Latest Release: Spellbound (Rising Force)
Guitar virtuosos are not unique, but those who can write and perform their own concertos and also make regular appearances at the top of guitarist polls for over three decades are extremely rare indeed. Yngwie Malmsteen is one such rarity and may well be guilty of over the top theatrics as well as nearly endless improvisational explorations but his command of the instrument together with his great sense of melody is unquestionable to anyone with a musical ear. His last trip to Australia in full band mode, as opposed to guitar clinics, was over several years ago. Returning to Australia in early 2015, the tour promises to yet again fill the venue with as many Marshall speaker cabinets as back line logistics will allow. Loud got a hold of Yngwie, calling from his Miami home, to chat about the upcoming tour, adopting new studio technologies and some career highlights.
Last time you were in Australia performing with a full band was in 2006. You’ve had plenty of albums since so will the set list covering things prove to be a challenge?
Well, it’s a challenge to put a set list together every day, no matter what. But it is a funny thing. I just did a live DVD with material that was recorded two days apart. One was in Tampa, Florida; the other was in Orlando, Florida. It is more or less the same set list but they are completely different shows with my approach and intros used and just about everything. So what I do is have a set list that I give to the guys before the shows but once we hit the stage, I don’t play that set list anyway. So, it is always different. Having said that, it’s got to be what you want and you’ll get what you want, I promise.
The autobiographical book you’ve released [Relentless: the memoir] discussed a lot about the nature of and the pitfalls within the industry. Have you been able to rectify publishing and licensing issues that impacted income streams over the years?
Well, it is important if you’re a song writer and a lot of people aren’t writers. If you’re a writer, the publishing is a big part. I’ve unfortunately had a lot of money siphoned off in different directions. It used to be that back in the day the whole thing was just a big party. It was a case of the more they could keep an artist out of their minds, the more they could make more money for themselves. That is what happened with Hendrix and everybody. That was the picture then but it is all under control now and yeah, it is pretty well explained in the book. You know, even with concert money; managers and accountants would take all the money which was a bad thing.
Bringing it back to the latest albums, I believe that Relentless was the first one on which you started using recording software of Pro-Tools. How did that change your songwriting?
I think that a lot of people use Pro-Tools for various things but for me, I used it as a recorder, just like recording with anything really. What I realised is that you can have, for instance, where you’re writing a theme and you’ll have a bridge, chorus or introduction. Back in the day, you would record it with the drums and then you couldn’t change it as the SMPTE time code was locked to another machine. Let’s say you want to have two more bars of the solo or four more bars of the first verse or you want the bridge to be the intro but back then, you couldn’t do it. So there was a lot of compromising going on. Once I realised that you can actually jumble musical things around, it was a very good revelation for me. It made me feel much more free in the creative process of the music. I used to have make all of these decisions before the song was completed. Before the lyrics were finished and I was putting down the drums to decide exactly how many bars the verse should be which was wrong. That is not the way you should do it.
It seems amazing to think that up to even the mid Nineties, people were splicing bits of tape together. In that light, are you feeling you’ve now embraced technology and you’re going with it?
Yes I do and it took me a while to do it. I’m sitting in my studio looking at my big ass Pro-Tools system here and it is great because it is actually very inspiring. I can love it and I probably only use about half a percent of what you can do with it, you know. I am so old school with the way I do things so basically it is just like I’ve always done it. It is just that if I feel, ‘oh shit, I want to have this part here,’ then that is able to be done. That is where I find the freedom. I’m not auto-tuning or time stretching. I’m not doing shit like that.
Do you think you’ll ever try using amplifier modeling preamplifiers in a live situation?
No, not with me. Right now in my control room I have forty two amplifier heads. It is just a big fucking wall of heads here. It is that thing they’d say that if you go into space, there are only two man made objects you can see from space; the Great Wall of China and my wall of Marshall amplifier stacks. I just a got a text from Nick Bowcott from Marshall that they put up a picture of my live rig on Marshall’s Facebook wall with a question of ‘guess whose rig this is?’ because it is so fucking big. It was well received and I wrote back to say, ‘yeah, the Great wall of Marshalls’. I use silly amounts of Marshalls; it is ridiculous with forty two heads and thirty two cabinets. I am never going to change that.
Going back to the Marching Out album era, you toured with AC/DC. Since they would have had a stack of Marshalls too, did they further impact on your rhythm sound at all since then, at all?
I’ve got to tell you this, even though that tour was almost thirty years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday because those guys were such sweethearts. It was so fucking great and I love them, the band, their music and just everything about those guys. They were so nice to me and treated me so well plus I got to play in front or fifteen to twenty thousand people every night. It was fucking awesome and I will never forget it. I think they are one of the greatest bands that have ever lived. I have nothing but the most amazing things to say about them.
Did their sound bleed into your sound at all from that tour?
Well, yeah but I don’t think really musically, so much. They’re brilliant with showmanship and their sound. Everything that they did was so good. I don’t think that musically it has influenced me but I do think that they are amazing and I admire them. But, I think that they are one of my favourite bands of all time.
Some of the amps in the early Eighties were not up to speed with the sounds that metal bands wanted to make initially. Did you modify your amps in a large capacity?
A lot of the amps I was using were from the Plexis from the sixties and seventies so they were really old. They weren’t distorting very much at all. You had to put an overdrive pedal or something in front of them. But, Marshall actually designed a custom amp for me [YJM-100] and it is an amazing thing. It has the Plexi sound whereas a modern Marshall is very distorted.
Who’s going to be in the band for the upcoming tour here?
I haven’t decided exactly who is going to come with me but I am pretty sure that keyboard player and singer Nick Marino is coming with me. drummer Mark Ellis and the bass player, I am not sure yet, Ralph [Ciavolino] I think. I am not sure as it is a few months out.
What inspires you to keep playing live given you’ve done so many shows?
The fact that I don’t do the same thing and I don’t play it safe. It is a challenge because I don’t discount going for the spur of the moment and hopefully it turns out good. That’s also what makes it exciting for me because if all we do is what we’ve rehearsed then that would make it really boring, you know.
You were here last year for a string of guitar clinics. Do you feel that was a good opportunity to impart your knowledge or did you get a lot of autograph requests?
I always try to explain it as much as I can when I do these clinics. I think that there is so much that you can learn but then the rest is up to you. Clearly like how I taught my son [Antonio] how to play and now he is really, really good. But I don’t want to say, ‘here, learn this and play this,’ as instead I’ll say, ‘this is a scale, here’s how to hold your pick and so on. Now, go with it,’ you know. That is more important because if you just learn pre-moulded things then you’re limited to that whereas if you learn the actual language of the guitar, then you start going somewhere. It is difficult to explain but just because someone does it one way doesn’t mean you’ve got to do it their way because everybody is different.
One of the classic guitar magazines was Guitar for the Practicing Musician which I am sure you’ll remember. You were once quoted as saying ‘What we call music today would be laughed at in the 17th century’ [March 1986 – import only]. Do you still feel that way?
Ah, probably and unfortunately in many instances it is true, yeah. But I am not saying everything is bad. Listen, I think Lady Gaga is really fucking good, you know, she is amazing. But then you have rap, grunge and shit that is kind of rubbish. It is just my opinion and that is all I am saying when I am asked what I think. At the same time, if the painters and architects of the eighteenth century saw the graphics and buildings of today, they would ask, ‘what the hell is this?’ because their stuff was so ornamental and you had to learn the trade so to speak. If you were going to be a composer or a musician, it wasn’t like, ‘yeah, I’m going to do it,’ it was a case of having to learn things first. I don’t say everything is shit, I don’t mean it like that. Back in the day I was a little bit abrasive I would think, in my magazine interviews.
In that context then, do you feel that your concerto [Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E Flat Minor, Op.1] was accepted by the classical community with the respect it deserved?
It was, I know it was. I performed it in Prague, in Japan, in Taiwan and I’ve played it in Germany. Obviously I was being critiqued by those that had to learn it and they were very impressed. They couldn’t believe that I didn’t go to Julliard or anything like that. I am very proud of it. When I did my first recording of it in Prague, I came in there in my leather pants with my long hair and guitar and everything. They were clearly thinking, ‘Oh my God, who the fuck is this guy?’, but when they read the score and started playing and hearing the music, they started applauding with their bows on their music stands. “Not bad, son’, so I did win them over.
A lot of people view classical music as being very strict or regimented but you’ve mentioned before that you’ve really got to be able to improvise in order to compose music.
Yes, absolutely. A lot of people do not get that the great composers were improvisers; say Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi. They were all improvisers and there are cadenzas for instance, in the piece such as violin concerto where they didn’t improvise but they would have to write down something. Improvisation is the genesis of composition and that is very important. You can teach people certain things but other aspects have to come from within. For classical musicians my sister is a good example and she is amazing as you can give her any piece of sheet music and she can play it. But if I say here’s a couple of chords and just play something they’ll ask, ‘what’s the note?’, so then it doesn’t always work. I’m not saying all of them but a lot are like that.
When you did Hear’n’Aid, it was the era of shredding guitar solos. Do you feel that it hampered you being seen as a valid songwriter?
I think that some people cannot see the forest for all of the trees and have a hard time to see qualities of a person because one part might be sticking out more than another. I am a composer and that is what I have always been. But at the same time, when I go on stage, I am like a virtuoso showman. I’m not going to lie about that. So I am both, like Niccolo Paganini was and I do enjoy both. When I am in the studio, I am stretching my mind and imagination but also the solos are improvised compositions by themselves. On stage it is all of that showman thing so I don’t necessarily slag some of the things that I do. I am sure that some people can pick up on that attitude.
Paul is a Sydney-based writer who also contributes to Australian Guitar magazine.
Yngwie Malmsteen tours Australia in June:
6/6: Astor Theatre, Perth WA
8/6: Wrestpoint Casino, Hobart TAS
10/6: 170 Russell St, Melbourne VIC
11/6: Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane QLD
12/6: HQ, Adelaide SA
13/6: Factory Theatre, Sydney NSW