If you see a guy with flowing brown hair cruising Ocean Drive in a red Ferrari convertible with a tan interior, it just might be guitar god Yngwie Malmsteen.
If you see a guy in one of four other Ferraris, that might also be him.
“I love to drive them, and I love to work on them,” Malmsteen says of the luxury Italian sports cars. “It’s like a good, therapeutic thing for me.”
And, yes, all five of them are red.
If you don’t see the Swedish-born guitarist driving around South Beach, where he lives, you might glimpse him speeding by in a red flash on his way to Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale this Saturday, October 20, for an evening of his signature style of classically influenced metal guitar.
Since Malmsteen burst onto the scene in 1984 with his Grammy-nominated debut album, Rising Force, critics have struggled to define his unique brand of rock. “Somebody decided to call it neoclassical rock,” Malmsteen says. “I never decided to call it that.”
But the name stuck, and for good reason. The music is predominantly instrumental. His searing, lightning-fast guitar licks, dubbed “shredding,” would generally be labeled heavy metal. But what makes it distinctive is the classical composition.
Many guitarists have attempted to mirror Malmsteen’s inimitable technique, and countless websites are dedicated to breaking it down. None have succeeded.
Malmsteen says one reason is because his arrangements are more complex than those created on the typical pentatonic scale that forms the basis of much rock music.
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“It’s a very limiting five-note scale,” he says. “So I started playing diminished scales, arpeggios, linear modes, and counterpoints, which is a very classical thing to do. But I didn’t want to play just classical music, and I didn’t want to play blues-rock either. I wanted a loud sound and the sophistication and melody of classical baroque music. So I just took what I liked and made it my own.”
Malmsteen began devising these intricately complex songs at a young age. “I grew up in a family that were all classically trained musicians,” he says.
He remembers the day he took the leap from classical to rock. It was September 18, 1970 — the day Jimi Hendrix died. “I was 7,” Malmsteen recalls. “I saw Jimi Hendrix [on television] smash up a burning guitar, and I thought that was so cool, and I thought, I’m going to start playing guitar.”
The classical composers of Malmsteen’s youth — Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart — were in his blood. But he couldn’t escape the magic of Hendrix’s live performance. “I like the power of a huge wall of Marshalls and double-bass drums,” he says. “I like to smash things, and the smoke, and things like that.”
He wanted to be a musician but says the expectations for young men in Sweden are vastly different from those in the United States. “In Europe, you’re supposed to do your studies, take a job, buy a car, get a wife,” Malmsteen says. “Don’t ever think about being an artist or a musician. That’s not a real job.”
So, in 1982, he moved to Los Angeles to become a rock star. No fan of earthquakes, he left L.A. for brief a stint in New York City, then headed south, and never looked back. “I love this place,” he says of Miami. “I love the weather. I love the water. I love everything about it.”
And Miami has become more than just Malmsteen’s home. It is his inspiration. “I wrote a song called 'Magic City,' dedicated to South Florida,” he says. “I love America, but Miami, it is the top place.”
Despite ranking on Time’s "10 Greatest Electric-Guitar Players," selling more than 25 million albums, and having a signature Fender Stratocaster guitar named after him, Malmsteen never joined a big-name band.
“I compose the guitar parts, obviously, but also the bass, drums, keyboards, vocals, melody, and lyrics,” he says of the creative control he enjoys when producing solo music. “Sometimes people misunderstand my MO, like I’m being egotistical, but it’s not that. It’s an artistic thing. Like a painter doesn’t let someone paint the background and he does the foreground. The painter paints the whole picture. And that’s how I work.”
And though Malmsteen denies being egocentric, he does admit to having a temper. He recalls a notorious incident on an international flight in 1987. “Everyone was rowdy in first class,” he recalls. “I fell asleep, and a lady had taken a pitcher of ice water and just poured it over my head. Not anyone else, just me. And I freaked out and started screaming.”
What he screamed is not in question: “Now you unleashed the fucking fury!”
But what led to the incident has been widely postulated. Some reports say Malmsteen spewed incendiary comments about homosexuals. Other reports say he poured ketchup on a sanitary napkin and put it on a seat by the female passenger.
“None of those are true,” Malmsteen says of the slanderous remarks. “I never said anything about gay people, ever. I don’t know how that came up.”
He wants to finally set the record straight and concedes the ketchup story is partially true. “That was not me,” he says. “That was the keyboard player in my band that did it.”
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He dismisses the incident as “different times” and says that today, his focus is on music, family, the occasional game of tennis, and, of course, playing with his cherished cars.
And which Ferrari is his favorite?
“The red one,” he says.