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.