Uli Jon Roth
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- Uli Jon Roth
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Famous / Infamous for
Famous for: Uli is a founding father of the Neo-Classical school of guitar, and an important figure in the German Metal school as well. Uli was one of the first players to embrace classically inspired scales, particularly the Aeolian and the Phrygian. He was one of first true shredders. He's also famous for his Sky guitar, for outgrowing rock and ditching it to pursue more complicated musical formats.
Infamous for: He's still prone to dressing like Hendrix. Scarfs and bandanas constantly adorn his noggin. Velvet hats sporting brightly colored feathers are common. But Uli's probably most infamous for singing when he shouldn't.
Obvious: Jimi Hendrix. There are actually two main aspects of Uli's "rock" guitar style. One is the Hendrix influence — which was as blatantly overt in some of Roth's early work as it was in Robin Trower's and Frank Marino's. The other aspect is the Neo-Classical influence rooted in the Aeolian minor scale that Blackmore brought to rock. Roth embraced the Neo-Classical, and expanded greatly upon it. Probably of most importance is Uli's classical music influence which includes composers such as Mozart, Bach, Paganini, Beethoven, Chopin, and Vivaldi.
Not-so-obvious: Michael Schenker? There were times when Uli was in the Scorpions where his melodic nature and use of four point layovers and Aeolian minor made him sound very similar to Schenker. I still haven't figured out who influenced whom, and maybe it's coincidence, but the similarities are undeniable. Ritchie Blackmore, of whom Roth once said: "I don't think he did too much for me. Obviously there's a connection because he's into classical playing and Hendrix. I'm certain I must have picked up things from him as a kid, although I never sat down and copied him." Jan Akkerman. The Shadows and Eric Clapton were very early influences. There's some similarity to Brian May in the way Uli orchestrates his guitar lines and harmonies, but that might be more coincidence than a direct influence. Hendrix's girlfriend at the time of his death, Monika Dannemann, became a Uli's girl until the time of her own death a few years ago. She had a major influence on all aspects of Uli's life.
Influence. Uli Roth's main importance in guitar history is as a key link in the chain of stylistic evolution from Hendrix to Blackmore, to Roth, to Malmsteen. The Scorpions album, In Trance became a blueprint for Neo-Classical shred guitar. As noted on the History of Shred website:
"Everything associated with the genre can be found on this brilliant collection of songs — sweep-picked arpeggios, diminished minor harmonic scales, finger-tapping and some of the most jaw-dropping wang-bar abuse ever captured on celluloid!"
This was 1975, folks! Blackmore and Michael Schenker were dabbling in these areas but where they retained more of the blues-based rock sensibility, Roth was embracing the Neo-Classical as his main thing and taking it to another level. Catch your Train from Virgin Killer was way ahead of its time for high speed lead work. Sails of Charon from Taken By Force is a landmark track in the Neo-Classical genre, and one of Uli's finest moments. Without this stuff, there's no Yngwie. You spin that statement anyway you like.
Melody. God, yes! Like his fellow guitar heroes from the Fatherland, Roth has that terrific German sense of melody which comes across in his compositions and in his lead work.
Vision — in the aspect of guitar design and his general musical vision. Roth's desire to emulate the range and expressiveness of the violin led him to develop the Sky guitar (shown above) in both six and seven string versions. These guitars have between 30 and 40 frets and are capable of playing almost 6 octaves — into the violin range. Uli stated in a December 2000 Guitar interview that: "Steve Vai actually played my Sky guitar when I was in America once, and — don't get me wrong — I have great respect for the man, but I suppose that's where he got the idea for seven string guitars from." Despite the modest success seven strings have attained in the last decade, Uli remains the only proponent of the Sky guitar.
Depending on your point of view, Uli's musical vision is both a strength and a weakness. Roth left conventional rock behind a while back and what he does these days is way out there. For example, on his Transcendental Sky Guitar album, Uli invites you "on a journey across five centuries of music." In between familiar little ditties like Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca (you'd know it if you heard it) and Hendrix's Voodoo Chile you'll mostly hear Uli's interpretations of classical compositions.
Singing. Uli is a phenomenal guitarist and a musical genius on a different plane that most of us. But bless his heart, he thinks he can sing too. He's just so sadly mistaken. He was bad enough singing on the odd Scorpions tune, but when he began fronting Electric Sun, things got worse. My search for the perfect descriptor of Uli's voice led me to the American Heritage Dictionary where I found the word: trag·i·com·e·dy. Which you can probably guess is defined as: A situation having both comic and tragic elements. You can hear Uli's tragicomical vocal stylings on the Electric Sun albums. These albums feature stellar guitar work and wonderful compositions that would work well as instrumental music. Guitar wise, they're a V V V V V. Unfortunately, Uli almost kills these albums with his vocals. Somebody please make him stop! One of our forum regulars came up with this all-time classic description of Uli's vocals: He sounds like a drunk, homeless, Japanese man.
Accessibility. Uli's post-Scorpions/Electric Sun work isn't going to appeal to your average rock fan. Uli, for example, doesn't surround his Paganini licks with heavy rock riffs the way Yngwie Malmsteen does to make the music appeal more to the rock audience on a gut level. Of Roth's recent work, some of it is stunningly beautiful, other stuff, not so much. And very little of it rocks. It's more like violin music played on his guitar. On purpose. To be fair, Uli isn't trying for accessibility at all.
Roth has the same 1972 100-watt Marshall Super Lead Tremolo (EL34s) that he's used since he joined the Scorpions. This amp actually tested out to 140 watts. He runs it through a 4x12 cabinet loaded with 80-watt Celestion speakers for his live lead sound. Uli often used four Fender Showman amps (with chorus) for his clean rhythm sounds. Sometimes there's an AC-30 in the mix. In the studio, he tends to use the Marshall for the crunch, and direct for the clean.
Uli was a Strat guy — apparently he didn't get the memo that as a German guitar hero, he should have been playing a Flying V. He used 70s CBS-era Strats with maple boards and stock single coils throughout the Scorpions and Electric Sun era. Generally, Uli has a very clean Strat rhythm tone, and because he often doesn't voice the low E and A strings in his chords, Uli's rhythm sound is rather delicate (ala Hendrix's Little Wing). His lead tone is Marshally, but not very gainy either. He didn't use the overwound Quarter Pounders like Blackmore or the stacked single coils like Malmsteen, and when I listen to Uli, I don't get the impression that he has endless sustain on tap at his fingertips. His lead tone is warm, but has only enough distortion to get the job done. It's less distorted Hendrix's lead tone.
Then Uli outgrew the Strat and transcended into the transcendental Sky guitar.
In an old interview, Roth said: "Back when I was with the Scorpions, a guitar builder in Brighton offered to make me my own guitar any way I would like, and I thought, What a concept! I questioned everything that had come before and tried to improve on it. I wanted more range, so I came up with a body shaped like a teardrop, but it wasn't visually appealing, so I added an S shape to the teardrop to give it more balance. I had the builder put as many frets on the neck as he possibly could. On my current Sky guitar, the frets above the 24th fret are placed in whole tones because it is too difficult to play above there with the frets placed so closely together. I didn't want to lose the warm sound of the neck pickup, so we mounted the pickup under the fretboard, that actually worked and sounded good. My pickups are made by John Oram, who figured out how to make a pickup that provides full-sounding tone and great sustain in the guitar's highest range" (Editor's note: In doing so, Oram also figured out how to build the worlds first thousand-dollar pickup, the Mega-Wing.)"The next step was to add more range in the bass end, so I came up with the idea of a seven-string guitar."
Effects wise, Uli's Scorps/Elecric Sun-era chorused clean sound came from a Roland Chorus Echo. He used an overdrive very sparingly. There was a great deal of wah use in the Scorpions, but it has steadily decreased over the years.
Uli Roth is a very schooled musician. He not only plays guitar, but piano and violin as well. He has written entire symphonies and piano concertos. He once said: "Even when I was playing with the Scorpions, I was always studying classical music. I was in a rock band and I never really saw myself as a rock guitar player. I guess I was one. But I always wanted to be something else. I wanted to achieve what you could do on a violin with a guitar." And in several ways, Uli has done just that. He brought a classical musician's knowledge to his compositions and lead style, and designed himself a guitar that would let him play in the violin's tonal range.
At age seventeen, Uli put electric guitar on-hold and studied classical guitar for four years but stated in Guitar magazine in March 1985: "I found with the classical guitar, I had no range, and the reaction time of the strings drove me crazy." He then joined the Scorpions.
In the Scorps, you hear two distinctive personalities in Uli. One is a total Hendrix trip. Roth-penned songs like Hellcat and Polar Nights on Virgin Killer are clearly in the style of Hendrix, and are filled with blatant use of many Hendrix clichés. His other thing is a marvelously melodic Aeolian-based style that sounds eerily close to that of Michael Schenker at times. Check out the solo on Backstage Queen — it could be mistaken for Schenker.
This rather schizophrenic situation often made the Scorpions sound like two different bands. Yet songs like In Trance, In Your Park, We'll Burn the Sky, and Fly People Fly are characteristic of how strong the Roth-era Scorps material could be when the band were hitting on all cylinders and embracing their strongest elements — Rudi Schenker's songs, Klaus Meine's vocals, and Uli's more classically-inspired lead work.
In the Electric Sun era, Uli often pushed the compositional envelope beyond the straight rock fare he felt had been restricting him in the Scorpions. The new format allowed Uli to blend both sides of his style more readily in the context of the same composition. He was still using a Strat at the time, and a rock/metal guitar element remained present in Electric Sun.
But Uli Roth was still evolving. As stated above, Roth's desire to emulate the range and expressiveness of the violin led him to develop the Sky guitar. This instrument opened other doors to what Uli could accomplish both stylistically and compositionally. And whether you like what he's done with it or not, it's fair to say that his recent music is quite unique.
Sky Overture from Transcendental Sky Guitar is an eight minute doctoral dissertation on Uli's more current lead style on his Sky guitar. Particularly characteristic of his style are are wide intervals in his arpeggios. These evoke a human factor into what is too often a cold mechanical exercise in sweep picking in other Neo-Classical players.
Uli has an interesting and distinctive rhythm style. Very often, he plays octaves instead of full chords in his progressions. Notable examples include Electric Sun (the song), Sundown, and Earthquake. It's fairly rare to see Uli using the folk chord voicings or the standard root 6 and root 5 bar chords. More often he uses the "root 4th and 1st string" voicing — that is, an A major chord would be played: xx7765. He also uses this movable chord form as a variation for playing octave runs by muting the G and B strings and playing the octaves on the D and high E. When he wants more chunk in his sound, Roth plays the root 1 form "Hendrix style," wrapping his thumb over the low E. In fact, much of Roth's rhythm style leans heavily on his Hendrix influence — from the fast funky rhythms to the kinds of voicings and techniques Hendrix's Little Wing exposes you to. Uli also does a good amount of harmony guitar work in the studio. Dark Lady, In your Park are showcase examples form the Scorpions era.
As a lead guitarist, Uli Roth was one of the original true shredders — one of the key players in the mid 70s who raised the bar on chops to a higher level than previous benchmarks. Roth was one of the first players to use high-speed four point layovers (along with Michael Schenker). And beyond speed, Roth's chops encompass all aspects of technique including picking style and a terrific vibrato. Unlike many of his disciples, Roth strikes a great balance between emotion and technique. There's very little of that see-how-fast-I-can-play attitude in Uli. He doesn't purposely cram notes in and overload you with technique. There's no purposeless wanking. He is a very refined lead player and much more melodic and lyrical in his phrasing than most of the Neo-Classical players. He has a very light touch and sounds rather delicate compared to Malmsteen.
Scale wise, you get the Pentatonic from Hendrix, the characteristically German Aeolian flavor, plus more scales taken from his classical influences. All melodies are supposed to exist within the limits of some scale system. Uli consistently breaks these rules. Phrygian, Gypsy minor, Hungarian minor — it's beyond most of us mere-mortal rock players. Roth conveys emotion well, but I wouldn't say there's a lot of sex in his style — certainly not as much sex as you get with Hendrix.
Uli composes his solos and every note he plays sounds well-considered, thought out, and controlled. In 2001, Roth told Dinosaur Rock Guitar: "I think there's a great guitar lead hidden in every song and I always try and find that lead. 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."
That said, Uli's sense of melody and command of the instrument let him improvise beautifully. In the live context, he's been known to improvise new compositions to great effect.
Roth uses some legato in his style and employs rakes and sweeps when he plays arpeggios, but when it's time for speed, he's a pure alternate picker.
Uli's use of wah is distinctively delicate, and very emotive. Standout wah tracks include Far Away from Fly to the Rainbow, Evening Wind from In Trance, and Catch your Train form Virgin Killer.
Uli has a great finger vibrato. Quick and stinging, it sounds very violin like — which isn't too surprising since Roth plays violin too. In fact, Uli has an actual (parallel to the fingerboard) violin vibrato, but he doesn't use it on guitar.
There was loads of whammy use and abuse all over the Scorpions era. Check out Speedy's Coming or Drifting Sun (from Fly to the Rainbow) to hear Uli beating the hell out of the bar. His trem use was so heavy-handed that he had a special over-sized trem-bar built. It looks like the kickstand off an old three-speed bicycle (see the cover of In Trance). Roth can also use the bar very expressively to inject true vibrato into a lead, such as on the very emotive solo in Hiroshima.
- Fly to the Rainbow - V V V V
- In Trance - V V V V
- Virgin Killer - V V V V
- Taken By Force - V V V
- Tokyo Tapes - V V V V
- From Here To Eternity (Earthquake, Fire Wind, The Prologue and the whole Aquila Suite in one 3-cd package) - V V Vv
- Historical Performances Volumes I and II (DVD) - V V V V
Uli Jon Roth
- Transcendental Sky Guitar - V V V
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