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Keeping Up With Yngwie Malmsteen

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For close to 25 years now, Swedish-born legend Yngwie Malmsteen has awed audiences worldwide with his groundbreaking brand of classical-style heavy metal and distinct approach to guitar playing. Whether it be slick, sweeping arpeggio riffs or lightning-quick shredding (which at times hard rock critics thought was a little overdone at the expense of stronger songwriting), Malmsteen has nonetheless earned irrevocable praise in the world of all things metal and electric guitar.

Always a mix of instrumentals and some vocal-led tracks, his mid-‘80s records, Rising Force, Marching Out and Trilogy are among many of hard rock and Malmsteen’s most celebrated and educational releases, as they had guitarists learning not only his highly technical neo-classical structured rock but also rediscovering classical artists that influenced the guitarist’s work, including Bach, Beethoven and 19th-century composer Niccolo Paganini. In this regard, what Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore – another big influence – and Randy Rhoads started before him, Malmsteen took to a new and exciting level.

For much of the 1990s, Malmsteen continued to make records, but they were largely ignored by mainstream audiences in the U.S. who got sick of hearing the same old big-haired shred metal and instead embraced a new generation of more pop-oriented hard rock and punk rock. But in this decade, starting with 2002’s Attack!! CD, the guitarist slowly but surely recaptured much of the popularity and praise within the metal world he enjoyed twenty odd years ago. 2008’s speed metal-inspired Perpetual Flame album, just released last month on Rising Force Records, is no exception. It has been considered by many fans and critics to be among Malmsteen’s most aggressive and best albums of his career. Thus, he has been a much sought after musician, both in concert and off-stage.

On the afternoon of Saturday, November 8, Yngwie Malmsteen kindly took a few minutes of his time to answer several questions by phone from New York City, NY, about his latest projects and happenings. They include his new album, recent tour, and a new limited edition Malmsteen Tribute “Play Loud” Fender Stratocaster made by the company’s Custom Shop master builder John Cruz. It comes out November 28 and only 100 of those guitars have been made, he repeatedly emphasized to me in the interview.

About that guitar? It’s a near exact replica of Yngwie’s famed and much beaten up early ‘70s yellow-and-white “duck” Fender Stratocaster he brought to America from Sweden, complete with his unique, deeply “scalloped” – the carving out of wood between a guitar’s 21 or so frets so you hit all strings without touching anything else – maple fingerboard, a replica of the old axe’s scratches, and his personal signature. The guitar’s neck is a bit different in shape from his old guitar, and the frets and headstock are a bit larger, in a ‘70s-style way. And Malmsteen couldn’t have sounded happier with the finished product, describing the new guitar (which he uses regularly now) as “unbelievable” and basically exactly the way he wanted it – updated and refurbished.

Regarding the new CD Perpetual Flame, which was released October 14, I asked him about the reaction fans have given him, and he tells me no one has a bad word to say about it, only great things. On tunes like “Magic City,” Malmsteen takes a rare shot at lead vocals and when asked how comfortable he feels singing, says “people tell me every day ‘You should sing more!’” and goes on to say he does a lot of backup vocals on his songs. He is a guitarist first and foremost after all, though on occasion he does play keyboards and the exotic-sounding sitar, which he learned to play in Sweden when he was younger. And speaking of the sitar, Malmsteen said that is indeed a sitar you hear near the end of “Magic City.”

One of the more revealing facts he told me about the making of this album is that over the last year or so, when he was putting together songs and band members for it, he realized that his singer at the time, Doogie White “just wouldn’t cut it,” and wanted to go a different route vocally. Thus, the much raved about Tim “The Ripper” Owens – who sang with Iced Earth and Judas Priest when original singer Rob Halford went solo – joined his Rising Force band as lead singer. His aggressiveness and range was a “perfect fit” for the album, which Malmsteen informs me, features many down-tuned songs (in Eb and Db on bass/guitar). Derek Sherinian, the Eddie Van Halen of keyboardists, also plays on the record (as he did on the Attack!! record), and as Malmsteen tells me, has known and worked with him at various points for 10 years now, but won’t be touring with the band. Michael Troy is the current touring keyboardist.

Speaking of keyboards, I asked the legendary guitarist how he pulls off performing what he told me is a “great live song” and new album standout “Live To Fight Another Day” live, with its well-layered acoustic guitar parts at the beginning, middle and end, and killer electric riffs that dominate much of the rest of the song. Answer: after starting the performance with something akin to pyrotechnics and other fiery stage props, he just concentrates on electric guitar while his keyboardist plays the 12-string acoustic guitar parts on his keyboard.

Another mystery solved in this interview: the real deal behind having some uplifting-sounding lyrics to a song called “Tied of Desire” written in Perpetual Flame’s booklet, even though the song itself is not on the album. Malmsteen tells me he just liked the lyrics so much he wanted them included in the booklet but with the intention of releasing the actual song sometime in the near future. He’s on an independent label (Rising Force Records) and said to me that the way things are going, he pretty much has the freedom to “do whatever I want,” so look for an EP or an individual song release of that one next year (or perhaps sooner).

On October 13, the day before his new album hit stores, Yngwie Malmsteen was honored as the latest prestigious inductee to the Hollywood Rockwalk in Los Angeles, joining the likes of Elvis, Santana, Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, and earlier this year, Smashing Pumpkins. When asked about the experience, he called it “surreal,” and was very humbled by the reception he got. It was hard for him to recollect exact details of the event though because he’s been so busy with interviews early and late in the day lately that he can barely remember what he did yesterday. [Who can’t relate to that?]

Over the years, Malmsteen has not only done damage to his guitar, but sustained some nerve damage and tendonitis in his hands. When asked if he has any lingering physical problems with them, he replied with what sounded like a chuckle, “No, No. I’m actually healthier now than when I was 25 years old.” I know, it’s not like the (still just) 45-years-young guitarist has shown signs of slowing down recently, but it’s good to know he’s in great health. And in turn, that bodes well for Yngwie Malmsteen’s musical future, which is arguably more exciting now than it’s been in a long, long time.

To see a short video behind the making of Fender’s limited edition Malmsteen Tribute Series “Play Loud” stratocaster, go to the Malmsteen section of Fender.com.

For those of you guitar enthusiasts who have some (read: $12,500, or $375/month) money to spend this holiday season, visit the “Where To Buy” section on Fender.com or pre-order the Fender Tribute “Play Loud” guitar itself at MusiciansFriend.com, which comes out the last Friday of November.

Yngwie Malmsteen and his Rising Force band will also be touring again soon (in the U.S.), so check his official website for updates on where he’s playing, and for info on upcoming releases, including reissues of previous albums.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.