Uli Jon Roth
Uli Jon Roth is both a legend and a cult hero among guitarists. One of the earliest pioneers of Eurometal and Neo Classical guitar style, Uli's guitar work with the Scorpions in the early 70s set new standards for precision in the rock metal genre. From there, Uli went on to form Electric Sun, and later forged a solo career under own name that explored Uli's own totally unique musical vision. Uli is also a pioneer in guitar design. He has been playing his self-designed (six and seven stringed) "Sky" guitars (shown right) for many years now. These axes have between 30 and 40 frets and are capable of playing almost 6 octaves -- into the violin range.
Interview conducted by Andy Craven 11/19/01
Question: The song Sails of Charon was the first use of Harmonic Minor / Phrygian modes I ever heard in a heavy metal context. Like everyone else who plays guitar, I assume you learned from other music or guitar players. How did you come to incorporate this mode into the lexicon of your guitar playing and what inspired you?
Uli: Well you see that guitar lead had nothing to do with what I heard from other guitar players. What I learned from guitar players was mainly blues orientated stuff from way back, and then at the time when I started incorporating classical modes there weren't really that many people that did that. I mean there was Ritchie Blackmore of course, and Jan Akkermann (Focus) from Holland, but it was only, at least internationally, speaking just a handful of people and each of them forged their own path. So, Sails of Charon I didn't have any model as such for it and I think that's true, it is the first solo of its kind and that style basically. There wasn't anything specifically that inspired it, that song just kind of called for it.. I think there's a great guitar lead hidden in every song (laughs) and I always try and find that lead, and that always been my way of approaching lead guitar playing. The lead guitar, the solo or whatever is firmly arising from whatever song or piece of music you have. The song has a certain extra potential that you cannot express in the words, the rhythm or the harmony or even in the vocal melodies, and I try to find that section that will give the song a definite highlight.
Question: So does the riff / rhythm of the song influence the solo or do you have a solo and then work out the backing for underneath it?
Uli: In Sails of Charon although there is, I guess you could call it a riff, I never think of it that way, nor did I back then, I think I started the song with the introduction riff, that was the first thing that came to my mind and somehow that rhythm arose and from that rhythm and from those harmonies that lead emerged. These things have to be organic, I mean there are some guys who basically play the same solo over each song, or the same style and that's something I find rather poor. It shows a certain lack of sensitivity towards the music itself so its a very one sided approach, and that why I like to keep all my solos varied and have them totally suited to the framework of the music that I'm playing.
Question: Can you remember how many takes the Sails Of Charon solo took?
Uli: I don't remember, I double tracked the lead I think as I wasn't quite happy with the guitar sound, I wanted it a little bit fatter. Nowadays I wouldn't need that anymore as I have a bigger guitar tone now.
Question: Yngwie has stated that you prefer his version of Sails of Charon to yours, is this true?
Uli: Well he played it to me over the phone and I thought it was a very good arrangement. It was his arrangement that - particularly the second half – had a few interesting turns that the original didn't, and that's what I was referring to.
Question: Catch Your Train is another solo from that time that turns a lot of heads, what were you thinking when you played that?
Uli: It was exactly the same approach as Sails of Charon, the song had a certain rhythm, a certain structure and of course we already had established the title Catch Your Train. It was a bit tongue in cheek, so, there was me doing a little bit of primitive sound painting. So, when I did the train whistle on the guitar with the Eb7 chord if I remember correctly, and the runs were just simulating the general vibe of a train that has to be caught, that's running away. But of course these are just very free flow analogies, its not what makes the music, its like you hint at certain things, or certain emotions or certain concepts now and again within the note or a phrase and you are aware of it, but the music itself is completely detached from the actual idea of wanting to catch a train. It just set the general mood, it was a fast piece and I guess these things are difficult to put into words.
Question: It just comes out naturally...
Uli: Well yes, it's a mixture of many things. But, the Catch Your Train lead I though quite hard about because it was one of the first of my more structured leads and as you only have so much space if you start soloing all over it then you end up nowhere. You may get the odd interesting take but its not something that will really be there forever. But if you find just the right answer for that song at that given point in time, then you'll hone it to perfection and then you end up with something that you can listen to like 30 years later and say, Yeah that wasn't so bad (laughs). So that was really always my approach. Of course sometimes I use the improvisational approach just in order to get free flow ideas but then I would refine certain moments of the music, look at it sort of under the microscope and make sure that its as good as it possibly can be, I think I owe that to my audience and myself.
Question: Would you say Tokyo Tapes was a fair live representation of the band during that era?
Uli: I guess yes. With the one exception that I think the sound was a little bit on the poor side, it was not mixed that well. I wasn't satisfied with that; we usually had a much better guitar sound on stage, particularly on those Japanese shows I remember than what was caught on tape. I think the actual recording wasn't a very skilled attempt and I know for a fact that if I recorded it nowadays with my knowledge now I would shine in a completely different light.
Question: How would you rate the bands performance on that recording, was that one of the best tours you did with the Scorpions?
Uli: I guess yes, we were aware that it was the end of an era when I left the band so we wanted to make a definitive final live statement, that was what that was all about really.
Question: Was any of the material that appeared on Electric Sun's Earthquake ever presented to the Scorpions?
Uli: Not as songs, I mean although I had already written a few various pieces like Earthquake and Sundown while I was still in the Scorpions way before I left, I knew it would be completely unsuitable for that band, so that thought didn't even come into my mind. If you're talking about Sails of Charon for instance as a landmark from that year 1977 I also wrote Earthquake and pieces like Sundown and Winter Days at the same time, quite a few from that album actually and they were just two completely different worlds.
Question: Do you think that material made a good representation of your musical vision at that time?
Uli: It did at that time. yes. I mean nowadays of course I would do many things differently, but at that time - yes.
Question: Firewind saw you move into a slightly more straightforward rock sound, was that anything to do with the gigs you played in support of Earthquake (as in the live energy influencing things)?
Uli: I think it was a natural progression. With Earthquake my main thrust was towards a more acoustically warm, more organic sound, not so much heavy distortion, no power chords and all this, there was a completely different approach away from the Scorpions, a much free-er style of arranging and also much less geared towards trying to be commercial. It was very very free; it was what I wanted to play at that time. Guitar wise at that time I was very interested in achieving a lot of different colours in my rhythm guitar playing all this, like the Hendrixy approach which was very comprehensive. I think on Firewind it lent more towards a more elaborate guitar style, which again was finding some new ways of looking at the guitar. It's very much a guitar album.
Question: The guitar work on Beyond The Astral Skies saw another leap, the Sky guitar I believe emerged around that time, did that inspire you at all?
Uli: It wasn't the Sky guitar yet that inspired me to that. I think Beyond The Astral Skies for me is by far the strongest album of those three because its the most artistically comprehensive. In the way its much more symphonic in thinking even though I was still mainly working on the guitar - although I did have a Roland DX7 - it was still mainly a guitar thing. Basically, the guitar was the main part of the orchestra, and I think song wise and musically it was a major step forward.
Question: Certainly hearing it now it was very original for that time, the symphonic element and such like.
Uli: Well there is no album like it, it is a complete one off and I don't know what to compare it with. I read in one review "It sounds like the cast of the musical Hair with the whole cast being on acid" or something like that (laughs). Of course, I do not think it does but it was at least funny (laughs), but, no, it was certainly over the top in many ways. I think that the most outstanding piece for me is Eleison / Son Of Sky but at the same time when it comes to the representation of it I think that I over challenged the guitar as I was trying to do basically all the orchestra on the guitar. Nowadays if I was to really orchestrate that piece for a full symphony orchestra then add the guitars and the singer I think it would come across a lot clearer and with a completely different impact, so maybe one day I will do that.
Question: Will Beyond The Astral Skies be re-released on CD anytime soon?
Uli: I don't know because it's the only album from the past that I do not have control over. I was signed to EMI and as they don't have any other albums by me they have no interest in releasing it - a shame. It also had Like A River and I'll Be There...
Question: I'll Be There is stunning, was that the Sky Guitar?
Uli: Only partially, only the high notes at the end, I played the lead in a couple of sections. (thinks) Yes, because the Sky guitar was already developed at that time but the pickups were not yet to my satisfaction, I wasn't happy with the sound yet. It only really came into its own after Beyond The Astral Skies so most of Astral Skies is still the Strat.
Question: Did you have the Strat modified?
Uli: Yes I had a couple of extra frets added which is what gave me the idea for the Sky guitar in the first place when I saw that worked and I was able to get to the top F# and G. Then the idea of the Sky guitar arose from that.
Question: Do you believe the influence you have had on the generations of guitarists has been acknowledged by them, and what do you think of people if you hear your influence in there playing but they don't give you credit?
Uli: Well I think generally it has been acknowledged. There are literally hundreds who have said so and that's nice to hear. Of course whenever you hear a lead you can always tell Oh yeah that from so and so and that is from there because you know where these things originated from. Just as I know exactly when I play a phrase that obviously originated with Jimi Hendrix or maybe some of the earlier guitar players. Or if you hear a phrase that originally is vintage Blackmore, vintage Schenker or whatever you can pinpoint it, and then after some time it goes into the general pool of international guitar players language so that everybody uses the phrase, like the Catch Your Train phrase (sings descending four note pattern from Catch Your Train solo) that kind of stuff. At some point it becomes part of a lot of guitar players vocabularies and leads, or the Sails of Charon one, so they become standard runs. Having said that the runs in a piece like Catch Your Train have been around for hundreds of years, I just employed them in rock music where normally at that time they didn't belong, that's all really, a new kind of vision from getting inspired from the past. That Catch Your Train run I got originally from the Brahams violin concerto, that's a direct rip off (both laugh).
Question: What is it do you think that allows rock and classical music to fuse so well together?
Uli: I think it fuses together well in some aspects and the rock certainly has been influenced by the classical an awful amount. As for whether the classical has been influenced by the rock? Hardly, recently a little bit maybe. So, I guess that rock music being still in its infancy and of a very basic nature when compared to the more sophisticated music of the past still has so much unchartered territory in it. The problem is that these days most people don't see it that way because human nature tends to think in clichés and a lot of people who maybe grew up nowadays, or grew up ten years ago, look at rock history starting at Chuck Berry or whoever and they think that's what defines it. In a way you could also look at it and say that's just the beginning. I could in my mind span bridges with vast arches over this entire scenario and I could think of a completely different type of rock music. I personally don't have the inclination to do or pursue that as I'm going down a different path. I'm not really interested in rock music as such; I want to achieve a genuine fusion between the classical and the rock elements, particularly the guitar element. Not so much the more basic aspect of rock, I have not been into that and I never will be into that.
Question: Sky Of Avalon did not get the exposure it deserved, do you hope that will change with Soldiers Of Grace when its finally ready?
Uli: Yeah I hope that. I think that the next instalment will be quite something. I am working on it as we speak writing a massive score for a huge orchestra of Wagnerian proportions and it takes up all my time at the moment.
Question: Transcendental Sky Guitar came out to widespread acclaim, it must have pleased you to know that people thought you had been away far too long, were you please with the reception the album got?
Uli: Overall yes. The reception was basically very good I thought. Distribution wise we still have a long way to go because if you don't have many albums on the market then it can be somewhat difficult if you are just coming out with odd album now and again. But on the whole particularly with all the touring we have done the past summer and spring we are making a lot of headway.
Question: Does it feel like you are starting out again in many ways?
Uli: No it doesn't feel like starting out, it just like taking another step along the road. But, it was an important step to do all these gigs this year (2001), playing Japan, doing all these others things and I enjoyed it too. I enjoyed playing live again which wasn't the case for a long time for some strange reason.
Question: What inspired you again to pick up the guitar again?
Uli: For many years the guitar was just dormant with me because I was just only really writing symphonic things like Aquila Suite and I hardly ever picked it up. I guess I was a bit dissatisfied that the guitar was not a piano if you know what I mean, the sheer constant limitations of the instrument got on my nerves. Then I guess at some point when I started playing it again a bit more frequently I just began to see it in a new light and although I was still dissatisfied with the limitations of it I began to re-appreciate it strengths more, particularly the expressiveness of the guitar. There is really no other instrument that is as multi faceted and as expressive, there is no other, not the violin, definitely not the piano, nor the voice - nothing. And in the right hands the guitar can still go a long way particularly when you tap into that vast pool of ancient musical consciousness, that includes the classical, the baroque and the romantic to kind of forge new ways of looking at music through that. So I very much treat the guitar these days like a huge painters brush, when I play its like seeing brush strokes and I'm enjoying that when I'm doing it.
Question: Was the G3 tour fun?
Uli: Yeah I enjoyed it. I guess that's what really got me back into touring again, it kind of rekindled that kinship with the audience. I guess it was also the first tour where I was really just relying on the guitar playing whereas before it like was always a big production with singers galore etc, although we did something on the G3 it was very much a guitar thing. I guess that went hand in hand, in fact the Transcendental Sky Guitar album which came the next year was probably a direct offspring of that tour.
Question: Was Sky Overture wrote especially for the G3 tour?
Uli: It was because I needed an opening number for the evening and I wanted to do something that encapsulates these elements, the blend between melodic and virtuoso playing and yet at the same time something that you can listen to first time and understand although it is quite an earful. It strange whenever we play that track live it really goes down so well, although its almost a 10 minute none stop guitar extravaganza that goes from one scene into the next, its scenery changes all the time and it goes higher and higher and it works. So, I guess that was something.
Question: Do you get to jam with Joe Satriani and Michael Schenker at the end of each gig?
Uli: Yeah we did that at every show.
Question: How did that go?
Uli: It went well. I wasn't so happy with the format as such that I really don't like to have pre arranged jams where you say You have 8 bars here and I'll have 8 bars there, I really can't stand that as I like things to be completely free flow but I think Joe thought that was a bit too dangerous (both laugh). I think it would of been great to play free flow every night.
Question: What was your first guitar?
Uli: My first guitar was a Framus, a German guitar and I still have it. Its kind of a cross breed between a Strat and a Gibson, not a bad sounding guitar at all.
Question: Did you ever record with it?
Uli: Well my first recording session I did with it, which was on a 2 track machine back in 1968 when I started.
Question: What was your basic set-up for your years with the Scorpions?
Uli: Always the same playing through a 100 watt Marshall head, and it was usually the same head, a vintage tremolo Super Lead 100 watt amp. Later on sometimes we had more modern Marshalls in like 1976 (AC: Master Volumes heads) but that was my main set up and it always went through two 120 watt 4x12 cabinets.
Question: Was the volume always on 10?
Uli: No it wasn't necessarily on full, it was sometimes because the Strat didn't have a singing sound so I needed to put in a lot of treble or mid etc. Towards the Electric Sun era my volume controls went down and down to around 6, a cleaner sound, you can hear the rhythm becomes a lot more distinguished and its a different sound altogether.
Question: Did you use anything for lead boost?
Uli: My wah wah pedal was my main staple source of extra gain. Virtually every lead in the Scorpions had that wah wah pedal, towards the end I was using the Roland 301 which gives you a little bit more sustain if you want it. Other than that I had the occasional effect but for lead playing virtually never.
Question: On the Historic Performances video, you're changing some settings on a unit to the right of you onstage.
Uli: That's the 301. I used to have two of them which I had forgotten all about until I saw that video then I remembered that I had 2 on stage at that time in the middle period of Electric Sun.
Question: Is it the same amp set-up?
Uli: It's the same amp as I had in the Scorpions. I think on the Mulhouse* gig I had a 300watt amp coupled with it, you can hear its quite a beefy intense sound. (* Uli is referring to the Mulhouse show footage on the Historic Performances video)
Question: Will the Historic Performances video be out on NTSC version for American and Japanese fans anytime soon?
Uli: The Japanese are just making a copy and it will be out on DVD and that's NTSC. I think the NTSC version will come out in Japan and the European (PAL) version will be released by SPV.
Question: Will there be a second video with newer footage?
Uli:: It really just depends on our time frame. There is still a lot of unpublished material from all sorts of periods and we could do a whole bunch of them. I have some good stuff lying around.
Question: Would you consider doing a guitar instructional video?
Uli: That's not my kind of thing. I mean I would prefer direct one to one tuition where I can listen to someone. For me to just sit down sort of like a kindergarten approach, that wouldn't be for me.
Question: Moving onto the Sky guitar. What led to its unique shape?
Uli: The shape I visualized in a meditation, it just came to me and I was sitting down and put the question into my mind of how I wanted a shape that would allow me to play higher. I needed to do away with the cutaway, yet at the same time I wanted something that was visually very gratifying, harmonious and artistic. I think I just sat down and did some meditation and by the end of the meditation the shape was pretty clear in my mind and I started drawing it and then I finalized it and it was built by Andy (Demetrou).
Question: What body wood is it?
Uli: They are all different. The first one I think I was based on the same wood as my white Strat, I think it was Alder. But later on we experimented with all sorts of wood and I do like Mahogany for instance, it gives a very warm sound.
Question: You also have your own signature pickups - the Mega Wing - what makes them so unique and what do they add to your sound?
Uli: They add an awful lot. I can't even begin to tell you how much of a difference they make - particularly when you're playing. They're so much more rewarding to play because you've got all these colours to play with. Whereas in the olden days and the Scorpions I was more or less stuck with one sound because I couldn't get the Strat to sing any other way on the 100 watt amp, I didn't like the 50-watters because they didn't sound truthful enough for me and too distorted. So I was kind of stuck with it even though I was never happy with it. There are a lot of people who love that sound from the early Scorpions but I was never happy with it, I always thought it was too piercing and too thin. Nowadays I generally like a much warmer more rounded tone, particularly now that I play higher it needs to be very rich and creamy. I can still get that thin and piercing tone and I can still get those tones that you heard on the Historic Performances video, but generally I do go for a mellower tone nowadays as it also blends better with the orchestra.
Question: Do you have any problems with volumes on stage with the orchestra?
Uli: Yes, it's extremely complicated. Again the Mega Wing comes into its own there because I have all this control at my fingertips, I can control the gain and turn it up 100 fold if I have too and get feedback at lower volumes, and that's a really big key to it. But it's difficult to really talk about the Mega Wings because you really have to experience it. There not easy to use because you have to do quite a bit of finger work in order to get all the right settings when your playing which sometimes is quite difficult when your playing fast leads and you have to fiddle with these knobs all the time. But so far I haven't found a better way of doing it. We are still refining it.
Question: What sort of role have you played in the development of the Mega Wing?
Uli: I am heavily involved of course, it was basically completely my own idea. It was physically built and designed by John Oram because he's the designer and I am kind of like the director. I had the idea and I go to him and say to him Lets try this or How can we achieve this and this and get this result and that's the way we work.
Question: When did you start scalloping your guitar necks and what led to you doing this in the first place?
Uli: I think the first time that I was realized that it was useful was when I had the Sky guitar and I was playing at the very top end. Because the neck pickup is under the extended fretboard I couldn't get a lot of deep access with the pick anymore, which made for a shallower sound and so I told Andy to take away that wood and produce a curve. I had also seen Ritchie Blackmore do this sometime before but I never really thought about it much. However, once I realized how well your fingertips fit in there - which gives you a lot of extra control over the strings -- I asked Andy to do the whole neck and that's how we started and I really prefer it that way. I don't like playing rhythm on it. The Hendrixy more intricate style is a bit of a nightmare as your finger tensions are completely different to the more standard heavy metal approach with 3 finger chords and stuff like that. So it's very difficult to play Jimi Hendrix style tunes on a scalloped guitar but other than I much prefer it.
Question: To my ears it sounds like you are using the wah pedal a lot less these days.
Uli: Yes I do because I get a more pure tone without it and the reason why I used in the past was mainly to enhance tone colour and sustain. Now I don't need that anymore. I still use the wah wah pedal for certain articulations because it does give you an extra dimension.
Question: Which wah do you use?
Uli: Its a Jim Dunlop, there my favorite.
Question: Do you have any preference for speakers?
Uli: Not really, as long as there clean and they last. I do now use 320-watt or 300-watt cabinets, anything less won't give me the clean tone.
Question: What do you play through when you're at home just practising or noodling?
Uli: I never plug in. It rare, its always such a hassle to go into the rehearsal room.
Question: What's your advice for aspiring guitar virtuosos?
Uli: (laughs) You see most of them need individual advice, its difficult to give random advice because I guess a lot of players will be more inclined and others will have deficiencies in certain areas and they're all different. I wouldn't want to pick anything specific although I have done it in the past as that's a question that comes up a lot. But all players have their strengths and weaknesses and they should work on their weaknesses to try and become a more rounded player. If there's one thing I don't like its a one dimensional approach to guitar playing, I like versatility in a player and not just specialist approaches, I don't really believe in specialization, its very basic.
Question: Are there any modern guitarists that you like?
Uli: Quite a few yes, but I don't really listen to any music outside of when I work. When I work on the music afterwards I am usually quite saturated so there's never anything on my CD player or whatever, I just don't have the urge. There are really good intelligent players out there of course and the general standard is a lot higher now that it used to be. I guess the thing that maybe lacking the most is individuality and strength of expression which is a bit of the casualty of the digital age because everyone is playing through Zoom boxes and all that stuff so they all tend to sound the same. The generation where I come from you found a lot of players that didn't have chops at all or could barely play but some of them actually had a very good feeling for sound and it was gratifying to hear that because they would produce a nice tone. Whereas nowadays you find quite a few players who can play adequately or well but they sound horrible and for me that's an instant turnoff. As soon as I hear somebody who doesn't have a good tone I just want to leave the room because it sounds like somebody's just insulting your ears. I am very sensitive towards that, I just don't like it. Of course it happens to everyone that occasionally your sound isn't as good depending on the hall, or maybe something's wrong with your amp or whatever and these things happen. But, when its like a general approach you can tell within a second whether someone has a feeling for tone. Sadly, most people nowadays don't because I think these digital gain devices don't challenge the imagination at all. They say you have a setting like an AC30, this is your valve amp, this is your so and so, there it is, and of course it sounds nothing like an AC30 or a Marshall or a Fender Twin or whatever, but to the superficial ear it does and if you're get used to such a bland diet your ears don't develop, y'know, therefore you don't get the desire to do anything. So I guess that's a bit of advice, check the sound and don't just play scales over and over, makes sure it sounds nice as that's what music is all about.
Question: Finally what are your plans for the future?
Uli: I'm firmly working on the score at the moment for the Requiem which is massive! But I'm making extremely good progress with it and I'm hoping to have the score finished by the end of December (2001) and then I'll get the orchestra and we'll record it. Then in 2002 hopefully more concerts and a release, that's the plan but I don't really want to say what month as it takes as long as it takes. That's the way I work, I do not want to be driven by outside influences and that's usually why it takes forever. (laughs).
We at the Dinosaur Rock Guitar Web Page would like to thank Uli Jon Roth for taking the time to answer our questions. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.