Yngwie Malmsteen's 6 tips for guitarists
Yngwie Malmsteen is talking to MusicRadar on speakerphone while driving around Miami Beach in one of his five Ferraris.
His car top is down, he’s wearing no shirt and his baseball cap backwards - it’s just another glorious day in the city he has called home for over two decades. But the guitar hero is also gearing up for his long-awaited UK return, taking place at London’s Kentish Town Forum on August 2, and promises it will be a night to remember…
“I’m absolutely looking forward to it,” he enthuses. “I’ve done a lot of gigging over the last few years all around the world, everywhere from South East Asia and India, you name it. The last time I played London was for the Marshall 50th anniversary gig a few years ago… it will be my show this time so I’m going to pull out all the stops!”
If you’re hoping to hear vintage Strats fed into roaring Marshall stacks, you won't be disappointed. The guitar legend found the formula to his sound many moons ago and it's one unlikely to ever change - though he notes the pickups in his legendary axes have been switched over since his last UK visit...
“I’ve used Fender Strats with Marshalls since forever,” he laughs, “though since I last played London, I’ve switched to my YJM Seymour Duncan pickups and I also have a Fender YJM overdrive pedal, which is fairly new. It’s all based on what I’ve loved before, nothing is new new. When it comes to guitar gear, I’m pretty set in my ways...
“I’ve been playing for aeons now, but way, way back I remember Eddie Van Halen came out and I loved his playing, he was amazing. But then everyone started copying his guitars with Floyds, and I didn’t.
“I also felt that single-coils have this magnetic window that’s more direct and precise. It reminds me of a Paganini/Vivaldi violin sort of sound, you know? It starts pure and ends pure. It gives your hands much more of a factor in the sound - how you pitch the notes, bend them and so on.
“It’s more of a personal thing. If you suck, you’re gonna suck real bad and if you play well, it’s going to sound really good. Using double coil pickups kills a lot of the guitar tone - you lose the acoustic mechanics. With my single-coils driven through the Marshalls and overdrive, it sounds massive.”
Here the neoclassical master gives us six tips for musical elevation…
1. Learn from the best
“Just like you, I had heroes as a kid. I got the first Deep Purple album and started figuring out how to do the whole Ritchie Blackmore thing.
“To be honest, I got pretty damn close haha! And then I soon realised he already exists, so I really should do something that sounds like me.
“It’s a really good thing to emulate someone in order to learn your trade - I actually think it’s very important. But eventually, you might want to go somewhere else with it and that’s up to each and every individual.”
2. Knowledge is power
“You’re going to laugh at this… I only play with my ears. I don’t think about technique or scales or anything. I just think about what I sound like.
“I grew up in a very musical family and I knew how important it was to know all the theory. You might think it’s boring, but you have to learn the relationships between all the scales, keys and notes in order to know what you can and can’t do.
“Not only does that help you play whatever you hear in your head, but you can start throwing yourself off the cliff without worrying about playing the wrong note. You know exactly what notes belong in the scale you’re looking for and which ones don’t. You can improvise as it happens.
“That’s how I taught my son, Antonio Malmsteen, and he’s amazing! I told him from day one: ‘You can learn this riff and this lick, all of it, but they are only building blocks. It’s about how you put those blocks together and create a building that doesn’t fall down.’
“It might sound boring, but it’s very important. I took piano lessons as a kid, so I knew theory before I even picked up a guitar. My older brother and sister would talk about F#’s sounding good in a certain key on the kitchen table… it was a common way of talking. In rock’n’roll, that seems to be missing a lot. People aren’t spending enough time on all of this.
“Say Phrygian and Diminished - they’re all connected. A Harmonic Minor is also E Phrygian Dominant , but you could play diminished from F# (every three frets) and you’ll bring that flavour. It all becomes hard-wired and you soon stop thinking about it.”
3. Open every door
“When you play blues, you go into a certain mode, you know? The groundwork isn’t actually that hard, it’s all mathematical theory.
“You have the key to this door and when you open it, there’s a hallway with 100 other doors. Behind those doors are more doors and it keeps going on. But you need the key to open that first door: once you have that, you don’t need to worry anymore.
“That’s how you become an amazing improviser and I feel that improvisation is one of the most important things to be a musician. All the great composers were great improvisers - they wrote it all down because they had to! That all comes down to knowing the theory. It’s how you stay in the right place and never head anywhere you’re not supposed to be.”
4. Express yourself clearly
“When I first came on the scene, way back when, people always used to say two things. ‘Hey man, I can’t believe you have no distortion on your guitar!’
“And I had more gain on my shit than you could imagine, insane levels of it. I just made sure each note is clearly expressed, you do one and then you move onto the next. Don’t let them bleed into each other.
“The other thing people used to say is, ‘You pick every note!’ I don’t pick every note - if I did that, with the amount of gain I use, it would sound crazy. But it’s not all legato either… there’s no real system to it. I could pick every note if I wanted to, and sometimes do, if it’s the sound I’m looking for…
“My solos sound like mini compositions. Some guitar players do repetitive things really fast and I always felt that there should be a melody behind it, even if it’s fast. People also used to say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe how you wrote that solo!’ And I didn’t write that solo… It was never written. Roll the tape and off I go, it’s completely improvised, even on the records. If there’s a catchy phrase, sure I will use it live, but more often than not, I play something a bit different.”
5. Listen to other instruments
“I think since the late '50s, guitar players spend all their time in the bedroom listening to other guitar players.
“It went from Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry to Hank Marvin to Jimi Hendrix to Pete Townshend to Eddie Van Halen and so on… they were all fucking amazing. I love them but they all had that in common with the exception of one: Allan Holdsworth, who took his lines from saxophones.
“I became infatuated with the classical violin, that ended up being my inspiration. It’s a strange thing to say, because I’ve been on the road with Steve Vai and all those guys a few times. We’ve spent a lot of time together and I’ve really gotten to know how they think… and they all have that in common - they love other guitar players.
“I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m just saying it’s something I see more often than not. You may run the risk of having slightly less identity, but I wouldn’t want to knock anyone for that. I understand how it feels, when I was a kid I wanted to be like Blackmore because he was cool, but it’s important for me to feel like I’m doing my own thing.”
6. Study the classical masters
“Here are some pieces that are good to, maybe not learn, but certainly draw inspiration from. For instance, Nicola Paganini's 24 Caprices - and the ones in particular are 5, 16 and 24. Seriously, when you hear 5, you will think, ‘Oh fuck, Yngwie really ripped this shit off!’
“I used to listen to it thinking is there any way I can get near it? Of course it was practically impossible, but listening to violin concertos, anything by Vivaldi and Sebastian Bach was, and still is, mind-blowing for me. The composition is overwhelming. If I could bring any musician back from the dead, it would be him.
“I would say, ‘Let’s improvise on Toccata And Fugue In D Minor and probably just stand there with my jaw down. To me, that would be like seeing god. The real thing. It couldn’t get any more amazing than that. Any piece of his I listen to makes me feel miniscule… it’s so humbling.”