By: Matthew Warnock
Producer, recording artist, seasoned touring musician, songwriter, arranger, business owner, endorser, all of these titles apply to guitarist extraordinaire Vernon Neilly. While many artists would be happy to be successful in one of these fields during their careers, the multi-talented guitarist thrives on having his irons in many fires, with consistent positive results. Not only has Neilly developed a reputation as a world-class performer, writer and even actor, but he was one of the earliest businessmen to realize the potential of selling music on the internet. A realization that has sparked his many endeavors into the business side of music, culminating in Boosweet Records, which he founded in 1999 and which is still going strong today.
Neilly’s latest musical output is the record A Tribute To Stevie Wonder, which features the guitarist alongside many great guest artists, including the virtuosic Greg Howe, paying tribute to one of the greatest songwriters and pianists of the 20th Century. Coming at the project from a guitarist’s perspective, Neilly wanted to provide listener’s with a fresh look at Wonder’s familiar songs, and his mission was definitely accomplished. The album is a tour de force that not only pays tribute to Wonder’s genius as a songwriter, but it also adds new twists and interpretation to songs that we all know and love. Not to mention that the guitar playing on the record is smokin’, definitely a record worth adding to your home library.
Guitar International recently caught up with Vernon Neilly to discuss A Tribute To Stevie Wonder, his time in Brazil, gear and get his thoughts on the music business.
Matt Warnock: Your latest album is a tribute to Steve Wonder, and it seems that everybody like Stevie’s music for different reasons and from different eras of his career. What was it about Stevie’s music that inspired you to write and record this new album?
Vernon Neilly: It was a couple of different things. As long as I can remember I’ve always enjoyed Stevie Wonder’s music, but getting into his music in the early ‘70s, with I believe the Talking Book album, was when I really started to get deeper into his music because of his compositions and his incredible voice. Those would be the main reasons I got into Stevie, which culminated in this new record many years later.
Matt: Since Stevie is a pianist, has he influenced the way you play guitar or was it more of a compositional influence that he had on you over the years?
Vernon: It was more of a compositional thing than a guitar thing as far as his influence goes. The idea for this Stevie tribute, I’ve heard several different artists cover his music, but no one had ever done it from a guitar perspective. So, I wanted to do it from a guitar perspective, and really try to do something totally different. Not only with the guitar being the lead voice in the ensemble, but also coming up with some unique and totally new sounding stuff.
Matt: Was it a tough choice to narrow down the final songs for the album from the huge catalog of works that Stevie has written over the years?
Vernon: I wanted to record the songs that I believed that most people who are familiar with Stevie Wonder would recognize. But, I also have some great help on the album from players who are amazing musicians in their own right. So I got their feedback on what songs we should do, and it all came together from there.
Matt: One of the guest artists on the album is Greg Howe, who is just a monster player. Have you known Greg for a long time and how did that collaboration develop as far as his role on that particular track on the record?
Vernon: Greg is a very good, personal friend of mine and we’ve been friends for a while now. So, when I was thinking of doing this project I wanted to include players who actually like Stevie’s music, and who have been influenced by his music as well. Greg is someone who has been influenced by Stevie’s music, and has actually covered some of his songs on his own projects, so bringing him on board this album worked out really well for many reasons. He was really psyched to be a part of the project and it was great having him involved.
Matt: Even though you’re both friends, was there any sort of brotherly competition when you both got into the studio? Did you push each other to go further with your playing in a friendly way since you’re both guitarists?
Vernon: I wouldn’t say so much competition, because if you know Greg personally, he’s an amazing player but also an amazing person. He’s egoless actually. When we were recording the track, we were just thinking about what was going to be best for the song. What was going to take the song in the right direction? Between Greg and I working together, it was just effortless really.
Matt: Did you play your Tagima guitars on the album? And what is it about those models that inspired you to play them in the first place and later become an endorser of that brand?
Vernon: Tagima is the largest maker of guitars and basses in Brazil and they own a larger market share in the country than any other maker, including Fender, Gibson and Ibanez. I was introduced to the company during my first tour to Brazil. A friend of mine, who was working with the company at that time, told me that he wanted to introduce me to the company because he thought I would really enjoy the instruments.
When I was leaving Sao Paolo I stopped by the factory to see the guitars being made and meet the owners of the company. I saw how the guitars were being made and I was really impressed that they were making guitars the way they used to be made 30 or 40 years ago in the U.S. They cut their own neck blanks by hand and cutting their bodies by hand. Everything is done 100% by hand. I was really impressed by the production and quality of the instruments. That’s what got me involved with them in the first place. I now have two signature models that I designed for them and they produce and sell. It’s been a great relationship so far working with Tagima.
Matt: You also endorse Giannini strings, which are made in Brazil. Again, why did you choose to work with this company, which is big in Brazil but not as well known outside of the company as say D’Addario or Dean Markley?
Vernon: I had been endorsed before by Dean Markley strings for a very, very long time. What impressed by about Giannini strings was, once again, the way that they create their strings. They have very high-tech winding machines that they use in their production. The thing about strings is, the tighter the wind, the less oil and dirt gets into the strings and so they last a lot longer. Giannini wraps their strings very tight, which adds to the life of the string and increases the intonation of the string. Giannini is a huge company in Brazil but they also have distributorship all over the world. They’re not just a Brazilian company, it’s an international company.
Getting back to the strings themselves, I spent two years working with the company to develop my signature string. When I play, I play hard and when I play live I perspire a lot. So when I play, the strings get worked hard and get sweat all over them. [Laughs] So they need to be well made to stand up to that kind of pounding, and Giannini stands up to that kind of punishment every time. I have never broken a string, ever. It’s an incredible thing. Just an amazing product. I only endorse products that I really believe in and that I play myself, so this just isn’t something I do for money or for free stuff, I really believe in these strings and use them every day.
Matt: You also own your own record label, Boosweet Records. How did you begin the company back in 1999?
Vernon: I had been previously signed to a couple of major label deals. One early on, I used to be a writer and producer for a Warner Brothers subsidiary, and I was a also recording artist for a subsidiary of RCA. Just going through that experience of signing with a major label taught me a lot. Back in the early ‘90s when the whole internet thing was starting out, it was in the embryotic stage, I was working with a partner of mine on a local Los Angeles label. From working with that label, but also being at a time when the internet was just starting to discover music, I had this vision, I don’t know why, but I knew that the internet would become a substantial way to sell music.
I started selling music online way back in 1992, so very early on. At that time there was only one other company selling music on the internet. There was a whole revolution going on in music at the time because you started to see Tascam boards becoming much more affordable, so artists began to have more power to write and produce their own music. That was a big catalyst for me and a lot of others to pursue our own labels in the ‘90s. I studied the business for a few years, how to do things properly from a business perspective, so when I left that industry in 1998, I was prepared to launch Boosweet Records and do it properly. That’s how it all go started.
Matt: You’re a performer, you run the record label, you produce and write music, how do you maintain a balance with all this stuff going on?
Vernon: Behind any successful company is a great bunch of people that makes it run, and I have a great staff that make things run smoothly. It’s a big juggling act, but I’ve always been an ambitious person, so every day is a full day, naturally. Our board is always full each morning with things that we need to get accomplished, so it takes teamwork and dedication to get it all done, and I’m surrounded by some amazing people who help make it all happen.