Why Yngwie Malmsteen May Be The Most UNDERrated Guitar Player Ever And How This Can Make You A Better Guitarist
by Tom Hess
What if I told you that Yngwie Malmsteen is, without a doubt, the single most important (and underrated) guitar player of all time? More importantly, I would go as far as to say that understanding “why” Yngwie is so UNDERrated will have a huge positive impact on your progress as a musician (regardless of what style of music you play). To most guitar players, such a claim may seem outrageous, and many people would respond with comments such as:
Other guitarists have sold more records than Yngwie Malmsteen, therefore they are more important and have had more influence on music.
Yngwie’s music and guitar playing is all about speed and no emotion.
Yngwie has not done anything new with his music in the last 30 years.
Before going further in this article, it’s worth mentioning that Point 1 above is completely irrelevant to this discussion (because the number of records sold by an artist has no impact on their overall ‘influence’ and ‘importance’ to the world of guitar playing compared to other things). Furthermore, points 2 and 3 in the list above are actually completely false and you will see why as you continue reading this article.
Whether or not you walk away from this article liking Yngwie’s music isn’t important. However, there is a secret guitar lesson hidden in learning the TRUE reasons behind Yngwie’s unparalleled importance to the world of guitar playing. Knowing what these reasons are will make you more sensitive to many new musical nuances allowing you to express yourself more fully with YOUR guitar playing.
Here is a short list of innovations that Yngwie Malmsteen has brought to the world of rock guitar that most common listeners do not give him due credit for:
Lead Guitar Techniques (Plural!)
Although virtually all guitarists would agree that Yngwie’s technical mastery (especially for his time) was/is exceptional, most listeners miss the fact that his greatness lies in bringing a 'variety' of technical improvements to lead guitar playing. When this point alone is considered in detail, Yngwie’s importance to the world of electric guitar playing becomes very clear.
Fact is, most guitar techniques are around for a long time before someone comes in and truly masters them. Think about alternate picking, directional picking, tremolo picking, string skipping, legato playing, two hand tapping, intricate metal rhythm guitar, as well as general nuances such as articulation, speed and fluency of playing these and a variety of other techniques. Consider how LOOOOOONG these guitar techniques were around before guitar players finally started mastering ALL of them technically AND musically. Most of the time the 'evolution' of these techniques took decades to reach a true master level. Even though there were guitar players who were using some of these techniques in their music, there was not any one guitar player (prior to Yngwie Malmsteen) who had mastered them ALL to a level not seen or heard before.
Yngwie's pioneering mastery of such large arsenal of lead guitar techniques goes unnoticed in discussions that compare his musical importance to that of other musicians. Instead, people tend to lump all techniques that he mastered into a single category of "technique" as if to imply that it all counts as one thing (when in fact it does not).
What does this mean for you?
Whether you listen to Yngwie’s music or not, one thing that you can learn from him is the amazing ability to fluently ‘integrate’ (combine) a variety of different guitar techniques. You must have the ability to integrate different techniques freely in your music, no matter if you play Neo-classical shred guitar or blues solos. Keep in mind that ‘integrating’ guitar techniques is NOT the same as simply practicing them ‘in isolation’ as most guitar players do. To understand the difference, watch this video on the best way to practice guitar.
Yngwie Malmsteen's vibrato is among the all-time greatest and his own guitar heroes growing up did NOT have vibrato like his. Ironically, a lot of guitar players completely disregard Yngwie’s supreme mastery of this technique and claim that his music ‘lacks feeling’. When comparing Yngwie with other famous guitar players, it is common to hear statements such as: “Player X can say more with a single note than Yngwie Malmsteen can say with 1000 notes.” In reality, the REVERSE is true: Yngwie can say more with any ‘one’ note in his guitar playing than a typical guitarist can say with any number of notes. As proof, listen to ANY ‘single’ note from the first track of the first CD of Yngwie’s career (Rising Force) and compare its sound (and expression) to any combination of notes played by guitar players who are typically considered to play with ‘more emotion’ than Yngwie.
When doing this analysis, consider how the technical nuances of balancing speed, depth, proportion, timing and tone of the vibrato enable Yngwie (and anybody who has mastered vibrato to the same level) to achieve a wide range of feeling and passion when holding out a note. In contrast, a typical guitar player never consciously analyzes (or practices) the elements of their vibrato in such detail and therefore they cannot fully appreciate the vast difference between a mediocre sounding vibrato and a great one.
What does this mean for you?
Vibrato is the single most identifiable aspect of phrasing for any guitar player. I challenge you to analyze your own vibrato in a lot of detail, focusing on the same intangible elements listed above. To test yourself, play only ‘one’ note on guitar and determine if you are able to convey ‘a variety’ of musical expressions with that ONE pitch by using vibrato only without playing any other notes (if you can’t do this, then your vibrato really needs a lot of work). Watch this free video on how to play vibrato on guitar for more about this.
Like great jazz guitar players, Yngwie is a master of improvisation. Although what he solos over is typically not as complex harmonically as 'some' more advanced jazz music, Yngwie's command over the emotion of EVERY nuance in every chord (and ability to match his phrasing to reflect that) is second to none. This goes much, much deeper than simply knowing “what scales to use over what chords”. True masters of improvisation (such as Yngwie Malmsteen) know what the inherent ‘emotion’ of each chord sounds and feels like even before the chord is played and they know how to adapt their phrasing to achieve the same feeling in their music.
It’s important to note that Yngwie often improvises new versions of old solos from his songs night after night with great taste and flawless execution (compare that to other great guitar players who simply play the exact same solo in the exact same way night after night).
What does this mean for you?
No matter what style of music you play, being able to hear the emotion of each chord in the key you are playing (BEFORE the chord is played) is a skill that you absolutely must develop if you want to realize your maximum potential as a lead guitarist. To see a demonstration of what this means, and (more importantly) to learn how to practice to achieve this in your own guitar playing, watch this video lesson about creating metal guitar solos.
Yngwie's songwriting techniques and his use of voice leading, counterpoint and polyphonic music has been another hugely important but often unnoticed and misunderstood aspect of his importance to the world of guitar-based rock music. Although these compositional tools have been with us for many centuries, they were almost nonexistent as songwriting methods used in music outside of 'some' jazz and modern classical styles.
What does this mean for you?
Many of the songwriting techniques adapted by Yngwie into rock guitar styles can be applied successfully into any genre. To see an example of how some of these techniques can be applied to any style of guitar playing, watch this free video on how to play creative guitar chords.
What should you do right now?
1. Listen to Yngwie’s music (yes, do it even if you are not a real fan of his guitar playing). If you already do like Yngwie’s guitar playing style, pick up any one of his CDs (especially the earlier records) and complete the following steps.
2. Learn to hear the nuances of his guitar playing that make Yngwie so great (refer to the points made throughout this article for specific things to listen for). If you do not understand how some of the more advanced concepts work in music (such as voice leading, or the feelings inherent to chord functions in different keys), find a guitar teacher who can explain these topics to you in detail AND show you how they can be used in rock music and be heard all over Yngwie’s compositions.
3. Analyze your own guitar playing for mastery of the same elements listed above. Even if you are playing in a style very different from Yngwie Malmsteen, you still need to develop a level of mastery of most (or all) the above elements to the level that is appropriate for your music. Evaluate your progress in these areas and take action as needed to speed up your progress in the areas that are lacking.
My goal here is not necessarily to get you to like Yngwie’s music (although chances are high that you will appreciate it much more after doing the steps above) but rather to expand your musical horizons by challenging you to listen to music in a new way that you have likely never considered before. If, after analyzing the points above and studying Yngwie’s music in detail you conclude that you still do not like his guitar playing, that’s ok. However, developing greater sensitivity to these nuances in Yngwie’s music as I described in this article will help you to get more out of listening to the guitar players who “do” inspire you greatly. All of this will lead to you becoming a much better guitarist and musician in less time.
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