Uli Jon Roth has enjoyed a long an distinguished career playing the guitar, both as a member of Scorpions and also as a solo act, playing his signature 36-fret 7-string Sky Guitar. We interviewed him during his current tour, The Ultimate Guitar Experience Tour with Jennifer Batten and Andy Timmons.
You’ve been playing an extended range guitar for many years now, and even with extended range being all the rage these days, yours is unique. What first led you to want to go beyond what was offered by mainstream guitars?
Well, it was the range! The mainstream Stratocaster that I used to play went up to about C# at best – it just didn’t have enough frets for me because I wanted to play higher than that. At some point I had the idea to add two extra frets to the Strat which put it to the maximum before you reach the pickup, and that worked very well. From them on, the next step was to create an entire new guitar that had the ability to play into the higher octaves. That was the beginning of the Sky guitar, from them on everything worked out pretty quickly. All that happened in the early 80’s.
Do you ever plan on making a budget model of the Sky guitar available?
I don’t know how “budget” it could get because it’s a very complicated guitar to build well, but we have thought about making it more affordable and maybe putting out a mainstream model. However, that’s not yet on the horizon. I have no idea when that would be, but it would probably be an all-American kind of guitar built by Dean.
What does your rig look like these days? Are you using anything new or different from your past setups?
Not really, I tend to have a couple stalwart favorite effects that I use such as the Digitech Whammy… I love that… also Carbon Copy for delay and a couple of others. Most of the time I tend to stay with the same set up but I do try new pedals now and then. My main amp on the stage is still the Artisan 100 by Blackstar but I have added a smaller amp called the Blug Amp created by Thomas Blug in Germany. He built an amazing road-savvy amp which only weighs a couple pounds. It packs a punch. It can’t replace the Blackstar but it compliments certain things. I’m using it for my acoustic guitar live, and a few others on our tour are using it right now, including Jennifer Batten. My guitarists are using Blug Amps as well.
Do you have a favorite effects pedal?
My favorite is probably the Digitech Whammy pedal, which I use more in a creative sense. I’m not using it all that often during the show but, when I use it, I always find it very interesting to see what comes out. It’s different every night, I love it. It’s like a magic box.
What do you think of the state of guitar music today?
I might not be a good judge of that, although I do meet very talented young guitar players through Sky Academy and through international competitions that I’m involved in as a judge. I know there’s plenty of talent out there, but there’s so much going on, it’s harder for the new talent nowadays. They don’t get enough opportunities to play live in front of an audience, unless you’re on a platform like YouTube, which I think is not so great… I find it deplorable because when I was growing up we played real gigs in front of real people, without having to pay for them. Now it’s much harder when you’re up and coming.
Where do you think it’ll go next?
I’m not qualified to say where it’ll go next, however I’m more qualified to say where I’d like to see it go next. I would hope that younger players don’t get too caught up in a hot pursuit of empty technique and start connecting more deeply with music rather than with just the guitar itself. By music, I don’t mean listening to songs, I mean actually trying to understand what music is and how music works. Try to understand the laws of music and the meaning behind the laws. I think if more players would do that, we would end up with greater guitar solos! . I want to see more originality. It’s perfectly OK to learn from predecessors – I did the same – but there’s a point where it becomes important to create your own voice and bring something different to the table.
Who are some of your favorite modern day players?
I’m on tour with Andy Timmons and Jennifer Batten and they’re both great in their own way. I really enjoy playing with them. They both have their own style and they’re both unique, and that’s what I love about them – they have their own voice.
Two weeks ago, I was on The Monsters of Rock cruise in the Bahamas. Steve Vai was there, he’s a friend of mine, and he played a track that was so beautiful. I like a lot of the guitarists that have already made a name for themselves, most of them deservedly so in my book. They’re great players – David Gilmore is one of the greats, I’m looking forward to Richie Blackmore back on the scene playing electric – that should be exciting because he’s one of the greats. Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Schenker… there are several I haven’t named.
There’s a lot of talent out there, a lot of developing younger players. I only wish they had more of an organic platform. I’m not so fond of the YouTube platform. It kind of works but it’s also kind of superficial – it doesn’t feel like the real thing to me.
Do you have any advice for aspiring guitarists on developing a unique signature style?
…Signature style, it’s something that needs to come from within at first. Some players have it almost from day one when they touch the guitar – it’s a thing that never leaves them and gets stronger as they mature. With others, it’s something that needs some searching and time to develop. Part of the key to success here is in your listening abilities and your imagination. I think it’s very important, from the beginning, to use your imagination… to really produce a sound in your mind that you want to hear, or a style or a way of playing. You know like, before you’re even playing, to have an idea of where you want to go and then go for it. In my experience, the people who really have that signature style or tone, they have a vision and inner drive. They have a vision of the sound they want to achieve and they go after that. So, the next step is to find a way to create that sound and become the player you want to – that’s a whole different ballgame again, but it’s all interconnected. It’s not the easiest thing to achieve, that’s maybe why there are so few people who have achieved it, but it’s definitely possible.
You utilize a lot of blues sounds in your playing. Who are some essential blues players for new listeners to get into?
When I was younger, in my teens, I played a lot of blues. I was certainly most inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton – although I wouldn’t call them blues players though, they incorporate it but they go beyond the blues. A real “pure blues player” would be B.B. King, his timing with single notes was unbelievable. His approach to the whole feeling of blues hasn’t been surpassed. Eric Clapton of course can do the same, but he took blues into a totally different realm with Cream.
There are great blues players out there nowadays. We just played House of Blues in New Orleans, we were walking the street and there were several cafes with really good blues players sitting right there. There was a guy, whose name I don’t know in a Café right next to the House of Blues, he was not a known “name” kind of guy, but he played outside there all day and he really sounded like the cream of the crop. Just playing for hours, right next to our bus. Each time we walked by he was still playing and singing, and it sounded like the real deal. The gist of that story is that while in the olden days, competent playing of the blues was rather the exception, nowadays there are a lot of people playing the blues that are very competent, playing very well, nothing extra.
You’ve been in bands, and you’ve been a solo performer – what do you see as the benefits of one over the other?
It’s a big difference. The band is, in many respects, much easier because you don’t have the pressure of being a bandleader and all that goes with it, because leading bands isn’t an easy job most of the time because there are so many other things that come into it, like people management, logistics and whatnot. When you’re in a band and just a band member, its way less pressure on the single individual because you’re part of a group. You’re sharing the load.
I think it takes a special type of person or psychological make-up to do the solo artist thing and do it successfully. If you don’t have that, you shouldn’t even attempt to begin to go there. It’s a lot more difficult than being in a band. I enjoy it, because I enjoy challenges. I think if I were in a band like I used to be, I’d probably be bored… I like to be challenged (sometimes over-challenged)… it brings out the best in me, or sometimes the worst, depending on what happens! I just like lots of input and things happening and things not being static – when you’re your own bandleader you can do your own thing, unless you’re hiding behind your manager, but that approach never really works. And most artists I know who are solo artists – although some do hide behind their managers – but most are very in control of what they’re doing, and that’s really the only way it works smoothly.
What is your warmup routine like before a show?
You really want to know? There’s none whatsoever. I don’t warm up, I just grab the guitar, put on my headband, I walk out there, and that’s it. I’ve never been one for warm ups, for me it takes away from the spontaneity of the gig. I also don’t like to play songs twice in a row. It needs to be fresh for the show.
You’re on tour now – what can your fans expect from your shows on this one?
We are doing a 3-hour plus long integrated show called the “Ultimate Guitar Experience”. We have a great band with us, altogether like nine people on stage, not all at the same time but it’s a real nice show we’re putting on. We have the extremely talented Andy Timmons on guitar and the fabulous Jennifer Batten on guitar. Both play their own individual sets, then I play my set, and at the end we have an extended get-together with all three of us playing with the band. Each night we play something different – the songs are the same but we’re constantly pushing the envelope there. It’s a great pleasure to play with these two because they’re both really good improvisers and we’re exploring various tunes together every night. For me, and for all of us, that’s the highlight of the show. So far it’s really working out nicely and the audience leaves happy every night.
Also we’re trying something new here for the first time which is a pre-show VIP event, which enables a VIP purchaser to attend a different kind of sound check – I’m rehearsing material for my new album with the band onstage. So they get to hear all new songs and get an insight into how we’re rehearsing and hear the new material before it’s even recorded. For me that was an interesting idea because first of all, when you play songs in front of the audience, I always feel it adds something to the quality of the songs and to the development. So I like that aspect of it. The other thing is, it actually forces us to rehearse the stuff, and that is something which is always difficult to find time for.
Thanks so much for having me on Gear Gods, see you on the road!
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