Lead Stinger: Uli Jon Roth Celebrates the Scorpions on Their 40th Anniversary

In the Golden Era of mid-to-late-'70s live records, the Scorpions released Tokyo Tapes, a double album that represented the culmination of Uli Jon Roth’s five-year tenure with the group.
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In the Golden Era of mid-to-late-'70s live records, the Scorpions released Tokyo Tapes, a double album that represented the culmination of Uli Jon Roth’s five-year tenure with the group. The band was absolutely on fire for the Japan gigs, playing material that had certain things in common with the tunes that would garner them great commercial success in the years to come, namely Rudolf Schenker’s rock-solid rhythms and Klaus Meine’s distinctive vocals. There are also elements that the band would largely abandon after Roth, then known as “Ulrich,” departed: the psychedelic, Hendrix-infused flights of fancy and the neo-classical proto-shred lines that the Strat-wielding master brought to the table. Roth’s solos with the Scorpions possessed fire, emotion, and chops that were otherworldly, and his whammy bar work, which predated Van Halen by several years, was the wildest since Hendrix.

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That Roth would leave the Scorps when he and the band seemed to be at the top of their game bummed out fans the world over. That he in large part refused to play or even acknowledge those tunes— focusing instead on his Electric Sun material and his love for classical music—made it even tougher to deal with. But time has a way of softening such stances and when the 40th anniversary of Roth’s joining the Scorpions rolled around, he was finally ready to embrace his Scorps past and dig deep into that catalog for his current tour. He’ll also be capturing the performances for three live albums showcasing Scorpions, Electric Sun, and Sky of Avalon material.

You’ve played some Scorpions tunes over the years, but never to this extent. How did this come about?

It’s true that for many years I didn’t really play much Scorpions music. I went to a totally different thing and I kind of lost a connection to that stuff. But in recent years I rediscovered my rock vein, a few more Scorpions tunes began creeping in by popular request, and I started enjoying it again. Not long ago, my friend Warren DiMartini said, “Look, you would make a lot of people happy if you did a Tokyo Tapes set.” When I realized that next year is actually my 40th anniversary with the Scorpions and that I had already planned to make three live albums, it was perfect.

When you were putting together the setlist, did you still have the songs committed to memory or did you have to go back and relearn them?

I looked at each album without listening to it, and thought, “Ok, these are the ones.” For most of them I would do a couple of runs through and then they were back in my memory. My long-term memory is very, very good. I still remember that stuff like it was yesterday. I’m staying very truthful to the melodies and the rhythms, but we’re definitely going to make some changes in the arrangements because some of the tracks have never been played live, not even with the Scorpions.

What do you hear when you listen to those records now? What do you hear in the playing of that young guy named Ulrich who was on those albums?

It’s an extremely unusual band and quite a powerful mix. We had melodic vocals, very well sung by Klaus. Actually, everything was totally melodic. The guitar was always melodic in its own sense. I guess that’s what set that band apart from a lot of other rock bands from that time—the sense of melody. And then you have Rudolf’s power chords—the riffs. It was an explosive mixture. When I listen to it, it sounds very fresh to me. It sounds far from perfect—I hear little things left, right, and center, but I do understand why a lot of people think this is special. I understand it more now than I used to because back then my mind was always somewhere else. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy my time with the Scorpions, but I was always into the classical and in that framework I couldn’t really bring that into the foreground. People seem to be really enjoying these songs, possibly more so than when we originally played them, because back then you didn’t have this kind of history. It seems we’ve struck a chord with a lot of people who grew up with that stuff. And because the Scorpions play very few of these, this tour is kind of a missing link for a lot of diehard Scorpions fans.

Looking back on your work on those Scorpions records, it’s pretty amazing how far ahead of your time you were from both a technical and compositional standpoint.

That’s a nice compliment. I think I might have been different from a lot of the other players in that I was a little more critical of what I did. I didn’t just take the first thing that came into my mind and say, “Oh that’s a great solo, let’s just jam all over the place.” We made sure that every note on every album had a meaning and that they were connected and made sense. Some solos were completely improvised but even when that was the case, for me it was very important that the guitar lead should not only complement the song, it had to almost be like a higher octave of the song, if that makes sense. And for that to be possible, it really needs to originate from the very center of the song, from the spirit of the song. I guess that kind of approach made it possible to come up with guitar work that can stand the test of time. I learned that very early on from listening to Eric Clapton and Cream. His guitar work was not all over the place. All of his solos—be it “Sunshine of Your Love” or whatever—were all totally right for the songs. Hendrix did the same, of course. If you listen to “Watchtower” or “Axis Bold As Love,” it doesn’t get any better than that, and it’s not by accident. It’s inspired, but it’s not necessarily the very first thing that came into his mind.

You did some crazy whammy work on tunes like “Robot Man” and “Speedy’s Coming.” How did you get such huge range out of a Fender whammy system and how did you keep it in tune?

Let me tell you a secret: It was not in tune. It would go horribly out of tune and it drove me nuts. My G string was always going sharp. Back then I wasn’t very technically minded and I didn’t have a good guitar builder to tell me anything. I didn’t know about using Nut Sauce, about friction points, or any of that. So my guitar would go out of tune and I kept retuning or stretching the strings back into shape while playing. I got very used to that. Nowadays it’s much better. The systems on my Sky guitars go back in pitch most of the time. When they’re set up well, there’s no problem whatsoever. As for the range, I still have the same range that I had back then. But the range that I had was an illusion. It was exactly a standard Strat range. It sometimes sounded like more than what it was because I would use the tremolo bar in conjunction with bending a string.

Your amplifier with the Scorpions was a Marshall Super Lead Tremolo, right?

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Correct. I called it the Beast because it was extremely loud—140 watts before clipping. I used that amp on every Scorpions album, all the Electric Sun albums, and I still have it. I’ve now gravitated to the Blackstar Artisan, which is basically a copy of the old Plexi, but I find it quite a bit more reliable. I can play a whole tour without even having to change the valves. I’m playing two Blackstars in tandem and they’re set differently, but it is a very similar tone to my old Plexi. It sings just as much, if not more, and it’s perfect with the Sky guitar.

Do you have any routines or rituals that you’ll do to get yourself in the proper place before doing a gig or a recording?

No. Absolutely none. I don’t believe in rituals at all. Rituals can be very powerful, but that is exactly the opposite of what I want and what I believe in. I believe in making it up as I go along. That means always trying to find the “perfect” answer to each question. It’s just like composition or improvisation. It’s a constant question and answer about what comes next. What’s the next best possible note? As a composer, it’s important that one’s mind be almost like a hound or a sniffer dog on the trail, on that scent of where the next best possible answer is. A ritual is basically like a crutch—to repeat something that has been effective at one point to get the same result over and over again. I don’t want the same result. I hate repetition. Look at my songs—I hardly ever repeat any melodies and that’s why they’re not commercial. I like constant surprises, challenges, and change.