The Return of Shred Guitars? Part 1: Yngwie Malmsteen Strat

Perhaps the title is a bit misleading. "Shred Guitars" – a.ka. those guitars designed to be used for playing fast runs and scales – never really went away. They just were underground for a bit during the ’90s in particular. In the 1980’s, a hot-rodded "Super Strat" configuration was THE guitar to own for up and coming rock guitarists. If you played hard rock or metal, having a U.S.-built B.C. Rich, Charvel, Kramer, or Jackson was one way to tell the world that you were one "serious" musician – even if your guitar was painted in hot pink or some florescent shade, or came with wild polka dot accents or striping.

Yngwie Malmsteen StratWe can credit Eddie Van Halen for being essentially the innovator of, and the most famous of guitarists to play, a hot-rodded Stratocaster type guitar. The formula for these guitars during the ’80s was simple. Take a basic Stratocaster style body and ditch the pick guard, add a relatively flat radius wide neck with jumbo frets and action set super low, use at least one high-output humbucker for the bridge position, and finally equip it with the obligatory locking tremolo system.

Looking at the famous players themselves, one musician who defied this normal mode of guitar choice and took a different approach all together on his instrument was Yngwie Malmsteen. Yngwie’s approach to music itself is a neo-classical one in style. He has extremely accurate picking technique as evidenced by his melodies and phrases that he plays at blistering speeds.

Rather than choosing to go with a Super Strat-type guitar, Yngwie’s guitars of choice have always been traditional Fender Stratocasters from the era of 1968 to circa 1972 – with just a few alterations. Fender began producing a signature series of Stratocasters for Yngwie beginning in the late 1980’s, just prior to the high-speed guitar playing styles and music quietly went underground to be replaced by grunge, and later ‘nu-metal’. In 1999, Fender updated the Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster once again with refinements that more closely matched Yngwie’s favored CBS-era instruments, adding the larger headstock styling and thicker neck.

As we approach 2005 as of this writing, it’s interesting to once again see some transitioning within guitar-based rock music. Guitar solos are once again becoming "in". Many ’80s bands are touring the circuit with successful concert ticket sales. Guitar magazines themselves are talking about shred licks, while ads featured inside promise "easy" ways to learn how to play with blistering technique to impress an audience or a member of the opposite sex.

I smile a bit about all this because it really does take me back to about 1987 or so, when I was a young teenager with shred dreams of my own…And now it seems as if some of the musicianship is coming back again.

And with that, what better way to celebrate this than to spend a series of articles checking out some "shred" guitars, both old and new. Our first pick is the Yngwie Malmsteen signature-series Fender Stratocaster.

Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster: Features

The current Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster is a U.S. built instrument which includes many vintage appointments from its large headstock CBS-era neck, to its pre-CBS era mint green aged pickguard, and a standard ’60s style tremolo with late ’60s "F tuners". It includes a Tweed case along with basic Fender documentation, an extra guitar cable, a strap, and two allen wrenches for neck and bridge adjustments.

The Malmsteen Strat is available in three colors (vintage white, sonic blue, and candy apple red) with either a rosewood or maple freboard. I’d like to complain about the resulting colors. The vintage white looks like a bit of a forced light yellow in real life rather than a true vintage white and the candy apple red used isn’t as dark of a shade as it should be. Our test eval unit here was a red model with rosewood board. I imagine most Yngwie admirers will most often purchase the vintage white model, but we liked actually seeing it in a bit of a different color.

The neck is attached using a 4-bolt plate (all of Yngwie’s own guitars are all modified this way now, even those he owns from the "3-bolt era"). The truss rod adjustment is done from the top of the headstock and is a standard truss rod, not the current "bi-flex" unit used on Fender’s newer Stratocasters.

Yngwie’s modifications include the use of a brass nut and DiMarzio "stacked" pickups (two HS-3 and one YJM model). The brass nut helps reduce friction and string hangup when bending or using the tremolo bar. The stacked DiMarzio pickups are actually humbuckers but rather than running both coils side by side, they are stacked one on top of another to work to cancel noise, but fit and sound like a single-coil otherwise.

The wiring inside the guitar is also changed to Yngwie’s specification. The guitar’s two tone pots are no-load designs and are wired up so that the rear tone pot controls the bridge and middle pickups while the tone control up above controls the neck pickup. In reality, Yngwie’s own stage guitars have the middle pickup most often disconnected as he dislikes the sound of that position.

What the Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster is perhaps most famous for is its neck, which is scalloped as Yngwie’s own Stratocasters are and topped with super-jumbo Dunlop 6100 size fret wire. Scalloping, for those not familiar with the term in context of a guitar, is the process of carving out some of the wood between each fret. The result is that the player feels no wood, and therefore has to exercise better control over the instrument.

Yngwie claims that the lack of wood assists him in playing even faster, and indeed the scalloping idea has been used before on earlier instruments during the Baroque period. However, it does take some getting used to and won’t be for everyone.

In order to really play this Stratocaster well, your left hand should be holding the instrument in "classical position" while executing runs. That means that your thumb of your fretting hand stays behind the neck and doesn’t hang over the top as bluesy players will do. Trying to play blues-type bends on a guitar like this is difficult but certainly is not impossible. It just requires a great degree of control when you can’t feel the wood underneath you.

When playing around with the tremolo, I was really impressed by how well it stayed in tune considering it’s not a locking Floyd Rose or similar system. A helpful trick is to occasionally lightly oil the points of contact where metal goes across metal – the string tree and nut. The Strat (which was a new eval unit and not oiled) still could get knocked out of tune of course with heavy use, but it was relatively mild considering the abuse it was given.

When playing through a loud Marshall at high gain as Yngwie does, the signature Strat was much quieter than our Custom Shop ’69 Stratocaster. This is due to the stacked coil design of the DiMarzio pickups. While this guitar and pickup configuration don’t have all the detail and bell tones of the Custom Shop ’69, the DiMarzio pickups do a more than reasonable job at maintaining the clarity and Strat-like tone one would expect. In fact, those that may have a bit brighter of an amp setup may appreciate the slightly darker tone from these DiMarzios used with the guitar.

It should be noted that while Yngwie himself has a lot of distortion signal going to his amp, he actually gets that from the use of a DOD Overdrive/Preamp 250 circuit (now a YJM signature model is available) as a boost to run to the front of his Marshalls. The output of the pickups in this guitar are low, just like a regular Stratocaster.

Overall, the guitar was well finished and put together, but is one that should really be played personally to decide if it’s for you. With a thicker neck and scalloped fretboard, I was able to get comfortable doing Yngwie-style runs (I do a poor imitation of the opening of his "Trilogy Suite Op:5"), but unfortunately it’s not my primary style. That meant that transitioning between doing the Yngwie runs and then going to blues and rock patterns was a bit awkward for me.

I’ll admit I still had a blast playing on this guitar. Once you get used to the feel of having no wood underneath your finger tips, you can actually focus on using a bit of a lighter-handed fretting technique. If you aspire to focus on 3-note-per-string runs and arpeggios, give this guitar a shot. With a Street Price averaging $1399.00, it’s certainly reasonably priced enough for a range of musicians.

11 thoughts on “The Return of Shred Guitars? Part 1: Yngwie Malmsteen Strat

  1. I am amused by the way you beg the question and evidence your bias “for shred guitar” by equating it with “musicianship” as in the “musicianship is coming back again” in reference to the shred style guitar. As far as I am concerned, Yngwie’s guitar playing is nice as a parlor trick – gee whiz, look how fast I can play – but when was the last time somebody said “man, his guitar work moves me. I want to listen to something that will truly ignite my soul! Where is that Yngwie CD?” Yea, right. a GUITAR exists to create MUSIC. MUSIC. let me repeat that – MUSIC. How impressive your technique is, your prowess, how fast you cna play is entirely irrelevant if the END result – GOOD MUSIC – is not produced. There are so many guitarists whose work echoes throughout history, whose notes MEAN something to us, and it’s ironic how few of them are one of those dime a dozen “shredders” who spend all day wheedling out blistering fretwork while rarely ever playing anyhting that would make somebody sit up and go – man, i LOVE that song. Also, having seen scores of bands live, what makes a band good is so rarely related to whether the guitarist can shred. Does the music SOUND good? You take a guy like Keith Richards. Does he “shred?” I don’t know, but he plays music that cuts through time and creates MUSIC. Somebody like Johnny Marr or Andy Summers or the Edge etc. all guitarists who rarely solo’ed but who made music THAT mattered and that still sounds fresh and innovative decades later are always going to MATTER more than somebody like Malmstein who can impress pimply teenagers who look at the guitar as a way to say “look at me look at me” etc. but not as a tool to make some truly great music.

  2. Whit’s comments remind me of a number of times when I took a superficial look at something and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. Take a 911 for a test ride on a curvy road and you ‘get it’. Listen to a Vai solo that sounds like a mess and put a bit of effort into paying attention to the beats and accents and you ‘get it’. If Whit put a little effort into listening to Vivaldi or Paganini, then recorded a backing track and played a harmonic/ melodic minor or lydian scale over it, well then he might ‘get it’.
    Whit – there’s music there. You just don’t get it. The same way I don’t ‘get it’ with a lot of jazz. I know there’s quality there, I just don’t ‘get it’.
    Take any of the guitarist you mention and imagine them playing voodoo child. Then watch Malmsteen play voodoo child with Vai and Satriani and tell me who the musician is. Like for example relativity, quantum mechanics; just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t make it less relevant. It’s music, you just don’t get it, and when you minimize it, you just sound ignorant.

  3. We expect that our community maintains a reasonable amount of respect toward one another when they comment on articles here. Although Whit takes issue with the author’s stance, that is his right to do so, and we encourage it. However, we will not tolerate this kind of behavior. You’ve been warned.

  4. Musicianship as in technical skill go hand in hand with shred playing. Musicianship as in being musical no not always, maybe not even often. If you put a bit of effort into getting some of that technical skill down then you can use it to better express something musical. It’s incorrect of you to, well it’s limiting yourself, lets put it that way, for you to completely dismiss Yngwie as a “parlor trick”. He’s made some lovely music all across his albums. Stuff that is truly beautifully phrased and executed. I respect Johnny Marr as I liked the Smiths, and some of the Police songs I liked but let’s be VERY VERY clear about it, you don’t turn to those guys for top flight musicianship. No way no how!!!

  5. Let’s be ‘very very very’ clear – Yngwie has made album after album of forgettable boring music

    Mate has seared iconic riffs into our brains

    Musicianship is about… Wait for it… Music

    Nobody denies Yngwie is more technically adept than a Johnny Marr

    But making music isn’t about technical proficiency

    I’ve never even met a single person who isn’t a total ‘guitar nerd’ who knows who Yngwie is.

    Setting aside that many times, technical limitations MANY TIMES lead to musical inspiration, a guitarist can certainly be a masterful technician AND a great musician

    But Yngwie is exclusively the former

    His music could disappear and we’d be none the poorer

    You certainly can’t say that about Marr

    I get tired of definitional wanks about ‘musicianship’

    I am defining it as the quality of having ABILITY TO MAKE GOOD TO GREAT MUSIC

    that’s something that drips from every one of Marrs pores but evades Yngwie

  6. Thank you. It’s amazing how daring to critique the almighty Yngwie turns some people into seething name calling profane attackers

    It’s called an opinion
    People can differ in opinion

    It doesn’t mean I don’t understand music theory, or I’m lazy or ignorant or all the other attacks people are engaging in

    I critiqued Yngwie

    The adult thing to do is agree or disagree with my ideas

    Not devolve to personal attacks

  7. Top flight ‘musicianship ‘ is first and foremost about MUSIC not technical prowess

    But again, it just becomes an argument about the meaning of words

    If you want to listen to
    MUSIC – Marr

    If you want to be impressed by fretboard wizardry – Yngwie

    The latter is not MUSICianship

  8. It’s ultimately about personal preference. I appreciate something about all the mentioned guitarists, apart from Richards, I think he blows. But there again, that’s just a personal preference. Millions of people enjoy his playing, so what do I know. Just my personal taste. It’s a pointless discussion. If you don’t like it, don’t listen. But don’t be a music Nazi. There’ no right or wrong. It’s a big musical universe out there. There’s room for everyone.
    And its Malmsteen, not stein.

  9. You just sound like a jealous kid who obviously cannot play fast or well, by the way shred does move me and I think your examples suck and your attitude is shit, so see people can have differing opinions you condescending ass.

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