By Andrew Catania
Uli Jon Roth is a legend. When he speaks, many people listen. Uli is from the old school. I spoke to him right after his tour ended and he toured the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We covered many topics. Enjoy!
How was your latest tour?
The tour has just officially ended yesterday and it was fantastic. It was my best ever American tour. We had a great time, the band had a great time, I had a great time and it seems the audience also had a great time. I mean it was just one of these tours where everything went kind of smoothly and we didn’t have any major problems not even with the weather although we really escaped the blizzards very narrowly a couple of times you know and even in New York, in upstate New York, but we were lucky because at that time of the year anything can happen you know
Absolutely! How did your trip to the Hall Of Fame go on Friday?
It was great! I just had an invitation to it to just to check it all out and the curator, Meredith, she was so kind she took me around she took me to all the exhibits. It was really just a very good museum the way they displayed everything up close so nicely. It was extremely well displayed and it really told a story. So it was really very good, I really enjoyed it. And that was our one day off you know, we had one off day in 17 days and it was fantastic it was really cool
I’m glad you enjoyed it. Do you think you’ll have a Sky Guitar on display there?
You know they’ve asked me to get them a guitar and I will do something you know. I was thinking maybe about the white Strat in the Tokyo Tapes In Trance, it’s an Electric Sun strat because that guitar is just sitting around and it was in a museum for years I got it back but yes we are going to talk about that you know
Okay, that’s good. So the tour has ended, what are some of the highlights of the tour that just come to your mind?
Well, I tell you there was really so many shows that I was really very happy with that I cannot even pick the very best one but we had so many. The outcome in Florida and St Charles was great. You know BB King’s was a great show and a lot of people showed up despite the blizzard. That amazed me because I knew that a lot of tickets had been sold and quite a few couldn’t come but it was still good and quite full and we had a great show there. Then Reggie’s in Chicago was great. I mean so many I think so many, San Francisco was great, Seattle, Vancouver. Yes, I mean there wasn’t a single show that I wasn’t happy with. Sometimes you play a little bit better than on certain days but we had a very consistent run and I think we were able to transmit a lot of inspiration night after night by which is the most important thing and it’s not so easy to do that night after night you know when you don’t have any off days. But I have a fantastic band and everyone just pulled through and it was just so good
How do you pick the musicians that work with you?
They’re basically musicians who have been with me for a long time and they’ve been handpicked and kind of almost handpicked I guess of a lot of them because some of them have been with me for 10 years and are also pupils of mine in many respect so I’m now at the point where they’ve become so good as a backing band night after night that I’m just so lucky to have these guys there. Very quiet unit and the nice thing is they all have very sweet personalities so we don’t have any people with ego problems you know like you have in many bands you have like the odd one out you know high maintenance people who simply don’t fit in and with us, it’s a very sweet environment. On this tour we have my favorite English drummer who also played on both releases, both current releases The Scorpions Revisited and the Tokyo Tapes Revisited DVD so that’s Jamie Little on drums. I love that guy’s groove and rhythm it’s second to none and he always sounds like a million dollars when he’s up there on stage very very comfortable to just play with such a top class drummer. On vocals and bass, we have Niklas Turmann, who’s been with me also for a long time since the Under The Dark Sky Tour in 2008. He is now officially our lead singer. He’s come a long way because originally he was not really a lead singer but I figured he had such a vocal talent I really encouraged him more and more and more and more and gave him more and more to sing and he’s just outstanding I mean the amount of people that come to me every night commenting on the beautiful performance and what he delivers is really astounding and also he played bass on this tour. He’s normally actually not our guitar player we used to go out with three guitars but my dear friend Elliot Dean Rubinson just passed away and Elliot was supposed to play bass on this tour
Elliot was a terrific person.
But he had terminal brain cancer unfortunately and simply I saw it coming and by the time in November, I kind of knew that Elliot would not be on this tour or the cruise and so I said to Niklas, “okay, you’re basically now officially a bass player” and he managed wonderfully. He didn’t put a foot wrong he sounds like a real bass player, which most guitar players don’t when you hand them a bass they sound like guitar players
It’s a completely different instrument and he understands that so it’s just great. On second guitar we have David Klosinski, a young prodigy from Germany who was also handpicked. I found this guy in a national guitar competition in Germany. I was one of the judges and when I heard him play I immediately knew he had tons of talent and I took him under my wings and he’s been with me now for quite a number of years on almost every tour and he also has his own project going. Yes, a very promising young future talent. On keyboards, we have Corvin Bahn, who’s been with me since 2007. So that’s all I can tell you about the backing band you know, in fact, I could tell you a lot more.
I know you’ve been playing extended range guitar for many years, what first led you to go beyond what was offered by mainstream guitars?
Well you know I was a strat guy pretty much from the beginning although I did on the first Scorpions album I also played the Gibson Firebird but the strat as you know has traditionally 21 frets now it so happens that even for the first or second album Onwards that we did which was In Trance, I kind of ran out of frets quite literally because the logic of my guitar leads always seem to be moving upwards more into the violin range and I remember really having to over bend the strings the top E string which was an E flat string for us in order to shift from the C to the E flat or the C sharp to the E natural. So the more I explored the instrument with the later albums the more there appeared to be a major limitation because I always thought why can I not play a few notes higher. That was during the Electric Sun days in 1982 I had the idea to extend the fretboard off the strat. So I found a very good guitar builder in Brighton in England, Andy Demetriou and I asked him if he could put two extra frets onto my white Strat just basically extending it right up to the pickup and he said sure no problem. He did it and he did a beautiful job. The guitar came back and it played perfectly and that gave me like an F sharp, even a G on some notes you know when I was bending it up so I was in heaven and I use these notes. After he saw how pleased I was he said, “you know I can build you any guitar you like” and for me, that was a very defining moment. Because I had never really questioned the strat as my main instrument you know I wouldn’t have dreamt of having a guitar of my own. At that moment it was a key moment. I thought, oh wow maybe I should think about that and I did. I thought about what I really wanted from it from the guitar, I wanted something that would completely extend the range and finally do away with this major limitation, what I saw as a major limitation you know. And so I came up with the shape of the Sky Guitar. I drew this guitar on a piece of paper which was born out of necessity but also I wanted a guitar that was beautiful but the symmetry could not be symmetrical because it had to have a different kind of symmetry. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to play that high. So I had to take away the lower horn. And then from that idea, the entire guitar emerged. It was basically based on the strat the first one was based on another guitar so I wanted to have like a super strat you know and that’s what it became. Later on, Sky Guitar’s Metamorphosis falls into something different. I also then wanted to integrate the sonic abilities of the Les Paul which was quite a stretch but somehow we managed. But the first Sky Guitars were very much strat based as a concept the way the neck flows and all that. Yes, we built the first Sky Guitar in ‘83. And initially the pickups we had were not good, didn’t sound that good but then Seymour Duncan made me some pickups. He came to my first show in Santa Barbara and he said, “look what I’ve got for you” He brought these pickups and we put them on and immediately the guitar sounded so much better. From then on I played nothing but Sky Guitars virtually on stage
Who is making the Sky Guitars? Is Dean making them or is another builder?
Andy Demetriou stopped building a long time ago because he had some back problems and he moved away from England. So for 20 years there were no official new Sky Guitars it was Elliot Dean Rubinson, that’s the person we spoke about earlier who played bass for me. He was also the CEO of Dean and we met during the Frankfurt Trade Shows and we hung out and he somehow managed to convince me that it would be a good idea to put the Sky Guitar on the market so other people could enjoy it too and he gave me card blanks to build it any way I wanted to build it and that was the most important thing because I didn’t want any tampering from any guitar companies to put their stamp on it. I wanted them to be as good as it possibly could and he gave me complete free hand. So we built one the CNC way because we basically took a photocopy, a digital copy of my Mighty Wing, my favorite. That guitar played well but it was not the same as a hand built guitar. So I found this amazing guitar builder in Germany, Boris Dommenget, who also builds the guitars for The Scorpions and for a lot of other people and he built me a Sky Guitar prototype back in 2010 and I was so blown away by his craftsmanship because he is not only a craftsman who has superior abilities with wood he’s also an artist and I knew I needed somebody who could do both. Andy Demetriou was of that stature. I had quite a few people try to make Sky Guitars and they all failed miserably even some famous builders. Stuff never worked, they’re so difficult to build. And then the Japanese copied them and whenever I saw a copy they basically didn’t play well and it was quite ridiculous actually but Boris was the only one who managed to do that. And he managed to supply us the originals to some degree so basically, Dean was the distributor and they put it on the market and they did good but Boris in Germany was the one who built it. We built a limited edition of 50 and they were all sold and we’re going to start a new limited edition with new features, very soon
Are there any plans for the future? I know you were talking about the CNC machine using them at the USA shop. Are you going to go back and do a USA guitar shop for a budget model or do you want to keep it as is?
I’m thinking about it. That was one of the things that Elliot and I were planning for the future to do a US Custom model which would not be all hand built. It would be way more affordable because then this guy who as you may know does cost an arm and a leg and some of them are much more in Japan. So this is not for the fainthearted this is basically for the collector and for people who have got the money but I knew I wanted to start at the high end because I wanted the best guitar as possible and rather than quantity I wanted ultimate quality. Also, I wanted that each guitar was slightly different. They all have names, I gave them names and they all have a slightly different finish and to me, they’re all gorgeous, I love these guitars. And the great thing is I can play them just right out of the box and be on stage with these guitars. The things I did last week in BB Kings because one guy Aaron Leone bought a white strat guitar some years back and he brought it that night and I played it. I played Little Wing and Watchtower on it and it worked perfectly. It wasn’t even set up in my way but yes there was no problem. And I’ve done that before you know people bring their Sky Guitar and I play it on stage. So that’s pretty cool because it is identical to what I have. I thought that I had better guitars than they do in fact, some of the props are probably better than what I have. But yes the US custom thing will be more affordable. It’s still not going to be a cheap guitar. Eventually we can maybe bring it down to $2,000 or $3,000 but initially, that’s not going to happen because the guitars are just very very complex to make and the pickup system alone is substantial and it just costs a lot of money. So to bring it to a custom shop level we will have to cut some corners but we’ll make sure that they’re still Sky Guitars. They’ll look like Sky Guitars, they’ll sound like Sky Guitars, they’ll play like Sky Guitars. They will not quite be able to have the same power that the top model has, that’s just not doable at that price range
On this past tour, what was your rig like? Were you doing anything different from your past set ups?
No, it was a very mild version of my normal rig you know I didn’t want to be too loud in these clubs. So I really just used one 300-watt Marshall cab and one Blackstar head which is enough for a club, in fact, it’s more than enough. And with the Sky Guitars I can dial in the beautiful tone because these amps have so much headroom I only need to turn them up to 1 or 2 on the clean channel, in fact, I only have a clean channel and then the rest I can key from the guitar, the Sky Guitar has 100 GP output. If I want to, not that I ever use those I may go up to 70 or 80 GP’s sometimes output and that way this makes any amp sing like there is no tomorrow without a gadget in between.
My new Sky Guitars have those delay, analog delay built in.
Are you using the DigiTech Whammy still?
Yes I do and it’s probably my favorite gadget other than delays but I only use it very sparingly only a few times during the gig and each time in a different way. I don’t use it as a gimmick I use it in a musical way.
Who are you endorsed by? Do you take any endorsements?
Well, I am basically an artisan a Blackstar artisan endorser yes. I mean Marshall has always been very good to me. I also have with me a DV Mark 40w Amp which is basically a guitar amp but I’m using it to great effect with my acoustic nylon 8 string guitar and that just sounds so amazing. That amp is just right for this guitar so that’s what I have to have on stage
How did it feel playing the Tokyo Tapes on stage?
It feels very very organic, very natural. We’ve now got a little bit of history with that because we’ve been doing it for a couple of years and yes I mean I think we are breathing a lot of new life into the songs and together with my band I think we are doing these songs a lot of justice. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it you know with treating them with the right amount of respect at the same time you know so I’m not offering the main melodies everything is there but there are certain things I think we’ve improved upon over the years particularly from the live versions. It flows very nicely
Do you have a good relationship with the guys from The Scorpions? Do you guys talk?
Absolutely! Absolutely good yes. Klaus was kind to ring me for my birthday in December. We had a real good chat and in October we were in Japan and we played at the same festival and then we also played We’ll Burn The Sky together which was a lot of fun. I have a very good relationship with them something like that doesn’t go away because we never had a personality clash we’re such good buddies and friends. On tour, we understood one another. You know the only differences were artistic towards the end. We never had any personality conflict whatsoever. It’s a lot of mutual respect and to this day. That’s really nice because most bands don’t have that.
No, a lot of them don’t. I was going to get your opinion, what do you think about the state of the music today particularly guitar oriented music?
Well, I’m not really an expert because I’m not so clued in. I hear younger players now and then or you know you support bands. I know that there is a lot of talent out there. Well in general maybe I am missing the melodic players. I think there are too many notes, too much shredding going on. I prefer the slower, the more touchy kind of feely kind of things you know players with a little bit of a message and uniqueness. I think a trend has developed in the last 20 years which is not really to my liking and that trend it went away from having a great tone. You know most of the modern amps are metal amps and there is such high gain that every guitar player kind of sounds the same to me you know because the kids don’t learn how to lower the tone anymore like we used to do. Because when we started there were no high gain amps. You know you would walk into a club or a pub and there was a guy playing where he is sounding great and even if they couldn’t play so well you would hear people with a good tone in the 60’s and 70’s and those days are kind of gone. Most of the time when I hear something the tone leaves me feeling very cold and I get bored it seems one dimensional.
So you don’t approve of the development of today’s guitarists?
So that’s what I can say. I don’t really approve of this development and there’s really very little I can do you know and I am really old school with my approach and tone is the first thing. You know music if it doesn’t have tone it doesn’t sound good to me it’s boring it doesn’t really touch me.
With your international competitions that you’re in as a judge as I think with your Sky Academy I didn’t know if you got to meet some of these up and coming guitarists.
Yes, I do, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s out there in Germany and Germany is a big country 80 million people you know and there’s a lot of young talent there, a lot of players. So I know what’s out there and there are occasionally I get a kid with a feeling for sound but most of them don’t seem to have that and they don’t seem to have that because it’s become this way. They don’t even know how it could be otherwise they don’t seem to have a desire to do it otherwise because like you said everybody is blinded by the flashiness of their amps you know and of course it’s so easy to play on a high gain amp. It kind of needs to do all sorts of things like people develop and breathe bad habits. As soon as you take away the high gain they sound like amateurs you know, a lot of them and that’s not so cool either.
No, it’s not
At Sky Academy, I try to preach that kind of gospel off of tone and promoting the tone and finding your own tone that’s just very very important
You’ve toured with a lot of people on your Ultimate Guitar Experience. Do you have any modern day players that are your favorites?
There are quite a few great players out there you know. Yesterday somebody sent me a nice message from Eric Johnson which I appreciated and he certainly one of these people. You know he’s a player with a great feeling for tone a very elegant player, very musical. And then there are quite a few others out there you know. I don’t really want to mention names like that because all the others will say why didn’t you mention me
You know what I mean? I know most of them and so I don’t really want to do that. Of course the old school old time greats there are certainly some that I could mention. You know I love the way David Gilmore plays. You know Jeff Beck, of course, that’s a no-brainer. There are several but the one’s with the really great tone and great touch is a rare breed. You know most of them you find them from way back in the 60’s or 70’s. You know the degradation of tone started in the 80’s I felt. It crept in like a slow disease and there was nothing anybody could do you know and I didn’t want to be part of that. I kept away from all that. You know that’s why when I listen to any of these albums the tone gets on my nerves most of the time.
You’ve been in bands and you’ve been a solo performer, what do you see as the benefits from one over the other?
Doing the band thing is a lot of fun and is very low maintenance you have to do so little. All you do is your little part you know you play a solo, play some rhythm, you accompany so there is that and I certainly enjoyed being in The Scorpions very much. Other than that, yes I guess I became a solo performer very early on and it’s more my cup of tea because I actually like being at home being an all arounder and I like to be in charge of the music that I play, not that I don’t like collaborating with people. I do if it’s the right kind of people. You know and if it stimulates me and challenges me on an artistic level then I really like that. Then I have no problem taking a back seat you know. Like several times I jammed with the Smashing Pumpkins and with Billy Corgan on his own and he’s not known as a virtuoso flashy player but that guy is so musical, when onstage and I take a back seat because I enjoy what he does and we gel you know. So that’s the kind of collaboration that I really like. Other than that I feel very comfortable as a solo artist you know and it gives me the freedom to really do what I want to do.
What has the rest of 2017 got in store for you?
Well, there’s more touring to come in Europe. I’ve also written a new album which I want to start recording. Then I am also working on new music for my 8-string Sky Guitar, my Flamingo nylon guitar. That is a real nice challenge for me. I really like playing that guitar and writing for it because you know having two new 8-strings opens up so many opportunities in terms of harmonies it can play and also all sorts of keys that wouldn’t sound all that good on a normal guitar. So I will probably record an album of just that of me playing the swinger style on the 8-string, we’ll see. We’re also preparing for a big Sky Academy in California near San Francisco for the spring of 2018, we’re going to do a five-day seminar and I’m looking forward to that. I’ll be busy busy busy, very busy!
You have so many people that look up to you, including myself, do you have anything you can tell the up and comers? I know we talked about a lot of tone and a lot of feel with the aspiring guitarists, do you have any advice for them?
Yes! Of course, each person is very different. The guitar brings out so many sides to so many different people. No two guitar players ever sound alike and no two guitar players are approaching it the same way. So whatever advice I can give is more like more global. I think I’ve narrowed it down to a few things that paramount for me in the approach is if I want to help younger players improve or find their own way tone is certainly extremely important. To find your own tone and style, your own approach to music and the way to do that is you have to get way down deep into the heart of the music and connect deeply. A lot of players don’t do that, they stay on the surface and the good stuff is way below the surface. You know you need to be willing to make that journey. So that’s one thing. A lot of young guitar players are not so interested in rhythmical playing and the rhythmical side of it. I think that is very often underdeveloped. It seems to be a standard approach, it seems to be prevalent. But I would advise people to kind of check their weak points and then work on it and expand. Also get out of the narrow box mentality you know, don’t think this is metal, this is this and this is that. All these so limited and real great players of the past have always avoided that like the plague. They’ve always had so many colors and they’ve brought something new to the table always. Try to bring something new to the table without forcing it you know it’s out there. I mean the guitar is still a vast field to be explored. I don’t want to say that just at the beginning we’re not but there is still a lot to be found there. Each time I pick up a guitar I find something new and that’s nice, it’s like anything else then I’m hardly ever playing because it’s just so fresh. You know I guess if I was playing all day long like some people do maybe that wouldn’t be the case I find it doesn’t get stale that way
My final question for you Uli is you’re seeing the growing YouTube players as I call them. You’re seeing these young kids 5,6,7 years old that they’re coming on Youtube and they’re playing music that we or at least my generation and older would never even think of. Do you think that YouTube, a lot of the younger generation are using Youtube for in terms of guitar lessons? Do you think that Youtube has kind of harmed the instrument in terms of traditional guitar lessons?
Yes and no. That’s a very good question. YouTube is a great tool if one knows how to utilize it. I think for a lot of the kids it also can spoil them an awful lot because they don’t work hard enough on finding their own they’re just copying things blindly and it’s like everything is out there the information doesn’t mean anything anymore. Like all the great players from the early days had to find everything by themselves. There were no guitar teachers when I or Schenker or Gilmore grew up or Beck or Brian May. There were no guitar teachers. You had some classical guitar teachers maybe but nobody playing electric guitar. There were no books telling you how to play electrical guitar. There were no YouTube videos telling you where to place your fingers. It was all very root of memory. You had to find it yourself using your ears and investigating the possibilities of the instrument. Now anything you find yourself means a lot more because then you really understand it you know rather than being spoon fed. So this mentality of being spoon fed everything is deceptive. It’s also a trap. Surely it helps for people to get quickly from A to B you know because they just simply follow a road map you know that somebody else created. There is nothing wrong with that per say. The thing is when you only do it that way that’s when it becomes very questionable because you’re then not developing your own powers of imagination and your own powers of discernment. I’m not knocking these great teaching things online because I have seen some I was interested in and thought maybe I could do some online teaching at some point then I decided against it because I saw, first of all, there are great teachers out there and they’re doing it very well so there’s no need for anybody else to do that. But also at the same time, the trap is there that maybe people will get too fast from A to B and they may undermine their own powers of imagination and in the end also their own individual kind of take on it. You know that danger is definitely there. So everything nowadays as we know you know with the internet, which I love the internet but there are pitfalls. And it’s the same with the entire social media kind of stuff. It’s all about instant gratification. You know the kids don’t bond anymore with certain kind of artists, have you seen this one, or have you seen this guy play that and how fast can he do it you know? It’s like a trap.
I agree with you, Uli! It’s not like what it was when I was growing up with you and the other guys. It’s nothing like it anymore
Yes and you know that’s why it’s so rare that you actually hear off of these young talents and talents they are, there is a lot of talent out there but that’s why it’s so rare truly with anybody coming up with anything new and meaningful. Most of the time when you listen to the lead or I’ve heard that before or it’s just like… something from there you know or there’s that Arpeggio and very often it’s just a meaningless meandering kind of collection of riffs and clicks are on display and very poor understanding of the possibilities of what the guitar lead can actually do
Can’t wait for your new record! I hope to see you back here!
Yes, we’ll be back. What we’re going to do in 2017 the plan is to do Electric Sun Revisited. I want to do the same process that I did with The Scorpions stuff, I want to do the same with the Electric Sun albums. We did 3 albums. I want to basically take the most valuable information from those, find the best songs and condense them into a live set and take it on tour in the states because there’s a lot of fans out there waiting for that. I see that every night, they come in with their Electric Sun albums and we’re not playing that stuff you know. So I want to do it and also I want to get an Electric Sun Live album out of it. I’m basically just visiting my own muse at the moment but that’s fine and it’s interesting for me because I’m learning a lot by that and it can put a new spin on things.