1.10 The Golden Age Of Shred: The Mid to late 1980’s
After Malmsteen hit the scene a possibly unique period in the history of rock and metal guitar ensued, when seemingly every month saw a new player emerge into the spotlight exhibiting increasingly wild technical abilities.
This wasn’t just confined to the instrumental shred/metal world: the ‘hair metal’ and commercial rock explosion saw the charts filled with tapping, dive bombs and speedy licks: California fielded George Lynch (with Dokken) Warren DeMartini (with Ratt) and Jake E Lee (with Ozzy Osbourne), and Europe added Viv Campbell (with Dio), John Sykes (with Whitesnake ) as well as John Norum and Kee Marcello from Swedish rockers Europe.
These players – whilst not shredders per se - brought technical guitar playing to the masses, and along with Guns’n’Roses, ensured that technically adept guitar playing was heard the world over, influencing a whole new generation of youngsters who would ultimately become the shredders of today.
Neo classical players Tony Macalpine and Vinnie Moore were amongst the first of a generation who chose to use the instrumental album as their showcase: both players expanded on the sweep picked arpeggios, legato, speed picking and classical based melodies that were Yngwie’s hallmark, yet brought their own characters clearly to the fore. Vinnie Moore’s ‘Minds Eye’ and ‘Time Odyssey’, as well as Macalpine’s ‘Maximum Security’ are required listening.
Jason Becker and Marty Friedman followed suite, adding exotic Far Eastern melodies to the vocabulary: additionally they teamed up together in Cacophony taking harmonised guitar to new levels. Both of Cacophony’s albums, as well as their solo releases, are essential for fans of shred. Both players also made their mark in more mainstream rock/metal acts – Friedman with Megadeth and Becker with Dave Lee Roth. Check out Becker’s ‘Altitudes’…
Paul Gilbert exploded on the scene with in late 86 with Racer X’s ‘Street Lethal’ album, after having Gilbert won the LA Guitar Wars when only 15… Demonstrating machine gun picking, new forms of scale and pentatonic sequencing, and an innovative approach to string skipping, Gilbert also had an endearingly light hearted and humorous character that was a refreshing antidote to the po-faced neo classical pomposity that many shredders adopted…
With their second album ‘Second Heat’ teamed up with Bruce Bouillet to create some of the most death defying twin and harmony guitar lines known to man. Gilbert found worldwide fame as part of melodic rockers Mr Big, and to this day enjoys a successful career. Gilbert was also a pioneer in the world of guitar education - via his instructional videos (and later on online tuition) and work as Head of Rock Guitar at the LA Guitar Institute.
His mix of tearing it up with both a solo career, stints with more ‘commercial’ vocally led bands, and as a teacher, guitar clinician and educator to players all over the globe is one that many shredders have emulated – and Gilbert is one of Andy’s key influences.
This period also saw the rise of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani – probably the most commercial of the players known to the wider guitar world as shredders, and part of the aforementioned New Jersey/Long Island/New York guitar ‘mafia’.
Steve Vai’s command of the instrument is second to none and he’d already gained acclaim as a member of Frank Zappa’s band before he released ‘Flex-able’ in 1984, played the Devils guitarist in the cult movie ‘Crossroads’ and found global commercial success and hit singles with ex-Van Halen frontman Dave Lee Roth’s band in 1986.
Vai brought a whacky and unpredictable edge to the genre, with a trem style that genuinely expanded on Van Halen’s previous work as well as new approaches to tapping amongst a myriad of other scary guitar parts. Check out ‘Eat ‘Em and Smile’ from Dave Lee Roth as well as his 1990 solo instrumental masterpiece ‘Passion & Warfare’.
Both Vai and his former teacher - the equally renowned Joe Satriani - achieved considerable commercial success for instrumental artists, and are in many ways the acceptable face of instrumental ‘shred’ guitar.
Satch combines a signature legato style, still further innovative trem techniques (with such great monikers as ‘Lizard down the Throat’ and ‘Dentist’s Drill’!) and all the requisite picking, tapping (including an innovative ‘chordal’ tapping approach highlighted on tracks such as ‘Midnight’) and arpeggio heroics.
His ‘Surfing With The Alien’ from 1987, ‘Flying In A Blues Dream’ from 1989 and 1992’s ‘The Extremist’ are essential listening, and great examples on how to combine all of shred guitars technical traits with a more commercial melodic approach.
Satch and Vai were also influential in introducing the hitherto most decidedly ‘un-rock’ Lydian mode to rock guitarist, and the Lydian is a key feature to much of their compositional and harmonic approach.
Richie Kotzen and Greg Howe also emerged during these years: and both are worth particular attention as not only did they introduce a bluesier (and in later years jazzier) element to the shred genre, but developed significant advances in the application of legato, string skipping and tapping – particularly facilitating wider intervals than had previously been employed – that raised the bar.
Along with Gilbert, it is these two guys whose playing innovations and styles are probably most applicable to Andy James’s style out of the players so far covered so definitely check these guys out.
‘Kick It All Over’ and ‘Bad Racket’ from Greg Howe’s eponymous solo album are very scary…
With Kotzen it’s harder to pinpoint particular tracks, but his work with Poison on 1992’s ‘Native Tongue’ and particularly 1994’s his Mother Heads Family Reunion release (title track and ‘Cover Me’ especially) will knock you out. Insane playing, and although far removed from Mr James’ style, his combination of techniques is required listening.
From Ozzy Osbourne’s bootcamp, a player whose super charged hyper aggressive pentatonic playing is arguably more prevalent in Andy’s playing than almost anyone featured so far was unleashed on the guitar world in 1988: Zakk Wylde.
This guy provided a hardcore metal attitude and attack and blistering vibrato that was far removed from many of the neo classical shredders, yet with his technical accuracy was a fully paid up addition to Gilbert and the rest: on 1988’s ‘No Rest For The Wicked’ as well as ‘No More Tears’ he kicked serious butt…
On Ozzy’s albums, his solo releases as well as those with his Black Label Society band, Zakk has always delivered guitar mayhem.
Hair rock pin ups Winger featured Reb Beach, who added yet another take on the two handed tapping style with his signature ultra-fluid scalar runs, and funk metallers Extreme unleashed Nuno Bettancourt - a funked up new age version of Eddie Van Halen.
Another key influence on Andy James’s playing also gained recognition in the late 80’s and early 90’s: Andy Timmons. Both with Danger Danger and on his solo albums, Timmons always exhibits tons of melodic and tasteful playing that is well worth checking out.
And so the decade of shred came to a close, but few could have foreseen the backlash against this style of playing that the 90’s would herald…