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A household name in heavy-metal shredding, guitarist Yngwie J. Malmsteen describes himself as stubborn and dictatorial. “I’m very set in my ways and not necessarily in a bad manner,” he said over breakfast. “I know what I want and I go for it.” Though his style of music isn’t as popular as it once was, he presses on with renewed vigor, his titanic talent intact.
Now on tour with Guitar Gods, a mind-warping, blizzard-of-notes-per-bar bill that also features guitarists Bumblefoot – Ron Thal‘s stage name – and Gary Hoey, Mr. Malmsteen, 50, is getting ready for the release in August of a live DVD and CD, recorded in Orlando and Tampa, respectively.
Ranked with Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen as innovators of electric rock guitar, the Stockholm native became obsessed with the instrument after he received a copy of Deep Purple‘s Fireball for his eighth birthday. But though he admired the band’s guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, young Yngwie was even more intrigued by the work of Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks, who made references in his compositions to J. S. Bach. In fact, it was a recording of a Niccolò Paganini composition that helped Mr. Malmsteen find his musical voice. Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 in A minor would eventually become a model for his style, which relies heavily on clearly articulated arpeggios and dazzling speed. “Niccolò Paganini and Johann Sebastian Bach with a Strat and a stack of Marshalls” is how Mr. Malmsteen described his approach last week, referring to his Fender Stratocaster guitar and Marshall amplifiers, his preferred gear.
He arrived in Los Angeles in 1983, recruited by a producer who placed him in a group that was beneath his talents. “It was the most banal band I could be with, but I wanted to be on a piece of vinyl,” Mr. Malmsteen said. “It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I knew I was going somewhere.” He released his first solo album a year later.
With ear-splitting, classically influenced shredding as his trademark, Mr. Malmsteen quickly became a star – and lived the lifestyle that went with it: In 1987, while driving drunk, he plowed into a tree near his home in Woodland Hills, CA, and was in a coma for a week.
“A lot of people pine for the ’80s,” he said. “I don’t.” No longer a drinker, Mr. Malmsteen’s game these days is tennis. Framed by right-angle mutton chops, his moon face was bright, his smile engaging. Vitamins went down with his scrambled eggs.
With the arrival of grunge music, the ’90s were a bleak period for gonzo guitarists such as Mr. Malmsteen, who had no US record deal and relied on touring in Japan and South America to keep going. Late in the decade, he composed Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E-flat minor, op. 1. Many rock artists have played with full orchestras, but Mr. Malmsteen said his concerto was the first to be composed in a classical mode with electric guitar as the solo instrument.
The recording industry in a shambles, his career received an unexpected boost via Guitar Hero and Rock Band, video games that featured his challenging music. Footage of his wild performances were viewed by millions on YouTube – the kind of exposure, Mr. Malmsteen said, that was impossible when the industry was in control. Resistant initially to new recording techniques, he eventually used Pro Tools software on his home-studio computer to record his most recent album, Spellbound (2012), which he released on his own label.
“In a bizarre way it’s like I was going back to when I was seventeen years old,” he said of life in rock’s new model. “I had no expectation of radio airplay, no anything else.” As a teen in Stockholm, he explained, “I would play a seventeen-minute guitar solo, sing four bars, and do another seventeen-minute guitar solo. That was the greatest means of expression then. I love to have that feeling.”
At the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ, a wall of Marshalls at his back, Mr. Malmsteen jumped and karate-kicked, spun the guitar around his back, flung picks at the rabid audience and discharged a torrent of fully articulated thirty-second notes – all during Rising Force, his first number. Later, he offered the Bach-influenced Dreaming (Tell Me) on acoustic guitar before returning to his Strat for metal’s roar. His relentless attack seemed effortless, and never did he seem to mind that he was playing for far fewer people than when he filled stadiums in his glory days.
“I don’t know what the carrot in front of me is,” he said the morning before the show. “I take criticism and praise the same way. Of course, everyone likes to hear good things, but I don’t change. I know what I’m doing.”