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?

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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.

It seems even your rock songs are very composed. When you're writing the music, do you start with a riff that develops into something else?

The musical content is extremely spontaneous. Since I started playing I've been improvising. So everything is improvised. An improvisation is an attempt at a composition. In other words, if you can't improvise, you can't compose. A lot of people don't seem to know is the fact that the great composers, Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven -- all of them, they were improvisers. They would have cadenzas on stage that were improvised that weren't written out. It's just that they had to write something out at some point and that's what ended up on paper.

So everything I do is an improvisation. When I'm doing improvisation at home and it's cool and new to me, that's something I can make into a theme or a riff or a melody or whatever. As far as lyrics go, that can be anything. Anything that I see or hear that day or in history. The thing is, there was a time when I was playing into that whole thing of how this should be this way or have these kinds of chords. When I was seventeen years old, I didn't do that.

My new album, Spellbound, I reverted to that exact procedure where I just did not fucking care if the solo is twenty minutes long and the next thing that happens is another solo. That's what my original, natural way of doing things was. And that's what I did on my new album as well. If you're not into guitar playing, you might not understand that. It's pretty over the top on the record. I enjoy that. It's challenging, and it's interesting, and it doesn't bore me, you know?

When you were working on Rising Force what do you feel that you did and were able to do that your contemporaries weren't doing?

That one actually has a very strange background because what happened is that when I was a kid in Sweden, I did that style of music. In fact "Black Star" is one of the songs I sent out as a tape. So what happened is that I was in a band where I wrote the songs and I wrote the melodies for Graham Bonnet. In Alcatrazz, I wrote the songs and I enjoyed that. The Japanese label said, "We want you to make solo album, but it has to be instrumental." But I said, "I don't want to do that." But I did it. It's a very funny thing because it became kind of a textbook for metal guitar. That album had mostly shit I wrote in Sweden.

I formed a sort of musical group when I was fifteen called Rising Force, but it wasn't really a band. It had fifty-thousand different drummers and bass players, and I was the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter. That's why I always use "Rising Force" because Rising Force is me. That's when I came out with Marching Out and went back to a more heavy metal sound.

Were you approached by Guitar Hero II regarding the "Yngwie Malmsteen Reward" in that game? How did you feel about that?

I think it was they kind of did it and then told me. I thought it was funny because I didn't realize the impact of it at the time. My initial feeling was, "This is very strange." It turned out to be a very, very good thing. All the kids got hooked up on the rock sound and guitar thing again because of these games.

My son was very young then, so he loved the video game. Now he's old enough to play guitar. It was funny because at the time I thought it was strange, but now, I think it's a good thing because you see now the whole guitar and rock and roll thing is back with a vengeance, and I think the game had a lot to do with it.

What was the most challenging aspect of playing all the instruments, as you did, for Spellbound?

It was very natural to me. I've played drums since I was a little kid. My grandpa is a drummer, my older brother was a drummer, we always had a drum set. The thing is I have my own studio; it's the real thing, not just a demo studio, a proper studio. The reason for this is that when I'm inspired, the best shit comes out. And when I'm not inspired and I'm on autopilot, it can be okay but it's not what I feel is the greatest thing I can do.

That's why I always hated about going into the studio -- the time pressure. You had better fucking pull out the greatest solo you ever did now, you know? Everything I do is improvised, so you have to be inspired. On stage, it's different because the energy is there because of the crowd. When you're in a fucking room and just had ten cups of coffee and now you're going to the best solo you've ever done? And it has a muffled sound and it doesn't have that live sound.

So since I have my own studio, I just go in there when I'm inspired. If that means I'm doing singing, playing keyboards or drums or whatever, that's what I do when I do it. If it's good, I use it. If its shit, I don't. It's as simple as that. So it wasn't, "Oh, yeah, you're going to play everything now." It just happened, it was a very natural thing.

You have a song called "Nasca Lines" -- does that refer to those lines in Peru out in the desert near the coast?

Yeah. I'm like a fucking Erich Von Daniken, Ancient Aliens freak. That makes the most sense out of anything anybody ever said. Think about the pyramids and all those ancient sculptures. They did shit we can't do now! The list goes on. I'm a firm believer in that. I thought it was very ominous sounding and thought that was a good title for that. Those figures and lines can only be seen from the sky? How did they make it? Why did they make it? Erich Von Daniken talked about that in the '60s.

In what areas do you feel you pushed or challenged yourself in making Spellbound?

Yeah, well, I talk about this in my book in how I develop my music. The thing is that my personality has always been...I'll give you a little anecdote. When I was recording with Alcatrazz, there was a producer in the room. That's one reason I've never used a producer since because I think they're fucking useless.

I did a solo, and he said, "Well that was really good but it's a little too fast. Maybe you should do it a little slower. Remember, less is more." I looked at him like, "What do you mean less is more? Less is less, more is more." So that was one of the times I decided I wasn't going to have someone getting paid to [give his opinion]. I could ask the janitor to come in and see what he thinks.

My personality is more is more. So if I can have more Marshalls on stage that you can put on stage then that's what we gotta do. That goes with everything I do as far as playing. I want to blow myself away. That's why I never really practice. I approach it as though there are a thousand people in the room. I want to pick up the guitar and impress myself. To me that's the only way. Otherwise it's not interesting. So that's how I approached this record and all the others.

What continues to engage you in playing music, especially live, all these years?

Live, the energy from the audience never gets old. The funny thing is that I know other bands, and they should do what they want to do, and they have a set rehearsed and then go on stage exactly the same thing thirty nights in a row on tour. I never do that. I improvise everything -- all the intros, all the solos. Everything is improvised, and it's never the same.

On top of that, I don't put the set list together until right before the show. So nobody in the band knows what we're going to do until right before we go on. So I give them the set list, and then I go on the stage and play something different from the set list. That makes it interesting, that gives it an edge and that's challenging.

Just playing the same thing over and over? I couldn't do that. If I had to, I wouldn't be able to do it. It wouldn't be interesting. It wouldn't be challenging. It wouldn't be exciting. The thing is that in recording in the studio, I try to give myself the same challenge. In other words, a solo is completely improvised. Just roll the tape. I know it's an A minor, or in F sharp or Phrygian and just fucking wail, and if it sounds good, then that's great. If it doesn't, you do it another day.

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