When Yngwie Malmsteen fails to call at a designated interview time, you don’t unleash the frickin' fury (as the Swedish-American guitar sensation has rather famously done over the years). You sit back, relax, have patience. Yngwie’s a busy, perpetual-motion kind of guy.
Which makes sense, given his penchant for photon-fast guitar licks.
“Sorry! I’ve got numbers sending me backwards and stuff like that!” says Malmsteen, phoning from his Miami Beach estate.
“There’s literally a hundred different things going on!”
Not the least of those “hundred things” is the Guitar Gods 2014 Tour, an axe-centric concert package featuring four of the flashiest, most technically accomplished instrumentalists in the hard rock / metal genres. With a lineup boasting “Sky guitar” inventor Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions), surf-rock guru Gary Hoey, and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (Guns ‘n’ Roses), the tour promises hours of magical music and spine-tingling guitar thrills.
Yngwie headlines each night—including June 18th at the Cleveland Agora—and is poised to once again tear up speakers and stages with his patented blend of neoclassical “shred” guitar rock.
Born Lars John Yngve Lannerback in Stockholm, Malmsteen (his mother’s maiden name) aspired to music at an early age, absorbing his family’s love of classical and baroque music—and performance. Swearing off conventional education, he became a guitar virtuoso by his mid-teens, playing in local band and tracking demo tapes highlighting his otherworldly six-string skills. One of those cassettes caught the attention of Shrapnel Records impresario Mike Varney, who arranged for Yngwie’s exodus to Los Angeles and first U.S. gigs with hair metal bands Steeler and Alcatrazz.
Malmsteen hasn’t looked back since.
His first solo albums—Rising Force (1984) and Marching Out (1985)—turned the guitar world on its collective ear: Not since Eddie Van Halen had any one musician prompted such a sea change in approach, playing style, and yes—showmanship. With the quicksilver classical runs typically assigned orchestral string sections (violins, viola, cello) already part of his everyday arsenal, Malmsteen not only dropped jaws with his lightning-fast picking speed, but inspired a new generation of “shredders” with his exotic modes and scales—and groundbreaking use of pedal-point, double-stops, trills, and string-skipping.
Before Yngwie, such tools and tricks were more often found in chamber music than rock and roll. Now they were must-have chops for every wannabe guitar hero. Where Van Halen’s “Eruption” and “Spanish Fly” had for years served as go-to tracks for consummate instrumental prowess, the Viking virtuoso offered the pyrotechnic “Far Beyond the Sun,” “Black Star,” and “Trilogy Suite, Op. 5.” And instead of firing their imaginations with more Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Ritchie Blackmore, kids starting digging up works by Remo Giazotto (“Adagio in G minor”), Johann Krieger (“Bourree”), and Niccolo Paganini (“24 Caprices for Solo Violin”). Yngwie popped up on magazine covers everywhere, his instrument (the crème-colored “Play Loud” Fender Stratocaster) and equipment rig becoming the subjects of fascination and debate amongst gear-heads. Some pupils rose to the challenge of copping Malmsteen’s digit-taxing maneuvers for their own vocabularies, while others shied away from the near-impossibility of replicating such skills, instead resigning themselves to simply enjoying the music—like the rest of us.
Glam rock fizzled and grunge faded, but the Grammy-nominated Yngwie soldiered on for thirty years, ignoring changing tastes and trends and cutting some 25 albums (Odyssey, Eclipse, Fire & Ice, Seventh Sign) with a rotating lineup of top-notch musicians (Anders Johansson, Jens Johansson, Mats Olausson) and vocalists (Joe Lynn Turner, Jeff Scott Soto, Doogie White, Tim “Ripper” Owens). He allied with fellow high-profile guitarists Joe Satriani and Steve Vai on the guitar-based “G3” tour in the late ‘90s. Later, he recorded a “Concerto for Guitar” with both Czech and Japanese orchestras.
Marking a return to his late ‘70s DIY esthetic, Yngwie played all the instruments on 2012’s Spellbound—just as he’d done on his “Powerhouse” demo tape. He published his autobiography, Relentless, last year.
But don’t let Malmsteen’s memoirs fool you into the thinking the guitarist’s journey is over.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: So, Yngwie, tell us about the Guitar Gods 2014 Tour. Apparently it was your wife April’s idea?
YNGWIE MALMSTEEN: It was, yes. Totally her idea in concept about doing this. I thought it was a great idea, so I said, “Sure, let’s do it.” It took a little bit to set up. There were a bunch of different artists who were trying for this, so we picked very carefully to have a flowing show. So it’s going to be great.
EXAMINER: Had you ever played with those guys before—Gary and Bumblefoot, I mean?
YNGWIE: I played with Uli before, but not Bumble or Gary. Not yet!
EXAMINER: Between yourself and the other acts, there stands to be a good four or five hours of guitar music every night.
YNGWIE: A lot, exactly. It’s a little different. I’m going to be closing the show, but before we even have Gary, Uli, and Bumble we’re going to have two other acts. So it’s like six acts for the money!
EXAMINER: For you last album, Spellbound, you played all the instruments—drums and bass as well as the guitar. That was a bit different for you, yes?
YNGWIE: Well, yes and no. Because that’s what I always used to do before anyway. The demo tapes I sent to Mike Varney when I was 17 years old—that was all me playing the bass, guitar, drums, keyboards, vocals. The thing is that…what happened was that, I have my own studio now. I have the luxury to do whatever I want, whenever I want. So if I feel like doing something, I can do it, and if it’s good I’ll leave it. If not, I can come back to it later. I don’t feel the pressure…I used to always feel the pressure of, “Oh, I have to do it now.” That can be toxic, but now I don’t have to deal with that anymore. So this all came together in a way where I felt really comfortable with it, so I just kept going. And that was it!
EXAMINER: That’s got to feel pretty good—having a home studio, tracking when the mood strikes, and committing to an album only when you feel like it.
YNGWIE: Yes, absolutely (laughs)!
EXAMINER: So it’s like, right after dinner, you get a burst of inspiration, you can take it right into the studio and put something down, even if it’s only a rough sketch.
YNGWIE: Whatever you want, whenever you want!
EXAMINER: Your book Relentless, was published last year. What was it like to shift gears from writing music to writing your life’s story?
YNGWIE: That’s right, yeah. Man, that took a long time. I started writing back in 2006. It took a long time. I was writing, and then I’d work a little bit—touring or whatever. Then there was rewriting and whatever. By the time it got to the publisher, we had to re-edit and rewrite it like, two or three times again. So it was a long process. But I’m really pleased with it. I suggest to anyone who wants to know anything about me, that’s where to find it. It’s very in-depth.
EXAMINER: Would you mind if I asked about the early days? Some of the stuff from the book, perhaps?
YNGWIE: No, of course not!
EXAMINER: You were still in your teens when you left Sweden for America to start your career. Most kids that age are just graduating high school, maybe getting butterflies about going off to college, and yet you were essentially starting life all over in a brand new country. Were you nervous or intimidated?
YNGWIE: The funny thing is, I wasn’t intimidated or nervous, but I was definitely not certain how it was all going to end. There was no guarantee, if you know what I’m saying? So when I got the opportunity, I just dropped everything in Sweden. I had a band, a studio, and all that shit. And I was just, “See you guys later.” But I had no idea. Actually, when I first got here, I felt quite at home. I felt like I fit in really well, even much more so than over there. So I never even thought about going back. So I’m about as American as they come, nowadays [laughs]!
EXAMINER: Do you experience any culture shock going from Stockholm to the hustle-and-bustle of Los Angeles?
YNGWIE: No. It was different for sure, but the thing is that I felt it was very rewarding. I could tell you a funny story. When we played the first show we ever played, we opened for Glen Hughes (Deep Purple, Black Sabbath) and Pat Thrall (Pat Travers Band). Glenn is a good friend of mine. There were thirty people there. No one there, basically. But I just went on stage and was mentally like, “I’m here now!” I just went all out. Just did what I did. Obviously, there was no internet or anything like now. But the next week or whatever it was—I think it was at The Troubadour—I was sitting in the backstage area and saw out the window that there was a line of people going down and around the block. I was like, “Wow!” And I asked them backstage, “Hey, who’s playing tonight?” They’re like, “You are.”
EXAMINER: Old fashioned word-of-mouth, eh?
YNGWIE: Yeah! So it was that fucking instant, man. So I sad, “Man, this place…I like this!” So it was great to be playing and having people like Ronnie James Dio coming to the shows. It was awesome. And it really wasn’t even my show—it was with Steeler. But I kind of stole the show, I guess (laughs)!
EXAMINER: How did you first come to pick up the guitar, anyway?
YNGWIE: Well, this was really, really, really well-explained in the book. But I’ll do a short version of it. I was the youngest in a family where everybody was a musician: My older brother, my sister. My mother’s a jazz singer, my father played guitar, my grandfather played drums, my uncles were opera singers…everyone was a musician. So for my fourth birthday I got a violin. For my fifth I got a guitar—but I didn’t do much with it. For my sixth I got a trumpet, and took a couple lessons. And on my seventh, I saw on the TV news that Jimi Hendrix had died. And the clip they played, it was at Monterey Pop, when he burned his guitar. There wasn’t any music, it was just a clip of him smashing up the guitar. And I was like, “This is so fucking cool!” So since I had a guitar, I started playing right then and there. And it went very fast. The next year I got my first album—a Deep Purple album. So I learned all that shit. But here’s what some people misunderstand: My classical stuff doesn’t come from Deep Purple. They’re a blues band. But once I learned all that stuff, I became kind of frustrated. But my sister used to bring home a lot of records. And one day she brought home a Genesis record called Selling England By The Pound….
EXAMINER: Oh, sure—“Firth of Fifth.” “Dancing with The Moonlit Knight.”
YNGWIE: Right, Genesis with Peter Gabriel. Not like the Genesis you know now. It was very progressive, and when I heard that I was like, “This is incredible!” But it wasn’t so easy to learn that. I realized that the music was sort of classical, and my mother had lots of classical records—like, a thousand of Bach records or something stupid like that. So I started listening to Bach and Vivaldi. And I got some Marshalls and a Strat, and I wanted to incorporate that classical stuff into the heavy metal guitar. This is way back—I’m like nine or ten years old—and I wanted to have my metal sound, but with the tonality and harmony of classical and baroque music. Eventually, a couple years later, I saw the TV again. There was a guy playing Niccolo Pagini on solo violin. And that was it. I started applying all these arpeggios and linear scales to the guitar, which no one had really done before. Because it’s not a guitar way of playing, you know? The way guitar is usually played a very specific way. But I just liked the sound of it. So that’s the short version, you know [laughs]?
Watch the Guitar Gods 2014 Tour preview video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=7TvWcOETIJw
EXAMINER: I recall reading in old guitar magazine interviews about how you worked for a luthier, and took to scalloping the frets on your guitar neck after seeing a violin or something a customer brought in with the frets scooped out that way.
YNGWIE: It was a lute, actually. Like, and old guitar-type instrument. But the thing is, I was kind of rebellious. I didn’t want to go to school, because it took time out of guitar-playing. So when they asked, “What do you want do to?” I told them I wanted to play guitar. So they said I could work with luthier until my time was up, because in Sweden you couldn’t do home school, or whatever. It was a very big deal. So I did that for a while. And then after that, they put me in classical conservatory, a school for conductors and composers. They were all like 24, 25 years old. And I’m like 14. I didn’t fit in, and they all saw I didn’t like it. So I gave up on that and kept on with my metal thing. But I had my eye out on guitar, and this guy brought in a lute. I couldn’t tell if the neck was worn out, or if it had been deliberately cut like that. But I did that on one of my necks, and I liked the feel of it. You get more control over the strings, you know?
EXAMINER: Does the scooped-out frets facilitate ease of movement, enhance speed, and so forth?
YNGWIE: It’s actually harder to play faster.
EXAMINER: Is there a danger with scalloped frets that notes can go sharp if you press down too hard, given the deeper dip between the fret wires?
YNGWIE: It does. It can…but you get used to that pretty quick.
EXAMINER: When you first embraced classical music, did you teach yourself by referring to sheet music? Or did you just ear things out, the way most youngsters do when learning their favorite rock songs?
YNGWIE: I did a little of both. The thing is, I kind of like wanted to absorb the way they arranged things in classical musical. Take AC/DC. They’re one of my favorite bands in the world. If they do a riff in A, the pump note—the root note—what I learned from classical music was that you could put the filler in bass, or put in the fifth, or put in different arrangements in, depending on whatever ensemble you had—be it a rock band or whatever. So it taught me how to think, how to compose in that vein. Yeah, I know many Bach pieces, Bach and Vivaldi and Paginini—and sometimes I’ll play them. But to me it was more important to train myself to think like them, to train my mind to think more in that vein. So I just listened and learned from it. It wasn’t like, “I’ll learn this piece exactly as it is.”
EXAMINER: Given that a lot of your music is instrumental, I always wondered about the song titles, like where they come from. Some of your titles reference science fiction, like “Hangar 18, Area 51.” Others allude to historical events, ancient battles and whatnot. Then you have other songs where the names follow the practice of the old masters, where maybe there’s just a number to designate the piece, like “Trilogy Suite, Op. 5” or “Overture 1383” or “Overture 1622.” How do you come up with titles when there’s no lyric to suggest one?
YNGWIE: Anything that fits (laughs)! It could be anything. Like right now, if the TV’s on and I see the military channel or something. I had a song called “Blitzkrieg,” which was about the German attack on England. But that doesn’t mean, “OK, this song is about that.” On my last album was a song called “Nasca Lines,” those lines and markings the aliens supposedly did.
EXAMINER: Right, those carvings in the corn fields.
YNGWIE: Yeah, yeah. Or with “Overture 1622,” that’s about how my ancestors were knighted by the king back in 1622. I’m actually an earl. I’m Lord Malmsteen.
YNGWIE: It’s true! A full-blooded lord [laughs]! It’s funny because most people don’t know what that is. They think it means royalty. But it’s not royal; it’s noble. Nobility. I have a coat of arms and things like that. But…yeah, the titles can be silly things, too. “Razor Eater,” for instance: That song is about a character out of a [horror novelist] Clive Barker book. They could be anything, the titles and lyrics.
EXAMINER: So it’s a case of the music evoking the subject in the title. Like with “Krakatau,” which doesn’t have words—but one can imagine a volcanic eruption, listening to the slow build-up in the music, that crescendo.
YNGWIE: Right, yeah. That’s true. I like for the music to always evoke something. So you feel like, “This would be a good title for this one.” It’s a mixture of that, or just being silly. And I do love science fiction.
EXAMINER: A lot of instrumental guitarists out there put on brilliant live shows, but you’re an especially dynamic performer. You swing your guitar around, and rather than simply flick your used plectrums out to fans in the audience, you ricochet them off your boot. Most guitarists tend to stand in one place, but you’re in constant motion. Is that a conscious thing—this athletic aspect—or do you simply have an overabundance of energy you need to burn off each night?
YNGWIE: A little bit of both. When I first started playing, I saw Hendrix and thought it was just so cool. There weren’t things like music videos or anything back then. So when I saw him smash up his guitar, I realized it was important to put a little showmanship into whatever you’re doing. Because otherwise you could just put the record on, you know? But I really do enjoy playing live, and I get really into it. And sure, it can get a little crazy! I’ll do stuff like that for fun, and I hope other people enjoy it, too!
EXAMINER: There’s an element of risk to it. I’ve seen you throw your guitars to your roadie off-stage. It’s always a hold-your-breath kind of moment, to watch them come back down from the rafters until they catch it.
YNGWIE: And sometimes they don’t catch it (laughs)! You never know.
EXAMINER: You worked with Fender over the years to develop a signature Stratocaster, a line of custom replicas based on your famous “Play Loud” crème Strat. But now you’ve also got your own line of Yngwie accessories: Strings, straps, cables, and so forth.
YNGWIE: Yep. And the crown jewel in that collection is the overdrive pedal. It’s fucking unbelievable. It’s something I designed with Fender. And of course, my Seymour-Duncan pickups took a long time to design. All this is discussed in my book in detail. And the thing is, I don’t just endorse this stuff; I actually do use it.
EXAMINER: When I started playing guitar back in the ‘80s, I used to assume players like you used thin-gauge picks in order to play fast. But then I caught one of your picks at a show, and it was very thick. I realized later that thick picks give more bite, and probably increase accuracy when alternate-picking and sweep-picking. Is that the case, or…?
YNGWIE: There’s actually a very scientific reason. If you want to play accurately, no sliding—I never liked the sound of sloppy phrasing—you use the thick. Your left brain hemisphere gives a command to your right hand to move the pick, and your right hemisphere is telling your left hand to hit the note on the guitar neck. So if you use a soft pick, it bends. And what happens is, your brain will give the command to continue…and there will be a latent moment. It could only be like, a millisecond. But if you want to be really accurate, it does make a difference. So if you want to reach that point, you can’t really have a soft pick.
EXAMINER: Right. It took me a while to catch on. I mean, I’m not an accomplished lead player. But eventually I settled on medium picks for strumming and playing rhythm. I can’t imagine trying to play leads with a thin pick. No control.
YNGWIE: It takes a little time to get good at it, because it can be hard to play with. The thin picks are easy, but then you’ll get to a level where you’re stuck.
EXAMINER: Speaking of newbie guitarists, do you have any advice for kids just picking up the guitar? Any words of wisdom for all the aspiring professional musicians out there?
YNGWIE: You have to work really hard, and you have to get a good accountant….
YNGWIE: Hey, trust me on that! Accountants can rip you off. It happened to me! But seriously…most of the guitarists fall into this little trap, that they feel like they have to listen to other guitarists. And so the guitar playing all becomes a little incestuous, in my opinion. Everyone sort of plays this blues stuff, the pentatonic box. So in order to become something that’s not going to sound like everyone else, just listen to music. Listen to piano. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. The thing is, it’s dangerous to always listen exclusively to other guitarists. You end up liking them. I like them. But after a while, you start losing yourself.
EXAMINER: Right. You mentioned Genesis earlier. I love them, and other progressive bands like Yes. You just don’t hear those kinds of structures and changes in popular music anymore.
YNGWIE: What happened with them was, their chord structures and melodies had nothing to do with the blues. So it was great. I listen to that stuff now and it still knocks me out. They were amazing!
EXAMINER: I also remember reading magazines in the ‘80s about how you hurt your hand in an accident—a car or motorcycle accident—and you essentially had to re-teach yourself everything you’d learned. Is that right?
YNGWIE: Car accident, yeah. Hmmm, yes and no. What happened was, I had damage to my nerve endings in my right hand. They were damaged enough that it took a long time to heal. I had to work twice as hard to get the same results I got before. But once it healed, I came out with a better picking technique than I had before. So the end result of that car accident was that I became way faster. And also, I no longer do stupid things anymore, like drinking and driving. But that’s the kind of fuck-up I was back then! Back when you could act stupid, and not think much about what you were doing.
EXAMINER: Here’s to healthy, clean living.
YNGWIE: [Laughs] I’m very, very clean!
EXAMINER: So who’s in the band these days? Who can we expect to see backing you up at The Agora?
YNGWIE: Ahhh…I have different guys. I’m putting it all together right now.
EXAMINER: Is there a designated singer this time out?
YNGWIE: They all sing. The bass player sings, I sing. We’ll all sing.
EXAMINER: Spellbound was two years ago. Can fans expect a new album later this year, after the tour? Maybe early next year?
YNGWIE: Yeah, absolutely. But the next product I’m going to have is my live DVD.
That’ll come out in August. Maybe during Christmas time I’ll look a little more seriously at a new record.
Guitar Gods 2014 (featuring Yngwie Malmsteen, Uli Jon Roth, Gary Hoey, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal). Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at Cleveland Agora (5000 Euclid Ave. Cleveland OH). Tickets $34 / $40 DOS. Doors at 7:00pm.
Advance tickets available now: http://www.ticketweb.com/t3/sale/SaleEventDetail?dispatch=loadSelectionD...