I take off tomorrow for the hot and humid climate of Miami where I will catch some hot and heavy Scorps shows. I'm definitely looking forward to the hang and the opportunity to talk to all the guys. I'm especially psyched to pick the brains of Rudolf and Matthias, check out their gear, and have them demonstrate some tunes and techniques. I really want to see how they do their respective things up close. Even in this job, it's not every day that I get to witness that sort of thing. It all got me thinking about the last time I talked to those two, which was back in the December 2007 issue of GP for their Humanity Hour 1 record. Here is that conversation—a blast from the not too distant past. I loved hearing Rudolf talk about some of his favorite bands for rhythm guitar and I was fascinated by Mathias' mini-lesson on vibrato. Enjoy!
By Matt Blackett
They say that after a nuclear blast, the only animal hearty enough to still be around is the cockroach. But given the longevity, tenacity, and survival instincts of the famed German metal band the Scorpions, maybe we should think about adding that stinging arachnid to the list. The Scorps have been making records for 35 years now, and the current two-guitar assault of founder Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs has been in place since 1978’s Lovedrive. What they’ve delivered in the meantime is crunching, rock-solid riffs and dazzling solos, worked into anthemic rockers and powerful ballads—one of which, “Winds of Change,” became the defacto theme song to the toppling of the Berlin Wall. They’ve now teamed with über-producer Desmond Child to create their latest album, Humanity Hour 1 [New Door/BMG].
Did you go into the making of this album with any particular vision or direction?
Schenker: We definitely didn’t want to make an album just to prove that we were still alive. We wanted to make a modern sounding record without losing our old fans—which is really difficult because rock fans are very conservative. But we really wanted something that could be a milestone in our career. The only way to do that is to have a great producer who could really lift us up. We met with some producers, and Desmond Child was the best fit. He had a vision. He said that our song “Winds of Change” was the soundtrack to the most beautiful revolution of the last century. It would be great to do a concept album based on the idea of humanity. From a composing standpoint it was great, because Desmond has his team and that allowed us to get a different view on writing from Desmond, James Michael, Eric Bazilian, John 5, and Marti Fredriksen.
What kind of input did they give you about guitar tones?
Schenker: James Michael worked as a second producer, and he was in charge of guitar, bass, and drums and Desmond concentrated on vocals and the overall view. For James, the most important part is that the attitude comes across in the guitars. Even in the ballads, the attitude has to be there. As far as tones, it wasn’t a problem getting the sounds he was looking for.
The two of you have always gotten sounds that complement one another. Is that difficult?
Jabs: It has worked since day one and we never really planned it. My sound is where his frequencies aren’t happening. I have more upper mids in my tone and Rudolf gets a bit more bottom end. When we play live it always just works out. We do pay a lot of attention to it in the studio, though. To make sure the rhythm tone and lead tone aren’t clashing we might EQ one sound all out of shape to make room. And, of course, soloing in the same register as the rhythm doesn’t make much sense.
The guitars in the opening song, “Hour 1,” are tuned down to C#. What’s your approach to playing in a tuning that low?
Jabs: I’m playing an Explorer-style guitar from a German builder named Boris Domenget. It’s a long-scale instrument so it behaves better than my Gibsons when I tune down. I don’t really do anything different with the amp—I still plug into my Fender Prosonics.
Schenker: I just use heavier strings on my Flying V. I mostly used my Engl amps on this record.
You were both Marshall guys back in the day. What do you like about your new amps?
Jabs: I always used a 50-watt Marshall. I had one that had been modded with an effects loop and I put an old Echoplex in the loop. I wanted the echo but it never really worked. But it had a preamp in it and for some reason when I plugged it in, the amp was a bit hotter. I bought a few others but it only worked with this one Echoplex. It added the extra little bit of distortion, which was welcome at the time. Then in the late-’80s I went to Soldano amps and I still have those. But the Fender Prosonics give me the same thing as my Marshalls with just a little extra. They made a head and a combo and I use the combos, although I take them out of their cabinets and put them in my rack. But the Prosonic combos have an extra tube—half is for the spring reverb and half is for tone—and it makes all the difference in the sound.
Schenker: The Engls never break down—the construction is just unbelievable. I also used a Deizel amp in the studio and that’s the first amp I’ve ever heard where, when you turn the knobs, you can hear the tone change with every millimeter.
Who plays the acoustic parts on “Love Is War”?
Jabs: That’s me. I played a 12-string Taylor and a 1952 Gibson J-45. The electric tones are a Les Paul into two Line 6 Pods. You have to use two—they only sound good if you combine them. Then I reamped the tracks through a Marshall. The tone was good to begin with but we wanted to give it some extra meat and reamping did the job.
The rhythm guitars in “The Game of Life” have a real edge to them.
Schenker: I thought the guitars in that song were sounding too technical, too edited. I like edited guitars but not when they start sounding like synthesizers. The way it ended up, the guitars are modern but it still sounds like me.
Matthias, you’re regarded as a lead guitarist. What’s your view of rhythm guitar?
Jabs: With two guitarists in a band, people need some way to describe them, but I always play rhythm. One thing I started doing in the late ’80s—around Savage Amusement—is to play power chords with the fifth lower than the root. So, if you’re playing an E at the 7th fret of your A string, you’ll play the B below it at the 7th fret of the E string. It adds something and makes it sound bigger. Most of the rhythms on the new album are done this way.
Rudolf, you’re a rhythm stylist, but you do play solos. How do you see the two roles?
Schenker: When I played with Uli Jon Roth, his playing was so amazing that it made me really want to play good solos too. He told me that it’s better to be a great rhythm guitarist than a bad lead guitarist, and he was right. But I did play the solos on “Always Somewhere,” “Holiday,” and “Coast to Coast” with my brother on Lovedrive. I played the lead on “Lady Starlight” on Animal Magnetism and “Big City Nights” and “Still Loving You” from Love at First Sting. Whoever comes up with the idea plays it. I did the solo on “Winds of Change.” I’m always coming up with something and if it’s good, it stays. But the rhythm is still the most important thing. If the rhythm guitar is really grooving with the drums, you’re in good shape. A good example is Rage Against the Machine—those riffs are great. AC/DC is amazing too.
The song “The Future Never Dies” from the latest album has some trademark Matthias Jabs bends and vibrato. You really take your time getting a note up to pitch. Where does that come from?
Jabs: I remember when I had been playing about six months, I read an interview with Eric Clapton and he was talking about how vibrato and bending should be as slow as possible. I thought about that a lot. I always hated it when I would hear someone play and his vibrato sounded like a goat [makes hilarious bleating goat noise]. I was only 14 years old but I would have to leave the room almost puking. So I worked hard to get my bends and vibrato the way I wanted them. First of all, it’s in the rhythm of the song. Secondly, it’s as slow as possible. I used to slow records down to learn songs and at half speed I could really hear the rhythm of the vibrato.
You guys have been at this a long time. Is it still fun for you?
Schenker: It has been a long time. The ’90s weren’t so great for us because of grunge and alt. We had to find our way through it, which we did by doing something experimental like Eye 2 Eye and Moment of Glory with the Berlin Philharmonic. Making a new album now is really not as exciting as it was in the ’80s, but we felt it was important. The challenge was to create a new, modern record without going too far, and we did that. If you listen to this record you definitely still hear the Scorpions sound.