Yngwie Malmsteen to Guitarists: Don't Neglect Your Music Theory!

"It all becomes hardwired and you soon stop thinking about it."

Ultimate Guitar
Yngwie Malmsteen to Guitarists: Don't Neglect Your Music Theory!

Yngwie Malmsteen discussed the importance of music theory, telling Music Radar:

"You're going to laugh at this... I only play with my ears. I don't think about technique or scales or anything. I just think about what I sound like.

"I grew up in a very musical family and I knew how important it was to know all the theory.

"You might think it's boring, but you have to learn the relationships between all the scales, keys and notes in order to know what you can and can't do.

"Not only does that help you play whatever you hear in your head, but you can start throwing yourself off the cliff without worrying about playing the wrong note.

"You know exactly what notes belong in the scale you're looking for and which ones don't. You can improvise as it happens.

"That's how I taught my son, Antonio Malmsteen, and he's amazing! I told him from day one: 'You can learn this riff and this lick, all of it, but they are only building blocks. It's about how you put those blocks together and create a building that doesn't fall down.'

"It might sound boring, but it's very important. I took piano lessons as a kid, so I knew theory before I even picked up a guitar.

"My older brother and sister would talk about F# sounding good in a certain key on the kitchen table... it was a common way of talking. In rock 'n' roll, that seems to be missing a lot. People aren't spending enough time on all of this.

"Say Phrygian and Diminished - they're all connected. A Harmonic Minor is also E Phrygian Dominant , but you could play diminished from F# (every three frets) and you'll bring that flavor. It all becomes hardwired and you soon stop thinking about it."

Focusing on improvisation in general, Yngwie noted:

"When you play blues, you go into a certain mode, you know? The groundwork isn't actually that hard, it's all mathematical theory.

"You have the key to this door and when you open it, there's a hallway with 100 other doors. Behind those doors are more doors and it keeps going on. But you need the key to open that first door: once you have that, you don't need to worry anymore.

"That's how you become an amazing improviser and I feel that improvisation is one of the most important things to be a musician.

"All the great composers were great improvisers - they wrote it all down because they had to! That all comes down to knowing the theory. It's how you stay in the right place and never head anywhere you’re not supposed to be."

20 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Weybl Himself
    This would have to be the first in the latest stream of Yngwie articles where he's not just talking himself up or spouting total bullshit. I'm genuinely surprised. 
    He might be a limpdick but this time he's right about this. Know your shit!
    Well, I think any of us plans to befriend him so I don't really understand why those judgements everyone does. [Assuming by the latest articles of the discussion with a single person we don't know what happened between them before] he might be an asshole, but so what? It bothers me a lot more artists that are assholes towards the fans than in their personal life. He's a musician, and one that clearly does his homework. Maybe we'd do better stopping making assumptions about him and listening to his music and learning with him instead.
    It's all mixed up in my head... I'm playing guitar, learning how to play piano, I'm actually taking songwriting (as in musical theory and using it in your own music) lessons and still, there are so many different opinions. Since I started playing guitar, I thought that theory is relevant, it's like the golden ratio in paintings. Then I've realized what are modulations, where I've seen that key of a song can change, I realized why is it so and how it happens. And then I meet this guy who sings in my band today. He can play guitar too. He is playing it for over 10 years by now. The thing that surprises me is that he knows all the chords, their shapes, but doesn't know which shape is which chord. In fact, he doesn't know a single tone on the guitar, not even those you get by strumming open strings, or the chord names... and yet, he can play it so well. He sometimes plays something to us, it sounds awesome, but in musical theory... It's all mixed up and strange. Maybe I'm just all newbie to this, but I'm not sure if it's still better to know musical theory which sometimes might limit your ideas, or is it better just to do it like him, go by the feeling, not paying attention to theory and creating something really nice and surprisingly accepted by people who hear it?
    Let's put it this way: Stevie Wonder sings and plays keyboards and harmonica and drums very well. Does this mean that in order to play any of does instruments one'd better be blind?
    You're missing my point, it's an exception. Beethoven was deaf when he made some parts of his music. That's not what I'm trying to say. But I've seen and heard of a lot of famous guitar players who don't know anything about theory, yet they have... something which helps them make good music. Where I come from, we have this term, hearing, which actually doesn't stand for hearing noises in general but differing tones and music in general way much better than the others. I'm not sure what's the word for it in English, but I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. But can you really totally ignore theory that way...?
    I know what you mean, but I think it's a (common, unfortunately) mistake to think that knowledge can take something away from you. If your friend has a good ear, a good, although merely empirical, grasp of how to create and perform the kind of music he likes, that's perfectly fine. But if he decided to learn theory (maybe in order to play jazz or compose a film score) doing so wouldn't take any bit of his talents away from him.
    You have to learn the relationships between all the scales, keys and notes in order to know what you can and can't do.
    He's got a very wrong understanding of what music theory is. It's not about what you can or what you can not do, let alone "wrong notes". No wonder why his music is so boring...
    Maybe some quotes from jazz masters will help you guys understand: "It's not the note you play that's the wrong note - it's the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong " - Miles Davis "There’s no such thing as a wrong note" - Art Tatum "There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions" - Bill Evans "There are no wrong notes on the piano, just better choices" - Thelonious Monk
    Yeeeh those 2 those downvoted you probably never listened to Jason Becker. He himself stated that every "Wrong" note he played in scales and such, instead of not playing it, he fixed the whole thing to adapt it to a style of his own and a sound of his own...