Ruben Roeh: Playing guitar with Joachim Witt

Ruben Roeh: Playing guitar with Joachim Witt

Ruben Roeh’s versatility as a guitarist is demonstrated by the range of music he plays. From being a regular with Krautrock legend Joachim Witt - to touring with Hamburg based punk band Strom & Wasser, Ruben is certainly an adaptable musician. Having started learning violin as a child he quickly switched to guitar, ending up at the prestigious Hamburg School of Music. He later taught music himself at the school while running his own musical projects alongside gigging with various artists. We caught up with him mid-tour earlier this year...

 

MPS
Who are you working with at the moment?

RR
I do mostly sideman work with German industrial/adult contemporary act Joachim Witt, and songwriter Heinz Ratz.

MPS
What kind of work do you get the most satisfaction out of?

RR
Touring is really where my heart is. I do enjoy studio time but those jobs, especially the enjoyable ones, are quite small in number these days. I am fortunate to work with artists that allow for plenty of artistic freedom when I interpret their tunes and as long as I capture the essence of any given song I can do pretty much whatever. It’s a more healthy and fun way of doing the sideman thing.

MPS
Can you pick out a favourite gig??

RR
A few memorable gigs come to mind. The most impressive would certainly have to be the M’era Luna Festival this year. It’s a quite sizable dark wave/gothic festival here in Germany with an insanely loyal, fun, and mostly crazy crowd. We weren’t sure how our act would be received, but they loved us, and we loved them back! That sure left an impression on me. But there’s also the polar opposite: A gig I did with the Band Strom & Wasser in Erfurt a few years back. The stage was ridiculously small. The drummer, I, my entire backline (including amp, 2 guitars, and my pedalboard), and 2 basses resided on the drum carpet. In spite of the logistical challenges (or maybe because of them), I remember it being one of the best and most fun gigs I’ve played..

MPS
Who do you count among your musical influences?

RR
The first record I ever owned was Supernatural by Santana; he influenced me very early on – way before I ever intended to go pro. Pat Metheny’s tune “Above the Treetops” is also one I count among my favorites. It's solo gave me a completely new perspective on melodic improvising. I’m not much of a jazz-guy myself, but I believe there’s not a single genre you can’t draw anything from. I had an intense progressive rock period in my late teens, and spent countless hours trying myself at John Petrucci’s odd-meter riffs and extended chords. Especially the latter became an important part of my style. I was forced to hone my chops in order to execute the parts cleanly, and I still profit from that. In college, I discovered funk and smooth jazz. Paul Jackson Jr. and his impeccable time impressed me, he made me rethink my right hand technique from the ground up. Smooth jazz, although having a terrible rep these days, combines all the things I like about music: It has strong and catchy hooks, tight and danceable grooves, extended chords, that sound colorful and spacious in a not so obviously jazzy way, and you can still solo to your hearts content!

MPS
If you could go back to any musical era what would it be?

RR
That’s a tough one… I’ll say somewhere in the eighties. I love that transition period, where production technology was advancing rapidly, and enabled people who were still very capable and really had their shit together to do amazing things. These days, I feel technology is being used more to make up for a lack of skill, instead of augmenting it, and creating a sound that is way bigger than the sum of its parts. But there was that magical in-between time where amazing players met amazing tech and the productions sound huge! I’ll leave you with an example that my mentor Roland Cabezas introduced me to: Narada Michael Walden’s Victory album.

MPS
What was your first guitar?

RR
My very first guitar was a cheap nylon string, I traded my violin in for. My first proper guitar was a custom made HSS Strat that I got an insanely good deal on at the guitar workshop where I worked part-time after High School. I still take it out on tour as a backup. It has a very distinct diamond plate pickguard and was inspired by a special biker themed Strat run Fender did many years ago.

MPS
What guitars are you playing at the moment?

RR
I mainly rock my PRS 408 MT Trem at the moment. I very much subscribe to keeping my instrument count as low as possible and relying on high quality, reliable and versatile instruments. I don’t always have the logistical luxury of bringing a whole boatload so being able to pull off an entire gig worth of styles and sound with one guitar is essential. My Breedlove Cascade handles acoustic duties. Super reliable and I’m not afraid to take it out on the road with me either.

MPS
Tell us about your Timeline, what made you chose it?

RR
To be honest, it was a simple process of elimination. I required a programmable delay, that could be controlled via midi, had a kill-dry mode (because I use it in a parallel loop in my RJM Mastermind PBC) and a low noise floor, and was utterly reliable. Enter the Timeline! Since buying my first unit back in 2012, I have tried several others, that all fell short in at least one of the aforementioned categories. It also sounds killer by the way… I’ve heard people complain about its allegedly complex user-interface, but I could not disagree more. I hate having to deal with too many numeric displays and values, because it brings too much left-brain stuff into the equation. The guys at Strymon have managed to keep the most important parameters very tangible and setting it up feels natural and intuitive, way more right-brain, although it’s a very deep unit. At no point do I get yanked out of my inspired headspace while working with it.

MPS
What else do you have on your pedalboard?

RR
My pedalboard has been under constant remodeling lately, in an effort to accommodate various different gigs. I am now in the process of assembling one, that can serve them all and that will hopefully be more resistant to change. The biggest challenge is to keep it compact, while not compromising sonic quality. The brain of it is the RJM Mastermind PBC, which is pure genius. It controls literally everything. At the moment, I start my chain off with a few different flavors of gain, which are very important for a sideman, and I consider them to be my base-tones rather than effects. A Vemuram Jan Ray handles the open and blooming low gain sounds, followed by an XTS Precision Overdrive for bluesy/fusiony stuff. The XTS Winford gives me a great rock tone, and the MXR Super Badass is a surprisingly inexpensive distortion for when I need a slightly more modern sound. I conclude the gain section with an MI Audio Megalith Delta that I use for some truly evil high gain tones. It turns any small combo amp into a scaly fire-breather! A Radial Elevator with the gain all the way off and a 5db mid boost engaged serves as my lead boost. For modulation I use a Neunaber Slate, loaded with their micro-pitchshift algorithm from the Chroma Chorus, and a Jacques Meistersinger for more obvious chorus tones. The final part of the chain is the Timeline. I go without reverb at the moment. I leave that at the sound engineer’s discretion.

MPS
Is there anything you have parted with that you really miss?

RR
I have sold a few pedals on my quest to achieve a tone I had in my head that ended up suiting tones my head didn’t realize I needed at that time. The Skreddy Screwdriver comes to mind, which is a brilliant dirt pedal that can go from amazing sparkly open low gain tones through very amp-like crunch all the way to wooly, fuzzy distortion. I try not to look back in that regard though. I’m always eager to hear what else is out there.

MPS
Can you think of anything that really changed things for you?

RR
That would be the RJM Mastermind PBC. There is nothing more important than perfect preparation for any gig, and this has gotten me a huge leap closer. I can program setlists and songs, organize everything in presets, engage pedals, send midi commands on multiple channels, man this thing is too good! It's button layout is completely customizable and even the LED colors can be reconfigured to optimize my performance. A big pop type gig, where the entire production is super streamlined and has to run completely flawlessly night after night was never this comfortable. Playing with many different synchronized delay sounds and various drive stages is a breeze, and the transitions between sounds are smooth, fast, and most importantly inaudible. With its powerful yet easy-to-use computer editor I have even programmed entire setlists in the comfort of my hotel room with the board in the trailer. I just loaded them into the unit at soundcheck the next day, and had everything ready to go.

MPS
Is there any advice you can offer to people starting out on their musical journeys?

RR
I’ll try myself at one angle here, I don’t find too many pros sharing about. You need to really ask yourself why you want to do this. I don’t mean to discourage anyone, but it takes a special kind of moron to do what we do. It’s not really a job, it’s more of a calling. If there is any other career choice that you think can make you happy I suggest you go and try that first. Sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t. I remember times when I was struggling really hard, not having cash to really eat for days and the only thing that got me through was the love for the music (and the best friends anyone could ask for - credit where credit is due…) It’s easy to start feeling entitled to success, money and recognition because you put in this insane amount of work, and not getting any of those things seems crazy unfair. But you have to remember, music does not owe you jack. Just doing this has to be enough. If it’s not, chances are you’re going to be very unhappy. I choose this path for myself because I knew I wanted to spend as much of my life doing music as possible and if you can manage to live off that, you don’t need an extra job and have more time to play music!

On a more practical note, remember that people who hire players for a tour know what to look for: capable players with great consistency in performance and tone, more so than virtuosos, but also just fun and outgoing human beings that are at the same time emotionally stable and utterly professional. After all they have to spend weeks or even months with you non-stop, and it takes very little to piss each other off in that scenario. The last thing you need is someone with a bad attitude. But every crew is different, just as any person is, and not every player fits with every production. One can only try to be positive and generally open-minded. Be well prepared, make sure your gear will enable you instead of limiting you, and check your attitude. Ask yourself what you can contribute to a production. Not only in musical but also in more profane, inter-human, and often times overlooked terms. And remember: music does not owe you. Be thankful!

 

Find out more about what Ruban is working on at rubenroeh.com

 

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