Why this isn’t a review
1. If you were to look at the 10 most important and influential electric guitar players of all time, in my opinion, Yngwie Malmsteen would be in the top 3, with Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.
2. If Jimi Hendrix was the reason I picked up a guitar, Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force (along with the first Alcatrazz record, No Parole From Rock and Roll) is the reason I practiced guitar. It’s also a key reason why I attended music school and it was the critical first step behind everything that I do as a guitarist today.
So, to be clear, it’s not possible for me to be objective here. If I were to offer a review, it would be this:
“If Yngwie Malmsteen as a subject matter interests you – you will read this book regardless of whatever I tell you.
If Yngwie Malmsteen as a subject matter doesn’t interest you – there’s probably little I can say to get you to read it.”
For the people in the latter category, that’s a shame as I found it to be a fascinating book. Even if you’re not interested in Malmsteen’s personal history, writing process and/or his path to mastery of the fingerboard, the sections on the (de)evolution of the music industry, the price of the rock and roll lifestyle and the lengthy section on tone make this a book worth reading.
Just as he is constantly improvising on guitar – Malmsteen’s book has a number of stream-of-consciousness moments interspersed with a general chronology that reveals a multi-dimensional picture of him. Rather than write about generalities of the book, here are a few takeaways I’d like to share that may inspire you to pick it up.
What I learned on my fall vacation with, Relentless: A Memoir
1. Every origin is humble.
“They had asked me what I wanted for my birthday , and I’d said I wanted a dog and a sword. I didn’t get a live dog, but I did get a little sword and a toy dog, and this strange Polish acoustic guitar.”
As a player it’s easy to forget that every monster player on the planet started off at square one. Malmsteen started with an unplayable acoustic guitar before borrowing his brother’s guitar and eventually worked his way up to the Strats that became his signature.
2. Opportunities are what you make of them.
“I got wind of the fact that my mother wanted to have the house painted…it was the only way I could get the money to by a real Fender Stratocaster, which cost an astronomical sum to me at the time.”
Malmsteen went on to make many opportunities like this through out his career. Had he not been aggressive in pursuing his goals he never would have reached such a level of success.
3. 1970’s Sweden was a good and bad place to play guitar.
“To be a musician, a star athlete, an actor, or an artist of any stature – such people were looked down on because they were not considered to be ideal citizens. We had the occasional Nobel Prize-winner whom the country would be proud of, but forget it if you aspired to do something that had even a hint of celebrity to it. ”
The bad side of playing in Sweden at the time was that it was very difficult to do things that were unexpected. There was a lot of resistance to unique voices like Malmsteen’s and moving forward despite criticism was a major developmental factor in his life.
The good thing about being in Sweden at that time was that Malmsteen became a big fish in a small pond. An example of this is that an early gig landed Malmsteen on the front page of a major newspaper which he was able to parlay that into his press materials that got him the attention of Spotlight columnist/Shrapnel Record label owner, Mike Varney.
4. Listen to a lot of different things….
He credits his sister, Lolo, with bringing home a lot of different records that expanded his ear.
“She (Lolo) bought records by everyone from Genesis to Frank Zappa, stuff like Weather Report; Savoy Brown; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers and I would listen to all of it.”.
Interestingly enough, while he’s quick to point out what a huge influence Ritchie Blackmore was on his playing, Malmsteen notes an unlikely major influence on his technique.
“If anything, Genesis had a much greater influence in pushing me towards classical structures. Tony Banks, the keyboardist, was like a virtual Bach jukebox, with his arsenal of tricks like pedal notes and diminished chords.”
5. …but focus on one thing and pursue it with passion and vigor.
“I had never heard of Nicolo Paganini before that, and I had certainly never heard violin playing of that sort. Everything I’d been wanting was all right there. I was losing it while I was watching yelling, “That’s it, that’s it!”
Just as a chance sighting of Jimi Hendrix on the television lighted a spark that made him want to play, seeing a chance performance of a Paganini Caprice solidified his musical direction and drove him deeper in his goals. This ultimately became the root of the sound that defined Malmsteen as an artist.
6. Recording and relentless practice can be a key to getting better
“In my mind, I was performing, not practicing. That’s why I was so adamant about recording everything; it was so I could have a reference point from which to push myself further.”
Growing up, Malmsteen and his family lived in a building owned by his grandmothe and, in the basement, was an abandoned recording studio that a family member built. Malmsteen formed groups with ad hoc musicians and rehearsed in the studio and recorded everything done there. The tape deck in his house had a faster playback speed than his recording tape deck, so when Malmsteen went home and listened to the tape it sounded faster than he remembered recording it. Eventually, he used the tape deck as a type of primitive phrase trainer to increase his speed and technical facility to what he heard on the playback deck.
As a side note, while a number of players (including Malmsteen) talk about 8-12 hour practice sessions in interviews – his fluidity in everything he plays indicates to me that he was one of the few people who actually put that time in consistently.
7. Attention to detail is a must for mastery.
“I was extremely adamant that the execution of every note had to be crystal clear, the way it sounds on violins.”
Throughout the book Malmsteen explains how he investigates things at a microscopic level (to the point where he can hear minute changes in his amp room with the addition of a bag in the room). One interesting observation is his assertion that the spaces between the notes are just as important as much as the notes themselves:
“…it’s just that I play so that every note has a little breath of space before it and after it – no note blends into another. In a lot of fast guitar playing , the notes sound blurred and I was damned if I was going to sound that way.”
8. The path to success is sometimes linear.
“When I sent that tape out in 1982, I really didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know my life was about to change permanently.”
In Malmsteen’s case, success involved endless writing, practicing and working with numerous musicians which lead to taking first prize in a talent contest. He then used the prize (12 hours in the Swedish CBS 16-track recording studio) to create a professional sounding demo tape that went to Guitar Player “Spotlight” columnist, Mike Varney. Because of Varney’s review of the demo material, Malmsteen received offers to fly to the US to work with Ron Keel (in Steeler) and (later) Alcatrazz.
9. The 1980’s were a weird scene.
“We need to know a couple of things’, the guy said to me. ‘like are you six feet tall?’….I guess I gave the wrong answer because I never heard back from him.”
The chapters on relocating to the U.S. (and the culture shock of leaving the clean peaceful streets of Sweden to living in the hood while rehearsing for the Steeler album or later working and touring with Alcatrazz) are fascinating and act as a quasi-historical first person account of the 1980’s LA metal / hard rock scene.
10. You’ve got to keep your eye on the money.
“When the tour was finally over, we all went out separate ways. I headed back to New York and reconnected with Nigel (Thomas – soon to be Malmsteen’s manager). He asked me about my finances and how my career was being handled, and he actually went with me to visit my accountant. I asked to see how much money was coming in and where it was going. The accountant pulled out the balance sheets and there is was: eighteen dollars. I had eighteen dollars to my name – no collateral, no assets, no cash, no house, no car, no credit cards, no insurance.”
The middle section of book is a cautionary tale about what happens when you don’t keep your eye on the business end of your life.
At a certain point, Malmsteen realized that he had completely ignored the business-side of his career, and paid a hefty price when he learned that a small fortune was squandered and/or outright stolen.
11. The music business is never going back to what it was
“These days, the whole music industry has virtually imploded. There is no record label out there looking for new bands and new artists the way it was doing when I started in this business. Most of the traditional music labels have been swallowed up into megacorporations , like Universal, that handle music and video games along with music. Many of the actual exclusive music labels are now gone.”
One of the really interesting things about this book is that Malmsteen is someone who adapts to changes instead of allowing himself to be assimilated into them. When the music business changed, he created his own label and publishing to change with that change. It’s a great lesson for up and coming players who want to do this for a living. Or as Malmsteen puts it;
“Do you want to be a famous rock star or do you want to be a great musician? To be a rock star doesn’t take any talent at all – it just takes being lucky.”
12. At some point, you have to grow up.
“I was trying to express an honest opinion, but the things I said would often get taken out of context, or the reporters would just latch on to just a single phrase and run with it. Once it dawned on me that maybe I should give a little thought to my answers and try to sound a little more diplomatic, the damage had already been done.”
In short, this is a story about a strange kid from Sweden who got thrust into an international spotlight and had to learn some hard lessons as he became a composer, musician and family man. It’s remarkable that he’s as candid as he is and willing to show the good, the bad and the ugly in his journey to being who he is today. It also makes for great reading.
Relentless: A Memoir is available now in bookstores and in e-book format.