The master of shred dishes deep on his gear, creative process and…love of Letterman.
[Editor’s note: The following interview originally appeared on Guitar.com in a different form.]
By Lisa Sharken
In the early '80s, a young Swedish guitarist named Yngwie Malmsteen arrived on the scene and unleashed a unique neo-classical style on the world. Unlike other players who emerged around the same time, Malmsteen had successfully married the classic rock influences of his favorite artists like Ritchie Blackmore and Jimi Hendrix with the traditional classical music of composers like Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart, and the style of violinist Niccolo Paganini, creating his own genre of guitar playing which instantly distinguished him from other rock musicians, and thrust him to the top of the class.
Malmsteen quickly proved himself to be the unrivaled king of shred guitar, with chops that many considered to be nothing short of astounding. While numerous players were influenced by his style and have since attempted to emulate his scorching riffs, lightning fast speed, and flamboyant showmanship, very few can match his incomparable skills.
On a recent trip to New York City, Malmsteen arranged time to sit down with Guitar.com to speak about his two latest endeavors - a new 18-song studio album called Unleash The Fury [Spitfire Records], and a live DVD, Concerto [Eagle Rock Entertainment], which was filmed during a performance with the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra in Tokyo. Malmsteen recounted the various activities involved in preparing for each project, as well as the aspects that have changed and also those that have remained the same in both his methods for making music and in his preferences among his extensive arsenal of gear. Be it vintage or new, modified or stock, there are very precise requirements for what works and what doesn't in Malmsteen's world. But ultimately, what truly matters most is simply knowing what it takes to get the right sounds and results for each purpose, and being fully committed to his attaining his goals.
Furthermore, Malmsteen gushed over how proud he is to have been honored by Fender with a very special limited edition run of signature model Stratocasters* that are exact reproductions of his famous 1972 blonde Strat, which he affectionately refers to as his "duck" guitar because of the Donald Duck decal he had placed on the tip of the headstock many years ago. This is the instrument that Malmsteen has been most identified with and it's the main guitar he has used throughout his career, both onstage and in the studio. The original Strat had been modified with a deeply scalloped maple fingerboard, fitted with a brass nut, and DiMarzio pickups - all features which Fender has replicated. Malmsteen considers this to be one of the greatest acknowledgments any player could possibly receive because it's not just a signature model, but something that shows the very highest level of praise and admiration - far beyond his wildest dreams!
Guitar.com: Describe the creative process for writing and recording the songs on Unleash The Fury. How were the original ideas conceived and then documented?
Yngwie Malmsteen: The music was conceived pretty much the same way it's always been. I always did things the same way until a few years ago, then I changed things a bit. I always had worked with a keyboard player and a drum programmer, and that was cool. But then I just changed that and started working by myself, in my own recording studio. Ideas usually come to me when I'm just sitting around and watching TV. I always have a guitar and a little Marshall practice amp, and I'll just be sitting there playing while I'm watching TV. When I come up with a cool riff, then I'll run upstairs and I'll record it with the drum machine. That's how it starts, and if it's a really good idea, then I just stay the night and finish it off, or just lay down other parts. That's how it starts. What I do is make "musical notes" and record them onto CD, rather than to completely pre-produce entire songs. Then I'll take my drummer, Patrick Johansson, to my other studio, which has a huge sound stage. I'll show him an idea really quick, and then put down a guitar part for reference with a click track, and then guide him through the drumming. We'll do that for about 20 or 30 songs, and then I'll take those to my home studio and decide which ones I really want to work on. Then those tracks we recorded become the backing tracks we work from to complete the songs. Next, I'll put down all the bass and rhythm guitar parts, which I do myself. Once that's all done, I'll take the songs and show them to a singer. I'll give him the lyrics and show him the melody, then have him sing the songs. That's basically how I did all the music on this album. The last two albums were also put together in pretty much the same way.
What I've done deliberately on both Attack!! and on this album was not to have a preconceived direction and say it has to be like this or like that. I like to just let the music flow and direct me. That's why there's more diversity in the songs on this album, like "The Bogeyman," "Fuguetta," "Paraphrase," and "Cherokee Warrior." It allows me to be more free that way. If I say it has to be this way, then I'm limiting myself. At the same time you always want to be challenged, so you just have to let it happen by itself, and that's what I do.
There's really not a formula for the way the songs are created. Sometimes I'll write lyrics before there's a song, and I'll just write down titles all the time that help to initiate the ideas. But writing the lyrics is a huge part of what I do nowadays. I started doing it that way like five years ago. So it's an evolving process, but there isn't any one formula for the way I work. I just let it happen, and that's really the best way to do it.
Guitar.com: You seem to favor using most of the same gear you've had in your setup for years. Have there been any changes in your preferences or in the gear you used to record this album?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Actually, I've gotten to the point where it's really become ridiculous, and I even use the same guitar cord I've used for years! It's the same amp, the same two guitars, and the same cord I've used for the past four years. Both guitars are 1971 Strats, and they both are cream color with a white pickguard and maple fingerboard. They are both set up the same, with DiMarzio pickups that have the original Fender covers on them so it looks stock. And the scalloping on the fingerboard is all the same on both of them. But even though they were both made the same year, they look exactly the same and pretty much have the same neck shape, they sound completely different. One is very fluid, bubbly and glassy sounding, and that's the one I use for leads. It's my "number one" guitar. But the "number two" guitar has very chunky sound that's really great for rhythm and super fat sounds. I mean, it's ridiculous! All the big riffs you hear on the album were done with that one. So those are what I call the "main" ones, but those were are also the main guitars I played onstage for years, and now I don't take the number one main outside the studio anymore, but I do still take the number two guitar out on the road. It's just that when you put a Shure SM57 mic on a 4x12 cabinet, that guitar has the most nasty sound I've ever heard in my life! It's just so f***ing big! I use that one for those really huge sounds.
I did use other guitars for some of the other tracks. I did the clean sound on "Cherokee Warrior" with a 1956 Strat that has the stock Fender pickups. I also used a '61 Strat that's been rewired so that if you set it where the middle and bridge pickups would normally be on, now it's set up so that the front and bridge pickups are on and out of phase. It gives me a Brian May kind of sound. That one has DiMarzio pickups in it. But depending on where you play on the neck, it can get some very bizarre sounds.
I used a Carvin steel string, an Ovation nylon string, and I used a Stratocaster with nylon strings, which is a one-off guitar that was custom-built for me. The bridge has piezo saddles and it has nylon strings, and there's a 1960 neck on it with a scalloped fingerboard. It's f***ing ridiculous! I also used an old speckled green sitar which I had changed the pickups on. I put an [DiMarzio] HS-3 in it, and I scalloped the fingerboard on it, too. It's a really horrible thing and I don't like playing it at all, but it just sounds pretty cool.
I played through a 50-watt Marshall Mark II from about 1971 or 1972, which is just amazing. The pedals I used were my DOD Malmsteen model overdrive, a Boss NS-2 noise suppressor, an MXR Dyna Comp compressor and I also used Dunlop Cry Baby Wah for a couple of songs. For all the synth parts, I used a Malmsteen model Strat that has a Roland synth pickup installed on it. I ran that guitar straight through a DI.
For the bass tracks, I used a really great 1952 Fender Precision Bass that was cream white with a white pickguard and maple neck. That was a great bass to play. I also used a 1962 fretless Jazz Bass with a rosewood fingerboard. Those basses were both all original—totally stock. I used an MXR Dyna Comp and a SansAmp to EQ all the bass parts.
Guitar.com: How are your guitars set up?
Yngwie Malmsteen:I use .008-.048 gauge Dean Markley strings. I always found that heavier low strings sound better, but for the high strings, it doesn't matter as much and I like the feel of the lighter top strings.
On my main stage guitars, I have the action set pretty high, although in the studio, I tend to lower it a little bit. I've always found that I get the best sound is when the strings are really breathing. I also tune down a half-step to E flat. I've always tuned my guitars that way.
Guitar.com: Your main guitars are all fitted with DiMarzio pickups. How is your signature DiMarzio YJM pickup different from the standard HS-3 model that you initially installed as replacements for the stock Fender pickups in your guitars? Do you use both of the DiMarzio models in your guitars?
Yngwie Malmsteen: The YJM is just like the HS-3 [both models are single-coil size stacked humbuckers], but the YJM has vintage-style staggered poles. I use the YJM pickups in the neck and middle, and the HS-3 is in the bridge position.
Guitar.com: What have you been listening to most recently for enjoyment and inspiration?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Nothing! I watch TV more than I listen to music. I like watching the David Letterman show.
Guitar.com: Are there any new bands you've discovered and enjoy—even through seeing them perform on TV—or do you still prefer listening to your older favorites whenever you do listen to rock music?
Yngwie Malmsteen: When I do listen to rock, it would be Queen, Deep Purple, and the old stuff.
Guitar.com: What is your opinion of the new Queen collaboration with Paul Rodgers as the group's vocalist?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I haven't heard it yet. But I think Paul Rodgers is a great singers, and Brian May is one of my favorite guys, and he's a good friend, too, as well as an amazing player and songwriter. It should be interesting to hear.
Guitar.com: What advice can you provide to guitarists on becoming better players and improving their tone?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Just use your ears!
Guitar.com: Can you offer any tips on constructing guitar solos?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I never prepare them. They're always completely off-the-cuff and never thought out or rehearsed beforehand.
Guitar.com: When you're recording the solo sections for your songs, how many takes will you typically run through before you get one solo that you're fully satisfied with?
Yngwie Malmsteen: One! That's it! If there's a mistake and the solo's good in every aspect - it's got a good feel and there's a little something special going on, then I just leave it alone. But if I do decide I want to do a second take, which I normally don't want to do, that will be maybe because the first one I recorded just doesn't totally kick my ass. If that happens, then I'll just go on to the next song, or I'll go downstairs and play pool or something. I've learned that lesson the hard way: Never ever try to force a solo! No way! If it isn't working right off, then you have to move on to something else and then come back to it later, when you're feeling ready to take it on and do it right the first time.
Guitar.com: Can you make any suggestions on how to strengthen one's skills as a songwriter?
Yngwie Malmsteen: That's such a subjective thing. It all depends on what you're looking for. Personally, I think that lyrics are very important and have to have some sort of meaning. A song has to flow lyrically, rhythmically and melodically. So lyrics are a very big part of that, in my opinion. But I think it's all a matter of trial and error, really. I think you just have to learn by doing, and keep working at it. That's really the only way to improve anything that you do.
Guitar.com: What are your plans for the upcoming year?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I'll be doing a lot of touring. I just finished a two-month European tour, which included playing a lot of huge festivals with like 65,000 people. That was great! I'll be doing shows in the States, South America, and Asia later in this next year. I think I will probably be starting up my tour in the States this November, but I'm not certain of the exact dates.
Guitar.com: Tell us about your new Concerto DVD and what it was like to perform live with an orchestra.
Yngwie Malmsteen: That was filmed in Tokyo, Japan with the New Japan Philharmonic. It's a concert suite for guitar and orchestra in E flat minor. On top of it, there are also orchestrated versions of songs like "Far Beyond The Sun" and "Trilogy Suite." This was the first time I had played live with an orchestra, although I had recorded with an orchestra in the past. But doing it all live, this was just crazy!
Guitar.com: Was this experience intimidating?
Yngwie Malmsteen: It was way beyond anything I've done! It was like I was going to fly to Mars! I had no idea what was going to happen, but it was a very amazing experience.
Guitar.com: How did you prepare for that type of performance?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I don't know! I just do what I do, but it is definitely a bit more difficult to perform with an orchestra than with my own band because there is so much more precision involved in what they do, while there is a bit more flexibility and improvisation when playing with my own band.
Guitar.com: Can your fans expect to see you performing live in concert with orchestras any time in the near future?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Absolutely! That's probably going to happen by the middle of next year. I haven't seen the tour schedule, so I have no idea exactly when that will happen.
Guitar.com: Where will those types of concerts take place? Will that be happening only in Europe and Japan, or can American audiences look forward to seeing the orchestral performances, too?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I hope to do it everywhere.
Guitar.com: Will you be performing with different orchestras around the world?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Yes, definitely. It has to be local with local orchestras. It really wouldn't be possible to tour with one complete orchestra. Plus, I think it will be more exciting to work with different local musicians around the world. That way, every performance will be a little bit different and it will make it more exciting for the fans in each place.
Guitar.com: Fender recently unveiled plans for the release of a new Malmsteen signature model Stratocaster*. In what ways will this version differ from the popular US-made Malmsteen signature model Strat that people are most familiar with? When will it be available?
Yngwie Malmsteen: It should be out very soon. Fender came down to my house and took all the measurements of my "duck" guitar to make a very limited edition of exact replicas. It's going to be more of a custom instrument than my standard signature Strat. They measured everything on the guitar, and got every single detail of it just right! I am already very honored to be the first guitar player to have three Fender signature models, and to be the first guitar player ever to have my name on a signature model Stratocaster. My model came out in 1986 - even before Eric Clapton's signature model! It's really a huge honor!
*Although the entire runs of both Yngwe’s signature Strats have been snapped up, his Artist Series Stratocaster, which more closely resembles his current stage guitar, gets top ratings from our shred guitar fans for its intense sound and awesome playability.
Tags: Electric Guitars