Yngwie J. Malmsteen: Speed King
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.