“I was on a mission to find the next big guitar hero. When I heard Yngwie, I knew that he was the guy I was looking for”: How Guitar Player's Spotlight column made Yngwie Malmsteen a guitar hero overnight, and sent neoclassical shred into overdrive

Yngwie Malmsteen performs at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, Illinois on July 5, 1985
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

The following story was originally published in Guitar Player in 2014.

With so many astounding guitarists featured in the Mike Varney Spotlight column over the years, it would seem impossible to single out one player as being above and beyond the rest. Not impossible, however, when you check out the February 1983 issue. 

That is, of course, the issue that introduced Paul Gilbert to the guitar universe, but it was the guy on the opposite page that would become Varney’s most influential discovery. Citing Ulrich Roth, Allan Holdsworth, Ritchie Blackmore, and Al Di Meola as influences, a young Yngwie Malmsteen leapt off the page. It wouldn’t be long before every guitarist in the world knew his name and millions tried to play like him. 

“I was on a mission to find the next big guitar hero,” says Varney. “When I heard Yngwie, I knew that he was the guy I was looking for. It wasn’t just the notes in his playing, but the energy and the attitude behind them. He’s gone on to make an incredible mark on the guitar community, and he’s one of the most imitated guitarists of all time.”

“I had done everything I could in Sweden,” says Malmsteen. “I was being produced by a real record producer from CBS and the label was paying for the sessions. I was playing some big gigs and I had a following and everything, but that was it. I had gone as far as I could. 

Guitar Player was like my Bible and I would buy it every time I saw an issue. I saw this Spotlight thing and I thought, ‘What the hell do I have to lose?’ So I sent out a tape. I never expected anything – I really didn’t – and when I started getting phone calls it was pretty crazy.

“Of course, when I came to America, things got even crazier. What blew my mind the most was how people would freak out about every little thing I was doing when I played. When I went to Japan they freaked out even more. They wanted to analyze everything. They asked me how I hold the pick. I said, ‘I don’t know how I’m holding the pick. I’m just listening to what it sounds like, and it sounds good like this [laughs].’

“It’s wild to look back on it now. Things were never the same again after that issue came out, and it all happened so fast. Being in the Spotlight column undoubtedly made the biggest impact on my career.”