Rock guitarists dipping their toes into the waters of blues is hardly revolutionary, but it’s a little bit more leftfield when the guitarist in question is Yngwie J Malmsteen. And that’s exactly what the Swedish neoclassical virtuoso is doing with his latest album, Blue Lightning.
The very nature of Yngwie’s new release means that it’s polarised its audience before it’s even been listened to, but should we really be surprised that after so long he’s finally decided to tackle his blues album? After all, he must have some blues influences in there somewhere.
“First of all, it’s not a blues album, but it’s a bluesy album – big difference!” he quickly corrects us. “I played my first song when I was five years old, and I grew up with classically trained musicians and opera singers and stuff. So all my early influences were jazz and stuff like that.
“Then when I was seven, and I started playing for real, I saw Jimi Hendrix smash up a guitar on TV. Then I heard the blues, the first thing I started playing was a blues thing – a ‘John Mayall Bluesbreakers’ thing, I think. Then I heard Deep Purple when I was eight, that was also a bluesy band. So of course, my main influences are Bach, Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky. But the blues was actually there first; it never really went anywhere.”
With the blues always being part of his makeup then, it’s curious that it took the best part of 30 years to release an album that’s dedicated to the style. In fact, it turns out that it took a little push from his record label…
“Throughout the years, people always come to me and say: ‘You should do blues stuff!’ because they hear me play the blues in soundcheck or something,” Yngwie explains. “Then about a year ago, I got a contact from Mascot Records, saying they wanted to do this album. So they picked their songs, I picked my songs and I also wrote some songs. It’s a fun album, I think.”
The song choice is certainly eclectic on Blue Lightning – putting the album’s original tracks aside for the moment, the choice of covers is particularly intriguing…
“I don’t think they’re covers, I call them variations,” he insists. “Some of the songs I’ve done only in live sets, sometimes for years – Smoke On The Water and Purple Haze. Then other songs I’ve pulled out because I’ve heard them many years ago and really liked them, like Paint It Black, Forever Man, and While My Guitar Gently Weeps – which was something I’d never played or sang before. So they were new to me.”
The inclusion of the famous Beatles track is perhaps the most eyebrow-raising selection – after all, it’s hard to imagine the king of shred being caught up in Beatlemania.
“I think like the rest of the people on this planet, we’re all Beatles fans,” he enthuses. “Also, when I thought about that song, I made sure that I looked at different versions of it: Eric Clapton did it, George Harrison obviously, and there’s live versions; so I looked at them all to get a feel for the song.
“The bridge is really kind of weird. The Beatles will do that: they’ll put chords together that don’t really belong together, but they always sounded really good. They’ll put chords together that really no one out there would ever think of those chords: they’re not theoretically correct. I wouldn’t do that because I’m classically trained, but I loved how they did that, that was one of the cool things about that song, I thought.”
Most of us will know the Yngwie story by now: a Swedish virtuoso, tired of the lack of music-career opportunities in his own country, packed up his bags in the early 80s and left for America. It’s difficult to imagine just how daunting an experience that must have been for the then-teenager.
“You would have thought so, because I was only a little kid, really,” Yngwie reflects. “I had my guitar and a toothbrush – that was it! I basically left everything; I threw all caution to the wind and I went. It’s funny, but I just fit right in; I felt like I was coming home. From the first time I stepped down off the plane, I never said: ‘Okay, now I might go back.’ It never even entered my mind. It was a huge step, looking back at it.”
That huge step also had a seismic impact upon the guitar world. Even with some of the more technical players of that era, we can’t begin to imagine the shockwave sent through the guitar-playing community when, as if from nowhere, a young Swedish guitar player appeared – churning out hitherto unheard of sweep arpeggios, lightning-fast picking licks and referencing classical composers in a new and modern way.
“I’ll never forget it – the first show we did was opening up for Glenn Hughes and Pat Thrall, there were 30 people there,” Yngwie remembers. “Then at the next show, at the Troubadour, I look down on the street while I’m tuning my guitar and there’s a line going down the block. I asked someone who works in this place and said: ‘Who’s playing tonight?” The guy says: ‘You are!’ So it was an extreme impact, it was so fast, and I immediately started getting all these offers from other bands.”
When Malmsteen’s reign began, there was just a handful of virtuoso players on the scene, players such as Steve Vai, Al Di Meola, and John McLaughlin. Today, YouTube is awash with technically gifted players of all ages. We wondered if Yngwie thought there were any differences between the virtuosos of today, compared to those virtuosos from his era?
“I can’t really make a judgement on that because, number one, I don’t keep any sort of tab on those things and I don’t listen to almost anything. And number 2, I think there are probably very, very few originals,” he affirms. “There is a big difference to just be able to typewrite something, look at the typewriter and type 300 words in a minute or whatever and to actually write the greatest song of all time, you know?
“I don’t judge if a guitarist or musician is great because he’s doing technical things; that’s not something I look for. There are guys like Holdsworth that no one ever sounds like before he came out – for me, he’s one of the greatest. Or Hendrix, or Eddie Van Halen. Guys that came along and changed it, and to a certain point, I did that, too. Like instead of actually following somebody, making sounds that everybody else follows. That’s the difference.”
As befits one of the most influential players of the 80s, Yngwie was also one of Fender’s first signature artists. This year sees the Custom Shop launch a 30th Anniversary version of his Strat. Looking back, it’s clearly something Malmsteen feels hugely honoured by.
“Yes, I’m very proud of that,” he enthuses. “But not only was I the first guy to get a signature model, I was the first guy to ever get a guitar for free from those guys. Fender never gave guitars to anybody! They didn’t give to Blackmore, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Hank Marvin or whoever.
“So I was the first guy, and they told me why, too. The story in interesting. In the late 70s, two things happened. Fender almost went out of business, and by ’81, they were bought out by two other guys. They started over, basically and they were trying to put all these people with all these hard-rock guitars and stuff – everyone else wanted one because of Van Halen, right?
“They had been struggling a bit, then my Rising Force album came out and not only did the album turn everything upside, but what’s on the cover? A Fender Strat. That fucking album saved their company! They said that when that album came out, they couldn’t build guitars fast enough; before that they were selling nothing. So they came to me.
“Before that happened, I was being offered guitars from every guitar company and every amp company in the world. You name it. Gibson, even! ‘Whatever you want, we will give it to you.’ I said: ‘No thanks, Fender Strats, that’s it’. Every amp company, too – I said: ‘No thanks, Marshalls for me.’”
Malmsteen’s gregarious personality and swagger, particularly in interviews, has become the stuff of legend. By his own admission, this was certainly the case in his early career. These days, however, he seems a lot more relaxed, in every aspect.
“Definitely more laid back as person,” he agrees. “But as a musician, I think I’ve always been very intense, so I don’t think that’s changed!”
Blue Lightning by Yngwie Malmsteen is out now on Mascot/Provogue.