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When we caught up with guitar legend Yngwie J. Malmsteen, he was cruising the streets of Miami in one of his many Ferraris, bright and early at 9:30 a.m. The super-sonic Swede is always on 11 and his latest album, Spellbound, is a testament to his relentlessness. It was in its embryonic stage last June, but by early December it was completed and released. The album wasn’t even officially planned but came about because Yngwie got inspired, and rather than wait for band members to join the process, decided to record all the parts—including vocals and drums—himself.
“I have a full-on studio. It’s not just a little Pro Tools room; it’s the real deal with a 64-fader board and the whole nine yards,” says Yngwie. “I have the luxury that when I’m inspired—and that can happen anytime—I just go up there and record. What I used to do in the past was just record anything that I came up with on the spur of the moment but then afterwards I’d have to rehearse it with a band to record the song. On this one, every time I recorded, I kept it and that’s what ended up on the record. That way, it’s really fresh.”
In addition to his new release, Yngwie has an autobiography—six years in the making—coming out this spring that he describes as a window to his soul. He also has a new instructional website called relentlessshred.com, which lets you learn directly from the master. As his official website says, “Tired of watching nobodies, trying to teach you how to play Yngwie's songs? Now, why would you take lessons from a random, when you can learn from Yngwie himself?”
Yngwie gives us the scoop on the new album, talks about the blues, and reveals how his “heavenly” new pickups came about.
What prompted the decision to play all of the instruments on Spellbound?
There was no reason why it happened this way. It just happened. I got inspired, started recording stuff, and all of a sudden it was done.
Was the process much different on earlier releases?
It used to be like a cycle. You’d go into the studio and go through the process of writing, then rehearsing, then drums, then bass. Then when you’re done you mix it, rehearse, and then you go on tour for a year, and then you go back in and do the same thing again. Now it’s different. Even if I go some place like Russia for a gig or two, I keep putting stuff down as I get inspired. And when I hear like 15, 20, or 30— maybe in this case more like 100—things I start thinking, “Wow, I have some really good shit here. I should seriously put this together as a record.” Most of the stuff that you hear on the record is the first time I played it.
Wow. Is the album mostly first takes?
Yeah. I’m not the kind of person that likes to sit and do re-takes. Either it's good and you keep it or you don’t do it at all. In the studio, especially a rented studio, the spontaneity was always stifled. You sit there and think, “I better not make a [expletive] mistake.” I hated that. Having your own studio is great because you only play when you’re inspired.
It may come across as a surprise to some that you also played the drum tracks on the album.
When I was a kid, I played drums, and when I first got a 4-track, I would put down drumbeats and then do the rest of the tracks on top. For this album, it was live triggered drums. It was quantized a little bit to make sure it was perfect.
Are the string parts on tracks like “Electric Duet” and “Majestic 12 Suite 1, 2, & 3” improvised?
Yes and no. I had the basis of the chord structure—Am, Esus, E, G# diminished—but when I put the cellos and stuff on, I improvised the parts. Improvisation is the genesis of composition, so when you improvise something, you’re kind of composing it. What happened was that when I was a little kid, I started getting into Bach, Vivaldi, and Paganini, and it became hardwired into my brain to think in a baroque-counterpoint way.
As you improvise the parts, are you following strict rules of counterpoint like avoiding parallel 5ths or octaves?
I’m not that gestapo about it. All this is hardwired into my brain. Like if I’m running around onstage like a lunatic, I still won’t play a wrong note in the scale that I’m in. It won’t happen. If I’m in A harmonic minor, then I won’t play a G or an F#. I just won’t play those notes. Same thing if I improvise a counterpoint. But I’m not saying that I never make mistakes. I think it’s actually happened once in my entire life [laughs].
”Spellbound,” the title track, seems more direct and less epic than some of the other selections. How do you decide when to really go all out or when to keep things simpler?
Some of the tracks were really demanding to put together but they’re mind-blowing when I listen back. “Spellbound” has a lot of guitar playing on it, obviously, but I wanted to keep it with a more straightforward beat. It doesn’t have so many stops and things like that. Whereas if you listen to “Majestic 12,” that’s like a little symphony.
“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” and “Iron Blues” showcase your bluesy side. Did you include these to appease the naysayers?
[Laughs.] I wish I could say “yes.” I’m very selfish. I make music that I love because I only live once and I’m an artist. I don’t try to revolt against anybody and I don’t try to please anybody. I feel very strongly that I if love it someone else will love it—not everybody though. To quote Niccolò Paganini, “One must feel strongly to make others feel strongly.”
Your blues playing sounds great.
But you don’t seem like a guy who’d enjoy listening to the blues.
Well, no. I always include one in my shows but I wouldn't want to play more than one blues song either. A lot of people don’t know this but I started out as a blues-based player and then when I realized after playing 18 hours a day that there’s more than five notes per scale, that’s when my stuff became what it was. I started listening to violinists and flautists and that’s how my style evolved. It’s such a funny thing that people think that I got the classical influence from Ritchie Blackmore. If you listen to him, he plays nothing but the blues. But I think the blues is important and you need to have that in you no matter what else you like to do. It’s like a basic function that’s necessary.