Underrated pioneers of melodic metal in the 1970s and ’80s, UFO’s music compared with contemporaries Thin Lizzy, Rainbow, AC/DC, and Whitesnake, yet they achieved only modest success – until uber-guitarist Michael Schenker elevated their status.
Formed in 1968 by vocalist Phil Mogg, guitarist Mick Bolton, bassist Pete Way, and drummer Andy Parker, from its inception, UFO was a group in search of an identity. Gravitating to the space-rock excursions of Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, and Gong, they initially failed to chart in England while making inroads in Germany and Japan; UFO 2: Flying (’71) put a finer point on it with the 19-minute “Star Storm” and 26-minute title track. Guitarists Bolton, Larry Wallis (Motörhead) and Bernie Marsden (Whitesnake) preceded Schenker’s tenure, but with Schenker aboard, UFO boldly changed course.
Born January 10, 1955, in Sarstedt, Germany, Schenker was a prodigy. He taught himself to play by decoding songs for his older brother Rudolf (of Scorpions fame). His first performance was a Scorpions club gig at 11, and by 15 he’d mastered the music of Eric Clapton, Leslie West, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Johnny Winter, and others. At 16, he debuted on Lonesome Crow, the Scorpions’ first album, displaying precocious guitar and foreshadowing the darker strain of Eurometal and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). While on tour supporting UFO, he performed with both, and at 17 was recruited into the headliner’s lineup. Though he didn’t speak English, he contributed substantially as guitarist/composer to Phenomenon, marking the band’s transition from an adventurous (if undistinguished) art-rock outfit to a guitar-driven hard-rock powerhouse. Phenomenon found them retaining spacey tendencies in “Queen of the Deep” and “Space Child” while portending the future with the rock shuffle “Doctor Doctor” and heavy riff-dominated “Rock Bottom.”
Force It continued the momentum and proved to be the band’s U.S. breakthrough with concert favorites “Let It Roll,” “Shoot Shoot,” “Mother Mary” and “Out in the Street.” Critics praised them as listenable metal, paving the way for greater success with No Heavy Petting, which added Danny Peyronel as keyboardist and sported future classics “Natural Thing” and “I’m a Loser.” With producer Ron Nevison, orchestration and keyboards became more prevalent on Lights Out, yet UFO didn’t sacrifice its metal cachet. Paul Raymond (Chicken Shack, Savoy Brown) became a core member, replacing Peyronel as keyboardist and second guitarist, allowing UFO to move comfortably from two-guitar metal instrumentation (Priest, Maiden) to prog-rock/power-pop guitar/keyboard textures. The only constants were the straightforward vocals of Mogg and Schenker’s electrifying guitar – prime factors exemplifying their classic sound on five studio albums and one live recording.
Lights Out marked UFO’s pinnacle, reaching #23 in America and #54 in Britain, yielding “Too Hot to Handle,” “Gettin’ Ready” and “Lights Out.” Obsession was a diverse, more-polished effort that reached #43 in America while hitting #26 in England. It nonetheless ensured their preeminence as arena stars and offered “Only You Can Rock Me,” “Cherry,” “Pack It Up,” “Ain’t No Baby,” and “Hot ’n Ready,” a frequent concert opener. Amidst driving rock pieces were Schenker’s gentle semi-classical instrumental “Arbory Hill” (with him playing recorder and acoustic guitars) and “Lookin’ Out for No. 1,” an unapologetic power-pop number anticipating ’80s rock ballads. A series of recorded concerts in Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio and Kentucky resulted in Strangers in the Night, which reached #7 on U.K. charts, #42 in America, and has since risen to the top tier of live rock records. It remains Schenker’s shining hour.
“Rock Bottom” is a defining tune, with equally definitive solo opportunities, for Schenker. There are many versions recorded throughout his career, but towering above is the live performance on Strangers in the Night. This excerpt (5:10) includes features found in many improvisations. Note the repeated three-note motifs (C#-D-E) played rhythmically in measures 1-2. These gather momentum, and are sequenced and thematically developed as E-F#-G at the phrase ending in 3. Bar 4 begins a lengthy four-bar flight that epitomizes his technical prowess. Check out the ascending scalar line joined seamlessly to a signature descending diatonic sequence in four-note groupings in 4-6, delivered with impeccable picking and precise articulation. A final ascending sequence in 7 leads to a wailing wide string bend in 8 as closure. The logic and clarity in this example illustrate his credo that a Schenker solo “must build.”
UFO provided the vital step to international acclaim for Schenker. By the winter of ’78, he left to pursue other projects, briefly reuniting with Scorpions on Lovedrive. He considered joining Aerosmith in ’79 and led several MSG lineups in the ’80s. He rejoined UFO three times, punctuated by stints with MSG and side projects; returning first on Walk on Water and later two Shrapnel releases, Covenant and Sharks. UFO-Schenker’s influence on rock guitarists is profound; Randy Rhoads, Mike McCready, Slash, Paul Gilbert, George Lynch, John Petrucci, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Metallica, Tesla, Dio, Megadeth, Pantera, Testament, and Slayer are on the short list.
Schenker boasted an identifiable, impressive style as a teen on Lonesome Crow, which introduced his guitar skills and early use of the wah pedal (“Inheritance”) that became a central aspect of his sound and style in UFO. Rarely rocking the pedal conventionally, he instead used it as an EQ/booster (in a notched position) to shape and color phrases, accentuate his attack, dynamics, and pinch harmonics, enhance the midrange, change timbre, increase sustain, and cultivate feedback. A disciple of British blues-rock and the Gibson-into-Marshall school epitomized by Clapton, he expounded on EC’s thick sound, soulful phrasing and expansive improvisations, taking Cream’s live ferocity to greater heights while expounding on Clapton’s melodic blues approach in “Badge” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” He merged and repurposed tenets of rock and metal – the heavy guitar/keyboard textures of Deep Purple and Rainbow, guitar orchestration of the Beatles, Allman Brothers, Wishbone Ash, and Queen, metallic riffs and power chords of Zep and Sabbath, blues-based virtuosity of Johnny Winter, angularity, standard-tuned slide and wah quirkiness of Truth-era Jeff Beck, vocal-like wide vibrato and string bending of Leslie West, and exotic modal melodies of Rory Gallagher.
Schenker was one of the earliest shred guitarists and established many precedents in modern rock soloing. However, his complexity, precise alternate picking, speed, and aggression were tempered by the soulful delivery of blues-rock, with its legato phrasing, choppy-speech rhythms, slinky bends, and sense of melodic structure comparable to classical music. He relied on characteristic pentatonic/blues vocabulary – supercharged with florid passages, frequently developing short motives (unison bends, three- and four-note fragments) repeated as flurries and ostinato riffs (per the live coda in “Shoot Shoot”), added embellishing ornaments and juxtaposed longer diatonic lines – such as the sequences in “Electric Phase” (2:35) and “Lights Out” (2:18). He added neck bending and pushing on strings behind the nut to achieve quasi whammy-bar effects. Schenker crafted purposeful melodies to reflect underlying progressions, particularly in instrumental interludes, exploiting arpeggios to strengthen note-to-chord relationships, deviated from strict blues-based confines to include harmonically-astute diatonic, modal and chromatic note choices, and presaged Eurometal’s incipient neoclassical lexicon – even on unlikely numbers like “Alone Again Or” with its odd mix of Brit-pop/flamenco sounds. Offsetting his shred tendencies are singable structured solos like “Only You Can Rock Me,” “Try Me,” “Looking Out for No. 1,” “Love to Love,” “On With the Action,” the atmospheric slide lines in “I’m a Loser,” and Santana-esque intro in live versions of “Doctor Doctor.”
Live solos merged thematic elements from studio tracks with more intricate melodic development tantamount to jazz improvisation or classical theme-and-variations procedures, epitomized by “Rock Bottom,” his concert feature with lengthy soloing and multiple enlarged sections. Similarly, he converted twin-guitar harmony lines to a single part in “Doctor Doctor” and added more elaborate fills to songs on stage.
Schenker was a masterful composer, riff maker and rhythm guitarist in the tradition of his forebears. Consider the boogie-based opening figure of “Only You Can Rock Me” or Blackmore-inspired dyads in “Hot ’n Ready.” His use of the “heavy-metal gallop” punctuated by slashing power chords in “Lights Out” (chorus) and “Rock Bottom” are templates for ’80s metal and power pop, and his chord figures and steady-eighth bass patterns were often given the now-ubiquitous palm-muted metal treatment. Moreover, he was skillful at reinterpreting classic mannerisms of rock. Consider the Chuck Berry comping and double-stops in the refrain of “Natural Thing,” Who-inspired bombast and drama of numerous power-chord figures, melodic counterlines reminiscent of Queen in “Only You Can Rock Me” (chorus), and twin-guitar harmony in “Lipstick Traces,” “Electric Phase,” “Lookin’ Out for No. 1 (reprise),” and “Doctor Doctor.”
Schenker is among the earliest hard-rock guitarists to breathe new life and energy into pentatonic blues material. “Lights Out,” from Strangers in the Night, boasts a striking case in point. The improvised patterns in this excerpt (4:32) are exemplary. Note his use of short fragments, made from C# minor-pentatonic, repeated, juggled to different starting notes, and rhythmically displaced across the time span in measures 1-3. This is a clever and effective way to expand the pentatonic’s melodic possibilities and create excitement with simple patterns. Measure 4 contains a signature descending blues-scale line phrased as triplets. In measure 5-9 he addresses the A-B-C#m chord progression (played as power chords) with harmonically active melodies decorated with chromaticism. Check out his thoughtful use of major-pentatonic and hexatonic lines over A, more-intricate modal melody (C#m Aeolian Mode) with characteristic hammer-on/pull-off mordents (a fixture of his classical side) over B, and an idiomatic bluesy phrase ending on C#m.
UFO was musically ambitious, which suited Schenker’s wide-ranging vision. They blended diverse blues-rock, metal, prog, classical, ethnic, and pop tangents over a variety of grooves, tempos, feels, and textures, sometimes within the same tune. “I’m a Loser” would fit well in the play lists of John Mellencamp, Bob Seeger, or Bryan Adams, while “Born to Lose” melds a Jimi-meets-Eurometal chordal intro with pop-rock balladry and melodic rock solo traversing tricky, modulating changes. “Cherry” could be a Foo Fighters track from ’90s alt-rock and interludes suggesting prog-rock leanings, emphasized by keyboard colors (piano, organ, synth, and string pads), are found in “Let It Roll,” “Love to Love,” and “Rock Bottom.” Conversely, “Rock Bottom” and “Lights Out” convey unabashed heavy metal intensified by guitar-dominated timbres. “Hot ’n Ready,” “Let It Roll,” “Too Hot to Handle” and “Shoot Shoot” are hook-laden hard-rock pieces that Kiss would envy and Schenker’s opening solo in “Out in the Street” is as catchy as Gary Richrath’s tastiest moments in REO’s pop-rock.
Strangers in the Night is a definitive live recording. Originally 13 tracks, the 2020 Deluxe Edition helps fans investigate Schenker’s claim “There were better takes they could’ve used.” An overview of studio tracks can be found on Best of UFO (1974-1983), but serious rock fans should check out all five studio albums spanning ’74 to ’78.
Recommended are UFO’s entire ’74 show from “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” featuring early versions of “Doctor Doctor” and “Rock Bottom,” an eight-song montage of concert clips from London spanning ’75 through ’77, and a number of illuminating Schenker interviews.
For more than a half century, Schenker’s signature instrument has been a Flying V. The relationship began when he borrowed brother Rudolf’s red ’71 Gibson Medallion V with T-Top pickups and plugged into a Marshall stack. Early photos depict a stripped mahogany V, later painted black, then white, and finally the trademark graphic black and white panels. He also played a Les Paul Standard and white ES-1275 in the studio. Gibson issued a tribute model V in ’85 and Dean currently markets his signature version. He used .009 Fender Rock and Roll strings, preferred high action, a glass slide, and Herco gray nylon picks held with thumb and two fingers.
Schenker plugged into 50-watt 1987 Marshall heads (Presence, Treble, Middle and Bass on 10, Volume at 8), later graduated to 2204 and 2205 models, and often chained two together. In ’73, he routinely used at least two full 4×12 stacks. A departure from the norm, he experimented with a Pignose amp on much of Lights Out. His effects were minimal – a modified Crybaby wah pedal and WEM Copicat tape echo.
“Only You Can Rock Me” rates high on the Schenker scale of strong melodic moments in UFO. This passage, (2:11) from Obsession, presents key lines from the memorable “story solo” – played as a song within a song and delivered practically verbatim onstage. From the outset, he adopts a stately semi-classical attitude akin to Brian May in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Note the singable intervallic opening in measures 1-2, with its clear harmonic references to E-major and A-major chords answered by a lofty diatonic line similarly gravitating to chord tones in F#m and B. 5-6 contains a quicker contrasting line rising to a climactic string bend. 7 begins a sequence of short three-note motifs progressing to more drama with string bends in the higher register in 8. The diatonic lines with their trademark ornaments in 9-10 convey a classical impression while the held bend and pre-bend in 11 represent Schenker’s transformation of blues melody. The final descending line combines diatonic, pentatonic and blues influences. Note the deliberate chromaticism at the closing.
Wolf Marshall is the founder and original editor-in-chief of GuitarOne magazine. A respected author and columnist, he has been influential in contemporary music education since the early 1980s. His books include 101 Must-Know Rock Licks, B.B. King: the Definitive Collection, and Best of Jazz Guitar, and a list credits can be found at wolfmarshall.com.
This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.