From Sting to Sky
Interview with Ex-Scorpions Guitarist Uli Jon Roth
By Thomas Amoriello Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair
While in his early twenties, Ulrich Roth (b. 1954) was a member of a music group popular in Germany and later known worldwide, The Scorpions. Before their monumental success, he left the group in pursuit of a different artistic journey. His vision included composing original music not intended for the purposes of commercial success, in addition to recording and performing transcriptions, arrangements, and pastiches of works by major classical composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, Chopin, and more.
He used the unlikely instrument of the electric guitar in an approach more similar to a violin, as opposed to stereotypical guitar-playing or even formal classical guitar playing techniques. His music was performed on a unique, innovative variant of his instrument that Uli Jon Roth conceptualized and designed along with Greek-born luthier Andreas Demetriou in England. The intention of his creation, known as a Sky Guitar, was to be able to emulate the high notes of a violin, it contained many extra frets and at times an additional string. Later on, Roth founded his Sky Academy workshop, which has a unique presentation unlike others, encouraging attendees to reconsider their approach to music or even their instrument at hand.
Roth is a brilliant technician with astounding facility that transcends his instrument, but many may consider his musical philosophies as esoteric, sometimes even too “new age,” too metaphysical, or including elements of cosmology. In this interview, we hear some of Uli Jon Roth’s ideas on music and the evolution of the guitar.
What is your view on the link between music and spirituality?
Music originates from the world of the unseen. Spirit is what gives all living things the spark of life. It makes them expand, lifts them up, and fills them with positive energy—the life force. It also imbues music with life and meaning. Music is very closely connected with spirit. For me, music without those kinds of sparks is pretty much dead, or without strength or higher value. Just like our guitars, pianos, and violins need to be in tune, we also need to be in tune. That is what I connect with the word spirituality.
Please share with us your philosophy and views that led to the creation of your innovative instrument that you have poetically called the Sky Guitar.
I designed the Sky Guitar in order to enable me to do things that were previously impossible on traditional guitars. In the beginning, it was particularly the somewhat limited three-and-a-half octave range of standard guitars that I found very limiting. I often found myself literally running out of frets, and the logic of several of my solos demanded that I needed some higher notes.
Therefore the seven-string Sky Guitar encompasses the range of a cello plus that of a violin. That is almost double the standard range for guitars. I wanted an instrument that enables me to play the exact part of a violin concerto, without having to transpose the melody down an octave. That would ruin the orchestration and sounds completely wrong in most cases.
What inspired you to form your Sky Academy and share your knowledge and musical philosophies with other musicians?
It was something that was my calling. Something that was an important part of my destiny. I love exploring that which is hidden under the surface layers of music, that which is not usually spoken about, but which is at the very heart of music. I have occupied myself intensely for some 50 years with these kinds of questions, and I am still always finding new things! But I am only teaching that which I know works from my own experiences and that which has helped me to get better. I love teaching those things that I am convinced about, that have the potential to make a contribution to the progress of others. I feel connected to my students. We are all fellow journeymen, and we are all students. There are still so many things to be discovered.
Does Sky Academy have a mission statement?
Not really yet, but it should have . . . I guess, perhaps, the central purpose of Sky Academy is to find a way to live life according to the principles of music, which are also the same laws that govern the universe. Music can teach us so much more than just how to play an instrument. Music can heal us and help center our minds and souls. It can help us find our true selves, and it can help us to communicate and interact with others in a much more “musical” way—a better way.
Sky Academy aims to be a source of inspiration to the students and to help them find their own voice in music and in life. The aim is to become in tune with the musical laws and to overcome obstacles in our own minds in order to be “musically liberated.” Then, anything is possible. You will also become a much better musician and instrumentalist in the process, as long as you go about it in the right way and have sufficient dedication to embark on the journey you must travel in order to get there. The aim is to transcend the necessary level of pure craftsmanship and to reach the much rarer plateau of the true artist. Craftsmanship is the lower octave of Art. Most musicians are craftsmen; few are artists. But we definitely need more artists in this world!
“A good teacher of children is he who can still think and feel like a child. That is the first pre-requisite. A child teaching a child, but with the knowledge and ‘wisdom’ of an adult.”
In your workshops you often relate musical notes to colors and taste. Do you have synesthesia?
Yes, I have it to a good degree, but I hasten to add that it is not a medical condition. And I have learned to kind of switch it on and off at will, more or less. Therefore I am not at the constant mercy of it like some people, and I’m glad about that. I think it would cloud my judgment. With some people, these things tend to take over, and then these abilities are pretty useless in terms of doing anything meaningful with them. I don’t want to be at the mercy of any of my senses.
On the contrary, sense perception needs to be mastered, interpreted and used wisely—meaning intentionally and skillfully. That goes for all the senses, of which there are quite a few more than the five that we learn about in school and science, by the way. I am very lucky in that I can consciously switch to various modes of perception at will, and I can do it pretty much instantly. This is something I have learned to do and practiced a lot when I was much younger. Back then I did investigate my senses, experimented a lot and trained them in a kind of Jedi way almost, but there is still vast room for improvement. I never cease to learn and try to improve my abilities. That’s very important, otherwise there’s no point continuing the journey, is there? The most powerful tool is to juxtapose the way we employ the senses and to combine their strengths. To tune into their different, hidden octaves, so to say, and to use a tunnel-vision approach, magnifying the results to see what is really there. Cross-connecting the various senses in unusual but powerful combinations and juxtaposing, translating the messages from one sensory organ to the next. The results can be amazing and revealing. These, in conjunction with inspiration, intuition, and inner knowledge are the best tools to get to the root of things to connect with the true essence.
For instance, in Sky Academy, I am always making a big point of encouraging the students to close their eyes and to start SEEING with their ears. I do that all the time . . . The results are magical. Yes, ears can see! And so can the nose, the skin, the third eye, and so forth. And yes, eyes can hear, and they can feel the velvet of a Rembrandt brush stroke. Because photons are carrying the message undiluted and in real time directly into the center of our perception. All we need to do is tune in on the right wavelength, and we start perceiving amazing things. That way I have access to many different angles of the spectrum. And I am still finding new angles, which is very exciting!
It is endless . . . Synesthesia takes on so many different forms with different people, but it is not always the same, scientifically speaking. One needs to learn how to use it effectively. Otherwise it is just like a drug and offers little meaning. Synesthesia offers a gateway to unseen worlds, and it helps enormously when it comes to a three-dimensional kind of musical perception. It is the difference between superficial listening and the full-on 360-degree experience that can unfold if we have access to the keys, which can unlock these vistas.
Over the years, I have found ways to use synesthesia in a meaningful way which is very helpful in understanding and connecting with the deeper layers, the spirit of music. Some of that—quite a lot, actually—can be taught. But not all of it. Not everyone can have access to the inner sanctum of music itself. To enter there one needs a positive and loving heart and the deepest commitment. There is much more to it than just the colors of the notes, however. That is just the tip of the iceberg, or perhaps a scintillating icing on the cake. There is so much more to it than that, fascinating as this is, though. The whole thing is a beautiful interlocking, multi-faceted system, which includes frequencies of emotions, the world of numbers, astrophysical aspects, symmetries, and even more. I am particularly fascinated by the realization of how interconnected all these different vantage points are and why things are the way they seem to be. There lies a vast storehouse of knowledge in this; and it is as yet largely unexplored.
Music resonates deeply within us, and in a wider sense we ourselves are music. Every organ of the body has a root note, and our minds work in a similar way as harmonies, melodies, and rhythms do. These things are not something that can be explained in a single sentence. One needs to delve into it deeply, and then a whole new world opens up. One begins to see music in a new way. It is like a rebirth of the senses, or rather an awakening of the senses to experience and fathom the higher octaves that are hidden within and emanate from all things. It is the difference between active listening—which I call alpha listening—on a deep level, and passive listening, which is the way most musicians and most people are experiencing music and all things.
This blog will also be read by mostly non-guitarists who teach music to children in a school setting. Do you have any advice or thoughts that would be inspiring, or a message that you feel will benefit them?
Maybe, although it is hard to give random advice like that. Each situation is different, as is each class and each teacher. In general, I have a feeling that a lot of teachers are over-challenging the “not-so-musically-aware” children with too much unnecessary information. Stuff they are not ready to digest yet. Stuff that means very little to them and with which they cannot resonate. The result is alienation.
I am always trying to first connect people with the roots and heart of music, and that can be done in surprisingly simple ways. Above all, one needs to be inspired when teaching, and one needs to achieve an inner resonance with the children. A good teacher of children is he who can still think and feel like a child. That is the first pre-requisite. A child teaching a child, but with the knowledge and “wisdom” of an adult.
“Just like our guitars, pianos, and violins need to be in tune, we also need to be in tune.”
You have been a pioneer in the area of performing classical melodies and arrangements by historical composers such as Vivaldi and Paganinni on the electric guitar, in addition to incorporating this genre into a rock setting. Was this a gradual development or a revelation that came to you at once?
It was a gradual development, although early on I dreamed of one day being able to write my own violin concerto. But in the beginning, I didn’t have the skills for that. I first had to learn the tools of the trade, so to speak. It was just a distant, somewhat pretentious dream.
You have traveled the world and presented your workshops to guitarists of various playing abilities. Is there a unifying factor or statement that is close to your heart that you feel will benefit all?
All persons are at different stages in their personal lives. Some are beginners, some are advanced, some are active seekers and ambitious to improve, and others are more passive in their general outlook. There isn’t a single idea or sentence that can be understood by all in the same way. Instead, it is more the combined impact of the teachings that is important. Certain key ideas may be completely inspirational and eye-opening for some, while others are struggling to comprehend them, or it completely passes them by.
In my seminars I am always trying to bring across the gist, the essence of those ideas, but not all ideas will reach all people on the same level, because not all people have equal access to the same mental frequencies. That access is contingent on the respective level of their mental and emotional evolvement, as well as their ability to open up to new ideas and assimilate their implications. I aim to turn on light bulbs in the minds of the participants, to light up parts of their subconscious, which they have had no access to, but which should be lit up. We are using the language of music to do that. One has to be ready for certain ideas. We can only understand that which we are ready for. I am always aware of that and am trying to tailor the teachings to the level of those who are in front of me without compromising and diluting the essence. Sometimes that is not an easy thing to do, though, and I don’t think I’m always fully succeeding. I guess, that’s life.
Most of our readers earn their living by teaching orchestra, band, and chorus students between the ages of 10–17 in large group settings. This can be stressful and equally rewarding work. Sometimes it can deter from their “personal art.” Any advice in this area?
I don’t think there are easy answers to this very real problem . . . Yes, a lot of potentially creative people are forced by life’s circumstances to spend most of their valuable time making a living. That is a shame, but this is the way this world is structured unfortunately. Music and art don’t have the position and importance in todays’ societies that they should have. A McDonald’s approach to culture seems to rule the world increasingly. As a result, nowadays it is extremely difficult for the vast majority of musicians to make a decent living. So, something has to give, and there need to be compromises.
I think, those of your readers who feel that way need to budget their precious time wisely . . . Otherwise they will not have enough energy left to be creative after a hard day’s work. Our psychic energy supply is not endless. It resembles fuel in a tank, and during sleep and rest it gets recharged. We have only a certain amount of high-octane quality fuel each day. Use it wisely.
It is all about ones’ priorities. And those choices have to be made by all of us. Sometimes it is not easy. But where there is a will, there is usually a way.
Recommended Classroom Listening from Uli Jon Roth
- The Heart of Chopin
- Spanish Fantasy
- Fire, Ice & Wind
- Rondo Alla Turka (Mozart)
- Beethoven Paraphrase
- Baba Yaga (Mussorgskij)
- Air De Aranuez
- Paganini Paraphrase
- Metamorphosis of Vivadi’s Four Seasons
Read past articles by Thomas Amoriello:
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Five
- A Grownup Conversation with Raffi
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Four
- A Conductor’s Tale: Interview with American Young Voices Conductor Francisco J. Núñez
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Three
- A Cultural Treasure: Interview with Sharon Isbin, Julliard Classical Guitar Program Founder
- The Season’s Greeting’s Guitarist: Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Al Pitrelli
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Two
- The Student Teacher in the Guitar Classroom
- Double Trouble: Interview with Innovative Musician Gabriel Guardian
- The Patriotic Guitarist: Master Sergeant Alan Prather of “The President’s Own”
- Interview with Progressive Funk-Rock Guitarist DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight
- Heavy Metal Guitar: Neo-Classical Style
- Heavy Metal Guitar: From Times Square to Netflix and Beyond
- Make a Sound! Interview with Drummer Michael Bland
- What about the Electric Bass?
- An Article for Jazz Educators: Interview with Guitarist Kevin Eubanks
- Hip Hop Empowers: Interview with Harlem-Raised, Boston-Based Hip Hop Artist Billy Dean Thomas
- Heavy Metal Guitar Style: Virtuoso Shred Guitar with Toby Knapp
- Adult Education: Rock Camp
- Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books
- Empowering the Musician in Your Classroom
About the author:
Thomas Amoriello Jr. serves as the chair on the NAfME Council for Guitar Education and is also the former Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association (NJMEA). He has had more than fifty guitar and ukulele advocacy articles published in music education journals in Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, Illinois, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. Tom has taught guitar classes for the Flemington Raritan School District in Flemington, New Jersey, since 2005 and was also an adjunct guitar instructor at Cumberland County College, New Jersey, for five years. He has earned a Master of Music Degree in Classical Guitar Performance from Shenandoah Conservatory and a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Rowan University. His primary teachers have been Alice Artzt, Glenn Caluda, David Crittenden, and Joseph Mayes. He has performed in the master classes of Benjamin Verdery in Maui, Hawaii, and Angelo Gilardino and Luigi Biscaldi in Biella, Italy.
During his time on the NJMEA board he has directed guitar festivals and drafted the proposal to approve the first ever NJMEA Honors Guitar Ensemble. Tom is an advocate for class guitar programs in public schools and has been a clinician presenting his “Guitar for the K–12 Music Educator” for the Guitar Foundation of America Festivals in Charleston, South Carolina, and Columbus, Georgia; Lehigh Valley Guitar Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society Festival, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; NAfME Biennial Conferences in Baltimore and Atlantic City; as well as other state music education conferences in New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. He has twice been featured on episodes of “Classroom Closeup–NJ,” which aired on New Jersey Public Television. He is the author of the children’s picture books A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo and Ukulele Sam Strums in the Sand, both available from Black Rose Writing. He recently made a heavy metal recording with a stellar roster of musicians including former members of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and Dio that was released on H42 Records of Hamburg, Germany. The record released on 12-inch vinyl and digital platforms has received favorable reviews in many European rock magazines and appeared on the 2018 Top 15 Metal Albums list by Los Angeles KNAC Radio (Contributor Dr. Metal). His next recording is a 5-track EP called “Dear Dark,” which will be released by Ice Fall Records on cassette in March 2020 and features former members of Megadeth, King Diamond, TNT, and Dokken. Visit thomasamoriello.com for more information.
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