Ernie Ball String Theory is a web series that explores the sonic origins of some of music’s most innovative guitar players. In this episode, Neal Schon of Journey discusses his early days and joining Santana, meeting Eric Clapton for the first time, and why he thinks Journey’s sound was unique during the 80s. Find out the top six things we learned below…

1. The prodigy in the basement. (0:54)

NS: I was playing around a lot in the Bay Area, on Broadway [Street] when it was all blues and jazz clubs. I was kind of just walking around, up and down the streets with a guitar and going into any club that would let me play because I was still underage. They’d keep me in the basement and say, ‘You can come up and play but then you need to go back out the basement. Don’t drink any water, don’t drink anything.’ 

2. He met Gregg Rolie at 14. (1:29)

NS: I started hanging out with Gregg Rolie a lot when I was 14. I just felt like something was going to happen, I was getting very close to all of these guys. They were in the studio recording the new [Abraxas Pool] record and they had set me up in a little office off to the side of the room where I would take a twin bed, turn it face down, and put a pillow over the top and just crank it to practice. 

3. He was confident in his abilities. (1:59)

NS: I remember sitting down at the dinner table with my folks and I said, ‘I think I’m going to get into this band. Santana, I think they’re going to ask me.’ They both started hysterically laughing and said, ‘I can’t believe the confidence this kid has.’ The next day the Santana guys asked me to join the band.  

4. He turned down Eric Clapton’s offer to join his band. (2:42)

NS: I’m recording with Santana and in walks [Eric] Clapton. He came in and it ended up being Eric and I playing guitar, not saying two words to each other the whole night, just played. We were talking and he asked me who my influences were and I told him, ‘Well, you’re one of the main ones.’ I picked up an acoustic guitar and played him ‘Crossroads’ note for note. He gave me a great compliment and then proceeded to ask me to move to England to join the band. I told him I would love to play with him but I wasn’t ready to go to England.  

5. He keeps his string lineup versatile, but mostly comfortable. (6:16)

NS: Some days if I’m practicing for like six hours straight, I’ll play with 8s on a Strat or Tele and it feels great and I love it. I play 9s mostly, but then other times I’ll play 10s. They all sound good to me. The myth about these big strings, I mean for blues they sound gigantic, but if you try to play the other stuff all night long it’s tough. I’m going to play what’s comfortable for me. I mean [Jimi] Hendrix played 8s and 7s so it all depends on what you like. 

6. Journey’s R&B influence set them apart. (8:00)

NS: [Steve] Perry was sent out on tour with us and we were hanging out one night in the hotel room with an acoustic guitar. I had to somehow construct a song for him to sing. I showed him what I had been working on and within an hour it was done, just almost immediately. I started hearing the texture of his voice and what he was capable of and I loved that he had the R&B, soul thing even though [his voice] was very clean on the first Journey record. The more we got into it the more I realized he was an R&B guy, and I think that’s what set us apart from many rock band’s at the time.   


Neal Schon gets his signature sound using Super Slinkys and Regular Slinkys.

String Theory

Check out similar String Theory films from Ernie Ball featuring artists such as Mac DemarcoRobin Finck of Nine Inch Nails, Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World, Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction, Daron Malakian of System of a Down, and Kurt Vile.

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