Swede Sixteen: Yngwie Malmsteen recounts his rebellious teen years and how he discovered inspiration through the music of Niccolò Paganini in this excerpt from his new autobiography, Relentless: The Memoir. The book is available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
High school was kind of a gray area for me: I was at school physically, but mentally and emotionally I was light-years away. For some reason the principal must have seen something in me, even though I was a complete rebel, and he cut me slack in a lot of ways.
By the time I hit eighth or ninth grade, I said to myself, “I can’t freaking do this shit anymore.” I knew I needed to immerse myself in music full time. I had very good grades for the classes I did attend, such as art, history, science and English.
In that sense, my academics were not suffering, and I felt like my education was complete, probably from my growing up around much older people who taught me a lot and forced me to think on a more adult level than my peers in school did. I just didn’t want to sit in class anymore. The school officials offered a compromise. They told me, “What you can do, instead of coming here, is to go do an apprenticeship at a luthier shop.” I thought that sounded kind of cool, so I agreed to do it.
I was taken on at Tord’s Guitar Verkstad, a very famous luthier shop where stringed instruments were built and repaired. That’s where I first saw a guitar with a scalloped neck. A scalloped neck has a fretboard with concave depressions between the fret wires. (My signature Strats have fretboards like this.) I was so intrigued by this that I tried it out on an old neck of mine, and I was pretty amazed at how you could control the notes with the fretting hand. So I started scalloping all my guitars.
Many years later, I learned that Ritchie Blackmore also scalloped his guitars, albeit in a different way: he didn’t scallop under the bass strings. How ironic is that? Where would I have gotten that information back then? By calling him up? Looking his gear up on the internet? Not likely.
I learned a lot from those old guys, but it didn’t last. They started bossing me around and using me as a kind of errand boy to go off and get bakery buns for their coffee breaks, which pissed me off. I put up with it for a while, but it ended when I was told I also had to clean the toilet. I told them to clean their own fucking toilet, and I was out of there.
Under Swedish law, students are supposed to attend at least nine grades. I was trying to stick it out, without much success, and then the school officials came up with another plan. They said, “We have this special chance open to you, because we know you love music. It’s a scholarship to a music conservatory.” Once again, they were trying to keep me in school and find something that would interest me, but I wasn’t going along with much of anything. They actually got me into the conservatory, though, where most of the students were in their twenties and I was only 14. I agreed to try it, and I did go for a little while, but that ended up as a complete disaster.
Thinking back, I can’t believe they got me into this conservatory in the first place. I would wear a black top hat like Ritchie Blackmore’s and all black clothes, and my hair was really long. Yet here I was, sitting next to all these very proper guys who had finished all their academics, high school and college, and were studying music exclusively, to become performers and conductors. They looked at me like, Who the fuck is this?
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing there, either. It was horrible for me, because the teachers would spend hours dissecting the compositions of people like Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, discussing just two bars of a piece and how the composer’s life at the time may have caused him to write a C# here instead of just plain C.
They would discuss it in depth, debating why he would do that. I sat there listening to them, going crazy. But they were being good little Swedes and following what the society dictated you should do if you wanted a career in music: you went to a conservatory and studied the composers’ lives. I don’t know what good it may have done them. I’ve never heard of any of them since.
To be sitting in those conservatory classes at age 14 was very bizarre. To this day, I’m not really sure how I got approved to enroll there. I remember being given a piece of paper (my entry form, I suppose) that I gave to somebody else in this gloomy old 18th-century building that had gargoyles and such on it and long black marble corridors, like in a horror movie. This wasn’t like any school I was used to. It was a quite well-known establishment, supported by the Royal Academy of Music. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s still there, looking exactly the same as it did then, as though it has been there a million years already.
One of the things the teachers did was test for perfect pitch. To take this test, you had to sit and listen to a chord played on the piano and then write down all the notes. I was okay with that. It was challenging, but I could do it. But other than that, the classes I went to didn’t have much to do with actual music playing or performing. It was all theory and analytical discussion. You can imagine how well that went down with a 14-year-old.
I didn’t come away from there having learned anything I thought was useful. I had already figured out basic music theory, such as chord structures and key signatures, before I got there, so there wasn’t much else the school had going for me. A good bit of my musical theory knowledge came from my sister, who knew the proper terminology for things I was discovering on my own just by playing and exploring on my guitar.
I also did a lot of personal studying. I would go and buy books on harmony, composition, relative scales and things like that. I would figure out how the relative scales—like the majors and minors, harmonic minors, Dorian, Mixolydian, Phrygian and so on—all worked together. And I realized when I started reading about it that I already knew all of that. I just didn’t know the proper musical terminology for it.
I could hear in my head how each of these scales sounded. For example, B Phrygian is relative to E harmonic minor. They consist of exactly the same notes, but depending on which key you’re in, the scale has a different name. The notes you play in E harmonic minor are the same notes that you would play in B Phrygian, such as F# minor and C# Phrygian, respectively. These things are rather simple, and you can figure them out just by playing and using your ears.
To harmonize, if you want to do a melody line in A minor, for instance, whatever the melody line is, you do exactly the same one as in C major, starting on the root note. It’s very simple, but if you haven’t been shown this, it might take a little longer to figure those patterns out for yourself. It’s all relative, and it’s very mathematical. As it turned out, my instincts were right. I just didn’t have all the terms to refer to what I could hear in my head.
I had to relearn all of the musical vocabulary when I came to the United States because the scale names are different. For example, the note B in the Swedish scale (and in German, for that matter) is H, and Bb is B. The sharps and flats have different names because the names of the actual notes change—they’re not called sharp or flat anything. It didn’t take too long for me to make the switch, and to be honest, most of the musicians I encountered during those early days didn’t know any of that shit anyway. They played a few simple chords, and that was the extent of their music theory.
Needless to say, I quit the conservatory in utter frustration, and when that ended, I guess the school administrators just gave up trying to figure out what to do with me. I left school at 15, and that was that.
I think that much of what you can learn has a lot to do with the kind of home environment you grow up in. If you’re the youngest child in a household of adults and older siblings, you’re going to soak up what they know and what they’re interested in, as well as develop your own interests. If being intellectually curious about things is encouraged and all the older people around you are that way themselves, you’re going to learn things because you want to, not because you’re sitting in a classroom with a teacher threatening to fail you if you don’t pass a test or do your homework.
My uncle (my mother’s brother) was a great influence on me in that way. His oldest son must have gotten those genes, because he’s now some sort of engineer, very highly educated in electronics and physics. I learned quite a lot from talking and hanging out with my uncle and his family. That’s really how I got my education—a very unorthodox method, but it seems to have worked. I don’t think I learned too much from the Swedish school system, to be honest.
While all these attempts by school officials to keep me in class were happening, I’d been spending a lot of time in my uncle’s little studio in Stockholm, so I just moved there on a permanent basis. I had been more or less living at my grandmother’s apartment building anyway, and it just made sense. Until then, I slept at my mother’s house, but otherwise I was mostly never there.
I would get up, freeze while waiting for the bus, catch the bus to the train, stand on the outdoor train platform shivering my ass off and ride into Stockholm. I didn’t waste time during the train ride (about 35 minutes); I took my guitar out of the case and played very intensely, both coming and going. I remember, there was a little hotdog stand I’d pass when I was walking from the station to my uncle’s studio, and I would buy a mug of hot chocolate and carry it to the studio with my hands wrapped around it to keep my fingers warm. Then I would get to the studio, start playing and recording, and stay there until the last train, which was at 2 A.M. When I got home, I’d play till 5 or 6 A.M., then crash for a few hours, wake up with my guitar still on me, and do the same thing all over again.
That’s a pretty strict schedule, but it just shows how serious I was then—obsessive, really—about being a musician. That was when I started putting bands together and advertising for other like-minded musicians in the area. I did some of that at the same time that conservatory nonsense was going on. I went there, but I didn’t really do anything. I was biding my time until I could escape.
Not long after that, I suddenly stopped in my tracks and became very anti–Deep Purple and anti-Rainbow, turning my back on my early heroes. It’s kind of strange the way that happened, but I guess it was my way of declaring my musical independence. I suddenly didn’t want to do anything like that at all. What took its place?
To answer that, let me back up a little to the time when it was just me, a drummer and a couple of different bass players. We were doing Blackmore-influenced stuff—the songs were mine, but the sound was very Rainbow and Purple. Then my sister brought home Genesis records, the ones with Peter Gabriel. Tony Banks, the keyboardist, was like a virtual Bach jukebox, with his arsenal of tricks, like pedal notes and diminished chords. That music had a strong effect on me, because eventually those albums led me to raid my mother’s classical records (mainly Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven), which was what I heard on the radio a lot, too.
Although I loved the edge and hard sound of rock music and never wanted to get completely away from it, what I heard in Genesis started creeping more and more into what I was writing. Arpeggios slowly but surely started working their way into the mix. Then they became two-stringed arpeggios, then three-stringed, and then a very important thing happened.
I was watching one of the two available channels on TV when I was 12 or 13, and a Russian violinist came on. What he did was a true revelation for me, right up there with seeing Hendrix light his guitar on fire. The program was an hour long, and I taped it by putting a portable tape recorder in front of the TV (no VCRs or DVD recorders back then). The music was incredible, but I didn’t know what it was, which meant that I couldn’t run right out and buy it. The more I listened to it, the more I was thinking, Man, what is this?
What really freaked me out was that I heard from his violin exactly what I heard in my head when I was composing. It was exactly what I’d been wanting to pull from the guitar but didn’t quite know how. I had never heard of Niccolò Paganini before that, and I had certainly never heard violin playing of that sort. What solidified it for me was the flowing, linear rush of notes, the singing vibrato and the amazing arpeggios spanning two or three octaves. Everything I’d been wanting was all right there. I was losing it while I was watching, yelling, “That’s it, that’s it!”
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