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Yngwie Malmsteen

February 25, 2011
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GP0211_cs_YM_ol1_nr“ONE DAY I TOOK MY SON TO BEST BUY TO BUY HIM A video game,” says neo-classical metal shred god Yngwie Malmsteen. “Well, the guy who works there recognized me and he pulls out this little plastic guitar and starts playing “Smoke on the Water” on Guitar Hero—all I could think to myself is, ‘I’m f***ing doomed, man. This is the end.’ Well, go figure, but that game has been one of the best things that has happened to me!” Yup, go figure. Life is full of goofy twists, and for the 47-year old Malmsteen, the last thing he expected was a video game and the Internet to bolster his career. But thanks to the popularity of Guitar Hero, which featured downloadable tracks from Malmsteen’s 2008 Perpetual Flame album, and Guitar Hero II, which bequeaths the “Yngwie Malmsteen Award” for a 1,000-plus note streak in succession, one of rock guitar’s most influential-yet-controversial figures has a legion of new fans.

“Over the past ten years, it seems like I couldn’t even get arrested in America,” says Malmsteen. “I’d walk into GNC for some vitamins and a Spanish body builder guy would ask me if I’m in Metallica! But now I can’t even walk down the street without someone recognizing me from either Guitar Hero or YouTube videos!”

Even if Malmsteen’s bombastic blend of Bach and Blackmore isn’t your cup of tea, one has to admire the dude’s tireless work ethic and dedication to his artistic vision in the midst of constantly changing musical and guitar fads. “I came to America with a guitar, a toothbrush, and no idea what was going to happen to me,” Malmsteen says of his arrival in the States in 1982 from Sweden. And what happened was, basically, the “official” emergence of the neo-classical shred genre, with Malmsteen as its leading light.

But as the decades have worn on, and guitarists have aped the single-minded Swede’s furious Phrygian and diminished delights to the nth degree, Malmsteen is still the most identifiable shredder ever. He’s the last hard rock/metal exponent of the Fender Stratocaster/ non-master volume Marshall amp recipe, and, for the most part, he has been using the same gear since his late teens in Sweden. His tone has always been the biggest factor that separated him from the legions of players who eventually were able to catch up to Malmsteen’s technical prowess. But technique is merely half the battle. Finding a musical voice is the end game, and there’s no denying Malmsteen has accomplished that. His new album, Relentless [Rising Force], continues the guitarist’s long string of insane, epic, and still jaw-dropping releases. His detractors will be happy to know that he’s as cocky and outspoken as ever, as will his fans. A self-admitted control freak, Malmsteen reveals he has been able to exert even more control over the composition and recording process of Relentless with a recent technical revelation. As for musical revelations, well, I’ll let him explain that. “Do you know what really blows me away?” he asks. “As I’m talking to you, I’m looking at a Strat plugged into a little Marshall stack. Every single time I pick this guitar up and plug in, something exciting happens and I have no explanation for it. So do I have musical revelations? I do—every day.”

How did the recording process for Relentless differ from your previous albums?

The biggest difference is that I’m using Pro Tools now. I’m a purist and I always resisted recording with it. My engineer, Keith Rose, has been telling me for years to go to Pro Tools—he told me to look at it like a glorified tape recorder. So last summer I said “f**k it,” and I had it wired into my studio. Man, have I been missing out! It’s such a creative thing. In the past, even when I was using Otari’s Radar hard disk system, editing was a pain in the ass. Now it’s fantastically easy.

What are some examples of how Pro Tools impacted the new album?

Well, a lot of times what happens is, we’ll be at the mix stage of an album and I’ll end up not liking a solo. Back in the day, you had to reset the board to mix, so you couldn’t just switch to record mode and start tracking. Now, if I don’t like a solo, I’ll do a new one right there on the spot. That’s a dramatic difference in the way my music is made. See, my rig is always miked up and record-ready with my cabs in an old servant’s quarters downstairs, and I have about 32 Marshalls in the control room to choose from, so I can just hit record and go.

So you’re able to capture the moment better?

Exactly. For example, “Overture,” the leadoff track on Restless, came about while I was in the living room playing in front of the TV. I dug it, ran upstairs, put a click track down and recorded it. Then I tracked the drums and bass—boom, done. Absolute creative freedom with no limits. Now, if I want to go back and change everything, I can do it very easily. That is such a liberating, free feeling. The tune “Knight of the Vasa Order,” from the new album, was complete the minute I picked up the guitar. It came out of me, I went upstairs and tracked it, key changes and all, and it was done—it was a gift. That’s why I’m so excited about this album. It captures a lot of the passion that I feel has been lost on some of my other records because I never had the choice to record and edit so easily. If I go in and I’m really feeling it, I can cut half an album’s worth of solos in a couple of hours.

Is the tone you get in the studio the same as your live tone?

It’s as close as I can get it. My goal is to get the live vibe in the studio. Some musicians want to bring the studio to the stage—I want to do the opposite. The spontaneous feel is tough to capture on record, and only lately do I feel that I’m getting close. Live, I want to hear stuff onstage that I would never do in the studio.

I improvise all of my solos when I make an album. Sure, I can play out of my head all day long—that’s not a problem. But I want to create something that blows me away, and you have to be in a special place to do that. Live, you have the audience supporting you and you have no fear. Believe me, I run out on a thin limb live—if I fall—no big deal. But in the studio, that sh*t is going to be around long after I’m dust. That’s always in the back of your mind when you’re tracking.

What do you do if the inspiration isn’t there?

I’ve learned after many years that, if you’re not feeling it, let it be. If what you’re playing doesn’t have the magic, come back another day and try it again. It can be frustrating for sure, but magic isn’t just something you can manufacture. If it’s not happening, then it’s not the time to do it. Of course, in the past when you’re paying $5,000 a day for the studio, you f***ing better do it! When I hear my older albums now, I can tell that there were times that weren’t prime, magical moments. I know what I can do, but I know what I can do on autopilot too.

Do you have any tricks for getting the vibe going?

If I’m getting particularly frustrated, my way of zoning out, or my therapy if you will, is to jump into one of my Ferraris. They’re like my babies. I’ll jump in and drive around the beach and listen to music—maybe even the very tune that I’m having a hard time with. If I’m really not feeling it, I’ll shut it down and come back the next day. That’s for solos, mind you, with written parts I’ll stay in the studio all day and night to get it right. I’m very disciplined in that respect. I’m not a hippie.

Your rhythm playing is often overlooked. Was rhythm something you practiced as much as soloing?

No, I never practiced anything. Ever. Practice means repetition, and I don’t like to play the same thing over and over.

So you didn’t learn easy riffs when you first started?

No. Most kids learn a chord, but I didn’t learn chords for a while. I wanted to play leads.

Surely someone informed your rhythm style.

I always liked Ritchie Blackmore’s approach on tunes like “Highway Star” and of course “Smoke on the Water.” Together with the Hammond B-3 organ, those riffs sound like a big, fat mastodon. I never thought too much about rhythm guitar, actually. I always liked Van Halen’s rhythm playing.

You’ve always had keyboards in your band and on your albums. Do you have to do anything sonically to work with a keyboard player?

Well you have to be careful because keyboards tend to lighten the overall sound of the band and the music, unless you use a B- 3 like Deep Purple, but that sounds way too ’60s for my music. I just have to make sure my sound is as fat as possible for the riffs.

Do you track in the control room?

I do. I hate wearing headphones. I run around a bit to stay in the vibe.

When you’re onstage, it’s pretty amazing how much you run around while you’re pulling off some pretty technical stuff.

Well, the popular story about me is that I started playing guitar when I saw a news story on Jimi Hendrix the day he died. That’s true, but I didn’t start playing because I heard Hendrix, I saw him burning a guitar and that’s what I wanted to do. It wasn’t like I heard a riff or something. I told myself a long time ago that if I’m going to play guitar and be a musician, I’m going to give the fans a show as well. Because if I go to a show that’s what I want to see—a show. Don’t get me wrong, I can sit and watch a guy like Alan Holdsworth all day long just stand there and play, but for what I do, when the singer is singing or something, I usually throw the guitar around or whatever—it makes the gig more fun.

Do you only use the front and back pickups on your Strats?

Yeah, I never do the in-between position, clucky-sounding thing. I do have a ’59 Strat that has all kinds of out-of-phase tones. You can hear it on the beginning of “Look at You Now” from the new album. It sounds kind of like a Brian May thing. I view the Strat like an acoustic instrument. It’s up to you to get the sounds. I’ve never been a big effect guy. I’ll use the wah occasionally, but it gets a little too crazy sometimes.

Have you ever used a humbucker guitar on an album for a different texture?

About 15 years ago I went into the studio and I brought some Gibson Les Pauls and Flying Vs and an ES-335. I figured I could use them for fatter rhythm parts. The funny thing is, they didn’t sound fatter. One would think the Strat would be brighter, but a Strat through a Marshall isn’t the typical twang. It’s very fat sounding. For textures on the new record, I doubled lines with an Ovation acoustic, especially on the title track. When it comes to layering, Brian May is my hero. But for me, and what I do, a lot of layering tends to make the music messy. I like the simplicity of one guitar really soaring over the music.

You’ve been playing Marshalls almost as long as you’ve been playing, and now you have a signature head coming out. What are some of the specs you wanted on your signature Marshall?

Let me tell you something: That amp is like a weapon of mass destruction—it is dangerous. I told them I wanted the amp switchable between 50 and 100 watts. I like 50-watters for their creamier characteristics, whereas 100-watters are like getting a fist to your nose. I also wanted the boost that I get from the DOD overdrive built into the amp, and I wanted digital reverb built in. And there’s a power soak instead of a master volume.

Were cosmetics important?

Oh yeah. The look is very important. From the front, the amp looks like an old Super Lead plexi—no extra knobs, it’s clean, it’s gorgeous, and it’s superb. But on the back, that’s where all of the tricky bits are. The other thing that’s cool about the amp is, I always dug the look of the old 200-watt Marshall Major head and its oversized cabinet—it’s as thick as a 4x12. It’s f***ing beautiful man. I want the slogan on the ads to say “you can’t buy just one!”

You’re famous for a wall of stacks onstage. Surely you don’t have all of those Marshalls running do you?

What?

Do you have all of the Marshalls going onstage?

What?

Oh, I get it.

[Laughs] They’re all cranking. It’s loud! If those cabs are right on you, it’s f***ing brutal. If you’re in the front row, ear level, you better bring earmuffs.

What is your stage monitor situation like?

A lot of people want to hear their guitar through a wedge onstage, and I’ll tell you man, don’t you dare put my guitar through some wedge—that’s the most horriblesounding thing ever. I toured with AC/DC a long time ago, and I thought what they did was brilliant. They used big sidefill P.A. speakers for guitar monitors, but they loaded them with Celestion 12" guitar speakers so they actually sounded like a guitar—none of that horn, full-frequency weirdness. And that’s why I have amps and cabs everywhere onstage. I hate monitor wedges. I don’t even have my acoustic guitar through the monitor. I get what I need from the P.A., and if it’s a big stage I may have a sidefill. I like to hear the sound after the hall gets it and gives it some ambience. Monitors are very isolating onstage. I like to feel and hear the air and ambience of the room. It can be frustrating at outdoor gigs because there’s no natural ambience.

Do you think it’s a better climate for guitar playing than, say, the ’80s?

I do. People romanticize the ’80s to death these days. It wasn’t that great. In the ’80s, there was one channel that would show your music, and if they didn’t show it, you were f***ed. Now if you have a name already, you’re on YouTube and you get all of the exposure without having to worry if MTV is going to like you. However, I do feel sorry for kids now because if you don’t have a name, it’s very difficult to stand out because there are way too many people trying to get in the biz.

You mentioned that the Guitar Hero video game gave your career a boost. Do you feel it’s ultimately good for the guitar?

Believe me, I was extremely skeptical about this guitar video game stuff, and the Internet in general. I mean, I lost nearly $80,000 on f***ing downloads with the Perpetual Flame album—one guy buys it, then 100 people get it for free. And sure, they’re playing a fake plastic guitar, but they’re playing Judas Priest, they’re playing Aerosmith, they’re playing my stuff—they’re exposed to guitar music— and that’s at least a start. I took my son to Best Buy in Miami, and next to all of the video games it’s like a Guitar Center in there with instruments and amps for sale. I couldn’t believe it. The way I see it, out of 1,000 kids who go in there to buy a game, one kid is going to say, “I want a real guitar.”

TAKING IT ONSTAGE

“BEFORE EVERY GIG, YNGWIE AND I SIT down together and go over his guitars,” says Malmsteen tech Chris Evin. “He really works his guitars to the maximum—so much so that the action and intonation need to be readjusted before every gig.” Evin, who counts his three-year tenure with Malmsteen as his first tech gig, wrenches on Malmsteen’s signature model Stratocasters and strings them with Fender Super Bullets. As for the gauge, Malmsteen himself chimes in, “People have an illusion that heavy strings will give them more sustain—bulls**t,” he says. “I use a hybrid .008-.048 set because thicker unwound strings don’t make much of a difference, yet they’re harder to play. But thicker wound strings do make a difference for chunky low-end. On a regular .008 set, the low strings are like spaghetti! What’s also important is making sure the guitar’s action allows the string to vibrate freely and breathe more. That’s where your sustain comes from, not heavy strings. For picks, let me say this: to play fast your hands have to be synchronized,” he continues. “But if your pick bends, the sync between the two hands will be off. You need an instant attack. I started with Fender mediums, then I went to heavy, then they made extra heavy, which I used for years. But 20 years ago I switched to 1.5mm nylon Dunlop picks.

For amps, Malmsteen will eventually rely on his signature Marshall heads as soon as they go into production, and he occasionally travels with some of his prized early-’70s Marshall Mk II heads. But we all know that Malmsteen isn’t onstage unless there is an armada of Marshalls. “You know if you go into outer space there are only two man-made objects that you can see—the Great Wall of China and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Wall of Marshall,” says Malmsteen. “I used 30 heads on my last tour and I’m going to have 60 full stacks this tour. I love it. I’m a complete freak when it comes Marshalls. All the laser shows and crazy stage sets in the world, and all that sh*t, you can have it, just give me Marshalls. Hopefully there will be room for the drummer onstage!

“My performance rider asks for 30 Marshall heads and 28 cabs,” continues Malmsteen, who requests 100-watt plexi reissue heads and Marshall cabs loaded with Celestion 75-watt G12-T 75 speakers for their clarity, higher headroom, and low-string punch. “Promoters usually have a heart attack when they see that, but that’s the way it goes. I played in Israel this year and I think I depleted the entire country of Marshalls. Every rental company, amp distributor, and local band that owned a Marshall had them onstage with me. They were all different, but I can make any Marshall do what I want. I just take all of the gain and distortion off and turn up the master, basically crank them up without any preamp gain.”

With new signature pickups and amps on the way, the one constant in Malmsteen’s rig is his effects setup, which is pretty much the same as always, save for a new RJM switching system. “I never got into totally altering my tone with effects,” says Malmsteen. “A lot of guys have effects on their lead sound, whereas my lead tone is my driest tone. I’m using the same Roland DC-10 analog delay that I’ve used for years to get violin-type volume-swell effects, a DOD YJM308 reissue booster, a Boss Chorus and NS-2 Noise Suppressor, and a rackmount Dunlop Crybaby.” —DF

Thanks to Malmsteen guitar tech, Chris Evin.

YNGWIE’S PICKUP SCENE

“I’VE BEEN DOING GUITAR MAGAZINE INTERVIEWS FOR NEARLY 30 YEARS and they always ask if I’ve changed my gear, and for more than 20 years the answer has been ‘no,’” says Yngwie Malmsteen. “But now it’s yes!” After his Fender Strats and Marshall amps, Yngwie Malmsteen was always known as a DiMarzio pickup guy. But over the past year and a half, Malmsteen brought his pickup endorsing powers—as well as his keen ear for fire-breathing Stratocaster tones—to Seymour Duncan. The result? The YJM Fury pickups. “Most of the refinements we made were literally with the last 50 turns of wire and thousandths of an inch of magnet material and height settings, but that’s the attention to detail you go to in order to make it right,” says Seymour Duncan’s Frank Falbo, who, along with Duncan’s Kevin Beller and Evan Skopp, helped Malmsteen realize his fury in magnetic form. “I wanted the rear pickup to be massive enough for huge low-string rhythm work, yet I need the high strings to be distinct,” explains Malmsteen who recorded nearly all of Relentless with his new Duncans. “The front pickup, which I use for arpeggios, needs to sound and respond the same for legato technique as well as picking. There will be a slight tone difference from legato to picked, but there shouldn’t be a volume difference.”

After exchanging nearly 20 prototypes, Malmsteen and Duncan started to home in on what they needed. “The YJM’s Alnico V magnet strength and height are customized to Yngwie’s playing and technique to produce the desired string balance and dynamics,” explains Falbo. “For example, there is far less string movement at the bridge, so the YJM bridge pickup has a greater magnetic field to get more power and punch. In the neck position, however, there’s a lot more string movement, so we had to compensate for that so when he changes pickup positions and is flowing between hard picking and arpeggios to softer hammer-ons, the feel is consistent.”

The stacked single-coil eliminates 60-cycle hum and also boasts slightly hotter output than Malmsteen’s previous pickups, a big change for the king of shred. “I’ve always been anti hot pickups,” says Malmsteen, who credits Relentless’ high instrumental count to constantly tracking his prototype versions of the YJM in his studio. “If your pickups are too hot, the string’s original tone is compromised by being dirty too early in the signal chain. The YJM’s are hotter than my DiMarzios, yet they still retain all of the clarity, harmonics, and dynamics without any noise.”

After 18 months of hard work, Falbo thinks they have a winner with the YJM. “Yngwie is intensely focused on his playing, and how all of the pieces of his signal chain interact, from his pickups to the amps and cabinets to the mics—basically everything between his guitar pick and the listener,” he says. “Yngwie also realized that designing a pickup in isolation only gets you so far—so he has to play it—loud. To that end, he was always recording different versions of the pickup in the control room with the amps melting paint in another room with all of his cabinets—the ‘room of doom’ he calls it. So he’s listening at comfortable levels to things that would be otherwise deafening. Combine this with his ability to execute every playing nuance at will, and you have a great magnifier. So if Yngwie says it’s right, it is.” —DF

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