Friday, July 13, 2007

History of Hard Rock/Heavy Metal: Yngwie Malmsteen

Yngwie Malmsteen is arguably the most technically accomplished hard rock guitarist to emerge during the '80s. Combining a dazzling technique honed over years of obsessive practice with a love for such classical composers as Bach, Beethoven, and Paganini, Malmsteen's distinctively Baroque, gothic compositional style and lightning-fast arpeggiated solos rewrote the book on heavy metal guitar.

His largely instrumental debut album, Rising Force, immediately upped the ante for aspiring hard rock guitarists and provided the major catalyst for the '80s guitar phenomenon known as "shredding," in which the music's main focus was on impossibly fast, demanding licks rather than songwriting.

Malmsteen was born Lars Johann Yngwie Lannerback in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1963, later adopting his mother's maiden name following his parents' divorce. He was an unruly child, and his mother tried without initial success to interest him in music as an outlet.

However, when seven-year-old Yngwie saw a television special on the death of Jimi Hendrix featuring live performance footage of Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, he became obsessed with the guitar, learning to play the music of both Hendrix and favorites Deep Purple.

Through Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore's use of diatonic minor scales over simple blues riffs, Malmsteen was led toward classical music, and his sister exposed him to composers like Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Mozart. He spent hours practicing obsessively until his fingers bled, and by age ten, his mother allowed him to stay home from school to develop his musical talents, particularly since he was considered a behavioral nightmare.

Also at age ten, Malmsteen became enamored of the music of 19th century violinist/composer Niccolo Paganini, as well as Paganini's flamboyant style and wild-man image; this would provide the blueprint for Malmsteen's synthesis of classical music and rock.

By the time he was 18, Malmsteen was playing around Sweden with various bands attempting to find an audience for his technically staggering instrumental explorations, but most listeners preferred more accessible pop music; frustrated, Malmsteen sent demo tapes to record companies overseas. When Mike Varney, president of Shrapnel Records — a label synonymous with the term "shredder" — heard Malmsteen's tape, he invited the guitarist to come to the United States and join the band Steeler, led by singer Ron Keel, in 1981.

Steeler recorded one album with Malmsteen on guitar, but dissatisfied with the band's rather generic style, Malmsteen moved on to the group Alcatrazz, whose Deep Purple and Rainbow influences better suited the guitarist's style. Still not quite satisfied, Malmsteen formed his own band, Rising Force, with longtime friend and keyboardist Jens Johansson.

The new band's first album, also called Rising Force, was released in 1984; it was a largely instrumental affair spotlighting Malmsteen's incendiary guitar work and Johansson's nearly equally developed technique. The album was an immediate sensation in guitar circles, winning countless reader's polls in guitar magazines, reaching number 60 on Billboard's album chart (no mean feat for an instrumental album), and receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

Malmsteen's subsequent albums, Marching Out and Trilogy, also sold quite well and consolidated his reputation and influence as a composer as well as a soloist.

Malmsteen released a string of similar sounding albums throught the 80s and 90s and eventually the Grunge movement killed any momentum Malmsteen had in America. While his popularity has largely faded in the U.S. due to a backlash against the excesses of '80s shredders, Malmsteen still finds audiences in Europe and is more popular in Japan and Asia than ever.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I thought these quotes were interesting:

"I spent most of the 80s spinning my wheels as a guitar player, just being really frustrated that I couldn't play like Paul Gilbert or Yngwie Malmsteen."

--Vivian Campbell

"I really don't play much faster than some of the other guitar players. For instance, I was listening to a solo by Vivian Campbell and he was playing, if you'd measure it in notes-per-second, more notes than I ever play."

--Yngwie Malmsteen