Guitarist Neal Schon on the Past and Future of Journey

Neal Schon and Journey will be at Coors Field with Def Leppard and the Pretenders on Saturday, July 21.EXPAND
Neal Schon and Journey will be at Coors Field with Def Leppard and the Pretenders on Saturday, July 21.
Erik Kabik
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About four decades ago in a Denver hotel room, guitarist Neal Schon and Steve Perry wrote “Patiently,” their first song together. Perry had flown to Denver to meet Schon about the possibility of joining Journey, which he started in San Francisco in 1973 with keyboardist Gregg Rolie after both left Carlos Santana’s band.

“The room had double beds,” Schon recalls. “Perry was on the other side. I just pulled out an acoustic guitar and started playing him the chord sequence that I had put together as it is on the record, and he just started writing. He started singing and writing down lyrics, and bam, there was a song there within about an hour. It was the same with ‘Lights.’ We did realize we had great chemistry.”

Both songs would appear on Journey’s 1978 album, Infinity, Perry’s first album with the band.

Journey, which co-headlines Coors Field with Def Leppard on Saturday, July 21, began as a progressive jazz-rock fusion act and then transformed into more of a vocal-based rock group during a brief stint with singer Robert Fleischman — who was managed by Denver concert impresario Barry Fey — taking over lead vocal duties before Perry joined the band in 1977.

Schon says he loved to play blues, R&B and soul, but during his time in Santana’s band and in the early days of Journey he was listening to a lot of fusion and jazz.

“And coming out of the Santana band, Carlos had a huge influence on me,” Schon says. “He’s got libraries and libraries and libraries of music, like world music, a lot of stuff from Africa and different parts of the world that were just transcending me to different places musically and really just sort of opened up my mind to everything.”

Schon says the transition to a different style was kind of like stepping on new land and that he didn’t know what it was going to feel like, but he says it was easier than he thought it would be. The harder part was the shorter guitar solos.

“These days we’re trying to make songs that are like three and a half minutes long or shorter for radio,” Schon says. “So, to really condense it all down and make it musical is a task in itself. It’s easier to stretch out something for someone like myself and to jam on it and get real musical with it, but when you need to make a statement in twelve bars, you have to really think about it for a second. And, you know, it can come off not so good.”

Sometimes it does come off quite good, like Schon’s solo on “Lights." He says he doesn’t veer far off the version on Infinity when he plays it live because too many people like it the way it was recorded.

“Brian May was sitting down on a couch in Tokyo years ago and said, ‘Show me how you play that,’” Schon says of his solo on “Lights.” “So many guys just tell me that’s my favorite guitar solo of all time. It’s really a Hendrix-influenced blues solo with my own flavor in it.”

Jimi Hendrix was one of Schon’s primary influences, along with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page and bluesmen like B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters as well as funk acts like James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone.

“I started studying all that stuff,” Schon says. “Pretty much my style back then was because of everything I had learned from all those guys. I pocketed a riff here, a riff there, and I sort of combined them all into one. And when I joined Santana, that’s kind of what I was doing. I was doing a fiery version of all my favorite guitar players in one. And I didn’t know how it was going to work at all, really, with Latin percussion and African rhythms. But everybody loved it. It was like, 'Wow, this was cool.' There’s so many different textures and rhythm instruments to work off of rhythmically. And so I loved playing with the Santana band.”

Schon, who’s been the one constant member of Journey over the past 45 years, has seen multiple lineups, including Perry coming and going and finally quitting in 1998. Journey’s current members include musicians that have long histories with the band: keyboardist Jonathan Cain, bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith.

In 2007, Schon asked Arnel Pineda to join the group after seeing the Filipino singer’s covers of Journey songs on YouTube.

“I think that we all sound a certain way together,” Schon says. “You don’t really try to reinvent something that’s not busted. We’re just doing what we do, which isn’t really too hard. We get on stage, and you make sure everything’s tuned up and everybody knows what’s going on, and we make changes in the set. They’re pretty subtle and easy to follow, and we can change things on a whim.

“One of the coolest things I think right now, after being out for a while with these guys, is we really don’t need a lot of practice, because everybody wants to hear what they want to hear, and I finally conformed to the fact that most everybody that comes to see us, they want to hear the hits. They want to hear those songs. They want to go back in time. Some people want to go back in time, and then a lot of the younger kids that bought a greatest-hits [album] are finding out about our music for the first time. They want to hear something they’re familiar with.”

Journey, which will be playing longtime staples like "Don't Stop Believin'," "Wheel in the Sky," "Lovin', Touchin' Squeezin'" and "Open Arms," on its current tour, will be on the road until the end of the year, and early next year, Schon plans to release a solo album that includes a number of songs written by drummer and producer Narada Michael Walden. Schon told Walden that he wanted the songs to be melodic, soaring and have fire, too. Schon wanted the guitar to be like a voice.

“I want it to be majestic and symphonic, classical and bluesy and funky and jam,” Schon says. “He calls me about four days later and he says come down to the studio, man, I got a few things to play for you. I’m thinking, this will be interesting. I walk in, and he starts playing me these amazing tracks. I believe he played me six or seven in a row that he just wrote off the cuff. I was kind of in disbelief because it happened so fast.”

Schon says he’d also like to work with Perry again, possibly on an R&B album.

“I’ve been hearing that he’s been showing up in the same coffee joint that I go to all the time,” Schon says. “Hopefully I’ll run into him soon. We had a great meeting when we met for the Hall of Fame. I realized there was still a very deep connection there. He’s had nothing but very kind words to say about myself. I’ve done the same for him. The mutual respect is there. One step at a time. I’d just like to get to know him again and see where he’s at. But I can surely tell you that I would love to just have him come and just mess around one day at Narada’s studio with the three of us, because I think we would turn out something that he would really dig.”

Journey and Def Leppard, with the Pretenders, 6 p.m. Saturday, July 21, Coors Field, 2001 Blake Street, $61 to $179.

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