Guitar legend Uli Jon Roth is celebrating 50 years in the music business and on tour in the UK in November and December 2018, and he has kindly taken some time out of his busy schedule to do a telephone interview with me ahead of the coming shows.
Uli Jon Roth will of course be speaking to guitar and rock music magazines about this tour and so much of his “guitar career” is so well documented already that I wanted to take a slightly different approach with this interview. While thinking of questions to ask Uli Jon Roth, I decided pretty early on to try and concentrate on the man behind the guitar and try and get some insight into a multi talented man whose interests range across wide areas of music, literature and the arts, plus of course many other areas outside of these fields.
During this interview, Uli Jon Roth was very courteous and generous with his time and we discussed many diverse areas of interests. Had everything we discussed been included here, then this interview would have been many times this length, so in order to fit the main points we discussed into this interview, some of Uli's replies have been edited in length, and other areas of discussion have been drawn together to give a summary of our talk. This interview is not a word for word literal transcription of Uli Jon Roth's response to what we discussed, more of a general overview to the very interesting man behind the guitar...a true renaissance man of the 20th and 21st centuries. I have however tried my best here to keep the core elements of Uli's answers intact in this edited Q & A . Uli Jon Roth was given this interview to read before publication and has given his approval for it to be released.
TK Q1 From your early days, I note from your website bio that you not only studied classical guitar as well as piano, but also that your early musical influences at that time included Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, Yehudi Menuhin and Flamenco guitarists like Manitas de Plata. All of these musicians I have enormous respect for, but with these early influences a more classical music career was perhaps to be expected. Was there any main reason for that not happening at that period in your life?
UJR A1 You are correct, a more classical career was perhaps expected from me, but at that point, when I looked around at what had already been achieved with the classical guitar, so much had already been done by other musicians, and there seemed to me to be limited new areas for me to explore. Electric guitar on the other hand seemed to offer far more possibilities for me, many more things that I could musically bring to the instrument that had not yet been fully explored by other musicians, and when I joined The Scorpions, I took that opportunity of creative freedom to do something new.
TK Q2 My next question was going to be this one
Many of these influences and an interest in the different building blocks of musical scales and tonal structures from other cultures are evident early on in work like “The Sails of Charon” with The Scorpions. Was this a conscious decision to try and broaden the musical range and influences of the band, or simply at the time a natural progression of where your music was at?
I think that question has already been answered though already.
UJR A2 In part yes. The Scorpions offered an opportunity to do something different with electric guitar.
TK Q3 You can clearly hear this influence of other musical genres and cultures on early songs such as “The Sails of Charon” with The Scorpions, and of course much larger works like “Sky of Avalon”. Apart from the music and stories in the songs, there is often a very metaphysical element to your music, an extra dimension that music seems to allow you to explore. Would you agree with that statement?
UJR A3 Music allows me to make a journey into the harmony of creation, a journey through the building blocks of music, a journey using harmony, melody and timing.
TK Q4 Can we pick up on that thought for a moment. Some cultures, and some people (myself included), believe that music and sound are the building blocks of creation, is that something that you believe in too
UJRA 4 Yes, sound was the first thing in creation, in the universe, and through my music I can get a little bit closer to the sound and music of everything.
TK Q5 As a music reviewer, I get the opportunity to listen to music from many genres and cultures, but one thing I always notice, irrespective of instrument or the type of music played, is that sometimes, some very special musicians like yourself seem to bring something extra to a performance, go to a place that few of us get to experience. I recently saw master Sitar player Ustad Shahid Parvez perform and that was one of those experiences. It was almost like he was a conduit for his music and there was an effortless ease to everything, almost like music was breathing through him.
UJR A5 I call it “The Zone”. It’s a very special experience. It’s a connection to something past what we experience in our daily perceptions of life. It’s like entering a different dimension of reality and experience, and this is not an experience like anything else, you cannot get there by drugs or alcohol, this is almost a spiritual experience, you are becoming part of something far bigger, part of the harmony of creation. Musicians are not the only people who can enter this zone though, artists, writers, athletes, and many other people can at very special moments be part of something far larger than what is simply around us.
TK Q6 Going back for a moment to “Sky of Avalon”, your classical background and wanting to do new musical structures is clear here, and one of my favourite composers, Puccini, is a musical source. There are also many Arthurian Legends sources here too. You now live in Wales, and many of the original sources for these legends came from around this area. Was coming to live in Wales an unconscious (or conscious) return to a “spiritual home”?
UR A6 I can see why you ask the question, but no, I cannot say that Wales is a spiritual home for me, any more than any other country could be There are many inspirational places in its landscape, but like everywhere else, these special places are getting fewer. In many countries I find special places, but a “spiritual home” is somewhere on a higher plane, not on a physical one of geography or landscape. Wales is a place that I am very happy to be living in though.
TK Q7 As mentioned earlier, violinist Yehudi Menuhin is an early influence of yours. Your Sky guitars have additional frets to allow you to emulate sounds that a violin can make. I have a personal liking for the Gypsy Jazz music created by Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. Is Gypsy Jazz music something that has attracted you as a musician over the years?
UJR A7 Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt are both musicians I admire, and Gypsy Jazz is something that I have played from time to time, but it is not something that I have ever yet made serious efforts to explore and expand upon in any way.
TK Q8 I always pay close attention to the lyrics of any song. Words are special to me, they have a magic of their own, and sometimes I feel that too many people overlook them in a song. Would you agree with that?
UJR A8 Yes, people can too many times pay too little attention to the words. Words are very important to me and also to my music, that is why I always take great care with any words that I write for a song.
TK Q9 The way that we listen to music is changing in a world of digital downloads. There is a tendency often now for people to have an almost magpie approach to music and downloading only particular tracks from an album. It is becoming increasingly difficult for any artist to create a musical and lyrical story arc that is cohesive across a whole album and have that whole concept heard (unless buying a physical album). How do you feel about that change that is taking place?
UJR A9 It’s something that I am aware of, a digital world is changing many things, but as a musician, how people access my music is not something that I let influence the creation of my music. I do not let myself get involved with thoughts like that. The music is always the important thing for me.
TK Q10 Staying with this “modern world” for a moment, what are the big changes that you think it has brought to people?
UJR A10 Change can be good and bad, but we live in a fast changing world, and sometimes that can lead to us becoming far too superficial as people. There can be a tendency to lose who we are, to not pay enough attention to our inner selves, to lose our connection to the bigger picture of creation.
TK Q11 When I told some people that I would be interviewing you, a few seemed to focus on the speed of your guitar playing at times. To be honest, that surprised me as it is such a narrow part of what you bring to guitar. For me, you can play fast when the music requires, but also very slow, or anywhere in between, whatever is required for the music. Even when “faster” there always still seems to be space in your music and the core musical structure of harmony, melody and timing are never compromised. Any thoughts on that?
UJR A11 I never actually think of myself as a “fast” player. I play what that particular piece of music needs. It is always the music that I am responding to. The music is always the thing that I am expressing through my playing.
TK Q12 Keeping with this thought for a moment, a lot of young and new guitarists seem to concentrate on speed of playing, almost at times confusing speed for technique. Any thoughts or advice here?
UJR A12 I hear this at times, it’s almost like they are practicing arpeggios, trying to play them fast and concentrating too much in that one area. There are so many techniques to explore in guitar and you must be prepared to take the time to learn as much as you can from everyone and everything around you.
TK Q13 Sometimes, music fans, the music press, and the music industry in general can be very bad at trying to force artists into narrow merchandising compartments. Have you ever felt over the years that this view from others has restricted some of the avenues that you wanted to explore as an artist?
UJR A13 It’s true that some people try to compartmentalise music, but I have never let that be a restriction in my music. I have always felt free to be inspired by music from all sources and to explore the many possibilities that this has offered me over the years. For me there are no boundaries in music.
TK Q14 50 years of making music is a milestone for any performer to reach, but what keeps Uli Jon Roth as a person and a musician still not only picking up a guitar every day, but also getting out on the road, touring and performing to live audiences and writing new music?
UJR A14 Music is simply a part of me, we cannot be separated. It is not the only thing in my life, but without it my world would be a darker, bleaker and more torturous place. Music has given me so much in my life and sharing that with people is something special to be able to do.
TK Q15 The musical journey for you will never end in your lifetime, but where are you at the moment?
URL A15 I have been returning to classical guitar recently and exploring also the possibilities that 7 and 8 string classical guitars offer to me.
Thank you Uli Jon Roth for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions.It was a pleasure talking to you.Thank you also for 50 years of music and being someone who introduces me through their music to many different musical genres and music from many different cultures, for providing musical windows for me to look through and open wider to explore further on my own.
Uli Jon Roth is on tour, dates are below, and he will be playing Glasgow soon (not Edinburgh unfortunately this time round).
ULI JON ROTH 50th ANNIVERSARY SHOWS
Nov 29, 2018 Sheffield England Corporation
Nov 30, 2018 London
Dec 01, 2018 Coventry England Kasbah
Dec 02, 2018 Manchester England Academy 3
Dec 03, 2018 Glasgow Scotland Òran Mór
Dec 05, 2018 Milton Keynes England The Stables
NON UK DATES
Dec 08, 2018 Nordenham Germany Jahnhalle
Dec 14, 2018 Mannheim Germany 7er Club
Dec 15, 2018 Stommeln Germany Dierks Studios
Dec 16, 2018 Hamburg Germany Grünspan
Dec 18, 2018 Hannover Germany Capitol
Dec 20, 2018 Paris France Trabendo
Dec 21, 2018 Ghent Belgium The Crossover
Jan 16, 2019 Berlin Germany Frannz Club
Jan 17, 2019 Aschaffenburg Germany Colos-Saal
Feb 09, 2019 Lisbon Titanic Sur Mer
Tickets availability and booking from
https://www.seetickets.com/ and http://www.ulijonroth.com/tourdates
Interview by Tom King