About forty years ago, a German guitar player named Uli Jon Roth was in a band called the Scorpions. They had released an album titled Virgin Killer and were on the heels of releasing their follow-up, Taken By Force. But Roth was already venturing down a different path musically than his band0mates. His songs were taking on more surrealism and exploring the temporal latitudes of the fretboard. In other words, his music wasn’t exactly where the Scorpions were headed. He had written a song called “Winterdays,” a short, lovely melody that summoned up feelings of longing and spiritual harmony – all done with his guitar. But for the Scorpions, they were embarking down a different, more rock footpath and Roth knew this. So he decided to follow his calling rather than his band’s.
Roth would only be with the Scorpions a short time, four studio albums and one live record, before his musical march led him to form Electric Sun. Roth would go on to compose orchestral pieces and rock songs, design an innovative thirty fret Sky Guitar and tour the world numerous times over. His fans would devour every morsel of music he released and his reputation as a guitar maestro was sealed in due course.
Last week, Roth began a forty city tour dubbed The Ultimate Guitar Experience. Each concert will feature sets by Roth, Jennifer Batten and Andy Timmons followed by a showstopping climax with all three onstage together. It is something Roth is very much looking forward to. “There will be a lot of heavy duty guitar playing,” he explained during our interview prior to his joining the Monsters Of Rock Cruise. In the long run we stayed close to Roth’s music during the interview, as his history with his legendary former band is already well-documented. There were just so many more things to talk about than the notoriously controversial Virgin Killer album cover and the hit songs that came after Roth had left. “I’m enjoying this because usually sometimes the questions are very same so at least you are asking some different ones,” Roth said near the end of the interview. “The one about the Scorpions is always there and I’ve answered it in a thousand different ways. (laughs) But for me, these are interesting questions.”
I’ve read many interviews with you over the years …
Yeah, you’ve been around a while, Uli
(laughs) I have actually. You’re right. I forget about that (laughs)
The one thing I have always noticed is your genuine, pure love of music. It reminds me almost of looking at a painting and being completely under it’s spell. Is that a correct assessment?
I would think that is perfectly correct. It’s not just love, I revere it, I adore it. But that doesn’t mean that I can have it around me like twenty-four hours a day. It’s too intense for that, you know. So I enjoy it in very small doses usually. When I was younger, I was playing a lot but nowadays I play very little but if and when I play, I’m really enjoying it, like a first-time kind of experience and that’s great. But for me it feels good that I’m still able to do that and still able to feel that way. And it’s a never-ending love story because I’m constantly still discovering new things and it often makes me particularly aware how the inner laws and principles of music are a complete reflection or expression of everything else that I see. You know, the laws of life and the laws of nature and the laws of the universe even, both physically and metaphysically. So that is something I find extremely interesting and I do think about it a lot.
Is it almost at a spiritual level for you?
For me, music is completely spiritual because it is one of the first principles of creation. It’s like deep inside of us, the harmonies, the melodies, the rhythms. It’s identical to what’s going on inside of us. That’s why we relate to it so strongly and that’s why so many people from so many different countries, although they don’t speak the same language and don’t have the same upbringing, they can still enjoy the same piece of music. I find that fascinating.
Was it always like that from the first time you heard music? Was it that overpowering?
Yeah, when I was very little it had a very magical effect on me. I came to music not through playing an instrument, like some people learn an instrument right away. I was different in that sense. I at first didn’t learn an instrument. I just loved music; like, maybe we sang folk songs in school, like old German folk songs, Traditionals, and I remember how some of these melodies really did something to me that was kind of inexplicable. Later on I really got into The Beatles and I think that was very good for me because they were masters of harmony and melody and songwriting. They were just brilliant and very inspired, particularly in their heyday, and that was exactly when I experienced it. I still remember what it felt like to hear “Eleanor Rigby” for the first time or certain other songs, like “The Fool On The Hill;” I still remember that to this day. It made a deep impression on me.
How old were you?
Well, certainly not yet ten but I’m not sure when it was with The Beatles. Maybe I was just ten cause it was 1964, I guess.
When did instrumentation come in?
A little bit later. Like in school I picked up the flute or the recorder, as kids do, and I learned that pretty quickly, not to the greatest standard, but then the harmonica and very soon afterwards I started lessons on the trumpet of all instruments (laughs). One of our neighbors was an orchestra trumpet player and he taught me and that’s how I learned to read music and that was before the guitar. Then it was the bass because my neighbor’s band needed a bass player and very soon after that I could see that I was most fascinated by what the electric guitar did. Then I just switched and became a lead guitar player in that band. From then on, I was completely in love with the guitar for many years.
You are embarking on a new tour. What can you tell us about that?
It’s called The Ultimate Guitar Experience. We are three guitar players with a backing band and each of us is playing their own set and at the end we’re going to play some music together. The three are Jennifer Batten, who is probably best known through her work with Michael Jackson and with Jeff Beck, and then Andy Timmons, who was in a band called Danger Danger. They are both solo artists now and they are both great guitar players who’ve got a very unique style, each of them, and I’m really looking forward to doing this tour. There will be a lot of heavy duty guitar playing. Both of these are not just so-called shredders who run up the fretboard, up and down, with a million notes per second. Both of them are melodic players and musical players, which for me is the most important thing when it comes to guitar playing; the musicality of it.
Is it hard to coordinate with the other two guitarists, Jennifer and Andy, for the set you do together?
I don’t think so. Jennifer and I have played together before and that was very easy to do because we both think along similar lines. And I expect the same to happen with Andy because I know his playing abilities. I’ve seen him live and I think we will blend very well together, cause each of us knows how to listen to the other person and to communicate musically. So I don’t expect it to be hard, or I hope not (laughs). We don’t have much time to practice so we will basically practice onstage but for players of that caliber that is perfectly possible, you know.
You are also celebrating Electric Sun’s anniversary of the first record, Earthquake.
Yeah and for the first time in many, many years to play some of that music live and I’m really looking forward to that because I think there are some hidden gemstones on these old albums that are worthwhile. I’ve picked for this tour some of the best ones that I wrote for Electric Sun.
Well, there are several, some tracks from Beyond The Astral Skies. One is called “I’m A River” and the other is called “I’ll Be There.” Both, I think, have some of the best guitar solos that I’ve written to date. Because it’s called The Ultimate Guitar Experience, you know, we have to make sure people get that (laughs). Another is from Earthquake and it’s called “Still So Many Lives Away” and I performed that live with the very early Electric Sun but I’ve never played it since. Also the title track is something we’re going to integrate into the set. It’s quite an epic.
I wanted to ask you about a song from that first record called “Winterdays” because it’s so lovely and it seems so simple but knowing you it’s not.
(laughs) Well, it’s a story. I wrote it back when I was still in the Scorpions in 1977 but it wasn’t sort of suitable for the Scorpions. I wrote it very quickly and then I put it aside. It’s just really an instrumental consisting of two, maximum three, guitars; there’s some rhythm guitar at the end. And actually, I have never played it live. We’re doing some acoustic shows now this year so I may well bring that to the stage because I am also quite fond of that piece.
It’s not long
No but probably live maybe add one more turnaround at the end but yeah, you’re right, it’s not something that would be so easy to perform because I’ve overdubbed another guitar and it’s certainly not possible on one guitar. It would need the combination of two guitars.
What guitar were you playing at that time?
At that time I was playing my favorite white Stratocaster guitar.
Since we’re talking about the anniversary, what about the song “Lilac.”
Oh yeah, you know how to pick them (laughs). That is another one which I find is probably the most interesting on the album other than the title track. And again, it’s not been performed live because in the past with the early Electric Sun we played three-piece live and it would have been completely impossible to do that justice because it’s got quite a symphonic middle section which needs at least three guitars. Now, we could theoretically play it live because I’ve got two excellent guitar players with me but we’re not going to do it on this tour. But it is certainly something that in future I really might want to do.
After you left the Scorpions, did you ever regret that decision?
No. You see, this was a decision which was a very natural step for me to take. It was part of my destiny and my destiny was not to stay in the Scorpions. I had a great time for those five years but then enough was enough. It had nothing to do with the personal dynamics. I loved the guys in the band. We were good friends and everything was fine. It was just that after this time I had already written “Lilac” and I had already written “Earthquake” and I had already written “Winterdays.” None of these pieces, which came to me at that time, fit into the established framework of the Scorpions. They weren’t of the same commercial caliber. They were supposed to be something completely different and I was aware of that and I was more interested in exploring that kind of music than making the big bucks, you know, and the big bucks was on the horizon and that was quite obvious at that time. The band was unstoppable.
And also, Electric Sun afterwards was quite successful in it’s own right. Nowhere near like the Scorpions with their big hits but it was certainly quite something. We did reach a lot of people so there was no reason to regret it and to this day I haven’t because I didn’t have a choice. I really didn’t have a choice. My decisions usually are an artistic kind when it’s anything to do with music or art and that was an artistic decision.
Do lyrics mean as much to you as what you produce through the guitar?
Lyrics are very, very important and that was another point. Towards the end I wasn’t so happy with some of the lyrical direction the Scorpions were taking. It really wasn’t for me anymore. I always felt that a song should have a unique message and say something and say something meaningful and not just talk about boys and girls. I find that very boring. Again, it comes down to the respect for the music because I respect music so much and love it so much. The lyrics need to be on a high level, otherwise you’re downgrading the songs. That’s the way I feel it. In a song like “Lilac,” it’s basically a poem. It’s a poem about creation and it’s a spoken poem and I thought that was a fitting message for that song. I always make sure that the lyrics are kind of in keeping with the feeling of the song. I mean, maybe I haven’t always succeeded in that but I am certainly always trying and I am conscious of that.
You’ve written symphonies and concertos. Do you have to have a different mindframe when you’re writing music like that even though your music already has elements of this in it?
It certainly is a different mindframe. When you are writing a big symphonic piece you have to think differently than when you’re writing a song. Song structures are totally different. There are certain rules which most people abide by a lot of the time. You have like A-B kind of sequences, a verse, a bridge and a chorus and then it repeats and then at the end you have something. With a symphony, it’s completely different. It’s like something architectural almost. It’s like the difference between building a bungalow or a big cathedral or maybe even a little town or so. It’s like a total different structural thing and you have to think, you have to bridge long distances to make sure it works. Songs are much shorter. But the others are developed so you don’t always have the same melody in the same way as you would have in a song. The melody is developed and they take on a life and they go on a journey and you go on a journey. At the same time, it has to kind of add up mathematically, so to speak, in the wider sense. It’s a very different way of thinking, yes.
Do you think you would have thrived in the days of like Bach and Mozart?
That’s a really good question. I think in some ways, yes. My mindset would be suitable for those periods, I think. Certainly living at the same time as Beethoven might be a little daunting (laughs). You know, who is in that league? These were one-offs and right now I am far removed from these (laughs). But I tell you what, I’ve learned an awful lot from composers like these and I continue to learn. I’ve studied their pieces and I think I understand the way they were thinking and how they were working and I’ve learned a lot from that and I’m applying some of these same things to my own music, particularly nowadays, more so than when I was younger. I didn’t have the same kind of experience that I have now. But I have learned an awful lot over the years.
When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the most difficult thing to get the hang of?
I didn’t think it was difficult at all. I thought it was simple. It just came to me. It was so natural and I couldn’t even understand how I was able to pick up the guitar and almost immediately play some solos. I mean, I was onstage a few months after I learned the instrument and played like a whole show, including improvisation. It felt like it was already there, you know. I can’t explain it but there was something eerie about it, I remember that. I remember how easy it felt and how easily the ideas came to me. I’m still amazed nowadays. Sometimes when I pick it up and I start playing, I think, wow, I haven’t done that before. Where is that coming from? And also up onstage a lot. So that’s just a great feeling to have.
I don’t know where that comes from but to me it feels like it was my destiny to pick up this instrument and it’s my main instrument, although I have always played the piano and I do love the piano, but that’s a completely different animal. The guitar is so much more a personal instrument, expressive, where the piano is much more sober and detached. So the piano is great for writing things on composition but if I really want to express something, to me the guitar is like the powertool of the first magnitude. Like the electric guitar, I don’t even know any other instrument that comes even close to the spectrum of what you can do. You know, the sheer spectrum of possibilities and unexplored possibilities. I still think it’s a wide field.
On the violin, this is not possible because the violin has four or five hundred years of tradition behind it and it’s already peaked like a hundred years ago. Maybe nowadays some people play technically on a level of Paganini or whoever but certainly we can’t expect any more huge discoveries on that instrument. At least, I wouldn’t think so. And the same goes for the piano. It’s been fully explored by artists like Franz Liszt and Chopin and certain others. Nowadays you have people who can improvise like Keith Jarrett but a lot has been said on that instrument and I don’t know how much more one could explore it to really make it feel like something absolutely novel. But I think the guitar still has a lot of hidden resources, the electric guitar.
Did your Sky guitar help open up all these new things to play?
Yeah, absolutely. On the Sky guitar I can do things I cannot do on a standard guitar, without question.
When did you get the idea for that guitar?
The idea came at the end of 1982 while I was living in England and the first one was built a few months later in the spring of 1983, just as we started to prepare for Beyond The Astral Skies. Then it took maybe one and a half years before I made it my main instrument because initially the pick-ups that we chose were not good so I thought the guitar didn’t sound good initially and then only afterwards did I realize it was the pick-ups all along. From then on, I always played it.
Have you done any modifications to it other than the pick-ups?
Yeah, over the years it’s gone through various phases. It still has the same shape largely and the main ideas are all the same but the electronics have been vastly improved and many, many other small things have changed and been implemented. Now, the new Sky guitars as they are on the market, to me they are like dream machines. I was just in Tokyo and I needed a Sky guitar for a demonstration for a Japanese guitar magazine so we called the main guitar store there in Tokyo and there was a gentleman who had bought two Sky guitars and one of them was only a few months so he kindly gave me that guitar and I used it and it played like a dream. I was quite jealous (laughs). It was an amazing guitar, so yeah, they are fabulous. We have built fifty so far and they are on the market as a limited edition through Dean Guitars in Florida and we are now going to put another edition on the marketplace which will be slightly different. This will be based on my favorite seven string Sky guitar called Mighty Wing.
For you, what makes a live performance magical?
Another great question. Nobody has asked me that. I’m going to try to answer but it’s probably hard to put into words. Magical obviously means you can’t really explain why it’s touching but it needs to be emotionally touching. It needs to be exciting, so just speaking for myself, if I watch someone or something or a concert and these magical moments appear, you’re transported away from yourself and space and time and you’re at a different place. You forget about yourself and you just become the music. I always think it’s very important, THE most important thing, that the music that is being played is being played in such a way that you don’t have the feeling of it being any other way. It must be very natural. I don’t believe in contrived and unnatural.
It also needs to be totally alive. There is a spirit in every song and you can play a song as if you’re just playing the ghost. Basically, you just play the right chords, you play the right rhythm and the right melody, but if something is missing then it’s basically played like by a machine. It will still have some effect if it’s a good piece of music but that’s not what I am talking about. If you go beyond that and light up that spirit or bring that spirit of that song to life, in the moment, then it really connects with the soul of the person or the inner psyche of the person in the audience.
Another magical thing which I love is when you can feel that the entire audience becomes one and they are all feeling the same thing at the same time. I really love that. These moments do occur and when you are onstage and you’re kind of responsible for kind of steering the ship that everybody is in in that moment, then it’s up to you to make these moments happen. The way I do it, if I’m able to make it happen, is usually a very spontaneous kind of feeling. It builds up and then you just know you go to that point now and that’s where it happens. It can be planned to a degree because certain songs have certain kind of curves and energy flow but the rest is very spur of the moment and it doesn’t always happen in the same way. There’re a lot of things that need to come into play for that.
So what happens after the tour for you?
There are quite a few other tours. We’re also doing some acoustic tours in Greece and the eastern countries like Russia, Poland, Slovakia. But I have two projects, one which is largely finished and the other which still has a long way to go. The one that is finished, we’re releasing a video, a DVD, of last year’s Japan performance and it was recorded in the same hall that we recorded Tokyo Tapes in and we’re playing quite a few of those songs. We recorded that last year and I’ve just finished the editing and very pleased with the results. It’ll come out in 5.1 surround and it will come out just after the summer, I think. It will come out in Japan first. Then the other project is I’ve written a new album and I want to record it, I want to start recording it this year but don’t really have a time frame for that yet because it’s quite an undertaking.
Is it more in the classical direction than the rock direction?
It will be rock but it’ll be my kind of rock (laughs). It’s an album that’s different from any other that I’ve done so far, although that really goes for all my albums. So this one will be no exception. I think it’s melodic rock. There are some classical overtones and touches but it will be pretty accessible, I guess. I hope. I really like the songs and some of them are epic, quite long and like stories, which I always have, and some are shorter, more to the point. So we shall see, you know. But I’m not sure really when I will embark on this. Whenever there is a free moment this year.