The Search For Silence: A Conversation With Guitarist Uli Jon Roth

Inside guitar circles, the name Uli Jon Roth is as fundamentally a part of six-string lineage as anyone. The former Scorpions guitarist is widely regarded as one of the most influential guitarists in hard rock, and his playing on four of the band’s studio albums from 1974-1977 and the live album, “Tokyo Tapes,” gave spark to a new generation of players who yearned for something beyond what they were hearing.

For Roth, that something was a hybrid blues/neo-classical style, one which he is credited in bringing to some very important youthful and impressionable listeners, including Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Yngwie Malmsteen and Wolf Hoffman (Accept) to name just a few.

Roth is celebrating 50 years of performing live with a tour of North America. ListenIowa caught up with Roth in between stops to talk about his time in the Scorpions, how he developed his now-famous style of playing, and his singular quest for a connection with his audience.

ListenIowa: There are probably a lot of guitar players in your audiences.
Uli Jon Roth: We have a special audience, and we get a very mixed audience, depending on which city we play. The main thing is that I’m always trying to make each show a special event. I’m very mindful of the fact that, for a lot of people, they’ve traveled a long distance, and it’s quite an effort for them. So we always try to give our very best every night and play as intensely as possible. It’s not so much getting them up and clapping or whatever, it’s more important to connect with them on a deeper level. Inspiration is the key word. Translating music into the heart of the audience is the most important thing.

LI: You had a major influence in the birth of the neo-classical style of guitar playing. A wide range of prominent guitar players name you as an influence. How did you develop that yourself?
UJR: When I was learning to play guitar, I was exploring the instrument. When I was a kid, there was a lot to explore. At that time, the more prevailing thing was blues-based music, and there wasn’t any classical knowledge to that style of guitar playing in a big way. I was surprised by that because it seemed like such a natural thing to me. I loved violin and wondered why someone wasn’t doing that on the electric guitar. In my inner ear and mind, I could see and hear that, and I wanted to find a way to do it.

LI: Was the Scorpions’ song “Sails of Charon” a prime example of that?
UJR: I was trying to do something different and brought in a flamenco sort of thinking but played in a rock sort of way with classical overtones and scales. It was somewhere in between those worlds, and somehow that just struck a chord. I wasn’t aware that I was going to be influential when I did it.

LI: Are there other compositions that you are proud to have written or had a hand in writing, during that Scorpions period?
UJR: I’m really proud of the whole thing. The Scorpions period was important for me. Those were my formative years, almost like my apprenticeship into the world of rock music. I’m certainly proud to have been in that band, but I didn’t think ahead that I was trying to be influential or anything, I just tried to do things that hadn’t been done before.

LI: What led to you leaving the Scorpions?
UJR: I started writing material that really didn’t fit into that framework anymore. The Scorpions were geared for big success, and everybody knew it. The music had to reflect that. I was more interested in new facets of music, almost like an explorer. I felt like some of the best stuff that I was coming up with at that time, like “Earthquake,” there was no place in the Scorpions for those songs, so I didn’t even bring them to the table. Also, the lyrics of the band started changing toward more of the “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” type of thing, and I wasn’t interested in that direction. I wanted songs with a little bit of a message. They were artistic reasons. There was no friction on a personal level. We were friends, and still are. My time was up, and I needed to go and spread my wings in a different direction.

LI: Then you dove right into putting together your own project, Electric Sun. Was being able call your own shots and do everything your own way refreshing?
UJR: That was a very important period for me of self-searching and self-finding. By the end of that, I had found something, but I still needed to find more. Electric Sun was basically three studio albums, and I was touring, including a big North American tour at the end of it. I was developing myself and really trying to follow my inspiration, and the result was three very different albums, “Earthquake,” “Firewind,” and “Beyond the Astral Skies.” Each one of those albums found followers, even though they are so different. Very few people were able to follow all three. Even back then, Electric Sun was really off the beaten track. There wasn’t really another band like it. There had been a rise in corporate rock in America, and we were doing something the complete opposite. I was aware of that; it didn’t fit the mold. In 1985-86, I started to feel that I had outgrown the Electric Sun framework, and I wanted to move on to even more freedom, meaning working with the orchestra, which was what my next project was, “Sky of Avalon.” Now it’s coming full circle. I’m looking back at the Electric Sun things and am finding it inspirational to revisit them with the knowledge I’ve gained in those 40 years.

LI: You and another former Scorpions guitarist, Michael Schenker, seem to share the attitude that your lives are about the natural creation of music, rather than doing it to be a commercial success.
UJR: For me, the artistic choice is always the No. 1 choice. It has to feel organic and right. If I had wanted to be a big commercial success, I would have stayed in the Scorpions. But it was obvious where the band was going. They were unstoppable. We already knew it even during “Tokyo Tapes,” but they just got bigger and bigger and wrote some amazing songs. I think I would have been very unhappy had I stayed with the band, though. I really didn’t have a choice.

LI: You’re playing “Metamorphosis of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons” on this new tour as well.
UJR: Yes. During the tour, we have VIP passes for a pre-show concert, and that gives me a chance to play “Metamorphosis,” which I haven’t played for many, many years. For me, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve even done, but it’s also one of the least known things. We do that every day before the main show. This is really my cream of the crop, classical playing, whereas the main show is more rock oriented with some things from the Scorpions, some Hendrix, and other pieces that I wrote.

LI: Do you still design and play your own guitars, via the Sky guitar company?
UJR: Yes, that has been an important part of my life. Ever since 1985, I’ve played nothing by Sky guitars live. A couple of years ago, I decided to make my own company. They have been on the market before, but when the CEO of that company died, we decided to do our own company, and the Sky guitars are made-to-order now. It’s very exciting. It gives me the chance to do more research and play new guitars. I’m playing two new prototypes, and on this new tour, I can do things that I couldn’t do before.

LI: Are there artists you draw inspiration from these days?
UJR: Not really. I haven’t been a great listener for the last 40 years. Every once in a while, something captures my ear or eye. There are certainly people out there who are great, but usually when I’m home I listen to as little music as possible. I like to keep it fresh. I like to play piano at home, and that gives me inspiration. Other than that, I don’t. I find listening very hard work. Music is so intense for me; I can’t have it running in the background. That would drive me nuts. I always get very involved, and when I listen to music, it involves a very big commitment. I know that sounds strange to other people who walk through their lives with headphones on. That would drive me completely insane. I wouldn’t be able to handle that, particularly if I hear bad music; it drives me around the bend. I want to run a mile! Music is everywhere already. I don’t need to seek it out. You look at a tree — that’s music. You look at a sunset — that’s music. Music is a smiling person. So I don’t actively seek it out. Physically listening to music is probably the least exciting thing for me. When I first started out, I couldn’t get enough of it. Now, I seek out silence.

Uli Jon Roth Tour Dates 2019:
4/10                 Milwaukee, WI             Shank Hall
4/11                 Edwardsville, IL           Wildey Theatre
4/12                 Joliet, IL                        The Forge
4/13                 St. Charles, IL              Arcada Theater
4/14                 Detroit, MI                   Token Lounge
4/15                 Toronto, ON                Rockpile
4/16                 Montreal, QU              Piranha
4/17                 Quebec, QU                 L’ Anti
4/18                 Ottawa, NB                  Brass Monkey
4/19                 Pawling, NY                 Daryl’s House
4/20                 Derry, NH                    Tupelo Music Hall
4/21                 Hartford, CT                Infinity Music Hall
4/23                 NYC, NY                       Gramercy Theater
4/24                 Asbury Park, NJ          Wonderbar
4/25                 Sellersville, PA            Sellersville Theater
4/26                 Syracuse, NY               Sharkey’s
4/27                 Cleveland, OH             Agora Ballroom
4/29                 Pittsburgh, PA             Jergels
5/1                   Plymouth, MA             Spire Center for the Performing Arts
5/3                   Newton, NJ                  Newton Theatre
5/4                   Louisville, KY               Diamond Pub Concert Hall
5/5                   Nashville, TN               The High Watt
5/6                   Atlanta, GA                  City Winery
5/9                   Dallas, TX                     Trees
5/10                 San Antonio, TX          Rockbox