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This article was originally published in issue #64
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Many guitar players these days are labeled as a 'virtuoso' or a 'maestro', however, arguably there are none more deserving of either of these titles than this issue's cover artist, Yngwie Malmsteen.
Many guitar players these days are labeled as a 'virtuoso' or a 'maestro', however, arguably there are none more deserving of either of these titles than this issue's cover artist, Yngwie Malmsteen. With a brand new album titled 'Blue Lightning' out now and a major U.S. tour about to kick off later this month, Nick Jennison caught up with Swedish guitar giant at Handel & Hendrix in London, the location of Jimi Hendrix's 1960s Mayfair flat.
Yngwie Malmsteen is one of the true originals of rock guitar. Like Hendrix and Van Halen before him, Yngwie’s arrival on the scene in 1983 signalled a paradigm shift for the instrument - one that was made concrete with the release of his 1984 solo release 'Rising Force.' Almost overnight, legions of guitarists abandoned the amped-up blues-rock stylings of the day in an effort to make Malmsteen’s neo-classical virtuosity their own - to various degrees of success. By the end of the ‘80s, a horde of rock and metal guitarists had successfully copped Malmsteen’s baroque-inspired harmonic sensibilities, along with at least some measure of his ferocious chops; shoe-horning diminished arpeggios and rapid picking runs into the mall-rock songs of the day.
But it’s not the chops, nor the harmonic and melodic devices that make Yngwie great. As someone who has studied his playing at great length, let me tell you right now that “playing the notes” is the easy part. With sufficient practice, anyone can play his lines: the magic is in the fire and passion that drips from every line Yngwie plays, not to mention his incredible touch and tone. What’s fascinating is that it all seems to come naturally. Indeed, it looks as if Yngwie doesn’t know how to play without ferocity and drama. I had the pleasure of watching him warm up unplugged just before this interview, and from the moment he picked up the guitar it was all there - the colossal vibrato, the complete commitment to each run and that signature phrasing.
Regarding the importance of being authentic as an artist, Yngwie told us “I think that’s probably the only thing that’s important - and by doing that you also take a lot of risks”. This uncompromising single-mindedness is one of the reasons why Yngwie can be such a polarising figure. Except for a few live covers, YJM has stuck to his musical guns with each and every release. From his early work with Steeler and Alcatrazz to his seminal albums 'Rising Force,' 'Marching Out' and 'Trilogy,' right up to 2016’s 'World On Fire,' Malmeteen’s singular commitment to his neo-classical compositional style has earned him praise and criticism in equal measure. Imagine our surprise when we learned that his latest release ‘Blue Lightning’ was a blues rock album.
Speaking on his love of both blues rock and classical music, Yngwie told us “I grew up in a family of classically trained people - opera singers, violinists, so on… I was really getting into playing bluesy stuff because I heard [John Mayall’s] ‘Bluesbreakers’. I heard Deep Purple's ‘Fireball' when I was eight years old, so I learned all that stuff. Just a little kid - I’m literally a little Baby”. Yngwie explained that he quickly became frustrated with pentatonic scales, until a brush with some British prog turned his head. “I head Genesis’s ‘Selling England By The Pound’, and that sort of opened the doors for me to my mother’s record collection with all the Bach, all the Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven…”
Featuring a mix of original material and covers, 'Blue Lightning' is still very much a Malmsteen record. There are some killer high-octane blues chops on display from the man himself, but the arrangements and production style are as bombastic as anything from Yngwie’s back catalogue. “I wanted to make that clear to the label (Mascot Records) when they asked for this: I’d love to do it, but trust me - it’s not going to be a traditional album… if I did that, it wouldn’t be me.”
It’s also the third studio album in a row where Malmsteen handles all the vocals himself. “I write the music. I write the parts, I write the vocals, melodies and I write the lyrics, I write everything. The drum parts, the keyboards… I would hire [bandmates] as musicians and singers - not to come in and co-write with me, or as co-anything! That’s just not the way I work.” Understandable, but it seems this approach is not for everyone. “A lot of times it seems that the keyboard player and the bass player and the drummer seem to be ok with it - but the singer’s not”.
Given our location in the Hendrix & Handel Museum that 'Blue Lightning' features two Hendrix covers (Foxey Lady and Purple Haze), it’d be rude not to touch on the influence Jimi had on Yngwie’s guitar playing. “I didn’t really start playing until I saw Hendrix smashing up a guitar on TV… I started playing the same day, basically.”
One thing Malmsteen undoubtedly shares with Hendrix is a love for Strats and Marshalls. We got a close look at two of Yngwie’s personal guitars: both of them Malmsteen signature Strats of course. The first signature model ever offered by Fender (along with the Eric Clapton strat re-leased in the same year), The Malmsteen Strat is celebrating it’s 30th anniversary this year. Since it’s release in the late 80s, the recipe has remained pretty much the same: a 21-fret neck with a heavy, even scallop on every fret, a brass nut for sustain and a trio of hum-cancelling single coils. A longtime user of DiMarzio HS-3s, Yngwie’s strats now come loaded with his signature Seymour Duncan “YJM Fury” set. “[DiMarzio] made me one pickup and gave it to me and I said ‘I don’t like this’. They made another one called the HS2 - I don’t like that either. Then they made HS3 - I said ‘oh, this doesn’t sound very good’. [They replied] ‘oh, it’s the best we can do’. With Seymour Duncan, we did fifty-nine different versions!”. Given how happy Yngwie is with the result, it was clearly worth the effort.
Famously, Yngwie has been known to use eight gauge guitar strings, and you’d be forgiven for assuming his guitars would have a super light setup. Far from it. He has his action is as high as any Texas blues player, and the bass strings go all the way up to a beefy 48 gauge. Combine this with the heavy scallop you have an instrument that requires an incredible level of precision to play. “What I realised early on was that the gauge of the string is not determining the sound or the sustain, but the action does”
'Blue Lightning' Tracklist:
1 Blue Lightning
2 Foxey Lady
3 Demon’s Eye
4 1911 Strut
5 Blue Jean Blues
6 Purple Haze
7 While My Guitar Gently Weeps
8 Sun’s Up Top’s Down
9 Peace, Please
10 Paint It Black
11 Smoke On The Water
12 Forever Man
25 April - New Orleans, LA @ House of Blues
26 April - Houston, TX @ Warehouse Live
27 April - Dallas, TX @ Gas Monkey Live!
28 April - San Antonio, TX @ Vibes Event Center
01 May - Tempe, AZ @ Marquee Theatre
02 May - Tucson, AZ @ Rialto Theatre
03 May - Santa Clarita, CA @ The Canyon Events Center
04 May - San Diego, CA @ House of Blues
05 May - Anaheim, CA @ House of Blues
07 May - Fresno, CA @ The Tower Theatre
08 May - Las Vegas, NV @ House of Blues Las Vegas
09 May - Montclair, CA @ The Canyon Events Center
10 May - Vallejo, CA @ Empress Theatre
11 May - Pasadena, CA @ The Rose
14 May - Denver, CO @ The Oriental Theater
15 May - Lincoln, NE @ Royal Grove
16 May - St. Charles, IL @ Arcada Theatre
17 May - Turtle Lake, WI @ St. Croix Casino Turtle Lake
18 May - Sioux City, IA @ Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sioux City
22 May - New York, NY @ PlayStation Theater
23 May -Derry, NH @ Tupelo Music Hall
24 May - Old Saybrook, CT @ The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center
25 May - Ardmore, PA @ The Ardmore Music Hall
29 May - Sellersville, PA @ Sellersville Theater
30 May - Ridgefield, CT @ Ridgefield Playhouse
31 May - Hartford, CT @ Infinity Music Hall
01 June - Niagara Falls, NY @ Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino
02 June - Sayreville, NJ @ Starland Ballroom
04 June - Milwaukee, WI @ The Pabst Theater
05 June - Lexington, KY @ Manchester Music Hall
06 June - Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade
07 June - Clearwater, FL @ Capitol Theatre
08 June - Orlando, FL @ The Plaza Live
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