1.6 The Early Years: 1970's
The 1970’s saw rock guitar reach pre-eminence. Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple - to name but a few - became global titans, and the sound of a heavily overdriven distorted guitar became key to the soundtrack of a generation. However, many players were only applying the blues guitar styles of the previous generation louder and faster, loaded to attack with a battery of Marshall amps set to stun. Sure, they turned blues into heavy rock and metal, but most were in essence only replicating a vocabulary already established. Shred guitar this was not – yet, amidst this melting pot, a few select players emerged who set the seeds for the shred guitar genre that would emerge a decade later.
Richie Blackmore set the ball rolling: make no doubt, this moody man in black from the little celebrated provincial English west country town of Weston super-Mare started the whole thing off. Via his hot-rodded Strat tones on tracks such as ‘Child In Time’ and ‘Highway Star’ with Deep Purple - as well as harmonic minor and ‘gypsy scale’ laden rock epics ‘Stargazer’ and ‘Gates of Babylon’ with Rainbow - Blackmore laid down the gauntlet with speedy alternate picked runs and arpeggios combined with a superannuated rock tone that provided inspiration for guitarists all over the world.
In Germany, The Scorpions first fielded Uli Jon Roth who combined a Hendrix influence with Harmonic Minor scales and Phrygian Dominant modes, alongside speedily executed scalar sequences and early examples of sweep picked arpeggios that arguably took Blackmore’s pioneering elements a stage further. Check out ‘Seas Of Charon’ and prepare to be humbled…
Almost uniquely in the annals of rock, The Scorpions also introduced a second universal influence: Michael Schenker (younger brother of main songwriter and rhythm guitarist Rudolph) had a command of rapid fire and fluid pentatonic lead guitar – as well as his patented ‘half-cocked’ wah tone that the Los Angeles breed of players such as George Lynch and Warren DeMartini would utilise to such effect in the 80’s - that makes his playing required listening decades later. Schenker achieved prominence when playing with UFO (check out ‘Rock Bottom’ from their ’Strangers In The Night’ live album) and his own Michael Schenker Band, and the early 1980’s saw him winning many ‘Best Guitarist’ polls in magazines such as Kerrang!
In the jazz and fusion worlds John Maclauglin and Al DiMeola raised the bar on alternate picking and use of exotic scales: whilst they are resolutely non-metal, their influences on players such as Yngwie Malmsteen and John Petrucci warrant their inclusion here. DiMeola’s ‘Race With The Devil On Spanish Highway’ is an alternate picking tour de force to this day – and the famously irascible New Jersey native shreds like a demon on acoustic as well…
It was in this period that possibly the world’s first proof of alien life came to light with Yorkshireman Allan Holdsworth - a simply unbelievable exponent of legato playing whose otherworldly wide interval guitar lines replicated the sophistication and tonal qualities of hard core Jazz saxophonists that are beyond mere mortals. He has also been continually referenced by Eddie Van Halen as a primary influence – and as such the seeds of his legacy are evident in all shred guitarists on the planet, even if most of us find his Jazz Fusion music impenetrable…!
Before we turn our attention to Eddie Van Halen – arguably the most important rock guitarist since Hendrix – it is worth checking in on Steve Morse, super picker par excellence, and often cited by ‘Prog Metal’ God John Petrucci as the main man. From his early days with the Dixie Dregs in the mid to late 70’s to the present day, Morse has displayed supreme alternate picking utilising chromaticism and triadic arpeggios that replicated country style fiddle lines that were previously unobtainable and unapproached by guitarists. With a critically acclaimed solo career, a stint with US symphonic prog legends Kansas, as well as countless album credits with artists from many different genres, since 1994 Steve Morse has been the resident guitarist with Deep Purple, and today his playing combines an extensive classically based vocabulary alongside his aforementioned styles, remaining a powerhouse in the world of virtuoso guitar.