Uli Jon Roth: 'Bridging Classical And Rock To Form Musical Bliss'

artist: Scorpions date: 02/26/2008 category: interviews
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Uli Jon Roth: 'Bridging Classical And Rock To Form Musical Bliss'
Uli Jon Roth may have made a name for himself as the guitarist for The Scorpions from 1973-1978. But that was only the beginning of this guitar virtuoso's musical accomplishments. Not being happy with where The Scorpions were headed musically, Roth formed his own band Electric Sun in 1978. During the years of Electric Sun, he was able to pursue his own personal musical tastes, combining the influences of both Jimi Hendrix and his appreciation for classical music. When Electric Sun came to an end, Uli began working on one of his biggest and most innovative projects ever. His Sky Of Avalon concept, which was approximately 13 years in the making, is probably one of the most ambitious and ingenious musical undertakings ever attempted by a musician in any genre. It was also around that time that the guitar master developed his now famous Sky Guitar, which he now uses exclusively. It is a teardrop shaped, seven string instrument, that is renowned for its incredible range and singing tone. Sky of Avalon was Roth's musical dream finally coming into fruition. With SOA, he successfully merged the symphonic orchestral sound with the virtuosity of his Sky Guitar. Between 1999-2000, he released Transcendental Sky Guitar, which is another masterpiece in the classical meets rock genre. Within this framework, there is Vol. I -The Phoenix, Vol. II -The Dragon, and the latest being Vol. III -Metamorphosis, released in 2003, which has received rave reviews. When listening to the TSG Volumes, it is obvious UJR is constantly raising the bar within the guitar realm. When I spoke to Uli, he was hard at work on his latest record Under a Dark Sky, which is scheduled for a summer '08 release. His new record promises to be another voluminous combination of orchestral sounds, rock singers, and amazing guitar playing. Roth told me he will be touring this year, not only in support of the record, but also with his Sky Academy. The Sky Academy is something Uli began in 2006, in order to teach some of his own philosophies and theories on guitar playing. Guitar playing that began some 35 years ago.. Argie Plakas for Ultimate-Guitar: Were you a classically trained guitarist? Uli Jon Roth: I was not a classically trained guitarist in the traditional sense. I actually played a couple instruments before I took up the guitar (the trumpet and the bass), then I took up electric guitar. After sometime, I got interested in classical guitar. And I learned it. Because I knew how to read music, (through playing the trumpet), I took home some scores, and I learned how to play it. Then indeed, after about half a year, I did go to a classical guitar teacher, and I did study with him for a year or so. And it was very beneficial because he gave me some pointers on interpretation on the classical guitar. So, would you say, that most of your guitar playing was self-taught? I think it was a mixture of many things. I just followed an instinct. And the instinct was as soon as I got my hands on that instrument it just plain went bang! It just progressed so quickly by utilizing my record collection. And I mainly listened to a lot of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, and Alvin Lee. And I just lap that stuff up. I learned as much as I could. And I started improvising right away, somehow developing my own voice in the process. But than after a while, I kind of put the electric guitar aside for atleast 2 or 3 years, and I really wanted to study the classical guitar. And I became consumed with it. And then The Scorpions thing came up Then I made the decision to take up the electric guitar more seriously. And the classical guitar kind of just faded into the background. Was joining The Scorpions an exciting new venture for you? The word exciting is not the right one. I'm kind of a go with the flow guy, always in the middle of things. It's difficult to explain. To me it was like a natural kind of progression. It was simply that after Michael (Schenker) left, the band kind of broke apart completely. Just before he left, he asked me in fact to join The Scorpions. Because he wanted to go to India for a bit, and I 'll never forget thatHe told me what was going on with the UFO thing, because it was suppose to be a secret. Then Rudolf rang me a couple weeks later, and said Did you know Michael has left the band? and We've got this gig lined up, would you like to fill in? And I really enjoyed it. Because it was very different from what we did with (my previous band) Dawn Road. Dawn Road was more of a like a progressive kind of band toward say Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And I instantly realized when playing with Rudolf and Klaus that there was something there. Which was missing in my vocabulary. They knew how to write very simple melodies that really hit home. Just being around that environment gave me a totally different dimension. And so I said to Rudolf, You know I really enjoyed that, why don't we do something?
"I'm kind of a go with the flow guy, always in the middle of things."
Did you start writing songs soon after you joined The Scorpions? Yes I did. The very first one was Drifting Sun. And then it just got more and more to the point to where I contributed about half the material. I just love the guitar solo on Longing for Fire. Was that easy to write? Yes it was easy. But it's the kind of guitar lead that is composed. It was written out. It was kind of a quick write. It kind of wrote itself. Atleast the main outline. And that happened in the rehearsal room. We were playing around with the song. I had this new Strat, it was like a white Strat. A 1975, pretty much off the shelf. And pick-ups were really knew, and I made them really high, and having really high action, and somehow I got such a singing tone on these high notes while cranking my Marshall to the top. It was incredibly loudbut it was such a joy to play and sing with that guitar. And so somehow I think that was kind of the first lead that kind of reflects that. It kind of shows that guitar really wailing and singing. And I think that's the first time I really hit on these high notes. I like that guitar lead because it's a one off and it's very jubilant, I wouldn't say happy, but it's elated. All the years I listened to The Scorpions, I was always uncomfortable with the album covers. How did you feel about them? In hindsight, I find them largely disgusting. Back then, I didn't think much about it. Because I was still asleep. Those covers were very degrading to women. Who made the decision to do those types of album covers? Yes, absolutely. It was horrible. I mean In Trance is still borderline. It was the record label. It was the record company's idea, but we certainly didn't object. And so shame on us. Those covers were probably the most embarrassing thing I've ever been involved with. You've mentioned in many interviews that you left The Scorpions because musically you wanted to go a different route. So, was forming Electric Sun a very liberating time for you? It was a very formative period. The Scorpions were almost like an apprenticeship for me, where I was learning the ropes, like to make albums, be on the road, you know the music business and all that And exploring the music at the same time. So, Electric Sun, for me, took all that to a totally different level. Because I was then basically in charge of it all. There was a lot more responsibility and a lot more freedom at the same time. It was an inspirational time. I felt inspired at that time, in a very specific way. That was very different from the inspiration I felt during The Scorpions. It was like I was given a set of wings and I was using them. Those wings by the way, were totally flying against the mainstream of what was going on at the time musically. The music business was going into corporate rock, into 80's hair bands, all this melodic American corporate rock, with a sleek slick sound, and I was going on a totally different path. Having said that, you know it was reasonably successful in more aspects than one. Can you talk a little about Sky of Avalon, and how that came about? That journey started in 1985, and it took several years. The Electric Sun period had come to it's own end, it was the end of a cycle. Just like The Scorpions thing had come to an end. I was ready for the next level, which I couldn't do within the Electric Sun framework. I dissolved the band , and I went into, I wouldn't say hibernation mode It was like an intense period of really searching like in into the depths of music, as far as I could reach. And I wrote a large amount of music in that time in the 90's, starting from 1985-86. I started writing a guitar concerto, called Sky Concerto, it was a 1-1/2 hour piece, which I never got to record. Because at that time, I still didn't really know how to pull this off. I didn't have the financial means to hire a big orchestra or a good record company to do this with. To make a long story short. I wasn't really playing live for about 13 years. It was a long period It didn't seem long for me, because it was full of exploration. And I was writing, cranking out these symphonic works. And I did maybe a handful of shows. Then it all culminated in my first real big classical show, which was 1993, where we were like 100 people on stage, with the Brussels Symphony Orchestra. That was a 3-hour show, with a large part of it being original music that I had written. Which included my first symphony. We had onstage 4 rock singers and the orchestra. That was like a departure. That was the beginning of Sky of Avalon. And I started making more and more music in that frame, integrating the orchestra. Do you feel more at home doing more symphonic type music? Yes, I do feel more at home. Like on my recent album I'm using a whole symphony orchestra, I'm using the whole rock thing with multiple guitars. We have rock singers, we have a classical choir. I'm combining all these elements in a way that I really like.
"Whenever I wrote songs, my leaning was always to turn them into a little symphony."
Something tells me this is where your heart has always been That is very true. But when I was in The Scorpions, I was dreaming of that, but never able to do it. First of all I didn't have the technical means, because I didn't know how to write big scores. I needed to somehow learn that. And I did learn it. But at that time, I was just a guitar player that also knew how to play piano and a few instruments. But whenever I wrote songs, even back then, my leaning was always to turn them into a little symphony. Which is why, very often, they didn't stay songs. So, would you consider yourself more of classical musician, that occasionally plays rock? No, when I go on the road, nowadays, I play rock. I've re-discovered the rock angle, it sounds corny, but I have. Because I did a few reunion shows with The Scorpions. And I really enjoyed that. And I did a rock tour where we did a little bit of that old material. When you reunited with The Scorpions, did you feel some magic in the air? Actually we did. It was, now I use the word exciting, because it was exciting. We had this show in France two years ago and it went extremely well, virtually without a rehearsal. Just rehearsing briefly for 30 minutes, onstage before the show. We played like quite a few songs, and it felt quite a bit like Tokyo Tapes, right were we left off. It was really good. Well, hopefully you'll do some more of those shows Yeah, we did quite a few last year. And I think there's more coming. Uli, what inspired you to start the Sky Academy? That goes back quite a few years Maybe 8 years ago already.. One day it just came into my mind to start teaching again. To do something, and teach in a different way. Not so much on the technical aspect, more about the performance issues. How to really improve your playing. And how to get much more in touch with the music. I feel a lot of players, even good players, are often very disconnected from the music they play. And they don't seem to be at one with it. But some people are not so much connected with their instrument, and more with the music. It's these connections I'm interested in. And they just seem to think I have a few answers to a lot of these things. And so, it took a few years before the idea really crystallized. And then in 2006, we actually materialized the first Sky Academy in Los Angeles. And it was just a fantastic event. We were all, you know, the students, the people working towards it, and the audience, and I think it was probably one of the best if not THE BEST things I've ever done in my life. Because it was very rewarding? Well, no it was kind of a real communion of souls. The whole thing was very inspiring. I was just basically like a catalyst or a channel to make this all happen. It just felt like a very special thing. We attracted a very diverse bunch of players; they came from all over America.
"I've re-discovered the rock angle, it sounds corny, but I have."
Well, I'm sure they did come from all over, so as to have the opportunity to learn from you! Well it wasn't so much learning. It was more like passing on an inspiration. Also, giving clues how to approach an instrument in such a way, that way you can learn anything really quickly, without falling into a lot of traps. Because there are a lot of potential obstacles to learning an instrument. I have fallen into several in the past. But you know, I'm good enough now, where I think I know what I'm talking about. And I think it ignites a spark in the players to help them get to their own next level of which I think everybody is capable of. We really only attract really dedicated players, people who take it really seriously. Not all of them were professionals; there were also some amateurs who really just loved music. And some of them were actually beginners, and I got a kick out of them even! Is Sky Academy on hold now, since you're making a new record? No, we did one last year, also very nice. And were going to do several this year in several countries. There's one in New Zealand, were thinking about Tokyo.India of all places, and New Delhi. I think Los Angeles and New York too But we were shooting for April, but were not going to make it because of the album. When is your new record Under a Dark Sky going to be released? That's a very good question. The record companies are hoping for June. Which means I have to deliver it by April 20th. I'm struggling against that deadline. From experience, I know how long mixing takes me. And I'm still quite a bit off, from even starting the mix. All I can say is that I'm working on it as hard as I can. Will you tour on this record? Oh yeahWe have lots of offers and possibilities to play. Including of all places, Japan In the same hall where we recorded Tokyo Tapes. Will play a lot of that old stuff, for memory sakes. And we'll record it too. Well good luck! And thank you for the interview Uli. You're welcome. I think you've got enough to fill a book. Interview by Argie Plakas Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2008
For more information on Uli Jon Roth and The Sky Academy, go to ulijonroth.com
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