Yngwie Malmsteen, the Still-Reigning King of Shred Mountain

It’s been thirty years since Yngwie Malmsteen unleashed Rising Force on an unsuspecting world, obliterating any and all preconceived notions of what was possible with an electric guitar. Now comes Guitar Gods, a tour featuring the legit insane line-up of Malmsteen headlining over a shred-heavy bill that includes Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions, Electric Sun), Gary Hoey (“Hocus Pocus”) and Bumblefoot (Guns N’ Roses) along with special guests.
Malmsteen recently called in to chat with
Decibel from an open top Ferrari tearing down the South Florida coastline…

It’s actually pretty rare to be granted an opportunity to speak with an innovator of your stature and caliber, so hopefully this isn’t an annoying or too-cutesy way to kick off the conversation, but I really am curious: What is an average day in the life of Yngwie Malmsteem like?

Of course, it all depends on what part of cycle I’m in — touring, recording, composing, whatever. Generally, though, I get up early, play tennis, drive around in my convertible Ferraris, take in the sunshine, go to the beach, whatever. I also have a family — a wife and son who I love and enjoy very much — so I am doing things with them quite a lot, too. That said, despite all this kind of stuff that has nothing to do with music, I do play guitar every day. I always have a guitar with me even if I’m just watching TV or hanging out or whatever. So I’m constantly keeping my chops up, for sure. And I have the luxury of owning my own studio: Whenever I get inspired I can go in there in the moment — it doesn’t matter if I’m supposed to be recording an album or not. Even if I don’t have something I quote/unquote have to do, I’m always in the studio at one point or another, being creative, playing guitar, stuff like this.

Do you think creating space in your life for non-musical pursuits helps keep your work as a musician fresh and vital?

Well, yes. And as a creator, as a songwriter, as a composer, as a performer, keeping the work fresh and inspired is the most important thing. I never want to just go through the motions. When I go onstage, I don’t play a single song the same way from one night to the other. Never. It’s always different. Other cats, it’s completely the reverse — everything is planned, pre-molded, predetermined. If it was this way for me, I would’ve hung it up a long time ago. Playing the same set the same way every night would drive me fucking bananas, to be honest. And when I say “not the same way” I don’t mean I’m going to start playing jazz or any shit like that. No! It’s just that there are large portions of my music that is improvised, and in that improvisation there is constant evolution and life. I didn’t get into music to just meet whatever people’s expectations are — that holds no interest for me whatsoever. I always want to be pushing forward.

I’ll tell you another thing: Every night I make a new set list. Ten, fifteen minutes before the show I say to the guys, “Alright, here’s the set for tonight.” The tour manager prints it up, puts it all over the stage, right? And guess what? I don’t follow that fucking list, either!

As the years go on, do you find yourself seeking out different sources of inspiration or are you basically still drawing from deeper depths of the same classical well?

It is a difficult question to answer exactly because the music I write really is not the result of anything in the environment so far as I cant tell: When I pick up a guitar, it’s like standing before a blank canvas. I never think, “Now I am going to plat X kind of thing.” I begin to play — I always just play, never practice — and it is like I become completely detached from myself; almost more a listener hearing a set of chain reactions than the one setting them off. It is very strange, I admit. Then, here is this new thing. And if this new thing inspires or excites me, it urges on this other aspect I just described. In the best moments there is a mysterious channeling. At the same time, it can’t be forced. If all you do is play guitar trying to force something special into existence, the opposite is more likely to happen — that is, nothing. I spend a lot of time on producing, on writing lyrics; I play bass, keyboards, drums; I sing — I do all sorts of shit separate from playing guitar. Lyrics? Okay, those are naturally all based in something I’ve seen or read or heard. But the music has its own thing going on. Most of the time I feel like I am only along for the ride.

So I know Guitar Gods is the brilliant brainchild of your wife and manager April. What were you and she looking for in your partners for this tour?

If anything, I was looking for people who aren’t like me at all. We didn’t want to do something like the death metal festival where everyone comes out barking like the same dog. No one wants to have the first two songs be a novelty and then everything else be a copy of that. You know, there are going to be six sets all together — that’s a long show. If I was an audience member I really wouldn’t want to see four or five guys all doing little variations on the same kind of style. I wanted to have people who could each bring their own thing to the table so we could build an interesting evening, which I believe we have.

Let’s talk about the memoir you released last year, Relentless. Why was this the right time to tell your story?

Actually, I was toying with the idea for the longest time, but I didn’t really start writing until 2006. The main reason I wanted to tell this story is because I figured there had to be at least a couple people out there interested in knowing the real deal of what I’m about and how I got to where I am. There have been so many things written about me from the outside looking in, but there’s only one person in the world who can tell this story as it actually happened, and that person is me. How is someone else going to explain to you in any detail how I felt when I was seven years-old walking though fucking twenty foot of snow? Or how I evolved, stylistically, from liking the blues when as a kid to finding Bach and Vivaldi and Paganini? I mean, it’s a very unlikely story when you think about it. I’m from a little shithole up near the Arctic circle in Europe and nobody fucking does anything there — I mean, they weren’t back in those days anyway. It’s part of a pretty good scene now. I dunno…for those who want to know the truth — good, bad, and everything in between — it’s in there.

Did the process of writing the book help you discover certain threads running through your life that maybe you didn’t recognize before?

It did. And one of the weirdest things about it was how when exploring or remembering certain episodes in my life it could feel as if I was reading or writing about a different person entirely. ‘Cause my whole philosophy and approach to life and everything is so different from then. The experience definitely forced me to reflect on my life to a degree wouldn’t have if I didn’t write the book and, in that way — and many others! — it was an interesting journey, so to speak!

Despite all the accolades you’ve received and the longevity of your career, is it still kind of mind-blowing — especially considering your humble beginnings! — when a company like Fender comes along and asks you to do a signature line?

Oh, for sure. It’s amazing. Even more so if you consider how difficult I am to please when it comes to the equipment I use — and if I put my name on something I really do use it. That is not always the case with these endorsement deals. Anyway, I am extremely hands on; extremely particular tools I use…

To accomplish the kinds of technical feats you’ve accomplished you have to be, no?

That’s exactly right — from the pick-ups to the strings to the picks to the amp to the pedals to, obviously, the guitar I really need everything to be a perfect link in the chain. I have to thank these companies that work with me for their patience! Because they will send me something and I will send it right back — “No, that’s not it — it’s not right yet.” I’m constantly tweaking, but when it is finally done people can know I stand behind it completely.

Are there any young shredders out there in particular who you see carrying torch you lit forward?

Yeah, there is actually. His name is Antonio Malmsteen. Oh my God — my son is ready to melt some fucking heads! The funniest thing is, obviously I have something to do with it, but not as much as people might think. He’s going on his own thing, man. He’s definitely headed places — he’s got the tone, the ear, the sound, everything. He’s amazing. He’s sixteen years-old and fanatical about it. I mean, he was a normal kid up until a couple years ago. Now that all he does is play guitar and write songs! He has a band, they just did a gig. So that’s one I know for sure!

That’s a brave kid! Trying to follow in your footsteps has to be pretty intimidating — no one would blame him if he decided to become an accountant rather than a shredder!

I thought that might be the case. And that would be okay too, I guess. But, man, it’s not happening. He wants his Marshall stacks and smoke machines and this and that. I didn’t make him do this, but I definitely see myself at his age in him — that determination, that uncompromising spirit. It’s very interesting. I’m very proud.

Follow Yngwie on Facebook and Twitter. His latest album is Spellbound.

Guitar Gods Dates

13 Huntington, NY Paramount Theatre
14 Sayreville, NJ Starland Ballroom
17 Englewood, NJ Bergen Performing Arts Center
20 St. Charles, IL Arcada Theatre
21 Toronto, ON Phoenix Theatre
26 Seattle, WA Showbox Theatre
27 Portland, OR Roseland Theater
3 Beverly Hills, CA Saban Theatre
8 Tucson, AZ Rialto Theatre