Uli Jon Roth: 'I Started Playing The Guitar Simply Because I Love Music'

artist: Uli Jon Roth date: 01/19/2010 category: interviews
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Uli Jon Roth: 'I Started Playing The Guitar Simply Because I Love Music'
"I never thought of [guitar playing] in terms of a career," Uli Jon Roth elucidates to me. "I just don't think that way, not from the beginning and certainly not today." Uli Jon Roth is unlike your typical "neo-classical metal" guitarist. Equating classical music with different variants of the rock genre, Uli offers an innovative style and technique inimitable amongst his musical colleagues. Also, founder of the Sky Academy and originator of his notorious Sky Guitar, Roth is an innovator and "professor" in the field of mergence between philosophy, conjectures and music. And now he has an announcement for all. For the first time in its 20+ year existence, the Uli Jon Roth signature Sky Guitar will be available to the public at a January 14th unveiling at the Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, California. Two different models will be on display (six & seven string), limited edition (only 50 sold) custom built to Uli's specifications by Dean Guitars USA. Often imitated and sold on the black market, these Sky Guitars are official, tweaked, tested and named by Uli Jon Roth himself before release. Jarrod Dicker spoke with Uli Jon Roth about the first ever release of the Sky Guitar, the January 15th Uli & Friends live performance, the Sky Orchestra, his place in musical history, various other philosophies and more UG: Under A Dark Sky (Sky of Avalon) was your last official album release in 2008. Have you been working on any follow up material as of late? Uli Jon Roth: Yes and no. I don't have an actual' album in the making, however when I was recording Under A Dark Sky I wrote a lot of extra material for the next album. I've also recently written more and am continuing to write as we speak. So I don't really know as of yet when I'll actually get down and record this stuff, but I'm very much planning on it. You have also performed live periodically throughout 2009 for random events and shows. What are your touring plans for 2010? This year will not so much be a touring year it seems in the beginning. I've got a lot of projects lined up. We're going to do a big rock meets classical' kind of thing at the Rocking Festival, accompanied by an orchestra. I've also been offered several orchestra shows in that vein; since I love doing that sort of stuff, I'm really looking forward to those arrangements. These rock-orchestra shows would be international? Yes, they will be very international. We're talking about quite a few countries here. I do enjoy traveling as well, except for the airports [laughs], which are becoming a complete nightmare.

"This year will not so much be a touring year it seems in the beginning."

And it seems to be only getting worse Tougher and tougher; pretty soon we won't be able to take a guitar on the plane and singers won't be able to take their voice anymore [laughs]. Hopefully not, but it seems to be heading that way. Just to gain a quick sense of your musical development, how did you first discover the guitar? When did you decide that you wanted to embark on a career in music? I never thought of it in terms of a career. I just don't think that way, not from the beginning and certainly not today. I started simply because I love music. When I was in my early teens, I picked up the guitar and just got into it so much that it took complete hold of me. Before that, I was mainly just listening to the Beatles and music of the 1960's. As soon as I actually started playing, I started listening to a lot of rhythm and blues meaning Eric Clapton & Cream. A little bit later on, I discovered Jimi Hendrix and it became a real love affair. Soon after that I discovered classical music. At some point I started to write music myself and then I did the Scorpions thing and it just all fell into place from there. That was my career. I just started being in a professional band and at the time I wasn't thinking of it as being in a professional band, but rather being something I felt I wanted to do and needed to do and that was it. I'm from a younger generation and when I began listening to your material, I started with your work in the group Electric Sun. The album Earthquake was dedicated to the spirit of Jimi Hendrix. Were you ever able to meet him or collaborate with him either live or in-studio? No, I was too young. I was certainly at a couple of his gigs, and was backstage at his very last show in Germany. The whole Hendrix thing just made a huge impression on me, and changed my musical outlook on things completely. I've learned so much from that man's approach and his way of making music. The Electric Sun album Fire Wind was a dedication album as well. Do you write these albums with the person you are devoting it to in mind? Does it have any effect on the overall music and themes of the tracks on the album? No, they weren't written for the people they were dedicated to. It's just when I did the linear notes at the end, I did want to dedicate it to a person that influenced my life and someone whom I felt was meaningful. It was a token of my thanks, that's all really. Beyond the Astral Skies was dedicated to the late great Martin Luther King. How did his influence strike you growing up overseas? Did you participate in any human rights efforts present in that time of world history? I was not participatory as such, but I followed all the events. For me, it was just that he was a very inspired human being, somebody that we can look up to and learn from in many regards. The amazing thing was that he was totally dedicated to the nonviolent way of thinking, which a lot of people think is nonsense, but he actually pulled it off. I think it was the ONLY way to do it and he actually performed a miracle by spearheading a successful peaceful revolution. I think people nowadays, especially the young people, have no idea what it must have been like for black people back then in the states. Segregation was very strong, but now people don't really have to think about these things. Back then it was a big topic. Martin Luther King got his idea from Mahatma Gandhi and he also refers a lot to the Russian philosopher Tolstoy. They all get it in the end from the Sermon of the Mount, and basically followed that law which I believe in too. Violence should not be met with violence, having said that, if somebody assaults you on the streets [laughs] you may have to use some self defense in certain circumstances. Those are two different things and I don't believe in warfare. We should try and avoid these things at all cost, nothing good comes from it. Just like not much good came out of the Iraq war, particularly not for America, you know? The total loss of life from this whole ordeal I find incomprehensible. Beyond the Astral Skies was freshly re-released in 2009. Why did you choose this particular album out of your whole catalog to re-release? You know, I don't know why they chose that one. The recording company, EMI, did that by themselves. I think there was a person there who liked it and wanted to re-release it. It was as simple as that. What is your philosophy when you enter the studio to make a record? Do you prefer straight live cuts, or are you heavy in the production, utilizing overdubs, etc.? Each album is different. They all have overdubs because I very much see an album like I would see a painting; using multi-layers and other artistic forms. An album is not a life performance, it is something completely different. To me, it's an art form in its own right. I am always trying to find new ways to record an album. I've learned many things over the years, but I'm still not happy with the process I have to say. You joined the Scorpions (2009) for live shows in France, Greece, Germany and more. How is your relationship with your former band and has there been discussions of a reunion for an album or full international tour? We did do many shows. We started that in 2005 and it's been an ongoing thing. Every year there have been several gatherings of these, but none in the states so far. I think it will happen at some point. Our relationship is just great, we're friends and we get on very well. In 1998, you participated in the group G3 including guitar phenoms Joe Satriani and Michael Schenker. You have also collaborated with many other notable guitarists, for instance Brian May of Queen. What is your most memorable collaboration live or in-studio? Brian May was certainly a very memorable moment now that you mention him. I love the guy and he's just a great person. His playing was excellent that night listening to it on stage. But there were many great moments I've had playing with other people. I love listening to great people on the stage and it's very inspirational. It doesn't always work when guitar players jam together, and some are not really good at. It's a certain type of school to be able to improvise and play well together with someone else. It's not really for everybody. There are some that are really good at it though.

"When I was in my early teens, I picked up the guitar and just got into it so much that it took complete hold of me."

What is your take on the modern hard rock and rock and roll music scene? I'm not really that knowledgeable about it, I have to say. I'm not a person that listens to a lot of music. I find a lot of satisfaction in just making it. There is a lot of talent out there, that's for sure. The actual directions that I'm seeing I have to admit have not really touched me, particularly in the rock scene. I don't know why that is, maybe I'm getting old, but I don't think that's it. I have a certain taste in my mind of how I appreciate music, and I find a lot of rock music, new rock music, rather stale in the approach; meaning too much re-hashing of the same formulae. A lot of guys seem to be stuck in formulae and cannot do much else. It has become a little atrophied as a genre, but that's my own personal take you know [laughs]. Do you think it's just a phase? Maybe it's just a phase, who knows? And I can't speak for everyone because I haven't heard everything, but it is this formula thing I don't like. This approach is very samey and there seems to not be that much risk taking nowadays. For me, rock music has to have a certain element of danger in it. Usually I don't hear that, everything's too sleek and overproduced in a way that I don't like it. My stuff may sound overproduced too, but in the end I'd rather have odd rough edges rather than something that's perfect but boring. You have a great relationship with the Smashing Pumpkins and have performed with them sporadically throughout the past 3 years. They recently announced the release of 44 songs from 'Teargarden by Kaleidyscope' for free. Do you have any involvement in this album? I haven't spoken to Billy in a year or so, so I don't really know what they're doing. I certainly met them a few times and played with them a few times and we have an excellent relationship. I enjoy their company, jamming with Billy is a treat. He's one of the people that are really good at jamming. For instance, we did a television show once in Germany with just him and myself called Through the Night. We spent the entire evening together and part of that was a jam session where we both played together and it was great. Not many people can do that, have two guitars play off the cuff. That's real music without doing the clich thing that I loathe so much. What's the history behind your infamous Sky Guitar? The original idea for the Sky Guitar came to me in the early 80s. I've always been a lover of the Stratocaster. I played them all the time, but the one problem that I had with the Strat (and in fact all electric guitars) is that I tend to run out of frets quite literally. I was used to listening to violin music and classical music. Since I write my guitar solos, even in the Scorpions, very often the logic of the melody I was trying to play demanded a lot of higher notes. So I couldn't get them on the Strat, until I met this guitar builder and asked him to add some extra frets on the guitar for me. He agreed and did such a great job that I was really pleased. And then he said, I can build you any guitar you'd like, and that got me thinking. So I dreamt up this instrument in my mind and that was the Sky Guitar. So he built the first one for me and I've played them ever since. On January 14th of this year you will be releasing the first official limited edition Sky Guitar (Dean Guitars USA) at the NAMM show in Anaheim, California. Why did you decide that now was the appropriate time to release your Sky model to the public? Over the years many people have copied them for their own purposes. Several companies, especially in Japan, put them on the market without my knowledge. I didn't like this because they were very poor copies. They had no access to the originals, it was built from photographs and I played quite a few of these by now and they don't come anywhere close to the original. They're just too difficult to build. They have to be just right in their dimensions. Quite a few companies over the years approached me about producing them, but the timing never felt right. I wasn't even sure if I wanted them on the market. Then I met the owner of Dean Guitars USA and we became good friends. He took me to his custom shop and I saw the work they did which was impressive. The great thing about Dean Guitars was that he said he could do whatever I wanted in terms of doing some new research and taking the Sky to the next level. I wanted to take my Sky Guitar to a new level of research, but my old builder wasn't working anymore. So that's one of the main reasons why we're putting out this guitar now beside the fact that it's been copied left, right and center badly anyways. So I said let's do it right and put it out there for people who might want to have the ability to play all these extra notes and to get these sounds. I have the first prototypes and they're great. They play just like mine because we took computer images and took great care to reproduce them to my specs. We made a few changes, and we'll be at the NAMM show January 14 to do the unveiling with Dean Guitars. You will also be doing a live session as well correct? Yes, we will also have a show the next day at the Grove Theatre which is Uli and friends; we'll have LOTS of guitar players there, even James Kottak from the Scorpions. We'll celebrate the release of the Sky Guitar after all these years. And just to clarify, this is the FIRST time that any official version of the Uli Jon Roth Sky Guitar has been released to the public, correct? Yes, this is the first time it is released. There was one time that I almost released it with a builder in the states, but decided against it. This is definitely the first fully authentic Sky Guitar. I will be playing the same one as the people who order it. It will be limited edition, 50 models, and I will give each one a try myself to make sure everything's right. Each one will have their own separate name as well, since all my instruments have names [laughs].

"I've learned so much from Hendrix's approach and his way of making music."

The Sky Orchestra: How did you come to combine rock music and classical music as you demonstrate within your project the Sky Orchestra? Ever since I got into classical music in my teens, I fell in love with string sounds and the orchestra. This entire way of feeling music is so multidimensional. The sound in rock music can sometimes be very harsh and almost primitive to my ears. Sometimes I like the primitive sound, but the very multicolor sounds you get with an orchestra and all the nuances are something that's always been part of my musical heritage. In rock music it's almost impossible to get to that level. So for me that was the big challenge I wanted to conquer, that sound in music. At the same time, I also wanted to play electric guitar with it. It took me years to really find an approach that I was happy with. It's the hardest thing to have an electric guitar right next to an orchestra. It's truly beauty and the beast, especially when you have modern electric guitars. Guys that play with a lot of overdrive to me sound absolutely horrible when they play with an orchestra because it doesn't gel. I'm always acutely aware of the problems. So when you get it right it works really well, but it's not an easy thing to do. You produce many of your own albums. What enabled you to discover that you don't need a media machine behind you to successfully distribute your music? Well, you see, from the beginning when I was with the Scorpions I always took a huge interest in the production part of it. I was always very hands on in the mixing board and made sure that I was happy with the levels, etc. But I wasn't so happy with the studios we were recording in and I wanted bigger studios with a more ambient sound. To me, it was one of the important factors of having my own project Electric Sun, it gave me the chance to produce myself. I basically learned it by doing it and I certainly made mistakes like on every other artist's album. Back then, I did them as well as I possibly could with my means and my knowledge. The important thing was to always have something, to have every album have its own unique identity and own individual sound. I think it was achieved, although if you would talk to mainstream producers, a lot of them may not be into the way I'm doing things because I don't follow standard rules and I'm not afraid to go completely against the mainstream. If you weren't a guitar player, what would you be doing right now? If you gave me a paintbrush, I would get hooked on painting. I love oil painting, but I never allow myself to get too into it because I love it and it would take up all my time. Philosopher [laughs] probably and I do a lot of that in my Sky Academy which is something we've been doing since 2006 now; teaching students about the metaphysics of music apart from more traditional things. Those things fascinate me to see things hidden deep inside the music and to see where it is all coming from if it is understandable at all. Interview by Jarrod Dicker Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2010
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