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Yngwie Malmsteen: "The pentatonic scale is extremely limiting. I thought, 'There’s gotta be more…'"

(Image credit: Austin Hargrave)

It’s safe to say that when guitar fans talk about Yngwie Malmsteen - and electric guitar fans talk about Yngwie Malmsteen a lot - they don’t usually mention the word 'blues'. Rather, the Swedish virtuoso is, of course, firmly established as rock’s foremost exemplar of neoclassical shred guitar, and has been for a good 35 years.

During this time, he has seemingly run rampant over any limits that might have been deemed to exist regarding human finger speed, in the process crafting some of the most technically advanced, insanely acrobatic and, of course, ridiculously fast licks, riffs and solos in all of rock and metal. He is, as Malmsteen himself states to Guitar World, “a circus freak” guitarist, and in the very best sense of the phrase.

All of which is to say that, despite the cult of fandom that exists around Malmsteen, very few - if any - of his devotees come to him looking to hear him play the blues. And yet, this is exactly what he has offered up (sort of, as Malmsteen will explain) on his new solo album, Blue Lightning.

But rather than merely peeling off tried-and-true pentatonic phrases over classic 12-bar, I-IV-V workouts, the album presents the guitarist still doing what he does best, albeit with an approach that, if not exactly blues, is certainly, as he says, “bluesy”.

“To me, you don’t have to play Muddy Waters and BB King to have it be a blues album,” Malmsteen says.

To that end, in addition to a clutch of “bluesy” originals, including the hard-rocking title track and the rampaging, double-time instrumental, 1911 Strut, Malmsteen tackles several covers (or, as he calls them, “variations”) on Blue Lightning, including Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water and Demon’s Eye, ZZ Top’s Blue Jean Blues, the Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze, among others.

According to Malmsteen, the song choices are all firmly in line with the stylistic intent behind Blue Lightning.

“Hendrix and Deep Purple and all these bands, they’re all blues acts,” Malmsteen says. “Because they all use the pentatonic scale, just like the blues players.” He laughs. “Of course, when it came to the album I deviated from the pentatonic scale anyway!”

Whether or not listeners agree with Malmsteen’s reasoning, the fact is that the new album delivers exactly what is stated in its title - there’s blues, and there’s also, of course, plenty of guitar lightning.

As for blues loyalists who might be hoping for something a bit more traditional?

“There’s a lot of guitar players that already do that, so if that’s what you want, you can go listen to them,” Malmsteen says. “Otherwise, you can listen to me do what I do.”

Yngwie Malmsteen with a few close friends!

Yngwie Malmsteen with a few close friends!

(Image credit: Austin Hargrave)

To put it bluntly, you’re not really known as a blues guitarist. With that in mind, how did this album come together?

"Well, for at least 20 or 30 years, maybe even more than that, I would be at soundcheck or something and I’d be playing the blues. And someone would go, 'Shit, you should do a blues album, man!' And I’m always like, 'Yeah, whatever.'

"But I was on tour for my last album, [2016’s] World on Fire, and I got approached by my label, Mascot Records. And they said, 'We want you to make a blues album, and we want you to do classic songs on it, and we’ll pick the songs for you, blah blah blah.' They had all these ideas.

"So I said, 'Okay, but, you know, it’s not going to be a blues album per se, it’s going to be a bluesy album. And let me pick the songs and let’s see if you like them.' And then, of course, I did some of my own songs as well. And that’s how it started."

So did Mascot pick any of the covers?

"I picked all of them. They wanted to pick for me and I said, 'Let me pick first. If you like them we’ll use them, if you don’t we don’t.' But they liked them. And also, I would like to call them 'variations' instead of covers. Like in the way Rachmaninoff did a variation of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Covers would be doing something more close to the originals. But I definitely made them my own versions."

Obviously the songs you chose to do 'variations' of aren’t straight-up blues songs are they?

"But they’re songs that have the blues rock flavor, even if they’re not 12-bar blues. Like ZZ Top’s Blue Jean Blues, which is a beautiful minor-key song. What I wanted to do with this album was more or less to do stuff that was more 'rock,' per se, than neoclassical. As opposed to, for instance, Peace Please, one of my old songs on the new record, which is neoclassical. But I did it anyway! [Laughs]"

Some of these songs seem to be right in your wheelhouse, like Smoke on the Water and Purple Haze, both of which you’ve performed over the years. But what led you to record things like the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black and the Beatles’ Why My Guitar Gently Weeps?

"Because I like the Stones. I like the Beatles. And Paint It Black, that’s cool because it actually uses a harmonic minor scale. When this project started taking shape, some songs came easily, like [Eric Clapton’s] Forever Man, Blue Jean Blues, Purple Haze, Smoke on the Water. But the others are songs I’ve always liked, so I said, 'You know, I should do some of these things.'"

You mention Forever Man. When it comes to the Clapton catalog, that’s not a song that people usually champion. Why did you choose that one?

"Well, the thing is, back in the '80s you would hear it on the radio all the time. And I always thought it was a great song. That’s one of the first ones that came to my mind when this album came about. I said, 'I’m gonna do that one.'"

How about when it came to the original material on the album? Songs like the title track and 1911 Strut definitely lean a bit more bluesy than your usual material. Were you consciously trying to write in that style?

"They are much more bluesy than my normal things are, but I really enjoy playing that kind of groovy stuff anyway - that Hendrix-style thing. So it wasn’t like, 'Oh shit, I’ve gotta write a blues song now!' The only one that I threw together on purpose was 1911 Strut, because I wanted a fast song on the album and I didn’t have one. But as far as playing the blues, it’s a natural thing for me. It’s the first thing I learned to do. I was six years old and playing the blues."

Was there a particular blues artist or album that you first loved?

"Yeah. I heard the John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers album [Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton] and I thought that was really, really cool. That was before I knew what anything was. I got my first guitar when I was five years old, and I grew up in a family where everybody was trained classical musicians and opera singers.

"I was six or seven when I heard John Mayall, and I wanted to play like that, you know? But you’ve gotta understand, I was still like a baby. I was an infant, basically. A little runt. [Laughs] I wasn’t 16, I was six. Then when I was eight I heard Deep Purple’s Fireball. That was in a harder vein, but it was still blues. Deep Purple is blues, 100 percent."

But at that point you were already very into the guitar?

"I was very, very serious about it. I was convinced that this was the thing I would do for the rest of my life. I was a very serious kid. I was very disciplined. I would play, like, 17 hours a day. I was a total freak, actually. Like a little sweet-faced fucking circus freak. [Laughs]"

This was all before you discovered classical music?

"Yes. The thing is, I was so obsessed with this instrument that when I was nine or 10 years old I could play everything note-for-note from Deep Purple’s Made in Japan. You would’ve thought it was the fucking thing that was on the record! It was so flawless and I was so developed by that time, it was crazy.

"But what I realized then was that the pentatonic scale, it’s only five notes per octave and it’s extremely limiting. When I learned how to play pentatonic blues scales, like, on my fucking head, I felt frustrated and I thought, 'There’s gotta be more…' It was a mystery to me. I didn’t understand why people limited themselves. I was thinking, 'Is that all there is to this?' When I started to discover classical music I realized there’s a lot more to it. I was infatuated with it from day one."

What opened you up to classical music?

"Really, the blues was still in me until I heard Genesis’s Selling England by the Pound when I was 10 years old. That was when I heard inversions, diminished and suspended chords, pedal notes, stuff like that. And that led me to Bach and Vivaldi and Mozart, which led to my style I have today. But the blues came first. The blues is the first thing I loved."

People who have a narrow definition of what constitutes the blues might listen to your new record and say it’s not genuinely reflective of the style. How would you respond to that?

"Well, first of all, I never set out to make a blues record. That’s number one. Number two, I don’t try to please nine million people. That’s not what I do. If some people don’t like it, that’s too bad. I have to like it. If it’s something I like and I feel strong about and that excites me, then it’s good. And hopefully other people will like it, too. But I can’t worry about those things.

"I mean, you’ve gotta understand, I’m not somebody that just came out of nowhere. I have an already-established guitar style, you know? And I never try to be something I’m not. So I apologize if I offended somebody! [Laughs]"

I don’t try to please nine million people. That’s not what I do. If some people don’t like it, that’s too bad.

Yngiwe Malmsteen

What gear did you use on Blue Lightning?

"You know what? I have hundreds of guitars - old Gibsons, Fifties and Sixties Stratocasters, Les Pauls, Vs. I have all this shit laying around. But I just kept going back to my Yngwie Malmsteen Signature Strat with the Seymour Duncan YJM Fury pickups. That’s pretty much what I used for the whole thing. And I have a signature model overdrive pedal [the Fender Yngwie Malmsteen Overdrive] that I use with a signature model Marshall [YJM100] head. It’s all my own stuff. Even the cable and the strings are my signature models! [Laughs] It’s really crazy but it works. It’s so fuckin’ good, you know? It’s all good stuff.

"By the way, I’m very excited to announce that the 30th Anniversary Malmsteen guitar is being released by Fender Custom Shop in June [it has since been released]. It’s the same as the one that’s out now, except it’s got a ’68-style maple cap neck and it comes in Olympic White, Candy Apple Red, Burgundy Mist and Sonic Blue, which are sick. So I’m very excited about that."

You actually had one of the first signature model Fender Strats, along with Eric Clapton.

"You wanna hear something crazy? When Eddie Van Halen came out in ’78, Fender’s quality was low at that time. And then Dan Smith and Bill Shultz kickstarted the company again around ‘81. But it was a little slow off the ground. And at that time Van Halen and the hockey-stick guitars were ruling the world, basically. Fender wasn’t doing amazing business.

"But when I came out with my solo album, Rising Force, in ’84, with the Fender Stratocaster on the cover, Dan Smith and those guys came to me and said they couldn’t fucking make guitars fast enough. Because they were selling like crazy. So they said they wanted to give me a signature model. And that was 1986. I was the first guy in the world to get a Fender Stratocaster with my name on it. The first guy. Before anyone else. Before Clapton."

Going back to the new record, when you do a song like, say, 1911 Strut, which is basically two and a half minutes of pure guitar shred, how much of that is worked out beforehand?

"Not one note. Not one note. Not one single note. I don’t think about, 'I should start high,' 'I should start low,' 'I should start fast,' 'I should start slow…' Nothing."

It’s all improv?

"100 percent. And 99 percent of the time it’s a first take. What I do is, I go in, I throw it down, and I don’t listen back to it. I leave it, and then I listen to it the next week. Because I’ve learned my lesson. If I start doing it over and over and over, it gets worse and worse and worse. And I have the luxury of my own studio so I don’t have to worry about saying, 'I have to do it now…' I can wait for the right moment and just do it when it feels good. But not one note is figured out. It’s completely improvised."

How about when you’re constructing harmony lines?

"What I do is, I listen to it in the car and I’ll go 'Shit, that should have a second or third harmony on it.' Then I’ll go back into the studio and put it on. But it’s still an improvised solo. It comes across as if it’s a structured thing, but it’s not. That’s the real beauty of it."

When you say you listen to the songs in your car, I would imagine you mean one of your Ferraris?

"Yeah. I have five. I’m very passionate about them. Very passionate. They’re not cars. They’re like artwork, you know?"

I love the video for the Blue Lightning song Sun’s Up Top’s Down, where you’re driving around Miami in one of the Ferraris, singing along to the song.

"[Laughs] Listen, I’d like a disclaimer here: I had nothing to do with that video. I did not produce it, I did not shoot it. I did not come up with the concept. That was all my record label. They wanted to do it. They said, 'Sing along to the song in your car.' Okay, whatever. And they put it together and put it out. I think it’s great but some people said, “What the fuck is this? A Ferrari commercial?” Well, I plead innocence, completely. You know, take that up with the guy that put it together!"