Uli Jon Roth has always done his own thing.
The German-born guitar wiz walked away from sure fame and fortune when he left the Scorpions in 1978, then admittedly took the less-trodden path when he delved into neo-classical, symphonic music — shunning the hugely successful corporate rock and “hair band” craze of the 1980s.
In 1985, he all but ceased touring and spent more than a dozen years writing operas and symphonies for the guitar.
Somehow, it worked out pretty well: Roth’s unique solo work is now producing critically acclaimed albums, while he remains an iconic figure among hard rock loyalists.
(photo courtesy of ulijonroth.com)
A classically trained guitar player, there’s nonetheless no hiding Roth’s obsession with Jimi Hendrix. Roth’s style, in fact, is a merger of classical guitar and Hendrix-like riffs, and he was even a long-time partner of artist Monika Danemmann, Hendrix’ girlfriend at the time he died in 1970.
Roth has parlayed that style into a successful, if atypical, musical career.
A virtuoso at a young age, Roth even designed his own guitar. His teardrop-shaped Sky Guitar has different incarnations, but generally feature additional frets and, in one version, seven rather than six strings.
He was playing with a local fusion band in Germany when the Scorpions came calling in 1973. Guitarist Michael Schenker was leaving the band to join British rockers UFO, and had suggested Roth as a replacement. Roth, anxious to delve into hard rock, accepted.
Roth, singer Klaus Meine and Michael Schenker’s brother, Rudolf, lead the revived Scorpions to increasing success. They recorded four studio albums together, starting with 1974’s Fly to the Rainbow, and culminating with 1977’s Taken by Force.
But by the time they released a double-live album in 1978, Tokyo Tapes, Roth had already announced his intention to walk away.
As he recalled in an interview with Ultimate Guitar last year, Roth was simply heading in a different musical direction than Meine and Schenker, who were on the verge of huge pop metal success.
“The Scorpions were almost like an apprenticeship for me, where I was learning the ropes,” Roth told Ultimate Guitar. “Like to make albums, be on the road. You know, the music business and all that.”
He then formed his own band, Electric Sun, which took him in a new direction.
“There was a lot more responsibility and a lot more freedom at the same time,” he told Ultimate Guitar. “It was an inspirational time. I felt inspired at that time, in a very specific way. That was very different from the inspiration I felt during the Scorpions. It was like I was given a set of wings and I was using them. Those wings, by the way, were totally flying against the mainstream of what was going on at the time musically.”
“The music business was going into corporate rock, into ‘80s hair bands, all this melodic American corporate rock with a sleek, slick sound,” he said. “And I was going on a totally different path. Having said that, you know, it was reasonably successful in more aspects than one.”
Electric sun recorded three albums, starting with Earthquake in 1979, before disbanding in 1985.
Roth then virtually disappeared. He spent the better part of 13 years writing symphonies and operatic works — he would later perform with the Brussels Philarmonic.
“It didn’t seem long for me, because it was full of exploration,” Roth said. “And I was writing, cranking out these symphonic works. And I did maybe a handful of shows.”
The material was part of the music that later made it onto five solo albums he would record beginning in 1991, including his latest release, Under a Dark Sky, which he put out last year.
But Roth also looked back to his rock roots, and in recent years began doing reunion shows with the Scorpions, even taking the stage with Michael Schenker, who he replaced in the band, and Matthias Jabs, his own Scorpions replacement.
He’s also started the Sky Academy, which teaches guitar technique to younger and promising musicians.
So in the end, Roth took his own path and ended up with everything he could want musically — both the freedom of creating his own material and the thrill of playing with the heavy metal icons he walked away from so long ago.
And the beauty of it is he’s still far from done.
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(NOTE: This is part of my ongoing series of reports on guitar players who fly under the mainstream radar. Keep checking The Listening Room for future installments of guitar players you should know – JF)
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