More than a
legend, Yngwie Malmsteen is a
religion. The high priest of the guitar god and a shredding prophet for his
millions of followers all around the world. A modern Mozart of the six strings whose fingers guard the secret to his
technical talent. Lars Johan Yngwie
Lannerbäck (Stockholm, 1963) was a luthier before becoming a practitioner,
learning the faith from inside out until finding his soul in a 17th
Century lute. A second-generation rocker, he learnt to play through the
meticulous emulation of his idol Ritchie
Blackmore, another figure obsessed with the idea of fusing together the
power of heavy metal with the
technical perfection of Classical composers.
Having mastered Blackmore's technique, Malmsteen went in search of greater things, dreaming of becoming a virtuoso like Niccolò Paganini - but with his six-stringed electric instead of a violin to perform the impossible 24 Caprices. He started out with a rickety old Stratocaster which before he had outgrown adolescence was given a facelift to look like his old lute. Legend has it that he decided to dedicate his life to the guitar when he was a mere seven-year-old watching Jimi Hendrix smash up and burn his guitar on television. A nice little anecdote to include in his official biography.
The product of a comfortable and cultured life typical of the Swedish middle classes, his mother (whose surname he would later take as his own artistic one) and his sister, who was a talented flautist, approved of his decision to dedicate his whole self to music. He had hardly turned ten, but already showed signs of great talent – and the unbearable traits that often go with it.
While he made a name for himself as the boy with the slickest hands in his neighbourhood, the young Yngwie strutted his stuff in local bands and in 1981 even recorded an album with the North American group Steeler. Suddenly, his big chance to make his dreams come true came. Or very nearly. Graham Bonnet had been kicked out of Rainbow (no surprises there) and was starting up a band called Alcatrazz. Malmsteen was given the nod to be the lead guitarist, at last being able to follow in the footsteps of his childhood hero, Blackmore.
He would soon tire of Alcatrazz, however, and feel the need to go his own way. The guitarist wanted to write his own material without having to confer with anyone or share the limelight. Nobody except his friend Jens Johansson, that is, a keyboard player with the same talent and vision as himself and whom he called up in 1983 (one thing leading on to the next at breakneck pace) to record his first solo album, the legendary Rising Force, the record that many encyclopaedias assure changed our understanding of the electric guitar forever. Clapton was now no longer god.
The release of Rising Force, which despite being an instrumental album was a huge chart success, catapulted Malmsteen into stardom, even seeing him nominated for a Grammy as a reward for his "neo-classical" leanings (the questionable nametag that many gave to his musical style), but even more so for having upped the ante regarding guitar instrumental technique to new heights. The dizzying speed with which he whipped through the scales that diverged from the typical majors used in heavy metal, the precise technique employed when doing so and his famous shredding left music lovers all around the world speechless - even Eddie Van Halen (another artist with a musical education), who at that time was the Zeus of the guitar world's Mount Olympus, but who would soon have to find room for this newcomer.
Marching Out, Trilogy… Malmsteen managed to keep his public's attention in his subsequent records even though he could no longer count on being the only man capable of bringing Bach, Vivaldi and company to the rock 'n' roll table, a style that was the embryo of today's 'progressive' heavy metal sound.
His music also served to consecrate the figure of the guitarist as the protagonist, a lone figure capable of captivating an audience with the help of no one else – a phenomenon that has steadily grown as technology has allowed the electric guitar to be accessible to the masses. Three decades later, his guitar work still serves as an integral part of what all guitarists locked away in their bedrooms throughout the world need to learn in order to become proficient.
Part of his contribution to the history of the guitar is of course the techniques and equipment he used to achieve the unique sound he managed to get from the Fender Stratocaster, a model that he has been faithful to from the very beginning. Malmsteen is an avid collector of them, something that can soon be appreciated by taking a quick look at his website, http://www.yngwiemalmsteen.com/, where he offers all manner of information regarding his six-stringed fetish. His dedication to the collection of perfection of the guitar is only matched by his love of Ferraris.
In the mid-80s, Yngwie Malmsteen was a young rock star who had yet to turn 30, but could afford the luxury of having a beautiful E-type Jaguar in his garage to admire.
This was the same car that he brutally crashed into a tree in 1987, putting him into a coma that he came very close to not coming out of. The damage to his head, and above all the 'work tools' that were his hands (which had suffered nerve damage), was so severe that many, even his manager, thought that his playing days were over. It seems that these types of calamity are commonplace among rock legends, many of whom do not live to tell the tale. The doomsayers were sure that this was the end of an era, but he was to prove them wrong – something he would do again on various occasions.
Against all odds, the tenacity and determination that he showed when learning to play the guitar served to get him back in the saddle. He recorded Odyssey, perhaps his most accessible album and one that sent his career on a somewhat different trajectory, which concluded in 1997 with "Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra" recorded with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. A musical milestone, this masterpiece was the culmination of his gift for blending 'Classical' music with his instrument of choice.
Then came the years of ups and downs in which his difficult personality and propensity to get into bust-ups, mishaps and accidents made the headlines more than his music did. He fell out with his record company, got married, divorced and his private life soon began to make the tabloids. To make matters worse, his fingers began to suffer from the way he played the guitar.
As did many rock 'has-beens', Malmsteen found refuge in Japan, where super instrumentalists from the '70s and '80s are revered. This was a strategic retreat from which he would bounce back from at the turn of the century on Joe Satriani and Steve Vai's G3 tour. This was a trio which many believed were the three masters in the art of guitar playing and proved for him to be the perfect showcase with which to relaunch his career with the new album, Attack!!.
The 50-year-old Malmsteen was back on track and with many years of playing ahead of him. Perhaps he wasn't such hot property any more in the USA, but he was still a respected musician in Europe (and still is), admired as one of the rock greats that are always worth a listen to. And then there is always, of course, Japan. Immune to discouragement, he paired up with ex-Judas Priest singer Ripper Owen and carried on gigging. Spellbound, his latest album and 19th in all his career, came out in 2012. For this record, he decided to go the whole hog, and played every note from every instrument to be heard and did all the singing to boot.
Malmsteen has now reached another turning point in his career. At 52 years old, he is quite young if we compare him to the competition. Unless his physical problems worsen and put an end to his creativity, he has many years left to build on his already great legend and discover new ways to make 'serious' music in the world of rock, beyond that of Deep Purple. On the other hand, an equally respectable road to take is to continue doing the same, delighting us and enlightening us in each concert. Or perhaps both options are open to him – he certainly has enough years in which to do so.
Perhaps Yngwie Malmsteen's biggest problem is the same suffered by his much-admired Ritchie Blackmore, another 'complicated' genius whose identity complex pushed him over into being a kind of 'Renaissance troubadour'. We simple mortals do not understand such things - which is why they are legend.
Listen to Yngwie Malmsteen Guitar God I & Guitar God II on Spotify!