February 2, 2013
By Andy Laudano
Uli Jon Roth
Superstar Guitarist Comes Full CircleGerman Born Neo-Classical Metal Legendary Guitarist
Additional Photos by David Brais
For more than forty years, Uli Jon Roth has had an amazing musical career. His influence on this generation of metal guitarists is undeniable. Not only has this legendary axe man mastered all the intricate nuances of playing the guitar, this musical titan can bend strings in such a way that the breathtaking tones emanating from his fingertips are a thing of beauty.
Most guitarists spend a lifetime achieving the personal nirvana that for Roth comes naturally. In fact, it was those unique 'gifts' Uli possessed that initially brought him to the attention of brothers Rudolf and Michael Schenker of the German metal band, The Scorpions. A single phone call to Uli from Rudolf would change both their lives forever, and is now being celebrated by the guitarist forty years later.
In 1973, Rudolf's brother, Michael, accepted an invitation by an up and coming British act, UFO, to join the group as their lead guitarist. The Scorpions were still committed to perform at an upcoming German music festival when the incident occurred. The elder Schenker reached out to his friend, Uli, to step in for his departed brother so they could finish their final show. The guitarist agreed. The chemistry was such, that Rudolf Schenker asked Roth to join his band. He politely declined the offer to concentrate on his group, Dawn Road.
"It was a strange beginning," explained Roth of his introduction to the Scorpions. "When Michael left the band unexpectedly to join UFO, the Scorpions essentially broke up. The only remaining member was the one who started it all, Rudolph Schenker."
A disappointed Schenker decided to shut down the Scorpions. He then started hanging out at Dawn Road rehearsals. In a reversal of earlier roles, Roth asked Rudolf if he would be interested in joining his group. This time, the answer was yes. Not only did the chemistry seem right with Dawn Road, it gave Rudolf a chance to start over. Roth then asked Rudolf if he would mind reaching out to his former vocalist with the Scorpions, Klaus Meine, to see if he had any interest in becoming their group's lead singer. He agreed. Then, in an ironic twist, Uli Jon Roth agreed to change the name of the band to you guessed it, The Scorpions. Since Rudolf's former band had already established a name, and had released an album, it made sense to rechristen Dawn Road.
"I had this band called Dawn Road," continued Roth, "and Rudolph started coming to our rehearsals and sitting in. We got Klaus back in the fold and that was the new Scorpions."
As a member of The Scorpions, from 1975 thru 1978, the German guitar hero helped pioneer the neo classical style that has influenced countless guitarists to this day. His extraordinary playing can be heard on four classic Scorpion records, Fly to the Rainbow, In Trance, Virgin Killer and Taken by Force. This lineup also recorded what many still consider to be one of the greatest live albums ever recorded, 1978's Tokyo Tapes.
"At first I didn't realize the impact it had on the rock music scene," confessed Roth of the live album. "When I left the band in 1978, I disconnected myself from the past and was only interested in my new band, Electric Sun. I didn't follow the success of Tokyo Tapes. Over time, I began to realize that musicians and fans kept referring to that album like it was something extra special. Gradually I understood why, now I actually see the recording in a different light than what I thought back then."
Upon leaving the Scorpions in 1978, Roth immediately formed another band, Electric Sky. Over the next several years, the guitarist would make three groundbreaking albums that further enhanced his reputation as a guitarist's guitar player. The first Electric Sky recording was dedicated to Roth's hero, Jimi Hendrix.
"He was a huge influence on me," revealed the musician. "You can hear his impact on me all over those albums I made with the Scorpions; possibly even more with Electric Sun. I felt like Jimi was my mentor. I learned everything from him, including his message and what he was trying to convey. It helped me to find my own way."
In another ironic twist, Roth had been involved for years with the last person ever to see Jimi Hendrix alive, artist Monika Dannemann. That fateful early morning of Sept. 18, 1970, Hendrix had taken a lethal combination barbiturates and alcohol. The resulting cocktail not only knocked the guitar legend out cold, it would end with Jimi suffocating in his own vomit. The following morning Dannemann, a German ice skating star, found Hendrix unconscious and unresponsive. She called for an ambulance, but it was too late.
After Hendrix's death was ruled accidental, Dannemann became romantically involved with Roth. Their love affair last for almost a quarter of a century, until her death in 1996. The beautiful blonde artist collaborated on several Scorpion songs with Uli, most notably "We'll Burn the Sky" from the Taken by Force record. She also painted the album sleeves for all three of Uli's Electric Sun albums. Upon her unfortunate passing, the German guitarist never really got over it. He dedicated later works to Dannemann's memory. In an interesting note, Monika was in possession of the legendary Black Beauty Stratocaster that belonged to Hendrix. It was in her flat the day of his passing. Though he never speaks of the instrument, it's safe to assume that Roth has that Holy Grail of guitars in safe keeping.
During his Electric Sky run, which ended in 1985, Roth commissioned luthier Andreas Demetriou to create a series of five custom guitars. The beautiful teardrop-shaped instruments, dubbed the "Sky" guitars, would become his trademark.
"The Sky guitars," concluded Roth, "gives me everything I need in terms of what an electric guitar can offer. I had the idea late in 1982. The first was built in '83 and I started playing them towards the end of '84. I've played them ever since."
"I wanted to be able to play all these high notes in the register of a violin as well as notes that are even lower than the guitar register. That is why the guitar has seven strings, and all the added frets, to make it possible to play what is essentially a six-octave range. A traditional electric guitar, like the Stratocaster, only has a three and a half octave range. The Sky Guitar was designed to be able to go where other guitars couldn't."
As Uli Jon Roth's solo career progressed, he would focus more on blending the electric guitar with classical music. He has composed four symphonies, two concertos and performed with symphony orchestras throughout Europe.
"I have always been heavily into classical music," noted the musician. "After Electric Sun, I wanted to go all out exploring the symphonic world through the eyes of someone who had primarily made his mark in the field of rock playing electric guitar. It's been my favorite thing I've ever done and in many ways, the hardest thing I've ever done."
In recent years, Roth has joined his former Scorpion band mates on stage for several reunion shows.
"We had a really good time together," he says. "In 2005, that was the first time we had played together since the Tokyo Tapes in 1978. That was very much like a family reunion and it felt very, very good. Since then we've done quite a few shows together. I get on really well with everyone in the band."
Roth also founded the Sky Academy. The aim of Sky Academy is to provide knowledge and inspiration to those who take guitar playing seriously and to help them reach a new plateau. The seminars are designed to open musicians' eyes to new possibilities and to trigger an awakening of the student's full potential and talent.
As 2013 rolls on, it will mark Uli Jon Roth's 40-year anniversary of his instrumental involvement in the reincarnation of The Scorpions. It's a legacy he is quite proud of. To commemorate the event, the legendary guitarist will embark on a series of very intimate club shows across the U.S. to celebrate the milestone.
"I'm looking forward to touring the States again," he said. "I'll have a big band with seven people on stage. We'll have three guitarists, two vocalists, keyboards, bass and drums. We will be playing a full set of Scorpions' songs, including some that have never been played live before. There will also be some of my more recent stuff, some Electric Sun, but the majority of the show will be Scorpions material. We will be recording each and every show, and the best performances will be used on a live album and DVD. I hope to see you soon at one of the shows."