10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Uli Jon Roth

June 1, 2007

To those in the know, Uli Jon Roth is an immensely important figurehead of rock guitar. He’s a founding father of neo-classical rock, and a Hendrix devotee who jump-started an up-and-coming but wounded heavy metal band and, over the course of numerous solo projects, evolved into a colossally talented and influential guitarist and arranger.

When Germany’s mighty Scorpions split up after Michael Schenker quit to join UFO in April of 1973, it was Uli Jon Roth (then known as Ulrich Roth) who provided the impetus for the band’s reformation a year later. Roth joined forces with rhythm guitarist Rudolph Schenker (Michael’s older brother) and released four landmark studio albums: Fly to the Rainbow (1974), In Trance (1975), Virgin Killer (1976) and Taken by Force (1977). They followed in 1978 with Tokyo Tapes, the smoking double live album that propelled the Scorps to even greater heights.

After leaving the group in 1978, Roth formed Electric Sun and released three records before embarking on a solo career that produced several albums over the course of a decade, most notably Transcendental Sky Guitar Vol. I & II. Roth assembled the Sky Orchestra to channel his love of both bluesy Hendrix stylings and classical music and reached a pinnacle with 2003’s Metamorphosis, which contains his astounding, virtuoso-guitar performance and arrangement of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

But despite his penchant for “old” music, Roth doesn’t dwell on the past. In fact, his official Web site, ulijonroth.com (a fantastic source for all things Uli), divides the wunderkind’s discography into three distinct periods (Scorpions, Electric Sun, and UJR albums), and states in no uncertain terms that while many fans love his first two periods, these are stylistically “not at all representative of where Uli’s musical mind is now.” In order to keep everyone happy, I’ve included roughly equal amounts of musical examples from Roth’s first and third periods, so don your headband and get ready to rock. First, you’ve gotta ...


1: Embrace the Masters

Listen to any of his recordings, and it’s obvious that Roth practiced his ass off in order to achieve such stellar chops and phenomenal control of his instrument. Roth grew up on a steady diet of Jimi Hendrix, but he learned much about tone production from listening to classical guitar maestros Andres Segovia and Julian Bream. At 17, Roth had a vision that prompted him to take up the violin: “I dreamt of writing a violin concerto, and ever since then, I’ve tried to find a way to bring classical music into the present.” The journey led Roth to study the classical masters and their masterpieces, including the music of Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, and Vivaldi, and blend these sounds with Hendrix’s cosmic blues excursions to create a new hybrid of musical genres. In turn, Roth assimilated this knowledge into his original compositions, and eventually became a primary inspiration for a young Yngwie Malmsteen. And so the torch is passed.


2: To Thine Own Self Be True

Roth is as artistically motivated as they come. In order to pursue his own musical vision, he left the Scorps when they had never been bigger, despite the huge paychecks looming in the future. He got almost no credit for his influence on neo-classical shred and yet he shows nary a trace of bitterness, telling GP in 2001, “In the ’80s, classically influenced playing moved into corporate rock, and that just wasn’t my world. If I wanted to be recognized in that genre, I would have stayed in the Scorpions.” And Roth is still rocking his plumed hats, suede boots, and headbands in righteous defiance of popular trends.


3: Make the Most of What You’ve Got

A Fender Stratocaster cranked through an old 100-watt Marshall Super Lead Tremolo was Roth’s voice throughout his tenure with the Scorps: “Back then, I didn’t have any gadgets or gizmos. There were no digital devices that produced the instant overkill sound. I was forced to take a Strat, a Marshall, and maybe a wah pedal and find a way to forge my tone into something special.” Eventually, Roth added various other amps to his rig, mixing in a Vox AC30, a Fender Twin, Fender speaker cabs, a custom prototype “Sky” amp, and his current favorite—a Framus Dragon into a Marshall 4x12. He employs a Pete Cornish-designed multi-amp switching system, close and distant miking (“I always record with a minimum of six to eight mics.”), and generally plugs straight into his amps, although he occasionally injects an old Roland Space Echo into the signal chain “for a gentle delay.” He prefers Thomastik-Infeld strings, but is “forever experimenting with gauges.” Roth still loves his old Strats, but states “I don’t play them as lead instruments anymore.” Why? Read on...


4: Create a Beautiful Monster

Described at ulijonroth.com as “an instrument of pure magic, which has become a legend in its own right” and “renowned for its incredible range, singing tone, and sheer beauty of design,” the revolutionary Sky Guitar (dubbed “Mighty Wing”) was designed by Roth and crafted by master luthier Andreas Demetrion in the mid ’80s. In the April 2001 issue of GP, Roth revealed that “there are five Sky guitars in existence—three 6-strings and two 7-strings. The 7-strings have a low B and a range of over five-and-a-half octaves. When you have more than 30 frets, it gets very awkward to play in the upper register, so one is actually fretless at the top. On another, I space the frets out in whole-tone increments. The fretboards are scalloped, which is a hindrance for playing rhythm, but I definitely prefer a scalloped neck for single-note work.” Roth’s Megawing pickups, built by Trident mixing-board designer John Oram, sport four coils and incredible output in both humbucking and single-coil modes. “I even have one of the pickups mounted under the fretboard at the 24th fret. These are unique instruments.” To say the least!



5: Get Your Trip(lets) Together

From growling rhythm figures to blinding arpeggios and scale runs, Roth’s mastery of sixteenth-note triplets has been apparent since his first recordings with the Scorpions. This pair of excerpts pulled from the live version of “Dark Lady” (Tokyo Tapes) contains all three variations: The low-register verse riff in Ex. 1a combines sixteenth-note triplets with a half-note and several eighth-notes, while the very violinistic arpeggios and repetitive scale motif in Ex. 1b comprise a full bar-and-a-half of unbroken triplets before concluding with a singing high-E overbend and drop to a bluesy, open-position bend. (Tip: Milk the release of that final bend slowly over an entire measure. Mmm ... Hendrix-y.)


6 Commune with Others

More rollicking sixteenth-note triplets—this time in tandem with Rudolph Schenker—permeate our next “Dark Lady” excerpt (Ex. 2). Follow the written repeat, replacing the lower harmonies in each part with the upper ones beginning on the and of beat two, then repeat the whole shebang one octave higher by simply adding 12 frets to all tab numbers. (Tip: With minimal rearranging, it’s possible for a single guitarist to play both parts at the same time.) Listen to the recording and you’ll hear both guitarists jump to higher inversions as the track progresses. Put your ears to work and figure ’em out.


7: Stay Grounded

One thing that sets Roth far ahead of the Baroque-and-roll crowd is his deep understanding and admiration of the music and guitar style of Jimi Hendrix. Roth has a true knack for incorporating Hendrix-influenced moves like the ones in Ex. 3 into his own neo-classical runs. After an initial overbend to F# and the subsequent milking of a practically patented Hendrix maneuver—a simultaneous B-string bend and G-string pre-bend, followed by a gradual release of the latter—Roth adds his own touch via a tapped-bend and pull-off, and a gradual release in the second half of bar 3.


8: Reach for the Sky

Baroque genius Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons—a series of four violin concerti intended to depict the passage of spring, summer, fall, and winter—stands as one of the most popular works ever written, largely due to its crowd-pleasing combination of virtuosic violin writing and exhilarating orchestral effects. Each concerto features the first violin as the lead voice and is divided into three movements, each identified by both tempo and title. It’s a demanding work, and many of its notes are out of range on a standard electric guitar, but Roth was up for the challenge: “I can only play Vivaldi on the Sky guitar—it’s the only guitar that gives me easy access to the violin range.” Since none of us owns one, I’ve arranged a pair of upper-register Sky-guitar excerpts culled from Roth’s recording of The Four Seasons for standard guitar played through an electronic pitch transposer set one octave higher. In the event that you actually have a guitar with an extended fretboard—say a Danelectro Longhorn-style mandoguitar—simply add 12 frets to all tab numbers and have at it. If not, just tackle ’em an octave lower, as written. Regarding problematic passages in the piece, Roth wisely points out that “the phrasing is the most important thing. My fingering is usually dictated by the phrasing I choose, and good fingering has beautiful logic.”
The lively 6/8 Allegro in Ex. 4a comes from the third movement of the first concerto, and is meant to portray a merry shepherd’s dance. Technically, it’s five bars of a descending C# minor scale sequence followed by a Im-V transition (bars 6-9) to the perky melody in bars 10 and 11, but it’s Roth’s combination of staccato and slurred legato phrasing that brings the whole thing to life. The chord symbols and parenthetical bass notes provide a skeletal harmonic outline. Ex. 4b’s furiously fast C minor arpeggios and C harmonic minor scale runs represent the incisive, bone-chilling gusts of winter from the season’s first movement, “Ice, Wind & Fire” (Allegro non molto). Brrrr!


9: Boldly Go Where No Guitar Has Gone Before

Recording Metamorphosis was a personal triumph for Roth: “For the first time, I went to a place where the guitar hasn’t been before—a place where you don’t know whether you’re listening to an electric guitar or a violin. I’ve always wanted to find a guitar sound that can blend with an orchestra, and now I’ve found it.” Two more excerpts from the remaining seasons, both of which fall in the guitar’s normal pitch range, further illustrate Roth’s uncanny ability to create violinistic phrasing, even within standard guitar limitations. In Ex. 5a, his descending G minor arpeggios, trilled intervals, and rapid scale ascensions from the Presto, or third movement of summer, (also known as “Tuona e Fulmina,” or “The Tempest”) create a vivid picture of a sudden summer rainstorm. Vivaldi’s outer, or third Allegro for Autumn (“Artemis”) was written in the spirit of a lively chase, and is well represented in Ex. 5b by Roth’s blinding string of dominant-to-tonic arpeggios giving way to the less furious and uniquely phrased melody in bars 8 and 9. To the hunt!


10: Sail the High Seas

If there’s one classic UJR riff you gotta know, it’s his madcap intro to “The Sails of Charon,” from the Scorpions’ Taken by Force. Commencing over a swinging (yes, swinging), almost tribal bass drum and hi-hat groove, Roth’s “where’s one?” single-note figure (Ex. 6a) begins with a pickup on the and of beat two and does its mad dance between B Phrygian (B, C, D, E, F#, G, A) and B Phrygian Dominant (B, C, D#, E, F#, G, A) until the swing sixteenths transition to straight ones at the start of the accented octave riff midway through bar 7. In bars 8 and 9, Roth’s octaves are joined by Schenker’s root/5 power chords for a two-bar B Phrygian rhythm figure labeled “Rhy. Fig. 1,” which also serves as the backdrop for the next two excerpts. (Roth goes on to superimpose additive and subtractive C and B barre-chord inversions, plus a lone D chord [bar 9, beat four] over the same rhythm in the measures that follow.) Ex. 6b maps out the B Phrygian dominant run laced with chromatic passing tones that occurs during the second half of Roth’s first call-and-response phrase at 0:45. Finally, the choice of fingering in Ex. 6c’s descending B Phrygian/B Phrygian Dominant sequence perfectly illustrates Roth’s “beautiful logic,” even though it was recorded nearly 30 years before he coined the term in GP! Our voyage concludes with more Q-and-A action that contrasts sparse, lengthy notes with a finger-twisting spree through some slippery octave displacements. So now you know! Danke schön und auf Wiedersehen.


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