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.
GW The closest thing Hollywood had to you before was Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads, but they still had more of a blues-rock feel than the straight up classical sound you introduced.
MALMSTEEN On the first two Van Halen albums, Eddie hits you in the face like a knuckle sandwich. It was so bad-ass! He was so fuckin’ good. His guitar playing is very bluesy, but his signature was those tapped triplet arpeggios. It doesn’t matter if it was classical or not. The whole thing was amazing. Randy Rhoads took that further. He played some great stuff and was very melodic.
GW A lot of what they did was an extension of what Ritchie Blackmore started.
MALMSTEEN When I turned eight, my sister gave me a copy of Deep Purple’s Fireball for my birthday. When I heard that, my path was clear. But he did not influence the classical side of my playing. I picked up the pedal notes and harmonic minor arpeggios from the violin. What I loved about Blackmore’s playing were his syncopated pentatonic lines. I bought [Deep Purple’s] Made in Japan when it first came out and a year later I knew all of those solos inside out. I would play them all day long.
I don’t want to minimize the impact Ritchie Blackmore had on me. He and Hendrix are why I play through Marshall stacks and do what I do. But the reason why my style became what it is is partly due to the influence of my older sister Lulu, who would bring home albums by Zappa, early Genesis and Emerson Lake & Palmer. I wanted to take the harmonies and the inverted and diminished chords I heard on Selling England by the Pound and Tarkus and play that through a Marshall stack.
But the biggest change happened when I saw this classical violinist on television playing Paganini’s “Four Caprices.” From that moment on my goal was to apply that to the guitar. That was way beyond any of the classical-inspired lines Blackmore played, like his “Highway Star” solo. It has its moments, but it’s not the same thing.
GW The scales that you play weren’t heard much in rock until you came along.
MALMSTEEN Pretty much. My scales and harmonics are very baroque and also inspired by classical music’s Romantic era. I can’t get away from that.
GW How did you develop such an advanced playing technique on your own?
MALMSTEEN One of my main goals when I started playing was to make sure that every note sounded clean. That’s one of the reasons why people think I play fast. Other guitarists might play more notes per second, but every one of my notes comes out clean. I don’t know how my technique got where it did because I never took the time to analyze it. I just listened to what I was playing, and if it sounded good, that was the right way to play.
If your right hand and left hand aren’t working together in time, stop there and play slower until they do. Plus, sometimes it doesn’t always sound good when you pick every note, especially if you have a lot of distortion. You might be better off playing legato and using a lot of pull-offs instead. I play the way I do because that’s how I like to hear it. In my head I had a sound like a violin; that’s what I was going for. You just have to put in the time and practice until you’ve mastered it. There really aren’t any shortcuts.
GW Most players today think that you need an ultra-high gain, super-compressed sound to play the way you do, yet you’re using a very organic-sounding vintage amp and an overdrive pedal. As a result, your sound has more dynamics. You managed to take what many players would view as a limitation and really made it work to your advantage.
MALMSTEEN I think I did. I didn’t plan on having the equipment setup that I use; it just happened. As a result, I did a lot of adapting. When you play with an old Marshall turned all the way up, you have to be very fast with the volume control to keep the guitar from feeding back.
GW Why did you choose 50-watt Marshalls instead of 100-watt heads? The 100-watt heads would have more headroom for a clean sound.
MALMSTEEN When Marshall started making amps with master volume controls in 1975, all the old four-input Marshalls without master volume controls became boat anchors in Sweden. All of a sudden they weren’t something guitarists wanted to have. I said they were the thing to have, not because they sounded better but because I could buy one for 35 dollars. I bought as many as I could afford, and suddenly I looked cooler than the rest of the guys because I had more Marshalls. They look badass. The 50-watt Mk II was the most abundant model, although I got a few Super Lead 100s as well. The 50-watt head sounds warmer at full volume. The tone is amazing.
GW Why have you stayed with those amps? Haven’t you been tempted to play through modern high-gain amps?
MALMSTEEN If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I never went for those locking nuts either. I figured if Ritchie Blackmore and Jimi Hendrix could keep a Strat’s tremolo in tune, so could I. Of course, later I found out that they didn’t always stay in tune, but by that time I figured out how to make it work. The headstock is the loudest part of the guitar. A locking nut stops the vibrations before they reach the headstock.
GW You also have remained faithful to the Stratocaster.
MALMSTEEN The Strat is an amazing design. It’s 54 years old but it still looks cool. When I first came to the States, every fucking guitar company was knocking on my door, even Gibson. They said that they would make me anything I wanted, but I told them that I would rather pay for a Strat than play anything else. I’m very honored to be the first guitarist who ever had a signature Strat model. I love Fender to tears. They’ve been so nice to me. I couldn’t imagine having a greater guitar. Everything on the Strat is there for a reason. The volume knob is perfectly placed, the angled input jack is genius, and the tremolo is the most amazing invention ever. It’s also the best-damn-looking guitar.
GW How did you come up with the concept for the scalloped fretboard? Were you inspired by the scalloped-neck guitars that John McLaughlin and Ritchie Blackmore used?
MALMSTEEN All I knew about Blackmore’s guitar was what I saw in a few small photos on Deep Purple album covers. I just knew that he played a Strat. That was it. If I knew that he used scalloped necks, I would have done that in a heartbeat.
When I was a kid, I went to art school and built big airplane models. I did a lot of experimenting with my guitars, like installing new pickups or frets and putting in a tremolo system, so I was never afraid to cut up the wood on my guitar. My wood shop teacher let me use the shop 24/7. I didn’t get along well with other kids in school, but because I got good grades they let me do an apprenticeship my last year. I took a job in a very traditional luthier’s shop. It was not the kind of place where they installed humbucking pickups but rather where you’d take an acoustic guitar to have binding installed.
One day this guy came in with the teardrop-shaped 16th century lute. It didn’t have metal frets, but the fingerboard was scalloped so the tips of each scallop were the frets. I really liked the way it felt, so I scalloped the necks on my guitars. A few years later I found out that Blackmore did that. It was so fuckin’ bizarre.
GW What is the advantage of a scalloped neck?
MALMSTEEN It gives you much more control over the notes. Some people think that it helps me play fast but if anything it actually makes it harder to play fast, especially because I like a high action. It’s a learning process and takes a while to get used to.
GW Do you generate vibrato by pressing down?
MALMSTEEN No. I still do vibrato the regular side-to-side way.
GW You’ve also heavily modified the Strat’s pickup configuration and controls.
MALMSTEEN I only use the neck and bridge pickups, and all of the tone controls are disconnected. The curse with single-coil pickups is the humming. Larry DiMarzio and I came up with the concept for the stacked humbucker, and I’ll never forget when I first heard it. It was dead quiet but it had that distinct single-coil tone.
GW Why do you mainly use the neck pickup when you solo?
MALMSTEEN I think it sounds more vocal. I use the bridge pickup when I play chords. It’s funny because a lot of people call the neck pickup the “rhythm” pickup, but for me it’s the opposite. I switch back and forth like crazy all the time.
GW It’s almost like you’re going for a pure acoustic tone.
MALMSTEEN You’re right, because it’s much more organic. My pickups are not high output at all, so the signal is clean. The DOD-250 [Overdrive Preamp] pedal, which is now the YJM308, is not a distortion but a signal booster that makes the front end and back end of the Marshall much bigger. The end of the chain is the Celestion GT12-75 speakers in a 300-watt cabinet, so the speaker cone does not distort either. The bass has a lot of punch. It’s almost impossible to capture that when you’re recording.
In my house is a former maid’s room that I call the “Room of Doom”—I have all my speaker cabinets in there. It’s loud as fuck in there, but I can get perfect control. I use AKG 414 mics, and the mic inputs and outputs are hard-wired through the walls so I can run the signal to the control room where my heads are. Then the signal goes through a Focusrite mic preamp and a Summit Audio compressor.
GW You also use a noise suppressor.
MALMSTEEN When you use as much gain as I do with a single-coil pickup, noise can be a nightmare. The stacked coils help out a lot, but the noise suppressor keeps things dead quiet. I used to have a Bradshaw rack, but the thing fuckin’ died in the middle of a tour. My tech went out and bought some Boss NS-2 pedals, and I thought they sounded really good. The NS-2 doesn’t choke the sound at all.
GW How do you feel about the changes in the music industry and even guitar playing over the past 25 years?
MALMSTEEN The business has changed dramatically from what it was even just a few years ago. Music isn’t even distributed the same way any more. Even CDs are becoming a thing of the past. The internet has made it easier to get my music out to anyone who wants it, but at the same time I feel like we’re losing the mystique. When I was a kid, all I ever knew about Ritchie Blackmore was what I saw on a few small album cover photos. Now you can find out anything about an artist that you want to know, whether it’s his shoe size or what he had for dinner last night. I learned a lot from other people and was inspired by what they did, but I didn’t copy anyone. I put many different blocks together to become what I am. I don’t know if that would have happened if everything was handed to me on a plate.