Relentless: Yngwie Malmsteen Recounts His Rebellious Teen Years and How He Found Inspiration Through Niccolò Paganini
I didn’t come away from there having learned anything I thought was useful. I had already figured out basic music theory, such as chord structures and key signatures, before I got there, so there wasn’t much else the school had going for me. A good bit of my musical theory knowledge came from my sister, who knew the proper terminology for things I was discovering on my own just by playing and exploring on my guitar.
I also did a lot of personal studying. I would go and buy books on harmony, composition, relative scales and things like that. I would figure out how the relative scales—like the majors and minors, harmonic minors, Dorian, Mixolydian, Phrygian and so on—all worked together. And I realized when I started reading about it that I already knew all of that. I just didn’t know the proper musical terminology for it.
I could hear in my head how each of these scales sounded. For example, B Phrygian is relative to E harmonic minor. They consist of exactly the same notes, but depending on which key you’re in, the scale has a different name. The notes you play in E harmonic minor are the same notes that you would play in B Phrygian, such as F# minor and C# Phrygian, respectively. These things are rather simple, and you can figure them out just by playing and using your ears.
To harmonize, if you want to do a melody line in A minor, for instance, whatever the melody line is, you do exactly the same one as in C major, starting on the root note. It’s very simple, but if you haven’t been shown this, it might take a little longer to figure those patterns out for yourself. It’s all relative, and it’s very mathematical. As it turned out, my instincts were right. I just didn’t have all the terms to refer to what I could hear in my head.
I had to relearn all of the musical vocabulary when I came to the United States because the scale names are different. For example, the note B in the Swedish scale (and in German, for that matter) is H, and Bb is B. The sharps and flats have different names because the names of the actual notes change—they’re not called sharp or flat anything. It didn’t take too long for me to make the switch, and to be honest, most of the musicians I encountered during those early days didn’t know any of that shit anyway. They played a few simple chords, and that was the extent of their music theory.
Needless to say, I quit the conservatory in utter frustration, and when that ended, I guess the school administrators just gave up trying to figure out what to do with me. I left school at 15, and that was that.
I think that much of what you can learn has a lot to do with the kind of home environment you grow up in. If you’re the youngest child in a household of adults and older siblings, you’re going to soak up what they know and what they’re interested in, as well as develop your own interests. If being intellectually curious about things is encouraged and all the older people around you are that way themselves, you’re going to learn things because you want to, not because you’re sitting in a classroom with a teacher threatening to fail you if you don’t pass a test or do your homework.
My uncle (my mother’s brother) was a great influence on me in that way. His oldest son must have gotten those genes, because he’s now some sort of engineer, very highly educated in electronics and physics. I learned quite a lot from talking and hanging out with my uncle and his family. That’s really how I got my education—a very unorthodox method, but it seems to have worked. I don’t think I learned too much from the Swedish school system, to be honest.
While all these attempts by school officials to keep me in class were happening, I’d been spending a lot of time in my uncle’s little studio in Stockholm, so I just moved there on a permanent basis. I had been more or less living at my grandmother’s apartment building anyway, and it just made sense. Until then, I slept at my mother’s house, but otherwise I was mostly never there.
I would get up, freeze while waiting for the bus, catch the bus to the train, stand on the outdoor train platform shivering my ass off and ride into Stockholm. I didn’t waste time during the train ride (about 35 minutes); I took my guitar out of the case and played very intensely, both coming and going. I remember, there was a little hotdog stand I’d pass when I was walking from the station to my uncle’s studio, and I would buy a mug of hot chocolate and carry it to the studio with my hands wrapped around it to keep my fingers warm. Then I would get to the studio, start playing and recording, and stay there until the last train, which was at 2 A.M. When I got home, I’d play till 5 or 6 A.M., then crash for a few hours, wake up with my guitar still on me, and do the same thing all over again.
That’s a pretty strict schedule, but it just shows how serious I was then—obsessive, really—about being a musician. That was when I started putting bands together and advertising for other like-minded musicians in the area. I did some of that at the same time that conservatory nonsense was going on. I went there, but I didn’t really do anything. I was biding my time until I could escape.
Not long after that, I suddenly stopped in my tracks and became very anti–Deep Purple and anti-Rainbow, turning my back on my early heroes. It’s kind of strange the way that happened, but I guess it was my way of declaring my musical independence. I suddenly didn’t want to do anything like that at all. What took its place?
To answer that, let me back up a little to the time when it was just me, a drummer and a couple of different bass players. We were doing Blackmore-influenced stuff—the songs were mine, but the sound was very Rainbow and Purple. Then my sister brought home Genesis records, the ones with Peter Gabriel. Tony Banks, the keyboardist, was like a virtual Bach jukebox, with his arsenal of tricks, like pedal notes and diminished chords. That music had a strong effect on me, because eventually those albums led me to raid my mother’s classical records (mainly Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven), which was what I heard on the radio a lot, too.
Although I loved the edge and hard sound of rock music and never wanted to get completely away from it, what I heard in Genesis started creeping more and more into what I was writing. Arpeggios slowly but surely started working their way into the mix. Then they became two-stringed arpeggios, then three-stringed, and then a very important thing happened.
I was watching one of the two available channels on TV when I was 12 or 13, and a Russian violinist came on. What he did was a true revelation for me, right up there with seeing Hendrix light his guitar on fire. The program was an hour long, and I taped it by putting a portable tape recorder in front of the TV (no VCRs or DVD recorders back then). The music was incredible, but I didn’t know what it was, which meant that I couldn’t run right out and buy it. The more I listened to it, the more I was thinking, Man, what is this?
What really freaked me out was that I heard from his violin exactly what I heard in my head when I was composing. It was exactly what I’d been wanting to pull from the guitar but didn’t quite know how. I had never heard of Niccolò Paganini before that, and I had certainly never heard violin playing of that sort. What solidified it for me was the flowing, linear rush of notes, the singing vibrato and the amazing arpeggios spanning two or three octaves. Everything I’d been wanting was all right there. I was losing it while I was watching, yelling, “That’s it, that’s it!”