“We want to be remembered as a great live band.”
An exclusive interview with Scorpions guitarist Matthias Jabs
by Todd K Smith
The week of April 2-6, 2010 German rock group Scorpions are in LA for their induction in the Hollywood Guitar Center RockWalk. The ceremony celebrates the band’s 45-year career with several personal items on display and a chance for Klaus Meine (vocals), Rudolf Schenker (rhythm guitar), Matthias Jabs (lead guitar), Pawel Maciwoda (bass) and James Kottak (drums) to leave their hand prints in a slab of concrete which will appear on the pavement outside the store. Their imprint will join fellow titans AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Van Halen. The Scorpions announced January 24, 2010 that they would retire after the release of their seventeenth studio album Sting in the Tail and a final three-year world tour.
Guitarist Matthias Jabs joined the group in 1978 at age of 23, replacing Uli Jon Roth. His prior bands were the well respected Lady, Fargo, and Deadlock. Lovedrive (1978) was his first recorded effort with the Scorpions playing alongside Michael Schenker, original guitarist and brother to Rudolph. During the ‘80s the band rose to mega stardom and Jabs with his striped Gibson Explorer 90 became universally know around the globe. In 2008, he opened a guitar store in Munich, Germany, which carries his signature model guitars and custom amps. On the eve of the RockWalk induction, we spoke to Jabs about the band’s decision to retire and his personal memories of touring with Germany’s biggest hard rock band.
The Cutting Edge: You have had a very busy week this week. Did you just get in from Germany?
Matthias Jabs: “Yes, we just flew in from Germany. We had a couple shows at the first of the week, we had television, and we had lots and lots of promotion for the new album Sting in the Tail. It has been received so well. It has entered the chart at number one in several countries and in some places, it has been the highest chart entry ever better than any of our records in the past.
TCE: I think in the US it is number one on Classic Radio.
MJ: Yes, Isn’t that amazing? So many years later and our fans still remember and support us. It’s very touching to see so much good feelings for us. I also think the record is very good and hope the fans love it along with all our other great records like Blackout, and Love at First Sting.
TCE: So why retire now? What is the reason behind deciding to end the band when it’s proven to still be so successful?
MJ: We were finished with the recording for Sting in the Tail by mid-December. It was getting close to Christmas, so we invited the record company people from Europe over to have a listen. They were all dying to finally hear something. We played them the songs from the new record and they loved them! The next day, the management told us the record company loves it and thinks it’s the best record from us in years. Then management proposed the idea of this being the last studio album and announcing a final tour. We had never spent a second thinking about this. For us, subconsciously, we thought it would go on forever. We were taken back a bit, but after a couple days living with the thought we decided together that would be the right thing to do. We want to go out on top while we are still healthy and can still do a high-energy show that’s two, sometimes three hours a night.
My friends Klaus (Meine) and Rudolph (Schenker) are 61 now, turning 62 this year. I’m eight years younger. I’m 54 now and turn 55 this October, but still too young to stop. If you do the math, in three years we will be that much older. We don’t want to be hobbling around on stage in wheelchairs singing “Rock You like a Hurricane”. We want people to remember us as a great live band. The plan is for us to tour two and-a-half maybe three years. The new album was released in 49 countries simultaneously. If we play each country, spend three months touring the US, a couple weeks here and there - that will take easily over two years. Then we will want to play some festivals and return to selected cities a second time.
TCE: You’ve always toured the world, or as much of it as possible. Have you missed any places you want to go specifically on this tour?
MJ: We are one of the very few bands that play the whole world. We’ve been on some kind of stage in most countries. However, we’ve never played Australia, so we are definitely going there this time. People think it’s so exhausting but it’s funny, at the end of a tour we are in better shape than the beginning. It’s like a workout night after night. The only thing that gets monotonous is the long flights, long train, or bus rides. The way we’ve toured in recent years is to take breaks, like a couple weeks off between continents for example.
TCE: You have always been a very exciting and fun band to watch live. You have played many landmark shows. If you had to pick one live show as your favorite, which would it be?
MJ: Thank you, let me think about that for a moment. First, let me say, I’m looking forward to this tour. With a strong album like Sting in the Tail, it will be very exciting. We have a lot of surprises and a few guests joining us in some places. We want the fans to remember the Scorpions as a band that were always great on stage, very energetic and powerful. You’re right, we have done so many great things. We have had so many highlights in our career and feel very fortunate. There was the US Festival in ‘83, being one of the first German bands to tour Russia, the Berlin Wall show. But, if I had to pick one, it would be the US Festival. It was incomparable. I remember it like yesterday. We came one stage second to last, there was only Van Halen to follow us. We were not allowed to use any effects - only a little pyro and lighting. Just as our tour manager made the announcement, “All the way from West Germany - the Scorpions”, flames came up and five US fighter jets came screaming over the stage very low (probably illegal) and thrilled the audience of 325,000 people.
That was the intro to our show. Can you believe it? The whole thing was captured on film and we are using it as the intro to our shows for this tour. We’ve already used it in Prague, Moscow, and Paris so far - and it’s amazing.
TCE: What a great memory! You’ve also toured with some stellar bands over the years. What do you think was the best pairing and the groups you enjoyed sharing the stage with?
MJ: There were three bands that opened for us that we really had fun with. In 1980 was Def Leppard, in 1982 we had Iron Maiden, in 1984 it was Bon Jovi. All of them became huge bands and they were all great to tour with.
TCE: “Raised on Rock”, the first single off Sting in the Tail was released about a month ago. It’s a fantastic song with a big hook and kinda sounds like a mix of The Who and Bon Jovi.
MJ: That’s interesting you would say that. We did one cover version in our career. It was The Who’s “I Can’t Explain”. We are all big fans of The Who. The beginning of “Raised On Rock” does sound like the same chords however, the truth is, it is the reverse riff of “Rock You Like A Hurricane”. And it is semi-intentional as we felt this record had the same vibe when we were recording it.
TCE: You are known for your subtle yet piercing solos. You pack so much emotion into very few notes and really squeeze everything out of them. Where does your inspiration come from?
MJ: I wonder that myself sometimes. Often it comes almost immediately. I play most of the guitars in the Scorpions. I start with the rhythm and then do the overdubs and last I do the leads. The melodies are usually in the song. I pick out the melodies and follow it with the lead to enhance the song. Whether it’s a solo lead or intro to a song, it’s meant to enhance the song. The guitar in “Good Die Young” or “SLY” reflects the vocal, like something that’s talking to you. I don’t use any effects. I run the guitar straight into the amp and create the sound using only my fingers. That’s how I was taught and how I’ve stood out from other guitar players. I do have a unique technique that I’ve spent years mastering, like the old blues guys. They didn’t have effects but they were each unique because they developed an individual voice by bending the string a certain way.
TCE: How did the Gibson Explorer become your guitar of choice? Rudy always had the Gibson Flying V, yet over the years, the Explorer has become linked to you.
MJ: I was playing various guitars in the ‘70s. I had one Strat that I used to record Lovedrive. When the album was done in ’78 we were about to go on tour and the Gibson Explorer came back as a reissue. When it came into the shops in Germany, I went out and bought one. It’s the guitar I used to record “No One Like You” and “Rock You Like A Hurricane”. I did it intentionally knowing that Rudolph was going to play the Flying V. I had to have a counterpart. When we played the States, the second time with Ted Nugent and AC/DC, we came to Minneapolis/Saint Paul and we stayed in a hotel next to a small guitar shop. They had a white Explorer in the display window so I bought it for $400. At the time, I didn’t have a spare guitar just the Strat and the Explorer. So I put duct tape around it to give it a different look. Those famous stripes that became my signature look through the ‘80s came about because I wanted people to know I had more than one guitar.
TCE: You also, single handedly, brought back the ‘talk box’ from the Seventies.
MJ: I use the talk box on several of the new songs like “Raised On Rock.” It adds a nice texture and sound to it. On “Slave Me”, it’s the first time I play the talk box and the regular guitar sound together. The riff is played by both. Usually, if you use the talk box you cut off the speaker. The box is driven by the same amp, but if you switch it on it acts like the real speaker. You can also use it when both are running. In the studio, I did it separately but live, it’s more difficult. I’ve always loved Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do” so in late ’79 or early 1980 when we were recording Animal Magnetism, I found a place to use it. We were recording “The Zoo” and because of the atmosphere of this song, I thought it needed a mysterious, weird sound - because the lyrics were about the wired people on New York City’s 42nd Street. It needed something to bring that atmosphere across. I bought a voice box, plugged it in and everybody went, “Yes”. It was the right sound to capture that mood. Ever since, I have played the voice box.
TCE: Please tell us about how and why you ended up buying a guitar shop in Munich.
MJ: Yes, I bought the store two years ago from two older guys that wanted to retire. It’s a general guitar store with guitars, bass, amps, and all the necessary accessories like, straps and cables - whatever you need. I have my own signature guitar that has taken me years to perfect. I call it the ‘Mastercaster’. In the studio, I record with Strats, Telecasters, Les Pauls, Explorers, and a number of makes and models all at once. Since I do all the overdubs, I have a problem trying to reproduce the same sound live on stage. I had to come up with a guitar that I could alter to capture the sound I needed. The Mastercaster has 24 frets, like my Explorer 90s and a Floyd Rose so I can us the tremolo arm. It has a new pick up that we got a patent for in Germany which is very hard to get. I say we, because it was the guy who built it and myself. It’s a single coil in combination with a Humbucker. Now I have so many possibilities to reproduce different sounds.
This all started with “Wind Of Change”. I used a Telly, a Strat and an Explorer in the same song. It was always a compromise to do it perfectly live. The first generation was the ‘Jabocaster’ but then I needed more and more. I’ve gotten tons of requests over the years asking where or how to get the same guitar. There was no real way they could order it. You need to play it, smell it, and feel it. I couldn’t invite people to my house, so when I was offered the store in Munich I bought it - primarily to sell this one guitar. It’s a nice location in Munich, a beautiful city near the border of Italy. I sell my own amp as well that you hear on the new album. I’m always inventing things - somehow it’s just in me.
Believe it or not, people fly in from Seattle, New York and this one guy from Phoenix Arizona planned his vacation around visiting the store.
TCE: You use both the guitar and amp on the new track “SLY”. The song has an interesting story behind it. Do you mind sharing that with us?
MJ: Sure, it is a true story. It comes from the big ballad off Love At First Sting called “Still Loving You”. It was a hit in almost every country in the world but was huge in France. They claim this song created a baby boom and they embrace it as if it was second to the national anthem. In 1985-86, a young couple came up to me after our show in Paris and asked for an autograph. They showed me a photo of their baby girl and told me they named her SLY after the song “Still Loving You”. I couldn’t believe it and told the story to Klaus. About three years ago, we were playing at the famous Olympia in Paris and the same couple meets us with a beautiful young girl in her early 20’s. They tell us, “This is SLY.” It was a beautiful story and Klaus turned it into lyrics.
TCE: Looking back at all the songs you’ve recorded together with the Scorpions, which of the band’s records are your favorites?
MJ: Oh, that’s a tough one. For the longest time my favorite Scorpion records were Blackout and Love At First Sting. However, even though it is still fresh, I love to listen to the new one. Usually when you spend a couple months in the studio working on a record you don’t want to listen to it because you’ve heard it so much. But this one is fun to listen to and we didn’t over work it in the studio. It’s still very fresh to me. It’s in the top three. I think it’s the quintessential Scorpions, which could easily have been created in the ‘80s.
TCE: With the announcement of the band’s retirement in three years, what are your long-term plans?
MJ: I don’t know at all what I’m going to be doing. I will definitely make music but what exactly I don’t know. I don’t want to be careless about moving to another project. I’ve had a great career with the Scorpions. We want to finish it in class and style. I will continue to do things with style. It’s the right thing to do. I have three years to think about it. Maybe after that amount of time I will have some kind of plan. Right now, I’m too focused on the tour and the party we will be celebrating for the next three years.
Special thanks to Matthias Jabs for taking the time to speak with us and Wendy @ Hellowendy PR for helping to set it up.