Interview: Yngwie Malmsteen on "Spellbound"
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.
I imagine the members of your relentlessshred.com site are more influenced by the neoclassical genre than the blues. Has the playing of any of the members knocked you out?
Not so far. The thing with this site is that I’m not trying to make people play like me. If you spend that much time to achieve that level of technical ability, that’s a sign of dedication right there. But I believe in individuality, too. You can make something so close, and it’s great and everything, but there’s already one like it.
It seems that what separates you from your countless clones, even the really famous ones, is that while you grew up listening to classical music those guys mainly came about classical music secondhand through you.
That’s a very good observation, my friend. I think so, too. When I was 11 or 12, I was into Deep Purple and the blues. I broke away from that and got into things like harmonic minor, Phrygian, diminished, counterpoint, pedal tones, and arpeggios. It’s like when a blues player naturally improvises the blues, I do the same thing but in a neoclassical way. Bach, Vivaldi, and Paganini became my influences and have been for such a long time now that I don’t even have to think about it.
Do you ever check out modern composers like Arnold Schoenberg?
No, I’m very purist in my tastes. Anything that is atonal or dissonant, I don’t dig it. To quote Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Melody is music, music is melody.” Whether the melody is played at 220 bpms or it’s sad like a requiem, if it doesn’t have a melody, then it’s not appealing to me.
Let’s talk gear now. I know you have your signature Marshall YJM amps but have you checked out any of the new modeling devices like the Axe-Fx?
No. I have a motto in life: Always trade up. If you have the best, don’t go downwards.
I’m guessing you used your signature Strat on the album?
Yeah, except I used a ’59 Strat for some of the Brian May-like layering type things here and there. I had the pickups re-wired so they’re out of phase. I also played a Les Paul on the rhythm track for “Spellbound” but the solos and everything were done on a Malmsteen Stratocaster.
It’s interesting that you used a Les Paul because throughout your career you’ve been known almost exclusively as a single-coil-type player.
Well, it’s a technological thing really. If you look at how a pickup works. It’s a row of magnets that picks up the exact position of the string. Even with the same pickup, if it’s near the bridge it’s going to be bright, if it’s near the neck it’s going to be round. If you have one row of magnets you’ll get a distinct interpretation of the string. If you have two rows of magnets, all of a sudden, you’re picking up a wider part of the string at once. What happens is that it’s smoother and covers up a lot of mistakes but the drawback of that is you don’t get the same distinction and clarity. I could play a 335 and sound like myself but single-coil pickups are my weapon of choice.
Which pickup positions do you prefer for your lead and rhythm playing?
I switch back and forth like a million times in one solo. Most of the 5– and 6-string arpeggios are done on the neck pickup.
Because you are improvising in real time and also mostly playing very fast throughout, how do you plan on pickup switches? Like is it worked out where you’re on the neck for some arpeggios then you flip it to the bridge for bends?
It’s not necessarily that cut and dry. It’s a second nature thing. I’d say all the arpeggios are done with the rhythm pickup but it really all depends on the sound I’m looking for. If it’s a bend, it doesn’t necessarily have to be on the treble pickup. Also if you switch pickups in the middle of a bend, it sounds really cool [makes Bugs Bunny-like noise].
Your guitars now sport the Seymour Duncan YJM Fury pickups. How are they different from the DiMarzios you used to use?
In Sweden, where I grew up, the electricity there is a little different. Like 50-cycle or something. The hum wasn’t that bad, but when I came to America it was horrendous. I was using a DiMarzio pickup called the FS-1, which is really hot. I went to DiMarzio and said, “I have an idea. Why don't you put the two pickups on top of each other instead of side-by-side, you’ll get hum cancelling but the same magnetic window.” They made the HS-1 and it was too thin, didn’t have any harmonics. They made two others and I kept the HS-3, but I said, “Listen, this doesn’t have any power.” They said, “Oh no, that’s what you get. What you have is half the pickup because the other half is only for the hum cancelling.” I lived with that for like 25 years. One day Seymour Duncan approached me and, at first, I was skeptical. But let me tell you something, these guys are literally geniuses. We did 21 prototypes. They would send it to me and I would put it in a guitar and listen to it and talk to them on the phone. I tell you right now, and anybody reading this who knows anything about me knows that I don’t promote anything unless it’s [expletive] amazing. I took all the pickguards from all my guitars—literally hundreds of them—and put them in one thing and use it as a boat anchor now.
You could have made a fortune selling them on eBay.
Listen to me. If you play a Strat, buy these pickups and you’ll go to heaven. It’s got every harmonic response you can dream of. It’s got beef but it’s not muddy, and it’s dead quiet.
Malmsteen's boat of signature Strats
Yngwie Malmsteen’s Gear
Fender Yngwie Malmsteen signature Strats with Seymour Duncan YJM Fury pickups and Seymour Duncan 250K YJM pots, nylon-string Ovation Viper
Marshall YJM100 head, Marshall cabinets loaded with Celestion 75-watt speakers
Boss NS-2, Boss CE-5, Roland Analog Echo, Cry Baby Wah, Moog Taurus bass pedals, DOD Yngwie Malmsteen YJM308 Preamp Overdrive, RJM MasterMind MIDI Foot Controller, Fuzz Face
Strings and Picks
Fender .008–.048 strings, Dunlop 1.5 mm picks
Check the following clips to see and hear why they call Yngwie Malmsteen the king of shred.
Yngwie leads into his signature hit, "Black Star," with an unaccompanied acoustic intro.
Yngwie performs "Icarus Dream Fanfare" with the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. At 0:13, Yngwie’s gesture non-verbally indicates that that the fury will soon be unleashed.
For those that think Yngwie is all speed and no soul, this rendition of "Purple Haze," which features the Swede singing and incorporating some bluesy Hendrix-esque phrases, should erase all doubt.