Michael Schenker

Groupology

  • Scorpions
  • UFO
  • Michael Schenker Group (MSG)
  • McAuley Schenker Group
  • Michael Schenker

Jurassic

Watch Michael Schenker in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous for: Absolute brilliance when he's on. He's known for his black-and-white painted Flying Vs and being the "big daddy" of all German Metal Gods. The Mad Axeman is was in the Scorpions by age 15 and in UFO by 17. By age 19 he was a true Guitar God — a better player than most of us will ever be with a lifetime of practice. And then he got better!

Infamous for: Questionable business and life decisions, terrible bouts of alcoholism resulting in other flaky behavior, including last-minute show cancellations, walking off stage during performances, onstage arguments, offstage fights, disappearing for weeks at a time. Sadly, Michael's life often seems to be in crisis. In 2002, Michael had to auction off a few of his trademark black-and-white Flying Vs to help alleviate his financial problems. That was a sad day for a lot of us.

Influences

Obvious: Michael has listed the Beatles, the Stones, the Shadows, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and his brother, Rudi as influences. Perhaps more importantly, Leslie West for his tone, vibrato, and his melodic style.

Not-so-obvious: I've never seen it listed, but it seems to me Michael must have been influenced by Uli Roth — or was it the other way around?

Strengths

Melodic sense at genius-level. I don't toss the term genius around much, but it applies here. Schenker is the most melodic, rock player you will ever hear. He is simply on a higher level than everyone else when it comes to melody. Other great players can certainly come up with a great melody in a song. Michael can weave many great melodies together in the context of one song. Listen to songs like Bijou Pleasurette, Tales of Mystery, or any of his later instrumental albums such as Thank You, or The Odd Trio, and you will hear compositions filled with stunningly beautiful melodies — some simple, others incredibly intricate. It's not just in his songs either. The melodic sense carries over into his rock playing and lead style. His rock songs — particularly the instrumentals like Captain Nemo and Into the Arena — often feature beautiful melodic themes. His lead work is also incredibly melodic, even when he's blazing away at top speed. It always boggles my mind — how many ideas and melodies Michael hears in his head.

Technique and chops. Pure German precision. Michael is an awesome alternate picker. He has blazing speed, wonderful elasticity, and a fabulous vibrato and intonation. All of it utterly controlled and consistent. He's a Porsche, a Mercedes, and a BMW all rolled into one. The Ultimate Playing Machine.

Acoustic and acoustic/electric instrumental compositions. Many of Michael's latest releases fall into this category. What you find is very thick and densely-packed guitar tracks: doubled-electric rhythms, often topped by acoustic rhythms. Multiple melody tracks too. The music is dynamically rich, and Michael's fairly quick to grab the acoustic for certain melodies or as a device to bring the song dynamics down. Songs often move back and forth between raunchy rock riffs and quieter acoustic laden parts within the same song. Michael's acoustic and acoustic/electric work is everything Blackmore's Night should be, but isn't.

Weaknesses

Michael has always been his own worst enemy. He could have and should have been bigger than Van Halen and Randy Rhoads. He had a head start on both. But for various reason, whenever Michael has flirted commercial success, he's either been unwilling or unable to grab the brass ring while it was still in front of him. Instead of being a household name, Michael remains a cult hero. True story: I was in Munich in 1999 to see the Essence of Rock tour (Thin Lizzy, MSG, Glenn Hughes), and was having dinner with several Germans of my own age group (mid 30s). They inquired as to why I was in Germany, and I replied "to see Michael Schenker in concert." All I got was blank stares. These Germans didn't know who Michael Schenker was. So I asked: "Do you know who Eddie Van Halen is?" They said: "Oh. sure." So I said: "Michael Schenker is the Eddie Van Halen of Germany. Your country's greatest guitar hero." They had no clue, and I find that quite sad.

Consistency. At Michael's peak, when he was hitting on all cylinders, each of his albums contained great songs and stunningly brilliant guitar solos. But Michael's peak was between 1974 and 1984. Since then his work has become spottier, and we fans have had to settle for brilliant moments on often otherwise mediocre material. And while Michael remains quite capable of delivering brilliance whenever inspiration strikes, these moments are becoming more and more infrequent. Notable exceptions include UFO's Walk On Water and the solo release Adventures of the Imagination.

Straight rock. This is more of a current problem than a historic one. 99% of Michael's rock songs have always been straight-forward, riffs and progressions. When teamed up with with Phil Mogg and Gary Barden as writing partners, Michael's songs were particularly effective. But other partnerships have been less fruitful. Most recent releases by UFO (Covenant) and MSG (Unforgiven, and Beware of Scorpions) are pretty uninspiring, and a far cry from the glory days of either band. Walk on Water and Sharks are positive exceptions compositionally. Generally though, Michael seems to be running low on ideas for simple riff-oriented songs. Instead, his best work of late has been instrumental guitar albums, where he is free to unleash his melodic sense, explore more complicated ideas and the depth of his overall "vision." Maybe it's just me, but things like Adventures of the Imagination and The Odd Trio and even the all-acoustic Thank You are working far better than Schenker's latest straight rock releases.

Work ethic? Inspiration? I don't know what you want to call it, but it seems to me that Michael just isn't into crafting his songs and solos the way he used to. It's not that he's lost any ability, but I think he's lost much of his inspiration. Much of the time, he seems to be settling for mediocre songs. And even when the songs work well — as they do on Sharks — Michael's often "mailing it in" with solos that don't go anywhere. This is a radical departure from the Schenker of old.

Tone

For both live and studio work, the basics of Michael's tone are very simple: A Gibson Flying V, 50 watt Marshalls (everything on 10 except volume on 8) , and Cry Baby wah pedal. That's it. What makes Michael's tone so distinctive and killer, is the way he uses the wah like an equalizer to add color and emotion to his playing. When he plays a solo he moves the wah to different positions which adds and removes bass and treble from his tone. He uses this method largely instead of switching between bridge and neck pickups. Generally, he uses the wah's treble position for the high strings and the bass position for the lower strings. Often he'll leave the wah pedal in the "sweet spot" that produces a very raunchy tone with a lot of bite.

Guitar Style

Michael uses very basic chord voicings. In his rock work, you won't hear much more than standard rock chords: root 6 and 5 bar chords, and folk chords. In his instrumental compositions — particularly the acoustic ones, he uses many arpeggios of common chord forms. Scale-wise it's primarily minor pentatonic and blues scale rock licks, with Aeolian minor and major pentatonic melodies and themes. There's actually a lot of Jimmy Page-like ideas, but they're played with a much higher degree of precision and a unique phrasing. None of it is rocket science, but Schenker employs it brilliantly. The classic Schenker stylistic formula is straightforward rock riffs mixed with Aeolian minor or major pentatonic melodic themes. His solos often alternate between slow minor and major melodies. Michael's slow playing is breathtaking — filled with intense emotion and feeling. When it's time for speed, it's mostly blistering blues-rock licks, but he doesn't sound bluesy to me. His tone and phrasing puts his own unique stamp on even stock licks, and make them sound ballsy as hell. There's plenty of attitude in Michael's playing, but it isn't always a nasty, raunchy attitude. Sometimes it's more delicate. And while there's definitely sex in Michael's playing, it's more erotic than pornographic.

Back in the 80s, Guitar Player Magazine asked Michael: What should a Michael Schenker solo do? Michael replied: "It has to build. It's like a book, where you get an introduction, the highest point, and the happy ending or whatever. I like things that are melodic." Hmmm. I knew I learned that lesson from someone! Unfortunately, Michael doesn't seem to use this approach anymore. At his best, Michael's guitar solos are so compelling that they literally give me chills or goosebumps. But that just doesn't happen much anymore. Since the 90s, Michael's leads often seem haphazard and thrown together without much thought.

If you listen to the classic Schenker-era from 74-84, you'll hear a Michael who is an amazing pure alternate picker and uses this technique on fast runs and layovers. On blues rock licks, he's more legato. Very occasionally, he throws in a raked lick or some tremolo picking. Other Schenker trademarks include large bends, pre-bends with controlled vibrato at the top, high speed four-point layovers in both the Pentatonic and Aeolian scales. And like many of the German players, Schenker uses double-stops to add beef and crunch to his playing.

Since the 90s, however, Michael has been using a lot more legato in his solos. Compared to his older style, this approach feels to me like he's cutting corners and taking shortcuts. Combine that with the "go-nowhere" solos he's been spitting out of late and you get an end result that's a far cry from the lead work of Michael's glory days. I'm left with the impression that Michael Schenker has either lost his inspiration or has simply gotten lazy — or both.

Fortunately, Michael's earlier work contains enough brilliant and inspirational guitar work to last us a lifetime. And I'm still learning from it.

Vibrato:

God-like. Wonderful. Distinctive, even and controlled. He's got a quick, medium-width one, and a slightly slower and wider one. Because he plays a Gibson V exclusively, there's no whammy bar at all. He has been known to bend the whole neck by pressing the back of the headstock — which is a real good way to break your guitar's neck!

Michael Schenker in Action

Recommended listening

UFO

MSG

Michael Schenker

Profile by Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved.