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How Swede it is! An interview with Yngwie Malmsteen
Feature by John Quigley
Interview by Scott Kahn and John Quigley


 
   


In 1982, a young Swede named Yngwie Malmsteen sent a demo tape to Mike Varney, who had a column in Guitar Player magazine and also owned a record label called Shrapnel Music. The rest, as they say, is history.

Varney was so impressed that not only did he write Malmsteen up in his “Spotlight” column, he invited the virtuoso to California to begin recording a solo album — a plan that was derailed when Yngwie received an offer to join the Ron Keel-fronted band, Steeler, also on the Shrapnel Music label. The music was for the most part forgettable, but it served as a much needed “foot in the door” for the young axe-man.

Feeling stifled by the Steeler experience, Malmsteen then joined forces with former Rainbow vocalist Graham Bonnett to form a new band called Alcatrazz. This time he had the opportunity to write all the music, and by the end of 1983, Alcatrazz had released No Parole for Rock & Roll and Live Sentence. Not content to serve as a hired gun, Yngwie left Alcatrazz and embarked on a solo career.

Released in 1984, Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force is considered by many to be the defining statement of Neo Classical guitar playing. The release, which contained staples such as “Black Star” and “Far beyond the Sun,” turned the guitar playing world upside-down by setting a new level of standard for rock guitar.

 

Players everywhere suddenly wanted to learn Diminished Arpeggios, Harmonic Minor scales, and (of course) how this master achieved his enviable tone. The ironic part in regards to the latter is the simplicity of Yngwie’s setup — it has barely changed since his Alcatrazz days. A self proclaimed purist, Yngwie’s setup is about as old school as you can get: a modified Fender Stratocaster into an old DOD 250 overdrive pedal into a “dimed” early metal-panel 50 Watt Marshall head. Just make sure the Strat is cream colored with a maple neck (Ferrari sticker optional!), and don’t even consider using a power attenuator to keep your volume down!

After the aptly titled Trilogy, Yngwie’s career almost came to an end when, in 1987, his Jaguar automobile spun out of control and crashed into a tree. After emerging from a week-long coma, doctors discovered that extensive nerve damage had left Yngwie’s right hand paralyzed. Through extensive physical therapy, Malmsteen would eventually regain full use of his hand, but the dark days continued when in the same year Yngwie’s mother passed away. And if that was not enough, he also discovered that his manager had misspent all of his money!

By 1988, Yngwie was recovered enough to join forces with another former Rainbow singer, Joe Lynn Turner, on Odyssey, which provided Malmsteen his first and only hit single, “Heaven Tonight.” In 1989 the duo performed a series of historic sold-out shows in both Moscow and Leningrad. The final performance was recorded and released as the video and live album, Live in Leningrad/Trial by Fire. Around this time, Yngwie decided to disband “Rising Force” and retire the name (subsequently resurrecting it nine years later for the excellent album, Alchemy.)

The years that follow may seem a bit more obscure than the glory days of the previous decade, but that doesn’t mean Yngwie was any less effective or prolific. After reinventing himself and his band in 1990, Malmsteen went on to record ten studio albums of original material, three “greatest hits” releases, the EP I Can’t Wait, a live album, numerous instructional videos, guest appearances and live DVDs, and he composed and recorded with the Japan Philharmonic. Somewhere in the midst of all that he managed to keep on touring, too!

In 2008, Yngwie released his sixteenth stateside full-length studio release, Perpetual Flame. With singer Tim “Ripper” Owens (of Judas Priest fame) on board, Malmsteen fans are treated to yet another solid document of what the man does best, and a reminder that Yngwie has no intentions of changing the signature style he blueprinted on that debut album twenty-six years ago. And if that were not enough, Yngwie has prepared an all-acoustic album entitled Angels of Love due out in April 2009, containing reworks of ballads spanning his career.

During a stop on his 2008 tour, we had a chance to talk to the maestro himself about Perpetual Flame, his back catalog, a recent Hollywood Rockwalk induction, and his involvement with the Guitar Hero III video game!

If you haven’t listened to Perpetual Flame yet, you can read our album review here.

"People sometimes forget that I’ve been doing
this for, like, 100 years."

MPc: A lot of your music historically throughout your catalogue features vocalists that are singing very high parts. Have you ever considered bringing in a female vocalist on one of your albums?

YM: Well, no, because at that — the thing is I used Mark Boals for a few albums and he has a female voice, which I don’t really like. I like to have the power in the low register also. I mean, I do all the vocals myself also, backup vocals on some of these songs, but Ripper, of course, he’s got the range, you know, whereas, no female singer can do that. So, no, I never had the idea of doing that, no.

MPc: We heard that you used some real string players on Perpetual Flame.

YM: Oh, yeah, that’s right. I was in Istanbul. And I was hanging out with this guy, he’s like a superstar there, like the big, number one recording star, and soap operas and all of that, and I was hanging out in his studio. I had my little Pro Tools, my laptop, you know, and a couple of my songs. I said, “Hey, how about if I just throw some of these strings on?” “Sure, just show them the parts.” And that was, man, it was great. It was very, very cool. It was sheer luck, you know?

MPc: That’s great! Now, talking about the recording of this album… historically you’ve made use of your early model Strats, your signature Strats, and your 1972 Marshall amps. Was there anything especially different for any of the gear you used recording your new album?

YM: No (laughing). The only thing is that for the whole album, I engineered the whole record and I spent a lot of time with engineering, producing, all that stuff. And so what I did on recording drums, that is my drum set and I have it set up in my recording studio. But I always loved AKG microphones and I might have re-miked the kit with that. So that’s different. But the guitar itself, the guitars, the amps, are the same.

MPc: It’s interesting, because there are some guitar players who are just always constantly trying new stuff and using different guitars and different amps. But your approach, and even in the fact that your style remains very constant, your approach really is the classical musician approach. Just like a violinist gets his Stradivarius and that’s what he uses for life and that’s his sound. And it seems like you take that similar approach with your guitars. “This is my guitar, this is my sound. And it does not change very much, other than how I play it.”

YM: That’s a very, very, very, very good observation; I’m pleased to hear that. That’s exactly what I often think myself. But I didn’t do it on purpose, I just—that’s what I ended up doing.

But also another point is that some people sometimes forget that I’ve been doing this for, like, 100 years. And I did try different things until I found what I liked. Back when I was a kid in Stockholm, Sweden, Marshall had just put out a new model amp which is called the Master Volume model, which every amp in the world has now. Which is you have a gain and a master volume. That means you can decide how distorted the sound will be and how loud it will be. On the amps that I use, it only has the volume control, which means you have to play full up. That’s it, it’s either full up or nothing. Otherwise it doesn’t sound right.

Now, when that model was switched to the Master Volume version, the old ones, Plexiglas Marshalls and Mark II’s and stuff like that, nobody wanted them. So you could buy them for like fifty bucks. Now, they’re like five, six, seven, eight thousand dollars [apiece], maybe more. And I decided, also, the idea that I wanted to have a lot of Marshalls. So when I was a kid, I’d just stack up all these Marshalls [laughs].

And so that’s how my sound came about, because I had to use it full up and I had to use an organic sound. And that’s how it came about in the late ‘70s. So a long time, long time ago.

MPc: We’ve been in the studio with Marshall amps that pre-date the master volume and it’s so ungodly loud that—is that why you started using the DOD distortion pedal? So you can get some distortion at a lower volume? Or do you ever use power attenuators?

YM: No, I don’t do any of that. It’s always full up — no power attenuators. It’s full — I mean, it is loud! See, that’s a funny thing to bring up too, because what happened was, back in the day, we used to have fuzz pedals and stuff. I always hated the sound of that. So I went to this music store in Stockholm called Sound Site. And I said, “Listen, man, I got to get something just to give me like a real nudge on the amp, no fuzz.” And the guy says, “Check this out, it’s called the 250 preamp.” And it was hand-made in Salt Lake City. And this was like the late ‘70s again. And that’s how I bought that grey DOD pedal, and I just throw that into my Marshall.

But, I never used a power attenuator and never a master volume on the amp. No, it’s always been full up. What? What? [laughs]

That’s actually one of the tricks to get the sound, because you have to move that air to really get the tone. All these modern amps, with all these massive volumes of fuzz boxes and all that stuff, that’s not going to cut it. So I am very purist in that sense, you know.

"The time I spend on producing and writing lyrics and
arranging songs is about 85%."

MPc: Fender recently updated your signature Strat, and they’re also doing a reproduction of your famous Duck Strat. So why don’t you tell us about the new guitars?

YM: Oh, man, the new signature model, it is an unbelievable instrument. It is so good, it’s as good as it gets.

As far as the Duck goes, the tribute model, I opened the case. I said, “Oh, you’re giving me mine back.” That’s what I thought. And this guitar I’ve had for over 30 years. I mean, this guitar — I know this like… I know this guitar like no one does, okay? And it wasn’t mine! That’s scary. I mean, that’s scary. And I went to the custom shop a couple of weeks ago and I saw like sixty of them. They only made 100 of them. And they were all exact; every detail was exact. I knew they would do a good job, because they’re very good, but not like that. I mean, that’s just scary.

MPc: Oh, that’s great! So now when you go back out on the road, are you just going to be playing your signature Strats or are you going to have any of your actual, vintage Strats with you?

YM: I’m not planning to bring any vintage, no. Because — and that’s simply because they [the new signature models] are so good. When they’re brand new, it takes me, I don’t know, a couple of months for them to feel exactly right, but they still… I mean, even out of the box they’re just amazing.

MPc: Do you also regularly use the other signature items that you endorse, like DiMarzio cables, DOD, YJM and Dunlop Picks?

YM: I do.

MPc: Now, let me ask you something about your songwriting. People tend to fixate on your soloing technique. And that’s all that almost every interview asks about and talks about. But we’ve been listening to you for years and we know about that already. It seems, though, that people rarely talk about your fantastic rhythm playing where quite often you’re utilizing chord progressions that are more akin to classical music than straightforward rock. Do you find that to be an underappreciated component of your playing?

YM: Well, I do. I mean, let’s put it this way, if you divide it up, the time I spend on producing and writing lyrics and arranging songs is about 85% of the time I spend. Let’s put it this way. The solos, I do it like this: roll the tape and I do the solo. If it feels good, I’ll keep it. If it doesn’t feel good, I say “I’ll do it another day.” Because I don’t want to sit and press blood out of a stone. If the moment is there, I use it.

Now, as far as the songwriting and arranging, that’s something that I spend a lot of time on. And that includes what you mentioned about inverted chords, stuff like that. And the lyrics, not to mention the lyrics, which is where I really, really put my work in.

MPc: You’ve mentioned before, in the past, that you never really took formal music lessons. But to watch some of your instructional videos, obviously your knowledge of theory is really, really tremendous. How did you acquire the technical knowledge?

YM: You have very good questions! I was lucky enough to grow up in a family, my older brother and sister are extremely good musicians. My uncle and aunt were opera singers, my mom was a jazz singer, you know, my grandfather was a drummer. So the musical language — that’s a third above the fifth, whatever, or the harmonization, how to harmonize and stuff like that, that just comes like you grew up in a family that speaks a language. Same thing. And that’s basically how I picked all that up.

And a little bit backwards, though, because what happened was, I could hear, I learned a lot of things, like I was — okay, this sounds good this way and this sounds good, the augmented seventh sounds cool because a harmonic minor or whatever. And then when I studied a bit more of the particulars of harmony and theory, I go, “Oh, I knew this.”
So it wasn’t like, oh, boom, it happened in one day, it was a culmination of being around musicians and listening and learning myself and then matching the language to that.

And I did take some lessons. I took piano and I took drums. So I just never took guitar lessons.

MPc: Do you have any plans for writing another Concerto?

YM: Yeah, I do. I do. I will. That’s something I will do. It’s just that right now, right now in my life, I feel like rocking. That’s all I want. And it’s really funny, because I’ve been doing this for… that’s one reason the record is called Perpetual Flame, because it just keeps on burning, you know? And I feel more excited about this now than I have for the longest time.

MPc: Now, what we’d like to do is do a very brief recap of your studio albums spanning your solo career. What I’m going to do is throw out the name of an album and I want you to tell me briefly just the first story that comes to your mind, whether it’s been said before or not, that has something to do with either the recording, the writing or the equipment you were using. Just something that musicians would dig hearing about.

YM: Okay. Sure.

MPc: So we’ll start with Rising Force.

YM: Rising Force was an interesting album because it was given to me as a solo album while I was playing in a band called Alcatrazz. And I said, “Okay, good, I’d like to do a solo album.” And they said, “But you have to do it instrumental.” I’m like, “Wow, I don’t want to do it instrumental.” But they said no, it has to be instrumental because of the label. And the funny thing with that is since then, it’s been sort of like the template for guitar players on how an instrumental album should be made. And that’s not what I wanted to do, but that’s the way it ended up being, so there you go. I still like it, I think it’s an okay record.

MPc: How about Marching Out?

YM: That was the one record that I was looking at being the first album. That was one I brought in more like a heavy metal [sound].

MPc: Okay. And tell me what you remember about Trilogy.

YM: Trilogy, yeah. Trilogy was the one album where I was getting really, really, really serious about songwriting. I liked that one. It’s good, too.

MPc: "Trilogy Suite" is actually one of my favorite songs in your catalog. And then how about Odyssey? What can you tell me about Odyssey?

YM: Odyssey is a good pop record. It’s got some heavy elements, too. There was a lot of bad things happening right around that era that I can’t stop relating to that. It’s earned its place, but it’s not one of my favorites.

MPc: How about following that up with Eclipse?

YM: That was like a fresh start in a way, because I just put a new bunch of guys in. And it was still in the day when you wrote something that would go for radio. And so I did, I did on that one. It’s okay.

MPc: And then how about Fire and Ice?

YM: Fire and Ice was a bit the same as the Eclipse album, There’s some really good moments in that one, too.

MPc: Okay. And then how about The Seventh Sign?

YM: The Seventh Sign that was a big burst of energy on that one. That one had some really bitchin’ tracks on it.

MPc: Yeah. And then Magnum Opus?

YM: Same thing. It’s like the same lineup, where it felt like it was getting stale almost. So once again it had a couple of good ones, but not as good as The Seventh Sign.

MPc: It basically comes in waves.

YM: Yeah, well, back then it did, yeah.

MPc: And then after that came Facing the Animal.

YM: That’s an interesting record because it’s got… it is deliberately made to just have very, very, very basic songs on it. Deliberately I made it like that, because at the same time, I was actually doing the classical album. The late, great, the most amazing Cozy Powell on drums – God bless him. Oh, my god. My first show when I was twelve years old was Rainbow Rising with Cozy and Ritchie [Blackmore] and Ronnie [Dio].

MPc: And then of course, the Concerto Suite.

YM: Which was to me was like a dream come true, to play with a symphony. But I have a funny story about that. When we came to Prague, we had three days to record the orchestra parts. And we started at 9:00 and then went to 12:00, I think, then from 1:00 to 4:00, for three days.

And when I first came in and I heard the way they were performing, I was going, “Oh, my god, my whole life’s work is going to be destroyed,” because they sounded like shit. It was really bad, like a high school orchestra.

And then the break came. And everybody went downstairs and started drinking. And they were having beers and everything. And I was freaking out. I went to the conductor, I said, “No, no, no, no, I don’t think I’m going to get another chance to do this, if I blow this, I’m never going to be able to do this again.” And I was really freaking out, man.

They came back from this break and they played everything perfect! So that’s the way they work down there, I guess.

So then I took those tapes and went home and put the guitars on, which is how that one was made.

MPc: And then after that you released Alchemy.

YM: That was one album where I actually had a specific direction. I decided to go kind of extreme, you know? And as far away from Facing the Animal as you can get. So Facing the Animal is slick and almost radio and Alchemy is very dark and very technical — I did that on purpose. I don’t always do things on purpose, but that one I did.

MPc: And then what do you think about War to End All Wars?

YM: War to End All Wars was, the songs on that album I think are like really, really, really good. The way the production was, because I experimented with some engineers more into the industrial sound, turned out to be the wrong thing to do. But, I’m going to remix that album one of these days. You guys are going to hear it the way it’s supposed to be heard. It’s going to be amazing. The songs are really, really good on it.

MPc: One of our other writers had some questions that he wanted me to ask, and he actually asked if you had plans to remix that!

YM: Yes, I am.

MPc: Great! And then we’ve just got a couple of other albums in your recent history. Attack.

YM: Attack is a really fun record. It wasn’t just the songwriting; the whole idea of recording this was real different. I was programming drums and then I would put down like a riff or whatever. And that resulted in songs being real different, and in a better way, to be honest with you. So I think Attack had a lot of great songs on it, you know, “Ship of Fools” and “Rise Up” — very cool songs.

MPc: Yes. And then the last one, Unleash the Fury.

YM: Yeah, that one was recorded also in a weird way, because I recorded the drums first and then I took a long break and I put everything else back on afterwards. It’s got some good moments. I don’t think the singer sang as well on it as the others, on the Attack album.

MPc: It’s interesting how you’ve taken a variety of approaches to how you’ve written each of these albums.

YM: Yeah, really different, yeah.

MPc: Has your son become a guitar player?

YM: He plays, yeah, he does.

MPc: Is he as good as you yet?

YM: [laughs] He’s a kid of the age, you know? He’s got his friends and his computers and all that stuff. So you can’t expect a kid like that just to sit at home playing guitar all day long. But, he definitely has the talent. It’s amazing; he picks it up so quick.

MPc: Now, how does it feel knowing that there’s an Yngwie Award in Guitar Hero for guitar players who can hit 1,000 notes or more? Have you heard about that? That’s pretty cool.

YM: Yeah.

MPc: You’ve crossed over into the mainstream society. Not just the musicians who are worshipping guitar hero.

YM: Yeah, there might be some other things, “Rock band” and all that stuff, too.

MPc: We were very excited to hear that you’re about to be inducted into Hollywood’s Rock Walk. How does that feel for you?

YM: That’s very surreal. It’s very scary to come to America as a young kid and then all of a sudden — it’s really amazing because I never had that kind of aspiration. All I wanted to do was just make music.

MPc: Well, it’s very exciting and clearly sounds like you’re going to be doing this for a long time to come.

YM: Seems that way, yeah.

MPc: Well, Yngwie, we want to thank you for your time this morning.

YM: Thank you. Thank you, it was a very good interview.

John Quigley is a professional guitar player and member of the NJ classic rock cover band Side Effects. Contact him via email here.

   
             
             
             
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