Virtuosic Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen is credited for originating the fleet-fingered neo-classical style that took the heavy metal world by storm in the early 1980s. Combining a dazzling technique honed over years of obsessive practice, and with a love for rock gods such as Jimi Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore and composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Paganini, Malmsteen's distinctively Baroque, gothic compositional style and lightning-fast arpeggiated solos rewrote the book on heavy metal guitar. His debut album, 1984's Rising Force, upped the ante for aspiring hard rock guitarists and proved the major catalyst for the '80s guitar phenomenon known as "shredding." With an ego to match his considerable talents, Malmsteen blazed a fiery path through the '80s and early '90s, though like many artists in the metal realm, he was forced to lie low during the grunge and alternative rock boom. Following a series of personal setbacks, tragedies, and injuries, Malmsteen eventually resurfaced on small, independent labels and then recorded at a prolific, rapid pace, continuing to play the music he loved in his patented neo-classical style well into the next century, with highlights arriving via 2002's Attack!!, 2008's Perpetual Flame, and 2019's Blue Lightning.
Yngwie (pronounced "ING-vay") 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 wildman 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 in 1981.
Steeler recorded one album with Malmsteen on guitar, but dissatisfied with the band's slick, commercial sound, 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.
However, on June 22, 1987, a speeding Malmsteen crashed his Jaguar into a tree; in breaking the steering wheel with his head, he received a blood clot in his brain that nearly killed him and extensively damaged the nerves leading to his picking hand. In the course of recovery, he learned that his mother had died and that his manager had swindled him out of his earnings. Undaunted, Malmsteen regained the use of his hand and recorded Odyssey, his most accessible, radio-friendly collection to date; the single "Heaven Tonight" widened his audience beyond a devoted core of guitar fans and helped push the album into Billboard's Top 40. Following a world tour including the then-Soviet Union, the Rising Force unit disbanded and Malmsteen formed a new band in his native Sweden for 1990's Eclipse. The album was a success in Europe and Japan, but failed to connect with American audiences. An angry Malmsteen left PolyGram and, prior to the release of 1992's Fire and Ice, he was married to and divorced from a Swedish pop singer. Fire and Ice debuted at number one on the Japanese charts, and Malmsteen toured the world again. However, disaster struck frequently over the next two years. Hurricane Andrew destroyed Malmsteen's Miami property; his manager of four years died of a heart attack; Elektra dropped him from their roster; a freak accident left the guitarist with a broken hand, in addition to frequent bouts of tendinitis caused by his lightning technique; and in August 1993, Malmsteen's future mother-in-law, opposed to his engagement to her daughter, had him falsely arrested for holding the woman hostage with a gun. The charges were quickly dropped, and Malmsteen secured a deal with the Japanese label Pony Canyon after his hand had healed completely. He returned to recording with a vengeance, releasing The Seventh Sign in 1994, as well as two mini-albums (Power and Glory and I Can't Wait), and then Magnum Opus in 1995 and the all-covers album Inspiration in 1996.
After several years in near obscurity, Malmsteen returned to the headlines in 2002, after a fellow airline passenger threw water on him after he allegedly made a slanderous comment about homosexuals. This incensed Malmsteen, who had to be escorted away by security, all the while screaming to the passenger that she had "unleashed the f*cking fury." This stint proved to be so popular in revitalizing his career that his comeback album in 2005 -- Unleash the Fury -- appropriated the phrases as its title. 2008's Perpetual Flame saw Malmsteen team up with Iced Earth and Judas Priest vocalist Tim "Ripper" Owens, but he returned to instrumental work on 2009's Angels of Love. Relentless arrived the following year -- once again featuring Owens behind the mike -- and was promoted via a blazing performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Malmsteen handled all of the instruments and vocals on 2012's Spellbound, and in 2016 he issued his 20th studio long-player, World on Fire. In 2019, Malmsteen released his first blues LP, Blue Lightning, which featured dazzling versions of blues-rock classics like "Purple Haze," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and "Smoke on the Water." ~ Steve Huey