Arrival and Red 13 EP showcase a return to his earlier tone which is heavier.

Neal is also prone to mailing it in on occasion. For example, on the Abraxas Pool album, he actually plays a lot of flashy leads, but they sound like he was just winging it off-the-cuff. They don't go anywhere. Almost like he just jammed them all in one take.

Tone

Schon's tone has changed through the years. The Santana and early Journey days saw Neal using modified Fender Showman 4x10 combos. His tone was great on these, but he eventually turned to the EL34 sound of — Hiwatts briefly — then pretty much settled on Marshalls by the mid 70s. To my ears the Marshall Master Volume give him the best sound, with Neal tending to favor the current model. The late 70s Journey albums had a great tone, reminiscent of AC/DC in crunch factor, yet with more distortion for the solos. In HSAS, Neal was experimenting with an early Roland guitar synth. Unfortunately, what was probably the heaviest playing of his career was colored (badly) by this device which produced a mushy, unnatural distortion. More recently Neal used Marshall DSL100 heads on the Arrival tour, but the Trial By Fire album saw Neal go the direct route using a Marshall JMP-1 or Roland GP1000 direct into the board. These albums have good tone, but he managed to get fairly buzzy tones from Marshalls in the Abraxas Pool era. Recently Neal has also been using the Fender CyberTwin for clean sounds.

Schon is largely associated with Les Pauls. Some of them have P-90s. He is one of the few players wacky enough to install Floyd Rose trems on Les Pauls — and the tone does suffer — but not too badly. Schon has also used custom PRSs with Floyds and Fernandez Sustainer units. He's used Andersons. Neal had is own line of guitars for a while in the late 80s called Schon Guitars which he used in Bad English, Hardline and Abraxas Pool. These were well made, but odd-looking instruments and equipped with EMGs. Eventually Jackson bought out the company. Neal pulls out a Strat for Lights, and used G&L for a little while around 2000.

For all intents and purposes, the classic Schon setup is a Les Paul (or a humbucker equipped guitar) into an EL34 Marshall with only a Boss DS-1 Distortion and rack unit for chorus and delay. He uses a longish delay (around 450ms) on his solos with a couple of faint repeats. He's used compressors from time to time.

Guitar Style

Neal can be summed up as a melodic, pop-rock player with great lead chops, who is well-versed in other styles too. He started young in the 70s and Neal's contemporaries are the second generation heroes — guys like Gary Moore and Steve Lukather. These second generation players are stylistically diverse, and often possess the most electrifying blend of melody, attitude, emotion and chops in their lead styles.

Rhythmically, Schon was exposed to some really hot, syncopated Latin rhythms in Santana (and later in Abraxas), but oddly enough, Neal isn't really the hot, funky, rhythm player you might expect that environment would produce. If anything, cutting his teeth in a large band like Santana taught Schon to stay out of the way of the other instruments so as to not step on anyone else's toes. So Schon often plays rhythm guitar like an accompanist. Instead of driving the songs himself with rhythm guitar, he usually takes his cues from what the band is doing and plays off of that. He won't overpower the keys or another guitarist by playing big beefy power chords. Instead, he'll often voice chords his on the treble strings or arpeggiate them. Similarly, a lot of the time Neal will play melodies instead of rhythmic parts, ala Jeff Beck. You'll hear that approach in Schon & Hammer and in Abraxas Pool. When Neal decides it's appropriate for the guitar to be big and powerful, he'll play the standard root-based chords and power chords. He used this approach in HSAS, and coincidentally, this may have been the only time Neal didn't have to worry about overpowering a keyboard player.

As a soloist, Neal conveys emotion well on the slow stuff, and can really rip when he wants to, but he doesn't usually combine the two aspects to compose solos that create and release tension, or those that start slow and build to a crescendo. When he's playing slow, it's melodic and emotive, when he's blazing, it often feels like he's just blowing licks by you. So Schon isn't a particularly sexual lead player, which again, is unfortunate, because it's so obvious that he could be one. He knows what notes to use to get the maximum effect, and where to inject vibrato, and inflections. With the musical equivalent of Viagra, Schon could be in the same league with guys like Lukather, Sykes, and maybe even Gary Moore. He is that talented — but to continue the analogy, for sexual guitar music, Neal usually can't get it up. Occasionally he gets there, but it takes an awful lot of fluffing.

Neal's primarily a Pentatonic player, but unlike many of the 70s Pentatonic-based guys, Schon uses all the fretboard positions and has much better chops than you typically associate with 70s stylists. An effortless alternate picker, he doesn't use much legato. One thing that's unusual is that for a guy who can really motor is that Schon is a three finger player. He almost never uses his pinkie. He's a fairly aggressive bender and uses big, tasty, bends and pre bends, though he's not as aggressive as Moore or Beck.

Vibrato:

Neal has several vibratos, but generally its quite a mid-paced narrow sound. He used a wider, more aggressive one in the Abraxas Pool, but it was always even and controlled. Particularly characteristic is that Schon matches his vibrato to the mood and the tempo of the track. Neal uses both finger and tremolo bar vibrato in all his solos and all are done with great style.

Neal Schon in Action

Recommended Listening

Santana

Journey

HSAS

Schon & Hammer

Bad English

Neal Schon

Hardline

Abraxas Pool

 

Profile by Andy Craven, Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved.

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