World-renowned guitarist Uli Jon Roth will commemorate his 40th anniversary of joining the Scorpions with a North American tour that will feature a full set of Scorpions material while he was the lead guitarist in the band (1973-78).
On January 25, the tour will begin in Los Angeles, CA and then wrap up there on March 3rd, 2013 (scroll down to the end of the article to see the full tour dates). Each show will be recorded for a live film documenting Uli’s Scorpions career. At select 40th Anniversary shows, Roth will also be offering his Sky Academy seminars. Sky Academy seminars consist of Roth’s enhanced learning techniques for guitarists, but selected introductory seminars are for fans and even non-musicians.
Powerline recently interviewed Uli Jon Roth about beginning his career with the Scorpions, his fascinating Sky Academy and, of course, the upcoming tour.
Uli Jon Roth: It’s been a long journey. I can still remember things very clearly so in one way it doesn’t seem like 40 years, but it is 40 years (laughs).
Will the Scorpions set be mostly the stuff you had written?
Roth: It is mostly the stuff that I’ve written or my favorites from then. I was involved in virtually every track back then, even if there’s not a writer’s credit. Very often I would contribute quite a lot of things to it — the guitar leads or whatever. We’re playing a track like “In Trance,” for instance, which was written by Rudolph (Schenker) and Klaus (Meine), but then again, the way I wrote the guitar parts for many of Rudolf’s songs they somehow feel like a composition within a composition and those parts came from me. These songs wouldn’t have the same feel without them. Back then I could have had co-writer’s credits for these, but it didn’t seem important.
I’m playing long sets anyway. We’re doing other stuff as well but in every show we’ll include several pieces from every Scorpions album that I’ve played on. And that’s quite a few, so … yes, it will amount to an entire Scorpions set. You’ll definitely get at least an hours worth, maybe even more, of just that old stuff.
Like you said, the solos themselves, people like. Do you have a favorite Scorpions guitar solo?
Roth: That’s a good question. I guess I had a favorite on each album. I wouldn’t want to pick a favorite as such, you know. My best known, especially in the States, is “Sails of Charon” (off of the 1977 album Taken By Force). And that is one of my favorites but I like others, too. There’s the “Catch Your Train” (off of 1976 Virgin Killer) one and “We’ll Burn the Sky” (Taken By Force) and all the dual harmony lead kind of things.
Will you be playing “Sails of Charon”?
Roth: Oh, absolutely. We’re playing it every day and in a very extended version with a middle section. To me, that’s always one of the highlights of the show. And it’s strange, during the time of the Scorpions, we never played it live. It was a little bit too complex for us to do live back then, and then afterwards hardly ever played it live and I really only found the key to doing that piece much later. Now it’s taken on a new lease on life, I would have to say.
Sometimes that’s how creativity works, right? You revisit something and you find certain treasures in it later on.
Roth: That’s exactly what I’m doing with all the tracks. I take this tour very seriously — also because we’re recording it and we’re going to be doing a live double album. So I want to come up with something that’s at least kind of, like, from my point of view, the definitive version of these tracks for what I can do now. And that means, yes, we have rewritten certain sections and I’ve even rewritten certain pieces of lyrics a little bit. Expand certain songs, edited down others, to get the best out of them in the live environment. And some of them have really revealed a lot of new life that I never knew existed. And so I started looking at them in a different way. I enjoy playing them live and I have to say that wasn’t always the case. I found a new way into that.
I look at it this way. If I go to a Scorpions show, I’m not going to hear any of these songs, probably.
Roth: No. They sometimes play “We’ll Burn the Sky” when I’m not there but that’s pretty much as far as it goes.
But with Scorpions fans, there is a dichotomy. You have fans who like just that early period and then you have fans who like the new period.
Roth: It is a split. That’s very true.
And in some respects it’s like an entirely different band.
Roth: Very much so. The vocal sound is the same. Rudolph is the same. Francis (Buchholz, bass) is the same. But everything else pretty much was different and the choice of material was different. I guess it was a lot more free flow back then and in some ways more experimental. We took all sorts of liberties and we didn’t necessarily just look at it from a commercial point of view. At least I didn’t. It was mainly from an artistic angle.
And you could say philosophically and intellectually things really changed. I just couldn’t picture you playing on “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”
Roth: I’ll tell you one thing. I think it’s an amazing rock song. The thing that’s not for me is the lyrics. I mean, the title is okay, but then it’s all this psuedo-sexual stuff and that is one of the reasons why I did leave the Scorpions. I just didn’t want to have to fit into this cliche of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It was never that for me in the first place and it still isn’t to this day. I was never interested in any of that stuff. It wasn’t my motivation. Lyrics for me always played a very important role. If you have to say something meaningful, then say it. And if you don’t, then just hold your tongue. As successful as “Rock You Like a Hurricane” is — and apart from “Wind of Change,” it’s easily the most successful one that they’ve done — it has a great riff, it has a great hook, but as I said, those kind of lyrics mean nothing to me. I don’t want to be associated with it on an artistic level. I could maybe play it on stage and jam with the band but on an album, I probably would have fought tooth and nail against its lyrics.
You’re right about the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll cliche.
Roth: And you know, particularly the Scorpions. They’re not even that kind of band. They’re all like nice, family-loving guys (laughs). It’s not even something I can buy it of them, that kind of angle. Having said that, most of the audience don’t seem to mind those kind of lyrics as long as there’s a catchy hook and the Scorpions have tons of that and they are great songwriters. And the stuff is all musically somehow interesting whatever they’re doing because they always have a melodic angle or some idea that makes sense musically.
Well, it seemed to all change when [drummer] Herman [Rarebell] joined. “He’s a Woman, She’s a Man” sticks out.
Roth: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t mind the song but I thought the lyrics were ridiculous. And I didn’t want that. I just didn’t want it. As much as I like Herman, we get on great as people. And he knows exactly what I’m thinking and I know what he’s thinking. So it’s just one of these things. there’s no bad blood about it. But I’m glad I left the band at that time, because, you know, musically there would have been no problem. I would have fit perfectly into it because I would have found my place in it. I wouldn’t have tried to alter any of their songs for the worse. Lyrically I just wasn’t on the same page anymore.
It did seem to come at the right time. Electric Sun (1979-85) seemed to fit perfectly into your evolution.
Roth: It was what I had to do at that time. I mean it certainly was not commercial. It was experimental. And I just wanted to be free of all that and go for it and that’s what I did.
And Electric Sun is still popular with people to this day.
Roth: There are some people. That’s true. Having said that, the whole Scorpions live album that I’m gonna do, my plan is to do exactly the same a couple years later with Electric Sun material and then record a dedicated Electric Sun live album. Because just like the Scorpions I feel now like I progressed to a point where it would be very interesting for me to revisit the sins of my youth or creations of my youth or what have you (laughs) and see what I can do with that nowadays.
This type of stuff will bring a lot of joy to the fans.
Roth: And it’s certainly my plan to do that. If I look at my entire journey of development as three key periods — there’s Scorpions, the Electric Sun period and then all that came afterwards which I call Sky of Avalon, which had all the symphonic projects and virtuoso guitar playing. And at some point I am going to put that into perspective as well.
I’ve heard you say that your favorite Scorpions albums were Virgin Killer and In Trace — does that still hold true?
Roth: Yeah, absolutely. I thought there was some really good stuff on Taken By Force. On the whole, however, I wasn’t so close to that album in my heart, mainly for the reason that I had already kind of mentally left the band before we even started the album. I was already working on the Electric Sun stuff. And my mind was already in a different place. I would say I didn’t give it my all on that album, where on the previous two I had done that. So whenever I’m listening to that one I think that if I had put more input into it and more effort, I probably would have been more satisfied with that album. But then there are people who prefer that one over the others because it is already more sounding like the later Scorpions. It’s kind of a hybrid. One that’s in-between I would say.
Do you still get questions about the [controversial] Virgin Killer album cover?
Roth: Not so much. It is a bit of a moot point simply because nowadays … I have a fourteen year old daughter and I find that album cover embarrassing beyond description. The worst possible display of bad taste imaginable and I’m partially responsible. Not that I came up with the idea, although I did come up with that song title which is a totally different story. But I didn’t object to the album cover when it came out as I should have done. It was just a complete lack of maturity on my behalf actually. The album cover didn’t even represent any of the music. But then again I thought Scorpions always had horrible album covers. I don’t know a single exception. If anything, they got even worse after I left, if that were possible.
The irony is that it was all the record company’s choosing.
Roth: Yeah but we could have objected but we didn’t. And that’s really the point. When you put out an album you are responsible and you can’t blame other people for it. Sure it was the record company’s A&R guys idea to do that but we totally involved in the making of the album and any one of us could have said ‘No. Over my dead body.’ But nobody even said anything, you know.
Well, even non-controversial album covers like Fly to the Rainbow were questionable.
Roth: The band liked it. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it because I thought it was a horrific job of craftsmanship, like a real cheapo kind of attempt and I saw no relation to the music in that. And Rudolph said ‘Well, listen to that sound that we do. It’s a little bit like it.’ But I still can’t see it. There is maybe one single factor about that Virgin Killer album cover which kind of justifies it a tiny bit. And that is simply that it does — in the most graphic form possible — actually reflect what the lyrics of the song are trying to say. The virgin killer basically stands as a symbol for what I call the demon of our times. Meaning basically that society is geared in such a way that kids are very early on are getting robbed of their childhood and their innocence, and they’re kind of violated. Nowadays with the internet, with kids visiting heavy-duty porn sites, stuff like that is extremely disturbing. And the entire lyrics of “Virgin Killer” were about things that are not right in society. The idea of the song was a totally different one, however. It came about in the rehearsal room and we had just done a tour with KISS — we supported them for the first time, on their first tour in Germany. And for some reason in the dressing room I played that riff — I think it was half-improvised — and I just blurted out that title as a fun reference to KISS — and I think Klaus, or someone, said, ‘That’s great. Do that again.’ And I knew it was a good song title but then I suddenly had to write a lyric that kind of made sense without being a Herman-type of lyric. So I guess maybe I pre-dated Herman on some arcane level (laughs).
Well, the music is so wonderful …
Roth: Well, I wouldn’t really call it wonderful (laughs). The music of Chopin is wonderful. You see, our stuff was anything but wonderful.
To fans, yes.
Roth: I know what you mean. It seems to go very deep with a lot of people. I’ll tell you what, it was very intense and it came from a genuine place in our selves.
Do you still have that Stratocaster on the cover of In Trance?
Roth: Yes, I still have it. It’s in a museum at the moment. A Scorpions exhibition in Germany. And I’m not gonna give that one away. I literally played every single Scorpions album with that guitar, other than the first one. And then every single Electric Sun album. Actually, I have a friend, who builds my Sky guitars, Boris Dommenget, and he had the idea to issue an Uli anniversary strat. At first I thought I rather play the Sky guitar but then I thought maybe to go back to the spirit of that time, maybe that’s not such a bad idea. He’s making one at the moment and I’m going to give it a go on some of the tracks. I mean I will use my own pickups but it will modeled on the white strat. It will have the big whammy bar.
It must have been strange for someone who played that guitar all that time to make a break from it and move on?
Roth: Well, it wasn’t really because there came a point where I felt I had … I’m not going to say I had outgrown the strat because it’s limitless as any instrument is, but there came a time when I wanted to move on to different pastures and the Sky guitar gave me that and it still gives me that so I am very, very comfortable with the Sky guitar in the sense that it really enables me to do that which I want to do. But for the early Scorpions stuff the strat is a perfect equal. I can get the same sounds out of a Sky guitar but, of course, it looks different and there are certain factions of people who want to see me with the strat because they saw me with it in the beginning.
You must continue to still pick up a Strat now and then, no?
Roth: No. Not really. My strats are all put away. I only have one strat in the house at the moment and that’s one Yngwie (Malmsteen) gave me some time ago.
It’s healthy for artists to look at other mediums to get inspiration, don’t you think?
Roth: You see, for me, one big factor is that I’m interested in so many different things and so many different perspectives so when it comes to art, I love painting and poetry and I studied the old masters and I still do from time to time. And the same with Classical music. And, of course, there are other things besides art, because art is kind of like a semi-finished product that is man made. But then there is, of course, life and nature and all the things in it and the principles of creation and these things I look at them in amazement, always. and I try to fathom them and those things give me a lot of inspiration. And somehow the older I get the more that seems to work for me. So when I am writing music I connect with these things. I don’t go around listening to other artists. Every once in awhile I might hear something interesting but usually that’s not where I am getting inspiration. It comes from a much broader kind of source.
That’s very healthy creatively. A lot of times when musicians listen to music in their own genre it seems like regurgitation, you get caught up in it.
Roth: That’s very true, and so many musicians are caught up in what I will call little boxes, little prisons, that they never venture out of and they’re very conscious of little stylistic things and they stay within that all the time. And they look over their shoulders and look at what the next guy is doing and it all starts sounding the same in one genre. You hardly find anyone breaking out of that. It’s usually the people who cross over into wider vistas. Those are the ones who interest me. People with a wider perspective where I can see a higher level of inspiration and not what’s already been done a million times.
You were inspired by Hendrix. What do you think Hendrix would be doing creatively today?
Roth: I have no idea but of course it would be totally inspired and totally mind-blowing.
It probably wouldn’t be rock and roll.
Roth: No. Somebody as great a genius as he was — and he was a true creative genius on several levels — he would have never stood still. He would have constantly reexamined and probed further into the unknown. And music probably would have taken a completely different course had he been around. It might have taken a few years because the early ’70s were really not for him — the development at that time, that was a different genre that emerged. But it would have been very interesting what he would have come up with. As I said, it would have undoubtedly changed the history of music like his four year tenure did. He would definitely had been relevant and remained relevant like a leader of the pack. And I would have certainly been one of the first to want to check it out.
Reading about the Sky Academy and your opinions on it, it’s very interesting when you say that anyone can come to a class. Of course, guitar players, but you seem to be inviting other artists and fans as well.
Roth: Anybody can come who has a love for music. We quite frequently have people who don’t play an instrument. My teaching is usually geared in such a way where it crosses the boundaries. I’m not just talking about guitar playing. Of course, there is some of that as well. But usually I’m talking more about the deeper mysteries of music. I’m trying to inspire the students to find a deeper type of access to it in their own hearts. It’s a very difficult thing to put into words in a few sentences. One has to really actually experience it. There is no set pattern because every Sky Academy is different and I’m always improvising, depending on who’s in front of me or who’s in the room. And sometimes I will have master classes for only advance players, like in Germany. We have a guitar competition and all the best players in Germany come there. In that case, we see very guitar specific or performance specific. But very often, and particularly when we are on tour, it’s more like an introductory seminar and giving a broader overview on things and I am hoping to open other people’s eyes to different kinds of perspectives. And I think for a lot of people that works. But it’s not for everyone. The requirement is really to have an open mind and experience some different point of views.
Never underestimate the power of music. Have you had people come up to you and say that music has helped them fight depression …
Roth: Oh, of course. Of course. That is one of our things as well. There are a lot of healing properties. Every note has its own kind of quality in accordance to the body and every note has its own color, its own shape even. There a certain metaphysics that are very, very real to me. There are healing qualities in music just like there are destructive qualities in music because it is really a life force. It depends how you are applying it. I found that quite a few of the Sky Academy people who came to seminars year after year after year, that they have gone through quite a journey of transformation themselves and for some of them it really works in the sense that they are transforming themselves in a very positive way. And that’s really what it’s all about.
It’s a complicated world and people can be lost creatively.
Roth: A lot of people are lost, that’s for sure. Creatively or in other ways. Playing an instrument, of course, is a great way to cope with your mind. If you connect with music in the right way, or in a certain way, you can almost hear yourself get rid of a lot of hangups and get rid a lot of the bad stuff and bring out the best of you. If you do it the wrong way it can bring out the worst in you. So what I do in Sky Academy is I do relate an awful lot of things to music, even life itself. To me all people are music as well. Each person is a melody.
Some people don’t get along with each other because they are in incompatible keys or whatever and one person has to modulate, meaning one of the two has to change his key in order get in harmony.
What made you go from a musician to a teacher? Has this been something you’ve been thinking of for a long time?
Roth: I always had that streak in me. I guess I was born for it. It’s my destiny. I’ve always known that. Even when I was in the Scorpions, in the far distance I could see myself writing books or start teaching these things which I found helpful to me. It’s just basically like a vocation. It’s my destiny. I’m born for that. I love turning people onto things that I think are important and valuable. I get excited about it … and ideas, and I believe in the power of ideas. It’s our ideas that are worthwhile and pure and honest. In that sense I’m very much like an idealist and a dreamer. I haven’t given up that yet. And I hope I never will.
And positive thinking actually works.
Roth: It totally works. It’s basically like music. If you play a major chord it always has a certain affect on people, and a totally different affect than a minor chord or a diminished or augmented chord. It just strikes a certain resonance in you. And a chord in itself will attract a certain energy. It’s the same way with our thinking. If our thinking and emotions are in line, it’s in tune to a certain wavelength and a certain positive frequency and a balance in harmony then this can attract all sorts of things around. If you’re tuning yourself inside to the right kind of frequencies you can light up an entire room of people just with that. And it brings forth good things. It’s very very simple. I mean, some people are aware of that and are using it for material gain or whatever and it can also backfire. There’s this notion that you read in self-help books at the moment where it goes that just ask the universe and it will give you everything. Whatever you ask, it gives you. And I say, well, it may do that but if you ask for the wrong things or with the wrong intentions you might get very different consequences in the end. So it’s not quite that easy. There’s a price for everything. It’s very important to do things with the right intentions, pure intentions. Otherwise it sounds like the wrong chord.
Do you still enjoy singing?
Roth: I enjoy singing “All Along the Watchtower” (laughs).
Some guitarists say it can be a hindrance. It can take away from their concentration.
Roth: No. If I had a great voice I would be singing a lot more. But I’m not blessed with that so I’m really only singing the stuff that nowadays is suitable for me and I’m comfortable with. And I let the real singers do all the other stuff. I mean, having said that, for me it’s not a hindrance when I’m playing guitar and doing the vocals because I’m coming from the Hendrix/Dylan kind of style. It’s actually a very organic approach. In that sense it works for me. But all the important vocal bits with real melodies, etc, I’m always letting a real singer handle these, even some of my Electric Sun stuff.
Scorpions Tokyo Tapes (1978) has always been a favorite live album for many fans.
Roth: Well, we’re gonna take that as a benchmark [on tour]. We want to do something which is on that level. It will be very different. Of course, there is no Klaus, there is no Rudolph there. but we are going to be three guitarists, I’ve got this amazing kid from England, Ali Clinton, who will play and another gifted guitar player from Germany so we really actually reproduce the rhythm parts and the dual harmony parts. That’s very important. And that guitar player, Niklas Turmann, is also a great singer. He sings some of the leads but we also have a dedicated lead singer, Henning Basse. He has an amazing voice. He does sound different than Klaus. I’m deliberately making that choice. So we will play the songs but they will come as a different incarnation. (Editor’s Note: The rest of 40th Anniversary US-Tour line-up will be: Ule W. Ritgen and Elliott Rubinson, bass; Jamie Little and Peter Holmes, drums; Paul Rahme and Corvin Bahn, keyboards, vocals)
You’ve said that the first show of the Tokyo Tapes concerts is actually the best. Does that even exist?
Roth: It doesn’t exist. And that was a bummer. We did three nights. The first night I clearly remember being on stage thinking this is the best show we’ve ever done, certainly from my perspective as far as guitar playing it was the best I had done with the Scorpions all those years, and it felt the same for the whole band. Unfortunately, due to budget restrictions we only recorded the two nights after that, which were still good.
There must be a bootleg recording of that night.
Roth: There is but you can’t hear the guitar.
And Warren DeMartini (of Ratt fame) will be playing onstage with you on this upcoming tour.
Roth: Yes. Warren is a good friend. I’m looking forward to that. Warren likes that early Scorpions stuff. In fact, as far as the original idea, I think he was the first one to tell me to do that, an early Scorpions set. I think that was a year ago that he came up with that idea and it was in the back of my mind and just recently I thought ‘Hang on. That’s a good idea. We should actually do that.’ The challenge to go back in time.
Uli Jon Roth Tour dates and seminars:
1/21: Los Angeles, CA @ Santa Monica Playhouse *Sky Academy Only*
1/22: Los Angeles, CA @ Santa Monica Playhouse *Sky Academy Only*
1/23: San Francisco, CA @ Slim’s *Jason Becker Event
1/25: Hollywood, CA @ Whiskey A Go-Go (w/ Warren DeMartini)
1/26: Santa Ana, CA @ Malone’s
1/27: San Diego, CA @ Brick by Brick *SA
1/29: Denver, CO @ Jammin’ Joe’s
1/31: Milwaukee, WI @ Shank Hall * SA
2/1: Detroit, MI @ Token Lounge *SA
2/2: Cleveland, OH @ Pirate’s Cove at Peabody’s
2/3: Old Bridge, NJ @ Old Bridge Music Center *Sky Academy Only*
2/5: Chantilly, VA @ Sully’s
2/6: New York, NY @ Stage 48 *SA
2/7: White Marsh, MD @ House of Rock *SA
2/8: Montreal, QC @ Le National
2/9: Toronto, ON @ The Rock Pile *SA
2/10: Toronto, ON @ The Rock Pile
2/12: Ottawa, ON @ The Brass Monkey *SA
2/13: Sellersville, PA @ Sellersville Theater *SA
2/15: Kenosha, WI @ Hatrix
2/16: Savage, MN @ Neisen’s Sports Bar & Grill *SA
2/17: Chicago, IL @ Reggie’s Rock Club *SA
2/21: Tempe, AZ @ Club Red
2/22: Las Vegas, NV @ Vamp’d
2/23: Corona, CA @ Marquee 15
2/24: Santa Rosa, CA @ The Last Day Saloon
2/26: Seattle, WA @ El Corazon *SA
2/27: Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theater *SA
3/1: Concord, CA @ Vinnies
*Denotes shows with Sky Academy Seminars
Tickets for the introductory seminars are available through the individual venues and can also be purchased here.