The next Guitar Gods Festival takes place in Miami, Florida on February 19th, 2016. The brainchild of April Malmsteen, it’s a wall-to-wall showcase of virtuosity featuring performances by Steve Vai, Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain, Gus G, Rudy Sarzo and of course Yngwie Malmsteen. And the centerpiece of the Guitar Gods Festival is the online competition where budding artists have been duking it out to determine the next Guitar God, with the winners voted on by fans and an all-star panel of judges. Eight finalists will perform at the event: Brad Jurjens, Elmo Karjalainen, Tyler Morris, Jorge Almarales, Joey Lodes, Pareidolia, Robert Rodrigo, Janne Nieminen & Emil Pohjalainen, and judge favorites Mrs. Smith and Dario Pardini. We caught up with Yngwie and April to discuss the festival and what’s next for the inimitable Mr. Malmsteen.
Yngwie: This is happening in Miami Beach on February 19 and it starts early in the day and goes to about 10pm at night. I guess the main draws would be myself and Steve Vai, and we have other guys like Gus G, Rudy Sarzo, Nicko McBrain – and then a bunch of guys who have been submitting for the competition. It’s also for the AMF (April Malmsteen Foundation), the charity that my wife put together for endangered animals. It should be a blast. It’s something you shouldn’t miss, with all these different players on stage. And we’ll play together at the end.
April: I’ve always had a passion for animals. I started the foundation in 2015 with a mission of creating harmony between animals and humans. Essentially, what we intend to do is work through grantmaking, public campaigns and social media to bring attention and funding to animal protection and environmental conservation. As an example, AMF being present at the Guitar Gods Festival brings attention to the foundation’s message in a place where it normally would not be found, and as such brings a whole new audience to the movement.
I think bands are looking for more interesting ways to present themselves these days. It’s no longer the album/tour/album/tour cycle any more, and you can step outside of that and do cool things like this.
April: Years ago when I came up with the concept of this festival, I really wasn’t looking at what was trendy. The idea just popped into my head simply because I saw a struggle among young musicians where in this day and age, it was hard to get into the music business and get exposure. I wanted to give an opportunity to up-and-coming musicians to ride on the wings of already-established artists. This particular event in Miami is as of now a one-off thing, but if it works, we’ll definitely do more – I don’t see anyone else giving the same sort of avenue to new artists.
Yngwie: The album/tour cycle is completely gone. I can go on tour any time now, with or without an album, and it doesn’t matter. And I can put an album out tomorrow without a tour and it doesn’t matter. And I actually just finished a new record. I spent two years on it, touring, recording, touring, recording. And that’s much, much better actually, in a way. Back in the day I would write the songs then rehearse them with some musicians, then go and do a backing track and we’d record it, mix it, learn the songs to go play them on tour, then do it all again. That way isn’t necessarily conducive to making the best music, y’know what I mean? So in a very, very backhanded way this weird twist of fate in the music industry has actually made it a more inspiring environment, for me at least. I can write any time and record any time. My recording studio is always open, 24 hours. I can just record when I want and it’s a beautiful thing.
What’s the record like?
Yngwie: It’s a Malmsteen record [laughs]. But I would say it’s a little different. First of all I do all the lead vocals on it. Any time I did lead vocals in the past I was singing blues stuff. This time I decided to do lead vocals in my style of songwriting, so it’s different in that way. It’s a very hard-hitting album and some parts are very advanced, very complicated. But it’s a broad record. It’s definitely a must-listen-to! It’s finished and it’s been delivered to the label in Japan so I would expect it to be released in about two months from now.
Are you playing bass on this record? I’ve always liked your bass playing.
Yngwie: Of course. I play all the bass and most of the keyboards. And there’s a string section and a choir. It’s very neoclassical. It’s super neoclassical!
So going back to the festival: the contest is a great idea. Did you ever enter any contests or talent shows as a kid?
Yngwie: In a weird way, yeah! Well that’s kind of how I got to America, through the tape I sent to Guitar Player Magazine, and the first prize was to be spotlighted in the magazine. I never thought it would happen but it did happen and it allowed me to go to America. But I won a couple of competitions in Sweden too when I was a little kid but they were kinda useless, y’know? [Laughs]. I won a Battle of the Bands thing and some other stuff. But basically, if you wanna be seen, this would be a great thing. We got over 1,000 submissions and some of them are really good. We’ll have eight of them come up, and one of the prizes is to actually play on the Axes & Anchors cruise ship that goes out the next day. The whole thing is really good. It’s my wife’s baby, really. She came up with the concept.
April, how can people support AMF if they can’t get to the festival?
April: Those who aren’t able to come to the festival can visit our website at www.aprilmalmsteenfoundation.org. Right now we only have donations available, but we’re working on having other avenues open through which people can help, and we’re hoping to be able to reveal those soon.
Yngwie, have you picked up any cool vintage guitar finds lately?
Yngwie: Y’know, it’s a funny thing you should say that. I went through a period where I collected guitars, and I still have a lot. I’m looking at about 100 guitars right now in my studio. I have some weird stuff. I have one of the ten first standard Strats ever made. I’ve got some really, really rare stuff. I’ve got a maple cap ’67 which is unheard of. Even Fender doesn’t know it exists! But I collect other things. Ferraris, guns, watches. I have other things I collect, but I have too many guitars and amps as it is.
Was there ever a guitar that you tried to get your hands on but couldn’t?
Yngwie: Yes! When I was 12 years old I wanted this one guitar, a blonde Fender Strat, and I worked all summer. I painted my mom’s house, I worked all summer to earn the money for this Strat. And I go to the store and say “I wanna get this guitar,” this brand new Fender. But they said I was $60 or $100 short and they wouldn’t give it to me. So they said “Well, we’ve got this. You can have this 1968 Stratocaster.” Because in those days vintage guitars were just old guitars! So I was bothered! I walked away with a 1968 Fender Stratocaster and I was bummin’ because I wanted a new one! So that’s a cool story. But that’s the only time I didn’t get what I wanted, y’know? [Laughs].
What’s your approach to distortion? There’s always a lot of clarity and attack to your sound.
Yngwie: It’s a funny thing: I started playing guitar when I was really, really young and one of the first things I wanted to have was distortion. I bought a little kit when I was like 7 or 8 years old for a fuzz box, and it was fun but then I realized that in order to play clear stuff you have to play accurately on the instrument and you can’t have a fuzz tone: you have to have harmonic distortion from a tube amp or whatever. I found this out early on. When I listened to Paganini, that clarity of the violin is what I wanted to have on the guitar. And when everybody else was using humbuckers I didn’t want to use them because they give you a more fuzzy tone. So that’s why I used the single coil format, although the hum was something I was always very disgusted with, y’know? But I didn’t want to put the double coil in because it changes the sound because of the wider magnetic window. I always wanted a precise, clear sound, and the way I play is more of a violin approach. You don’t want a fuzz-ish tone for that. And I found that you want to have a clean signal out of the guitar and a clean signal out of the speakers. So you want no speaker-cone distortion and no hot pickups. You’ve got to start clean and end clean, and have it distorted in the middle. So what I’ve done forever is have a preamp into an old Marshall. Now I have an Yngwie Malmsteen overdrive from Fender and an Yngwie Malmsteen amplifier from Marshall, and they’re designed like I’ve always wanted to have them. It’s a little different from how most people do it. Most people like a hotter pickup but I like a clearer sound from the pickup and speaker cone.
We actually hear from a lot of country players who love your YJM Fury pickups because of that clarity.
Yngwie: Yeah! The beauty with the Fury pickup is that when you turn it down it has that chime which other stacked pickups just don’t have: they’re just dead! Sometimes you want to turn it down and get that Jimi Hendrix “Hey Joe” or “Little Wing” tone and the others just don’t have it. That’s the beauty with this one: you turn it down and it’s just f**king unbelievable. I’m very, very happy with it.
A few folks around the office wanted to know how you came to scallop your first fretboard: did you get it right straight away or did you screw up some nice guitars in the process?
Yngwie: I didn’t screw up any of them! As a kid I was very handy with stuff, y’know? I would build model ships, model planes, and I knew how to work with wood. I actually saw the scalloped frets on old lutes and I just liked the way it looked so I took one of my crappy necks when I was about 12 or 13 years old or something, and I scalloped it. And I thought “Whoa, man, I get some control out of this.” Now I have deeper scalloped and bigger frets than ever, so it’s a pretty extreme thing.