But from his nut-job escapades to get out of Sweden’s mandatory military service (entering his local commander’s office with a loaded pistol pointed at his own head), to domestic squabbles, car crashes, and an air-rage incident that turned into an Internet phenomenon, Malmsteen’s personality often overshadows his playing.
“I’ve probably made more mistakes than anybody,” says the 42-year old. “But I don’t dwell on them. I don’t expect people to understand me, because I’m pretty complex, and I think outside the box with everything I do. I’ve always taken the un-traveled path. Obviously, people have their opinions, but I can’t get too wrapped up in that, because I know what I can do, and I know what kind of person I am. And I have no control over what anybody says about me. Back in Sweden, I’m ‘Mr. Personality’ in the tabloids. But, obviously, I can’t take that seriously. I know in my heart that if I do the absolute best I can do, maybe ten years from now, people may turn around and say, ‘He wasn’t that bad.’”
Malmsteen’s new record, Unleash The Fury [Spitfire], will delight his hardcore fans and do nothing to change the minds of his critics. The record is a straight-up metal affair, with Malmsteen’s incendiary neo-classical thumbprint inhabiting every nook and cranny. It also includes everything that turned the guitar community upside-down more than 20 years ago—his frightening skill and command of the instrument, an evolved, even studied sense of melody, and a singular, killing tone.
You’ve been producing your own records for the bulk of your career, and your reputation as a bandleader is that of a strict taskmaster. Is there a downside to exercising so much control?
No. In fact, every time I’ve tried to let go of the creative reins a little bit by bringing in a producer or a cowriter, without fail, I walk away unhappy with the results. The way I see it, if I have control over everything, and the album comes out like s**t, then it’s my fault. But if it’s cool, well then, that’s my fault too, isn’t it?
Sure. After all, your name is on the album.
Well, Ozzy Osbourne has his name on his music and he doesn’t do anything. I’m often accused of being a perfectionist, but I think there’s a better word for the way I go about creating, and that’s “purist.” I’m a perfectionist in the sense that I want every piece to be in its right place. But from the point where the idea was born, to the mixing of the record, I’m right there, breathing down people’s necks if I have to, making sure that my ideas are getting through in their purest form. I feel that approach is very un-rock and roll, you know?
What do you mean by un-rock and roll?
Traditionally, the guitar player in the band—whether it’s Keith Richards, Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker, Jimmy Page, or whomever—typically comes up with a couple of riffs. Then the band comes in and plays whatever they want, and then the singer will sing whatever he wants. That’s the most normal way to do it in rock and metal. Because I don’t work that way, I think people have a hard time dealing with it, and I’m considered a control freak. Most rock and roll people just can’t get the fact that, if I want a cello part a certain way, I want the exact notes to be played. It’s the same thing when I write the lyrics, or tell the drummer to play the ride cymbal rather than the high-hat. That’s where I’m coming from. I’m sort of like the Frank Zappa of metal.
So being in an equal partnership was pretty much always out of the question for you?
Oh yeah. Even when I was in bands as a teenager I was arguing with people. But when I formed the first Rising Force in 1978, I realized what I wanted. That was my first no-compromise situation. But when I came to America a few years later, I felt that I had to compromise to get my career started, and I found myself in less-than-ideal situations. Steeler wasn’t my band, but I accepted it, and I simply did as I was told. Alcatrazz was a bit different because I came in as a songwriter, but it was a constant struggle with the other guys in the band. I realize that it’s a lot easier to share the burden, but I can’t work that way.
You’ve been recording your albums in your home studio for some time now. Have you always been interested in the recording process?
Definitely. When I was still in Sweden around 1981, I made a deal with a guy that if I fixed 200 of his guitars, he’d pay me with some recording gear. Out of that deal I got a mixing board and a 4-track reel-to-reel machine. That was how I became interested in recording. In fact, I wrote the tune “Black Star” [from Rising Force] when I was learning how to mic a drum kit. I sat and recorded this drum groove, put some bass on it, tracked an Em to C vamp on the keyboards, and, oddly enough, the guitar was the last thing I put on it!
Do you feel the lack of mainstream metal on today’s radio playlists has made it harder for you to be heard by a wider audience?
Yes. See, there is no “sound” right now. At least in the ’80s, there was a very distinct hard rock/metal sound. Back then, you knew that if you wrote a song that sounded like “Heaven Tonight” [a hit tune from Malmsteen’s 1988 album Odyssey] it would be on the radio. Simple. In the early ’90s, if you did something that sounded in the ballpark of Nirvana, you had a fair chance of being heard. Now what kind of song would you write to get on the radio? There is no longer any mainstream rock. I might be missing something, but one thing I do know is that you can’t replace rock and roll with a turntable or a drum machine. Rock and roll—from Elvis to Jimi to Bon Jovi to Slayer—is all about the guitar.
You seem to have gotten a ton of positive reaction from your spot on the 2003 G3 tour.
Without a doubt. Seven or eight years ago, I felt I didn’t have a chance in the States. But that tour really opened my eyes to the fact that there is a market for what I do. The kids love what I, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani are doing, they just don’t get a chance to hear us, because we’re not on television or the radio. In general, I’m feeling very positive about the public’s reaction to what I do, and I don’t feel that my music is so isolated anymore.
I have to tell you, I just came back from a two-month tour in Europe, and I met kids who were so young and so into me. There’s a whole new generation that didn’t hear this stuff 20 years ago, and they’re hungry for it. I don’t know how, or even why, but something is going on! It’s remarkable with all of the stuff that bombards kids these days that any of them even play guitar. I know a couple of guitar teachers around where I live in Miami, and they tell me that a lot of kids want to learn stuff off my old records. Man, that just blows me away. It makes me feel like the luckiest man in the world. It blows me away that I’m still doing this.
Your tone has always been one of your trademarks. Was that something you worked on a lot in your formative years?
In many ways, my setup—as well as how I get my tone—was a complete accident. You see, when Marshall introduced their master-volume amps in the mid ’70s, nobody in Sweden wanted non-master volume Marshalls like old plexis and Mark IIs. Guys couldn’t give them away! So, seeing as how I wanted a lot of Marshalls, and the new master-volume ones were too expensive, I figured I could get a bunch of the ones that nobody wanted. So that’s why I began using Mark IIs. But with my Strats, I wasn’t quite getting the output I wanted to the amp. I love the Strat’s clarity, but with single-coils, you get less sustain and harmonics. So I tried Tube Screamers and all kinds of distortion pedals, but I didn’t like any of them. So a guy at the music store suggested I try a DOD 250. He said it wasn’t a distortion pedal per se, but that it would make my guitar signal louder before it hit the amplifier. And that was exactly what I wanted. The minute I plugged it in, I knew I had found the sound I was looking for. No distortion, just a big note. I was pretty lucky that it all fell into place.
Do you still surprise yourself with your playing?
Yes, but it’s mostly onstage, because that’s when I really throw myself over the cliff. When I’m recording a solo in the studio, I improvise and go crazy, and I hope I land in the right place. I don’t want to play it safe at all. If the vibe is right and there’s a little screw up, I’d rather keep it than do it again. I’ve tracked solos where I busted a string and I kept it!
What inspires you to play your best?
If I knew what it was, I’d bottle it and sell it! Often times, I feel that I’m just hanging on for the ride.
Do you feel the glut of shredders that came out after you actually hurt your career?
It’s possible. There was a time when I was very frustrated by it. I mean, there was a whole boatload of guys who were not only doing what I was doing, but they were doing it blatantly. It’s flattering, sure, but it became a little ridiculous—almost like going to the mall and buying a poster of the Mona Lisa.
Why was your playing so appealing to guitarists?
I think it was something different, yet it was also challenging. I was using different note choices than most rock guys with the diminished and harmonic minor arpeggios. It’s more of a violin-type of approach, actually. Plus, my sound was different than what most guys were going for. I think the same thing happened when Van Halen hit. He resonated because what he was doing was so different and new.
The album’s title, Unleash The Fury, is obviously a reference to your infamous drunken airplane incident. Were you surprised that sound clip gained so much notoriety?
[Laughs.] Oh yeah, especially considering that it actually happened in 1988! I just laugh at all of the attention it has gotten. My band and I were all sitting in first class and getting s**tfaced, throwing things around and doing some really nasty stuff. Eventually, I fell asleep, and some lady comes over and pours a pitcher of ice water on me. Of course, I absolutely freaked out! Little did I know that someone in my crew was recording the whole mess. As usual, I got blamed for everything.
Do you ever come offstage feeling like you didn’t have it, or are your chops at a point where that never happens?
Sure. In the past it happened a lot more than it does now.
I don’t know. I do know that it’s a very psychological thing. For instance, I’ve had shows recorded where I knew I really, really sucked and I walked off thinking, ‘My God, I may as well hang it up.’ But when I heard it back, it wasn’t so bad. So that proves to me that there are a lot of mind games that go on within yourself. But I’ve learned to tame it and tell myself that, just because I played a couple of bum notes, the rest of the night doesn’t have to suffer. I can bounce back. In the past, if something went wrong—whether I hit a bad note or there was an equipment malfunction—it was all over. You can’t let that kind of stuff get control over you, because once you get into that downward spiral, you can’t pull yourself out very easily.
You’ve said in the past that you could play Deep Purple’s Made In Japan album by the time you were ten years old. Do you feel your gifts are the result of a natural ability?
My mother told me I was a natural, but I’m still not sure. Maybe. I think that my personality is such that no matter what I’m doing, I will never give up. The harder the resistance, or the higher the mountain, the more determined I am to get there. You’d have to kill me to stop me. And I just happened to have chosen the guitar rather than—well, I’ve played guitar all of my life, so I can’t really think of anything else.