By: HP Newquist (National Guitar Museum) – January 1994
Institutions come in two flavors. The first kind of institution is one that you get locked up in, especially if you have difficulty telling the difference between, say an Uzi and an umbrella. Such institutions usually have grandiose names like The Jeffrey Dahmer Haven for the Nutritionally Insane or the Davis Koresh Center for Kindling of the Spirit. The second kind of institution is a person, place or thing that has been around long enough that people wonder what life was ever like without it. This type of institution includes proven, time-tested winners that rarely seem to go out of style, such as Robert Redford, Porsches, Hershey Bars, Barbie Dolls, Les Paul guitars, Marshall amps, and sex. All are tried and true institutions in their own right.
Of this latter type, Scorpions are an institution like no other in guitar rock. Twenty years together as a band with only a few personnel changes, Scorpions sound today like they did almost two decades ago. Their early music holds up to modern ears as well as their new music does, seeming to be ageless and fresh in every time period since hard rock was invented. They have never lagged in popularity; during the darkest days of disco, the album Lovedrive showed the world that not everybody was going to play funk riffs over dance beats, and that Scorpions would rock no matter what everybody else was going to do.
They are also the only band ever to rule hard rock consistently that didn’t emerge from either the U.S., Canada or the U.K. German residents to this day, the band lives near Hannover, seemingly isolated from the styles that emerge from Seattle and Toronto and London and Los Angeles. Their attitude toward music and playing hard rock is very traditionally German – straightforward, very precise, with absolutely no bullshit. Their credo is this: You do what you do the best way you know how. It is what they believe, and it is why they keep making music after all these years.
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On this rainy evening, Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jahs are sitting in Vancouver’s Little Mountain studios, the favorite location of producers Bruce Fairhairn (Aerosmith), while a rough mix of the new album, Face the Heat, is playing over the loudspeakers. The album is complete, the first time in their career that the Scorps have ever finished a record before its deadline. All that remains is to add little enhancements here and there. As we sit down to talk, Matthias is trying to figure a way to put a newly-acquired banjo into the mix, “Somewhere in the background, probably, just for fun,” he grins.
Rudolf, the band’s founding guitarist, is outgoing and excitable, and absolutely relishes the chance to talk about the Scorpions. He speaks with a strong German accent, sounding like those mayors that rallied the citizens in old Frankenstein movies. He has also shaved off his trademark mustache and cut his hair. “In Germany we say “Off with the old beard, “meaning that it is time for a change. It’s the way I feel about things now, especially this album.” Matthias, Scorpion lead guitarist since 1978 speaks much more softly, his English carrying traces of a British accent, making him sound at times like Nigel Tufnel at his most articulate. The two of them in conversation act like the guitar team they are. Rudolf sets down the philosophies and ideas that are the foundation of Scorpions. Matthias fills in the details and the specifics, he is the obvious lead guitar to Rudolf’s rhythm.
They occasionally lapse into German with each other when they are trying to recall specific dates or events, and then return to English as if the languages were interchangeable. They laugh frequently and even interrupt or finish each other’s sentences as they discuss sharing guitar duties, making records, working with different producers, and trying to get a good amp sound out of North American electricity. The working knowledge they have of their equipment is nothing less than astounding, something they have mastered after spending years in studios and on stages. And after two decades of creating bone-crushing hard rock, Scorpions give absolutely no indication of slowing down. For them, being musicians is almost chemical: it is what they thrive on and it is what keeps them going.
Why did you come all the way to Vancouver to record Face the Heat?
Rudolf Schenker: Because of Bruce Fairbairn. We liked working with him in 1989 on Stairway to Heaven, Highway to Hell [the Make a Difference compilation album]. There was a consideration to work together after that but we didn’t have the opportunity, timing-wise, to work with him on Crazy World. This time the timing was perfect. He finished Aerosmith here, and we were ready to record. He listened to our demos and said, “Let’s go do it.” And working with Bruce, it’s the first time we’ve finished recording on time.
Did you prefer working with to working with Dieter Dierks? [Dierks has produced almost all of Scorpions’ albums to date].
RS: Let’s put it this way. Dieter started with us in the band as part of the team. But, Dieter ended up taking over in a different way. We are a live band, we love to play live, and what Dieter started to do in the end was more like Mutt Lange – he would do a “project” with timed computers and error correction and stuff like this, and that is not our way. In the end it wasn’t much fun. With Bruce, it’s a different experience. We always listened to his stuff and felt that we would understand each other musically. Now, when we have an idea and he has an idea, we don’t have to talk about it much – we do it and things come out great.
Why are you mixing the record in Amsterdam instead of Vancouver?
Matthias Jabs: The engineer who is mixing the album, Erwin [Musper], who also mixed our last album, is very good and is very comfortable with [Wissleoord Studio] there. So Bruce said okay, he should have his best shot. Why put him in a studio where he is experimenting and won’t know exactly what the outcome might be? It’s like you want to record with your favorite guitar and not with some thing you rent in a store. It makes sense to give the engineer the same opportunity.
Speaking of favorite guitars, have you stuck with your old standbys or do you keep looking for new guitars?
RS: I used the new reissue of the Gibson ’58 Flying V. I went to the factory and picked out two of the best ones, and one of the two is very good and I used it for the new album. But, I used the ’68 V as well and I’ll try different things sometimes.
MJ: We brought a lot of guitars – we always do – but you never use all of them. You have them there just in case. In the case, literally, just in case. And you take them out whenever. We get out the acoustic guitars on Friday to play, like, an Elvis cover tune, with standup bass, just to have some fun. We did a few spontaneous things with guitars, though. Our guitar tech likes to go to pawn shops and buy weird instruments and equipment. He found some strange guitars in Vancouver and we even picked up a banjo. I haven’t quite figured that out though, because you can’t tune it like a guitar and you to play it with a certain style to get it to sound right. But some of the guitars have helped to make some nasty noise in the background. We also have a few keyboards on there and sound effects for atmosphere, but I don’t know how much of that will make it to the final album.
Is there any acoustic playing on the new album?
MJ: Relatively little this time. We have some acoustic guitars on some of the songs, but very few actually. So we don’t have a real acoustic tune, if that’s what you mean.
RS: We’ve gone to the other extreme. People are used to us playing acoustic guitar, but this time we decided to go back to the Blackout days where we played a little more dirty, and we recreated that feel on Face the Heat. I think Savage Amusement, which came out before Crazy World, was too clinical, which was Dieter Dierks’ idea. We started to lose this straight playing, and it got very hard because when you’re really into it it’s hard to have to stop and play very precise or do it over again. Then you start asking yourself, “What is music all about? Is it being like a computer or is it about giving emotions? It’s good to know how to play it precise, but it’s also good to play loose and sloppy to create a rock ‘n’ roll feel.
MJ: With Bruce you work very fast. You hardly ever do more than two or three takes or a couple of tries, and therefore you keep the highest level of energy.
RS: The magic moments.
MJ: Because if you play the same thing over and over again you lose it. It starts getting worse [Laughs]. We haven’t done that at all on this album: it’s been very spontaneous.
RS: A very important point is that in Hannover we worked on the songs and got a clear picture of what we wanted. Then Bruce went through the songs and gave us ideas. We then rehearsed the songs as a band, playing them together. So then we all knew how the songs went, and we flew to Vancouver and got the spontaneous energy and power. We were like virgins: we were playing the songs fresh and new, almost like to an audience. The worse thing about coming into a studio in Vancouver or Los Angeles or anywhere is getting there and then you start working on your songs! It’s better if you can go in and play because you know what you’re going to do.
MJ: We had a few days to rehearse and arrange the songs when we got to Vancouver, before we went into the studio. We changed some things around, made new arrangements, and then the whole band played the tunes here live. Once we got into the studio we just pushed the recording button and everything went well.
Do you devote a lot of tracks to each guitar when you record?
MJ: We do it pretty simple. I recorded my basic guitar on two tracks with two different amps running at the same time, using a splitter box. That way we have the advantage of blending one sound into another. We used a drier amplifier and a more distorted one, and when we want more attack or more precise sound we can just bring one up a little more than the other and that gives you more possibilities for later on.
A telephone call for Rudolf interrupts the conversation, and Matthias takes the time to raid the refrigerator of Little Mountain Studios, which is filled with Germany’s finest: Warsteiner beer in both the extra strength and non-alcoholic version. Matthias opts for the non-alcoholic version, “In Germany, we call this ‘little boy’ beer. But I keep this here because water gets boring after a while and I don’t want to drink while I’m recording, it makes me sleepy.” Even though it is already nighttime, the studio itself is still up, running, wide awake, with people scurrying about, bringing various tapes and pieces of equipment to the band and their technicians.
By the time Matthias finds the bottle opener, Rudolf joins us in the kitchen. Behind him in the next room, a veritable mishmash of maps litters the studio. At first it looks like some of amplifier garage sale, with various sizes and brands piled next to each other. There is, however, calculated method to the madness, and it turns out that the Scorpion guitarists know their amps like Einstein knew his physics. Unlike most bands, Matthias and Rudolf can speak very technically at length about all the aspects of powering up their guitars. Given the chance, they could probably even write research papers on their equipment – and have a good time doing it.
Which of you amps did you use to get your different guitar sounds, the distorted and clean ones you were just talking about?
MJ: Funny enough, we used old Hiwatt amps.
Hiwatts like The Who used to use in the ‘60s?
MJ: Exactly. I never thought I would use one in my entire life. But, it worked pretty good.
RS: The 150 Hiwatts are really excellent.
MJ: Everybody bought a few while we were here. Bruce had an old one and said, “Will you try this?” We used it as an addition to our setup, not on its own. So I was running it parallel to a Soldano and the combination of the two worked well. Sometimes I would use a 50-watt Marshall as well to add a little color.
RS: The problem with most new amplifiers is that they are a little cold compared to the old stuff. And you can’t get a round full tone.
It seems that Soldanos are showing up in a lot of places. What do you think of them?
MJ: I like Soldanos. I have one that I think is very good, but Rudolf has one that he doesn’t like very much.
RS: That’s because of style. His style is different than my style, which is good because it gives you a good mixture. It would be terrible if we had the same style. For my style I prefer an amp like Engl, a German amp, or the Rivera amp, which is very good. I found a new amp here in Vancouver that I use called Wizard, which has very good speakers and transformers.
MJ: The guy who makes them lives about an hour from the studio, and he does amazing things with speaker cabinets. He really knows what he is doing, and if we needed anything changed he would come down and alter their sound.
RS: The Engl is good also, but you know, it’s all part of a consideration of your own style.
MJ: We tried some different amps things this time. Cabinet-wise, I didn’t even use Marshall cabinets at all. I used some funny red cabinets that come from our hometown. They’re just the size of one speaker but they sound very good. When you see it you won’t believe it, they’re so small.
George Lynch told me that he thinks there is a huge difference in the way amps sound in the U.S. versus the way they sound in Europe. Supposedly, amps sound better in Europe. Do you agree with that?
RS: Of course. It’s very true. It was a big problem for us when we first came to the United States because when we came over.
MJ: The amps sounded much better in Europe.
RS: Yes, they did.
MJ: Let’s put it this way. When you have amps that are built over there and then are switched, you can tell. There is more power over in Europe. I can’t tell with amps that are made for 110 volts because we use transformers. My Soldanos run on 110 so I can’t tell with them. But, with Marshalls, when we came over here we thought, “Oh, what is this?” [Big laughs]
RS: One day you get a great sound, and then the next day you get a shitty sound.
MJ: It won’t go up to 11, you know. [Laughs] It had nothing to boost it. You depended on a great set of valves and you knew that everything was alright, and then coming over here, it was a real difference.
RS: I really think it is because of the transformer stations that are use for 110 volts in the U.S. If you’re playing a hall that is even 800 meters from the transformer base, maybe you don’t get 110, you get less.
MJ: There is so much difference. We measured it. Sometimes the power goes as low as 87 [volts] or something equally stupid. It is not always the same. A lot of power is used in the building anyway for the P.A. and lights, and then it goes down, way down. This doesn’t happen in Europe. It might go down from 220 to 215, but the ratio is different so the percentage is minimal.
RS: We just bring our own transformers now.
MJ: But all the studios that are in the U.S. are equipped to handle 220 and 110 voltage, so that makes recording easy.
A flash comes from the screen of a TV in the corner of the studio lounge, and Matthias and Rudolf turn to look. The station is turned to CNN news, and the volume turned down. The new footage shows a hotel in Sarajevo being shelled; it is little more than a smoking hulk by the end of the broadcast. Matthias stares at the screen intently. “We stayed in that hotel on our last tour. It was the nicest building in town. Now there’s barely anything left.” The two guitarists watch the TV for a moment.” We’ve played some great places in Europe, like Bucharest,” says Rudolf. “There are so many now that we can’t go back to because of all this.” He waves at the TV, indicating the fighting going on throughout Eastern Europe, not all that far from the city where they make their home. “It’s so stupid.” Rudolf starts fisting the places that the band played in Europe, including Yugoslavia and Russia, and then seems amazed when he thinks of playing some of them back in the 1970s. The early ’70s. One has to ask: How long have Scorpions been putting out their own brand of dual-guitar hard rock?
RS: As a band, over 30 years. As musicians, we’ve all been doing it much longer.
But for this album you have a new bass player, Ralph Rieckermann. That’s your first personnel change in how many years?
RS: [to Matthias]: Since you joined on Lovedrive. What was that – 12 or so years ago?
MJ: It’s been about 14 years.
Was it strange having someone new after all those years?
RS: We tried to keep our old bass player [Francis Buchholz] and it was very hard. When we found out [we couldn’t keep him], then it was very easy. All of a sudden I had a boxful of tapes and letters from lots of bass players who found out…
MJ: It was weird. We had people who were willing to change instruments to join us; people who had played the guitar for 20 years who said they would switch. And we never really put out the word out, it just happened. We were lucky to never have to audition anybody but this guy, Ralph, because that can be a pain. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go through it. Herman [Rarebell – drummer] was doing a project with an old friend of his, a guy from Bonfire, who recommended Ralph Rieckermann. So Ralph played with Herman and then I went down to Monaco to check him out and the three of us played for a couple of days. He turned out to be the right guy. And even though Ralph lived in Los Angeles, he is actually from Hamburg and we are from Hannover, which is very close, so his mentality is the same. Perfect, so to speak.
Did Francis just get tired and want to leave?
MJ: Don’t ask me, because we still don’t have all the answers. Really, we don’t know [Laughs].
RS: Bass players are always funny like that, because they only have four strings [resounding laughter from the whole room]. They have a complex. That’s why our new bass player has a six-string bass.
Okay, so with minimal changes, you’ve been doing this for 30 years and there’s a very defined Scorpion sound that has been evident during the entire time. I mean, I can go from listening to Lovedrive to Crazy World and hear that it’s the same group of guys playing together then and now. Do you ever have times when you want to do something completely different or more experimental? Do you ever think, “We’ve done this, let’s do something else?”
RS: You know, if you are honest as a musician and you are playing this long at being a musician then you want to learn as much and create as much as you can, and build your style. It’s like a painter. You’re building your style, your self and your personality. And the true musician is somebody [who] when you meet tomorrow or the next day or next year, is still basically the same person but he is growing. That’s what we try to do with our music. Why [would] we want to do other things? What we do is us. It’s our chemistry: four people – now five – who create something together and it is what we feel and what we present. Why experiment when we are very happy with the music that we play? What we want to do is to make our music stronger and more powerful so you can recognize us from hearing the first note or the second note. That is the power of personality.
Rudolf, when you’re writing songs, do you take into account your knowledge of the way Matthias will pay guitar on them? Does that help to define what you want to write and the sound of Scorpions?
RS: I write first for the singer because that is the most important point. I can’t write something with a wrong feel for Klaus [Meine, vocalist] because I know he won’t like it and won’t be able to present it. I have to write for the way that I know him and the way that he can perform best. Then, automatically, Matthias know where to jump in and put in his part. I think that’s chemistry, when somebody is doing something and the other three or four jump in and know immediately how to deal with it.
Matthias, how do you go about putting lead lines into what Rudolf is playing as a rhythm?
MJ: It depends on the song of course, but after so many years I know Rudolf very well and what he plays, so when he writes a song I can almost immediately figure out what to play. He puts down the basic groove and I work around it, trying to make it as interesting as possible.
How do you divide up the guitar parts and decide who gets to play what?
RS: It’s whoever has the best idea. That’s the best way. If you come in and say, “Look, I always do this and you always do that” then that is stupid. Because then you [aren’t] forcing yourself to do better things. You’re just going, “I have my part and I’ll it.” But, in a good band, when one person is watching another, you may come up with a better idea and then everybody is working harder.
Do you each have the ability to tell the other that you don’t like something, or you liked it better when it was played differently?
MJ: Oh, yes, of course. We do that.
RS: That’s also the best way because sometimes you’re too close to the picture. You’re playing and you think you did a great job, but maybe you don’t have the time to listen because you’re doing the album and you’re hurrying to do the mixing so you don’t have the time to get more distance. And maybe there is no one there to listen to whose opinion you respect so you end up with something shitty. Other people can watch you from a distance and go, “Ahh, maybe try it again this way.” What Bruce is doing right now, making rough mixes, is very good because we’ll know what everybody did on the album. Maybe someone will come to me and say, “Hey, you changed this,” or I will say to Matthias or Klaus, “Here, this one is better, why don’t we do this?” That’s the best way to get everybody satisfied with the work.
When do you think you do your best work?
MJ: It depends on what you consider the best. It always depends on the music and on the feel you want to have. You can’t necessarily play your best guitar on every little part in every song. Sometimes your best playing stays in the tuning room, theoretically speaking. You might have to wait until the next album to get it the way you want it. To me, though, it’s most important to get the vibe – the feel – of this year’s production across as well as possible.
After all this time, are you comfortable with your guitar playing or do you feel the need to prove anything to anyone?
MJ: Basically, I’m pretty comfortable. I’m pretty open-minded to other things, especially if something different comes up on a certain song that we’re working on. But, there are very few bands with any longevity and a consistent number of albums that also have a technical show-off on every album. I don’t think that this combination can work. It’s one or the other. You can make guitar player albums for guitar players but then you won’t sell anything in the south of France because people there don’t give a shit. It depends on where you draw the line. You have to serve the soul first, musically playing on the highest level, and then you can throw in a few things for the guitar players in the audience. That’s the best formula.
It’s now very late, and most of Vancouver has already gone to bed. Scorpions, on the other hand, have mixes of Face the Heat that they will stay up and listen to back at the hotel. What will emerge from these mixes will be an album that sells not only to guitarists but also to all those guitar-haters in the south of France. Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs are part of a rock institution that knows the exact formula for turning guitar playing into musical success and they are not shy about using it on a waiting [and very willing] world. Hell, one gets the impression that they know it so well and have done it for so long that they may actually have invented the damn formula.
About HP Newquist: HP Newquist is the founder of The National GUITAR Museum, the first museum dedicated to the evolution and cultural impact of the guitar. He has authored books that have explored a wide range of subjects and include: Legends of Rock Guitar (with Peter Prown); The Way They Play series (including Blues Masters, Hard Rock Masters, Metal Masters, Acoustic Masters), with Rich Maloof and the award winning The Great Brain Book: An Inside Look At The Inside Of Your Head. Newquist is the past Editor-in-Chief of Guitar Magazine. He wrote Going Home, a Disney Channel documentary featuring Robbie Robertson, as well as directed the film documentary, John Denver – A Portrait.
Note: This interview is reprinted from an article by HP Newquist, originally published in GUITAR Magazine (January 1994). It appears here courtesy of Newquist and The National GUITAR Museum.