Neal Schon: The King of Melody Gets His Rig in Harmony
Article by Michael French
The one constant in Journey (whether you danced to their music at your prom in the 70s or discovered them via The Sopranos or via Rock Band on your Xbox) has been Neal Schon, the king of melodic guitar breaks. We spoke to Neal after an intense 2-day tone workshop with Fractal’s Matt Picone where they dialed in tones for the upcoming Journey tour. Journey goes out in the spring on an amphitheater tour with the Steve Miller Band and Tower of Power.
I understand you’ve been updating your Axe-Fx tones…
I’ve had an Axe-Fx Ultra that I've been touring and recording with for the past 4-5 years. I had a new unit sitting at home and it was just time to re-do everything. My tech Adam Day came into town and we’ve been working with Matt Picone for two days in Bob Weir’s TRI studios.
What will the new incarnation of your rig look like for 2014?
It’s similar to what I’ve been doing in the past but now it’s simpler and revolves more directly around the Axe-Fx II. I have zillions of amplifiers and love them but the sounds I’m getting out of the Axe-Fx now are too great to ignore.
I’ve always mixed a live amp with the Axe-Fx and my new favorite amp is a great new one from Dave Friedman, the Brown Eye. I was blown away by the amplifier. I proceeded to match that amp up with the Axe-Fx and to my amazement the amp is already in there and it sounded almost identical. An amplifier is an amplifier and the Axe-Fx II is the closest damn thing I’ve ever heard to an amp. The Friedman model in the Fractal is great - it’s alive, just like the amp. I was amazed when I plugged into it how it reacts, especially with the volume knob on the guitar, even in the high gain channels, which is what I dig. It’s nice to have a really chimey, clean amp and that aspect is great in the Axe-Fx.
The Fractal community agrees with you: the Friedman BE and HBE models are at the top of list of people’s favorites. Are you using any other models?
We A/B’ed a lot of amps and tones and ended up with a few banks of different amp presets. I have a bank of Friedman sounds, some Marshalls (Brit 800, Brit JVM), a bank of Hipower amps, and Dizzy VH4 presets with both 6L6’s and EL34’s. The Hipower sims sound great - I was using one that was jumpered up and I found that sound in the box. It’s amazing in the latest firmware that you can take the heads and try out different tubes, speaker configurations, speakers out of phase with each other, all kinds of crazy stuff. It’s great to just try things and hear right away how they sound - you’re creating new sounds on the fly.
Did you attempt to capture the sounds of some of your classic rigs?
Yes - you grow to have a fondness for certain amps and sounds from the past and I’m able to resurrect them with the Axe-Fx. There is an old Fender Deluxe I used in the early days (first 2 records) of Journey that the great amp guru Charlie Buttons worked on. Charlie took this blackface Deluxe of mine and put a 12-inch JBL with a 10-inch Altec Lansing speaker and hooked them out-of-phase. He also unhooked the vibrato stage which livened it up. You could walk in front of it and achieve great feedback. We set out to recreate that in the Axe-Fx and once we flipped the speakers out of phase it was like we found that amp tone again from the vaults.
The effects are really great too, especially the MultiDelay. I was able to recreate effects that I used on the Escape record and after with songs like "Faithfully” and "Send Her My Love". I was using beautiful, long, descending decays from rack-based units. But it was a lot to carry around on tour. I was really glad to get that sound back as it's the closest I've heard to that sound.
Live I’ll have a 4x12 cabinet with the Friedman head along with a clean powered monitors for the Axe-Fx. Matt was telling me about the great new clean power amps available on the market. I dig that there are multiple output options on the back so I can use a cabinet as well as a clean monitor. We shot an IR of my Bogner Shiva cabinet and I’ll be putting that out through one of the new FRFR systems that Matt was telling me about.
What mojo do you put into your lead patches to fill out those signature singing, melodic solos?
I pretty much use the same effects on my lead patches. I use the longer Lexicon-type echo we discussed above (via the MultiDelay) and I have a few different delay options I set up in addition to that. Typically I’ll use a 600ms delay with about 3 repeats. I’ve pulled the effect level back considerably now. It's going to be a lot more live and in-your-face. I can still swim when I want to but it’s not on 10 all the time. I’m using pedals to control the delay and reverb input gain so I can add more when I need it.
I’ll also throw a harmonizer on there to thicken up the leads via some detuning. I still dig the old Gibson Echoplexes - we hooked up the looper in the Axe-Fx and that’s pretty cool - I’m glad to have that ability. I like using the looper on-the-fly live - you never know where I’m gonna put it.
You play a lot of amps and gear - what keeps the Axe-Fx in your rig?
I’ve been messing around with some other guitar gear out there. I was drawn to the fact that one of the units could profile an amp and capture its sound. In the studio I tried it and captured some amps and thought I had it sounding really great and I recorded some tracks with it. Then I got the Friedman amp and A/B’ed the sounds I was getting against that other unit. Comparing it with the real amp, I thought it sounded like a toy. I was thinking “hmmm…this is really not as good as I thought it was in isolation.”
Then I met up with Matt and listened to the amps in the Axe-Fx II next to the Friedman amp. Both the sound and the feel of the Friedman amp were there in the Axe-Fx. The Friedman is a very, very fast amp which I love and the Axe-Fx relates that immediate punch you get from the real amp.
I’ve heard you talk about getting inspired by new and different sounds — can you talk a bit about how the Axe-Fx opens up your creative process?
I’m always getting inspired by sounds that I come across in gear, nature, wherever. A lot of the sounds on my next solo album are based on presets from the Axe-Fx, similar to the way the Axe-Fx Ultra inspired songs on my previous record The Calling. I like to find new sounds that tweak my ear, whether it’s a complete preset or even dialing in a unique delay or harmonizer effect. The sounds that inspire me may not exist in that same form in the end-product, but it gets the creative ball rolling. The sounds inspire me to create new music. It takes a sound sometimes to hear where you want to go or what you want to create. It’s a great palette of colors: you have endless colors and paintbrushes, that's how I look at it.
Such was the approach with the song Tumbleweeds?
Yes - that’s the name of the patch in the Axe-Fx! I just kept the name because that’s where it came from.
Tell me a bit about your experience with Fractal’s support and team…
The guys that make the Axe-Fx are just amazing - the platform continues to excel and I’m just amazed at how far they’ve taken it. Matt is so great to sit in the room with - he’s such a wizard with that unit. It’s like he’s slicing sushi, you know? And quick…he's already ahead of you before you even say anything. Wicked, wicked. I just wished he lived closer. We spent 2 days and got everything together and we’ll get together again during tour rehearsals to tweak it in a band situation. I'm really excited for our sound guy to hear the stuff out front - he's going to be really, really happy.
What projects are you working on?
Some big news is that I’m going into rehearsal with the Santana band. We’re working up a record that will be recorded sometime this year, probably after the Journey tour. It's fun to get back with Santana - it's full circle for me.
I have a new record coming out on Frontiers called So U - it has Deen Castronovo on drums and vocals, Marco Mendoza on bass and vocals and myself on guitar and vocals. It’s a real tripped-out trio record and I use a ton of Axe-Fx on it. Everything I do now in the studio is always the Axe-Fx now.
I just got together with Steve Smith and we jammed out a record like we did on The Calling. Now it’s with Jan Hammer and he’s adding his parts to it - he’s going to have a lot of fun. It’s going to be a double CD. It's truly epic and stretched-out. Instead of having a bunch of songs, there are complete suites of music. It’s very organic like a live record. It’s jammin’ - the thing is on the ceiling, man. I think we're all playing at a different level - I'm excited for that one to come out.
I hope we do another Journey album, but it's tough to get new music out there. I love working and creating in the studio, so I’ll always be releasing new music. I enjoy it more and more - I have that creative mindset and I should take advantage of it and record as much as I can. We’ve talked about re-working some older Journey material that hasn’t been heard much. I also definitely want to do some solo gigs when my new album comes out.