An interview with Michael Schenker—Good Times for the German Guitar God
This interview was originally published in 2015. Some rock legends are made as much by off-stage antics as by abilities on an instrument. There’s the incident with the mudshark, credited either to Frank Zappa or Led Zeppelin or Vanilla Fudge, depending on which roadie you want to believe. Then there’s the thing with the dove, […]
This interview was originally published in 2015.
Some rock legends are made as much by off-stage antics as by abilities on an instrument. There’s the incident with the mudshark, credited either to Frank Zappa or Led Zeppelin or Vanilla Fudge, depending on which roadie you want to believe. Then there’s the thing with the dove, and the bat, and the Alamo, all in the hands of one Ozzy Osbourne. And the Moon — Keith, of the Who — demonstrated a degree of lunacy practically unrivaled in rock history.
Michael Schenker is one of those artists who has alternately showcased immense musical talents, and almost career-ending bouts of wreckless abandon — the kind that causes famous lead guitarists to walk off a stage mid-show, not to return.
But along the way, Schenker has laid down some of the most killer solos in rock, and been part of at least a couple of the most popular bands in the world. He joined Scorpions at age 15, along with his vocalist from a prior group, Klaus Meine, who is still with the group to this day. Schenker recorded the Scorps’ debut album Lonesome Crow, then, during the tour for that disc, Schenker accepted a position as lead guitarist for the headlining act, UFO.
He was part of that band during its most classic period, recording the albums Phenomenon and Lights Out, among others, before briefly re-joining big brother Rudolph in the Scorpions — just in time to record a few songs on the Lovedrive album.
Clearly, however, he needed to be the boss. Schenker has been fronting various incarnations of his own Michael Schenker group since 1979, in between reunions with UFO. And now Schenker has a new album out with his latest group, Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock, titled Spirit on a Mission.
The album features 12 tracks of heavy-yet-melodic rock that ties Schenker both to the past and the modern age, with 7-string guitars and screaming solos that bring out the best of the vaunted guitar hero, circa 2015.
Schenker tours the States beginning at the end of March, and for the first time ever, former Scorpions, drummer Herman Rarebell and bassist Francis Buchholz — who are both members of Schenker’s Temple of Rock — will be with him, along with vocalist Doogie White (formerly with Rainbow and Yngwie) and longtime Schenker cohort, guitarist/keyboardist Wayne Findlay.
In this exclusive interview Guitar.com Editor Adam St. James spoke with Schenker about his gear, his tone, his adept — though accidental — use of modes and outside notes, and so much more.
Guitar.com: Hi Michael. How are you today?
Schenker: Good, how are you?
Guitar.com: I’m doing great. So I’m in Chicago. Where are you today?
Schenker: What is the weather like in Chicago?
Guitar.com: Brutally cold.
Schenker: Do you have snow?
Guitar.com: Yeah, we’ve got about a foot and a half of snow that has been sitting here for awhile. The temperature is way below freezing.
Schenker: Oh wow.
Guitar.com: Where are you right now?
Schenker: I’m in Brighton. The sun was shining all day long! (laughs).
Guitar.com: What’s the temperature there?
Schenker: The temperature is around 8 centigrade. I don’t know what that would be in Fahrenheit.
Guitar.com: Much better than it is here, that’s for sure. So I’m really enjoying the new album. It sounds great.
Schenker: Oh you like it?
Guitar.com: Oh yes, definitely.
Guitar.com: Really good tunes, really good songwriting. Some awesome solos. I know you had some issues during the recording, right? Somebody broke in and stole some of your guitars and the tapes?
Schenker: Yeah, that was a bummer. That was really upsetting. It was just like out of the blue, a punch in the face. But, you know, I got a phone call: “Michael, four of your guitars got stolen and some music.” I couldn’t believe it, you know. And lucky me it was not compositions. It was just some performances. And so we just got together, got over it, and we worked twice as hard and got it twice as good.
Guitar.com: There you go. A little more refinement to your ideas, right?
Schenker: Yeah. (laughs)
Guitar.com: So how did you approach the songwriting on this album. I know you’ve been working with Doogie for a bit. Do you send him instrumental tracks, demos, or something for him to put words and melodies to?
Schenker: It’s basically, I have bits and pieces, and when it’s time to make a record, I just go to the studio. Actually, when I have bits and pieces, I first put them together into songs, make sure I have enough for a song. And then I go to the studio and I put down the ideas and the song arrangements, and I send it to Doogie, and I tell him, “Doogie, make it melodic.”
That’s basically the only thing I tell him. But he really made a real good effort this time. I’m very happy with how his vocals turned out.
Guitar.com: Does he come back to you sometimes and say, “Hey, I need you to play this part four times instead of two…” and stuff like that?
Schenker: “Why don’t we do this…” And he comes up with four or five different vocal lines, and I tell him which one I think is the best one, and he goes from there. It’s like building a house, step by step.
Guitar.com: And when you start laying down solos, do you do multiple takes?
Schenker: All sorts of different things. If I’m lucky, I do one take. And sometimes I kind of keep playing better ones, all the same solo. It’s improvisation. Sometimes I don’t know what to choose, that’s the problem. And then other times I may write the solo. I can’t remember what I did on this one, if I did that or not. But I know I did on the middle part of “Lord of the Lost and Lonely.”
it all depends on the circumstance, and how you’re doing. The thing is, there’s so many different ways, when you self-express, there are so many… there’s always another part that pops in that you don’t want to lose. (laughs). it’s very, very hard. It’s the hardest thing to make a choice.
Guitar.com: Right. And then when you go out and play the songs live, do you try to stick close to what you recorded?
Schenker: Yeah, you know, that seems to be the way I do it. But, somehow, over a period of time, I kind of get it roughly, because I feel that people may expect a certain similarity. But then I also have ideas, when I want to do something additional, like a solo on the end. Maybe stick with a similar solo in the middle, and then maybe improvise a different solo on the end. Or maybe I stick with the main parts of the solo and add other things to it. There’s all sorts of different ways with how I might deal with it, when it’s time to focus on that.
Guitar.com: I think you’re right. I think that your fans generally might want to hear something similar to what you played on the album, but we all want to hear you take off and improvise too.
Schenker: Right. And so that is basically something that I am aware of, so that’s why I sometimes put solos on the outro, over the same chords. Then you get both sides. That is another way of doing it too.
Guitar.com: So I wonder about a couple of things I hear in specific songs on the new album. In “Live and Let Live,” you have a solo — the first solo — it sounds like you’re playing slide guitar.
Schenker: Yeah, it’s a slide. (laughs)
Guitar.com: OK. Is it a regular glass or metal slide you put on your finger?
Schenker: Yeah. It’s a glass slide.
Guitar.com: Is there a certain brand of slide that you like?
Schenker: It’s not the thick glass. I don’t know the measurements. It’s a petite piece of glass, not those big heavy bottlenecks. It’s pretty light-weight.
Guitar.com: Does it cover your whole finger?
Schenker: It can. It is longer. I use it up to the second joint. But it sticks out on top.
Guitar.com: What finger do you wear the slide on?
Schenker: The ring finger.
Guitar.com: And don’t you also use, what do you call it? The “Howler,” right?
Schenker: Yeah. The Howler is on “Something of the Night.” It’s that spooky sounding thing.
Guitar.com: It’s a magnet, right?
Schenker: No. it’s a device and a technique. The magnet is only to hold it on the guitar. It’s a technique more than anything. I used it on the first Temple of Rock album, on the song “Miss Claustrophobia.” And then I did Bridge The Gap and then somebody in Japan pointed out, “You didn’t use the Howler.” And I said, “Yes, you’re right? I forgot.”
And so I said, “I’m gonna put it in next time.” And so on this album I remembered to use the Howler. And I actually got some really good stuff going on it on that song, “Something of the Night.” So it’s back.
Guitar.com: Cool. Well I’ve got to see how you do that when you’re in Chicago.
Guitar.com: So how do you interact with Wayne?
Schenker: After Bridge the Gap, which was a slow introduction to 7-strings — and I already knew that for the next one, because I had been watching Wayne develop his 7-string thing — so for Spirit on a Mission I already knew that I was going to introduce more 7-string, to really cover the whole spectrum of sounds and emotion of all my career, and experiences. Combine the old with the new. And get some kind of a different chemistry out of that.
And so I asked Wayne to write a few riffs, and then I added my stuff to it, and then Doogie added his stuff to it. And I am very pleased, because it is like an addition to the writing team. Additional chemistry, what came out of that combination. It’s a very unique thing. It kind of reminds me a little bit of the ’70s with a twist to it.
So anyway, that’s what we did with the 7-strings. And so now Wayne has become — he’s not like a fifth wheel on the wagon. He is specialized on 7-string, and he has his place, and he’s doing a good job. And it adds him as a character to the group. He is the Neptune — the ocean God (laughs) — with his trident guitar. He loves the ocean, and when he comes out of the ocean, he looks just like a Neptune.
On Bridge the Gap I was writing a song, the intro to “Where the Wild Winds Blow,” called “Neptune Rising.” That was about him because I already knew — that was the introduction to 7-strings — but I knew that on the next album I was going to be using more of the 7-string. So it was like a little warning, like “Neptune is coming!” (laughs)
Guitar.com: Right. So do you like the 7-string for that low bottom end that it gives?
Schenker: Yeah. It’s great, especially for those fast, energetic songs. And then the mid-tempos. In the old days when I used to write with UFO, like on “Vigilante Man.” And then there is that 7-string riff guitar that gives us that low frequency and makes things really heavy. it’s just a unique touch that combines the old with the new, and I think that it’s a really nice combination.
Guitar.com: Did any of the songs on the new album get their start with one of Wayne’s 7-string riffs?
Schenker: Yeah. When I asked Wayne to come up with some riffs, that is all the songs that start with the 7-string, basically. And then I added verses or choruses to them. But you can hear it when the riff is starting — that’s Wayne. The deep riff.
Guitar.com: You tried the 7-string for awhile, didn’t you?
Schenker: I tried it for awhile myself and I actually had Dean guitars build me one. And I was playing maybe four months on it, and then I decided that I was getting carried away with it, and I wanted to stick with what I’m doing. And so I asked Wayne to develop it, and he did, so now it is usable.
Guitar.com: So what did you do about replacing the guitars that were stolen?
Schenker: They’re gone. It has been reported to the police, and I hope they’re looking for them. But there is no sign of them. One of them was the chrome guitar. And the other two were the Stranger, and another one… It’s just a nuisance, but that’s life.
Guitar.com: So did you get some new guitars from Dean?
Schenker: (laughs) I went back into my closet and had a look at what I had in there. So I found a few. I have so many guitars now — I’m not a guitar collector — but because I designed so many guitars with Dean since 2004 or 2005, and they’re all great. So I have a lot of guitars to choose from and to take out on tour.
Oh, Yin and Yang got stolen — that was the other one. And so they built me a new Yin and Yang. And they also came up with a new one, a black and red guitar. And I also have a hollow-body that I hope I’ll be able to bring to the States. And then I have something — it kind of arrived a little bit late — I wanted to use it on the album, but I can do that on the next album, I have ideas of what I want to do with it.
And so, yeah, I have now — and there’s the Power Channel guitar, which is basically a new model. So what I’m bringing now is all new stuff. Of course I’m playing the Yin and Yang still. And so we have replacements for all of the stolen guitars.
Guitar.com: And what are you using for amps?
Schenker: The Marshalls still. I found out a few years ago, somebody asked me, “Did you know the 800 Marshall is based on your amp?” because I went to Marshall in the early ‘80s to design an amplifier. We never finished it, but I guess the drawing was still there, and they just decided to use it. And I was always wondering why I liked that amplifier (laughs). And since I played that amplifier, I didn’t play so much wah-wah pedal anymore because it already has that kind of a characteristic built into it. So it’s the 2205 model that I still play.
Guitar.com: Of the JCM800 series?
Guitar.com: You used to use a wah pedal set in one position, like a parametric EQ, right?
Schenker: Yeah. That was a long time ago, with UFO. I played the wah-wah pedal in many different ways. Periodically I changed. But I always come up with things and make changes based on circumstances. And so I guess the wah-wah, in the beginning I found out there was a sweet spot, and that’s when I played the wah-wah in the sweet spot position a lot, with UFO.
And then in the early ’80s, when that amplifier broke, and I had to look for a new one, and then I found the 2205, I stopped playing the wah-wah because the wah-wah all of the sudden wasn’t that suitable anymore, because the amp already had that nasally sound built in. But I used it for awhile like a real wah-wah for awhile too. it comes and goes. It depends on how I feel.
Guitar.com: Yeah. And what are you using for effects?
Schenker: Same stuff, just a little bit of delay and that’s about it. I have a chorus there just in case I want to use it, but I play it for two seconds in two songs, and that’s it. But really nothing. I like the really raw approach. On the album I try to make it as raw as possible because I want to hear the character of who is playing it. If you put all the effects on it, you can’t really hear personality.
And so I enjoy I hearing the character. Sometimes you attack a string and you really hear and feel something that you can’t if you put too many effects on it. I love that kind of stuff that comes across before you hit the string, that crackle or something. I like to hear that.
Guitar.com: So even though you aren’t using the chorus very much, what pedal is it?
Schenker: The delay or the chorus?
Schenker: It’s all Boss. I’ve got two Boss delays, and one chorus by Boss, and then I play the Dunlop wah-wah pedal.
Guitar.com: And do you have the delay on all the time, or just when you’re soloing?
Schenker: Originally it started only on the lead breaks. But I do a little bit, just a tiny bit of delay, on rhythm now. It’s hardly recognizable. I play with two delays, and then I make the second delay with a little more delay. So I can switch one off, or leave them both on. And I can get a combination of delays.
Guitar.com: Right. So in some songs you have one delay for rhythm, and then you have both of them on for the solo.
Schenker: Yeah. And also, depending on the solo — if it’s a slow solo, maybe more delay. If it’s a fast solo, maybe no delay at all, or maybe only a little.
Guitar.com: I see. And in all of your lead guitar playing, did you study modes and modal playing? Is that something that you purposely worked on?
Schenker: What does it mean? (laughs) No. To be honest, I could not come up with any names for anything I do because I have no idea. I never was part of learning anything that was categorized, so I don’t even know all these names. But basically I started off technically completely wrong, because I played with two fingers. And I was only interested in finding the note. Not finding it, perfectly, in the right position. I was more anxious about finding the next note I needed.
So I never developed anything on a technical level, like how I hold my hands, or how I move my fingers. There is definitely an easier way of doing it. But I love the fact of play and discover. I’m not really interested in doing it “right.” I like discovering, playing around and then discovering something.
But many people have pointed out over the years, “Hey Michael, you’re playing it wrong.” I just play how I play. But because there have been guitar schools teaching crash courses in stuff, and of course, once you analyze something, and you look at it, it’s a bit like building America: You learn from the mistakes of Europe. Create the streets in such a way that you can find where you’re going easier. And you built them bigger.
But if you analyze it, what can be done better, people in crash courses teaching guitar, there is definitely a way to teach how it’s easier to play, and how you can reach further, and how you can make it easier by using the right fingers. But I was never involved in that. I was only interested in finding the right notes. (laughs).
Guitar.com: You’ve always used some interesting note choices in your solos that made people say, “He’s playing in a mode.”
Schenker: That’s the other thing: If a guitarist copies for too long, they create, like on a record, a groove. And if you do it you can’t break out of that groove. You’re stuck with somebody else’s style. And that’s a disadvantage. If a person wants to self-express, and get a jump start, start as soon as possible, and right from within, disregard the trends. Because the fun part of being creative is no limits, and to really do what the person believes.
In other words, self-expression for me is like, “This is how I see it. This is how I would do it. This is how I put the notes together. This is the sound I like.” It’s about self-expression. And the purer the self-expression, the more we can find unusual things that are all hidden in the ocean of endless, infinite creativity that is available to us. If a person decides to write from within. If a person decides to stick with a trend, to stay in the game of a trend, versus a person having fun, discovering things, regardless of what it is, and enjoying the discovery. Those are the two different ways. The ocean of discovery is endless.
Guitar.com: Right. So what do you do when you’re at home these days, and you want to play guitar? What inspires you these days?
Schenker: Anything creative. Anything I do has to do with creativity. If i decorate something — anything I do. Making my bed is being creative. (laughs). Putting the sofa together. Putting the pillows back, it’s all being creative. I really love doing that. I like to display things in a nice way, in an enjoyable way.
Maybe sooner or later I’m going to be doing some gardening, and put together, and make my own design of flowers, and how they grow. That kind of stuff, I love it. I wish I could build houses. I would love to build houses. It’s endless, endless fun I can imagine. My Dad was an architect, so I guess i have that sense of architecture inside of me.
Guitar.com: I understand those feelings well. I’m a guitarist, and I have also done rehabs on some houses, and I feel exactly that way about the creativity of designing the new kitchen, or whatever.
Schenker: Yes. Yep.
Guitar.com: It’s all from the same creative mind.
Schenker: Yeah. Absolutely.
Guitar.com: Well Michael, you are going to be here in the States at the end of March, right?
Schenker: Yes. The end of March all the way through April, and the beginning of May.
Guitar.com: Who will be coming with you on this trip?
Schenker: I have no idea. I know Don Dokken is opening up somewhere in California, but I’m not really sure if there is a band — I think it might be local bands.
Guitar.com: Actually, I meant, in your band…
Schenker: Oh! Yes, it’s going to be the Spirit on a Mission lineup: Francis Buchholz and Herman Rarebell — the original Scorpions, “Rock You Like a Hurricane” rhythm section. We played on one album together, which was Lovedrive. And then Bridge the Gap was the second album, and now Spirit on a Mission, after all these years.
And so Wayne Findlay, Doogie White — ex Rainbow — and myself. And this is the first time Herman and Francis and I — we have never toured together in the States. And we have never been over here with the album lineup, so this is going to be very exciting.
Guitar.com: Absolutely. Any chance you’ll play any old stuff?
Schenker: Yeah, because the first time it’s going to be a common sense album set, with the past and new. And basically there is enough material with old and new that we can combine to make it an interesting event.
Guitar.com: I used to cover the song “Another Piece of Meat.” I’d love to hear you play that one!
Schenker: (laughs) Yeah.
Guitar.com: Well Michael, thank you so much for your time today.
Schenker: Great, thank you so much. Take care. Bye-bye.