Up to speed

Trailblazing guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen still rocks his jaw-dropping technique – and the neoclassical music he considers timeless.

April 25, 2010 09:37
Guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen

Yngwie Malmsteen 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Ambitious, intricately played progressive rock with album titles like Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra may sound like a punch line to an indie rock joke about the ELP/Yes-dominated mid-1970s.

But trailblazing guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen is dead serious about the neoclassical hard rock he helped define and continues to promote as if it were 1974. When he was barely 20, Malmsteen emerged as a hard rocker with a jaw-dropping technique of speed-of-light harmonic minor scalar riffing, and he’s focused on forwarding that unique sound ever since.

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“I think I was one of the first to really combine rock and classical,” said the 47-year-old Swedish-born Malmsteen in a phone conversation with The Jerusalem Post from his home in Miami. “I mean, a lot of people play lines from Beethoven, and say they play classical-influenced rock. I wanted to really integrate the whole musical concept of counterpoints and diminished fifths, and use the whole classical technique. It’s a more technical way of doing it, and it’s the way I’m still doing it.”

Technically a master and emotionally a pauper – that has been the critics’ complaints about Malmsteen ever since he released his first solo album, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force (1984), an instrumental tour de force which firmly established him as a giant in the field of guitar shredding and came to be considered the neoclassical rock bible.

But, for his part, Malmsteen (whose first name is pronounced ‘ING-vay’) has ignored the criticism and even the loss of some of his mainstream fan base when indulgent, solo-filled hard rock became to be considered dated and passe in the Nirvana, grunge-heavy 1990s. On the contrary, Malmsteen considers the music he makes to be timeless.

“I had no idea Rising Force would become so highly regarded. The album sort of happened by accident. I was playing in Japan with [hard rock band] Alcatrazz when I was 19, and the Japanese label wanted me to do a solo album, but they said it needed to be instrumental. I said I wasn’t really interested in making an instrumental album, but they insisted,” he recalled.

“So, it’s ironic – it wasn’t my decision. But I think it turned out pretty well, and the music holds up, because it’s not a fashionable thing – there’s no time limit on it. I don’t think you can listen to it and say what year it was recorded in. It’s going to stay in its own little zone forever.”

ENTHRALLED EQUALLY at an early age by as disparate a musical variety as Jimi Hendrix, the works of Vivaldi and Mozart, and the music of 19th century violinist/composer Niccolo Paganini, Malmsteen has devoted his career to perfecting the sonic meld between all of those styles of music.

“When I was seven, I saw a special on TV on the death of Jimi Hendrix, and it wasn’t so much his music that made an impression; it was his appearance – how he looked and held the guitar, and then smashing it at the end. I wanted to have a guitar from that day – it was September 18, 1970,” said the charismatic Malmsteen, who has himself lived the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, experiencing more than his fair share of financial scandals, road accident injuries and airplane incidents.

Once he started playing – at first with an old Mosrite guitar and then a cheap Stratocaster – he didn’t stop, realizing early on that he had an innate talent for being able to play faster than just about anyone else, child or adult.

“I think I was just captivated by it, and kept on going. I knew it was my destiny. I think I picked it up quite quickly, but I had to spend many years working at it,” he said.

Malmsteen’s older sister bought him a Deep Purple album and he grew fascinated with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s classically influenced playing, which led him to seek out the sources. In addition, in his early teens, Malmsteen viewed a TV performance of Russian violinist Gideon Kremer, playing the extremely complex 24 Caprices of Paganini. The combination of two styles opened up a window in Malmsteen’s mind.

“I loved the heavy metal sound of Deep Purple, but I quickly became frustrated with the limitations of rock guitar, and started listening to Vivaldi – I found it more interesting. At some point, when I was about 13 or 14, I decided to apply my ability on the electric guitar in a direction that would combine classical and heavy metal. I guess people call that neoclassical,” said Malmsteen.

After apprenticing in a number of bands like Steeler and the aforementioned Alcatrazz, it was Rising Force that set him on the path that, with minor variations, he still treads today. Albums like Eclipse Eclipse (1990), Fire and Ice (1992) and The Seventh Sign (1994) were full of Malmsteen’s impeccable musicianship, but he began to receive more recognition for the non-musical elements of his life.

A SERIOUS CAR crash in the late 1980s which almost killed Malmsteen coincided with the death of his mother and with the discovery that his manager had swindled him out of most of his earnings. But even while excruciating therapy on nerve damage to his picking hand threatened to end his career, he persevered.

“It was a bad crash, and I was in the hospital for a long time,” he said. “But I’m the kind of person who never gives up. I was very determined. There was no way I wasn’t going to come back. But it was very frustrating for a while.”

Other setbacks included losing his Miami house in 1992 to Hurricane Andrew, another freak accident that broke his hand and left him with tendinitis, and, most bizzarely, a 1993 incident in which his future mother-in-law, opposed to his engagement to her daughter, had him falsely arrested for holding the bride hostage with a gun.

After a relatively uneventful decade, Malmsteen made headline again in 2002, when a fellow airline passenger threw water on him after he allegedly made a slanderous comment about homosexuals. Malmsteen had to be escorted away by security, while screaming that the passenger had ‘unleashed the f***ing fury.’ Malmsteen reportedly gave up alcohol and even used his tirade as a title for a well-received 2005 comeback album.

Rather than talk about his off-field adventures, Malmsteen prefers to focus on the music – which includes two recent albums – Perpetual Flame, a heavy rock album featuring former Judas Priest vocalist Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, and Angels of Love, an all-instrumental acoustic album containing rearrangements of his ballad songs played on acoustic guitar and string and choir arrangements.

“It was another weird occurrence that came about by accident. I listened to all the old albums and wondered how some songs would sound acoustically. I always play a classical acoustic with nylon strings, but this time I played a black Ovation with steel strings, and I never realized how much I liked it,” he said.

But Malmsteen quickly added that showing the soft, delicate side of his musical personality was a one-off thing, as if he didn’t want to be in danger of being labeled wimpy.

“I’m in the studio right now recording some real heavy stuff,” he said.

MALMSTEEN’S OVERWHELMING style of guitar playing – in all its excess – has been recognized by some of the best on the planet. He’s been named by TIME magazine as one of the top 10 best electric guitarists of all time, and in 2007, he was honored in the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II with the “Yngwie Malmsteen Award,” which is achieved by players who hit 1,000 or more notes in succession.

While he doesn’t insist that young guitar players try to emulate him, Malmsteen does encourage beginners to concentrate on developing their own technique. Emotion, he assures, will follow.

“On a car, you need wheels, an engine, a steering wheel. You can’t say that the wheels aren’t that important. You need the complete package,” he said. “And in order to express emotion on an instrument, you need to have technique. I think the most important thing to learn is theory, it’s the key.

“It’s okay to pick up music by ear, but you still need the language in order to articulate things. It’s a mathematical language that musicians know – like ‘let’s try the 7th diminished chord here.’ Without that knowledge, it makes you really limited.”

Malmsteen’s own limitations might be that his fingers move at a faster pace than his brain. Listening to him and watching him perform is like witnessing fireworks for an hour and a half – how much of a good thing can you take?

Local fans will get to decide for themselves when Malmsteen and his band – featuring Owens on vocals – make their local debut on April 27 at Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv.

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