By Ferdy Belland
“We’ve played Canada almost every year, lately,” begins guitar god Uli Jon Roth. “But only Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City: that was it. When approached with the chance to play places like Calgary, I immediately said ‘YES!’ I’d always wanted to play there. Let’s go for it! It wasn’t a commercial decision. The big money is in the big cities, but it’s such a big, beautiful country!”
Uli Jon Roth ignited his virtuoso career in the early ‘70s as the lead guitarist of the incendiary Scorpions, replacing Michael Schenker, later of UFO and Ratt. Roth was immediately worshipped as a burning Hendrixy flame in the European rock scene, combining flashy melodic and intricate harmonic elements of psychedelia, jazz-fusion, progressive rock, and neo-classical influences into his hypnotic style. After the release of the band’s masterpiece Taken By Force (1977), he left over creative differences to form the prototype prog-metal band Electric Sun with Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker. They released three albums before Roth decided on the solo path.
“It’s a very diverse program,” says Roth, with joyous exuberance that defies his 63 years. He’s referring to the set list for the upcoming tour.
“We’re playing a ‘Best of Electric Sun’ for the first time in 40 years. That’s the main bulk of the show, along with some of the Tokyo Tapes (Scorpions 1978 double live album). [That includes] my favorites, like “Sails of Charon” and ”Fly to the Rainbow.” And for those who like my more virtuoso playing, there’s a pre-show VIP event. We play “Metamorphosis,” which is based on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” I like playing that. It’s not music normally played in a rock club. We’re performing it in a private setting. It’s different. It’s very exciting!”
As one consumed by music all his life, it’s startling to learn that Roth’s approach to music is somewhat insular.
“I stopped listening to music 30 years ago,” Roth admits.
“Don’t ask me why! I just prefer the silence. I love to think a lot, and you can’t think with music running. I’m not a consumer-type with music. There’s certainly a lot of talented younger players out there. I know that for a fact. Nowadays, I’m not interested in guitar playing as such. If someone plays really well, I don’t get too excited about it. I’m more interested in music as a whole. If something’s musically outstanding, then yes: that gets to me.”
Roth elaborates, ”I was driving back to my home in Wales from Germany. I had a lot of guitars on board: I don’t like to fly them. It was a long drive. The car has a good stereo, so I listened to a lot of really nice classical music pieces. But I can’t listen to music for a long time. I hear two or three pieces and that’s enough. It’s a very intense experience. I’m taking everything in. It’s almost like work! It takes a lot out of me.”
Despite his listening habits (or lack thereof), Uli Jon Roth remains a prolific composer.
“I’ve written a new Electric Sun song for the first time in decades! I started it way back in 1983. A strong idea, but I never did anything with it. For this tour, I thought it’d be nice to complete it. I have far more unfinished pieces than finished pieces; cupboards full of stuff that haven’t been recorded yet. I’m hard to please when it comes to my own music. Before I record it, I have to be satisfied.”
As a much-respected fretboard wizard with a longstanding global following, Roth’s creative process might appear somewhat laissez-faire; but that’s simply not true.
“I don’t have a musical regimen. I dropped that 40 years ago. I do occasionally play piano in the morning. When we have a tour, we’ll rehearse, so I’ll play then. Or if I have to brush up on some tricky piece. I used to practice a lot when I was a kid, but that was then. I don’t need to practice anymore. It’s all in the system. It’s true: the less I play, the better I get.”
Roth’s refusal to be locked within a six-string prison only illuminates his broad-ranging musical scope.
“The piano’s perhaps my favorite instrument to write on. Some of the best ideas come while driving, or on an airplane, and it just pops into your mind and you start working. Or you sit down with a guitar and you strike a chord, and suddenly that chord starts telling you a story and lures you into something. And lo and behold, you’ve got a chord progression and a melody.”
He continues, “I’m trying to never do the same thing twice. I’m always striving to cover new ground, or integrate aspects I haven’t delved into before. That’s what’s interesting to me: the process of discovery, and manifesting new ideas, in ways that others relate to.”
Roth concludes, “I think like a composer. I think like a guitarist, but I also know how to think like a pianist, or a violinist, and that’s important when writing for certain instruments – knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument and finding the center point. Then the music will sound really good. Sometimes there’s a certain cross-pollination going on. I learned a lot on the guitar by thinking like a pianist, or like a violinist. Sometimes I’ll bring guitar mannerisms or guitar language into the piano. That’s how you find new forms of musical expression.”
Uli Jon Roth’s Western Canadian leg of his Triple Anniversary World Tour hits Distortion on June 20 (Calgary), the Starlite Room on June 21 (Edmonton), the Exchange on June 22 (Regina), and the Park Theatre on June 23 (Winnipeg)Distortion, Exchange, Guitar wizard, Park Theatre, Starlite Room, Triple Anniversary World Tour, Uli Jon Roth, Western Canada