Yngwie J. Malmsteen: Speed King
Originally printed in Guitar World, July 2008
Twenty-five years ago, Yngwie Malmsteen single-handedly launched the neoclassic shred revolution by playing his guitar like no one had before. In this retrospective interview, the emperor of over-the-top ax work talks about technique, tone and the new album that will be his magnum opus to end all tour de forces.
The modern shred era officially began 25 years ago when a 19-year-old kid from Sweden named Yngwie J. Malmsteen landed on American soil. From the moment Yngwie played his first gig with the band Steeler, he immediately shattered notions of what an electric guitar could do. No one had previously heard anything as fast as the lightning speed of Yngwie’s revolutionary sweep-picking style, but even more impressive were his melodic, classical-inspired diminished, harmonic minor and Phrygian scale lines that proved that you could rock beyond the pentatonic box.
In a short period between 1983 and 1984, Malmsteen recorded a studio album with Steeler and studio and live albums with Alcatrazz, a band fronted by ex-Rainbow and Michael Schenker Group vocalist Graham Bonnet. But it was Malmsteen’s 1984 debut solo effort, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, that established the template for the hundreds of shred-guitar-dominated albums that followed in its path. Dominated by predominantly instrumental neoclassical tracks, Rising Force showcased Malmsteen’s impeccable talents with no holds barred.
Suddenly wanna-be shredders flocked to GIT to study music theory. By the late Eighties, instrumental shred guitar had become a major phenomenon thanks not only to Yngwie but also Paul Gilbert, Greg Howe, Chris Impellitteri, Tony MacAlpine, Vinnie Moore and many other guitarists. Meanwhile Malmsteen turned down a prestigious offer to become the guitarist in David Lee Roth’s first post–Van Halen band (leaving the spot open for Steve Vai) and concentrated on his solo career.
“A lot of people think that I’m just a guitar player, but I’m also a songwriter,” Malmsteen says. “I spend way more time writing music and lyrics than I do playing guitar. That’s why I’ve never wanted to join anyone else’s band. I have a very clear vision of the music that I want to play.”
Malmsteen has pursued his vision with vigor and unabashed dedication since that day. Not content to rest on his laurels, he has surrounded himself with his strongest lineup ever: singer Tim “Ripper” Owens (formerly with Judas Priest and Iced Earth), bassist Bjorn Englen, drummer Patrik Johnasson and keyboardist Michael Troy. “It’s going to come down like a fucking atom bomb!” Malmsteen says. “We’ve already recorded 39 songs. I went full out. I’ve got strings from Istanbul, and the drums are the heaviest I’ve fucking heard. Ripper conveys the lyrics I write like no one else. I’ll write something like ‘divide and conquer’ and when Ripper sings it, it really comes out that way. It’s like Sparta!” he remarks, referring no doubt to the ancient Greek city and not the El Paso alt-rock act.
Now that Malmsteen recently gained the rights to all of his back catalog with the exception of the first five studio albums he recorded for PolyGram, he’s setting his sights on conquering the world. Remastered CDs from his back catalog will now be available from Rising Force Records as well as online. Thanks to the internet, Malmsteen has maintained a large, devoted following worldwide, and he’ll be touring extensively to promote his latest effort and introduce his new band.
After a quarter decade, Yngwie continues to raise the bar for shred guitar whether he’s performing his own compositions with a 90-piece orchestra or kicking out the jams with his band. During a recent visit to Guitar World’s New York City headquarters, Yngwie gave us insight into the technique and tones behind the fookin’ fury as well as how he became one of the most influential guitar heroes of the 20th century.
GUITAR WORLD Congratulations on having a successful career for 25 years.
YNGWIE MALMSTEEN Thanks. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long already. I can still remember when I arrived in the U.S. on February 8, 1983, with just one guitar, one extra pair of pants and me, myself and I like it was yesterday. It was pretty ballsy, but I had to do it. People don’t appreciate the U.S., but it truly is the land of opportunity. I’m living proof of it. I put in four years of extreme work before I came here. I played and recorded and did everything possible, but things didn’t start happening until I was in the States. I was only here a week before I became the talk of the town. When I hear people bitching about this great country, I say, “Don’t knock it, man. This is the greatest place on the planet. If you have dream and want to go for it, no one is stopping you.”
My first gig was on March 11 with Steeler. We opened up for Glenn Hughes and Pat Thrall at the Country Club in Reseda. Thirty people turned up. Next weekend we played the Troubadour, and when I looked out the window from the dressing room before the show, I saw this long snake of people going down the street waiting to get in. I was in shock. I asked someone at the club who was playing tonight and he looked at me and said, “You are.” From then on, all of the shows were mayhem.
In Sweden there was nothing and nobody giving you the opportunities that you have here. I was in the Army before I left Sweden, and I quit before I was supposed to. Sweden is a socialist/communist society, and it’s horrible. If you want to do something, everybody tells you that you can’t. When I came here, I was basically hoping to make enough money to buy some food without having to park cars or flip burgers. I never dreamed I would do as well as I did and as quickly as I did.
GW How did you get the gig with Steeler?
MALMSTEEN One day I saw this magazine article by [Shrapnel Records owner] Mike Varney that asked guitar players to send their tapes in. I had nothing to lose, so I sent one in. Instead of writing a letter, I taped myself talking: “Hello, I’m Yngwie Malmsteen. I’m 18 years old. This song is called ‘Black Star.’ I use DiMarzio pickups and my Stratocaster has a scalloped neck.” There were only three spots in the magazine each month, and I never thought I’d make it in because probably a gazillion players sent in tapes.
About two weeks after I sent in the tape I started getting phone calls from all these different bands. Marty Friedman sent me a letter and he wanted me to join his band. I also got an offer to do a solo album with Billy Sheehan and [Y&T drummer] Leonard Hayes. That probably would have been really sick. I got a call from someone in Kiss, and I couldn’t understand anything they were saying because at that time I only understood what you’d call the Queen’s English. This guy was going, “Your playing is really hot!” and I didn’t know what he was talking about! The guy asked me if I was six feet tall, and I didn’t know. I just knew the metric system. I’m six-foot-four, which is one meter and 93 centimeters. Eventually Mike called me himself. Apparently he gave my number to all of these people. Then I got a call from [Steeler singer and guitarist] Ron Keel. I decided to give his band a try. I think it was the right thing to do at the time, because it was a live band and I fit right in, although I think that I freaked them out. They thought that I was in league with the devil. I was very deep then. I was heavy duty into the occult. I’m not talking about plastic skulls onstage but some serious Wicca shit. They freaked out! They called Mike Varney and told him I was doing these fucking rites. They thought I was going to put a curse on them. For some reason, Steeler worked. They perfectly fit the format of what was going on in Hollywood back then, but then they had me, completely from outer space, doing this Paganini shit. It was so cool. It wasn’t the Van Halen or Jimmy Page thing, which is what everyone else was doing. There’s not a very big classical influence on the West Coast at all, so no one had heard anything like it before. The guys in Steeler were a bunch of Valley dudes, but pretty soon they were going [in Valley dude voice], “Fuckin’ Paganini rocks, dude!” I was happy to introduce them to something new.