Yngwie Malmsteen: Still Blazing After All These Years

The Man Who Wrote the Book on Shred Has Penned the Story of His Life
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The Man Who Wrote the Book on Shred Has Penned the Story of His Life

At the risk of stating the obvious, there are those who don’t get what Yngwie Malmsteen does. We’ve all heard the complaints: Too serious. Too many notes. Too much attitude. But if you strip away all of those preconceptions, all the artifice, all the baggage, and all the bombast and just watch the guy do his thing, there’s really only one conclusion you can come to: At what he does, Yngwie J. Malmsteen is the greatest of all time. That doesn’t mean you have to like what he does, of course, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll have to admit that. At the very least, you’ll have to paraphrase Keith Moon and concede that he is the best Yngwie-style guitarist in the world, which isn’t quite as absurd as it sounds.

With his flawless technique, deep grasp of classical phrasing, jaw-dropping facility with scales and arpeggios, and violin-like lead tone, Malmsteen was instantly—and massively—influential. He generated more “Have you heard this guy?!?” gushing than any guitarist other than Van Halen. “Everybody wanted to be Yngwie,” recalls George Lynch. Despite all their fiendish woodshedding, however, none of his disciples, with very few exceptions, could ever approach Malmsteen’s mastery. Even if they could maybe match his terrifying speed, they couldn’t cop his touch, vibrato, bends, or economy of motion.

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Yngwie is one of those rare types who can really only be defined by his name. Sure, the genre he plays is called neo-classical, but when anyone else plays it, they’re doing Yngwie-style music. And he’s always been Yngwie. There’s a great picture of him in his rehearsal room as a teenager, with a white Strat, a Marshall stack, and a smoke machine. It’s funny and awesome at the same time. He’s always known exactly who he is.

Yngwie doesn’t change. Much like Einstein, who famously had many versions of the same suit, he wears the same outfit of black jeans, an unbuttoned black shirt, boots, and a gold Rolex pretty much everywhere he goes. With the exception of his new line of Seymour Duncan pickups and a signature Marshall head, he’s playing the same gear that he always has. And the music he’s playing through that rig hasn’t changed either, except that it has gotten better. Given how accomplished his playing was at a very young age, it would be easy to say that there wasn’t much room for improvement and, while true, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Yngwie’s chops, reputation, and career took a pretty big hit in the ’90s. All the excesses—notes, booze, and bad behavior— turned people off, some forever. It took a lot of personal and professional hardship to provide a sobering wake-up call. And sober up he did, literally and figuratively. In the process, he rededicated himself to his instrument, his compositional skills, and his fans. He recently released a blazing new album, Spellbound [Rising Force], on which he plays all the instruments. He has also authored his autobiography, Relentless: The Memoir. It’s a fascinating, well-written tome and in it he candidly details his upbringing in Sweden, his coming to America, his meteoric rise to fame, and the ups, downs, and ups that he has seen. Shortly after an astounding performance in San Francisco, Mr. Malmsteen dished for over an hour on his book, his career, and what he feels is his best album.

In the book, you talk about your first gig in the States, where you played with Steeler for about 30 people.

It was at the Country Club in Reseda, in February of ’83, and we were opening for Hughes/Thrall. For some reason there was nobody there, maybe it was the middle of the week, I have no idea. But the thing is, I remember vividly that there were very few people there and I really didn’t care. I was just doing everything that I do. I thought, “I’m in f***ing America—I’m going to go full out.”

Your second gig had a line stretching around the block.

I remember looking down the street and asking somebody that worked backstage, “Who’s playing tonight? Who’s the big draw?” The guy said, “You are.” It didn’t quite sink in, you know? I was never aware of it myself—that’s what’s so weird. When I decided to write the book, I wanted to include all of these events as they happened, but not necessarily as I experienced them at the time.

Timing is so important in this business and you, much like Hendrix and Van Halen before you, were truly the right guy in the right place at the right time—the next big thing. What was that like?

It was very surreal. When I got this offer to come to America, it was strange because no one I knew had ever been to America. The only place people would think about going was maybe England. I thought, “America? What’s going on there?” I never knew any bands from there. Bands like Journey and Foreigner—huge bands—I had never even heard of them. All the bands that I knew were from England. So coming to America was like landing on a different planet, for sure. So here I was, in a band like Steeler, which was extremely banal—very cliché, pentatonic, two-chord, basic stuff. And I was doing diminished arpeggios and Phrygian modes and all this other stuff, which was very strange to do in the first place, but it was especially strange to play that way in that kind of band. And this was with no album—I left the band before the album even came out—so it was just the live shows that made people talk. Part of the impact was due to me being so very different in that group setting, but part of it was the fact that in America at the time, especially California, classical music was definitely not something that was played or talked about. Nobody made the connection with Vivaldi and Paganini and what I was doing. They just thought it was something crazy and brand new. “What the hell is this guy doing?” It wasn’t pentatonic based, it wasn’t tapping based, it wasn’t anything they had heard before. I felt like I’d been doing this forever. I was doing what I’d always done and then all of the sudden, it was brought to another venue and it exploded. It was very bizarre to me because I was used to being laughed at. Well, not laughed at exactly, but I would hear, “Yeah, good luck with that, boy. You’re never going to make it playing that kind of sh*t.” So to come to America and not have to work at a burger joint but actually have the opportunity to make a living playing guitar, that was incredible. That’s what I aimed at. It became a lot more than that, obviously, but I could be happy with that too.

Was there much diversity when you arrived on the scene?

No. All of the bands sounded and looked like Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth— all of them. They were all Van Halen copies. And here’s another thing: Nobody played a Fender Stratocaster, not one guy. They were all using these hot-rodded things. Even if it was a Fender, it would definitely be drilled out for a humbucker and a Floyd. I found that really interesting. A year and a half later, I walked into a guitar store on Sunset and there was a 1972 sunburst Strat and it was hanging next to a 1972 white cream Strat. The sunburst was like $450 and the other one was $1,500. I said, “Why is the cream white one 1,500 bucks and the other one, exact same year, $450?” “Because of you, man. Because everybody wants that guitar.” So that was another thing that was different from everybody else. Everybody seemed to want to have these guitars, I think they were called Charvels or something. They were like Strats but they were not Strats and they had all these different pickups and whammys and sh*t.

Fast-forward a little bit and talk about when you went to the Soviet Union. You went there before anybody. You played a bunch of sold-out shows and it was a big, big deal, but you didn’t get any credit for that. What was it like to go there and play your kind of music for those kind of crowds?

First of all, I felt so bad for the people living there. They had no food, no stores, no TV, and no lights at night. There was nothing. It was just a big black and white movie—a bad black and white movie. I played 11 soldout nights in Olimpiyskiy Arena—18,000 seats in Moscow—and nine more in Leningrad. It was amazing in a lot of ways but it was also kind of sad. And then of course when I realized whatever money I made there wasn’t really worth anything, I made a video and live album to get something out of it at least. I delivered it to the label and basically they didn’t know what the hell to do with it. Everyone was saying, “Hey man, what have you been up to?” And I had just delivered them a Russian live album and live video that no one else had done before. So I was a little bit insulted, to put it mildly. Of course, when Motley Crue and Bon Jovi went there three years later, after the Iron Curtain fell, it was big news.

That’s not the only time you’ve blazed a trail and then somebody else has gotten the credit for it. In general, what can you say about the credit, or the lack of credit, that you’ve gotten in your career?

There was a time that I was a little bit bitter about that, but I can’t say that I am anymore. Actually I consider myself the luckiest man alive. Given what I’ve achieved, what I’ve managed to do long-term, I have no complaints. Of course there are certain things that I wish were done differently and so forth, but I don’t dwell on that at all. I’m very, very pleased with how things turned out. Here we are, 30-something years after I came to the States, and I’m still doing it. I just came off of a 29-city tour in America and it was amazing. So I’m not complaining at all. I’m not bitter about anything [laughs].

Let’s talk about your Concerto Suite. I found that to be a fascinating part of the book. You make a distinction between your work and what Deep Purple, Metallica, or the Scorpions did when they played with an orchestra. What is the difference between what you did and what everybody else does?

Well, I wouldn’t say everybody, but everybody I’ve heard. The difference is, Kiss, the Scorpions, and bands like that have simply played their songs—with bass, rhythm guitars, drums, and vocals—with an orchestra playing with them. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s actually very, very cool. But I wrote something from scratch that was written in the exact same manner as Vivaldi or someone who composes a concerto—a piece with an orchestra and a solo instrument. The reason I call it a suite is because a concerto usually has three movements, but I have 12 movements. I stepped into the classical world and put my electric guitar as the solo instrument with the symphony. Some of the pieces are full, 96-piece symphony, some are chamber orchestra, and some feature a 60-piece choir. So it’s a big thing.

Uli Jon Roth talked about how it was difficult for him to fit distorted electric guitar in with an orchestra when he did Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Did you change up your tone at all to blend your guitar more seamlessly with the orchestra?

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Yes and no. I think I know what he means because a distorted guitar doesn’t usually sound right in there. The tone can sound a little dark in comparison, but you can just brighten it up a little bit. It’s funny you should mention distorted electric guitar because for the longest time people used to come up to me and say, “How come you play with no distortion?” If they only knew! I have more distortion and gain in my setup than you could shake a stick at. It’s just that very early in my development I made a conscious effort to make it so that it doesn’t sound distorted when I play a solo. In other words, no note blurs into the other. It’s a very violin kind of approach. I’ve always done that, so I didn’t see it as a big problem to blend my tone with the orchestra.

You said that you overdubbed your guitars later, although you played live with the Czech Philharmonic when they tracked. How did you keep your live guitar from bleeding into the mics that were on the orchestra?

What happened was, we had three days in Prague to record. I did a runithrough with the orchestra, but I deliberately made a decision to give myself the luxury of putting the guitars on afterwards at home. I played with them because I just wanted to get a feel for tempos and stuff like that. Tempos are not carved in stone. It’s a feel thing. So, the takes we used of the orchestra are the ones where I wasn’t playing. The guitar you hear on the record, that was all done here.

When you performed your ConcertoSuite in Japan, though, you did track your guitar live.

That’s right. I played everything live and the Marshall was in the dressing room. I just used one head and one cabinet. I miked it and put it downstairs. I had a wedge in front of me and behind me there was a Plexiglas screen. Whatever came out of my monitor wouldn’t go into the mics on the orchestra, and I had my monitor very quiet. That’s how I record guitar live with the orchestra.

One head and one cab? Really?

I know [laughs]. The way I play live— with 38 heads and 22 cabinets—if I did that, it would blow the orchestra off the stage.

You wrote about how harrowing that Japan performance was. It actually came off great, especially considering how little time you all had to prepare.

It was truly like a helicopter dropping into a battle zone, man. It was all guns blazing— throw some hand grenades and see if you come out alive. It was so crazy. I was coming from England, I drove all night to Heathrow, flew to Tokyo, had a two-hour rehearsal, and then I went in and did it, and it was filmed. I told the label that I wanted to film both nights. They said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” They only filmed one [laughs]. They didn’t tell me! I have to thank the conductor. He saved my ass. He was so good. He had one eye on me and one eye on the orchestra and he controlled 96 people. Just judging by the way I would bend my head or how I would move, he knew how I would phrase stuff. He was sick, man. Unbelievable.

You said that if you were to ever do that again, you would need to plan a year or two in advance and you would need to relearn all the pieces. I’m certainly not minimizing how demanding this material is, but it seems like you could probably pull it off with way less preparation than that. Didn’t that Japan performance bolster your confidence?

It did, but if I had the opportunity to have a little more preparation, I’d rather do that. But you’re right, I probably could do it. You need to remember, when I recorded the Concerto Suite, I didn’t memorize anything. I sort of improvised. I recorded one piece and then I would go to the next one. But then, all of the sudden, I had to do all of them in one go. I had to remember all of the cadenzas and all of the turnarounds. We were working and making changes until the last minute. I sat with the arranger by the grand piano and said, “No, no, you have to do it like this.” All night long he had to rewrite all the scores. So that was crazy. The fact that it actually happened and came out the way it did is remarkable. It really is.

In your book, you’re pretty honest about some of your bad behavior back in the day. You talk about how some people got so turned off by all of that that it can still color their opinion of your music today. Is there anything you would say to guitar fans who got alienated and are slow to come back around? Do you have any desire to try and get a second chance with them?

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I think if they met me and sat down and talked to me right now, they wouldn’t think that I’m the person they heard stuff about for a number of reasons. One reason is that I am now an extremely clean-living person. I work out and I don’t touch alcohol or cigarettes—I don’t do anything. I’m completely clean. I get up at 7:00 in the morning and go to the tennis court. I’m a very, very different person from when these things happened. And for whatever it’s worth, it was the thing to do. That’s what Motley Crue did, that’s what everybody else did. Even the bands that had a squeaky clean image—they were all doing bad sh*t too, they just kept it quiet. So of course, I’m not proud of anything and I’m not making excuses. When I wrote the book, I did reflect on a lot of that behavior and I really, truly felt like I was talking about someone else. It didn’t feel like it was me. It didn’t feel like a memory, it felt like something I saw in a movie. And lastly, not to make excuses, but a lot of the stuff that happened wasn’t really me—there were a lot of people involved. But it became me, because I was the guy that had the name on the record. I’d say I was maybe guilty 45 percent and 55 percent not.

That’s still a pretty big 45 percent.

You’re right. I’m not trying to squirm away from it, because I did it, but I’m not anything like that now.

How did you create your latest record, Spellbound?

The record was made at my place. About 18 years ago, I built my studio. I built recording rooms and a big control room. I bought a Studer 2" machine, a big mixing board, all this tube outboard gear, and all these microphones. It was probably the best thing I ever did. I played all the instruments on this album—drums, keyboards, everything. I spent a lot of time on every aspect of it, not just the guitar.

Do you put the drums on first or last?

I did both. If I have a theme or a riff that I’m really inspired with, I just put it down with a click, so I don’t forget it or lose it, and then I put on everything else afterwards. For other tunes I’ll record the drums first. I did the same thing on Relentless. Half the album was done like that where I had the luxury to put the drums on after the guitars. That’s what’s so great about Pro Tools: You can put things on afterwards and make it perfect. I generally don’t really use Pro Tools as such; I really just use it as a recorder. But you can rearrange things. Like, “Okay, I’d like to have two bridges here and I want 16 bars in the solo instead of eight bars.” That kind of stuff I do like. That, to me, is musical freedom.

How did you track guitars?

The way I recorded guitars is really the same as it’s been for years. My house is like an old Victorian kind of place, and parts of it were built for servants. I converted those rooms to what I call the Room of Doom—where the Marshall cabs go. That area has a bunch of microphones, a bunch of Marshall stacks, and it has the speaker and microphone ins and outs on the wall, and that’s hardwired to the control room where the amp heads are. The chain goes from the microphone to a Focusrite preamp to a Summit Audio tube compressor. Then it goes into the interface, to Pro Tools, and then out of Pro Tools to an API mixing board.

Your tone is always very consistent from album to album and from tune to tune, but it seems like some guitar parts might have a little bit more room sound, like “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” Did you do anything differently on that song?

Not really. On this album I actually used YJM100 Marshalls—my signature Marshalls. What you’re hearing could be a little bit more room mic on the track. When I record, there’s one far mic and one close mic and in the mix we might have bumped up the room mics a little bit. But other than that, the guitars are recorded pretty much the same for quite some time now, except of course I’m now using the Seymour Duncan pickups and those, together with the YJMs, have made an enormous improvement.

Your signature Marshall has a lot of interesting features, like built-in overdrive and a built-in noise gate, but it also has a different type of master volume. What’s the deal with that?

When I was a little kid I wanted a Marshall but I couldn’t afford it. When I was about 12 years old or so, Marshall finally came out with what they called the Master Volume Series. All of the sudden nobody wanted the plexi Super Leads and all those models with four inputs and no master volume. I used to buy them for $40-$50 bucks apiece and we all know that they’re worth thousands now. I was just so happy to have a Marshall, and the fact that I had to break down walls every time I played because it was so loud is just something I lived with. I wanted my signature amps to be built on that same idea: The bare bones, the meat and potatoes of the amp is a 1959 Super Lead, and all the other things like the overdrive, noise gate, and master volume are there if you want them, but they’re just luxuries. The amp is pretty much made to sound like my old Marshalls. Now here’s the deal with the master volume: The problem with master volume circuits is that they’re always in between the preamp stage and the power stage. So when you turn down the master, you can really only overdrive the preamp tubes to get distortion. But half your sound comes from the power amp. A turned down amp is just a preamp distorting, and that’s a little bit fuzzy and thin. I told them they had to put the master volume control after the power stage, not before. So even when you turn the amp down, all the power tubes are going full blast. It’s a completely different sound. One last thing about my Marshall: I didn’t want all that clutter on the front of the amp. I wanted it all in the back, so cosmetically the look is still clean. And I wanted to put the amp itself in a Marshall Major box, which is the big, fat 200- watt head.

You’re also using your signature Seymour Duncan pickups on the new record.

I am. I used DiMarzio HS-3s for 25 years. Then Seymour Duncan came around and said they had a different idea about making a hum-canceling Strat pickup. They sent me three different ones and I didn’t like them. They sounded thin. They sent another and I said, “No, this doesn’t respond right.” We ended up testing 29 prototypes back and forth in one year until we found the perfect balance. The treble pickup, middle pickup, and neck pickup are all voiced differently. These are unbelievable pickups. The response, the sensitivity, the sound, the harmonics—everything you can dream of is in there. It’s sick.

There’s a lot of nylon-string work on this album. It sounds like you record it direct. What is it you like about that sound?

That’s my Ovation Yngwie Malmsteen Signature. I run it through a compressor and right into the board. I always felt that I get a little more fluidity in the sound by going direct. If I mic it, it seems to sound, not banjo-like, but like it has less of the fluid quality that I’m looking for.

Was any tune on Spellbound particularly difficult to get down?

There are a couple of tracks that are kind of like little suites and they were a bit more work. I tend to give each song about the same amount of attention, but I’ve always believed that if it doesn’t feel right, if it doesn’t lay right in one or two takes, forget it. Go for a drive or something. Do it tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. That’s the luxury of having everything set up. When you feel inspired, when it’s natural, that’s what you end up having on the record. Otherwise, it’s “Wow, I just came up with this cool riff,” and then you have to rehearse with the band, drive to a studio, mic up the drums, and then try to capture that moment. I hate that. I can’t do that. It’s at least three steps removed from your original inspiration.

You ushered in a new era of technique when you came on the scene and your music sent a generation of players back to the woodshed. Some of those guitarists developed mind-blowing chops. Did guys like Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker, or any other player make you sit up and take notice when you heard them play? Did you ever say, “Wow, that guy actually has really terrifying chops”?

To be honest with you, if I listened to them, I’m sure I would say something just like what you said. But I was so fanatical about playing the guitar for so many years that actually sitting down and listening to guitar players almost felt like work. And once I became more and more infatuated with the violin, the tonalities of the violin, and the way you play linear notes and scales and arpeggios—rather than the blues-scale-based thing—I wasn’t a guitar player’s guitar player anymore. So that kind of made me not have much interest in it. But I’m not saying that in an arrogant way at all. I’m not minimizing or belittling anybody. I’m just trying to explain it the only way I can. I never really kept an eye or ear out for other guys. I wasn’t competing with people. I didn’t have any interest in that at all. And I didn’t have time for it. When you put so much passion and so much work into creating a style or a way of doing things as I have, it takes many, many years, and I had to be extremely focused.

Are you still as focused on your style?

No. Now it’s hardwired. Just give me a guitar, and when I start improvising, it will sound like Bach. I’ll play pedal notes, augmented 7ths, and so forth. I don’t think about it, per se. I’m analyzing it now, but I definitely don’t think of it when I’m doing it.

If someone were to say, “I don’t know this Yngwie guy. What’s he about?” could you pick a tune that you feel represents you?

I’d say “Far Beyond the Sun,” something from my Concerto Suite, like “Prelude to April” or “Sarabande,” and probably a couple songs from Spellbound like “Majestic 12 Suite” and then “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie,” so you’d have a little blues action as well. Those are all very different from one another. It would be hard to pick just one tune.

You said the last time we talked that the best way for a guitarist to play and sound better was to record themselves, listen back, and be brutally honest about what they hear. What else can they do? Is there other advice you have for guitarists?

I’m teaching my son, who is 15 and crazy about guitar. It’s all he wants to do. What I’m teaching him is don’t ever start with the wrong technique. Always have the right technique to begin with because otherwise you’re getting off on the wrong foot. Also be well aware of theory. This goes for any musician—it doesn’t have to be a guitar player. And listen. Listen to everything. Listen to the notes, listen to what you play, listen to what other people play, and find what is most exciting for you. Then, as you become proficient, try to find your own self, which is the most difficult part. It’s not as hard to learn how to play really well as it is to find your own thing. It’s the hardest thing to do, but it’s the most important thing.

What does it feel like when you nail a ridiculously difficult run or a really challenging arpeggio? Can you put that into words?

What the f**k just happened [laughs]? Executing written parts is one thing. That’s really never difficult to do. It doesn’t really matter how complex they are. The written part is what it is and you play it. But improvised things, which are what I do most anyway, those need to have another ingredient, and I can’t describe that. If I knew it, I would patent it and become a billionaire. One night it’s like pulling teeth and another night great music comes out and you don’t know why. That’s what I always try to do. I try to leave myself out of it and kind of be a spectator to what’s going on. I don’t think about what I’m playing and I just kind of listen. Then I can enjoy it and maybe even impress myself, and that can come from a very broad spectrum of things. It could be anything. It could be as simple as hitting an F instead of a G# in an A minor scale or creating a diminished tension or something that makes me go. “Oh, that sounded cool!”

You seem like a tough guy to impress.

Ever since I was really young, I would never accept just practicing. I would always have to impress myself and demand that I play at a performance level at all times—which is basically impossible—but I always push myself to do that. I’m not saying I’m always able to do it, but that is what I’m trying to do. You can’t flip a switch for that. When it comes to recording a solo or playing something on demand, something has to trigger it. You have to be inspired, and there’s no faking that. So although I could pretty much play everything on autopilot, I don’t enjoy it that way. I want it to be real.

What would you say is next for you? What haven’t you done that you really want to do?

That’s a very good question. The answer is, I’ve already done what I always wanted to do. I wanted to compose the Concerto Suite and I had to write a book. I wanted to first conquer my own goals and then try to get accepted by the people, and I’ve done that too. So I’m very, very pleased with where I’m at right now but I’m not complacent by any means. Every time I hit the stage, and I’m going to Vienna tomorrow, I’m giving 100 percent. My best show is the one I play next. My best album is the next one I’m making. I don’t ever rest on my laurels and I’m very relentless in my ways.