Yngwie Malmsteen plays to impress himself first
Yngwie Malmsteen is a guitar god known for his supremely technical fretwork. The virtuosic guitarist burst into the world of international music in 1984 with Rising Force. At the age of seven, Malmsteen says, he saw a documentary about the death of Jimi Hendrix and was so taken by Hendrix's musical power and prowess that he set about forging his own undeniable virtuosity on electric guitar.
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Although his playing often seems more about mechanical technique than artistry, the guy consistently puts to rest any doubts about his ability to play technically challenging compositions, rock and otherwise, with each album. In 2007, he was awarded a singular honor by having his name attached to an achievement level in Guitar Hero II, securing his place among a new generation of fans.
As a teenager, the prodigious guitarist, whose style fuses hard rock with classical sensibilities, got his big break when he joined the band Steeler after sending out a demo tape to Guitar Player magazine. After a subsequent short stint in Alcatrazz, Malmsteen put out an album of his own in 1984, the aptly titled Rising Force.
That album served as a template for much of the technical metal that has come out since. We recently spoke with Malmsteen about everything from the "Yngwie Malmsteen Reward" from Guitar Hero II to how he's kept the music fresh for himself and his collaborators all these years.
Westword: Other than Paganini, what classical composer or composers would you say had the biggest impact on you?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Mostly Baroque classical, like Johann Sebastian and Antonio Vivaldi. The whole structure of inverted chords; in other words, there's an A minor and you can play it C in the bass and stuff like this. All these things I listened to when I was very young, and it kind of became hard-wired. But when I listened to Paganini's 24 Caprices, I realized that that whole structure of arpeggios and all this crazy shit -- that's what I wanted to do on guitar.
When I was a little kid, I liked blues and hard rock and Marshall stacks and smoke machines. I became very frustrated with regular tonic modes. I thought it was really fucking boring. So I fell into minors, diminished scales and Phrygian notes. That all came from classical music. But I maintained the hard edge with the Marshalls and double bass drums and stuff like that. So this was something I started a long time ago, and I still enjoy it very much. It's not something I think much about -- I just do it.
You got interested in playing music fairly young.
I grew up in a musical family. I was the youngest, and my older brother, older sister, mother, uncle -- everybody was singing. When I was five, I got my first guitar. I took trumpet lessons and piano lessons and all sorts of shit. But when I was seven, I saw Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire on TV, and that was it. I said, "That's what I want to do." I started playing right then and there, and I said, "I'm going to play this thing so I can burn it."
When I was eight years old (I got) Deep Purple's Fireball, which was very hard rock, and back in those days in Sweden, there was no fucking TV. There was nothing there. It was a big, black wasteland of shit. So my whole world was that, and I became infatuated with the whole thing. Then I realized it was all blues-based and very same-y, and I became frustrated with it. So at a very young age, I listened to my mother's classical music.
Why has the Stratocaster been your guitar of choice most of your career?
Is there another guitar? I didn't even know another guitar even existed. I thought there was only one. Now seriously, there's another reason. I initially wanted one because of Hendrix and Blackmore and guys like that. But it very much became my own thing. It's an instrument that is very personal and it sort of becomes a part of you.
Whereas other guitars feel alien to me. They're bulky and weird. Also, if I did what I do with a Les Paul, for instance, and I love Les Pauls, but if I was to throw a Les Paul around like I throw my Strats around, they would last for like one minute on stage. Stratocasters are very resilient. They fly very well. They're aerodynamic.
You got started playing live music very young, as well. How did you get hooked up with Steeler and Alcatrazz?
When I grew up in Sweden, by the time I was ten years old, I had bands and the other people in my band would be like twenty. My uncle was a head of R&D for Philips. He was part of the team that developed the CD. He built a recording studio in the '50s, and by the time I was thirteen, I got to take that over. So I recorded a lot and made demos. Sweden in the late '70s, you might as well have been in the gulag in Russia -- the same amount of opportunity. So I'd make these tapes, and it just wouldn't go anywhere.
I saw an ad in Guitar Player magazine that said to send a tape in. I thought, "What have I got to lose?" I was seventeen years old and I sent a tape into Guitar Player magazine. And before I knew it, my phone is singing off the fucking hook. I'm getting all these people calling from America, you know? "You're hot! You're hot!" It was funny because people kept calling me with questions like, "Hey are you six feet tall?" I said, "I don't know." In Sweden we have the metric system. So I never called them back. As it was, I decided to record this record and kind of join Steeler, who I had then joined for about three weeks for a month.
By the time we played around town, everybody was there and I started getting offers from UFO and other people. Then Graham Bonnet came and asked me if I wanted to join his thing, which wasn't a thing. All of this is going to be in my book that's coming out [this] month called Relentless. I have some memoirs that took six years to write. It includes everything. Once I played in Japan with Alcatrazz, it was all over.
You have said that you consider Concerto Suite For Electric Guitar and Orchestra your masterpiece. Why do you feel that way about that album?
The thing is that as classically trained and influenced as I am, I'm still a rocker. A lot of people have had someone come in and arrange some strings over their old songs. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to compose something from the ground up that was composed for the symphony orchestra with the electric guitar as a solo instrument, hence the word "concerto." It was a very huge undertaking. I didn't know if it was going to work or not. In my book I talk about how I went to Prague and recorded with the symphony orchestra there.
It wasn't without hiccups, let me tell you. As far as that goes, it is, in a way, my crowing achievement. Every time I compose something, even though it's for a small ensemble, a rock and roll ensemble, I approach it a different way. It's just that I do it for a sixty-piece orchestra. But I wouldn't say I went about the composition a different way.