Schenker started playing guitar at an early age, after his brother Rudolf got a Gibson Flying V guitar for his birthday, which captured his imagination. His main influences were Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Leslie West, Johnny Winter and Rory Gallagher. He played his first gig when he was 11, with Rudolf and the Scorpions in a nightclub. Schenker debuted with Scorpions on their debut album Lonesome Crow at age 16.
Scorpions went on tour after recording their first album as the opening act for up-and-coming UK band UFO in Germany. Schenker was offered the position of lead guitar player for UFO (taking over for Bernie Marsden, himself a temporary replacement for Mick Bolton) and, with the blessing of his brother, accepted (Scorpions replaced him with Uli Roth), even though he didn’t speak English.
Schenker co-wrote most of the songs on UFO’s major label (Chrysalis Records) debut album Phenomenon. His career with UFO was turbulent, sometimes walking off mid-song causing shows to be cancelled. Despite having a series of successful albums and tours, Schenker unequivocally quit UFO after their show in Palo Alto, California, on 29 October 1978. During this tour the band had recorded six concerts whose selected tracks would make up their live album Strangers in the Night, which was released after he left the band.
Schenker briefly re-joined Scorpions in late 1978, when they were recording the album Lovedrive. He composed and played lead guitar on three songs, “Another Piece of Meat”, “Coast To Coast” and “Lovedrive”. Although it had been widely believed for decades that the three songs were Schenker’s only contribution to the record, during an interview with satellite radio host Eddie Trunk, Schenker vehemently maintained that he contributed to the whole album. In 1979, Schenker briefly toured with the band in support of the album. He blamed his very short stay on finding out he did not enjoy playing other people’s songs. He was permanently replaced by Matthias Jabs, who had originally joined Scorpions before Schenker’s return.
Schenker auditioned for Aerosmith in 1979 after Joe Perry left. According to Martin Huxley, Schenker stormed out of the room after producer Gary Lyons made several jokes about Nazis. After the death of Randy Rhoads, Ozzy Osbourne‘s first call was to Schenker to replace Rhoads, as the German guitarist and his iconic Flying V were a huge influence on Rhoads. But, Osbourne claims, Schenker made too many outlandish demands (including a private jet). Schenker himself, in an interview with KNAC radio, claims he was the one to say “no” to Osbourne: “If I would have joined Ozzy Osbourne, I would have screwed up my life. I was almost about to do it, and something told me: DON’T!!” Schenker has also claimed that at some point he was offered, but turned down joining the likes of Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, Ian Hunter and Motörhead in order to focus on his solo career.