Yngwie Malmsteen is the king of the neoclassical shred guitar. Since 1984's Rising Force, the Swedish musician and composer has somehow bridged centuries, from Paganini to his own arpeggiated acrobatics.
His new memoir, Relentless, begins with a quote from David St. Hubbins of the parody metal band Spinal Tap, extolling Malmsteen's skill but also the use of his middle initial, J, "so you don't confuse him with all of the other Yngwie Malmsteens in the business." Malmsteen says he considers it an honor.
Here, Malmsteen speaks with NPR's Scott Simon about the candid rock 'n' roll lifestyle stories featured in Relentless, his newfound purpose as a family man, and growing up on Bach, Vivaldi and Jimi Hendrix.
On his frustrations with rock 'n' roll
"I grew up in a family that was very musical, learned the blues and everything like that. And I became a little bit frustrated with the simplicity of rock 'n' roll and blues. I started listening to a lot of classical music — mainly Bach, Vivaldi. Then one day on TV — I was about 12 or 13 years old — there was a Russian violinist (I can't remember his name) that was playing solo violin: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin by Niccolò Paganini. I completely freaked out, because I knew that's what I was hearing in my head. I decided I was going to use all of the arpeggios and linear notes and wide vibrato of the violin. I've always been a little bit of an extremist, so I decided to go all of the way."
On Jimi Hendrix and burning guitars
"My fourth birthday, I was given a violin, and my fifth birthday, a guitar. I didn't start to play until I saw Hendrix on TV. They showed him setting his guitar on fire and burning it for the Monterey Pop Festival. I wanted to learn how to play guitar, so I could smash it up and burn it. I was only a little kid, so that was my incentive. [Laughs.]"
On guitar shred as a shtick
"It runs the danger, I think, but I feel very strongly that I've made a statement as a composer, as a performer, well beyond just guitar shredding."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
What's the connection between this and this...
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SIMON: The person who makes the connection is Yngwie Malmsteen, the Swedish guitar legend who bridges centuries with these two pieces of music. Mr. Malmsteen is known as the king of the neoclassical shred guitar. He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
YNGWIE MALMSTEEN: I thank you very much. Thank you.
SIMON: So, did you hear Paganini and think: I can shred that, or what?
MALMSTEEN: Well, I grew up in a family that was very musical and learned the blues and everything like that, basic stuff. And became a little bit frustrated with the simplicity of rock and roll and blues. And so I listened to a lot of classical music, mainly Bach, Vivaldi, and then one day on TV, I was about 12 or 13 years old, there was a Russian violinist, I can't remember his name, that was playing the solo violin: "24 Caprices for Solo Violin," by Niccolo Paganini.
And I completely freaked out because I knew that's what I was hearing in my head, you know. I decided that I was going to use all arpeggios and linear notes and wide vibrato of the violin. So, yeah, I've always been a little bit of an extremist, so I decided to go all the way with this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MALMSTEEN: All of the years of all of the hardwiring, the baroque, classical way of thinking - inverted bass lines and counterpoints and so forth - I always think like that in music terms, you know, even though it's a rock and roll kind of setting with amps and stuff like this. You know, there's - I'm always thinking in the classical composing way, and that was hardwired a long, long, long, long time ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MALMSTEEN: On my fifth birthday I was given a guitar. Actually, my fourth birthday I was given a violin, and then my fifth birthday a guitar. And I didn't start to play until I saw Hendrix on TV. And they showed him set his guitar on fire and burn it in front of the Monterey Pop Festival. And I wanted to play guitar so I can learn how to smash it up and burn it. But I was only a little kid, so that was my incentive.
SIMON: Well, you can just smash it up and burn it without learning how to play.
MALMSTEEN: Well, yeah, but I wanted to do it proper, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: Your book begins with a quote from David St. Hubbins, a character from "Spinal Tap." Can we play that clip? Let's play that clip, if we can.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THIS IS SPINAL TAP")
MICHAEL MCKEAN: (as David St. Hubbins) He's really incredible. I really - I bought his album the other day and I just, I threw my guitar out. I said why bother? Why bother, you know? Use it as a coffee table, you know, because I can't play the thing like that. He's great. I like the way he puts Yngwie J. Malmsteen on his album so, you know, you don't confuse him with all the other Yngwie Malmsteens in the business.
MALMSTEEN: Ah, that's such a great - what an honor. There's no higher honor than being talked about like that by "Spinal Tap," you know.
SIMON: Yeah. Does it ever make you wonder though if you've become famous doing - I don't think this is a Swedish word but - shtick? Has shredding the guitar become a gimmick?
MALMSTEEN: It runs the danger, I think, but I feel very strongly that I've made a statement as a composer and as a performer well beyond just the guitar shredding bit. Which is no doubt a part of my repertoire as far as being a showman. And, you know, it's a little bit of, you know, for sure, you know. I use that as a, you know, last night for instance in New York. I mean, I was giving it up. I was smashing the guitar up and the whole nine yards. But it goes way deeper than that.
SIMON: You write pretty candidly in this memoir about the excesses you've lived through in life, self-inflicted excesses.
MALMSTEEN: Oh yeah, oh yeah. The whole rock and roll thing, I did that, you know. I've become a lot wiser and a lot more, you know - being a father changes everything as well, you know. So, yeah, I'm one of those guys that came out from the other side, you know, lived to tell about it. (Chuckling)
SIMON: Well, but you almost didn't. Didn't you drive your Jaguar into a tree once?
MALMSTEEN: That is correct, yes.
SIMON: You were drunk?
MALMSTEEN: That time I was, yes. And you know, let me tell you something. If anyone had to learn the hard way, that was really the way to learn the hard way. But then, you know, now I drive even faster cars. So. But always sober.
SIMON: Always sober?
MALMSTEEN: Yeah. I never do anything.
SIMON: Do you ever worry that people your son's age, as they grow up, will read a memoir like yours and think, despite the fact that you say I'm over that now and, you know, that wasn't a good way to live and I'm better than that now and I cleaned myself up, that it's hard not to read an account like that, if somebody wants to be a musician, and think that's the way you got to do it or doesn't that sound nice?
MALMSTEEN: Well, I certainly hope that no one reads it that way. I know my son won't for sure. I know that because, you know, since he could understand anything I've been letting him know what is bad and good and so forth. So, that I'm not worried about. But I would never like to mislead anyone to think - to glamorize that kind of behavior because it's definitely not worth anybody's hardship, you know, to go through it even. You know, I mean, so, no. I definitely don't try to promote that type of thing.
SIMON: What difference has your wife, April, made in your life?
MALMSTEEN: Oh, my God. Where can I begin with that? I think, I think everywhere, you know. I owe her a life, basically, I can say, you know, because everything that I did bad, she'd turn around. So, just like an angel.
SIMON: That's the song.
MALMSTEEN: Yeah, exactly.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE AN ANGEL")
MALMSTEEN: (Singing) Like an angel, you came to me and now I see, the stranger in me is finally free to feel true love.
SIMON: Do you think there's some kid out there watching you the way you watched Jimi Hendrix?
MALMSTEEN: I'm sure there is, you know. But the thing is that, you know, all I can do is do the best I can do and hopefully I'm giving them a good influence, you know.
SIMON: Yngwie Malmsteen. His most recent album is "Spellbound." He's currently on tour in the United States and has a new autobiography out called "Relentless." Thanks so much for being with us.
MALMSTEEN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.