By Steve Newton
Swedish guitar hero Yngwie Malmsteen turns 51 on Monday, two days after his appearance in Vancouver tomorrow (June 28) as part of the Guitar Gods show at the River Rock Show Theatre.
He’s caused quite a commotion in the hard-rock world in the last half-century or so. Why, just last week he was describing the hallowed Les Paul guitar as “furniture”.
That’s pretty whack.
The fleet-fingered picker has been making headlines for the last three decades or so. I should know, because way back in December of ’85 the headline “Yngwie Rising” topped a full-page story I did on Malmsteen for the Georgia Straight newspaper in Vancouver.
He was opening for Dio at the Pacific Coliseum that week. He was 22 years old. Malmsteen was as outspoken then as he is now, it seems, calling all heavy-metal music “crap” and such.
Anyway, for all my fellow guitar freaks out there, I’m going to retype my 1985 conversation with Yngwie–I called him at his home in L.A. where he was resting after a 60-date tour with AC/DC–and then as an added bonus include my full and unexpurgated (what does that even mean?) interview with him from two weeks ago. Remember me in your wills.
YNGWIE MALMSTEEN DECEMBER 1985
What made you want to learn guitar in the first place?
Basically I got really inspired by seeing Jimi Hendrix on TV, you know. That’s basically how the whole thing started.
What was it about Hendrix that you liked so much?
I liked the fact that he was really incorporating a lot of show into what he was doin’. I liked that lot.
On the liner notes of your new album you mention Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore.
Yeah, I started listening to Deep Purple a lot after that as well.
Which albums in particular?
Fireball and In Rock, way back when they first came out.
What was the music scene like in Sweden when you were growing up?
It was nothing. It was just like a lot of shit really.
Is that what brought you over to America?
Well I’d been playing for such a long time, and the reason I went to America from Sweden was because it didn’t matter how much I tried there–it would never bring me anywhere.
I understand you’re heavily into classical music.
Yeah that’s my biggest influence really, period. That’s what I listen to right now. I don’t have any influence from rock bands, because I think it’s too limiting really.
Who are your biggest classical influences? Johann Sebastian Bach. Paganini. You say in Guitar World that Paganini was “a rock and roller”.
You could say so, yeah. What I mean with that was that he was really wild. You know, he went around drinking and fooling with women. He was wild.
Does it bother you when people call Rising Force a heavy metal band?
It didn’t use to bother me. But nowadays, when I really understand what heavy metal stands for, I don’t like it at all. Because as far as I’m concerned heavy metal is a very primitive, and in my opinion not very necessary form of music that could be extinct. I really detest it. It’s disgusting, and it’s really boring, and it’s very low, and it’s totally free from any intelligence or logic or notions. It’s all crap, and it’s for little frustrated pre-pubescent kids. And I’m really fed up with it.
But aren’t those the same kids that come to your concerts?
Yeah, but they seem to have a little more understanding for what’s going on, the kids that come to my concerts. You know, rather than people like W.A.S.P. and all that shit.
I understand that you were drafted into the Swedish army when you were 18?
Yeah. And anything that is like an establishment, I just can’t stand really. Schools, or armies, or jobs–whatever–it’s something I just can’t cope with. Because I’m too independent a person to be told what to do, and do things in groups. I’m a very creative person in my own way, and I don’t need people to tell me what to do, and I definitely don’t like it!
How did you get out of the army?
Well it’s a long story really, but basically just by explaining to them exactly how it was. And by spicing it up a little bit, and exaggerating here and there, and telling them I’d shoot myself if they didn’t let me out.
You’ve got a special thanks to Stephen King on your new album. What’s that for?
Because it’s really inspiring to read good books, and I’ve always been fascinated by the unknown and so forth. I’ve been studying the occult a lot.
Which is your favourite Stephen King book?
I think Firestarter and The Stand. I’m reading The Talisman right now, which he wrote together with another guy, Peter Straub. And that one’s really good. That’s one of the best ones I think.
Do you ever get ideas for songs from his stories.
Well not exactly ideas for songs as much as inspiration. It’s creation that really inspired me–that’s why I’m inspired by Leonardo da Vinci and H.P. Lovecraft and whoever.
YNGWIE MALMSTEEN OCTOBER 2014
Hi, it’s Yngwie Malmsteen.
Hi Yngwie, thanks for calling.
Hi, sorry we’re a little late. We were on the tour bus.
No problem. Where are you located?
Uh, I think we just rolled into Cleveland, but I’m not sure.
You playing there tonight?
I think so, I’m not sure. I don’t really know. Heh-heh.
It’s been a while since I talked to you. I think the last time I talked to you you were opening for Dio on the Sacred Heart tour in 1985.
Oh my god! That’s been a while, huh?
We go way back.
I was wondering. Were you a fan of Dio?
Of course, of course. He was a very good friend, and an amazing singer. So, yeah.
Did you perform with him at all?
Yeah, that was also a long time ago.
Do you think you were a good musical fit with those guys?
Oh yeah. I mean, we don’t have the same style of course, but it was no problem. Yeah, I think it was great. I had a good time.
Did you get along with them personally.
Oh yeah, of course. Very well. In fact I just did a big TV interview with Satriani just a month ago.
Would you do another G3 tour if they asked you.
Whatever. Sure, yeah, of course. I’d do anything, ha ha.
Speaking of Satriani and Vai, neither of them are Strat players. I was wondering what it was about the Strat that has kept you so devoted to it all these years.
Well it’s kind of the original instrument, you know. Everything else is a copy of it, you know. All the Ibanez and stuff like that’s just a copy. It’s like a bad copy, really. It’s the same design but it’s a bad copy. I’m an original, very purist kinda guy, you know, and that’s why I use Marshalls, Ferrari–whatever. I like the original stuff.
What about a Les Paul though?
Yeah, let Paul’s nice bein’ a piece of furniture, you know. It’s nice to look at. It wouldn’t survive five minutes with me on stage.
Have you ever been tempted to “cheat” on the Strat and take a different model of guitar for a spin?
I have hundreds of guitars. I have Les Pauls, Flying Vs. I got everything you could imagine. But nothing could possibly do what the Strat does.
I understand you were a huge Ritchie Blackmore fan. Me too. I think he’s very god-like. What was it about his playing that turned you on mostly?
Okay, let’s correct that. Have you read my book? I released a memoir last year called Relentless, and everything that you have ever heard about me is put to rest in that. It includes all the personal stuff, the technical stuff, equipment, musical journey, you know.
I grew up in Sweden, and in Sweden it’s, like, a socialist country—we didn’t have anything. It’s black and white, everything. One TV channel. And my sister gave me Deep Purple’s Fireball for my eighth birthday, so I was eight years old in a country that didn’t have any media anywhere, so of course the impact was amazing, to hear that music.
By two years later I knew how to play everything note for note—Made in Japan, all this—but I became frustrated with the fact that it was all pentatonic scales. Pentatonic blues scales are what guitar players play, and I got really frustrated with that because I was playing all the time.
So my older sister, again, brought home some other records, like Genesis with Peter Gabriel–the early Genesis records. They have much more interesting chord structures and melodies and much more difficult things to actually learn and play.
So then I realized that that’s actually mostly baroque classical music that Tony Banks, the keyboard player in that band, brought in. So I went direct to the source and started listening to Bach and Vivaldi and then eventually Nicolo Paganini. My whole style is based on baroque classical music and the virtuoso violin of Nicolo Paganini. That is what I do with Marshall stacks and Stratocasters.
So I have absolutely no influence from Ritchie Blackmore at all. Nothing.
Right. So it’s not true that you started playing guitar the day Hendrix died?
That’s true! That would be, what was it, forty years ago? So obviously the reason I started playing was because I saw him smash the guitar up–I didn’t even hear the music. It’s not a musical impact; I saw it on TV that he smashed the guitar, that’s it! That’s what made me want to play. Nothing else. It wasn’t the music. And of course I listened to it later on and I loved it, you know. But my influence is one-hundred-percent classical.
I gotcha. I was wondering: What’s your secret to playing so fast?
Eat a lotta fast food.
It’s a joke. It’s a joke. Nah, I think it’s important to have the vocabulary as a musician where you can express yourself, whether it’s fast or slow. I don’t want to be limited, so… I’ve been doing this for many many many many many many many many many many many many many many many many many years, and the only reason I can still pick up the guitar and be excited is because I don’t play the same thing. I improvise everything I do.
So every night I play, every morning I play, every day I play in front of the TV, whatever, is improvised. So it’s new. So it’s a challenge all the time. And in order to be able to do that you have to have the vocabulary as a musician as far as technique, as far as theory. You have to have that in the back of your brain so you don’t think about that stuff. And so that’s why I play fast, that’s how I play slow–whatever.
Because it’s a challenge. You know, if it wasn’t a challenge then I wouldn’t be doing it. I’d much rather be cruising around in my convertible Ferrari, you know, and not do anything else. But this is a challenge, and this is why I do it. Not necessarily to impress other people, to impress myself. And that’s not easy to do.
Is it more important to have feel in your playing than flash?
Okay, uh, that’s also…to me, that is, like it’s a known question, ya know. I mean if it’s just flash, whaddya mean with that? You know, that’s just someone who doesn’t have any technique. Once again, you need technique to express emotion. If you don’t have the technique to have the right vibrato, right pitch, right perfect sense of where which note goes…if you don’t have that knowledge, that expertise, you can’t express your feelings.
Once again, most people make what I call a mistake, to always think in guitar terms. Forget the guitar, you know. It’s an instrument, that could be any instrument. It happens to be a guitar, which is the coolest instrument on earth, but the guitar playing stagnated so badly when every guitar player listened to another guitar player, that guitar player listened to another guitar player, that guitar player listened to another guitar player.
And it all started being the box pentatonic scale. Even Schenker, Van Halen, guys like that–Hendrix–they all played the same notes–in much different ways, of course–but they still played the same notes. And I had to break away from that, you know. So I wanted to play linear scales, more harmonic minors, and diminished, so forth and so on, which was never played on the guitar. You heard it on the piano, you heard it on the violin–never on guitar.
I wanted to ask you about Guitar Wars for a second. I recently heard that Uli Jon Roth is not gonna be on because of visa problems…
It’s called Guitar Gods.
Oh yeah, sorry, Guitar Gods. Do you think Uli Jon Roth¹s departure will hurt ticket sales? Absolutely not. Everybody coming to see you anyway?
No, that’s not necessarily true. I think it’s an event. I personally love him–I think he’s amazing, and I think it’s a shame that he can’t come along. But this is not one person, this is an event, this is a big crazy guitar thing. And everybody brings something, you know. I do what I do, and Bumblefoot does what he does, and Gary Hoey does what he does. And then we play together and jam, so it’s really good, you know.
Just a few more quick questions for you, Yngwie. I understand that you named your son Antonio, after Antonio Vivaldi. You didn’t want to name him Nicolo, after Paganini?
No. It’s not a pretty name; it’s not as good a name. Ha-ha.
Yeah, that’s true. Ha. How long have you been living in Miami, and how’d you end up there?
Well, I first came to L.A. and I soon realized how it’s just a big plastic… there’s nothing that’s real there, the whole town is fake. And so anyway, I started falling into the trap of that, so I moved to New York for five minutes, I suppose, ’cause I was on tour that year. So when I came back from the tour I said, “Oh my god, it’s as cold as Sweden!”
And I didn’t want to live in cold weather, so I moved down to Miami Beach, and I said “Oh my god, this is paradise.” So I stayed there. And now everybody lives in Miami Beach. When I first moved there it was like my place, now it’s like every celebrity in the world lives down there. But to me it’s paradise. I wrote a song about it called “Magic City”.
I look at your Wikipedia page and I see it says–I don’t know if it’s true or not–but it says you were arrested for holding your fiance hostage, you were involved in a drunken airplane incident. Were you a bit of a wildman in the past, and are you still?
That’s not true. Those two things are not true, first of all. They’re false. Having said that, yes, I was a bit of a wildman. But those two things are not true.
Well I appreciate you giving me some time, Yngwie. Looking forward to seeing your show here on June 28 in Vancouver. So thanks a lot.