Uli Jon Roth is best known as a member of The Scorpions, but he began performing in the late ’60s. “In Germany, when we started out, it wasn’t like a bar scene that we played,” he said. “We played in a lot of youth places where people congregated in art centers and stuff like that, or at school events. It was only when the Scorpions came that I started playing bars and places like that.”
This year, he is celebrating 50 years of performing with a lengthy tour that comes to the Gramercy Theatre in New York, April 24; the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, April 24; the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Pa., April 25; and the Newton Theatre, May 3.
Widely known as one of the world’s most innovative guitarists, Roth has seen and done much over his decades in music. From The Scorpions to Electric Sun (the Germany-based band he formed after leaving The Scorpions in 1978) and more, he has graced stages all over the globe.
With such a vast amount of music in his rear view mirror, does it ever feel like a dream come true? And does it hold the same appeal these many years later?
“No, it doesn’t feel surreal,” he said. “It could if I wanted it to, but then again, I don’t think that way. It’s been a very natural progression for me. My first show was in 1968 when I was 13, and I’ve been onstage ever since. It’s one part of my life that’s like an ongoing story in itself. How we all have different strands in life, how things develop … and for me, the live thing was one of these journeys. It’s ongoing, and for some strange reason, I’m still enjoying it (laughs). I still enjoy playing. I still enjoy touring and meeting the audience.”
He calls his current stage show “our biggest ever, because it’s the 50th celebration. It’s three hours, with a 15-minute intermission. I picked a lot of songs from my entire career: It’s a lot of music, and it wasn’t easy to pick. Some of them were no-brainers because certain songs had to be there, but there were a lot of songs where I could’ve chosen other songs, and I was really agonizing about that, because I wanted to get it right.
“Playing a show like this is a little bit like creating a menu: You have to get it right. Certain songs don’t work well back to back; they cancel each other out. You have to find the curve to the show that really works.
“I think we’ve managed to do that: We just toured Europe and Japan, and the program really works.”
A true six-string virtuoso, Uli is a master of his instrument in every sense of the word. A dedicated fan of classical music, a composer of symphonies and a well-rounded performer with a penchant for Jimi Hendrix, Roth is constantly looking for ways to up his game or create new sounds, and even created his own instrument.
“It’s called the Sky Guitar,” he says. “It’s a guitar that I invented back in the early ’80s out of necessity, because on the Fender Strat I used to run out of frets quite regularly (laughs). Around that time I became more fascinated by the violin repertoire, like classical violin concertos; all of these demanded a higher range than I could get on a normal guitar. So that’s how the Sky Guitar came into being. and for many, many years I used those by myself. They were basically my personal trademark, artistically.
“Then some years ago a friend of mine who sadly is no longer with us, named Elliott Rubinson, literally talked me into putting them on the market as a limited edition, because he was the owner of Dean Guitars. So we did a limited edition run of 50-plus, I think it was, and they all got sold, mainly to Japan and America. When he died a couple of years ago, I had no more reason to be with that company, so I decided to go it alone. I founded a little company called UJR Sky Guitars and we’re now producing these guitars to order. They’re very expensive; they’re all hand-built. So they’re like a collector’s item, but each one of them is really quite something and I’m very of proud of that, and it’s a very exciting project for me because we get to build new guitars and constantly try new prototypes, pushing the envelope farther.
“On this tour of America, I’m going to be playing two of my latest prototypes, which are, in some respects, quite an advancement regarding the technology of it.”
So if you plan on attending a show, be prepared for a night of history, time travel and classic material, with perhaps a surprise or two thrown in. Roth promises that there will be something for everybody.
“In the first hour,” he said, “we are playing some of my Sky of Avalon music, but mainly it’s devoted to a cross section of the Electric Sun material, because Electric Sun had quite a large cult following in The States in the ’80s, and the last ever tour I did with Electric Sun was all across the States. So for the first time we’re going to bring that music back to life in America.
“Then, after the intermission, I’m going to do a 15-minute acoustic set where I’m playing solo on my eight-string Flamingo Sky Guitar; finger style. Then we’re doing a whole Scorpions set based on (the 1978 live double album) Tokyo Tapes and early Scorpions material including ‘We’ll Burn the Sky’ and ‘In Trance,’ and then a little bit of Hendrix at the end.
“So that’s basically the main show. There’s going to be a screen behind us to augment the stories visually.
“And that’s not all, because we’re also doing a pre-show for VIP pass holders which is one of my favorite parts, because I get to play my ‘Metamorphosis’ concerto, which is normally played with an orchestra. I haven’t played that in a long time, and we’re going to play the whole thing in this pre-show event. The orchestra will be back on the screen with me and I’ll be sharing the stage with a couple of my musicians.
“It’s a very demanding piece, but I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’s one of the best things that I’ve ever come up with, but it’s also probably the least known in America.”
For more about Roth, visit ulijonroth.com.