Solo guitarist and artist. Vernon speaks with us about writing, recording, performing and more!
October 19, 2005
Guitarhoo!: Hey Vernon, Welcome to Guitarhoo! Who were some of your musical influences early on in your life?
Vernon Neilly: Thanks for the opportunity to speak to the Guitarhoo Community. Like most musicians I have quite a few people that have been influential to me in my music, and music career. Jimi Hendrix would top the list though, I love Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Jeff Beck, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian. Then there are the R&B/Blues players like Al McKay(Earth Wind and Fire), Johnny”Guitar”Watson, David T Walker, Freddie/Albert/BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughn. I just love guitar, and good guitar playing even Danny Gaton, Albert Lee, Chet Atkins, Roy Buchanan, Steve Cropper. I have learned something on guitar from all of these people.
G!: Was guitar the first instrument you picked up and do play other instruments besides guitar?
VN: No actually I studied piano first. I come from a classical music background and when I was growing up the guitar was not considered a serious concert instrument to my parents, so it was either piano or violin. I started fooling around with the guitar when I was about 9 years old, started getting more serious around 12-13, was playing in my first real working band at 14. I also play electric bass besides guitar, and keyboards.
G!: What drew you towards Jazz and Blues over any other style of music?
VN: I actually started playing rock guitar before I played any other styles of guitar, it was just what I was exposed to when I was growing up, serious blues and jazz guitar came later, although blues are the foundation of all American music art forms. I was playing Hendrix, Cream, Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad, Santana, years before I ever started to try playing any Jazz. My older brother Harry was the one who actually turned me on to Jazz, stuff like George Benson’s CTI recordings, Herbie Hancock Headhunters, Flautist Bobbi Humphrey, Donald Bryd, Cannonball Adderly, Wes Montgomery, Earth Wind and Fire, The Jazz Crusaders. I started looking for more jazz recordings on my own after that, found older Benson stuff, Django, Charlie Christian, Barney Kessle, Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Grant Green. I really consider myself and Rock/Blues player who knows how to play some Jazz.
G!: A lot of your music has that good time, free flowing vibe to it. What is your approach or headspace when you compose an instrumental?
VN: I love creating instrumental music that have strong melodies, regardless where I go with the improvisation. I think what I ultimately create depends on whether I am creating from a certain mood, or if I have some sort of theme in mind, it really varies. For example when I created the track “Nassau Nights” for the Seymour Duncan project, I deliberatley did not write something that was in the rock, hard rock, or titleernative vein, because I knew that the other artists on the project would have that covered. I wanted to do something that I knew was going to be totally different from anything else on the project, so I put this Urban/Latin party track together with cool horn arrangements, nylon string guitar, and female background vocals. I was able to express another side of me with that track.
G!: Did you find much success with the Latin American or Carribean crowds with your records?
VN: Yes of course, especially with the songs that have that Carribean/Latin feel. But this kind of music is listened to all over the world, so people from all over the world dug the music. I think if music touches a person in a certain way regardless of genre, people are going to lock on to it because they can relate to it, it evokes some kind of feeling, or expression. Thats the wonderful thing about music regardless of genre, it can make you feel so many different things.
G!: I dig the way you sprinkle some female vocal embellishments throughout some of your instrumental tracks to add to the lively atmosphere of the music such as, “Caliente Y Suave”, “Nassau Nights” and “Por Mi Amor”. Where do you find your vocalists and are the vocal parts ad libs or written out?
VN: Thank you, I am always just trying to experiment with different things musically, I think that vocal parts properly placed in instrumental songs can enhance the tracks, and make them more interesting. I have some very good friends who are top vocalist in the business, so sometimes I get them to come in and record things, or I will sample their voices with different phrases. I can decide later how I want to use them.
Vernon’s signature “VN1” guitar by Tagima
G!: Your “VN1” Signature guitar by Tagima is pretty unique looking. A little reminiscent of Princes guitar. What can you tell us about the making of it and it’s features?
VN: I designed the guitar to be very practical, and very balanced. After years of live playing I wanted to have a guitar that I could play for hours with out shoulder fatigue, so my model is light, about 5.50-6.0 pounds depending on what I have in it.If you take the guitar and stand it upright you will see the figure of a woman, the long upper bout with the curve that everyone thinks looks like Prince’s guitar, is actually the arm of the woman kind of flipping her wrist. I have several of these guitars now thet Seji Tagima has made for me, but with different pickup configurations.All of the guitars are handmade by Seji from Brazilian tone woods that you can only find in Brazil. The bodies are made of Cedro(Brazilian Cedar), the necks are Marape(Brazilian maple), the fret boards are Brazilian Rosewood. The tuners are Gotoh locking tuners, the bridges are Wilkenson tremelo’s(I love movement of their action), the pickups are for the most part Seymour 59 neck, Seymour SSL 1 Vintage Staggered middle, and Seymour JB4 Jeff Beck in the bridge. I do have a new signature that Seji Tagima just gave me when I went to Brazil that is so beautiful, this one has a Jacaranda(alligator wood)top that is just one of the most beautiful tops I have ever seen on a guitar. Instead of the Seymour 59 in the neck, this one has a Seymour Seth Lover. This one is also wired very different, it has a 5 positions switch like all the rest, but it also has push/pull pots for each humbucker, so it gets a myriad of tones. One of the key things that I really like about the Tagima guitars is that each neck blank and body blank, assemebly, finishes are all done by hand, no robotics whatsoever, just humans. I have other Tagima guitars to that were given to me by the company, a T735 which is like a Strat, T505 Thinline which is like a thinline Tele with the F holes, a T-Zero which is a whole different design created by Seji, and they have alot more models too. Kiko Louriero, my friend and the lead guitarist from Angra aldo has his signature model thats very cool, looks like a stealth fighter.
G!: You recently produced and mastered an 18 artist compilation disc “United by Tone” for Seymour Duncan pickups. How did this project come about and how was it to work with artists such as Jennifer Batten, Slash and others on this project?
VN: It’s been a couple years since I did this project, but it’s still a great project, and actually a collectors item right now. I went to Evan Skopp at Seymour Duncan who is Vice Press of Marketing for the company, but also a guitar player, and pitched the idea for them to do a compilation of some of the artists on the Duncan endorsement roster. Duncan has most of the top players in the world that endorse their products, so I knew the talent pool would be very good. Evan liked the idea, brought in Kellie Stoelting who is the artist rep at Duncan to help coordinate the project, and we worked on the project as a team from that point.I already was used to doing projects like this because of having my own recording label, so for me it was second nature. They are very team oriented people at Seymour Duncan, so everyone had their task to do, did it and we ended up with a great project with some fantastic musicians on it. Where else are you going to find a project with Jennifer Batten, Seymour Duncan, Alien Ant Farm, Slash, Vernon Neilly, Jimmy Bruno, Bill Frisell, 311, Gary Hoey, and more on one CD project? Nowhere, but that was the whole idea. That is why the CD is a collectors item now, because there were only so many copies made.You asked about Jennifer Batten, she is a very nice woman, very sweet, and she has to be the very best woman guitarist that I have ever seen play a guitar, not to mention that she is better than most men too. She is just incredibly talented and dedicated to her craft. Believe it or not Slash is very mellow, cool, person as well. The only reason I say this is because sometimes people http://www.guitarhoo.com/images can give people a bad rap, but he is very cool. I am very fortunate because Seymour, Jennifer, Slash, and Jerry Horton, signed my copy! I do not think that there are any more copies available, but if people are interested in it they should write Seymour Duncan to see if they can scare up a copy.
G!: You’ve played with a diverse group of musicians throughout your career, looking back what are some of the highlights recording or performing wise?
VN: Recording wise, it is the time that I spent with Motown hit producer Norman Whitfield. I learned so much from Norman about producing, and production. Norman had a big ego, but he could spot talent, and always kept a crew of very talented young people around him. There have been so many performance highlights over the years working with people like Johnny”Guitar”Watson, Charles Brown, Billy Paul, Teena Marie, George Clinton, each a truly very valuable experience. Then doing shows with my band over the years has been very rewarding as well, working with bassist Juan Nelson (Grammy Award winning bass player with Ben Harper), Mark Whitfield who is an incredible Jazz guitarist,and Berklee faculty member. I feel truly blessed to have been able to be in the company of some truly gifted and talented individuals.
G!: Do you own your own recording studio and if so which kind of gear do you use?
VN: I do have my own studio, mostly these days like everyone else I am using digital platforms. I have been a Cakewalk endorser for years so naturally I am using Sonar 4 producers edition. I also endorse Sony Media products, so I use Sound Forge for all of my critical editing, and mastering. I have and extensive library of plug in effects from a bunch of different company’s like Antares who I also endorse, of course all top of the line effects plug ins. I do still use a few hardware pieces by Lexicon, and Digitech for external processing, and I have some great keyboards and modules that I use, guitar synth, etc.
G!: Does your live gear differ much from your studio gear?
VN: Totally, live I only use tube amplifiers which are made in Brazil by a company called Meteoro, these are great warm tube amps. I have different sized setups for different size venues, but my favorite set up are my 2 Meteoro V8’s which are run out of my pedal baord in stereo. Each V8 is rated at 25 watts, but they sound more like 40. I can mike up one in a venue the size of a House of Blues, and it’s going to be plenty. I use Morley wah’s, various digitech effect pedals, like the Whammy 4, Xotic effects AC and RC Boosters, Aphex Exciter. These are just some of the things that I use live, I have alot of different effects so depending on what I am doing, I will pull out certain things.
G!: What are some of your future projects coming which we can all look forward to?
VN: I have a project that I am going to be doing with , Kiko Loureiro (Angra), and Vic Johnson (Sammy Hagar), I hope to get it out by early next year. I am getting ready to drop my new DVD “Live In Brazil” in the next few weeks. The footage is made up of live concert footage shot in Brazil while I was touring there. Mark Whitfield and I have been talking about doing another record together, and I am about to start recording a blues project with my friend Sam James, bass player and son of the legendary blues vocalist Etta James.
G!: What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of music?
VN: Well music is my life, but I also enjoy film. When I have a little down time, I like to see a good movie. I have actually been in a couple of movies, “Along Came Polly”, and “Starsky and Hutch”. It was a very cool experience doing the movies! I also like trying to help, counsel up and coming artists and musicians. I speak at various independent music conferences, and events from time to time to try to give some guidance to young talent who want to get into the music business. I also do clinics from time to time, so I try to use this opportunity as well to educate the aspiring talent.
G!: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
VN: Yes I do, if you are choosing music as a career, educate yourself about the business as much as you educate yourself about your chosen instrument. The music business is going through a phase of great change, and it is increasingly more important for musicians to understand the business of the business. Practice, practice, practice your instrument, but be creative in your practice. Work on things that are challenging to you, so that you can continue to grow and make progress (Steve Vai, Tony MacAlpine, Greg Howe are still practicing). Work hard at what you want to achieve, and surround yourself with like minded people who are also achievers (nothing from nothing leaves nothing). Lastly but probably most importantly, believe in yourself completely!
G!: Vernon, thanks for taking out the time for this and keep rocking!
VN: My pleasure to speak to the guitarhoo community! Rock On!
Interview © 2005 Guitarhoo!
Vernon on the web