Talking Tone With Yngwie Malmsteen
There aren’t many players who can say they’ve spearheaded an entire genre, but Yngwie J Malmsteen is among this esteemed few. Yngwie synthesised the worlds of classical melodicism and heavy rock energy in ways that had only been hinted at before, and in doing so he ignited a guitar revolution. We caught up with Yngwie recently to have a chat about pickups, tone and the blues.
It took a while to lock down the design of your signature pickups because you were very particular about what you were after…
Well it took a while but actually not. The thing with Stratocasters is Leo Fender was a genius in so many ways that I don’t think people even understand. For instance the neck pickup is positioned exactly at the 24th double octave harmonic, and stuff like this. So when I play very high on the high frets, the response on that pickup has to be a very certain response. In other words, not too much magnetic pull, not too much power, not too little power, and the staggering has to be a certain way. And Fender pickups aren’t good. And what happened was, y’know, I came up with an idea years and years ago and I said to another company – I’m not going to mention who they are but people know who they are – I said if you put two coils on top of each other maybe you can get a cancelling coil but the same magnetic readout as a single coil, because I didn’t want to do the Van Halen thing. I mean, I love Van Halen but I didn’t want to do that like everybody else did. So they said ‘Okay, we’ll stick them on top of each other,’ and they gave it to me and I said ‘I really don’t like this. It’s weedy and thin and doesn’t have any sustain, nothing.’ So they do another one and I’m not too crazy about this one either. So they do another one called HS-3 – humbucking Strat 3 – and I say ‘Listen, it’s quiet but it has no harmonic response, it has no sustain.’ I found out later on that it’s virtually half a pickup. Only the top coil is working, and the bottom coil doesn’t have magnets through it so it’s only a half pickup! The same size as a Fender pickup but half, and a Fender pickup is weak as it is. Anyway, I lived with that for many, many years and I was convinced that that was probably it. So Seymour Duncan approached me and said ‘We know you use this other thing but if you’d ever like to try us…’ So each time they sent pickups, the pickups they sent me sounded exactly like Fender pickups but they didn’t have any noise.
And the thing I was not crazy about with Fender pickups was they had a kind of nasal, sticky, thin, pointy sound. It’s not so much to do with the magnetic field as it is to do with the pole pieces and the amount of winds. And it’s great for blues and Stevie Ray Vaughan style and things like that, but I’m playing much heavier stuff, more neoclassical, more legato and things, so I want even notes. So I started telling them ‘I want this, and this and this.’ So we turned out to make three different pickups. The YJM Fury pickups are not one set of three identical single coils. They’re three different pickups. And the magnetic stagger and the winds on the treble pickup, that was the quickest one because I just wanted more punch. I didn’t want muddy, I wanted distinct. That one happened pretty quickly. The neck pickup… like I said, the previous company made HS-3, the third completed version. But Seymour Duncan, thirty-nine [prototypes]. Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine! So God bless ‘em, y’know? I love ‘em to tears.
I tell you what, man, anybody that has my Fender model with the old pickups, let me tell you something: you get a set of the new ones, you put them in and you’re going to die and go to heaven. You’re gonna meet God. Because it has every single iota of response, distinction, power – not too much, not muddy high-output humbucker… it’s a very fine line where you have enough harmonic response before you actually have a signal that’s been corrupted from what’s coming out of the guitar. It’s absolutely stunning. It’s ridiculous. I can’t believe I had so many years without those.
I understand you have to have your personal pickups reinforced because you wail on them so hard.
Yeah, I go a little crazy on my pickups and amps and stuff. A regular Fender pickup, the pole pieces would be pushed in in ten seconds flat. That’s the way they designed them: if you push them hard they will push through, push down. That doesn’t happen unless you bang the guitar into Marshalls and stuff like that, which I do, y’know. All the time. So they’ve been Malmsteen-ized.
One thing I’ve always wanted to ask you about is the album The Seventh Sign. There’s something raw and heavy about that one, and I feel like it’s kind of under appreciated.
It was a little different from the others in the sense that in the 80s everything was so cyclical. You wrote a record, you recorded the record, you toured the record, you came home and did it all again. And at the time of that record it was still like that, but in a different way I suppose, because I go through some really weird **** at different times, and that was a really weird time with the whole grunge thing and all that. So we had to record in a different studio and I recorded my guitars to a click track, then we put the drums on afterwards. But I think some of the songs are very strong there, y’know? “Never Die,” “Seventh Sign” is good… I think the way I look back at it is that every album I did was the best I could do at the time, and I was going through some crazy ****.
I always like hearing you play the blues, which you do really nicely on that album on the song “Bad Blood.”
Yeah and I did it on my last album, “Spellbound,” I did a song called “Iron Blues.” I love to play the blues. In fact I was just listening to some blues on the radio, some old Muddy Waters or something, and I really like that because it’s unfiltered blues. There are some great ones like Clapton and Stevie Ray and guys like that who did it really, really good. But then there are some blues where it feels like they’re going through the motions. I like it more raw.
I think with any style there are the guys who innovate and then there are the players who copy them… here you are 30 years later and you’re still here, whereas a lot of the guys who copied you in the 80s, you don’t hear much from any more…
Yeah, yeah, haha. And that’s why I call myself Yngwie J Malmsteen, not to be confused with all the other Yngwie Malmsteens.