Shred Barons

In 1980, there appeared in the letters section of a major guitar magazine the following announcement, courtesy of the then-new Shrapnel Records: "Seeking guitarists who annihilate a la Van Halen, Ulrich Roth, Michael Schenker, etc."

Within a few years, Shrapnel owner Mike Varney had discovered players like Yngwie Malmsteen and Paul Gilbert, both of whom raised the benchmark for virtuoso guitar playing several wide notches. By the end of the decade instrumental guitar albums by Joe Satriani and Steve Vai were topping the Billboard charts and the shred decade reached a ceremonious peak.

While Eddie Van Halen's contributions to virtuoso guitar playing are even today widely acknowledged the other two guitarists most responsible, Schenker and Roth have been relegated to little more than cult status in the United States. But their influence not only on shred but on almost every form of hard rock and metal that emerged during the Eighties is undeniable.

The second-generation artists, at least, are keenly aware of their debt to Roth and Schenker. "Uli Roth had the whole thing down: his technique, his tone, the Hendrixisms mixed with that Euro-classic style of modal playing'' was Kirk Hammett's assessment in Guitar World. Megadeth's Dave Mustaine was more succinct: When I first heard Michael Schenker he made my butt cheeks tighten. I learned a lot about playing riffs from listening to him. Steve Vai, too, remains in awe of Roth's orchestral arrangements and seven-string playing, and Slash tips his top hat to Schenker, whose licks he struggled to play when he first slung on a six-string. But Schenker and Roth's biggest disciple remains Yngwie Malmsteen who recently paid the latter the supreme tribute by covering his Scorpions' tour de force "The Sails of Charon '' on his Inspiration album.

Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth invented shred back during a time when the term was associated more with breakfast cereal and top-secret documents than guitar playing. In the late Seventies Schenker's playing with UFO on songs like "Rock Bottom" and "Only You Can Rock Me" and Roth's performances with the Scorpions on "The Sails of Charon" and "All Night Long" were characterized by an impressive combination of technical prowess, rich tone, expressive phrasing and melodic finesse. The guitarists, both native Germans had something else in common: each burned up their fretboards with dazzling displays of speed while playing incredibly tasteful and tuneful licks. Like Ritchie Blackmore before them and Eddie Van Halen later, they incorporated classical music motifs into their playing, demonstrating that one needn't dwell within the confines of blues-based pentatonic scales in order to rock.

With the Nineties coming to a close, Joe Satriani has joined the legion of guitarists paying tribute to Schenker and Roth by asking them to join him on the latest G3 tour in Europe, which took place in May. "Michael and Uli are two of my favorite guitarists of all time, " says Satch.

"It was really an honor to be asked to join the tour", says Roth. "Michael and Joe are among the best players in the world, though so different in their styles and approaches."

Surprisingly, prior to Satriani's gesture no one had asked Roth and Schenker to appear on the same stage together over the last 25 years, even though the guitarists have plenty in common. Roth and Schenker became aware of each other when both were children Hannover, Germany. "Michael and I listened to similar things when we were growing up" says Roth, "but we soon branched off in different directions. I discovered Jimi Hendrix and classical music early on whereas he was more into Rory Gallagher and Leslie West. But we were both always very much into melody and we're both extremely sound conscious. He has his unique trademark tone and I know that he was always conscious of making his guitar sound as good as possible."

"In Germany most of the music we heard came from England," says Schenker, "but we weren't impressed by it. It was more difficult to hear rock music in Germany- you had to search for it. We had more space and freedom to develop because we weren't being influenced by a market that was dictating what was fashionable on a day to day basis." When Schenker parted ways with his brother Rudolf's band, the Scorpions, in 1973 to join UFO, he recommended Roth for the gig. The two even shared writing credits for the Scorpions 'FIy to the Rainbow'. In the late seventies both guitarists quit their bands after recording double live albums (UFO's Strangers in the Night and the Scorpions' Tokyo Tapes), just as they were on the brink of Major worldwide success. Afterwards they started concentrating on solo projects--Schenker forming the Michael Schenker Group and Roth setting out with Electric Sun. Today, the two guitarists' business affairs are handled by the same manager.

That no one had bothered asking Roth and Schenker to share the same stage may be because they've gone in very different directions since the late Seventies. With the Michael Schenker Group and MSG, Schenker continued working on his distinctive brand of melodic hard rock. More recently, Schenker got back together with all of his original bandmates in UFO, although he did record a few albums with the Michael Schenker Group last year, including a live retrospective of his 25-year career The Michael Schenker Story Live (available for $30 only at his shows or from Michael Schenker Management, 13610 N Scottsdale Rd, Suite 10-108 Scottsdale AZ 85254)

"I almost refused to do the G3 tour because UFO is now my main priority'' notes Schenker. "However there was a gap in our touring schedule and the band and my manager encouraged me to do it. I am committed to UFO because I want to know how much further the band can go. The record after Strangers in the Night could have been the biggest UFO record ever, but I quit the band. UFO stopped right in the middle of its progress. After all these years I felt that I had gone through enough experiments and now I want to see what more can come out of the band. I like that mystery".

As for Roth, he started exploring classical music during the Eighties. He didn't exactly trade in his ''Electric gypsy'' wardrobe for a tux and tails, however, as a distinct Hendrix influence resonated throughout his work with Electric Sun. Progressively distancing himself from the rock and roll world, Roth stopped touring altogether by 1985. During this time, he wrote several complete symphonies and a concerto for guitar and orchestra. He played live only a handful of times, including a televised concert where he played his first symphony with a 90-piece orchestra, as well as arrangements of classical pieces such as Vivaldi's Four Seasons and selections by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Roth's most recent recorded effort, Prologue to the Symphonic Legends by Sky of Avalon (Saraya, PO Box 192, Whitehall, MI 49461) features full orchestral arrangements and Roth's soaring of electric guitar playing, which has advanced astoundingly since his Scorpions days.

"Even when I was playing with the Scorpions I was always studying classical music ''says Roth. I was in a rock band and I never really saw myself as a rock guitar player. I guess I was one. But I always wanted to be something else. I wanted to achieve what you could do on a violin with a guitar."

Roth's desire to emulate the range and expressiveness of the violin led him to develop the Sky guitar, which, in its current incarnation features seven strings and an extended fret board with extra frets. "Back when I was with the Scorpions a guitar builder in Brighton offered to make me my own guitar any way I would like and I thought What a concept! '' says Roth. "I questioned everything that had come before and tried to improve on it. I wanted more range, so I came up with a body shaped like a teardrop, but it wasn't visually appealing, so I added an S shape to the teardrop to give it more balance. I had the builder put as many frets on the neck as he possibly could. On my current Sky guitar the frets above the 24th fret are placed in whole tones because it is too difficult to play above there with the frets placed so closely together. "I didn't want to lose the warm sound of the neck pickup, so we mounted the pickup under the fretboard'' he continues. "That actually worked and sounded good. My pickups are made by John Oram, who figured out how to make a pickup that provides full sounding tone and great sustain in the guitar's highest range. The next step was to add more range in the bass end so l came up with the idea of a seven-string guitar."

Although Schenker is just as meticulous about his tone as Roth, he has stuck with the same style of Gibson Flying V that he's used ever since joining UFO. "I borrowed my brother Rudolf's Flying V once, and I really liked the sound of that guitar through my 50-watt Marshall" says Schenker. "It reminded me of the tone that Leslie West used to get. There really isn't much to the Flying V. It's just a pickup and wood. The important thing is the combination of the wood and pickup. It's best if the guitar sounds good right from the beginning without any EQ or effects. Since it works I haven't had to fix it."

Schenker has gone through several Flying Vs over the years, including a distinctive black-and-white pattern guitar that has become his trademark since he formed the Michael Schenker Group. "I left the first one of those that I ever had behind at the airport in 1984 " says Schenker. "I went to pick up my children and I forgot about my guitar " Currently, his favorite guitar is a white Flying-V that his guitar tech gave to him as a backup.

While the two guitarists have different tastes in guitars they do admit to a bias for Marshall amps. Roth has the same 1972 100-watt Marshall Super Lead Tremolo that he's used since he joined the Scorpions, which he runs through a 4x 12 cabinet loaded with 80-watt Celestion speakers. Schenker plays through a two-channel 50-watt Marshall JCM800. I've heard that the JCM800 was designed to duplicate the sound I had with UFO, " says Schenker. I used to use a wah-wah pedal as an equalizer but now I don't need to use it so much because the amp already has that midrange that I like."

Although both guitarists have maintained relatively low profiles of late, the European G3 tour will certainly remind people that Roth and Schenker are outstanding influential artists whose music remains as relevant today as it was in the Seventies- just ask Kirk Hammett or Yngwie Malmsteen.

The truth be told even at their respective peaks they didn't really fit in with what was popular at the time Like a hard rock equivalent of the Velvet Underground, Roth and Schenker may not have sold a wealth of records but it seems that everyone who ever heard them or saw them live went on to become guitar virtuosos.

"I've never really known whether people are hungry for guitar music or not," says Schenker. "I've always done whatever I liked to do whether it was hard rock music or whatever. I've survived three or four different scene changes or trends because, even though I was aware of it afterwards, I never felt connected to any trends. I have a certain audience that likes what I do and those are the people I play for- -and myself. The main thing is for me to be inspired and to like what I am doing."

"Musicians nowadays don't seem to challenge themselves to go to the highest levels of what they can do," says Roth. "They're more interested in record sales and making a living. That's awful because to me music is sacred. You have a great responsibility as a musician particularly if you become a star. Bands like Oasis have a God-given responsibility to do the right thing because you can influence people's outlook on life. You're Iike a parent to your audience, even if you are only an 18-year old. Not being a good parent towards your children is very wrong. And the fans are somewhat responsible as well. We make people into stars by voting for them with our money. It's no good blaming the leaders when the followers are just as responsible. Unless our society changes on some deeper level, we will drift on in this sea of superficiality until we all drown, numb with repetition and triviality. I hope, somehow that a new generation of musicians can stop that from happening.

Originally published in the July 1998 issue of Guitar World