The Top Ten Yngwie Malmsteen Riffs of All Time

Compiling the top ten riffs, melodies, fills, and other masterful lead guitar moments in Yngwie Malmsteen’s massive 24-album catalog is a daunting task at best. For one thing, at a zillion-notes-per-second, the Scandinavian guitar hero’s unparalleled shred maneuvers are enough to keep even the most seasoned transcriber busier than a one-legged man trying to play the intro to “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).” The other tricky task is simply choosing Malmsteen’s ten best. That’s because each of the fiery Swede’s neo-classical epics are so dense with virtuosic leads and genre-defining Baroque metal themes that a top-ten list could easily be extracted from nearly any one of them. Depending on your skills (and your physiology), it may take weeks, months, or yes, even years to match Malmsteen note-for-note on this stuff, so take it slow and build up to fast tempos gradually. And don’t worry: Not all of these riffs plow full-shred ahead. (You may be surprised by which lick comes in

10: “I Am a Viking” from Marching Out (0:05-0:31). This menacing two-guitar main theme squeaks into the Top Ten because it epitomizes the type of growling, low-register thirds harmonies that grace many of Malmsteen’s compositions. The E harmonic minor scale (E, F#, G, A, B, C, D#, E)—defined by the presence of the major 7, D#—provides source material for the first three beats in bars 1 and 2, while beat four in those measures (and the entirety of bar 3) draw on E Aeolian (E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E), also known as the E natural minor scale. As in the notation staff, both guitar parts appear in the tablature staff.

9: “Black Star” from Rising Force (1:16-1:29). The song’s first theme features a stratospheric thirds-driven melody that alternates between two-beat phrases derived from E natural minor and E harmonic minor. Malmsteen’s wailing bends on the downbeats of bars 1 and 2 simultaneously evoke majesty and sorrow. In bar 2, Guitar 2 reaches for the sky, bending two whole-steps from C up to E (a move surely facilitated by Malmsteen’s scalloped fretboards), then releases the bend one whole-step to a pre-bent D.

8: “As Above So Below” from Rising Force (2:04-2:18). This ensemble interlude uses single notes to outline a rapidly moving chord progression. Malmsteen covers the Am-E7#9/G# changes by alternating descending arpeggios with ascending scale lines (all derived from the A harmonic minor scale) on each beat. The descending E7/G# arpeggios in bars 1 and 2 can also be interpreted as G#dim7 (a.k.a. Bdim7, Ddim7, and Fdim7) arpeggios. These adjacent two-string diminished arpeggios, along with the three- and four-string voicings in bars 4 and 6, are an important element of Malmsteen’s style. Expect to see them again shortly.

7: “Trilogy Suite Op: 5” from Trilogy (0:16-0:26). Here, we have an unusual five-bar ensemble theme played over an implied Im-V (Cm-G) progression. Beginning with a nicely contoured C harmonic minor melody, Malmsteen fills the remaining three bars by alternating beats of open-G triplets with ascending three-note C harmonic minor scale fragments sequenced in descending third intervals. Clever and classy.

6: “Fire” from Trilogy (2:46-2:54). Inverted pedal tones, a quick diminished arpeggio, and sequenced C harmonic minor runs characterize this solo excerpt. Each downbeat in bar 1 descends in scale-wise motion as Malmsteen pedals a high root-7-root motif for the three remaining sixteenth notes. Sharp eyes will recognize the short descending G diminished arpeggio shape in bar 2 as appearing back in Ex. 8.

5: “Black Star” from Rising Force (2:28-2:35). This secondary theme [Ex. 5] finds Malmsteen flying up the fretboard with a series of D#dim7 inversions harmonized in thirds. (Harmony freaks will note that D#dim7 is a substitute for B79/D#, the V of Em.) Accented in “threes,” every other sextuplet ends on a melodic bend.

4: “Far Beyond the Sun” from Rising Force (0:14 - 0:23). Culled from the song’s famous intro, these blinding 7/4 breaks [Ex. 4] use a descending F# harmonic minor scale and ascending Bdim7 inversions to riff between V and I (C#5 and F#5) and V and bVI (C#5-D5) chordal punctuations. The diminished arpeggios in bar 2, which form familiar shapes on the top three strings, are played as quintuplets accented in alternating groups of fours and threes. Slide into the tenth, thirteenth, sixteenth, and nineteenth positions by leading with your pinky or third finger three frets above your index finger. Observe the D.C. al fine indication to complete the figure.

3: “Far Beyond The Sun” from Rising Force (4:31-4:34). In what can only be described as a G diminished tour-de-force [Ex. 3], the first three beats in bar 1 of this solo excerpt feature the same four-note diminished arpeggio shape from previous examples on the top two strings descending in minor thirds superimposed over three sixteenth-note quintuplets. Malmsteen breaks out of this pattern by adding more strings to the mix starting on beat four of the opening measure. Don’t blink—the whole thing is over in just under three seconds.

2: “Far Beyond the Sun” from Rising Force (1:06-1:09). Another three seconds of virtuosic intensity that are over before you can spell Malmsteen’s first name, the inverted F#m arpeggios in Ex. 3 demonstrate that while speed isn’t everything, the right shred lick can give you thrills similar to those enjoyed by downhill ski champions and Ferrari test drivers. Precise position shifts are key to executing this lick, so let’s break ’em down: Begin in the ninth position for the pickup and beats one and two, then slide your pinky or third finger to the 17th fret to lock your index finger into fourteenth position for the next three beats. Repeat the same fingering shift by sliding into the 21st fret on beat two of bar 2 and you’re home free.

1: And, finally, the number one Yngwie Malmsteen riff of all time is… drum roll please… The romantic, lyrical, Bach-inspired E-minor prelude to “Black Star.” That’s right, folks. While many of the previous nine riffs will score you points in head-cuttin’ duels with neighborhood shredders, the pleasing, portable, and easy-to-learn nylon-string intro in Ex. 1 will do you one better: It will score you points on the picnic blanket, instantly earning you twinkling eyes and swooning adoration from the opposite sex—and all with no shred chops or Marshall stack required! Now that’s a reason to start practicing.