Relentless: Yngwie Malmsteen Recounts His Rebellious Teen Years and How He Found Inspiration Through Niccolò Paganini
Swede Sixteen: Yngwie Malmsteen recounts his rebellious teen years and how he discovered inspiration through the music of Niccolò Paganini in this excerpt from his new autobiography, Relentless: The Memoir. The book is available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
High school was kind of a gray area for me: I was at school physically, but mentally and emotionally I was light-years away. For some reason the principal must have seen something in me, even though I was a complete rebel, and he cut me slack in a lot of ways.
By the time I hit eighth or ninth grade, I said to myself, “I can’t freaking do this shit anymore.” I knew I needed to immerse myself in music full time. I had very good grades for the classes I did attend, such as art, history, science and English.
In that sense, my academics were not suffering, and I felt like my education was complete, probably from my growing up around much older people who taught me a lot and forced me to think on a more adult level than my peers in school did. I just didn’t want to sit in class anymore. The school officials offered a compromise. They told me, “What you can do, instead of coming here, is to go do an apprenticeship at a luthier shop.” I thought that sounded kind of cool, so I agreed to do it.
I was taken on at Tord’s Guitar Verkstad, a very famous luthier shop where stringed instruments were built and repaired. That’s where I first saw a guitar with a scalloped neck. A scalloped neck has a fretboard with concave depressions between the fret wires. (My signature Strats have fretboards like this.) I was so intrigued by this that I tried it out on an old neck of mine, and I was pretty amazed at how you could control the notes with the fretting hand. So I started scalloping all my guitars.
Many years later, I learned that Ritchie Blackmore also scalloped his guitars, albeit in a different way: he didn’t scallop under the bass strings. How ironic is that? Where would I have gotten that information back then? By calling him up? Looking his gear up on the internet? Not likely.
I learned a lot from those old guys, but it didn’t last. They started bossing me around and using me as a kind of errand boy to go off and get bakery buns for their coffee breaks, which pissed me off. I put up with it for a while, but it ended when I was told I also had to clean the toilet. I told them to clean their own fucking toilet, and I was out of there.
Under Swedish law, students are supposed to attend at least nine grades. I was trying to stick it out, without much success, and then the school officials came up with another plan. They said, “We have this special chance open to you, because we know you love music. It’s a scholarship to a music conservatory.” Once again, they were trying to keep me in school and find something that would interest me, but I wasn’t going along with much of anything. They actually got me into the conservatory, though, where most of the students were in their twenties and I was only 14. I agreed to try it, and I did go for a little while, but that ended up as a complete disaster.
Thinking back, I can’t believe they got me into this conservatory in the first place. I would wear a black top hat like Ritchie Blackmore’s and all black clothes, and my hair was really long. Yet here I was, sitting next to all these very proper guys who had finished all their academics, high school and college, and were studying music exclusively, to become performers and conductors. They looked at me like, Who the fuck is this?
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing there, either. It was horrible for me, because the teachers would spend hours dissecting the compositions of people like Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, discussing just two bars of a piece and how the composer’s life at the time may have caused him to write a C# here instead of just plain C.
They would discuss it in depth, debating why he would do that. I sat there listening to them, going crazy. But they were being good little Swedes and following what the society dictated you should do if you wanted a career in music: you went to a conservatory and studied the composers’ lives. I don’t know what good it may have done them. I’ve never heard of any of them since.
To be sitting in those conservatory classes at age 14 was very bizarre. To this day, I’m not really sure how I got approved to enroll there. I remember being given a piece of paper (my entry form, I suppose) that I gave to somebody else in this gloomy old 18th-century building that had gargoyles and such on it and long black marble corridors, like in a horror movie. This wasn’t like any school I was used to. It was a quite well-known establishment, supported by the Royal Academy of Music. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s still there, looking exactly the same as it did then, as though it has been there a million years already.
One of the things the teachers did was test for perfect pitch. To take this test, you had to sit and listen to a chord played on the piano and then write down all the notes. I was okay with that. It was challenging, but I could do it. But other than that, the classes I went to didn’t have much to do with actual music playing or performing. It was all theory and analytical discussion. You can imagine how well that went down with a 14-year-old.