Relentless: Yngwie Malmsteen Recounts His Rebellious Teen Years and How He Found Inspiration Through Niccolò Paganini
To get that sound through a Marshall stack with a Stratocaster guitar was a different story altogether, but that became my all-encompassing quest. It wasn’t that I wanted to copy Paganini exactly. No, it was a new sound and a new direction that I got from watching that performance of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin. I didn’t want to do something that was a note-for-note reproduction of the classics.
Instead of just playing a piece exactly as written by a classical composer, I wanted to play guitar music in that style but composed by me. I wanted to emulate that violin-like sound on the guitar, although even I couldn’t fully imagine at the time how far that adaptation could be pushed.
Seeing that Russian violinist that day and wanting to adapt the violin sound to my guitar playing was exactly what I needed to inject a new element into my playing to take it to the next level. I had already gotten pretty damn good by then, and I was looking for something that would allow me to expand my music to greater heights.
Up until that moment, the things I had been playing were, to me, pretty good, but they were lacking something because they weren’t what I heard in my head. For so long the door had been cracked open only a tiny bit, giving me faint glimpses of something new and different. What I really wanted to do was just bash it wide open, and Paganini showed me the way.
My philosophy about music during my developing years was unorthodox. I had to be at peak performance every time I picked up the guitar, even though I might be by myself and no one else would hear it. In my mind, I was performing, not practicing. That’s why I was so adamant about recording everything: it was so I could have a reference point from which to push myself further. When I was living in the moment, I didn’t look at it as practice or even analyze it that way. I never was thinking, Okay, if I do this, maybe I’ll get better at that. No, I had to be right then and there, the absolute best I could be.
I forgot to eat, ignored sleeping, and was in a pretty run-down condition a lot of the time in my early teens. Looking back, I seemed to be like a tortured artist, but at the time I wasn’t thinking of my obsession in those terms. I was just completely consumed by the desire to play and expand myself. I got rather malnourished for a while.
If it hadn’t been for my grandmother, who made sure I ate something, I would have blown away. I was pretty pale, got nosebleeds and caught pneumonia when I was 16 from walking around with an unbuttoned shirt when it was freezing cold, 20 below zero, with no coat on or scarf around my neck. Luckily, I came from very sturdy stock, especially on my father’s side, and I managed to come through that period with no permanent damage.
You have to understand, this was a competition with myself. I didn’t have a person or an idol I was trying to copy, or even a goal so that I could say, “Okay, that’s it, I’ve done all I wanted to do.” It was an ongoing desire; every time I picked up the guitar, I had to blow myself away.
By doing that, I couldn’t settle for something I had done previously. For example, I had figured out the diminished scales, I knew how to achieve arpeggios on two or three or more strings, and I could rip them off to a point where they might sound mind-boggling to the average person, but it wasn’t enough for me. I then had to throw myself over a cliff like Wile E. Coyote, not worrying about whether there was a net below. I did that because that was a way to break another barrier or reach another level.
I would not accept anything less than mind-boggling playing. Stuff had to come out of each recording session that would make me say, “Holy shit!” I’m not really sure why I was like that. Most of the people who would hear what I was doing would just shake their heads and say, “What is this stuff? Where are you going with it?” This was in the late Seventies, and there was nobody playing like this on the guitar. Randy Rhoads hadn’t teamed up with Ozzy Osbourne yet, and Eddie Van Halen had made his big break just about that time in the United States, but he wasn’t doing what I was doing. He was truly great, by all rights, and what he was doing was quite new: the whole tapping thing was brilliant, and his sound was unique. When he came out with that, it was like a fucking bomb dropped. It was killer, and everybody loved it.
But what I was after was in a completely different headspace. I wanted to invent something that didn’t exist, and I was trying to push myself beyond any limits and barriers. So practicing was out of the question. It was a waste of my time. I was trying to create music from scratch, not practice something that already existed.
Here’s the other thing that affected my playing. In the late Seventies, cassette tapes were coming on the market, but not every cassette recorder played at the exact speed. I had a cassette player at my mother’s house and another in my uncle’s basement studio. I would record every day at the studio, and every day, when I played the results back on the player at my house, it was a tiny bit faster—maybe an eighth of an inch per second, or a quarter note faster. At first I’d think maybe the guitar was just out of tune from transporting it in the cold weather or whatever. Then I’d go back to the studio, having heard what I’d done the night before on my home player, and think, Okay, that was good, but somehow I have to top that. And every day, those tiny increments got higher and higher.
Another thing came out of that. People who heard this stuff always said to me, “We’ve heard a lot of guitar players who play fast, but we’ve never heard anybody play so articulately, isolating every single note out there like your life depended on it.” I was extremely adamant that the execution of every note had to be crystal clear, the way it sounds on a violin. That’s one of the things I love about the violin: the clarity and sharpness of the notes.
People used to say to me, “I can’t believe you have no distortion on your guitar.” Let me tell you something: I had and still have more distortion in my sound than anybody, but it’s just that I play so that every note has a small breath of space before it and after it—no note blends into another. In a lot of fast guitar playing, the notes sound blurred, and I was damned if my playing was going to sound that way.
I’ve also been asked why I didn’t just learn the violin if that’s the sound I was after. That’s completely misunderstanding what I was trying to do. I didn’t want to just play the violin; that wouldn’t be something new. Besides, I had already developed so much technique on the guitar that it was clearly my main instrument. My brother played the violin well, and he tried to show me a couple of things, but I could see that it was going nowhere. What I really wanted was to take the sound and technique of violin playing and transfer it to the guitar, in particular, the electric guitar. My aim was to just go further and higher than what had already been done by me or anybody else. Because of that, I had a cult following even back then.
I know I must have seemed completely insane to everyone around me with my obsession that if I did well yesterday, today must be even more extreme. I would never allow myself to slack off or have what others might call an off day. That could never happen. I approached every day like it was the last damn chance I had on earth to excel. That mindset became so ingrained in my psyche that I do believe it’s one of the reasons my drive to achieve hasn’t slowed down yet.
Excerpted from Relentless: The Memoir (Turner Publishing, 2013), © 2013 by Yngwie J. Malmstee
Photo: Neil Zlozower