By Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
German born guitar pioneer, Uli Jon Roth is considered by many to be one of the greatest guitarists ever to walk the earth. Uli began his professional music career in 1973, as the lead guitarist of the Scorpions. During his time with the Scorpions, Uli performed and help write four brilliant studio records (‘Fly to the Rainbow,’ In Trance,’ Virgin Killers,’ and ‘Taken by Force’) and a career defining live record, ‘Tokyo Tapes.’ He helped take the Scorpions from playing bars in Germany to performing sold out stadium shows in Europe and Japan.
After leaving the Scorpions in 1978, Uli went on to form a Jimi Hendrix inspired band called Electric Sun. Although they did not receive the commercial success that they truly deserved, Electric Sun developed a passionate cult-like following. But Uli decided to go in a different musical direction and ended the Electric Sun in 1985.
Soon after, Uli started to focus on performing and composing music that was more classical music influenced. During this time, he also created an innovative, new type of guitar, which he called the Sky guitar. This instrument enabled him to perform music that a traditional guitar could not.
Over the years, Uli has remained true to his style and become a groundbreaking musician and composer, thus creating some truly extraordinary music.
This week, Uli Jon Roth has returned to the United States to begin his North American leg of his “Triple Anniversary Tour.” This tour commemorates Uli’s 50 years of performing, and is one of his most ambitious ever. If you are a fan of classic rock, or just appreciate seeing a true guitar virtuoso, this is a must see show.
During these shows, Uli will be performing a set that is almost three hours long, and will feature a great mix of music. His set will include material he wrote as a member of the Scorpions (1973-1978), a good dose of Electric Sun material, some solo instrumental material and a few classic covers.
What follows is an exclusive RMS interview with the guitar legend – Uli Jon Roth!
RockMusicStar: You are celebrating your 50th Anniversary of performing with your current “Triple Anniversary Tour.” Your North American leg of the tour started yesterday at the Whiskey A Go Go in Hollywood, California. How was your first show?
Uli Jon Roth: It went great! I was a little worried because we didn’t get a lot of time to get everything together because our flight was a delayed a bit flying over from Europe. So we literally arrived only a few hours before the show. It’s a long show, it’s almost three hours long, so I was a bit worried about the band being jet lagged. But everyone pulled through and the audience was fantastic! I think that we had a very good first night, and I was pleased about that.
RMS: This is a pretty ambitious tour, are you really playing a full 3 hours?
UJR: Well, yes almost. The main show has two sets, and there is a little intermission that sets them apart. So, it’s not quite a full three hours of music, but in length it is 3 hours. That is also something that worried me initially, as well, wondering if it was too ambitious. But, we already played this show in Japan and Europe and we haven’t had any complaints about the length. It’s fine and it works.
RMS: Well Uli, I know that some of your fans would love to watch you play for twelve hours, if possible.
UJR: (laughs) Actually, for the diehards we do offer them an extra VIP only performance the afternoon of every show, in which those who purchase VIP passes see a private concert, in which I play my ‘Metamorphosis Concerto.’ Which I don’t play on my normal tours. It’s classical music, in which I perform “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,” and a concerto that I wrote. But, I’m glad about that, because normally, I don’t get to play that stuff. We also did that yesterday. So, that means that I’m onstage four hours everyday.
RMS: Wow, I don’t know how you do that?
UJR: I dont’ know either, (laughs). It’s actually a very ambitious thing for me, but yesterday, it was fine. I hope that we have the stamina for the rest of the tour.
RMS: The first 90 minutes of your regular will be devoted to you performing songs from the band you formed after you left the Scorpions in 1978, the Electric Sun. Why did you decide to concentrate on Electric Sun material for this tour?
UJR: Because Electric Sun had a big cult following in the 80’s in America. In 1985, I stopped the band, and went on to do my classical music things. So, basically its unfinished business. We only did one tour in America, and a lot of people were asking for it. Yesterday, (the first gig of the tour) was proof, because the Electric Sun material really went down well.
Now, the first set isn’t just comprised of Electric Sun material, we are also doing some of my ‘Sky of Avalon’ material on my Sky guitar. But the bigger part of the first set is Electric Sun.
RMS: Okay, I see. The last part of the show will consist of material that you recorded with the Scorpions, correct?
UJR: Yes, we do early Scorpions stuff, from like ‘Tokyo Tapes,’ ‘Virgin Killer,’ ‘In a Trance,’ and ‘Fly to the Rainbow.’ We are playing many songs from that period, and we also throw in some Hendrix songs in there as well.
Also, during those three hours of the show, I’m also doing an acoustic piece where I’m playing solo my flamenco Sky guitar.
RMS: That leads to my next question which is about your Sky guitar. It’s a fascinating instrument. How did you come about creating that guitar?
UJR: Well, to be precise, in 1982, when I starting thinking that I wanted a guitar that could do more than just a standard guitar. I wanted to be able to play higher notes, like those that you can play on a violin, which is not possible on a standard electric guitar. So, that’s how that all started. The first sky guitar we did had 38 frets, and that was the first ever guitar with that many frets. From then, a couple of years later, I added a seventh string, to give it an extended bass range, and several prototypes were built. The shape pretty much always stayed the same. But, over time, there were a lot of alterations, went through a lot of different phases, and then we put in on the market, as a limited edition and that went well.
Eventually, I formed my own little company, UJR Sky Guitars, and started selling them via the internet to people who could afford them, it’s mainly collectors or really intense aficionados, because they are all hand-made and very expensive. We have a one year waiting list for them.
But, it’s fun for me because I also get to indulge in creating new prototypes and have two of these Sky guitars on this tour. It’s really exciting for me because I can always continue to develop the guitar through with new cutting edge technology and new ideas. That’s really the spirit of the Sky guitar, to enable me to do things that I can’t do on a normal guitar, like playing Vivaldi for instance.
RMS: Last January, you toured Japan, and had two very special guests perform with you: Rudolph Schenker of the Scorpions and Phil X of Bon Jovi. What was that experience like performing with them?
UJR: Well, it was really nice because Rudolf and I are still close, and we have a strong bond. When I asked him to be a guest on these “50th Anniversary” shows in Japan, and in the same venue that the Scorpions recorded ‘Tokyo Tapes’ back in 1978, he immediately said, Yes! Although, it was a bit difficult to fit it in with his schedule, the Scorpions had a show two days later in America, but in the end, he just made it happen, and he turned up and we had a great time.
It was also really nice to have Phil X on stage. We got on very well, he is a very talented musician, and singer, and he did a few songs we me on stage. We are going to do that again, we got along very well.
RMS: Really? Any chance that Rudolph or Phil performing at any of the North American dates?
UJR: With Phil X, yes I can see that. But, Rudolph I believe is somewhere else touring.
RMS: I want to discuss your time in the Scorpions (1973-1978). You recorded four amazing studio records and the legendary live record, “Tokyo Tapes.” First of all, why didn’t the Scorpions ever tour America while you were in the band?
UJR: It was a pretty simple reason, we were with a major international label, RCA Records, which doesn’t exist anymore. But back then, it was one of the leading record labels. We were already successful in Europe, but the American department of the label had a CEO who really wasn’t a fan of the Scorpions, he just couldn’t see it and didn’t get it. So, basically, they never supported us coming over and touring the states. Until, our success became so obvious, we started having gold records in Japan, and then, finally an offer for an American tour came. But, by that time, I had already said that I wanted to leave the band, so I declined the American tour. Which, with hindsight was maybe a mistake. I think that I should have been on the first American tour. I could have stayed a few more months longer, but then I didn’t.
RMS: What led to your decision to leave the Scorpions?
UJR: My time was up. I started to write music that I knew would not fit within the frame-work of the band. And, I wanted to do something else, really. I could have gone on with the Scorpions, but I would have been rather unhappy. Because, no matter how big your bank account is, if you are really not happy on stage anymore, or in the studios, it’s not good. I was happy in the Scorpions for many years, and everything was great, but towards the end, I really thought that had to move on, and that’s that.
RMS: The live Scorpions record that you performed on, ‘Tokyo Tapes,’ is regarded by many critics and music fans as one of the best live records ever. Do feel that record is the highlight of your time in the Scorpions?
UJR: Yeah, it definitely was. We were at the peak of our game at that time, at that moment, and that record shows that. When it came out, I wasn’t so happy with the sound of it, but I seemed to be the only one, nobody else had any problem with it, or complained.
RMS: Do you feel that the Scorpions will ever be inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame?
UJR: (pauses) I don’t know….they should be. I don’t know what they are thinking over there. Deep Purple wasn’t in there for a very long time. So I really don’t know.
RMS: What would you still like to accomplish as a musician?
UJR: I want to get better and write new music that hasn’t been written before and travel down the path, and explore. I’m interested in writing things that I want to hear. And that doesn’t mean that everything has to be complex, I just want it to be musically as best as possible. There is always room for improvement.
RMS Your style of guitar changed from being very blues based to classical music influenced. What led to that change in styles?
UJR: That was a gradual change. In the beginning, my path through guitar and music was pretty much reflected on the albums, because when I did the first album, ‘Fly to the Rainbow,’ I only had played for five years, which is not really a long time to do to make a real album. I think that on every album you can hear a progression on my vocabulary on music. On the third album, ‘Virgin Killer’, and onwards you can hear that I start to integrate classical music in the melodic structures of the songs, like the guitar leads for instance. It become more and more so, after that third record, because I loved listening to classical music, like violin concertos, piano concertos and I wanted to bring some of that to the electric guitar. I didn’t understand why nobody else did it, it was obvious to me, that the electric guitar still had enormous room and potential for this type of development. So, it was no brainer for me, to try to incorporate classical music into my music and playing.
RMS: Who were some of your influences on the guitar? Obviously, Jimi Hendrix was one.
UJR: Yes, well the first one was really Eric Clapton. He was a bit before Jimi Hendrix. I still love the Cream and Bluesbreakers stuff. It was very phenomenal and inspired guitar playing. Then afterward, I started to listen to all sorts of different guitar players. Jeff Beck, of course and all of the best ones that were there at the moment in time. I knew what they were doing, and I learned something from all of them, I guess.
RMS: One guitarist, that was obviously influenced by you, is Yngwie Malmsteen. What do think of him as a guitarist?
UJR: Yngwie is a great guitar talent. He’s one of a kind, and he can really play. It’s very natural for him, and with him it’s an inborn talent, that you can’t buy at the corner store. Some people just have that, and others have to practice all their lives to get there. I don’t know why that is, but I guess that it’s a destiny factor. Some people are just born for it. But, I’m sure that Yngwie was a hard worker also. I’m sure that he practiced a lot as a kid, just like I did. And that makes a big difference.
RMS: Final question for you Uli. After you left the Scorpions, were there any other bands that tried to recruit you to join their band?
UJR: Not really major ones, because I made it rather clear that I was on the road to doing my own thing. I think at that point it was common knowledge that I wouldn’t be a band member, because I was going into the direction of being a solo artist, and that I different mentality. When I was in the Scorpions, I was a band member, but I don’t know. That issue really never came up.
For more on Uli Jon Roth, please visit www.ulijonroth.com
Special thanks to Chip Ruggieri for setting up this interview.
Uli Jon Roth will be playing in Buffalo, NY for the first time ever on April 30th. Tickets can be purchased here.