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Journey’s Neal Schon Recalls The Rise Of Eddie Van Halen And The Birth Of ‘Don’t Stop Believin”

Karl Walter, Getty Images

The first part of our interview with Journey guitarist Neal Schon focused on his upcoming appearance at the first-ever ‘How To Be A Reality Star’ event, happening in El Paso, Texas on June 23.

But there was also a lot of new music to talk about. Schon is after all, by his own admission, not a “reality star.” First and foremost, Schon is a musician and he had plenty of music-related dish to clue us in on, including some thoughts on possible new music from Journey along with some choice stories from his colorful past.

Neal, it’s been a little while since you and I have talked, I guess the last time I spoke to you was around the time of the Journey ‘Red 13’ EP.

Wow, that’s a long time ago! I still love that little EP. I think that sound wise, if we’d spent more time on it and got real drums, as opposed to little synth drums [it could have been better]. But I listened to it about a month ago and I was like, “Wow, progressive,” you know? [It’s a] little on the prog side, but I like it!

At the time, I think people were bugging out because the songs were a lot longer than what they expected from Journey at that point. But now, you look at the latest album ‘Eclipse’ and there’s some songs that stretch past the six minute mark. But at the time, people were like “Wow, Journey’s really stretching out.”

Well you know what, the way I look at it is: okay, I think there’s very little radio left. Thank God for you guys and anybody that you’re affiliated with that gets stuff out there. So I feel like why not? Why not stretch things out and make them a little more musical. Because its giving the listener something more than a three and half minute song than they hear on the AC station, which is pretty much the dominant thing on radio anymore.

So what’s going on in Neal’s world right now?

I had a really great gig last night, we did a tribute to Ronnie Montrose. It was a benefit for him and I got to play with Steve Smith, Ed Rock, Ronnie’s old keyboard player and [Styx bassist] Ricky Phillips, who also played with Ronnie on bass and who I was in Bad English with. It was a really cool night. We kicked off the show and the audience just went off. I mean like OFF, off. We were really hammering some progressive fusion rock.

We did do ‘Town Without Pity,’ which was Ronnie’s big hit and the place came unglued. But before that, I just thought it was appropriate, I wanted to play something of my own, because I thought it was something I wanted to do a tribute to Ronnie with. It was a song I did off one of my solo records called ‘Prayer for Peace’ and I thought it was really appropriate. People were trying to talk me out of it, that they only wanted Ronnie Montrose songs and so I said ‘Okay, okay, I won’t do it,’ [but] when I got on stage, I did it. People were just mesmerized by it.

It felt so great, just to have everybody in the palm of my hand with something that they didn’t really know. And then we went into ‘Open Fire,’ which was an instrumental that Ronnie and Steve Smith did on a tour that we were all on together in 1978. It was Van Halen, their very first tour, Ronnie Montrose with Steve Smith and then Journey, was the bill. So Ronnie opened [his set] with ‘Open Fire’ every night with Steve Smith. I learned that the other day and then put my own swing on it and added a few sections to it and they just ate it up. We jammed like monsters last night.

The place just kind of came unglued. I thought it would go down well, but I didn’t think it would go down as well as it did, so I’m really happy that I got involved in the whole event. They filmed it and they recorded it, so maybe it’s something for everybody to look forward to.

What a crazy lineup of talented people too, with so many people on the bill. You, Sammy Hagar

Yeah, Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani, all of the good friends of mine, in this little tiny building, the Regency Center. It’s an old theater, it’s a little bit smaller than the Fillmore. It’s like an old ballroom – it looked really cool in there and it was slammed to the max with people. I think it sold out in a couple of minutes. They could have easily moved to a bigger venue, but it was nice, it was quaint. They really got it. I was so surprised how they really got it.

I was initially supposed to play in the middle of the show somewhere and then Sam wanted to play in the middle of the show where I was playing. So I was either gonna have to play at the end of the evening, which I thought you know what, everybody’s going to be tired, they will have had a lot of Montrose songs by then, Gamma songs with vocals. And I said, “We’ll play an instrumental.” So I just decided I’ll open and it was the right choice, because we took the audience by storm and definitely, they’re not going to forget that.

It was a good thing to do and I know Ronnie was smiling, so I felt really good about it.

You mentioned it, so I want to talk some more about this. Steve Smith spoke recently about touring with Ronnie with Montrose and Journey, with Van Halen in the opening slot and what a competitive bill it was with the guitar players on the tour. Do you have a really good Van Halen story from that tour?

There’s a bunch of them! [Laughs] Really, I have to tell you [regarding Eddie Van Halen], I remember sitting in my old house in ‘78 up on the hill in Mill Valley with an old record player and I have their little red EP on with ‘Eruption,’ right? And I’m sitting in the bedroom with a guitar and I’m trying to figure out what the hell he’s doing, you know? I’d never seen the tapping thing, you know, with the right hand. I saw Harvey Mandel do it maybe a couple of times, but I’d never seen it done with triplets.

So I wasn’t aware of it and I was pulling my hair out trying to figure it out. Usually, I could dissect almost anything I listened to and I wasn’t hip to that technique. So until I met Ed and then he showed me that, I was like “Wow, you would have thrown me for a loop.” I didn’t know what that was. Then he showed it to me and of course after you see it, it’s easy to emulate. There were so many guys that did it after that, I tried to stay away from it. But yeah, it was a competitive guitar bill. And all I can tell you is that at that time, Eddie was red hot, but I was jamming hard, Ronnie was jamming hard, we were all jamming hard, you know? [We were] holding onto our own, but I was glad I wasn’t coming after Van Halen at that point, that’s all I can tell you.

Because they were just coming out of left field and it was brand new and Ed was the new kid on the block, a gunslinger. Van Halen would do their set and then by the time Ronnie came on, they’d be trashing a dressing room, throwing the food around, doing the typical rock star stuff! [Laughs] Getting drunk…it was a wild tour!

Would they have been in the zone…was there even a zone back then where you could get thrown off a tour for doing stuff like that? Did that even exist?

No….well, it didn’t exist in our tour. They did plenty of it! [Laughs]

I know you’ve been working on new music on the solo tip. What can you tell us about that stuff?

I did a couple of solo records right after the Journey record [‘Eclipse’] was completed. I stayed over in the studio, because we had that year off and I proceeded to do another record, a solo record with Steve Smith and Igor Len and then Jan Hammer did a guest appearance on two songs. I’m getting ready to release that. But right now, you can go to SchonMusic.com and there’s a free download of the leading track, ‘The Calling,’ on there.

You know, Joe Satriani told me last night, I ran into him and I wrote him and I said, “Hey, check this out. You let me know what you think,” and he told me he loved it. He said [it’s got] great guitar tone and I dig the track, cool playing. I’m proud of the record, but I kind of winged it. I walked in and I didn’t have anything prepared at all. I just had an open slate with a bunch of paintbrushes, guitars and amplifiers. Smith would come in and he’d do a little eight-bar loop for me of what kind of tempo we’re talking about, of what I want to play off of. And then I’d say, “Can you go have lunch or something for half an hour and then come back and I’ll be done.”

So I’d map it out and put a rhythm guitar down, arrange the thing the way I heard it in my head and then Steve would come back and he’d listen to it. He’d write down my arrangement and then he’d go out and replay the drums to my new arrangement to a click and play it like it was a full band playing. He’s just amazing like that. And then I went back and I replayed some of the rhythm guitar [parts], some of them I kept. And then I’d start playing solos, even without bass, just freelance soloing and then I played the bass on it to go with the solos, so it came about in a different kind of way, but when you listen to it, it sounds like a really connected trio with keys here and there.

I had Igor Len on the record too that I did, ‘I On U,’ which I did before, and ‘Electric World.’ He’s kind of like a Jan Hammer type keyboard player with classical and jazz background. So I had him play a lot of acoustic piano jazz solos on it. It’s a really interesting mix, the whole record, it has a lot of different flavors and colors in the record where actually, I’m listening to it now close to a year later and I’m starting to like it more and more. You know, usually I hate myself. [Laughs]

I was going to ask that, because I heard ‘The Calling’ and wondered how indicative it was in terms of the sound of the rest of the record.

It’s rockin’, man. The record is really rockin.’ It’s one of the most rockin’ records I’ve ever made. I’ve made a lot of melodic solo records and some softer ones, because I was on that new age label, Higher Octave, for a while. This now, I had some money and decided that I was going to spend money this time on a record rather than try to do it in my bedroom with Pro-Tools and a Roland V kit on drums. I wanted a real studio and mixed in a real studio and spent a lot of time mixing. The record sounds really, really good.

It really does, even through cheap laptop speakers.

You know, there’s barely any mastering on it at all. The only thing that I would say is that I was tempted, the guy I mixed it with, David Kamulsky, who also did the last Journey record, I was tempted to have him master and pump up the bass. You know, the low lows. But then really what most people do is they punch in the loudness button on the radio or stereo system and when you do that, the thing just completely comes to life and it gets monster. Then it’s time to crank it. The whole record sounds like that.

But then I did another record right after that, I stayed in the studio for another month and I’m mixing this one right now. It’s with Deen Castronovo on drums and Marco Mendoza on bass and this record turned out really slammin’. Completely different than the one I did with Smith. It’s a power trio, really tripped out like late ‘60s/’70s, but modern too in some areas, with all of us singing. I’m singing lead on some tracks, Deen is singing lead and Marco is singing leads. Jack Blades helped write almost all of the lyrics on the record with myself, Marco and Deen.

You took care of my next question, because I talked to Jack Blades recently and he mentioned he had been doing some writing with you, so I wondered what that was for. This all sounds really cool.

It’s really cool. Sometimes I love recording like this where I have the time. I had the time off – I had a full year off from touring so I decided to take advantage of it and really dive into what I love doing, [which is] creating in the studio. Basically, both of these new records that are coming out, I created out of nowhere. I always have a zillion riffs running around in my head and melodies and it’s always been like that for as many years as I’ve been playing. It’s not like I ever have a lack of ideas.

This is the one thing I think that Pro-Tools is really cool for that you can use to your advantage is in a creative process. In the old days before Pro-Tools was around, a lot of people, you’d go to tape and you’d have to rehearse really well before you go in. Because you’d usually want to get live performances and live performance always gelled better, sounded better and felt better, but you need to be well rehearsed.

When you don’t actually know what you’re going to play, then Pro-Tools really comes in handy because you go, “Okay, let me write this section. We’ve got this section and I’m going to write another section. I’m going to write a B section and I’m going to write a solo section and then I’ll come back and write another bridge over here” and you kind of lay it all in with a little drum loop and then everybody plays it for real after that. And I love it for that.

Actually, I haven’t heard the latest latest version of HD Pro-Tools – there’s a new one out that Jonathan Cain was just telling me that he put in his studio. He’s got a slammin’ new studio in Nashville that he just built and I can’t wait to try it. He says that it’s a new version of Pro Tools that’s just insane sounding. It sounds like old two-inch tape and really huge and I thought the HD version of Pro Tools which I used on these records sounds very much like old tape.

It’s interesting to hear that you have two solo records in the can. In regards to the latest Journey album, it’s always interesting to hear how bands frame songs up. Listening to the album, clearly as you said earlier, you’re not at a loss for riffs. Many of the songs feature you soloing out on the tail end. Would it be fair to say that these two new records were born out of energy and inspiration that was built up from the recording process for ‘Eclipse?’

Yeah, you know what? I get on a roll when I’m writing. Like when we got off tour, when we finished [the last tour], I’ve had all of this chaos and craziness going on with Michaele and I and dealing with 10 billion attorneys and all kinds of crazy stuff, man. And so I really didn’t touch the guitar for a long time and I do that a lot when I get off tour, I just don’t play for a while.

I’ve heard other guys talk about it, like Jeff Beck and sometimes, I just like to get away from it and I find when I get away from it, it takes me like four or five days and a lot of practicing every day to get my chops back up. And then I get into a roll and then I get prolific again. You know, I’m a creator. I like to create and so the writing just starts coming. When it comes, it comes in huge amounts. There’s actually so many ideas, that I have to whittle it down and try to decide where I want to go.

And it’s kind of a cool thing when you’re doing a solo record, because when I write for Journey, everything I’m writing is really, I have Journey in mind. And I don’t…we tried doing the ‘Red 13’ thing with Journey and being really experimental – even though I didn’t think it was so far out left field, a lot of other people did. And I’m already thinking about where we’re going to write and Jon and I have already been talking about writing, where we’re going to go with the next Journey material we come out with.

I don’t know if we’ll do a record or just go for a couple of singles and try to land it in a movie – I think that’s probably a good idea at this point, because when we go out man, everybody just wants to hear us play the greatest hits. There’s no way you can get away from that, no matter what you come out with on the new record. They want to hear the classics and you have to play them. I love playing them because the audience loves them. So there’s no reason to experiment in the studio. But you know, I think I’d like to go back into the Motown vein that we were in, the heavy rock mode Motown ala like ‘Separate Ways,’ where the soul implication is there mixed with the R&B rock blues guitar.

I was just looking at the run times on this latest record and there’s four songs on this latest record that are over six minutes and obviously you do still have the desire and want to create stuff. There’s people like me that are out here that still want to buy that Journey record, but if the overall perception is that people aren’t interested in that, is that crushing for you as an artist?

Not really, you know? I have to do what’s in my gut and follow my own intuitions. I have to do what I like to do first. I can’t do what everybody else wants. That just would not be real, whether it’s wrong or right. I have to do what’s in my heart.

You and Michaele take a very prominent role in the video for ‘Resonate’ and that seems like it is a very personal song for you. What does that song mean to you, from your perspective?

You know, it really has become….Jonathan wrote this song and brought it in and it was way, way before Michaele fled to me. This was not a mapped out thing like some people are trying to say that we planned it for two years, that is total bullshit. We’ve always been good friends for like 15 years and it just happened. You know, things happen – I don’t know why they happen, but it happened and it was a good thing.

Jonathan brought in this song while we were doing the ‘Eclipse’ record and I said to him, you know there was a lot of ballads floating around and I said ‘Jon, you’ve got to have a rock tune, like a ‘Separate Ways.’ Jonathan wrote ‘Separate Ways,’ so I said, “You have to have something like that” and he came in the next day with that. And I went, “Wow, that’s great!” And we worked on it a little bit and moved some things around and then it turns out that when Michaele did come out to me, the story was very much like our story, the way things panned out and so then I decided I’d like to do a video.

I go, “We should do a video of this song.” It was like the last day of the tour in Seattle, Washington and I hired whatever film company I could find – Nocturne [Journey's production company] didn’t have any HD cameras…I couldn’t find any HD cameras, so I hired a regular film company to come out just to shoot regular film, some live footage. Later, Michaele and I integrated the stuff that we shot in L.A. on the beach and integrated it into that live footage. And then later, the version that is actually on iTunes now and doing well – the single is actually woken up. I haven’t talked to our radio guy in a couple of weeks, but he said it was 31 with a bullet a couple weeks ago.

So that’s really great news….I think the song is a really great song. And I think the video is an excellent video and I think Michaele looks amazing [Laughs].

Another tune I dig on this album is ‘She’s A Mystery.’ I love the way the guitars open up on that one at the five minute mark.

Yeah, you know what? This is the one I’m talking to Jonathan, I don’t think this record is done by any means. Anymore, the way radio and records are these days, you can be out there for two or three years before something catches and then it’s just a fluke. But I really feel ‘She’s A Mystery,’ which is something that I had going back to the ‘90s, I wrote those guitar riffs and had the music pretty dialed in and then we worked on melody and lyrics and stuff with Jonathan and Arnel. But I really feel that that is our AC single right there.

It would obviously have to be chopped down to like three-and-a-half minutes, which I think you can do. Chop a lot out of the end, probably fade on the rock section as it comes in so you won’t hear a lot of the wailing guitar stuff, but you know what? AC radio, nobody cares about guitars [Laughs].

They just want to hear the tune. I think it’s one of Arnel’s best vocals on the record, for real. I like the little hip-hop type beat that the guitar is playing to – it’s something different for us and I think the fact that it’s different, I think people will listen.

‘To Whom It May Concern,’ a friend of mine who I am making guitars with and has been a really great friend and now I’m in business with again, Paul Reed Smith. He was on the phone yesterday raving to me about ‘To Whom It May Concern.’ He wanted me to send him the file because he has new background vocals that he wants to put in and he wants to remix it with this friend of his, who he said is a monster. He said the guitars are not loud enough and the snare drum is too loud and I want to put the background vocals [on] and so he’s going off on me about that one, you know? And a lot of people have liked that one too.

‘Tantra’ is another power ballad on there, I think the record is pretty deep. I don’t think anybody knows about it yet, but I think someday it is a diamond in a coal mine.

I talked to Jonathan last year about the record and he indicated that you really made a push to get more of the rock stuff on there and there might have been some head butting as a result of that.

Me? Nooooo. [Laughs]

I loved his quote about that time period, he said, “We’d had this concept in mind from the get go. So we’ve got the ballads we can play all day long and if people want to hear ballads, they can certainly find them on other records.”

That’s what I said too. My argument with Kevin Shirley and Jonathan at the time….and we had big arguments on this record, because I really had it in my head, I wanted to make this statement with this record, regardless of whether I was right, wrong, indifferent, whatever, I just felt like I had to do it. My argument with them was that we always have ballad-heavy records, okay? Yes, it is a forte of the band, yes we do do them great. But I’m saying at the same token, I said, ‘When we play live, we have our ballads.’

We have ‘Faithfully,’ we’ve got ‘Open Arms,’ we’ve got ‘Who’s Crying Now,’ – we’ve got all of these hits that we have to play. You can’t do a set full of ballads, okay? Unless you’re playing a three-hour show. So I said, ‘I don’t understand the concept of continually coming with ballad-heavy records when we’re not going to play any of them.’

On ‘Revelation,’ we had a No. 1 hit with the ballad that Jon brought on that and that was a story and that got really good response when we played it, but still we have to play the other ones and still we only play for a certain amount of time every night. So my thing, what I was trying to make everybody understand where I was coming from, was that I like to feel the energy on stage and I like to rock. I don’t mind playing the ballads, but I don’t want to have a lull in the set that’s really down for a long time.

It seems like it’s more beneficial for your band if you want people to pay attention to your new music, if you can play a song like ‘Never Walk Away’ from ‘Revelation’ that’s a rocker.

I think so, I really do. It shows that the band….do I think we could make a hit record with nothing but all ballads, I do. But I think that some people would also look at it and go ‘oh, these guys are getting sleepy.’ And I’m definitely not feeling sleepy as a guitar player. If anything, I’m feeling more alive these days.

I’ve always looked at guys like Jeff Beck and B.B. King who still have it. Jeff Beck keeps aspiring to get better and better and so do I. I want to keep the energy up – I’m just not into…..even though you’re getting older age wise, I’m feeling younger upstairs and my spirit is young. I want to play young – I want to play like what I feel like.

Jumping back a bit…the two solo records that you spoke about, what’s the timetable for putting those out?

Um, my idea right now is that it’s so hard to get anybody’s attention. So the whole thing that I did with ‘Resonate’ was my concept about finding different ways to get the record out there and now with all of these stories in the media. You know, I talked to some of these journalists about sneaking in a link of ‘Resonate’ that would be a two-minute link where they can get a glimpse of the video and listen to the song and then it goes directly to iTunes. I think that was a cool idea and I’m thinking of doing the same thing with ‘The Calling’ and then releasing the record.

But I want to do another video and of course I want to do it with Michaele, because she’s with me 24/7. [Laughs] This time I want to stick around the motorcycle, maybe going over the bridge and I’ve got some really cool ideas in my head. I’ve been talking to a video director, a friend of mine named Dan Barnett that did our ‘Live in Manila’ video. And he actually ended up fixing the film part of the ‘Resonate’ video, transferring it to HD and refiltering it, so now it looks really, really good, the whole thing, even though it wasn’t all shot in HD.

I’m going to shoot this one, I think I want to do it in the next couple of weeks. The weather has been nice and I’ve got some cool ideas in my head about doing the video and I want to get some attention with the video and then stick out the record. I don’t have a record label that I’m thinking about or anything. I don’t really know…we were at Wal-Mart…and now Wal-Mart is now I heard closing their music division. So inevitably, you have to come up with a way that you can get your stuff out there. The show that I told you that I’m working on, I can tell you that I’m working on stuff that is going to help everybody get their music out there.

It’s gotten plenty of accolades, but I have to tell you that ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ just landed at number 13 on our list of The Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.

Wow, that’s amazing!

What are your memories of putting that one together?

You know, it was much like that whole record was put together. I had a studio back in the ‘80s, over in the East Bay that I took over from Larry Graham, the bass player from Sly and the Family Stone and that became Journey’s rehearsal place. We wrote everything there together and Jonathan, I remember he walked in and he had the chorus, like “Don’t stop believin’.” And then he had the verse chord. So he started playing the verse chord and then I remember I was messing around with the bass line.

I came up with a little B section, “strangers waiting” and I said ‘why don’t we stay on the verse and do the chorus with the same chords but do it with ‘don’t stop believin’. in it’ It all kind of came together with the three of us shooting off ideas on each other. It had the little guitar breakdown in the middle, you know, she took the midnight train. I wanted to give a vision of a train going by or starting up and so that’s where that came from.

It was an unusual arrangement for the song. A lot of people go, ‘what is that guitar song in the middle,’ but then if you take it out, it doesn’t sound right! So we messed around with it, but it was pretty much done in a couple of days, from what I recall.

It really does have some interesting transitions that make the whole thing work.

You know, you really do come up with those kind of things when you’re playing together as a band, when you’ve got a good band where everybody plays their role in the band and this person brings this and this. He would bring this, Jon would bring this and I would bring this and then all of the sudden BAM, there you go!

For this year’s tour, have you started rehearsing yet and are there any good nuggets kicking around in your head song-wise that you’d like to put in the set?

You know what, I don’t know. We don’t usually rehearse that much, to tell you the truth. We’ll probably rehearse for a week or so before we go out, two weeks at the most and that’s a lot for us. Sometimes we rehearse four days. We get on the phone and we talk to each other and we go ‘I’m thinking about this, this and this.’ And it sort of sticks the songs in everybody’s heads and everybody does their homework and kind of goes back and remembers what they wrote. In that case like me, I have to go back and listen to stuff and go ‘I don’t remember what the hell I did.’ I get involved in all of these other records and it’s like too much information. You push out some of the brain cells to let new ones in, you know? But I really don’t have a clue what we’re going to do. We haven’t gotten that far, but I’m sure we’re going to start talking soon.

‘Separate Ways’ has been a huge song for Journey over the years. Was that famous keyboard intro part of the song when it was first written? Or did that come later?

You know what, Jonathan and Perry wrote that within a couple of days as we were on tour in the ‘80s. Jonathan had that whole thing laid out and then Steve was singing it and then I just came in, Jon had the melody, I learned to play the melody and then I just soloed off the melody. Jon a lot of times comes in….like with ‘Faithfully,’ he brought that in the 11th hour that we were making a record and at the time Kevin Elson and Mike Stone said ‘I think you need a big power ballad’ and Jonathan came in with that the next day and before you knew it, I wrote down my own charts and we played through it like once in the studio and that was the take. [Laughs]

It was crazy. There was no rehearsal. We listened to it a couple of times and I orchestrated some of the parts where I heard orchestration and Jon put some of the orchestrated parts that I did on guitar, then he added keyboards to it and we kind of built it off that. But a lot of times, things just fall into place out of nowhere like that.

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