INTERVIEW: Yngwie Malmsteen

Yngwie

Yngwie Malmsteen is the undisputed master of neoclassical guitar. Other players like Richie Blackmore and Uli Jon Roth had explored elements of the style but none pushed it to quite the extremes that Yngwie did. A million guitarists arose in his wake to try to copy what he was doing but none have managed to capture Yngwie’s pure power and dazzling technique. As Yngwie himself puts it when discussing the various Yngwie clones who sprung up over the years, “And that’s why I call myself Yngwie J Malmsteen, not to be confused with all the other Yngwie Malmsteens.” And Yngwie will hit Australia in June for his first concert tour since 2006 (tickets here).

“It’s gonna be high excitement, high energy,” Yngwie says. “A perfect example is the concert DVD I just put out. That was from Orlando, Florida, and they’re two days apart. No two shows are going to be the same. If you see two shows, they’re not going to be the same. But obviously, having said that, I’m going to play the songs that you guys would expect plus some other stuff too. It’ll be what you expect but with some different nuances.” That’s a great point: ya don’t go to an Yngwie Malmsteen show to hear him play it like the album, because he probably didn’t play it the same way twice in the studio either. “Very correct, yes.”

Yngwie has fond memories of last year’s Australian masterclass tour for Thump Music. “That was awesome,” he says. “I was really digging that. I had the greatest time. It was just very, very cool. It’s really good when you can show it by talking about it, explaining, playing…” And while Yngwie is in Australia he’ll be doing VIP meet-and-greet/Q&A sessions at the shows.

If you’ve seen the new live DVD you’d know that Yngwie’s stage setup is, in a word, unique: about three quarters of the stage are devoted to Yngwie, with the rest of the band over in a corner. In a way it says “We all know who you’re here to see,” but Yngwie says there’s another, more practical reason for it: “It’s for 42 Marshall amps,” he laughs. So does he have any hearing trouble from all that volume? “WHAT?!? No it’s cool. I’m good, actually. I always thought the Marshalls were never really an abrasive sound, so it doesn’t really come across as too loud to me. The bad part is the cymbals and stuff like that.”

In terms of live sound, Yngwie’s gear is the same as his studio gear, including mixture of original vintage Marshall ‘Plexi’ heads and his signature Marshall YJM model. “They all look the same except the ones I have are big fat 200-watt Marshall Major boxes,” he says. “And the speakers are Celestion 75s. They don’t have Greenbacks in them. I like the punchy sound from the 75s, even though the boxes look like the Greenbacks. I asked my friends at Marshall to make them all with the grey grille because it looks better. When I come to Australia I’ll probably use whatever they’ve got there – I won’t bring all my s**t down.” These speakers allow every note to sound clearly, whether it’s a long, sustained scream or part of an intense cascade of arpeggios. “Yeah, I think that’s probably one of the most focal points since I can remember. One of the main reasons for that was because when I heard Pagannini it freaked me out because the way the bowing was done, you don’t play more than one string; you can’t. So each note is solid, like a monophonic thing, and that’s hard to do when you have a bunch of distortion and stuff. You’ve just got to make sure each note has its place. And each note must mean something, otherwise don’t f**king play it. To me that was always the big challenge as well as the big reward. It’s nice when you get it right and the notes come out like that.”

Yngwie’s guitar collection includes a signature Fender Stratocaster and a pair of Ovation acoustics. “It’s an unbelievable guitar, he says of the Ovation line. “I use the nylon-string classical onstage. And there’s also a steel-string one and they both come scalloped. It’s like a Viper but it’s not. It’s got really, really big frets on it and the neck profile is different, and it has violin-style F-holes on it. It has a preamp but I use the EQ flat. And to me I can’t imagine using anything else. It’s so perfect for what I do on stage, playing with a keyboard player and all that. And the Fenders, I think they’re the most finely-tuned guitars… they’re like a racing Ferrari. They’re just beautiful.”

Yngwie’s Strats are also pretty durable: “A couple of years ago I was doing a TV show in Sweden, like a family show almost, with a David Letterman-style house band. And I had a bunch of Marshall stacks, smoke machines and s**t like this. After the song I took my guitar and I threw it like 30 feet to my stacks for the tech to catch. It turns out the producer told the tech not to stand there because he couldn’t be in the shot, so the guitar just flies and bangs into the Marshall stacks, bounces on top of the heads and goes behind the stacks. It was feeding back, like [makes horrendous feedback sound]. It looked like  a part of the show so it was great. I picked the guitar up afterwards and the guitar wasn’t even out of tune. They’re amazing!”

Yngwie Seymour Duncan YJM FuryYngwie’s pickup of choice is a signature set from Seymour Duncan, which he’s been using for about five years now after being a longtime DiMarzio user. The development process for the YJM Fury pickups has become the stuff of legend. “Well it took a while but actually not,” Yngwie says. “The thing with Stratocasters is Leo Fender was a genius in so many ways that I don’t think people even understand. For instance the neck pickup is positioned exactly at the 24th double octave harmonic, and stuff like this. So when I play very high on the high frets, the response on that pickup has to be a very certain response. In other words, not too much magnetic pull, not too much power, not too little power, and the staggering has to be a certain way. And Fender pickups are crap. And what happened was, y’know, I came up with an idea years and years ago and I said to another company – I’m not going to mention who they are but people know who they are – I said if you put two coils on top of each other maybe you can get a cancelling coil but the same magnetic readout as a single coil, because I didn’t want to do the Van Halen thing. I mean, I love Van Halen but I didn’t want to do that like everybody else did. So they said ‘Okay, we’ll stick them on top of each other,’ and they gave it to me and I said ‘I really don’t like this. It’s weedy and thin and doesn’t have any sustain, nothing.’ So they do another one and I’m not too crazy about this one either. So they do another one called HS-3 – humbucking Strat 3 – and I say ‘Listen, it’s quiet but it has no harmonic response, it has no sustain, it has nothing.’ They said ‘Oh but that’s what we can do.’ I found out later on that it’s virtually half a pickup. Only the top coil is working, and the bottom coil doesn’t have magnets through it so it’s only a half pickup! The same size as a Fender pickup but half, and a Fender pickup is weak as it is. Anyway, I lived with that for many, many years and I was convinced that that was probably it…”

“So Seymour Duncan approached me and said ‘We know you use this other thing but if you’d ever like to try us…’ So each time they sent pickups, the pickups they sent me sounded exactly like Fender pickups but they didn’t have any noise. They were stacked pickups but they sounded like Fender pickups. And the thing I was not crazy about with Fender pickups was they had a kind of nasal, sticky, thin, pointy sound. It’s not so much to do with the magnetic field as it is to do with the pole pieces and the amount of winds. And it’s great for blues and Stevie Ray Vaughan style and things like that, but I’m playing much heavier stuff, more neoclassical, more legato and things, so I want even notes. So I started telling them ‘I want this, and this and this.’ So we turned out to make three different pickups. The YJM Fury pickups are not one set of three identical single coils. They’re three different pickups. And the magnetic stagger and the winds on the treble pickup, that was the quickest one because I just wanted more punch. I didn’t want muddy, I wanted distinct. That one happened pretty quickly. The neck pickup… like I said, the previous company made HS-3, the third completed version. But Seymour Duncan, thirty-nine. Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine! So God bless ‘em, y’know? I love ‘em to tears. I tell you what, man, anybody that has my Fender model with the old pickups, let me tell you something: you get a set of the new ones, you put them in and you’re going to die and go to heaven. You’re gonna meet God. Because it has every single iota of response, distinction, power – not too much, not muddy fucking high-output humbucker crap… I hate those things… it’s a very fine line where you have enough harmonic response before you actually have a signal that’s been corrupted from what’s coming out of the guitar. It’s absolutely stunning. It’s ridiculous. I can’t believe I had so many years without those. It’s so weird because when I think back to all those years where I used those completely useless shit pickups, I mean, take them all, melt them all down and make a fucing boat anchor from them.” Ouch.

Yngwie’s personal pickups are actually reinforced on the bottom because he wails on them so hard. “Yeah, I go a little crazy on my pickups and amps and stuff. A regular Fender pickup, the pole pieces would be pushed in in ten seconds flat. That’s the way they designed them: if you push them hard they will push through, push down. That doesn’t happen unless you bang the guitar into Marshalls and stuff like that, which I do, y’know. All the time. So they’ve been Malmsteen-ized.”

Yngwie J. Malmsteen Australia & New Zealand Tour Dates. Buy tickets here.

Thursday 4th June – Powerstation, Auckland, NZ
Saturday 6th June – The Astor, Perth
Monday 8th June – Wrestpoint Showroom, Hobart
Wednesday 10th June – 170 Russell, Melbourne
Thursday 11th June – The Tivoli, Brisbane
Friday 12th June – HQ, Adelaide
Saturday 13th June – The Factory, Sydney