Journey's Neal Schon Reflects on Selling 'Don't Stop Believin'' Guitar and Other Treasures from His Collection

·8 min read
Neal Schon
Neal Schon

Heritage Auctions, HA.com

For a musician, each of their instruments has a story. It just so happens that Neal Schon's are more interesting than most. As the co-founder of Journey, he's one of the greatest guitarists on the planet, penning beloved riffs that continue to reverberate across the globe, inspiring millions to sing, headbang and stand in front of their mirror with a tennis racket and pretend they're, well, Neal Schon.

But now you can ditch that air guitar for the real deal. On July 31, Heritage Auctions is offering up 112 guitars from Schon's museum-like collection, including the ones he used to write and record classics like "Wheel in the Sky," "Open Arms," "Faithfully," "Anyway You Want It," and, of course, "Don't Stop Believin'," a.k.a the best-selling digital track of the 20th century.

"I think fans are going to be excited, guitar connoisseurs are going to be excited, and also collectors," Schon, 67, tells PEOPLE of the auction. "There's going to be something for everybody there."

While 112 guitars may sound like a lot, Schon's full collection totals more than 800. "I have no room!" he says with a laugh when asked why he's paring down. "When the pandemic hit, I had a lot of time to go up to my warehouse and go through my guitars and actually organize them with my guitar tech. I brought a bunch back to the house. At one point I had about 350 laying around. There was no room to walk, it was nuts!"

With so many guitars, it's understandable that some were seldom played. "A few look brand new, like they just came out of a case," he says. Ultimately, Schon decided to find them new homes where they can be used and appreciated.

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His love affair with the instrument began with he was just 10 years old. "I made my mind up very early about what I wanted to do," Schon says. "I wasn't interested in school at all. My head was really in arts and music. So I just kind of followed my heart. Even at a young age, I felt like that was what I was put here to do. So I dove into it!"

He taught himself by ear, playing along to his record collection. "I was learning from the best — in my own room!" he says. From the start, Schon was hooked by the electrified blues of British Invasion acts like Cream, the Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. From there, he discovered old masters like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Albert King. "I started ripping those records apart," Schon explains. "I was playing quite well for a kid that young because I was just so devoted to trying to learn every little nuance and emulate what they did."

Schon was urged on by his father, a tenor sax player and big band leader who wrote arrangements for jazz greats like Wes Montgomery. His dad bought him his first "good guitar," a Gibson ES-335, which was soon stolen. With the insurance money, he got his next good guitar, a 1969 Les Paul "Gold Top." This was the instrument that would launch him into the rock 'n' roll stratosphere as he played around San Francisco clubs while still in his teens.

Neal Schon
Neal Schon

Heritage Auctions, HA.com

By 1970, he'd attracted the attention of Santana, who tapped him to be his musical sparring partner. The very next day, Schon heard from his hero, Cream's Eric Clapton, who asked him to join his new band, Derek and the Dominoes. The young axe-man found himself with a tough choice. "It was pretty mind f—ing for me," he says now. Ultimately, he went with Santana, and ended up sharing lead guitar duties on the hugely influential 1971 album Santana III and the next year's follow-up, Caravanserai — playing the '69 Les Paul.

The instrument is a featured item in the auction. "That guitar has been with me all this time and it's got one of my favorite necks of all-time. I used it also on the early Journey records like Look into the Future," he says.

Another storied Journey guitar available at auction is the 1974 Guild F-50R "Jumbo" 12-string that Schon used to write early hits "Wheel in the Sky" and "Patiently," and featured on cuts from 1979's Evolution.

The jaw-dropping guitar collection also contains rarities like a 1950 Fender Broadcaster, one of only 200 ever made. There's the one-of-a-kind pearl white prototype made especially for Schon in 1987, which served as a favorite instrument for decades. And no guitar has ever been more sought after than a 1959 Sunburst Les Paul. Schon has two. And they're both available. "They're the Holy Grail," he says of the eye-watering pieces. "They're in amazing condition. It looks like it was never played. They're so mint."

1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard Sunburst Solid Body Electric Guitar
1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard Sunburst Solid Body Electric Guitar

Heritage Auctions, HA.com

But the crown jewel of the collection is not an especially rare model. The black 1977 Les Paul Deluxe looks rather unassuming until you realize that it was used to write and record "Don't Stop Believin'." Schon still remembers the day when Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain arrived at band rehearsal with the song's title — words of encouragement from his father during a particularly dark time.

"Jon had the line 'Don't stop believin',' and from there it just kind of took on its own shape," he says.

Don't Stop Believin' 1977 Gibson Les Paul Black Solid Body Electric Guitar
Don't Stop Believin' 1977 Gibson Les Paul Black Solid Body Electric Guitar

Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Schon's opening burst of arpeggiated guitar propelled the track forward like an accelerating locomotive, inspiring the opening verse about the midnight train to anywh-er-ere. Though unusual to have a guitar solo so early in a song, the band left it in. "It's the craziest arrangement ever," Schon admits. "Many people listened to it and said, 'Maybe you should edit that thing.'"

Thankfully, Journey held fast and refused to tinker. "I thought it was such a unique song when we finished it. I listened to it while it was being close to finalized in the mixing stages and I said, 'Man, there's something special in this song here.' I said that back in '81!"

Forty years later, his prediction has come true many times over. To call "Don't Stop Believin'" a "rock anthem" would be a major musical understatement. Though only a modest hit upon its release, its status has grown thanks to high-profile features in movies like The Wedding Singer, the TV show Glee, and an untold number of karaoke bars. In February of 2021, it became the second song in history (after Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody") to break one billion streams on Spotify.

"The difference between Queen and Journey reaching one billion streams is that we haven't released our movie yet..." Schon teases. He says the band are in talks to make a biopic centered around the story of lead singer Arnel Pineda, who joined after former frontman Steve Perry left the group in 2007. Pineda had spent several years homeless, living in a park in his native Philippines when Schon discovered him singing Journey covers on YouTube. Practically overnight, he was fronting his favorite band in arenas all over the world.

Pineda's unmistakable pipes can be heard on Journey's new single, "The Way We Used to Be." It's the lead track off the band's upcoming album — their first in a decade. "There's no release date yet." Schon says. "But we're not in a big hurry because it's coming together very nicely. People who've heard what we've done have said, 'I think this record could be a whole new game [for Journey].' I'm very excited about it."

The record marks the first appearance of drummer Narada Michael Walden (who has produced Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and many others over the course of his remarkable career) and Randy Jackson, who played bass with the band onstage for two years starting in 1985. The seamless integration of these new players is even more impressive considering their recent sessions have been done over Zoom. "Everybody co-wrote with Jonathan and I," Schon says. "It's a team effort. It sounds like a fired-up Journey and we're going in some new areas."

Fans will get to hear these new songs live and in the flesh during Journey's co-headlining set at Lollapalooza on July 31, and also during Clive Davis' post-Covid "mega-concert" taking place in Central Park this August.

With so much to look forward to, Schon is happy to let go of the legendary instruments from his past. "All those guitars had their time for me," he says. "There are guitars that I spent many years with onstage and used a lot in the studio on famous songs. I've found that it doesn't have anything to do with it being a good piece of wood. I'm not emotionally attached to any one guitar."

He adds, "It's the music that's I'm attached to."