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NewYngwiePic1Since Yngwie J Malmsteen’s first studio album Rising Force in 1984, the Swedish mega-musician has been considered one of the world’s greatest guitar players. Known for his slick and precise, neoclassical guitar playing style, Yngwie is heavily influenced by the legendary classical musicians of the past such as Bach, Vivaldi and Paganini. Perhaps due to Yngwie’s much-derided music genre or even the size of his ego (self-assuredness to his fans), he’s a player who often polarises the music community. For example, he appeared in Time magazine’s list of the top ten electric guitarists of all time but bizarrely failed to make Rolling Stone magazine’s top 100. Malmsteen was last in Australia in 2013 when he presented a series of acclaimed masterclasses. The Nordic shred king is now on his way back to Australia, this time with his band to play shows nationally in June. Yngwie is currently recording a new album at his home studio in Florida and pressed the pause button long enough to phone Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips to talk about his gear, playing style and the upcoming Australian tour.

“It’s going well,” Yngwie says of the new recording.  “You know how in the past you would spend six months on the road and then go on tour for a year. Nowadays, I do some recording, go on tour, do some more recording, it’s on and off you know. It’s impossible to say what the album is going to be like because it’s still taking shape but it will be out this year.”

Malmsteen not only seems to have a need to play lightning fast guitar licks, but a hankering for speed and excess in all forms of life. He now owns five Ferrari sports cars, has an obsession with Rolex watches and if you’ve seen his stage show live or on DVD, you’ll know he has a bigger stack of Marshall amps than anyone currently gracing a stage.
“More is more!” he claims. “If you’re really into something … it’s hard to describe … it’s enthusiasm. As far as the Marshalls go, that’s become more and more and more, I just love that. It’s 44 heads now and 26 cabinets.”

Yngwie has always been a Marshall kind of guy, even as far back as a ten year old kid. In his early playing days, he knew how valuable the old Marshall Plexis were and bought them up over the years, claiming he had more Marshall amps than anyone else in Sweden. He suggests the attraction to the Plexis in particular, related to how nicely they distorted and how they moved air. “The old ones you had to play them all the way up, full up to get that sound. It was extremely loud,” he tells me.

The guitar guru had settled on a gear combination he was comfortable with many years ago and hasn’t altered it much at all apart from the introduction of his signature Seymour Duncan YJM Fury stacked pickups.  In conjunction with Seymour, Yngwie designed the pickups and installed them into his Strats to replace the “weak voicing” of the original single coil pickups he was using. The only other aspect of his current stage sound he can be unhappy with, is that which he can’t control.
“I think the equipment is all amazing,” he explains. “It’s just that it does happen that you come into a room where the power is a little bit iffy. The wireless can get some disturbance and stuff like that I don’t like, but it happens very seldom nowadays because of the fact that I am using the AKGs. They’re the top of the line wireless, they’re extremely good. In the past I used different brands but they weren’t as good. So apart from interference with the signal, no nothing else.”

Another small component which helps to create his unique tone and one that often gets overlooked is the humble guitar pick. Yngwie learned very early in his career that while it was more difficult to play with a rigid pick, he knew that it was essential to do so if he was to develop as a player. “To play at that level, you have to play with a pick that has no flex in it,” he says. “For many years I used extra heavy. It was 1.21 mm. Now I use … I guess they’re extra, extra heavy 1.5 mm. If you go any higher than that it would just change the tone, so 1.5mm is perfect. I’m not exactly sure what they’re made of, nylon I think.”

It’s no secret that Malmsteen is a huge fan of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (Johan is Yngwie’s middle name), as are many other high profile international musicians. Paul McCartney recently revealed that he and George Harrison would often meddle with Bach licks to create Beatles songs and admitted that the intro to ‘Blackbird’ was merely a reworking of a Bach phrase. “No matter what I have done, every time I listen to Bach, it is extremely humbling,” says Yngwie in answer to my question about the attraction of Bach’s music. “He is unbelievable. The counterpoints, the melodies. Vivaldi as well and some Mozart parts too.”

Malmsteen’s playing style, dubbed neoclassical, is unique. When Yngwie arrived on the scene in the 80s, he was not only responsible for inspiring a lot of young kids to take up the guitar but also led to a myriad of other guitar players trying to imitate the Swede’s technique. I asked Yngwie if the relationship of what his left and right hands do on the guitar was derived more from studying classical violin players and pianists than modern day guitarists.
“Yes and no,” he says. “Always my first criteria when I play the guitar, and from the very beginning, was always what it sounded like. I didn’t concern myself so much with what the picking hand did or what the left hand did. More, the left hand is counter-voicing and just creates notes. The first time I went to Japan, it was 1983 and they are very, very analytical there. God bless them. They started asking all of these questions about picking and this and that and whatever. I said to them, man I don’t really know! I don’t even know what I am doing because I don’t think about it. They started saying it looks to me like you’re doing circular alternate picking … and I said, well maybe I am. The point being … it’s what it sounds like. If it sounds good to me, then I’m happy. I believe strongly that the combination of legato and staccato, which is picking … it’s the combination of that which creates the best notes because if you want to pick everything, the distortion doesn’t sound very good.”

Yngwie had just taken a break from recording some bass parts on his new album when he called. He plays bass on all of his records. His disdain for the use of generic pentatonic scales, the building blocks of the majority of blues based rock music is well documented. I wondered if his approach to bass playing was also uncommon.
“I actually consider the bass an important part of the arrangement,” he explains. “The note doesn’t have to be the root note at all times. For instance, for a B major chord, you can play an F sharp and so on. It’s what’s called inverted chords. It’s funny that we should talk about this because I just did some bass overdubs now, I play bass on my records. I like the bass to be very solid and keep it kind of out of the way of the guitar but at the same time, it has to be more than just a low end frequency.  I think more in terms of the cello in terms of choices of bass notes.”

After such a long,  illustrious and action-packed career, Yngwie was recently humbled by his induction into the Swedish Music Hall of Fame. The honour meant a great deal to him.
“It was a great honour of course, especially as I was laughed at in my country growing up,” he says.  “You have to understand something … that in the late 70s, early 80s in Sweden, nobody was a musician. I think there were five professional musicians in the entire country and they played on all the ABBA records and they played the night talk shows and they played the jingles but nobody became a real, professional musician. That was number one and number two, if you did, you had to go to the conservatory and you had to do this, that and whatever. I did things my own way so to speak. I’ve just released my book, Relentless and that explains all of that stuff.”

Yngwie is excited to be returning to Australia and has fond memories of his 2013 masterclass tour. “The people are nice, nice audiences, nice food, nice weather, nice values, everything is good,” he says. As we wrapped up and his thoughts began to return to his recording, I asked the virtuoso musician one final question … What does playing guitar mean to you?
“Well,” he pauses to think. “I like to keep it a challenge at all times, so I don’t like to play the same thing twice. In saying that, I don’t mean I am going to start playing atonal jazz, that’s not what I mean by that. What I mean by that is, you mentioned Bach before, he lived 65 years. The thing is that …  once you find yourself musically, once you find yourself as a creator, a stylist, whatever, then there’s no need to change it. But it has to be done with excitement. Every time I go on stage, I’m not going to play the same thing. Every time I  go into the studio I am not going to play the same thing. Every time I pick up the guitar watching TV, I never play the same thing. It’s never the same. Never! To me, that is what keeps it exciting. If I played the trumpet, I would do the same thing. I think a lot of times, people also tend to think the guitar is a different instrument. It isn’t. It is a musical instrument just like any other, it’s just a lot cooler! A lot more desirable I guess. But it needs to be looked at as an instrument that creates music and notes and not just a pentatonic blues box that’s been handed down since 1950. I think it’s important to think like that but then again, I am not knocking anybody or anything. I am just saying for me, it has to be exciting. It has to be challenging and has to be risky. That’s why I take risks. If I throw myself over the cliff, it might work, it might not!”

Thursday 4th June – Powerstation, Auckland, NZ

Saturday 6th June – The Astor, Perth

Monday 8th June – Wrestpoint Showroom, Hobart

Wednesday 10th June – 170 Russell, Melbourne

Thursday 11th June – The Tivoli, Brisbane

Friday 12th June – HQ, Adelaide

Saturday 13th June – The Factory, Sydney


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