By: Hugh Ochoa
Photos By: Anthony Scano
Born in 1963 in Stockholm, Yngwie Malmsteen came from a family of talented musicians with a keen interest in classical music. After watching a news item the day that Jimi Hendrix died, September 18, 1970, the young Swede developed an interest in the instrument he watch Hendrix burn on stage. Even at seven-years-old, he knew he wanted to be a rock star.
He spent the rest of his youth wood-shedding and immersing himself in the music of his favorite band, Deep Purple. It was through Richie Blackmore’s classical influence, and the guidance of Yngwie’s older sister, that Malmsteen began to explore composers such as Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach and Beethoven, which began to shape his unique style and approach to the guitar.
With the encouragement of his mother and sister, he began focusing his energy on art and music in school. But there was something missing from the equation, something that would help him make the connection between the conservative styles of Bach and the flamboyant theatrics and showmanship of Hendrix. That link would come in the form of 19th century violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini. It was after discovering Paganini’s music that Yngwie finally understood how he could forge the harmonious marriage between his love for classical music and the onstage charisma that he witnessed on that stage in Monterey.
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I was warned that Yngwie Malmsteen was not always the most pleasant person, that he has, in the past, been hard to talk to and that he might have an ego the size of Texas. As I was led from the elevator into the back conference room, I braced myself in case I asked the wrong question or stepped out of line with him, perhaps having him tell me the now famous, “If you’re not careful, I’ll unleash the fury!” as I was ejected from the room. Much to my relief, I found him to be very pleasant and polite, and more than happy to talk to me about his life and music.
Hugh Ochoa: Was Hendrix the original inspiration for you to start playing guitar?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Ok, to make this so it’s proper. I was the youngest kid in my family and my older brother and sister were really good musicians who started playing at a very young age. My brother played piano, drums, guitar, bass and accordion, basically everything. My sister was a great singer and pianist. She’s still a really good singer. She plays classical flute, in an orchestra, and all that stuff. My mom really wanted me to be a musician so she gave me a guitar for my fifth birthday, but I didn’t start playing till I was seven.
The reason I wanted to start playing was because they showed on the news, “Today, Jimi Hendrix died.” It was September 18, 1970. Then they showed a clip of him setting his guitar on fire at Monterey. I didn’t hear any music, I just saw this guy burning his fucking guitar and I said, “That’s so cool, man.” I took the guitar my mom had given me off the wall and started to play because I wanted to learn. Eventually I got into Deep Purple and that became my biggest influence.
Hugh: Is that, and the Deep Purple influence, where the fascination with Strats comes from?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Well, the first time I saw Hendrix, you’ve seen that Monterey guitar-burning clip, right? You can’t even see what the fuck guitar he’s using. One year later, my eighth birthday, my oldest sister gave me the Deep Purple album Fireball. Musically, that had an incredible impact on me. I don’t know if you’ve heard that record.
Actually, I was a DJ on Sirius today and I played that. That’s one of the songs. But, I didn’t really see what guitar Hendrix was holding there. My older brother had an electric guitar that looked like that, you know with the two horns. Eventually I found out it was a Fender Stratocaster. Obviously, I wanted one, but they were really fucking expensive, man.
Hugh: I’ve read that everything from America is expensive overseas.
Yngwie Malmsteen: Dude, you could buy a house! So I didn’t get the real thing until a couple years later. I got one of the copy ones when I was like my son’s age. So, yeah, the Strat thing started out with that, obviously. It’s culminated with one guitar. Here, actually I’ll show you, the Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster. Can you believe that shit?
Yngwie Malmsteen: What happened was, after I got the Fireball album, here, let me show you. [He gets up to get his guitar and calls for someone to bring his amp in.] Give me a second. I think I can answer your question very well by demonstrating. Free of charge. [We all laugh].
This is the first Yngwie Malmsteen Strat. Not only that, I’m the first artist to ever get a free Stratocaster, the first Fender signature guitar. All the years that they’ve made the Stratocaster, the first cat to ever have his own model. Before Clapton, before Beck, before everyone, can you believe that? This little punk from fucking Sweden!
Anyway, to make a long story longer, my favorite song on Fireball is that song “Demon’s Eye“. That’s the blues. If you play a regular style of blues like Hendrix, it’s called Pentatonic. I got that down quite quickly ’cause it wasn’t that hard for me to figure out. Then, I started listening to Bach and Vivaldi and stuff, and I started hearing things like pedal notes. Which is totally not rock ‘n’ roll guitar at all, right?
It’s real diminished type stuff. Then ultimately I discovered Paganini with arpeggios, that type of thing, or chromatic notes. Now what I heard with that was, “Whoa, how cool would that be to do on the guitar?” Similar, but not exactly the exact same thing. With Blues, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just gets to be a little bit the same thing over and over again.
I did that for years and years and years and years and years and nobody gave a shit in Sweden. Nobody cared. When I came to the States, it was an instantaneous thing. I remember the first gig we ever did. It was opening up for Glen Hughes and Pat Thrall. And I remember, there were thirty people there. Thirty people in Los Angeles. I had only been in the States for a week. I was like, “It’s cool man”. I didn’t think much about it. Next gig we do, it’s like a thousand.
Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, because people used to come in and say “This kid, you should see this fucking kid! What’s going on there?” In America, especially in America, classical music is not as common I guess as it is in Sweden or Europe. I think that was the main reason for me fusing them together. It was back in ’77.
Hugh: With your Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra DVD, you exposed a lot of listeners to music that they weren’t accustomed to, were you afraid of losing some fans because of that?
Yngwie Malmsteen: No, I wasn’t. I really wasn’t. I thought that anyone who was familiar with what I’ve done would dig what I was doing with that music. Plus, they should rest assured that that’s not something I’m going to start doing and quit rocking. That ain’t gonna happen! Well, maybe in the future sometime, but now you know what time it is? It’s time to rock! [Makes the obligatory devil horns, then cackles an evil laugh.] I’m just a fucking nut case.
Hugh: You got the idea for a scalloped fretboard from a 17th century lute, is that correct?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Yes, I was taking an apprentice gig because I wasn’t very big on going to school you know. I tried to get a gig as a luthier. I’m working on guitars for free, because I love working on guitars anyway. Though I did think he’d give me some money but, anyway, this cat came in with a 16th or 17th century lute that was either so worn out or made like that. I don’t know. I’d never seen one. There were no frets, just tapered wood for frets.
Hugh: You mean no metal frets? The fretboard came to points and served as frets?
Yngwie Malmsteen: It was carved out like this. I just thought it looked cool. So I started filing out my guitars, some of the not-so-good ones. I was already good with wood so I wasn’t worried about fucking it up cause I’m telling you, if you haven’t worked with wood and fine sculpting and stuff, don’t do it cause you’ll ruin it. You’ll fuck the frets up, and you’ll go a little too deep.
You’ll think you have to go a little deeper, then all of the sudden you have no fucking neck left. You gotta do it right. Plus, the scallop is great for bending. And the funny thing is, here’s the ironic thing, I was a huge fan of Ritchie Blackmore when I was a kid and I had no fucking idea that he was scalloping his necks.
Hugh: I was going to ask, as far as you knew, were you the first and-or only person to do this?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I didn’t know, you know why? There was no Internet. There were no guitar magazines. There was no information anywhere. You were lucky if you saw a picture of maybe the band in some sort of teeny bop magazine. That was it. There was no video, you couldn’t buy videos. I mean, we’re talking thirty years ago.
Yngwie Malmsteen: I didn’t know.
Hugh: You just experimented?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah. I used to do shit like that all the time. I would refret guitars. I drew them up with different tremolos, all sorts of shit.
Hugh: Did you have to alter the way you played? I mean to not plat out of tune?
Yngwie Malmsteen: No. Well, what happened was I started kinda shallow and it got deeper and deeper and deeper as the years went by. In fact, this one here is a Fender factory scalloped neck, and it’s not as deep as on some of my other guitars. With some of my other guitars the necks are way deeper and the frets are big too.
Hugh: How did you make the initial connection with Shrapnel Records to get your demo to them?
Yngwie Malmsteen: The only good magazine I really could buy, actually, was Guitar Player, and I would buy it as much as I could. Sometimes I didn’t even know how it was on the cover, but it was a guitar magazine, so I bought it. Although I must say, those magazines back then, they didn’t have diagrams of what the guitar player played through and shit like that.
Anyway, I picked one up one day and saw they had a “Spotlight” column. So I said, “Fuck it!” I’ve tried everything here. I’ll try sending a tape off to the magazine for them to check out. I didn’t expect anything, but, two or three weeks later my phone is ringing off the fucking hook. I got phone calls like at all times of the day, cause they didn’t know Sweden was nine hours different. [Laughs]. I was like, “What the fuck?”
So I got calls from everybody. Kiss called, I got calls from all kinds of people. Another guy that called was Mike Varney. He did the Spotlight column in Guitar Player and he was starting a little label by himself called Shrapnel Records, very small-time at the time. He basically called me up and said, “Dude, pack your shit and come on over, man!” It was weird. I had a life, I had a band, I had a girlfriend, I had a cat I had an apartment, I had family and a studio. I said, “Ok. Fuck it. I’m in.” Like a viking you know, I’ll end up in Valhalla, you know? [Raises his fist in the air and screams a Viking battle cry.]
Hugh: You have over fifteen studio albums and many best-of compilations and numerous live albums, not to mention many guest credits with other artists. How do you keep from burning out after all these years?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I’m not really sure where to take that. I think that I’m not the kind of guy that likes to rest on my laurels. In other words, whatever I’ve done in the past that was then, this is now. That means that every day is a new day and time to fucking rock. That’s just my personality, that’s who I am. The other thing is that it never gets boring to me, you know. I mean it’s not like, “Aw ffff…”
Yngwie Malmsteen: No, it’s always something new. It always feels fresh. Sometimes I would pick up the bass and I would write songs on the bass. I play the bass on all my albums. I think it’s a combination of me being very fucking stubborn and it never becoming stale because it’s new, it’s improvised everything I do.
Hugh: You note Paganini as your idol, and call him a “rock ‘n’ roller – very wild and very extreme”. What did you mean by that since he came from a time when rock ‘n’ roll didn’t exist?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Well, I didn’t mean musically you know. I meant partying hard with the ladies that sort of thing.
Hugh: The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle you mean.
Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah. He did do that. He was a very controversial person. He was in a pact with the devil, they thought. He was in prison for murder. He had sex with Napoleon’s sister. He was a completely fucking crazy guy, he was a showman. He would do things with the violin that no one else did before.
He would tune it up like this, and then cut the strings a bit. The strings would go “ptt”. It would cut his face. Then he’d break two more strings. With only one left, he’d go, “Whoo,” and play with it that way. He would play up that stuff and he would play up his demonic appearance because he looked like a fucking freak. Talk about deformed, you know. I have a library on this guy, so I know everything about him. He wasn’t like J. S. Bach who was a very quiet guy and never caused trouble.
Hugh: Do you feel vindicated somehow for staying the course while many of your peers folded up shop?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, the biggest test was when I grew up in Sweden because there was no light at the end of the fucking tunnel there. None, and by that, I mean fucking nothing.
Hugh: Unless you followed in Abba’s footsteps?
Yngwie Malmsteen: No, nothing! They wouldn’t even give me the time of day there. I actually got as far as recording for CBS records. They brought me into the biggest studio. They had a producer and everything and I recorded three songs for them. I was so fucking over the moon.
This is before I left for the States and I thought, you know, “Well maybe, finally something”. Because you have to remember something, then, if you got a record deal, dude, that was it! Nowadays, you get a record deal it’s like fucking “Big deal.” Back then it was serious stuff. What happened was that they came back and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
I was like, “What? What do you mean?” They said, “Well, we don’t think we can sell this,” and I freaked out. Then when I came to America and started making it, guess who called up my fucking management asking if they could release it? CBS from Sweden wanted to release those recordings. I think you know where I told them to shove it?
Hugh: Up their ass?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Exactly. Those are the tests, because once I got to America, it was smooth sailing. I mean people just fucking loved me right away. I was like, “Wow”. I couldn’t believe it! I mean, they didn’t love me, but I was accepted straight away as like the innovator. It’s like in Sweden they’d say, “Yngwie, no, you’re doing it wrong!” What the fuck? [Laughs.] Yeah, being in Sweden those were the dark years, and yes, I’m very pleased that I didn’t change.
Hugh: Why didn’t you ever use a “Super Strat” like your contemporaries were using in the ’80s? You know, the Jacksons, Charvels, the Kramers.
Yngwie Malmsteen: I’m a very purist person. I’m into original things, and this is the original of this. [Points to his Fender Stratocaster.] I have to wear a Rolex watch, for instance. I have to drive a Ferrari not something else. It has to be that way. Anything but a Marshall, please don’t even fucking bother me. It ain’t gonna happen. Every guitar company, every amp company in the world has approached me and they still are approaching me, but long before Fender gave me this guitar, I said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
I have made changes to it, but not fundamentally, you know. The whole idea of having this one-piece maple neck bolted onto the body that has cut-aways like this was fucking space age in 1953. There was nothing like this, and it wasn’t just the fucking crazy shape they threw together, no, it was logical. [Points to the Strat’s upper and lower horns.] Why is this one longer than this one? For balance. Why are these tuning keys like that? So they will not come off the nut sideways, but just straight. Why are they not down here? [Points to the bottom of the headstock.] It’s much easier to tune from here. No one ever did that before. This whole thing here, the tremolo unit with the counter point here, didn’t exist. The whole concept was better.
It’s like a piece of art to me. The only two things that I felt I had to do something with were the pickups, not the tone. Not to put the double coils beside each other like a humbucker, but on top of each other. It’s a huge difference. The magnetic window changes when you do that, it’s not a Stratocaster anymore. To me, the tonalities of a Stratocaster have way more meaning. It has more to take from and gives you more back than any other guitar. Then the scalloped thing was just something I started doing and kept on doing.
Hugh: That was part of Leo Fender’s ingenious design, that you could change it, you could easily modify it.
Yngwie Malmsteen: You could stick any pickup in it with out breaking the fucking guitar. I change necks on mine all the time.
Hugh: You can customize it and personalize it to your tastes.
Yngwie Malmsteen: Exactly! No, I don’t think even he realized his genius when he did this. In fact Fender, listen to this, Fender came to my house about a month-and-a-half-ago, no, more like three months ago, and Mike Eldred and John Cruz they are Master Builders with the Fender Custom Shop. My guitar is called “The Duck”. It looks like someone dragged it behind a truck for two miles. The thing is beat. They measured, taped, and will DVD the whole thing. They’re going to make a hundred guitars exactly like it. Same scratches, same rust, same fucking cigarette burns. The same exact guitar, they’re going to make a hundred. That’s totally a fucking honor, man. The only two other guys they’ve done that for are dead now.
Hugh: Stevie Ray and who else?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Rory Gallagher. I mean, what can I say? God bless them. They’ve been so good to me. I’m so honored. I mean it’s become such an incredible honor. It’s crazy! Sometimes I have to say, “What the fuck, man?” I came here because I wanted to have a hamburger and not work, just play guitar. That’s all I wanted to do. I gave up my whole life in Sweden, sacrificed everything cause everyone was on my case, saying, “You have to join the army,” “You have to get a job,” “You ain’t making any money.” I’d say, “But I’m a musician.” I mean, my goals, my visions were nothing like this, let me tell you. I mean showing you my pictures of my fucking Rolls Royce and Ferrari, you know what I mean? That has nothing to do with it really because money is secondary, by a long shot.
What I’m saying is that I’m sitting here twenty-five years later talking to you guys. I hear some other rock guys sitting around complaining and moaning and I say, “Oh well,” you know? I ain’t moaning. I’m the happiest fucking guy in the world, man. This is good stuff. [Laughs.]
Hugh: While most Strat players prefer the ’50s Strats you prefer the late ’60s and early ’70s Strats. Why?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I have ’em. I have all of them. I have one of the first ten Strats ever made. “3/54″ it says in pencil underneath there. [Points to the heel of his Strat’s neck.] March ’54, first month, first year.
Hugh: Do you prefer the ’70s models?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I’ll tell you why I prefer these. For many years, I used to play these. Then for years I switched to the early ’60s, late ’50s. I have them, but then I start looking at them and seeing pictures. I started looking at weird things like that, and I realized that the big headstock looks a lot better. It looks better, but I know most of the time, people say, “Oh, big headstock” Bullshit. Listen to me, ’68 to ’72, to me, those years are the best guitars, but you have to find the right one and you cannot find them anymore.
Then I realized that the resonance from the big headstock is better too. That’s why I’ve always said, “Floyd Rose? What the fuck are you doing, man? I mean, what are you doing?” You’re cutting off this resonance and you’re cutting off this resonance. Then what do you have left? Nothing!
What do you have to do, you say? Well, maybe you have to get hotter pickups. But what happens when you get hotter pickups? You give a dirty signal. What does that mean? It means you’re trying to shine a turd! When you start with a rotten signal to begin with, you distort the wrong end. You’re supposed to distort the other end. Not this end. This end is supposed to be clean. The louder it is acoustically, the better it is. Believe it or not, the body has nothing to do with the resonance, it’s the headstock. The more wood on the headstock, the more it resonates. There are a lot of reasons I like this one.
Hugh: If I may quote you, you state: “I don’t think anyone can actually teach someone how to play guitar. The desire should come from inside.” Also: “Once you get past the basics needed to play guitar, the rest is up to you.” Can you tell me what you mean by that?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Well that’s cutting it a little clean. See, I never had lessons and the way I look at it, the electric guitar, per se, is still such a new instrument. It’s still not very old, the way we’re playing it, not the instrument itself. Whereas, you have classical violin that is very fucking set. You hold the violin like this and you move the bow like this and that’s it. That’s the end of that. You don’t experiment with that. It’s the same with piano and some other instruments like that.
This is still a developing instrument. There’s no wrong or right way of doing it. However, what I think is the most important thing to learn about any instrument is the basics of music. Learn your ABCs before you write a Hemingway novel. Don’t skip any of that stuff. You learn your modes, your scales, your relative keys, and you know all that shit. That stuff is key. You have to know that, and it’s not boring, it’s cool. The more you learn it the more you go, “Ohhhh that makes sense.” I think that’s a very good thing to be taught. I wasn’t taught that either.
Hugh: You’re completely self-taught?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, I figured that out myself, from listening. I would’ve learned a lot quicker if I had someone to show me that shit, but I don’t think you can be taught to be creative. It’s like a computer. The computer will give you what you put in it, you know, or make an equation or something. I think you can get pointers, but I don’t think you can learn to be a complete musician. That has to come from within, and it entails a lot of sacrifice.
Hugh: You also once said that you get bored at home or at rehearsal. You come alive more in front of an audience.
Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, I do. To me, the audience can be one person. I’m so critical of myself that it’s really hard for me to like get high on my own shit. I sometimes manage to do it, but most of the time not. So if I have somebody in the room that I’m sure they’ll dig this. I like that. But it could be one person or it could be a hundred thousand.
Hugh: On that note, I’d like to end with a quote from your website. “When I play a song at rehearsals I often get bored with it, but as soon as I get in front of an audience I’ll get excited and everything comes alive. I’m not just playing for myself. I live for my audience – they’re everything. It’s the best feeling imaginable to go on stage and have the crowd love you. As long as there’s an audience, I’ll never lose the desire to play.”
Yngwie Malmsteen: I couldn’t have said it better myself! [Laughs.]