YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN DOESN’T DO anything halfway. If he drives a car, it’s a classic Ferrari. When he wants an amp, he lines up a dozen vintage Marshall full-stacks. When he flicks a guitar pick in concert, he launches it to the back of the room. And when he tears your head off, he tears it clean off with the most dazzling technical command in the history of the guitar. As many times as it has been said, it bears repeating: Yes, Yngwie is that good. At a Guitar Player night at a San Francisco club, he not only floored all of the wide-eyed fans and pupils who were crowding the stage—he also dropped the jaws of the half a dozen grizzled, jaded GP editors in attendance. After a quarter century of Yngwie wannabes, clones, and detractors, it is nothing short of breathtaking to watch the genuine article do what he does. One has to laugh, because the Spinal Tapapproved puffy shirts, leather pants, and fog machines are damn funny at times. More often than not, though, you’ll laugh because it’s just not possible to play like that, with killing tone, flawless intonation, and an economy of motion that is second to none.
The Viking is back, with a shredding new album, Perpetual Flame [Rising Force]. Time has mellowed Malmsteen, who no longer feels the need to tout his own talents or talk about his contemporaries. He comes across as cool and confidant but not cocky, like a black belt who is so sure he can kick everyone’s ass that he doesn’t have to. Despite an exhausting day of back-to-back interviews and grueling rehearsals, he was animated and excited to talk about his recording process, why he prefers single-coils to humbuckers, and the surprising motto for his new record.
What was your overall concept for Perpetual Flame?
For the first time, I decided to not have a preconceived direction. I just let it flow. I have a little Marshall in front of the TV, and I’d sit and play all the time. If an idea came to me, I’d run upstairs and record it. The ideas could range from really heavy, fast Phrygian modes, which is what I’m kind of known for, to things that were a little bluesier, a little funkier. The normal procedure is to then go into the studio, put down live drums, and finish the whole thing. This time I didn’t do that. I took the ideas into the studio with the drummer, we recorded some songs, and then I went on the road. I listened to the stuff when I got back and it sounded completely different to me then. I did some more tunes, started tuning down, and got a little heavier. Then I went on the road again. I came back and heard things a little differently again. That’s when the melodies started taking shape. In other words, I didn’t start off with a direction at all. But, towards the end of it, I realized that the album was going in a very aggressive direction, with songs like “Death Dealer” and “Live to Fight (Another Day).” I liked working that way. You get a really cool perspective on things when you can go away from them for a while.
In “Live to Fight Another Day,” the first tonal center is C#.Then you move into Eb Phrygian Dominant. Then the solo modulates up a whole-step to F before you come back down to the original key. You get a big lift when you modulate up, but how do you avoid a letdown when you shift to a lower key?
I don’t look at it as a letdown. It just has to be done with conviction and it has to sound right. In the past, I would never stray from the rules of harmony for even one second. Every major/minor relation would be textbook stuff. But I’ve realized of late that it’s more dramatic to sometimes break away from that. I don’t like dissonance at all, but I do like to do key changes that are not the obvious ones. I’ll go from, say, Em to Gm, like I do on “Magic City.” There are other times where I go Em to G#m, which is a major third but from two minors, and it’s a very cool effect.
During the solo in “Live to Fight (Another Day),” it sounds like you quickly switch from the neck pickup to the bridge pickup. What’s your thought process behind that?
I do that on every solo on every record I’ve ever done. With the Strat it’s so easy to do. I’ve always been fond of that and it’s totally second nature, subconscious. I know that certain parts of the neck and certain arpeggios just sound better with the neck pickup and other things sound better with the bridge pickup. It’s like bowing on the violin. You naturally go toward whatever sounds more expressive, but I can’t tell you precisely. I’ve never sat down and analyzed it. When I was a kid, I would stay up all night and just play, but I wouldn’t play with an amp. Even back then, it was natural for me to switch back and forth, and my mom would yell from upstairs, “Stop doing this clicking stuff!” I do it with the amp on or with the amp off.
How did you create the different tones on the right and left sides in the intro to “Four Horsemen”?
I didn’t want to have a keyboard double the part. It’s an open-string riff on the A and D strings, so what I did was tune the G string up to an A and the B string up to a D and doubled the part an octave higher. Sometimes I will do some crazy stuff like that if it’s the only way I can hear what I want to hear, but I’ve never done that before. That’s the first time someone actually asked about that.
You make everything you do seem really easy, but please tell me that “Caprici di Diablo” is not easy for you to play.
Ha! I’ll tell you—that was the most demanding thing I’ve ever played. I was sweating bullets. I’ve never done such elaborate 6-string arpeggios before. I’m also doing a lot of chromatics. I really threw caution to the wind. I kept putting off recording it, and it got to the point where it was the only thing left to do on the record. If you listen to it, it’s really got nothing to hide behind. It’s bass, drums, and guitar. It’s very naked. In order to play something like that with drama and passion, I had to really go out on a limb.
How many takes did you do?
It was more or less one take and I went in and fixed a couple of things. My philosophy is this: I’d rather have a lot of fire and maybe one clam here or there. Nothing major, of course. I don’t want anything really bad on there. I could play it note perfect and exact, but I would look at that as very clinical, very cold. I figured I had to throw myself over the cliff, and I might land on something soft or I might not—but I knew I could go in and redo one or two notes. So that’s how I did it. It’s not perfect, and that’s kind of what I wanted.
Your intonation has always been flawless, despite the fact that you play on scalloped fretboards that make it easy to squeeze notes out of tune. What’s your secret?
The secret is no secret at all: Play with your ears. Use your ears and record yourself. That’s it. And when you hear that it sounds good, that’s when it’s good. Forget what the fingers are doing. Forget about the picking and all that. If it sounds good, it doesn’t matter how you do it. Growing up, everybody in my family was so musical and the one thing that wasn’t allowed in our house was singing or playing out of tune. It was a pretty pitch-conscious household. It’s always been a priority of mine.
You’re known for getting great Strat tones. What are some non-Strat tones that you like?
I think Van Halen had a really cool sound when he came out. I love Allan Holdsworth. And Brian May—come on! He’s the tonemeister from hell. I love all those tones, but I realized early on that my playing—and my way of approaching the instrument—would always sound better with single-coils. With the double-coils, the definition is never going to be the same because of the magnetic window. It’s a wider magnetic field, you know? You’re picking up more of the string, which means it’s going to be less defined. That’s physics. You can’t change that. So, my DiMarzio YJM pickup is a humbucker, but with one row of magnets.
You’ve got chops mastered. What do you struggle with as a musician?
When you get to a certain level, like in my case, it is a challenge just to keep it up and not slack off. I don’t look at it as a challenge as much as just what I have to do. I wouldn’t accept anything less. Of course I play badly now and again, but I do try to maintain a certain level. Every time I pick up the guitar though—and I was playing right before I talked to you— it feels great. I find that very exciting. I still love to step onstage and go for it like there’s no tomorrow. All guns blazing! I had a motto on this album: More is more. I disagree that less is more. Less is less, and more is more.