Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gregg Rolie

Gregg Rolie

Legendary Vocalist/Keyboardist for Santana and Journey

Santana's 1999 Grammy phenomenon, Supernatural, has sold in excess of 25 million copies. It launched a rebirth of Carlos Santana's career leading to his artist-as-icon status. More recently, he has lent his name to a line of Santana perfumes and colognes, handbags, wine, Carlos by Carlos women's shoes, and more.

But this legendary status now enjoyed by Carlos wouldn't exist were it not for the hits still played on radio: "Evil Ways," "Black Magic Woman," "Oye Como Va," et al. Most of these songs were included on Santana's first two albums, Santana (often called Santana by Santana), and Abraxas.

At the heart of the sound of those classic records are the keyboard playing and vocals of a young musician named Gregg Rolie.

Still a teenager when he and Carlos formed what was at one time titled the "Santana Blues Band" and then finally simply "Santana," Rolie had a distinctive vocal style has been immortalized on those early albums. And he didn't stop there. He and band mate Neal Schon went on to form Journey, a band which initially achieved a cult status among musicians, and then became one of the world's leading pop rock groups.

Rolie wasn't just a vocalist who accompanied himself on keyboards, though. The powerful simplicity of his organ playing is evident in the iconic chord inversions that introduce Oye Como Va, the unusual note (a 9th) that kicks off his solo in Evil Ways, and many other parts. Playing keyboards is something many people do; really good keyboard players is a much smaller group. Creating keyboard parts (both rhythm and lead) that stick in people's mind is a rare skill indeed, and one at which Rolie excels.

To this day, Rolie can be heard on both keyboards and vocals in his own group, the Gregg Rolie Band. Touring the country and playing hits both old and new, Rolie and his band (which includes original Santana conguero Mike Carabello) embody much of the original sound of the early Santana songs that still resonate with listeners, 40 years later.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Neal Schon

Incredible Melodic Journey

There are a lot of excellent electric guitar players out there. When you narrow the field to guitar players who play parts that you remember long after the song is over, it shrinks noticeably. But at the very pinnacle of that group is this category: players so melodic that every "riff" they play is a hook that sticks with you for a long time.

One of the members of that very small cadre is Neal Schon.

He must have displayed that talent early, because at 15, he had Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana vying to bring him on tour. After a couple of years under the radar in Santana's band, Neal broke out on his own to form Journey with Santana band mate Gregg Rolie. It was a momentous career choice.

Beginning with the first note of the first song on the first Journey album, Schon has steadily created a catalog of memorable songs, parts, and solos that is mind-boggling. His unique chordal phrases form the basis of most Journey songs; his lead riffs and solos challenge the vocal lines for sheer melodic power.

For more than 30 years, Schon has built a body of work that is staggering in its sheer volume, not to mention quality. He has contributed to many other projects, and even been in other bands (Bad English, Hardline, Abraxas Pool, et al), but it is in Journey where his melodic gift is best exemplified.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Yamaha SG

One-Time Santana guitar

More than 10 years of photography have etched the image of Carlos Santana and his PRS Signature guitar into the public consciousness. The resurgence of Woodstock footage has served the same purpose for one of Santana's original guitars: a Gibson SG.

But the six years that Santana spent playing a much less known guitar -- the Yamaha SG -- have been, to a great deal, eclipsed. However, that guitar, played by Carlos during a pivotal point in his career, probably had a lot to do with what many people think of as the "Santana Sound." That is, a round, smooth-yet-beefy-tone, complemented by endless sustain.

Embodying the best of the features of Santana's two previous guitars, the SG and Les Paul (both by Gibson), the Yamaha SG175 was a thick, woody guitar with double cutaways in the body. Combined with his Mesa Boogie amp, it helped him develop the signature sound for which he is renowned today.

Actually, although the model number was SG175 at first, Carlos and Yamaha together modified it into it's eventual form, which was called the Yamaha SG2000. That is the guitar heard on the original recording of "Europa," "Open Invitation," and other classic Santana songs.

After Carlos had played the guitar for a while, it was "discovered" by other popular guitarists of the day, including Steve Cropper, Kerry Livgren (Kansas), and Mick Jones (Foreigner).

Recently, Yamaha has reissued the model as the SBG2000, as well as several other related models. It's a fitting tribute to the legendary status of the artist who originally helped the world see the quality of Yamaha guitars.