Neal Schon

Driven Journey Man
Neal Schon
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Getty Images, courtesy of Gibson Brands. Neal Schon: Erik Kabik.

It’s been 11 years since Journey released a new studio album, and its latest, Freedom, is packed with 15 arena-ready rockers and ballads.

Lead guitarist/co-founder Neal Schon, keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Cain, and vocalist Arnel Pineda were assisted by bassist and “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson (who played on Raised on Radio and Journey’s 1986 tour) and drummer Narada Michael Walden, known for his work writing for and producing R&B and jazz artists (he played drums on Jeff Beck’s ’76 album Wired.)

Jackson and Walden played on Freedom after bassist/co-founder Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith were dismissed for business reasons.

Do you adapt your songwriting to the project you’re working on, whether it’s Journey or one of your solo projects?
I don’t think about it when I’m coming up with sketches in my little studio. I don’t really do any formal demos or anything like that. I do it really old school. My iPhone has about 2,000 ideas – it’s a new version of a cassette recorder! When I’m home, I knock out three or four a day – different ideas and different grooves. Sometimes it will be with Journey in mind, sometimes I don’t know what it is. I don’t push myself in one direction – I just let it come out in an organic form, as I’ve found I’ve had the best luck like that. The old saying is, “If you’re thinkin’, you’re stinkin’!” (laughs) It’s not rocket science. Musically, I’m all over the place, even in one day.

Was Freedom a “Covid album,” where you all recorded remotely?
You could call it a Covid album because nobody could be in the same room at the same time, but I was fortunate to work with Narada. We played live a lot, and he and I worked together so well in the studio. We were face to face the whole time. Some days, he was busy doing something, running around with his kids or doing chores (laughs), so I worked with our engineer, Jim Reitzel. You have the freedom of not chopping the baby’s legs off before it goes to the computer and everybody starts moving stuff around. Working like that and getting to hear the full sketch in your mind enabled the album to take on its own life. So many albums are “computer albums” – everything is to a click or regimented chord sequence. I find it very stifling. I miss the old days of going into a room, playing and arranging and writing. This was the second-best thing; I’d lay down a bass part because it helped everything feel more glued together. A lot of the stuff stuck, like on “Let it Rain,” I went into my Jack Bruce thing – all that sideways “lead bass” came out of me, because I just love that stuff! Randy copped a lot of it and played it better. He’s a superior bass player. Anything I can play he can play 10,000 times better!

Walden left the band for health reasons. Did Jackson do the same?
Randy’s no longer playing because he had a back operation, but he’s still a big part of the band. I’m managing the band now, and he’s helping me with that. We’re in touch all the time.

Which guitars did you play on Freedom?
I don’t remember how many I brought, but there were two rooms full (laughs)! I kept bringing more every day. I had so many at our house at that point, and I just kept loading my trunk. Every time I pulled up to the studio, I’d unload five or six. So, I had a good choice, and everything was covered. One was an older NS signature goldtop Les Paul Custom that had a heel-less neck.

The Strat I used was from the Custom Shop, a take on the ’63. I’m not certain what the pickups are – they’re noiseless, but not the new noiseless Fender pickups. They sound really awesome! I love the Relics. I sold a bunch of really old guitars in pristine condition (VG, August ’21), but I actually like the Relics better. They feel like they’re 50 years old, and they play better. The frets are a little larger. For acoustics, I had a bunch of Taylors.

This article originally appeared in VG’s September 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

No posts to display