Fretprints: Yngwie Malmsteen

Alcatrazz and the Birth of Bach and Roll
Fretprints: Yngwie Malmsteen
Yngwie Malmsteen: Concert Photos/Alamy.

Los Angeles, 1983. The rock community was a land devastated by the bombast of L.A. metal – Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Mötley Crue, Ratt, and their minions. Nothing, however, could prepare its jaded cognoscenti for the appearance of an unlikely Swedish emigre, 19-year-old Yngwie Malmsteen.

Born Lars Johan Yngve Lannerbäck in Stockholm on June 30, 1963, he was the third child in a musical family. Inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s showmanship, he was drawn to the “coolness” of the electric guitar. He converted a budget acoustic guitar into an electric with a mail-order pickup, plugged into a tube radio, and began teaching himself at age 7. At 10, he formed his first group, Track on Earth, with a classmate drummer. At 12, he adopted his mother’s maiden name, Malmsten (modified to Malmsteen) and took the re-spelled Yngwie (Swedish for “young warrior chief”) as his first name. As a teen, he was influenced by classical music, particularly Niccolò Paganini, Antonio Vivaldi, and J.S. Bach, as well as rock guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, developed his formidable technique in lengthy daily playing sessions, and assembled several progressive bands including an early lineup of Rising Force. The band’s challenging sounds didn’t entice Swedish record executives, but in ’82 a demo he recorded four years earlier, “Powerhouse,” caught the ear of Shrapnel Records’ Mike Varney. Malmsteen came to America in February of ’83, Varney securing his work visa and introducing him to Steeler, an undistinguished hard-rock outfit. The routine metal fare of its debut album was elevated by Yngwie’s conspicuous musicianship, and continues to impress 40 years later. “Hot on Your Heels” flaunted a fully formed Malmsteen in its instrumental opening – a mini-opus expounding on pyrotechnics pioneered by Van Halen and Rhoads. He cut a bold figure onstage during his Steeler tenure of only four months and nine shows, astonishing resident guitar slingers and raising performance standards overnight in L.A. hot spots like the Country Club, Roxy, and Perkins Palace. After this brief stint, rumors circulated about Malmsteen joining bands fronted by Ronnie Dio, Ozzy Osbourne, and Phil Mogg. Instead, he became a member of Alcatrazz, a hard-rock quintet led by ex-Rainbow/MSG vocalist Graham Bonnet.

No Parole From Rock ’N Roll (1983) marked Malmsteen’s first break and record deal, and an auspicious intro to international audiences. Alcatrazz delivered a driving-but-sophisticated assault hoisted by Yngwie’s virtuosic, uncompromising presence. Unlike Steeler, whose material was written before he was recruited, No Parole benefitted from his compositional style. While the first single, “Island in the Sun,” bears a pop-metal synth hook a la “Jump,” it also boasts a well-conceived solo combining classical melodicism, rock energy, technical flourishes, and a sense of time that trains his virtuosity unerringly at the song.

Every Alcatrazz solo follows similar tenets; Yngwie’s harmonic acumen, melodic preferences, and technical prowess dominate the album, even on commercial outings “Jet to Jet” and “Starcarr Lane” but particularly on “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” “Kree Nakoorie,” “Big Foot” and “Suffer Me.” These pieces embodied minor modality and classical allusions, reflecting the lyrics’ serious often darker subjects, that would recur in his future output. Along similar lines is “Incubus,” an original instrumental that reconciled occult mythology and medieval/Baroque tendencies. Playing off of light-and-shade timbres, its terraced dynamics with quasi-lute acoustic timbres were contrasted by rock-army orchestration and singing harmony guitars. The album spent seven weeks on the Billboard 200, peaked at 128, and remains Alcatrazz’s finest moment.

“Island in the Sun” was Alcatrazz’s first single. While the eighth-note-driven power-pop groove was typical of mid-’80s commercial metal, Yngwie’s solo at 2:04 was anything but; his lead style – logical, melodious, and mindful of the harmony – was replete with dazzling classical-inspired runs. Check out his rising sequential line in measures 2-3 followed by the blistering step-wise run in 4 and a slower sequence melody in 5-6. The long, complex phrase in 7-8 is characteristic of his improvisations and a distinctive sweep-picked arpeggio occurs in 8-9. The singing high-register string bends in 9-10 are noteworthy as are the snagged string bend (a la Jimi) in 5 and very baroque pedal-point motive, a staple of his style, in 11-12. Bach rock, indeed.

Live Sentence, recorded at Nakano Sun Plaza, Tokyo, on January 28, 1984, was released that July, five months after Rising Force, Yngwie’s debut as band leader. The album documented the intensity of his performance while a corresponding video captured his hyperkinetic stage antics and unapologetic virtuosity, underscoring his credo that more is more. The setlist gathered songs from No Parole, covers of Bonnet’s Rainbow and MSG tunes, the Malmsteen instrumentals “Evil Eye,” “Guitar Crash” and “Kojo No Tsuki,” along with “Something Else,” an Eddie Cochran rock-and-roll oldie given a Eurometal treatment.

Live Sentence proved Alcatrazz couldn’t confine the restless, volatile Yngwie. In short order, he escaped to become one of the most important instrumentalist/composer/bandleaders (and one of the most influential guitarists) of the era. He achieved his long held goal – to establish the Yngwie brand, in Alcatrazz and, accordingly, wrote the next chapter of the ’80s shred saga on solo albums like Rising Force and Trilogy.

Blackmore and Hendrix are primary guitar influences, however Jimi’s stamp is felt more in Yngwie’s stagecraft in Alcatrazz and later in “Spasebo Blues” and “Spanish Castle Magic” on Live in Leningrad (’89). He also listened to progressive rock bands like Genesis, Jethro Tull, ELP, Alan Parsons, and Kansas. The effect of J.S. Bach is evident in “Coming Bach,” which reworks “Bourrée in E Minor,” and the underlying baroque impressions in his music. Also noteworthy is his violin-inspired passage work reminiscent of Paganini and Vivaldi. Take a listen to Paganini’s “24th Caprice” and Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons: Summer.”

“Hiroshima, Mon Amour” was an Alcatrazz favorite, bolstered by an evocative video that highlighted the serious subject matter. Yngwie’s solo was integral to the piece with its moody minor-mode lines and thoughtful departures, balancing technique, feel, and timing. This example (2:26) reveals a variety of approaches in his first phrase, from a measured staccato held bend in measures 1-2 and barrage of aggressive blues licks in 3-4 to complex neoclassic lines in 5-6. The mixed-mode phrase in 7-8, freely combining A# and A natural in B minor over F#7 (Phrygian dominant), is emblematic of his blend of harmonic minor and Aeolian elements: “Harmolian” mode, anyone? Exhibiting contrast and cohesion, Malmsteen momentarily puts shredding on hold and paraphrases the song’s chorus melody in 9-11.

Dubbed “neoclassical rock” or “Bach and roll,” Yngwie’s approach owes as much to classical music as metal. Distinctly classical interludes abound in Alcatrazz’s “Jet to Jet,” “Big Foot,” “Too Young to Die, Too Drunk to Live,” “Evil Eye,” and throughout “Incubus.” His solos are improvised but thematic, harnessing phrases based on the lexicon of baroque and classical music taken to a level of velocity and fluidity paralleled only by violin virtuosos and guided by the genre’s melody and logic. That separated his brand of shredding from the gymnastics of contemporaries at the outset. “Shredding,” previously an amorphous term, took on concise meaning after Yngwie’s arrival in ’83. He personified shred in myriad forms, taking equal liberties with rock predecessors Blackmore, Van Halen, Rhoads, Uli Roth, and Michael Schenker as well as Bach, Vivaldi and Paganini, and fusioneer Al DiMeola. His single-note soloing is strikingly linear, using the entire fretboard – the command of which seems effortless. Fast, precise alternate-picking technique is a stylistic identifier, but so are his takes on legato phrasing, whammy-bar pitch bends, dives and vibrato, sweep-picked arpeggios and broken chords, bi-dextral tapping and fretting, pinch harmonics, and blues-rock string bends. Few filled as much space in fills and solos, none with such aplomb. Consider an emblematic phrase in “Hiroshima” from 2:26 to 2:42. The percussively-attacked bent-and-held notes that start his solo are reminiscent of Blackmore’s aggressive style. They’re answered by a double-timed barrage of blues licks that suggest a Van Halen reference, and culminate in his inimitable shredding minor-mode runs. While numerous rock guitarists applied the former and some attempted the latter, none combined them as freely and passionately as Yngwie – or made them rock as hard.

Yngwie’s improvisations exude exoticism via uncommon scales like the Harmonic Minor, with its Phrygian Dominant and related modes, diminished arpeggios, pedal-point patterns, and diatonic and chromatic motives, often moved sequentially as melodic groups, characteristic of classical music. These elements are conveyed with high-decibel power (“Play Loud” was his manifesto) and married to the aggression of hard rock, nudging Eurometal into its next evolutionary phase. Yngwie’s finger vibrato is distinct and personal as a fingerprint. He favors a wide and expressive vibrato, which is measured and precise in intonation while frequently exceeding the normal range of blues-rock bending, facilitated by scalloped fingerboards and light strings. A rarely cited trait underscoring his melodic sensibilities is the penchant to segue into slower lofty melodic lines after long, intricate cascades of notes – in essence returning to a theme, a form of recap and contrast within improvisations, heard tellingly in “Hiroshima.” The future exhibited on Rising Force was glimpsed with “Evil Eye,” which repurposed Bach counterpoint of two-part inventions, boasted a thundering harmonic-minor riff punctuated with dramatic fills or pregnant pauses (0:31), exploited zigzagging arpeggio sequences reminiscent of Paganini (0:59), and showcased spectacular improvisations in two solo spots over contrasting grooves at 2:00 and 2:42.

Yngwie is an accomplished composer and arranger. Augmenting his neoclassical metal inclinations in Alcatrazz are thoughtful touches like harmony-guitar interludes in “Starcarr Lane,” “Suffer Me” and “Jet to Jet,” strong counter lines that suggest an orchestral conception rather than straight rock-rhythm guitar, and very heavy riffs. The latter are represented by classically-laced metal figures propelling “Hiroshima,” “Too Young to Die,” “Kree Nakoorie,” and “Big Foot,” while his Blackmore-inspired dyad/pedal-point patterns dominate “Too Young to Die” and “Jet to Jet.”

No Parole From Rock ’N Roll and Live Sentence are essential. Current editions offer instrumental bonus tracks on the former and additional concert performances on the latter.

The entire Live Sentence concert is viewable online – an illustrative and humbling must-see.

“Jet to Jet” presents a telling sample of Malmsteen’s violin-influenced lead style. The fast hard-rock groove and an intricate harmony-guitar interlude leads to his centerpiece solo at 2:14. Note the familiar skipping-thirds sequence in measures 2-4 redolent of classical music, followed by an arpeggio-dominated “broken chord” pattern articulated with emblematic sweep picking in 5-6. His classical ethos is further reinforced by an imitated motive played in two octaves in 9-10, but particularly in the winding arpeggio figures of 13-15. The latter pose sequenced C diminished arpeggios over G#7 in a manner suggesting a virtuoso violin cadenza. Paganini-isms like this effectively moved metal guitar into new sonic territory.

Devoted to Stratocasters since the mid ’70s, Malmsteen collected several by ’84, largely models made from 1968 to ’72 with maple fretboards bearing personal modifications; inspired by Blackmore and a 17th-century lute, he scalloped his boards, having mastered the procedure at age 15 while working in an instrument-repair shop. He re-fretted his Strats with Dunlop Super Jumbos and preferred the sound of only the bridge and neck pickups, which he replaced with DiMarzio FS-1s and later HS-3. He lowered the inoperative middle units into the pickguard and hard-wired the Tone pot in the 10 position. In performance, he switched between the two pickups to accentuate the timbre of a particular phrase.

Yngwie favored stock Fender vibrato bridges with four springs and heavier bars. His favorite Alcatrazz Strat was a cream ’69 model named “Duck.” He also played black right- and left-handed versions made from ’69 to ’72 models, other cream-colored examples from the same era, a cream ’61, sunburst ’68, an Aria Flying V with replaced single-coil pickups, and an Aria Les Paul with a locking Kahler vibrato. The V was employed prominently in “Since You’ve Been Gone.” He created a light top/heavy bottom string arrangement from D’Angelico or Ernie Ball sets using .008/.011/.014/.026/.036/ and .046, and favored Fender, D’Angelico, or Dunlop 1.5mm extra-heavy picks. Though he tuned his Strat down a half-step on Rising Force, he played in concert tuning with Alcatrazz.

Onstage, Malmsteen roared through three Marshall stacks, preferring 50-watt Mark II non-Master heads from ’71/’72 with KT77 power tubes, and six 4×12 cabinets sporting 60-watt Celestion speakers, fed with a signal-splitter box. Legend has it he recorded No Parole with a Scholz Rockman then overdubbed his Marshalls. The album’s bonus tracks corroborate this – check out the intro of “Starcarr Lane.”

He used effects sparingly; in concert, he relied on a ’70s DOD Overdrive Preamp/250, Boss CE-1 chorus, MXR Phase 100, Crybaby wah, Boss Octaver, a Roland DC-10 analog echo, and a Moog Taurus bass pedal. The 250 and CE-1 contributed to his boosted/overdriven (but never fuzzy) live sound.

Wolf Marshall is the founder and original editor-in-chief of GuitarOne magazine. A respected author and columnist, he has been influential in contemporary music education since the early 1980s. His books include 101 Must-Know Rock Licks, B.B. King: the Definitive Collection, and Best of Jazz Guitar, and a list credits can be found at

This article originally appeared in VG’s November 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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