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This article was originally published in issue #52
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Make no mistake, Yngwie Malmsteen is a genuine, bona fide guitar god. And now, dear reader, we’re going to see what makes him tick.
With a career that has spanned 40 years and with over twenty albums to his name, Yngwie Malmsteen's influence on modern electric guitar is remarkable. By drawing influences from classical composers such as Bach, Paganini, and Vivaldi, and fusing it with contemporary stylings, he is a founding father of the neo-classical genre. Nick Jennison explores the incredible techniques of YJM in this issue's Tech Session.
There have been only a small handful of guitarists that can claim to have revolutionised the way we think about our instrument. Take the emergence of Edward Van Halen, for example; almost overnight, the guitar playing world was turned on its head as gunslingers across the globe desperately tried to work what on earth was going on in Eruption. Earlier still, Jimi Hendrix had the guitaring greats of the era hanging their heads in defeat. So it was in 1983 when Yngwie Malmsteen (Yngwie J. Malmsteen, mind you) was unleashed on unsuspecting guitar players everywhere.
Equal parts Blackmore and Paganini and aged just 19, Yngwie’s staggering technique, inventiveness and ferocity shook the guitar playing world to its core. It was a musical and technical paradigm shift that gave birth to a wave of “neo-classical” guitar heroes, including Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker, Marty Friedman and Vinnie Moore. If we were ever to carve a rock guitar, Mount Rushmore, his face would be on it – probably wearing aviators.
Make no mistake, Yngwie is a genuine, bona fide guitar god. And now, dear reader, we’re going to see what makes him tick.
As you work through this tech session, I think it’s important to keep a few things in mind:
As previously mentioned, Yngwie’s picking technique follows a very strict set of rules that are not only remarkably elegant and efficient but are also absolutely critical to nailing the Yngwie sound.
This sounds like a lot to take in, but once you master this system, you’ll find it’s strangely intuitive and very effective indeed. Most importantly, however, it sounds right.
We begin with a short sweep followed by a wide “classical” vibrato on the high F# note. This is achieved by pulling the string towards the bridge then pushing it towards the headstock, rather than the “ceiling-to-floor” motion used to create the more traditional “rock” vibrato that appears at the end of this phrase. Your “rock” vibrato should be wide and intense, but medium in speed - go too fast and you’ll sound like Zakk!
This is the first time we come across a recurring feature in this piece, the 3-string arpeggio. Here we’re playing inversions of an Em arpeggio (with a cheeky E major on the final repetition), but later in the piece, we’ll use the same picking pattern to execute Am and diminished 7th arpeggios too, so let’s take this time to get it right. The upstrokes used to play this line are not actually sweeps, but individual “escaped” upstrokes, while the three consecutive downstrokes are played as one long sweep. For maximum authenticity, palm mute the G and B strings.
There are two distinct Yngwie-isms on display here - a single string “fours” sequence and a descending legato run in the “Black Star” or “harmolean” shape (so-called because it’s a mix of harmonic minor and aeolian scales). Focus on the downstroke at the beginning of each fours pattern, and you’ll be fine. Flick to your bridge pickup as you begin the slide into the legato run, and give it some big vibrato at the bottom!
Here we have the same arpeggio mechanic as bar 3, but on an Am arpeggio.
Big vibrato and bends precede a long picking run inspired by Far Beyond The Sun. This run is best thought of in two parts - a series of descending “fours” on a single string, followed by a “threes and fours” run across the strings. For the single string run, concentrate on the downstroke at the start of each set of fours as in bar 4. The “threes and fours” run that follows begins with a legato “pickup,” then two seven note groups of “DOWN-up-pull off-DOWN-up-down-up,” first on the B and G strings, then on the D and A strings. Visualise these two groups separately, and you’ll be fine.
Take a breather! We’ve got some low chugs followed by a surprisingly easy flurry on the low two strings. In bar 9, we re-visit the classic “Black Star/harmolean” shape, with picking this time. There’s a legato flourish on the high E string, followed by four picked notes on the B, “DOWN-up-pull off” on the G and D strings. Pick lightly, and concentrate on the first downstroke on each string. In bar 11 we’ve got some ascending tritone intervals outlining a dramatic diminished 7th chord, inspired by I’ll See The Light Tonight. Big vibrato, as per usual!
Here we enter the “theme” of the piece - a harmonized pedal-tone figure inspired by Black Star. It’s a big stretch, but at this speed, it’s really best to try and keep the all the notes (barring the last one) on one string if you can. While re-positioning the 12th fret E note on the B string (17th fret) will undoubtedly feel easier on the left hand, it’ll play havoc with the picking, and it’s not how Yngwie would do it - we’ve come this far in the name of authenticity, it seems a shame to give up now. To keep your picking consistent, focus on striking the first two notes with downstrokes, and hitting the last three as “down-up-DOWN.”
The soaring unison bends that follow are also straight out of Black Star.
We’ve got the same pedal point there, followed by another picking run that makes use of the “threes and fours” mechanic from bar 7. For the natural harmonic, give it some vigorous whammy bar vibrato if you have one, or if you don’t (as I didn’t) you can bend behind the nut to achieve the desired effect.
Time for some tapping! While you might not immediately associate Yngwie with this technique, a quick look at some concert footage will show he uses it pretty regularly! Here, we’re tapping every right-hand note but the first one twice. Concentrate on the first tap in each position and let the notes in between follow naturally.
One more time around our theme, followed by the now familiar 3-string arpeggio pattern, this time outlining a very characteristic diminished 7th tonality. Yngwie uses this kind of line all the time, and it’s easy to see why! Again, there are perhaps more efficient ways to play this, but they won’t sound as authentic as the approach we’re using here.
The next segment focuses on some of the techniques and ideas that Yngwie uses frequently, but perhaps don’t get talked about enough. We’re also moving from a harmonic minor tonality (in E) to a phrygian dominant vibe (in B). While E harmonic minor and B phrygian dominant share the same notes, we’re leaning heavily on B, D# and F#, which gives us that characteristic phrygian dominant vibe. You don’t need me to tell you something different going on though; it’s pretty clear to hear!
We begin with a legato run following a screaming high note. The ornamentation on the high note during my performance wasn’t intentional, but I couldn’t help myself! You should feel similarly free to decorate these lines as you see fit.
For the legato run (which makes use of our now familiar “Black Star/harmolean” shape), flip to your bridge pickup as you begin the long descending slide. Think about this run in three-string groups. Keep your picking light and your pull-offs aggressive to get that “meowing” sound.
The descending trills outline a diminished 7th chord, harmonised in parallel minor 3rds (much like the arpeggios in bar 19). For the chromatic pull-offs, it helps to target the highest notes on the E and G strings and let the remaining notes take care of themselves. If you finish too quickly (like I did), keep going onto the A and E strings as long as you need!
Inspired by his infamous Blues Solo and Red House performances, Yngwie’s fierce blue rock playing doesn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserves. The slightly bonkers stretch that starts this lick is challenging and requires a light but accurate touch. If you can’t manage it, consider either tapping the high notes or re-positioning the 7th fret B on the 2nd string (at the 12th fret) - as ever though, this comes at the expense of authenticity and right-hand ease.
The bluesy lick that follows is more akin to Eric Johnson’s legendary 5s mechanic. Yngwie and Eric are actually quite similar when it comes to picking strategies (despite being worlds apart musically). The key to making this work is hitting the 7th fret note on the E string with an escaped upstroke, and sweeping on the G-to-B string and D-to-G string crosses. You can approach this with a more aggressive right-hand touch, but be sure to lighten up for the next few licks.
A three-note legato version of the diminished 7th arpeggio. Concentrate on the first note of each group, and playing one repetition, two lots of two, one again and finally two lots of two (one-two-two-one-two-two). The right way to play this would be to sweep on all of the B-to-E string crosses, but an alternative method would be to hammer the B string notes without picking them.
Two more pedal tone themes, with two examples of Yngwie’s ascending picking mechanics. Put simply; every new string must start with a downstroke. When playing even numbers of notes on a string, you can use alternate picking as each string will finish with an escaped downstroke. If there is an odd number of notes on a string, you should sweep to get to the new string. This is what we’d generally refer to as “economy picking,” except Yngwie only does this in the ascending direction. It’s surprisingly elegant once you get the hang of it, and definitely worth persevering with.
Here we enter the solo section, inspired in no small part by Far Beyond The Sun. We’re also back in our phrygian dominant tonality, this time in E. The riffs are fiddly, but work well if you follow the picking rules laid out earlier. Stay light on the trills, or you’ll risk running out of steam.
We launch into the first solo with a descending run straight from Far Beyond which makes use on one of Yngwie’s favourite harmonic minor pathways and once again falls squarely within the established picking system. A screaming high bend precedes a long set of ascending 4s. Once again, focus on the downstroke that starts each group to keep your hands in sync.
The legato passage that starts this phrase is almost identical to line in bar 4, but transposed into our new key. We’re starting to notice the same patterns cropping up again and again, and that’s a good thing!
A monster of a lick, demonstrating Yngwie’s tendency to phrase “across the bar lines”. Don’t focus on getting all the complex rhythmic groups exactly right - that’s not the point here. The idea is to start and finish in the right place rhythmically and allow the remaining notes to fall where they may.
We begin with an interrupted version of bar 40’s Far Beyond shape, followed by a screaming high slide. This transitions neatly into the iconic Yngwie 6es pattern (it took some willpower to wait until now to bust it out!). Essentially, the pattern is made up of three notes grouped as “high-low-middle-high-middle-low” - in this instance we play C-A-B-C-B-A. Focus on the downstroke at the start of each pattern to stay in sync. After a brief pause on fret 20, we launch into a deciding version of the now familiar “threes and fours” pattern, but this time inverted (fours and threes!). Finally, we’ve got a ripping ascending E major sweep arpeggio with a soaring slide bend up to a high E. If you have 22 frets, you can slide to there and bend the rest of the way. If (like I was) you’re playing a guitar with 21 frets you’ll have to tough it out and bend a tone and a half to reach the highest note. With your pinky. Those .008s don’t seem so silly now, eh?
Whew! Time for a rest. What Yngwie study would be complete without the ubiquitous synth duel. Inspired by Jon Lord and Richie Blackmore’s famous battles, we can take this moment to riff out while our virtual keyboard player lays down the gauntlet.
When it’s our turn to go again, we have a string skipping version of the 6es mechanic discussed in bars 45-46. This is made possible by starting each group on a downstroke and finishing on an escaped upstroke, and it’s pretty damn difficult any other way! The ascending run that follows is an amalgamation of the ones found in bars 29 and 31 - if you’ve mastered those, this one should feel quite comfy.
That pesky keyboard player is at it again! Better show them who's boss. Some tremolo picking sets us up neatly for a one-two punch of descending one string fours followed by a “threes and fours” descending run. We’ve seen these ideas a few times already in this piece, and if you’ve made it this far you’ll know exactly how to handle them.
Here we have a cool example of what Yngwie refers to as “pizzicato”, based on the violin technique of the same name. We’re sounding all the notes here (including the open strings) with the left hand, outlining an Am triad using the “6es” pattern from bars 45-46 and 53-54 - the only difference is that the low note in each group is an open e string. You may find that you race through this sequence too quickly - if you do, one more repetition of the highest grouping (open 17 and 20) should fill the time until the next lick! If on the other hand, you’re a little slower getting through it, feel free to miss off the final repetition. Whatever works!
Home stretch now, and we’ve got the same arpeggio sequence we started with, this time on those classic diminished 7th arpeggios. We’re in harmony with the guitar on the backing track, so be sure to stay in time!
A dramatic finish, we’ve got an Em triad arpeggio with a bend up to the 24th fret high E to kick us off. Because of the relatively slow speed, it’s ok to play this with all downstrokes - it’s plenty efficient and (in the Yngwie system at least) probably more reliable than trying to alternate pick each note. Last but not least, we finish on a B power chord and an E major - a compositional technique known as tierce de picardie, finishing our otherwise minor piece on a major chord. A suitably grandiose ending to the musical odyssey (pun intended) that we’ve just undertaken!
I don’t know about you, but I need a cup of tea after that! All that remains is to say thank you, dear reader, for sticking with me this far. It’s been a total privilege to bring you this look into the style of one of my heroes. I hope you enjoy learning this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Practise hard, and more importantly – PLAY LOUD!