Michael Schenker: Man on a Mission

It seemed like during the late ’70s and early ’80s, Michael Schenker could do no wrong on the Flying V, as evidenced by his stellar work with UFO and MSG.
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It seemed like during the late ’70s and early ’80s, Michael Schenker could do no wrong on the Flying V, as evidenced by his stellar work with UFO and MSG. His penetrating, mid-heavy tone—courtesy of a half-cocked wah pedal and a cranked Marshall—and his silky smooth bends, vibrato, and note choices made Schenker one of the most name-checked guitar heroes for budding rockers such as Randy Rhoads, Tom Morello, Vinnie Moore, and Kirk Hammett. Schenker’s melodic playing loomed so large in the UFO/MSG era that some people forget that he also played on two records with his older brother Rudolf’s band, the Scorpions. On his latest album, Spirit on a Mission (credited to Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock), Schenker is joined again by his one-time bandmates in the Lovedrive–era Scorps, bassist Francis Buchholz and drummer Herman Rarebell. Schenker took time out of his U.S. tour in support of Spirit to chat about the album, reconnecting with his old mates, and an intriguing description of his preferred guitar sound.

Let’s discuss the new album, Spirit on a Mission.

It’s the latest album we have done with this lineup: [singer] Doogie White, Herman Rarebell, Francis Buchholz, and [guitarist /keyboardist] Wayne Findlay. When we finished our last album, Bridge the Gap, I already knew what I was going to do with this album, and the idea was to add more 7-string to it. I’ve been watching Wayne—he’s been playing 7-string since 2005—and I thought it was time for me to use it. Wayne also co-wrote some songs on the record. I wanted this album to be like a book. When you’re reading a book, you want to stay with it until the end. I wanted to have half of it be fast, high-energy, double-bass-drum stuff with great vocal melodies and guitars all over the place, and the other half more mid-tempo with the 7-strings.

How did you come to play with Francis and Herman again?

Herman and I were invited to play with the Scorpions at a stadium in Greece in 2009, and that’s when we started to talk about putting together a live project. I said, “I’d love to play the Strangers in the Night material.” Around that time, I was going into the recording studio and doing a demo with [engineer] Michael Voss. I asked him to help me with the guide vocals. When he was singing, I realized he actually had a good voice. I asked him to do parts of the album, and then, when I played it for Herman and Pete Way, they wanted to become the rhythm section. When I was going to go on tour, Mike wasn’t available to do the vocals, but Doogie was. Pete Way wasn’t doing well, so I thought, “Maybe we should ask Francis. We play quite a few Scorpions songs. Maybe that would be the best solution at this point.” Francis was more than happy, and that’s how we got together. The moment Francis joined, that’s when it clicked. And we’ve never stopped since. I didn’t know that it would last, but I did the DVD, Live in Europe, so I would have the memory. Eventually I said, “Let’s make an album,” and that’s Bridge the Gap. Everything was a little bit upside down, because it wasn’t like the old days, where you make an album and then tour. We were already touring, but we hadn’t made an album yet. This American tour that we’re doing now is the first time that the tour is actually in sync with the album release.

You seem like you’re comfortable gigging with this band.

I’m realizing that in this stage of my life—since I’ve started Temple of Rock—I really like being onstage. That’s the opposite of how I used to be. I used to hate it. Temple of Rock is now developing into its own identity. After the next album, Temple of Rock should be able to stand on its own two feet and be recognized by its own unique sound. At that point, the live shows will probably be more based on the Temple of Rock material, at least half of the show, and the other half will be the classics—the “must play” kind of stuff from the past.

Which guitars did you use?

I used so many—at least 16 guitars. Sometimes it’s good to just pick up a guitar and play it—seeing a different fretboard can break you out of a routine. I’ve been doing that lately for some reason, quite frequently—I keep changing guitars on stage. I guess it’s my “flexibility training” at this point of my life. Back to the record, though, I have no idea what I used for what.

How do you compare playing the Dean V to a Gibson V?

The Dean guitar was introduced to me when I was in Chicago in 2004. I played it and I went, “Great guitar!” I realized when I looked at it that the strings were coming in from the back and they embrace the wood. I do everything by ear and feel, and that model they gave me to try out played great and sounded great. It was sustaining, it was singing. It had everything that I needed, basically. They offered to do a Michael Schenker model, and I said, “Let’s do it.” I’ve been with them ever since. They’re great people and a great company.

I recall reading an old interview, in which you mentioned a quest for a guitar tone that you described as “meat without the bone.”

When I was about 18 years old, I was in the studio, and [UFO producer] Leo Lyons asked me, “What kind of a sound are you looking for?” I didn’t know how to say it because I didn’t speak much English, and the only way I was able to describe it was a hollow kind of sound. “Just think of a finger, but without the bone.” I don’t know if that still fits. I’m not sure. It’s funny, you can’t really explain these kinds of things very well, especially if you only speak a little English. It’s very hard to explain music with words, to be honest.

Reunited
MICHAEL SCHENKER JOINS FORCES WITH HIS SCORPIONS MATES

Wayne Findlay, Michael Schenker, and Francis Buchholz (left to right).

Although a very young Michael Schenker played on the Scorpions’ first album, Lonesome Crow, it wasn’t until his return on 1979’s Lovedrive that he played—albeit on only three songs—with the rhythm section of bassist Francis Buchholz and drummer Herman Rarebell. Despite Schenker’s rather ignominious departure from the Scorps camp shortly thereafter, both Buchholz and Rarebell agree: “It’s great to play with Schenker again.”

“For me, it’s like a dream, because I have always loved Michael’s playing,” explains Buchholz. “He is such a great player—melodically, rhythmically, and just the ideas he comes up with. It’s absolutely great. It inspires me. And with Herman, it’s like old friends coming back together, and he’s playing better than ever.”

Rarebell recalls first crossing paths with the legendary guitarist: “We go back more than 45 years, so it feels like the family is back together. Actually, Michael was the one who got me in the Scorpions, because he already lived in England when I moved there in ’72. He was playing with UFO, so he was already a big rock star. We met for the first time in 1974, and in the spring of ’77, he said to me, ‘My brother has a band in Germany called the Scorpions. They’re looking for a drummer. Why don’t you go there and do the audition?’ What he didn’t tell me was there were 50 other drummers there, too! I got the gig, and the rest is history. I spent 20 years with the Scorpions.”

Buchholz explains what it’s like to play alongside Schenker: “He has always been an extraordinary player. I remember when he joined the Scorpions in 1979, and we played onstage, there was this huge clarity of rhythm and melody in the room. As a bass player, I feel it immediately. To play with a musician like this is just great. It’s why I’m in music.”

And lastly, how would Rarebell compare playing with Michael to the other lead guitarists he played with in the Scorpions, Uli Jon Roth and Matthias Jabs?

“I have been lucky enough in my career to play with three great guitar players: Michael on Lovedrive, Taken by Force and Tokyo Tapes with Uli Jon Roth, and then 20 years with Matthias Jabs. It’s difficult to say which one is my favorite, but come to think of it, I think it’s Michael. Michael is the most melodic, and he’s the ‘rhythm machine’ of the three.”

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