Uli Jon Roth interview

Interview – Uli Jon Roth

Uli Jon Roth live

All too often we get hung up on labeling music one thing or the other in an attempt to better understand it. While this can make something more marketable to reach particular audiences, the truth is there are times where something fits under a much larger umbrella. The case with Uli Jon Roth, a creative musician who has shown himself to be musically fluid in many genres.

Famously recognized from his time as the lead guitarist for Scorpions during their formative years, Roth left an undeniable impression over the course of the four albums he recorded with the band. Going on to numerous other endeavors, including his work with Electric Sun, solo material and studio work, Roth also commissioned construction of custom guitars, known to all as the Sky Guitar. Truly a fascinating individual who uses the entire Stradivarius of his mind to create, now in 2024 he returns to North American with a spectacular, multi-dimensional 3-hour show. Something that is more than just a concert, Roth recently sat down to chat about the concept behind his latest string of shows, his approach to music, plus a whole lot more.  

Cryptic Rock – You have built a very interesting, storied career in music. From your time with Scorpions to your solo work, you have certainly made a massive impression. Before we dive deeper, how would you describe your career in music to this point?

Uli Roth – Do you have any easier questions? You’re putting me on the spot. That is actually a difficult one. I guess if I have to put it into a nutshell, I’m a bit of a wanderer. I’m an explorer. I love to explore new territories. I love to break down certain various boundaries and go to places where I haven’t been, musically speaking.

My path through music reflects that. If I look back, and when people ask me, “Okay. What’s the album that defines you the most?” I can always say, “I’ve got no idea,” because every single album I’ve ever done was actually completely different from the other one. That’s what defines me. It’s a little bit indefinable.

That’s also what I aim for. I don’t really like boxes. I prefer to cross boundaries even in musical genres; like mixing Classical with Rock and Ethnic and so forth. If I have to put a stamp on it, I’m on an ongoing expedition, musically speaking. Whenever I do music, which isn’t all the time, I come up with new ideas. Whenever I pick up the guitar or I am at the piano, new ideas come flowing in. That’s nice and it’s because I don’t do so much of it. I keep it quite special. I don’t play a lot of guitar… it’s actually quite rare. I will play a lot on this tour though, that’s for sure.

Cryptic Rock – You certainly have a unique style that sticks out, and it has been highly influential in Rock music. That is attributed, as you said, to the fact that you do not stay within a box.

Uli Roth – Yeah. Talking about style, sure, I’ve got a certain something which sounds like me. That is no matter which instrument I play; because that is my way of speaking musically and of expressing myself. Within that, I always love to have a huge framework. For instance, I can jump seamlessly from Flamenco to Baroque and make it one.

That appeals to me; being musically multilingual, so to speak. I find that fascinating. I don’t want to be boxed in by any one thing. I understand that a lot of people are very happy doing just that. A lot of people are very happy doing nothing but the Blues, Country, Baroque, or Romantic music. That’s not me though. I like to almost do it all. There are certain types of music that I don’t really relate to so much. Other than that, I like to speak a lot of musical languages and reflect them in my playing. That’s why it’s sometimes very unorthodox.

For example, I do Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the guitar with the orchestra, and those are these famous violin concertos written hundreds of years ago by a musical genius. They speak to me very powerfully. I’m playing them note for note as they would on the violin, but I’m putting a different slant on it slightly rhythmically phrasing-wise. I take a lot of liberties with a strong vibrato. For a classical musician, purely classical purists, this would be like the kiss of death. For me, it works. It’s a completely different slant on something that has been played a million times before in a traditional sense.

I’m breaking with these traditions, but I’m staying truthful to the spirit of it by actually playing the same notes. I just play them in a slightly different way.

Scorpions - Fly to the Rainbow
Scorpions – Fly to the Rainbow / RCA Records (1974)
Scorpions - Taken by Force
Scorpions – Taken by Force / RCA Records (1977)

Cryptic Rock – Well, it is exciting and definitely shines through in everything you have done. You mentioned you have not performed on guitar very often over the decades, but you have done it. Obviously, you were a key contributor with the Scorpions early on, and you released a Scorpion’s revisited record in 2015. You were part of those formative years of Scorpions, leading to their major success going on into the ’80s. What was that time like for you with the Scorpions?

Uli Roth – It was a great time. It was a time of experiencing a lot of new things. It was a time of learning about the music business, plus how to write music and how to play guitar.

All these things went hand in hand; because on Fly to the Rainbow (1974), I hadn’t played electric guitar for a long time, and I was a bit of a rookie in some sense. From the beginning, what I already knew very strongly was that I was an artist. I felt like an artist. I was creative, and I had my own language.

Some of it, or a lot of it, was borrowed from previous efforts; from Jimi Hendrix, from Eric Clapton, but it shined through. Technically, I basically started to explore the guitar in those early Scorpions years. Then you can hear the progress on each album; I would say it was 100% progress year by year. That’s what that was like for me.

It was, again, a time of exploration and a time of improving my game and scope. I enjoyed it all. It was great and I loved it. Not so much at the end though. I got a little bit tired of the format within the band. I started writing music that didn’t fit the band anymore. I knew then my time was up and I had to leave. Those five years were great though… I don’t want to miss them.

Cryptic Rock – You definitely left a major mark during that time too. Now, you are going to be coming to the United States for a tour starting in April extending through May. This is a really interesting line of shows; because you are going to be playing for an extensive three-hour set. What was the idea behind this show you will be putting on?  

Uli Roth – We’re actually playing two shows. There will be two completely different shows and on the same evening to the same audience and the same venue. That’s a very unusual thing to do. The story behind it is that just before COVID hit in early 2020, I was embarking on a world tour as a one-man solo show. That was also a three-hour show. I had written a lot of music for it, I had produced a lot of films for it, and I was really looking forward to it.

We started touring in Europe. Then after 13 shows, we had to stop because the COVID lockdowns happened everywhere. We had booked 70 shows for the United States and Canada. That’s a lot of shows! People bought tickets… and then nothing doing.

Three years later, I was ready to come to The States again. Last year we re-organized everything. Now, four years after the event, it’s finally happening, and I’m coming to The States. I thought it would be a good idea to do 50% of it as a solo show. Then there’s an intermission. Then the second half, I’m playing a full-on Rock set with my full band. We are playing exactly that kind of stuff that you just spoke about; mainly my earlier stuff from the Scorpion’s days, the Electric Sun days, and a little bit of Jimi Hendrix.

However, the first half of the show is called “An Evening with Uli Jon Roth.” I will be alone on stage with a huge screen and I’m playing some classical pieces; some of the Vivaldis and Mozart. I’m also playing quite a few new pieces which I wrote particularly for this tour; which are very different from my Rock repertoire. This will include something on a nine-string Nylon Sky guitar, which is called “Passage to India.” Also, the first half has a 15-minute tech talk where I’m introducing my new book – In Search Of The Alpha Law. It’s a mixed bag; because it’s called “An Evening with Uli Jon Roth.”

It couldn’t be any different from the second half where we’re doing, “traditional, no-holds barred Rock, Classic Rock.” That’s not all though. In the afternoon in the same venue, I’m also doing a guitar masterclass called “The Sky Is The Limit.” All those, you can sign up for that on my website.

It’s going to be a long day for me and for those people brave enough to come, and you don’t want to get sick of me. (Laughs) I’ve done quite a few three-hour shows before, and I don’t get any complaints normally. We try to keep it as varied as possible. It will be a very broad spectrum that I’m bringing to the table. I don’t think it’s going to get boring.

Cryptic Rock – Most certainly not. It goes along with your career, which has been unpredictable in a way. The format that you are going for here is very unique. It could not get boring; because there is no redundancy here.

Uli Roth – Yes. In the first set, the songs or the music pieces are extremely varied in what they are. There’s no formula there. Each one of them tells a completely different story in its own right. Some of them are very challenging to play. That is when I’m comparing it to the Rock set; the Scorpion set I can do pretty much in my sleep. I’m looking forward to that, to having these challenges, and also playing several pieces which are very rare and that I haven’t played in a long time.

Electric Sun - Earthquake
Electric Sun – Earthquake / Brain/Metronome (1979)
Electric Sun - Beyond the Astral Skies
Electric Sun – Beyond the Astral Skies / EMI (1985)

Cryptic Rock – Wonderful. You mentioned your book briefly and some new music which you wrote particularly for these shows. Looking at the music for a moment, will it be recorded and released?

Uli Roth – I have already recorded a lot in the last two years. Some of these pieces have been fully recorded now, but not yet mixed. I was hoping to have some of it ready for the tour, but I suck when it comes to these things. I’m always late when it comes to releasing recordings. It’s been the story of my life. (Laughs) Eventually, I will come up with the goods.

Cryptic Rock – Well, that leaves something to look forward to. This is a pretty lengthy tour where you will be going across North America.

Uli Roth – Yes. I am going pretty much everywhere, although we’re not doing much in the center. Unfortunately, we also don’t make it to Florida too, which is a shame. We are going everywhere else; doing a lot of shows in California, and then going up North, all the way into Canada, and ending up in Texas.

Cryptic Rock – It will be a lot of fun and a good mix for those who are lucky enough to attend the shows.  

Uli Roth – Yes, we’ve got a date in Massachusetts and New York City at The Iridium. That’ll be interesting. I’ve never played there. It’s an iconic place. We’re doing two nights there. I think the first night is pretty much sold out, if I’m not mistaken.

Cryptic Rock – That is great to hear. A lot of Metal fans are sold short as not open-minded. Many would agree that is not the case. Being the diverse musician you are and doing the diverse mix of things you do, based upon your experience, would you agree people are very open-minded within the Metal and Rock community to different forms of music?

Uli Roth – In my case, that is true, because my experience is – I can play pretty much on any Metal festival. That is even if there is Death Metal, and some stuff that I can barely recognize as music. Whenever we play, it seems to work with the audience and we’re getting through. I think it is even more so than in the past, and also with the younger audiences.

That’s probably because everything we do is strongly melodic, and a lot of bands don’t have that. They’ve got the attitude, the sound, but nowadays I find real melody is lacking with a lot of bands. The audience seems to relate to a highly melodic lead guitar.

When I do my thing, I can take a lot of liberties, play a real Metal festival, and play something during it which is absolutely not Metal and get away with it. People seem to like it.

Uli Jon Roth - Metamorphosis of Vivaldi's Four Seasons
Uli Jon Roth – Metamorphosis of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons
Uli Jon Roth - Scorpions Revisited
Uli Jon Roth – Scorpions Revisited / Warner (2015)

Cryptic Rock – That is very interesting. That is a whole other conversation when you speak of modern music. In general, it is hard to recognize what really makes people tick with modern music. If you want to talk about Pop music in particular, the direction is very head scratching.

Uli Roth – My feeling is that nothing much seems to be going on. Whenever I hear something new, even hits, it’s very rare that anything moves me; because there is a general lack of melody. You get maybe a few words spoken over and over again. Musically speaking, it’s usually quite pathetic. That’s what it feels like to me. It is just boring.

The vocals usually are without expression, etc. I don’t think it’s such a great time. I’m sure there’s a lot of talent out there though. There are a lot of young talented guitar players, that’s for sure. In terms of songwriting though, when I compare it to the days of The Beatles or whatever, it’s like we’re living in a songwriting desert.

There doesn’t seem to be any upcoming new generation that comes up with anything remotely like melodies that really speak to you from the heart and touch you. It’s all just Hip Hop based, one-line gimmick stuff. I’m usually not a fan. It’s very rare that I hear anything new that really moves me.

I don’t think that’s because I’m old, or what some people might consider old. I think that it is a very fair assessment of somebody who really knows about music. I think I know about music. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen all the development from hundreds of years ago to now. I’m very aware of all these things. I think particularly now, is not a great time for music. Maybe something is developing underneath the surface that we’re not yet aware of. Maybe the next great new musical revolution is around the corner. I’m not seeing much of that though. It’s not helped by the fact that we have this TikTok generation where the five-second attention span becomes almost like a mantra. It’s not good for music. Let’s see though, I hope it’s just a passing phase.

Cryptic Rock – Let us hope so. You raise some extremely striking points. Adding to what you said, it goes beyond music as well. It is broadly a cultural, artistic problem. It seems like we are in a dark age of culture in a lot of ways.

Uli Roth – Exactly. You’re hitting the nail on the head. I’m somebody who loves culture and I love the culture that has developed over the centuries. I respect history and historical artistic achievements of the human mind. At the moment we live in a cultural wasteland… it is unbelievable.

Some of the greatest things that humanity came up with artistically, like Classic Music, means nothing to the younger generations; because they’re not even aware it exists. If they’re aware, they don’t know how to savor it, because it is not in tune with what’s going on. It’s not in tune with the TikTok or the Snapchat mentality. It’s not in tune with the Facebook mentality either. Then what else is there?

Talking about these social media. In the beginning, 10 to 15 years ago, the internet was a great tool. It helped people, and the general awareness was increasing. It helped the general intelligence. Now, it’s come to a point where the opposite is happening. It seems to dumb people down, because it’s taken on a life of its own. It’ all money-driven – Facebook, Tik Tok, etc. – and it’s materialistically driven. Whatever vestige of idealism was maybe there in the beginning, when these things were created, have long gone. The result is that we are starting to live in the Dark Ages; although it could be a period of enlightenment.

I’m not one of these gloom and doom people though. I see these things in perspective. To me, it’s just a reality. It’s deplorable, but there’s not that much we can do about it. I keep away from these things as much as possible. I do my thing, I hold up my artistic, free flag, and I just carry on my journey as much as I can.

Uli Jon Roth 2-8-15 live
Uli Jon Roth 2-8-15 B.B. King’s Club, NYC / photo credit Ken Buglione

Cryptic Rock – It is very challenging to face these cultural aspects of our modern world and the downward trajectory we are headed.

Uli Roth – With the cell phones and all this, it is so hard to keep away from that stuff. How can we make it so that these children can have a “normal” childhood with touching things and speaking to people; rather than being glued to a telephone screen and thinking that’s the only reality there is. That danger is out there and it is a huge part of the problem. I call it the iPhone generation. We are facing it and we need to deal with it somehow in an organic manner.

Uli Jon Roth 2024 Tour Dates:
4/9 Santa Cruz, CA at Moe’s Alley
4/10 Sacramento, CA at Goldfield Trading Co
4/12 Seattle, WA at Tractor Tavern
4/13 Portland, OR at Bossonova Ballroom
4/16 Minneapolis, MN at Granada Theater
4/17 Eau Claire, WI at JAMF at The Pablo
4/18 Hobart, IN at Hobart Arts Center
4/19 St. Charles, IL at Arcada Theater
4/20 Chicago, IL at Reggies
4/21 Detroit, MI at Token Lounge
4/24 Sellersville, PA at Sellersvile Theater
4/25 Fall River, MA at Narrows Center for The Arts
4/26 Derry, NH at Tupelo Music Hall
4/27 New York, NY at Iridium
4/28 New York, NY at Iridium
5/1 West Yarmouth, MA at The Music Room
5/7 Quebec, CAN at Imperial Bell
5/8 Montreal, CAN at Fairmount Theatre
5/9 Ottawa, CAN at Overflow Brewery
5/10 Toronto, CAN at Lee’s Palace
5/16 Lubbock, TX at Cactus Theater
5/17 Arlington, TX at Arlington Music Hall
5/18 Houston, TX at Dosey Doe
For more on Uli Jon Roth: ujr.info | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram 

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