Uli Jon Roth is a pioneer, a visionary, and explorer who has put his fifty year career in the service of art and music. A key member of The Scorpions during their rise in the 1970s, he's also one of the most influential rock guitarists of all time. Preparing an assault on the U.K. with an extensive tour, he's also looking back with the reissue of a brace of Electric Sun albums. We sat down with Uli for an extended chat about his time with the German rock giants, the evolution of his playing, and his memories of the bombastic 1970s. In trance; Eamon O'Neill.
Hi Uli, how are you and what have you been up to today?
I'm great. I'm in my studio doing a little bit of work. I'm doing various things side by side; preparing a set for the new tour that's upcoming in November, new content that's basically new tracks that we're going to play, apart from all the other ones. So that needs some looking after and preparing.
There's been talk of a new studio album.
Yeah, I've been doing recordings in Germany in the studio of Dieter Dierks, who we used to do our Scorpions recordings back then. That's been going really well. Rather than actually release a whole physical album, we're aiming for releasing blocks of say, three pieces at a time. It seems to be the done thing now.
So you're looking at digital release, rather than physical?
No, no, no, we're going to also do album releases, but for it to be a mixture of things, you know?
You're working with Dieter Dierks again, and that's very exciting for anyone who knows anything about your history.
Yeah, he's quite a legend. We've worked on and off over the last couple of years. We've been doing some stuff in Cologne. Just recently, I've been there recording guitars, but he wasn't part of those sessions because he was recovering from an operation, so I did this myself with his sound engineer. We recorded lots of guitars, and I've just finished editing them. I'm very happy with the results, and we're going to play two of those tracks that we recorded on the upcoming tour.
It sounds like you have big plans for this U.K. tour.
Yeah, I am looking forward to the U.K. because I always really liked playing here. It is my home just as much as Germany, and in some ways more so, so, yeah, I always enjoy touring the U.K.
Do you remember the first U.K. tour that you did with the Scorpions back in the early '70s.
I completely remember. It was working, the experience, and it was a great time. I remember it very fondly. It was actually following our 'In Trance' recording in 1975. It was one of the tours right after the album and track recordings. It was pretty much like now, in the late autumn, coming up to November. It was quite an extensive tour because we already had a buzz going with the fans, which spilled over from Germany. We had quite a cult following already.
It sounds like that first tour was an exciting one.
Yeah, when we played the Marquee Club for the first time, it was packed, and I particularly remember the very first night on that tour, because we had just played in Germany, and then we had to travel all the way in our old Mercedes bus which also carried all our equipment in. It was a really slow machine, which I often drove myself. We had to cross the ferry then we had to drive up through London, all the way up to Liverpool. We arrived in the evening at the club, and there was nobody there and no way to get it. We weren't familiar with the ways of British clubs, and it was none other than the Cavern Club, the Beatles club. Of course, Klaus Meine [Scorpions front man] and I were big Beatles fans, so that was quite something.
I'm glad you mentioned 'In Trance', because a look at the album credits reveals you wrote a lot of material for the album; you really established yourself, didn't you?
It was kind of a natural development. Music poured out of me, and I started to become a writer. Before, I hadn't written that much and yes, suddenly, I had all these ideas and I just brought them to the rehearsal and the band liked it. So those become the songs, and you're right; on 'Fly to the Rainbow' , I was still coming to grips with being in a band like that, so I hadn't written a lot yet. But that changed from 'In Trance' onwards, and on 'Virgin Killer' , I had like, half of the material.
Was it a diplomatic process getting your share of material on the albums?
It was never difficult for us to decide which songs we'd get to do or not because we didn't think in terms of; "hey, this is my song, and this is your song". We didn't think like that, luckily, because a lot of bands fall into that trap where they personalise these things and then there's a lot of politics and internal power struggles. We never had any of that. It was very easy-going and smooth, and we just put our best foot forward. We were a very, very good team. That's why I remember looking back with fond memories of that time. There was never any clash of personalities, and there was never any envy or rivalry or what have you. Most bands suffer from that, and we never did.
'The 'Virgin Killer' album was where you seemed to really reach your peak as a band.
Yeah, actually, you're right, because that was kind of like a real peak. I remember the summer of '76, in fact, I think that was the hottest summer, particularly here in the U.K., but also in Germany, and that's when we recorded the album. We had a lot of new ideas, and were pushing the envelope with that one. So it was a lot more in your face than 'In Trance', and there were no holds barred. We set a new standard for ourselves, I would say. Also, simultaneously as a live band, we started getting better and better all the time. The 'In Trance' tour in '75 was good, but then in '76 and '77, we went up a notch with each other, playing wise, and the songs got better, and then the attendances got better. It was like a runaway train that was kind of unstoppable.
That continued into 'Taken by Force' in 1978, which contained the classic 'Sails of Charon'.
I knew I was onto something with that one because it was new in more ways than one. The guitar was quite new for what had been done on the electric before; you know, flamenco influences. I think that was also a bit different, although I didn't really get that. I mean, nobody pointed that out, but to me, it was very clear. But yeah, it just came together. I wrote the song at home and then I think we did a demo, and we ended up really just being two people in the studio doing it because I also played the bass and all the rhythm guitars on that one. So it was just the drummer Herman [Rarebell] and myself, and well, of course, Klaus Meine on vocals.
So you played all of the guitars, all the stringed instruments on the original recording of that song?!
Very, very often on my songs, most of the time I did all the guitars, except for on the very early albums. You know, Rudolph [Schenker] never minded that. They were a little tricky to play for him maybe, because he had a different style. Live, he coped admirably, but in the studio, it was quicker when I did it myself, like, you know; 'Polar Nights' and all these kinds of tracks though 'Yellow Raven'; it was a lot quicker to do it myself.
Is it true that you left the band because they wanted to go in a more commercial direction?
No. The actual reason was that I developed as a writer and as a musician in a way that I felt I needed a different kind of platform and more freedom. Yes, the Scorpions framework was a certain framework which allowed for something like 'Sails of Charon', say, but I started writing stuff like 'Earthquake', you know, 'Japanese Dream', and those were songs that had no business being in Scorpions. But that's what I wanted to do; I wanted to do those kinds of things, so for me, it was actually a relatively easy decision, because I was not so much driven by thinking about success; I was just purely driven by my artistic impulses, and they went contrary to where the Scorpions were going.
So it was the desire to do something different that led to your departure from the Scorpions?
I liked being in the Scorpions, and so we had a great time. There was nothing personal about it; it was just a purely artistic decision. It's something I had to do. I could have - theoretically - stayed in there and done both; like people do solo albums on the side. I mean, the band would have been fine with that, but I felt that the Electric Sun idea needed my full attention, and I didn't want to overstretch myself doing both things, and one of them maybe half-heartedly, I have to say. Nowadays, I could do it; I would be able to do both of these things side by side, but back then I wasn't as versatile as I am now, and as experienced. I thought I could bite off more than I could chew if I did both.
The first Electric Sun albums are being reissued.
'Earthquake'  has just been printed, and 'Fire Wind'  is coming out too. They're coming out on my very own label, which is called Alpha Experion. We're going to release my entire back catalogue because a lot of that stuff has not been available in proper releases for some years. I have to admit, it's also due to the fact that I didn't really care that much about my back catalogue for many years. I was more interested in writing new stuff, so I was a little self-inflicted because record companies did ask me; "can we please put out those in a perfectly remastered edition?", and I always was dragging my feet not wanting to go back into that. But recently I've discovered for myself that I do enjoy looking back at these releases and bringing them up to scratch again. We remastered everything from the original master tapes and put great love and care into getting it right. The same with the artwork, by giving it a new look befitting the overall concept, and putting some unreleased bonus things in there.
You're associated with the Sky Guitar, which is an absolute work of art, but when you look back to say 'In Trance', when you were using a Stratocaster, do you even recognise yourself? Do you recognise you're playing, or are you a different player?
I completely recognise myself. I am slightly different because I think I've progressed and I'm more versatile. My palette of playing has more colours than it used to have, but no, no, that's me alright. When we play them songs live, I tend to stick to the original lead patterns and compositions, just like I wrote them back then, largely, although I've augmented a few things. When you listen to 'We'll Burn the Sky', for instance, I've written in new guitar parts. I've just added the fireworks, maybe, but the spirit of the songs is the same. Playing like, 'Catch Your Train', I'm pretty much doing it note for note because it was pretty definitive when I did it the first time, so why change something that I can find fault with? Some of the stuff from the past I do find fault with and I think; "oh, I should have done that, or could have done that", and then sometimes we do tinker with the stuff and give it a slightly new costume, so to speak.
You were a huge influence on Eddie Van Halen, Kirk Hammett, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani, some of the biggest guitar players on the planet; have you met all of those guys, and what does it mean to you?
I have met most of them. I didn't get to meet Eddie, for some reason, because our paths didn’t cross because when they were big in America, I was in England minding my own business and not really being a part of the scene. But all the others you've mentioned, I've either toured with them, or played with them, or met them or hung out with them. Yeah, it's nice to get this kind of recognition. I guess it's a natural progression because I was one of the early ones; not as early as Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, but I was literally one of the generation immediately afterwards, like, five to six, or seven years later. I guess I'm still one of the few dinosaurs who’s been on the stage in the '60s, actually! I played my first concert in 1968, and there's not many of us around who can still produce that old sound and that old tone from back then.
As you stated, you left the Scorpions for artistic reasons, but what was it like when you saw them explode into this massive stadium act in America in the 1980s?
It all passed me by because in the '80s, I was in my own creative bubble in the south of England near Brighton, and I didn't take much notice of what was going on in America and with the corporate rock scene. I heard the Scorpions were successful, but I didn't really follow up on any of it. I didn't really listen to any of the albums etc. It was a part of my life, which back then, I had left completely behind. I just did my own thing and was quite content in my own Electric Sun bubble which lasted till 1985. Then in 1986, I started to go purely into the classical realm, starting to write concertos and stuff like that, and that occupied me for many years. Then I was even further removed from that mainstream, and quite frankly, back then if I think back what did I feel like, I kind of chuckled and I thought; "well they're doing fine", but it didn't really interest me. Maybe it sounds a little weird, but I had my own life and that was fine. I didn't have any desire.
You did perform with the Scorpions again along with Michael Schenker in 2006; how did that come about, and what was it like when you were up there?
At a time when we did a series of well, you might call them 'reunion shows' or whatever, we did about twenty of these festivals and tours in England, Greece, France, wherever, where I was guesting with the Scorpions, and sometimes Michael was there as well. I think it was the idea of a French promoter. There was a festival in France in 2005, and that was the first one. We played together, and I opened up the show with my band, and then I joined the Scorpions for five tracks or something like that, and then went great. It felt really good, and then afterwards, we did quite a few more over the years.
Would you like to do it again at some point?
Well, it sometimes happens. We haven't done it for a few years. I think the last time was in Japan. You know, nothing is planned at the moment. I think they have their current, certain [touring] pattern, and they follow that, and they do their shows. I think it wouldn't really fit into their programme to bring me in. It's just too different.
What is your favourite Scorpions album??
Ah, it used to be 'Virgin Killer', definitely for the sheer great creativity of the output, and 'In Trance', so I guess those two. some of the stuff on 'Taken by Force' as well.
Back to the present day, and obviously, you're looking forward to the tour and you've got the reissues coming out; it's exciting times for you, isn't it?
Yeah, I'm really, really busy all of the time. We did a string of festivals over the summer in various countries and we're going to do that again next year. After this U.K. tour, we're doing some European shows in the beginning of the year, and that's followed by a really extensive North American tour for one and a half months. I'm also working on all these releases, and that's pretty much it.
Like this interview? Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for regular updates & more of the same.
2023 U.K. tour dates
Mon 20th Nov Globe - Cardiff
Tue 21st Nov KK’s Steel Mill - Wolverhampton
Wed 22nd Nov Corporation - Sheffield
Thu 23rd Nov Key - Leeds
Fri 24th Nov Troon - Winterstorm Festival
Sun 26th Nov Riverside - Newcastle
Mon 27th Nov Canvas - Manchester
Tue 28th Nov Garage - London
Wed 29th Nov Craufurd Arms - Milton Keynes