When they named it shred, this is the song they were thinking of: soaring leads, piercing vibrato, weepy tremolo, slippery legato, and ferocious picking, simmering over a roiling cauldron of drum and bass that’s almost as funky as it is angry. We’re talking about Now Your Ships Are Burned, the third track from Yngwie Malmsteen’s watershed 1984 album, Rising Force.
While there are other tracks on Rising Force more overtly evocative of the misty medieval themes of Yngwie’s imagination, none pack the unfettered rage of Now Your Ships Are Burned. With its blistering solos, frightening stop-time fills, and a main riff more challenging than the solos of mere mortal players, Now Your Ships Are Burned is a punishing display of chops. If you like your dragon ships packed to the prow with berserkers, this is the song for you.
Of course, like every great Yngwie tune, it’s equal parts flash and musicality. There is no better example of this than the first of the song’s two solos:
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Daggers & Swords
If there were an award for the most vicious moment in shred, I’d nominate this one. The opening statement of the solo pierces the stop-time silence like a knife:
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Make that two knives. The first half of the lick is a dagger-like legato flourish played in four different locations on the fretboard, spanning three octaves in all. The second half is a descending picked scale run that’s like a broadsword, slicing the guitar in two. It also spans three octaves of fretboard real estate, from the fifteenth fret of the high E string, all the way down to the sixth fret of the A string. The juxtaposition of these two phrases is one of the most aggressive passages in Yngwie’s entire catalog. It also encodes a great deal of information about Yngwie’s unique style.
The “dagger” from which the first half of the lick is constructed is actually a fragment of an E harmonic minor scale:
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The dagger is really a simple descending scale with two twists. One twist is the addition of an extra note on the E string — the 19th fret that begins the lick. It’s a grace note, which means that metrically it actually has no duration. What this means in practice is that you’d play the grace note and quickly transition to the second note. The trick is that it needs to be done without altering the rhythm of the phrase.
To really hear this effect, imagine you repeated just the first three notes of the dagger, sans grace note, starting on quarter notes:
Then we add the grace notes at the 19th fret, like so:
In both cases, you can hear that the pattern starts squarely on the downbeats of the measure — in other words, directly on the quarter note count. Technically this should not be possible in scenario two, because we’ve added an extra note and lengthened the phrase. In reality what’s going on is that the grace note at the 19th fret is played directly on the quarter note, and the following note on the 20th fret is shortened by a hair to accommodate it. This keeps the other notes in their rightful places.
The net effect of using grace notes is that they soften the phrases to which you attach them, as slides frequently do. Note however the difference between a grace note and a slide. A grace note is a sound, whereas a slide is a motion. Grace notes can be played with slides, but they can also be fretted with separate fingers, as Yngwie does here. Yngwie almost always begins descending scale runs with a grace note. This attention to finesse is an Yngwie hallmark.
The next twist in the dagger happens on the B string, and it is in fact a slide. Note that the second half of the dagger is four notes long:
Four-note-per-string licks present a problem, because such fingerings often feel awkward for the left hand. Yngwie avoids the problem entirely by using only three fingers to play the pattern. The 20th and 19th frets on the B string are played with the third and second fingers, respectively. He follows with the first-finger slide from the 17th to the 16th frets. Since the slide crosses adjacent frets, it sounds identical to a fretted note. The pinky is not used at all.
Yngwie uses many four-note-per-string licks in his playing, and he almost always does so by way of slides. Not only does this permit the use of comfortable three-note per string fingerings, but it also takes the speed burden off the fingers by using the motion of the hand to play the last note in the lick. As a result, watching Yngwie play is like a magic act. You often hear more notes than you see the fingers fretting. This is because the hand is actually doing some of the work by gliding along the fretboard. Which brings us to…
Two Kinds of Speed
To complete the daggers lick, we simply repeat the dagger in four locations on the fretboard:
This is tough to do for a couple reasons. One is finger speed. This is where the fingers of the left hand move quickly between various fretted notes, while the left hand itself remains stationary. We can experience finger speed by simply repeating the dagger in one position, minus the slide:
Finger speed here is high but hand speed is essentially zero because the fretboard position is not changing. Hand speed is where the hand itself must slide along the neck while the fingers do relatively little work. Here’s a skeletal version of the dagger lick consisting of only the position shifts:
Distilling the daggers lick thusly, we can see that hand speed is high because the hand must slide across a large expanse of fretboard after every note. In fact, the total range is over one octave horizontally. Finger speed is zero in this case because it’s a one-finger lick.
Ultimately, the issue with this part of the Now Your Ships Are Burned solo is that is requires finger and hand speed. Hand speed in particular is tough, since it requires you to watch the fretboard closely to make sure the position shifts are accurate. Running rapidly through the position shifts by themselves, using the above example as an exercise, is how I learned to do it. You’ll want to use your second finger, since this is what you’d use in the full version of the lick. The payoff is that when you do begin practicing the full lick, the position shifts will feel accordingly slower. Eventually, your sense of fretboard geography will develop to the point where you can play it accurately without looking.
Even with practice, putting the hand and finger motions together at this tempo is a challenge. Now Your Ships Are Burned is played at approximately 140bpm, and the four daggers in each measure contain eight notes apiece (the grace note does have a duration, however small). This makes them 32nd notes. For those of you who practice with metronomes, this is equivalent to 16th notes at 280bpm. Now that’s some fast guitar. Does Yngwie actually hit all those notes? Well, no, not really. But does he hit the ones that matter? You bet. Yngwie’s ear, and our ears, tell us that a little slurring and sliding is not only acceptable, but can even add a sense of drama — like a blurry action photo.
Finally, back in the finesse department, Yngwie adds just the slightest hint of pick harmonics to the grace note of each dagger. In Yngwie’s recording, this is audible most clearly on daggers one and two, and maybe, if I use my imagination, on dagger four. As usual, finding the right spot to activate the harmonic takes a little trial and error. On the guitar I’m using in this lesson (a Washburn N2), that spot is somewhere near the neck edge of the bridge pickup:
The final phrase of the opening statement is a ferocious picking lick that contrasts spectacularly with the liquid tones of the preceding legato section. It starts at the 15th fret of the E string, and cuts a blistering staccato swath across five strings. It dips as low as the 6th fret of the A string before finishing with a shake on the 9th fret of the D:
The first thing you’ll notice about this lick is that it’s not your ordinary three-note-per-string scale run. Look closer, and you’ll see that it’s actually a single pattern repeated in three octaves. The full three-octave pattern would be this:
Three-octave patterns are reasonably common in shred as devices for traversing great fretboard distances. Many players have used them — Paul Gilbert, Nuno Bettencourt, Richie Kotzen to name a few. Three-octave licks are usually recognizable by their omission of particular scale tones in the name of fingering simplicity. For example, here’s a Nuno lick from Mutha (Don’t Wanna Go to School Today):
This lick is essentially an ascending E major scale with the sixth degree, c#, missing. This allows the left hand to use parallel fingerings on adjacent strings, making it easier to play. The gap in the scale during which the left hand leaps between the octaves (the measure divisions in the above example) is what identifies the lick to the ear as a repeating pattern. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a giveaway as to how the lick is played.
Yngwie’s use of three-octave patterns in the sword lick is more subtle. By using four-note-per-string fingerings, he is able to form a complete harmonic minor scale with no omitted tones. The resulting sound is a seamless stream of notes which is very difficult to recognize audibly as any particular fingering. Like the dagger lick, Yngwie uses first-finger slides to enable the four-note-per-string sequences. The entire pattern is fretted with only three fingers:
One drawback to mixing four- and three-note-per-string fingerings like this is that it results in an odd number of notes for the total pattern — seven. What this means is that if we use strict alternate picking, the pattern will begin on the opposite pickstroke each time we repeat it:
While this is doable, it’s difficult. In addition to focusing on playing cleanly, we now have to remember which pickstrokes we used for which repetition. It’s like learning two wholly separate licks — one that starts on an upstroke, and one that starts on a downstroke — and playing them back to back.
Yngwie solves this problem by cleverly inserting a pull-off at the end of the pattern. As far as the right hand is concerned, the pattern now has six notes, and can always repeat on a downstroke:
While a pull-off will certainly have a different sound than a picked note, several factors minimize how noticeable this is. One is the frugal use of this technique. Except for the legato flourish at the end of the sword lick, there are only two pull-offs in the whole passage. Two pull-offs intermingled with 16 picked notes will not create an overly legato sound. Second is the odd number of notes in the sword pattern. This ensures that the pull-offs will not occur at regular metric intervals, which confuses the ear and makes the pull-offs much harder to hear. The third piece of camouflage is the generally fast tempo at which the pull-offs are played. The fourth and final element of disguise is that pull-offs themselves can sound reasonably similar to picked notes if the finger gets a good pluck on the string. I have a feeling that Yngwie’s scalloped fretboard contributes to this effect.
That said, the use of pull-offs in Yngwie’s picked scale playing is audible in the general sense that it makes him sound different than other players. Those that gained fame in Yngwie’s titanic wake, like Paul Gilbert and Vinnie Moore, had clearly spent lots of time perfecting uniformly alternate-picked three-note-per-string passages — probably because that’s what they thought they were hearing on Yngwie records. But the pristine regularity of alternate picking gave their scale playing a mechanical vibe that is generally not present in Yngwie’s work. By contrast I like to think of Yngwie’s sound as multitextural, where various notes in a particular lick receive various pick treatments, be they upstroke, downstroke, sweep, or legato. While the ear may not necessarily be able to separate the picked notes from the legato notes at speed, the overall effect is that of textural complexity.
Another great example of Yngwie’s multitextural scale playing occurs as a stop-time fill at 2:42 of Now Your Ships Are Burned. Like the sword, it’s also a descending E harmonic minor scale:
Note the pull-offs on the G and D strings. At the speeds at which this lick is usually played, they’re not so much overtly audible as they are merely textural components of the resulting sound. Note also the four-note-per-string sequence on the B string — this is enabled, as usual, by a first-finger slide. Finally, note that the dagger lick is nothing more than the first two strings of this scale.
A Tale of Two Scales
Both the sword lick and this stop-time fill are two of the most common scale shapes in all of Yngwie’s playing. The fingering from the fill is actually the more common of the two, occurring in countless solos and licks, and even as the basis for entire songs (notably in Black Star, where it forms part of the main theme). In fact, these two harmonic minor shapes occur so frequently as the building blocks of Yngwie’s improvisational exploits, that I have taken to calling them simply “A” and “B”:
How ironic that the guy who motivated a generation of guitarists to memorize dozens of scale patterns all over the neck plays 90% of his solos using just these two. They are the only scale patterns necessary in Now Your Ships Are Burned, and we’ll see them both several more times before the solo is finished.
The solo’s next statement is a soaring melodic phrase that connects both the “A” and “B” harmonic minor fingerings we’ve been discussing:
If this phrasework is completely improvisational, it only enhances my respect for Yngwie’s brilliant sense of melody. Measures 6-8 are an attractive ascending line built on the “B”, or “sword” harmonic minor fingering used in the solo’s opening statement. This line caps with a dramatic slide in measure 9 which takes us up to the “A” fingering where the solo started. By staggered stepwise motion, the line eventually comes to rest at the base of the “A” fingering with a trill on the 16th fret of the D string.
As we saw in the opening statement, Yngwie’s approach to picking descending lines often employs legato to simplify complex passages. In this passage, we can see that Yngwie’s picking technique for ascending lines is even richer, employing not only alternate picking and legato, but also a key third ingredient: sweeping.
Yngwie’s use of sweeping to play arpeggios is so widely imitated at this point that it has become a shred cliche. But the truth is that the vast majority of Yngwie’s sweeping happens in his scale playing. The essential concept is that downstrokes are simply extended whenever possible through the next higher string. This economizes pick motion and makes fast passages easier to play. For this reason, sweeping in a scalar context is often called economy picking. In reality, sweeping is sweeping is sweeping.
In the melodic passage above, you’ll find downward sweeping right in the first measure. The passage begins with three alternate-picked notes on the D string. The third alternate picked note — a downstroke — is used to bridge the gap between the D and G strings:
Although the picking notation beneath the D-to-G string change indicates consecutive “d”s, remember that these are not separate downstrokes. The initial downstroke is simply pushed through the next higher string, sounding two fretted notes with one motion.
Scalar sweeping occurs again in measure 8, connecting the B string with the E string. The sweep is followed by a striking legato slide from the 15th to the 20th frets (also confusingly notated by a “/”, but hey) which is the dramatic apex of the phrase:
What’s so cool about the legato slide is that it is not only the most exciting moment in the lick, but also the precise thematic midpoint. On the way up, Yngwie climbed by way of descending seconds — two-note fragments where a higher note is followed by the next lower note in the same scale. Immediately after the slide, Yngwie descends by way of ascending seconds. Again, if this lick is entirely improvisational (which it may very well be), you have to respect the powerful creativity:
The final scalar sweep happens in measure 10 at the tail end of the run. It connects the D string to the G string by way of the now-familiar downward (i.e. ascending) sweep:
Since the distance from one string to the next is small, about a half inch or so, Yngwie typically executes the sweeping motion by pushing the pick across the gap with his right-hand thumb and forefinger. The wrist gets involved again to continue alternate picking on the new string. And so on. This combination of movements has a distinctly different appearance than the pure wrist or elbow motions of alternate picking, and has led various observers to theorize that Yngwie might be using some [dubious] esoteric right-hand motion like circular picking. Nope, it’s just sweeping.
Ultimately, the source of the motion is not super important. Sweeping earned its economy picking nickname because there is minimal motion involved, so finding the fastest possible way to move your hand is not necessary when practicing sweep licks. The hard part is keeping constant time. Sweeping motions have a tendency to rush once you get them going. When you combine alternate picking and sweeping in the same lick, you run the risk of smearing the swept sections and laboring the picked ones.
A great lick for practicing Yngwie’s deft combination of alternate and sweep picking occurs as another stop-time fill at 2:51 of Now Your Ships Are Burned. It’s an ascending scale in E harmonic minor, played at — you guessed it — the “A” fingering. The lick changes strings exclusively with sweep picking:
The speed at which Yngwie plays this particular lick is simply terrifying, and the heavy muting he uses only serves to accentuate its aggressiveness. Downward sweeps are used to execute the string changes, while alternate picking is used to connect them to the middle note on each string. This is an extremely common pattern in shred and should definitely become part of your sweeping practice regimen. It’s particularly difficult to play this lick evenly because the swept notes actually outnumber the alternately-picked notes 2 to 1. Practicing at a speed where you can be sure all the notes are played evenly, and making sure to stay as relaxed as possible in the right hand, is the way to go.
As modern shred guitar has evolved to embrace a wide variety of left and right hand echniques, so has there been a parallel tendency to segregate these techniques on a lick-by-lick basis. As a result, in a typical modern shred solo, you’ll find that certain licks are alternate picking licks, certain licks are legato licks, certain licks are sweep licks, and so on. This overly mechanical approach is probably the result of the significant amount of time players spend practicing techniques separately, as a means of simplifying the learning process.
Yngwie on the other hand exhibits no such compartmentalism. The best example yet of the multitechnical — or as I like to call it, multitextural — nature of Yngwie’s playing occurs in the next lick of the Now Your Ships Are Burned solo. It’s a terror of a descending scale run, filled with odd-numbered sequences, slides, and even a few repeated notes. In keeping with our theme of minimal scale positions, it’s based entirely on the “A” fingering:
The lick begins with one of Yngwie’s trademark swoopy turns of rubato phrasing:
As a former Italian major, I can tell you that rubato means stolen. And what’s being stolen here is time. In musical terms, this means starting a passage a little early and taking your time to speed up to the tempo of the piece. The victim of the theft is the previous measure, from which Yngwie steals half a beat. He does this by hitting the first bent note of the lick, the 22nd fret of the E string, on the 4-& of the previous measure. Since Now Your Ships Are Burned is in 4/4, this gives him an eighth note head start on the current phrase. The rubato continues throughout the ensuing descending-ascending seconds (a motif that should look familiar by now). By the time Yngwie excutes the last pair of seconds, he’s already up to speed.
The rest of the lick is nothing we haven’t seen before in our examination of Yngwie’s multitextural playing. Just a whole lot faster. What is new about this lick is its overall sound. Although it looks somewhat random and complex on paper, when played fast, a decidedly sequenced sound starts to emerge. At first, it sounds like it’s going to be a descending fours lick:
Sort of. The first part of the run, measure 12a, is a brief ascending scalar pickup used by Yngwie to introduce the descending part of the lick. Measure 12b follows with two sequences of actual descending fours, explaining why we heard what we thought we heard. So far, so good. But measure 12c breaks the pattern altogether in a seemingly nonsensical way by using two repeated notes on the E string. What’s going on here?
The concept of using a brief ascending scalar pickup to introduce a largely descending scalar sequence is common in shred. Michael Angelo frequently does so in his descending fours work (MISSING LINK):
Although the Angelo lick above uses a different key and scale than the excerpt of the descending terror lick we’re comparing it to, the fretboard shape is actually the same. (Guitarists inventing licks based on shapes? Never!) When Mike executes the first string change of the lick, from the 15th fret of the G to the 12th fret of the B, he does so via alternate picking. But you’ll notice that when Yngwie does the same thing from the B to E strings, he uses sweeping:
The second difference between Yngwie’s approach and Mike’s approach involves the number of notes in the pickup itself. Rather than ascending smoothly through the E minor scale, Yngwie actually skips what would be the fifth note of the lick, the scale degree on the 19th fret of the E string. The lick proceeds directly from the 17th fret of the E string to the 20th fret of the E string, and the resulting pickup in measure 12a is four notes long. On the other hand, if we look at Mike’s lick, we find no such omission:
Mike’s pickup has five notes because it ascends the scale (E Dorian in this case) without skipping any notes. So why the missing note when Yngwie does it? Why, to set up another sweep, of course:
The missing note on the E string causes the string change from the 17th fret of the E string to the 20th fret of the B string to be an upstroke. This makes the 20th fret of the B string a downstroke, perfect for sweeping back to the E string. If Yngwie had played all the notes in the pickup, his sweep from the B to the E strings would have caused the the pickstrokes to be reversed, and the second sweep would have been impossible. In other words, the use of the first sweep is what required the omission of the note to set up the second sweep.
The final oddity of the lick occurs back on the E string, where the 17th fret is actually repeated twice:
This is not a typo, and it’s not a mistake. The double note on the 17th fret is completely intentional. It is, if you will, the mathematical “remainder” of the missing note earlier in the lick. Kind of like fixing the error in the Matrix, doubling the 17th fret balances the mismatched number of upstrokes and downstrokes so that the entire lick comes to rest again on a downstroke at the 17th fret of the B string in measure 13. Having worked out the lick’s pick structure so that it ends on the same pickstroke that it starts with, Yngwie can actually repeat the lick indefinitely if he wanted:
Brilliant! This lick is perhaps the quintessential example of Yngwie’s little-understood combination of alternate picking and sweeping. It makes a great exercise for practicing the Yngwie style, and it also sounds really cool when you get it going — something you should insist on in all your practice licks.
Real Descending Fours
Btw, when Yngwie really plays descending fours, he does so in a unique way — on a single string:
The example above is an awesome stop-time run which occurs at 3:37 of Now Your Ships Are Burned, during the second guitar solo. Although the ascending scalar pickup in the first measure still contains a sweep, notice that Yngwie does not omit the 19th fret of the E string as he did in the descending terror lick. As a result, the pickup now contains a full five notes, just like the Michael Angelo descending fours lick we examined. The rationale again, like so many elements of Yngwie’s picking technique, goes back to sweeping — or in this case, the absence of sweeping. Because Yngwie is no longer attempting to set up a sweep on the B string, he needn’t omit the 19th fret. Instead, he’d like to set up the descending fours so that they start on downstrokes, which is a natural way to think of this kind of pattern. Thanks to the sweep between the B and E strings, this is exactly what happens. Starting in measure 2, he simply repeats the familiar four-note, first-finger slide pattern which we’ve already studied, allowing the slide to drop the hand one position each time the sequence repeats. I’ve notated explicit fingerings to highlight the slides.
A generation of guitarists was fooled into practicing intricate, multi-string descending fours patterns because they thought that’s what they were hearing on Yngwie records. Even the tablature to Yngwie’s own 1991 REH instructional video made this mistake. (REH videos were generally not transcribed by the artists themselves, and the resulting tabs were typically atrocious.) The truth is that a number of Yngwie’s trademark licks can be played relatively easily because they do not involve switching strings at all. Descending fours is one of them.
Having come this far, you’re more than prepared with the knowledge you’ll need to tackle the rest of the descending terror lick. More importantly, what you’ve come to recognize is that Yngwie’s picking style is anything but a brutish display of athleticism. It is instead a finely engineered combination of techniques centered around, and enabled by, Yngwie’s love of the sweep.
If you think this kind of stuff is cool, there’s even more to the story. Cracking the Code (BROKEN LINK) will divulge through video analysis the deeper rationale behind Yngwie’s unusual picking formula.
One of Yngwie’s most well-known contributions to shred guitar is his formula for playing arpeggios on the first three strings. In the next section of the Now Your Ships Are Burned solo, Yngwie applies this formula to the diminished arpeggio, one of the most distinctive sounds in his repertoire. The basic gist involves fretting a chord across the first three strings, and moving that chord around to different positions on the neck:
If you look carefully at the diminished break above, you’ll see that the chord shape Yngwie uses for diminshed arpeggios is this:
Fretting this figure anywhere on the neck and strumming the first three strings of the guitar will produce the classic diminished sound. For example, positioning the shape at the fifth fret produces a D# diminished chord, because the lowest note in the chord (the 8th fret of the G string) is a D#:
Technically we’d call this a D# diminished triad, because it’s a diminished chord composed of three different notes — D#, F#, and A. While this sounds fine by itself, we can exploit a unique property of diminished chords to create an even more interesting sound. That is, by sliding this shape up or down the neck three frets at a time, we can create a series of diminished chords which, together, make up one monster chord known as a diminished seventh, or dim7:
We call this a diminished 7th not because there are seven notes in the chord, but because the highest and lowest notes in the chord’s full form are seven scale tones apart. More importantly for this discussion, all seventh chords, diminished or otherwise, have only four different notes. So a seventh chord is really a triad plus one. If we replace the fret numbers in the above example with the note names, you’ll see that there are only four different notes in the whole chord sequence — d#, f#, a, and c:
Eureka. Check the cool diagonal pattern which is developing, and you’ll understand another common property of chords. That is, by rearranging the order of the notes in a chord, you can make the same exact chord in different locations on the fretboard. In music speak we call these new chords inversions, because they contain the same (or nearly the same) notes as the original chord, just in a different order. From a practical perspective, what this means is that inversions tend to have the same kind of sound as the original chord, just somewhat higher or lower depending upon whether you’re sliding higher or lower on the neck. Their purpose is to enable you, the player, to get the same chord sound wherever it’s most convenient.
The base chord in any series of inversions is called the root position. In the example above it’s our fifth-fret fingering:
Sliding our familiar shape up to the 8th fret mixes up the note order and produces a variant of the root position known as the first inversion:
Sliding up to the 11th fret produces the second inversion:
Since there are twelve frets in an octave, and since we’re moving up the neck in units of three frets at a time, simple math tells us we can only get four total chords before things start repeating — the root position, plus three inversions. Sure enough, sliding to the 14th fret gives us the third inversion:
…and sliding to the 17th fret brings us back to the root position, just one octave higher. Here’s the whole sequence again:
If this sounds kind of like the soundtrack to a silent movie, you’re right. Diminshed 7th inversions are great for building tension, and were used frequently in olde-tyme filmmaking as the backing music for that scene where the rogue locomotive threatens to flatten the heroine. Sliding up and down through different inversions of a diminished 7th chord, whether on a guitar, piano, or with an orchestral string section, is a common device for ratcheting up this level of tension. The tension usually breaks at a moment of what musicologists call resolution — the sonic equivalent of the hero leaping into the frame to rescue the leading lady.
Sixty years later, the diminished break in Now Your Ships Are Burned employs the same strategy of diminished tension and resolution. The lick moves through the inversions we just outlined:
The first measure ratchets down through the inversions in a straight line: root, 3rd inversion, 2nd inversion, 1st inversion. The second measure hovers around the first inversion in stepwise motion: second inversion, first inversion, root, first inversion. This sets us up for the third measure, which finally resolves all this diminished tension as the lick returns to the home tonality of E minor.
Diminished Arpeggios (Cont.)
Understanding diminished seventh chord shapes and their inversions is all well and good, but that still leaves us with chord shapes, not arpeggios. There are two ingredients that transform these shapes into arpeggio figures. One is an augmentation of the basic shape:
By enlisting the pinky, Yngwie appends a fourth note to the pattern, generating a full diminished 7th chord in one position. For example, placing this fingering at the fifth fret produces a a complete root-position D# diminished seventh with all four notes present:
But the real splitting of the atom as far as Yngwie’s arpeggio playing is concerned is the use of sweep picking to play the notes in the chord shape separately. In so doing, a downstroke is carried across the first three strings of the guitar, sounding one arpeggiated note per string:
The first note of the arpeggio — the pinky note — is played with an upstroke on the E string. What follows is the descending part of the pattern, which highlights Yngwie’s preference for alternate picking and pull-offs when playing descending licks. The second note of the arpeggio is a pull-off, giving the picking hand time to rest. The next note is then picked with an upstroke, setting up the downward sweep on the 8th fret of the G string. This downstroke is carried through the first three strings of the guitar, returning the pick to the E string. The pattern begins anew with an upstroke on the 8th fret of the E string.
Because the pattern starts and ends on the same note, with the same pickstroke, you can repeat the pattern in place without altering the picking structure:
Finally, with a simple slide of the left hand, you can use the same picking pattern to rocket through the diminished seventh inversions in what is one of Yngwie’s most memorable arpeggio licks. He plays this lick on his 1991 REH instructional video, as well as in countless songs and solos:
Dissecting The Break
Yngwie frequently chops his classic arpeggio pattern apart to fit different rhythmic situations. In the break, he actually shrinks it from six notes to four by using only the descending portion of the pattern:
By ditching the ascending part of the lick, Yngwie changes the rhythm from sixteenth-note triplets (six to a beat) to straight sixteenth notes (four to a beat). Although both patterns require precisely one beat of metric time to complete, the sixteenth-note pattern has fewer notes and a more direct, or driving rhythmic feel.
In the break, Yngwie takes this four-note figure and moves it through the inversions we’ve already outlined. He begins at the 17th/20th fret with a root position D#dim7, and follows with the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st inversions that reside below it:
Because the descending arpeggio figure contains four notes, it fits easily into 16th note-based breaks like this. However, notice that Yngwie embellishes three of the patterns with a hammered note to create a flowery trill:
Although the embellished variant of the pattern contains an extra note, the lick’s rhythm is maintained because the trill is played faster to compensate. Specifically, the first three notes of the pattern are squished into the space previously occupied by only two notes. This again makes them sixteenth-note triplets, while the remaining notes are still sixteenth notes. As a result, the embellished pattern is still only four sixteenth notes in length, or one full beat of metric time. Whether you choose to play the sixteenth note version of the pattern or the embellished version of the pattern, you will always be able to fit precisely four of them in any given measure. This is just one example of the critical role of rhythm in Yngwie’s playing.
The break finishes with four non-embellished descending patterns over the second inversion, first inversion, root position, and first inversion, respectively:
By now you may have noticed that the diminished arpeggio break in Now Your Ships Are Burned contains no sweeping at all. After so much discussion of Yngwie’s innovative uses of sweeping for both scales and arpeggios, it might seem somewhat ironic that the big arpeggio moment of the solo does not actually use his signature technique. However, when we dig deeper, we realize that the picking works out this way because it is really a derivative of the pattern that Yngwie uses to play sweep arpeggios. So there is order in the universe after all. This is why we began by analyzing Yngwie’s sweep arpeggio technique, even though it was not strictly necessary for this lick.
Stacking the descending arpeggio patterns back-to-back via inversions produces a clearer picture of the role of alternate picking in this sequence:
The pull-off at the beginning of this lick gives the right hand a chance to rest, but what immediately follows are three notes played on three different strings:
This is tricky to do, but it’s not impossible. Consider first of all that Now Your Ships Are Burned is played at “only” 140bpm. While this is no walk in the park, sixteenth notes at 140bpm is among the lesser challenges you’ll face in Yngwie’s playing. After all, most of the fast parts we’ve seen so far in the solo have been either sixteenth-note triplets, or free-time playing somewhere between sixteenth notes and sixteenth-note triplets.
More importantly, you might wonder why Yngwie does not simply use some kind of upward sweeping to play this lick. The answer is consistency. By using essentially the same picking structure for this pattern as he does for his sweep-based arpeggio patterns, Yngwie can switch between the two with almost no change to his right hand technique:
Not only is the pick structure for both patterns 66% the same (four out of six notes), but both patterns start on the same pickstroke — an upstroke. This means they can be connected seamlessly whenever Yngwie chooses to do so. This also allows Yngwie to minimize the number of different picking patterns his right hand needs to master, letting him concentrate on learning a few movements exceptionally well. In this case, the difficulty of alternate picking is outweighed by the consistency it promotes in Yngwie’s playing.
Just as sweep picking is a form of economy of motion, boiling down your right and left hand technique to as few patterns as possible is a form of economy of methodology. The guitar is a complex instrument, and there are a lot of things to keep track of at any given moment, particularly at high speeds. The world’s great players have all developed subtle ways of simplifying the mechanical aspects of their playing so they can focus on what matters most — making great music.
After pouring on two measures’ worth of diminished tension, the solo finally resolves to a cool little melodic passage based around a 12th-fret Em scale:
Of course this passage uses none other than the first of Yngwie’s two favorite harmonic minor scale fingerings, the “B” fingering. This is also another clear example of multitextural playing, since this lick features both downward sweeping as well as single pull-offs to facilitate string changes.
Once again, Yngwie impresses with his ability to pull memorable lyrical phrases from common scale shapes and well-worn picking patterns.
In the diminished break, we explored Yngwie’s use of chord-based arpeggio patterns on the first three strings. We also talked about the way Yngwie recycles picking patterns between different licks in an attempt to reduce the number of variables he needs to memorize, thereby freeing up his brain for more useful activities like melodic creativity.
As it happens, the picking patterns we recycled between diminished licks can also be recycled for almost any other chord that can be fretted on the first three strings. Which turns out to be very useful, because the next phrase in the solo does exactly that. By applying the now-familiar descending arpeggio picking pattern to a series of minor arpeggios, Yngwie creates the following dramatic ascending line:
As in the diminished break, the lick’s fingerings can be traced to a series of chord shapes, this time in E minor. The complete series is as follows:
One of the first things you’ll notice about this sequence is that the fingerings are not identical. As we’ve seen, diminished seventh chords have a uniform gap of three frets between each of their tones, and this makes it possible to use the same fretboard shape for each of the chord’s inversions. However, observing the inversions above, we can see that minor chords are asymmetrical, featuring either a 3-, 4-, or 5-fret gap between their tones. This means that each inversion of a minor chord has its own distinct fretboard shape:
The next thing you’ll notice is that there are no third inversions. This is because E minor is a triad — a chord that contains only three different notes — and therefore doesn’t have a third inversion. By the time you’ve swapped the order of the tones in an E minor triad three times, you’re back to your original chord shape. Again, this becomes apparent when we replace the fret numbers with note names:
Following the Yngwie arpeggio formula, we transform these three-note fingerings into four-note fingerings by allowing each chord shape to kidnap a note from the next higher shape. As usual, the fourth note is fretted by the pinky on the E string:
The root-position shape is a comfortable one in which the first three fingers of the left hand are spread across three contiguous frets on three adjacent strings. The first inversion shape on the other hand is somewhat awkward in that it is actually a barre played with the first finger. Although barres are often thought of as conveniences in chordal playing, in arpeggio playing you’re specifically interested in sounding notes separately, and a barre makes this more difficult. The fingering for the second inversion shape also shows the first finger twice, but this on the other hand is not a barre, because the notes are in different frets. It’s written this way because when Yngwie frets this particular shape during arpeggio phrases, which are one note at a time, he does in fact use his first finger twice.
You should start burning these shapes into your mind now, because thanks to Yngwie’s huge influence, you’ll see them over and over in shred. The best way to learn them is to practice arpeggio licks which utilize them. To create an arpeggiated pattern according to the Yngwie formula, we play the notes separately, using a pull-off on the E string, and applying sweeping to sound the ascending notes:
In the example above, I’m using heavy right-hand muting to deaden the open strings so that the notes don’t run together. When you use chord shapes to play arpeggios, the illusion is ruined if the notes sound simultaneously. This is particularly true at high gain settings, where any irregularities in the tuning of the guitar can cause an ugly beating sound if two or more notes of the arpeggio overlap.
This problem is particularly apparent in arpeggio fingerings which use barres, seeing as how barres were specifically designed to make the notes run together in the first place. When playing the first inversion fingering elsewhere on the neck, Yngwie avoids the problem by rolling the first finger across the fretboard so that the barre does not fret all three notes at once:
When Yngwie plays the first inversion arpeggio, he only only barres the first three strings. Specifically, he places his index finger across the strings such that the tip of the finger frets the 12th fret of the G string. This is important, because it allows the body of the index finger to lift away from the fretboard while still fretting the 12th fret of the G string, thereby effecting the roll.
The lick begins with the finger flat against the fretboard, but after playing the 12th fret of the B string, the finger lifts so that the 12th fret of the G string is fretted alone. This sequence is reversed on the way back up, when the index finger again flattens against the fretboard to fret the B and E strings. In so doing it partially releases the pressure on the 12th fret of the G string, causing it to deaden. Above the tab in the example, I’ve noted “d” for when the index finger is flat, and “u” for when the index finger is raised.
The one drawback to the finger roll method is that it produces a brief instant where the 12th fret of the E string and the 12th fret of the B string sound simultaneously in both directions. Because there is no easy way to fret one note without fretting the other, we have no choice but to fret them together. The good news it that the overlap is only slightly audible at speed, and only in the first inversion fingering. The root position and second inversion fingerings are much easier to fret clearly because no barres are involved.
Using the sweep pattern to cycle through the minor inversion shapes produces another staple of Yngwie’s arpeggio repertoire:
This is a great lick, and we’re already halfway toward mastering it because it uses the same picking pattern we’ve been practicing since the diminished break. Along with its brother, the ascending diminished sweep inversions lick, this is among the most famous Yngwie arpeggio sequences. In his 1991 REH instructional video, he does it in A minor:
Like its diminished variant, the lick can also be played descending-only:
Doing so brings us full-circle in our arpeggio discussion, because the tail end of this lick is none other than the section of the Now Your Ships Are Burned solo we set out to analyze in the first place:
Although this descending picking pattern does not actually use any sweeping, it is really a child of Yngwie’s sweep technique, and should be learned as such. Practicing the two patterns together kills two birds at once, because most of the notes are the same. Despite the extra difficulty of one-note-per-string picking, learning one pattern really will reinforce the other.
Finally, notice how important rhythm is in this passage. If you listen closely to the lick in the context of the solo, you’ll realize that the entire thing is syncopated. That is, each descending arpeggio figure begins on the weak beat of each quarter note — the & of each count. To illustrate, here are a pair of recordings with a rhythm section. First, listen to the lick played on the downbeats of the measure:
The coincidence of each arpeggio with either a kick or snare drum creates a very direct sound. Now, the weak beats:
The off-kilter rhythm created by starting the lick half a beat after the downbeat takes what could have been a formulaic sixteenth-note pattern and breathes life into it. This extra drama sets us up perfectly for the climax of the line, a wild bend on the 22nd fret. This is another example of Yngwie’s love of rubato, because the bend both starts a hair early and ends a hair later than it should based on the meter. The dip in the middle of the bend is itself the setup for the shake that finishes the bend, and leads us seductively into the ensuing terror of the solo’s final statement.
Eddie Van Malmsteen
Just when you thought you’d seen it all, along comes Yngwie with nothing less than a two-handed tapping lick. And it’s a monster:
This crux of the lick is a Van Halen-like figure that descends the E string position by position in the key of E minor. The central figure is this:
Since we have both hands on the fretboard in this example, I’ve noted right and left hand fingerings beneath the tab. If you’ve ever practiced any Van Halen licks, the structure should be instantly familiar. The pattern begins with a tap by the second finger of the right hand (since your right-hand index finger is likely occupied holding a pick). The tapped note is then pulled off to a simple trill between the first and fourth fingers of the left hand. The pattern repeats as many times as the right hand (or the person controlling it) cares to tap the 20th fret.
This pattern can produce a barrage of notes with very little practice. Part of the reason is that mentally, there’s not a lot to worry about. The tapped note is such an obvious landmark that your brain tends to focus on it exclusively. This makes the lick seem slow, since the tapped note only occurs once every four notes. The fretboard hand is left to do its thing automatically in between.
One issue, however, surrounds how to begin the lick. In the example above, the first note is executed by way of a tap with the right hand. In the Malmsteen school of tapping, though, this rarely occurs. Instead, Yngwie usually begins a tapping sequence with a picked note. This starts the string vibrating and gives the first hammer of the lick more power. The problem, then, is the amount of time it takes the right hand to pick the first note of the lick and get in position above the fretboard. Yngwie solves this problem with short pickup pattern:
The pickup pattern begins on a downstroke with a trill (15-19-15) before requiring a tap from the right hand. As fast as these first three notes are played, this is enough time for the right hand to move into position over the 20th fret as long as the first note of the sequence is picked somewhere near the neck to begin with.
Another issue arises when both your tapping finger and your left hand pinky play the same note:
In this variant, the right hand and the left hand double up on the 19th fret. Physically, it’s identical to the original pattern except for the extra concern involved in getting your left hand pinky out of the way of your tapping hand when it’s not needed. Sonically, on the other hand, it’s more ambivalent because it’s harder for the ear to pick out when the pattern is supposed to repeat. This is fine in a free-time solo, but if you’re working with a particular groove, it makes it hard to know just how many times you’ve repeated the figure.
This difficulty appears in the tapping lick, where the double tap figure is repeated three times before the pattern changes:
Measure 27 is the downstroke pickup that Yngwie uses to fire up the tapping, kind of like pumping the gas pedal at a stoplight. The next measure features three repetitions of the double figure. Measure 29 switches back to the non-double EVH figure, but with a new shape that spans two whole steps of the E minor scale:
This new pattern is moved stepwise down the E minor scale by sliding the left hand one position lower with each repetition. Mechanically, the pattern remains unchanged even as it encompasses different degrees of the E minor scale with each shift:
Return of the Pick
Just as the beginning of the tapping lick presented a right-hand timing problem, so does the end. The question now is how we extract the right hand from the tapping pattern without losing the momentum we’ve been building up. The answer appears in measure 31:
By extending the Van Halen pattern with a slide, Yngwie buys just enough time to return the right hand to the picking position before it’s needed to execute the descending figure on the B string. Thus the lick continues with nary a break in the melodic action. When played correctly, it should be almost impossible to tell when the tapping ends and the picking begins.
It’s a clever trick which requires some finesse to do, since the left hand needs to play the first 10 notes of measure 31 unassisted while the right hand jumps into position. Mechanically, you’ve now lost the easy landmark that the right-hand tapping provided. As a result, the tendency when practicing this transition is to watch the right hand. This takes your eyes off the fretboard and is probably not a good idea given the complex sliding maneuver that needs to happen there.
From this point on, we’re back in normal legato territory, where the second half of measure 31, combined with measure 32, form a somewhat symmetrical two-string pattern:
Don’t forget the slide in measure 32. To truly capture the fury of the original recording, you’ll need to reproduce it. It’s accomplished with the middle finger, and is tough to do at this speed. Keeping your thumb behind the neck (as opposed to draping it over the top in Page/Clapton fashion) and arching the fingers will provide more leverage. You’re looking to give the hand as much freedom as possible to move around the fretboard, while exerting as little pressure as possible to actually fret the notes. If you’re busy squeezing the life out of the fretboard, your left hand will not be able to slide fast enough.
This symmetrical pattern is one that appears frequently in Yngwie’s playing. He uses it most often as a descending approach to the “A” fingering (MISSING LINK). Example 7 in his 1991 REH instructional video features just such an approach:
Although this lick is in A minor, and Now Your Ships Are Burned is in E minor, the pattern here is essentially the same as the symmetrical pattern in the Ships solo. Specifically, the first measure begins with a two-whole-step shape on the B and E strings. This is analogous to measure 31 of the solo, which uses the same shape. Measure 2 slides down a position to a half-whole shape on the same two strings, identical to that which appears in measure 32 of the solo. Finally, measure 3 introduces the now-famous “A” fingering, which as you’ll recall features a whole-half shape on the first two strings. In A minor, the “A” fingering is centered around the 12th fret, as opposed to the 7th or 19th frets in E minor. The lick finishes by descending the “A” fingering in much the same way as the descending stop-time fill (MISSING LINK) we examined earlier.
What’s going on in this section of the solo is a window to the way Yngwie sees the fretboard when he improvises. Because the “A” fingering is such an important destination for him, Yngwie has essentially memorized all the minor scale fingerings that connect to it. This is particularly true of the high E string, on which much of the position-shifting drama of his soloing takes place.
The solo’s progression from tapping to partially-picked legato is a great illustration of this. Yngwie uses the tapping lick as a vehicle to descend toward the “A” fingering, one position at a time. This begins with single-string playing high up on the neck, when the “A” fingering is an octave beneath us. As the left hand approaches the “A” fingering, the complexity of Yngwie’s fretboard improvisation increases because we are getting closer to familiar territory, where our knowledge of the fretboard is more detailed. In the two positions adjacent to the “A” fingering, we are now playing two-string symmetrical patterns that Yngwie has used in other licks as direct bridges to the “A” fingering itself. This would seem like an indication that the “A” fingering is about to make an appearance. And indeed it does.
In a fitting end to an impressive showpiece, the Now Your Ships Are Burned solo comes crashing home with a daunting display of technical and rhythmic virtuosity in its final moments. The tension that has intensified over several measures of descending melodic motion finally releases in a swirling torrent of descending scale fragments:
This phrase is another multitextural masterpiece forged from Yngwie’s favorite scale pattern, the “A” fingering (MISSING LINK). It begins with a familiar sequence of notes on the first two strings that you’ll recognize from the dagger pattern at the very beginning of the solo: a legato grace note pattern on the E string, followed by a four-note pattern on the B string that involves a first-finger slide. The lick appears to be headed in the direction of a simple descending tour of the “A” fingering pattern when it abruptly backs up and starts over in measure 34. This happens twice more in measure 35. All told, the lick begins and then halts its drive down the “A” fingering no less than four times.
Divide and Conquer
If we’d forgotten how much of Yngwie’s tehnique revolves around sweeping, this lick quickly reminds us. In perhaps the most virtuosic display of scalar sweeping yet, each descending scale fragment of the solo’s final run connects to the next by way of a downward sweep. This pays tremendous dividends in terms of economy of motion, but it feels awkward at first — especially if you’re new to scalar sweeping. The good news is that Yngwie almost always builds his scalar sweep licks from repeating subunits. This allows us to break them apart at natural junctures for easy practicing. One such juncture occurs in measures 33 and 34:
Yngwie’s scale playing is rife with chase-your-tail sweep patterns like this, where the last note of the pattern connects back to the first note of the pattern. This not only allows Yngwie to repeat the pattern at high speed for added drama in improvisational situations, but it also gives us a great practice vehicle. Another naturally repeating unit is the cascading pattern that finishes the lick:
These two patterns are great for building scalar sweep chops. The prime difficulty in doing so is becoming comfortable with the combination of sweeping and alternate picking in the same lick. As always, don’t play faster than you can play evenly, and constantly remind your right hand to stay loose. Tension begets fatigue, which can grind your picking hand to a halt in no time.
In lesser hands, the unusual cascading patterns in this lick could easily become a meaningless barrage of notes. But Yngwie’s uncommon sensitivity keep this from happening.
One aspect of this is melodic continuity. The descending melodic motion that started in the tapping lick is continued in this lick at an increased clip as the solo marches inexorably toward the finish line. The overall effect is that of a frenzied descent which increases in intensity as the notes get lower.
Another is rhythm. Perhaps the most unique characteristic of this lick is its undeniable funkyness. Each of the lick’s four descending scale fragments is specifically timed to impart a syncopated feel which highlights the urgency of the phrase. This is particularly true near the end, when the scale fragments become shorter. Although this groove is difficult to hear in a vacuum, it jumps out of the speakers once we throw in some rhythm tracks:
The first descending scale fragment of the lick, the legato figure in measure 33, starts on count 1-& — the weak half of the downbeat. In the audio clip, this is just after the first kick drum of the measure. The second scale fragment, from measure 34, starts squarely on beat 3, which is right on top of the measure’s second kick drum. The third scale fragment of the run fires at 4-&, which is just as the measure is ending, right before the first kick drum of the next measure. And the fourth fragment happens at 1-& of the following measure, just before the first snare of the second measure. The last note of the phrase, the bent E note on the G string, happens at count 2-& of the measure, or just before the second kick drum. We then have three full counts of rest until the sequence begins anew on 1-& of the next measure.
The rhythmic accents at the beginning of each scale fragment are enhanced by Yngwie’s strategic use of scalar sweeping. This is because last note in a swept sequence is frequently louder than the notes around it. Take for example the following simple motif:
If the downstroke on the 14th fret of the G string is played forcefully enough, the pick will continue its travel until it comes to a dead stop against the B string. This is known in jazz circles as a rest stroke, because, for a split instant of time, the pick is actually not moving. The B string effectively becomes a natural brake for the downstroke, allowing the right hand to pick the 14th fret of the G string as hard as it pleases. As a result, this note has a snappy attack which imparts a distinct triplet feel to the figure.
The sweeps in the solo’s final run also benefit from this snappiness. This in turn accentuates the run’s syncopated feel. All this syncopated tension is finally released at the very last note of the phrase, an E on the G string in measure 36. Created from the push and pull of two bending actions — an upward bend with the left hand, and a downward bend with the tremolo bar — the note is an exhausted growl that signals both the end of the lick, and the end of the solo.
Being heavy metal, the fact that Yngwie solos have any groove at all is an achievement. The fact that the groove is so precise for being insanely fast and completely improvised is a minor miracle. The fact that it’s all done with two scale positions and never sounds boring or repetitive, well, that’s why the rest of us drive Tauruses.
But such is the wonder of Yngwie’s playing. Now Your Ships Are Burnedwas the first Yngwie song I ever heard, taped off the radio (airplay? Yngwie?) in high school. At the time I was simply mystified by its crushingly virtuosic display of technique. The first lick in particular grabbed my attention unlike any Yngwie has recorded since, and I worked on it for years, off and on. Gradually, like a fine wine, its musicality became the real hook. The swoopy bends, the distinctive phrasing — almost every lick in the solo is a call or response to the ones around it. As a neoclassical piece, it’s really somewhat progressive. It’s filled with odd, angular riffs and punctuated unpredictably with mind-boggling stop-time runs. It’s more the soundtrack to an urban gunfight than the big-screen adaptation of Beowulf to which better-known Yngwie tracks like Far Beyond The Sun seemingly aspire.
Even as my ability improved over the years, I stayed away from this one, because sometimes it’s cool not to know how they saw the woman in half. For this article I finally sat down and worked out the remaining mysteries. In so doing I lost a bit of the illusion, but gained an even deeper appreciation for the subtlety of the magic.