Yngwie Malmsteen Interview: Guitar Virtuoso Talks "Parabellum," Sets Record Straight on Alcatrazz Departure
Image attributed to Mark Weiss
Swedish guitarist, composer, songwriter and bandleader Yngwie Johan Malmsteen first became known in the 1980s for his neoclassical playing style in heavy metal, and he has released 21 studio albums in a career spanning over 40 years. Time magazine rated him as number nine among the 11 greatest electric guitar players of all time. He played briefly with the band Steeler on its 1983 self-titled album and then appeared with Graham Bonnet in the band Alcatrazz, playing on its 1983 debut, No Parole from Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the 1984 live album Live Sentence.
In 2000, Malmsteen signed a contract with the US record label Spitfire and released his 1990s catalog in the US market for the first time, including what he regards as his masterpiece, Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra, recorded with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague. He has been a longtime user of Fender Stratocasters with DiMarzio HS-3 single-coil pickups “for playing blistering volume with no hum or screechiness.”
"I always liked Latin. It’s very cool, especially when these things are said by very intelligent people two or three thousand years ago."
Malmsteen and Music Theories Recordings/Mascot Label Group released a new studio album titled Parabellum on July 23, 2021. Only four of the songs on the album feature vocals. It’s available on CD, Red Transparent LP and digitally.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yngwie, are you staying well during the pandemic?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah. Of course, the big thing was not touring. I don’t think I realized how much I was touring until this happened. So, I go, “Wow! I used to be on the road a lot.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was the inspiration for the new album Parabellum?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Well, in 2020, I started a world tour, and we were actually in Mexico in the beginning of March when I came back from there. So the rest of the tour was cancelled. I said, “Alright. Whatever.” Then, of course, we know what happened (laughs). It wasn’t only America. The whole world was turned up, you know. So I very early realized that I was going to utilize the time to compose and to record new music. I figured I’d have a couple of months, but it turns out that I spent a whole year in the studio which was interesting because I’d never done that.
For many years, I hadn’t done continuous work in the studio. It’s always been, you do so much work in the studio, and then you go on the road and then go back in. In a lot of ways, it’s great. But I also learned my lesson from many years ago that if you overthink too much, it’s bad, too. Too much time can be bad also. So I balanced it out, and I wrote about 100 things. Out of those 100 pieces and melodies, I made 10. To me, it was the crème de la crème that actually made it on the record.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will you use the other songs on future albums?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I have in the past done that. But it’s really best if you just do it from scratch, like this album was all brand new and nothing old. I’m not saying I’m not going to do it, but usually, if I have time, I like to make it all brand new. Although sometimes, if things are really good, I’ll keep it. It depends. I’ll think about that when that time comes (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You call Parabellum “extreme” and say that you “go faster than ever.” Was that a large part of what you wanted to do in the studio?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Not really. What happened was I decided from the get-go that I’m not going to intend to do anything. I’m not going to make it fast, or I’m going to make it this or that. No. I just allowed the music to come through, and that is what’s there. At the same time, it’s very high energy. There’s also some delicate stuff in there as well. So it’s a good balance. But again, that was just because of what I had inside me this time. I like to just allow it to happen.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why title it Parabellum?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I always liked Latin. It’s very cool, especially when these things are said by very intelligent people two or three thousand years ago. It means, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” That’s just how humans have always been, I guess. They don’t attack people unprepared. It’s just a symbolic title. It’s not like I’m talking about war. I like the bombastic stuff (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve said that you come from a musical family. Does that include both parents, sister and brother?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Yes, and uncles and aunts and grandfather. I was the youngest, so my oldest siblings were playing violin, piano and all this stuff. My mother’s a jazz singer and also sang in a choir. My dad was a singer, and one of my uncles had a studio in Stockholm. His wife is an opera singer. My grandfather’s a drummer. On and on and on.
They gave me a violin on my fourth birthday, a guitar on my fifth birthday, a trumpet on my sixth birthday, and I wasn’t interested. But when I was seven, I saw Hendrix smashing up a guitar on TV. They showed it on the news. I already had a guitar, and I said, “That’s it. I’m going to play guitar.” I started playing that day. Trust me, when I started playing, I started playing 12 or 14 hours a day. They thought I was crazy. I probably was. I was extremely dedicated to the instrument. I would fall asleep and wake up with it on me. I did that for years and years.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you ever smashed a guitar on stage?
Yngwie Malmsteen: Oh, yes. I just did one a few weeks ago in Serbia. I headlined the Arsenal Fest there. It was great. It was the first gig I’ve done in a long time. I did one in Vegas, but that wasn’t real. It was a virtual one.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, you were nearly killed in an automobile accident, your mother died, you had problems with your hand, your manager died …
Yngwie Malmsteen: My manager didn’t die. He just stole my money.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Throughout all of the horrible times, did you ever seriously think about quitting?
Yngwie Malmsteen: No. I wrote the book. It’s called Relentless because that’s what I am. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I am literally a relentless, unstoppable person. If I set my mind to something, there’s nothing or nobody that can stop it. Period. That’s how I’ve always been. That’s how I came from an extremely unlikely background as well, from a socialist country in Europe.
The thing is I’ve had so many bad things happen to me, God has blessed me, as I express in one of the songs on my album called “Eternal Bliss.” I call myself the most blessed man who ever lived. I thank God every day for what I’ve been given, and I realized there have been a lot of horrible things happening, too. But I’m the kind of person to also look at the glass half full. I always look for the positive things. Always. I’m very grateful for what’s happened. So, all those bad things, they don’t linger on me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’re a religious person, Yngwie?
Yngwie Malmsteen: No. I wouldn’t say religious. But when I was in that delivery room seeing my son being born, there was something that happened to me. We walk around here thinking we’re the biggest and baddest things around, and that we’re in control of everything. We are arrogant and stupid. So religion, not necessarily. But God, yes, one hundred percent.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did your neoclassical heavy metal style develop?
Yngwie Malmsteen: When I started playing at seven, remember that in Sweden back in the 1970s, there was no radio. There was no TV. There was nothing that would show rock and roll. It was extremely barren as far as that goes. But my mother had a lot of records, and I heard this record from John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. I go, “Wow! This is cool.” So I started playing the blues because it was really easy to do and really easy to pick up. I was only seven years old. You’ve got to remember that.
Then when I was eight years old, I heard Deep Purple’s Fireball, which is also blues. I thought that was great, too. But when I was about nine or ten, I just felt all this blues stuff was really kind of a dead end. I mean, I loved all the guys that did it. I just wanted to do something else. I heard an early album by Genesis called Selling England by the Pound, which is a progressive rock, early 70s type of music. I heard that, and there was nothing normal about it. Of course, I was still a little kid at nine, maybe 10. I realized that all of the stuff I liked about them was the influence of Bach.
My mother had hundreds of classical records, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky. I listened to all of them. I fell in love with the hot and heavy sound of a Marshall stack and double kick drums on the drum set, smoke bombs on stage and throwing the guitar up in the air. I wasn’t going to stop doing that. But I stopped playing the blues notes. I was going to do something, in my opinion, that has more challenge and depth. So I tried all of these harmonic minors and arpeggio notes. Then I heard 24 Caprices Op.1 by Niccolo Paganini, and that was it. I thought that there must be a way I could do that violin on the guitar. I didn’t go study or anything. I just listened to it. I picked up the arpeggios and the vibrato, which I found very exciting. So that’s how I did that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You were indeed a child prodigy.
Yngwie Malmsteen: Or a nutty kid.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Would you rather write and perform solo work than be in a band such as Alcatrazz?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I left Alcatrazz in 1984 and started my solo career in 1984. So that totally should give you the answer right there. I’m not a band person. I work pretty much like Stephen King writes a whole book or da Vinci painted a whole painting. He didn’t say, “Hey, do you want to come and paint half of my painting?” No. I don’t work like that. I paint the entire painting. I do everything from start to finish, and that’s how I work. I don’t work in a band environment. I never did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In a new interview dated June 30, 2021, Graham Bonnet spoke about Alcatrazz’s decision to fire you from the band in 1984. Were you fired?
Yngwie Malmsteen: No. Maybe his memory’s pretty bad. We went to Japan in January 1984. When the Japanese label saw me live, they said, “We’ve got to get this kid a solo deal.” So they gave me a solo deal right then and there. So the tour kept on going, and in July 1984, we were playing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was supposed to play my guitar solo. A couple of days before, my guitar tech got his teeth knocked out by accident because I threw a guitar at him to catch, and the guitar knocked his teeth out, which was an accident, of course. So therefore, I didn’t have a tech. I didn’t have a roadie, which is very important in the story.
So I started an a cappella solo and saw Graham Bonnet walking behind my amps. As he walks behind my amps, my guitar goes dead. I thought he must’ve stumbled on the speaker cable. I went back to put the speaker cable in, and lo and behold, that’s what happened. So I did my solo, and it ends in a big crescendo like a noise sounding. Then after that, we were supposed to play Graham Bonnet’s song, so to speak, called “Since You Been Gone.” When I started playing it, and as I’m starting the riff, the guitar goes dead, and I see him behind the amps again. So he pulled my cable out twice to fuck with me. So I said, “Okay, if you’re so stupid that you want to fuck up your own song, then that’s what is going to happen.”
I just took the guitar and threw it on the ground. He basically came on stage and started screaming at me and saying, “You destroy everything! You steal the show from me!” He started crying some, and then he pokes me in the stomach with his microphone stand. I lose it. So I punch him out, and I said, “Fuck you all! I’m leaving!” I went off the stage onto the tour bus. I took a plane the next morning, and on the plane I wrote the lyrics to “I Am a Viking” on a napkin. That is exactly what happened verbatim. When I left that band, it sunk like the Titanic. It couldn’t get arrested. So you make your own decision on that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You appear very confident on stage. It’s just remarkable to watch you sometimes being serious and other times cutting up for the audience’s enjoyment. Do you go through several rehearsals to prepare for a live concert?
Yngwie Malmsteen: No rehearsals.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Really?
Yngwie Malmsteen: (laughs) Why do you say that? Thank you, by the way. It’s extremely natural. I’m not putting something on. I’m not trying to be something I’m not. I’m not trying to do something that I’m not supposed to do. The one thing that makes me satisfied on stage, other than the audience, is the fact that I don’t have rehearsed stuff.
Basically, I go on stage knowing exactly what I’m going to do. I need to surprise myself, you know, as far as intros, interludes, solos and so on. So that’s exciting for me to be able to do that. If I did all of that in a rehearsed manner, then I would’ve stopped doing it years ago because there wouldn’t be a challenge. There wouldn’t be any excitement. There wouldn’t be any danger. So to me, it’s kind of like losing the whole point.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What are you teaching your son, Antonio, about the music world?
Yngwie Malmsteen: He’s a great guitar player. He’s got a band and everything. He really loves what he’s doing. I gave him some advice. But he’s clever. I don’t want him to make the same mistakes I did, but he’s a smart kid.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What are your interests other than music?
Yngwie Malmsteen: I love my Ferraris. I’m like a nut case about them. I collect them, work on them and drive them. I collect guns. I collect watches. I play tennis. I love movies and books and of course, spending time with my wife and kid. If you don’t balance your time with the instrument or music in general, you run the risk of losing the purity. I’m very aware of that.
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