1.4 'What Is Shred?'

Definition of Shred from Oxford Dictionary:

verb (shreds, shredding, shredded)

  • 1 [with object] tear or cut into shreds
  • reduce documents to unreadable strips by feeding them into a shredder
  • 2 [no object] (usually as noun shredding) play a very fast, intricate style of rock lead guitar

It is difficult to pinpoint when the term shred guitar first entered the guitarist’s vernacular – but around 1987/88 seems about right. It was this period that the revolutionary techniques that Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen introduced between 1978 and 1983 first filtered through into the general consciousness and playing vocabulary of proficient rock and metal guitarists the world over. Guitar magazines were quick to recognize this, particularly in the US and Japan, when featuring a ‘shredder’ on a magazines cover would ensure a sell-out issue.

The tapping explosion that Van Halen instigated was combined with sweep picked arpeggios, alternate ‘speed ‘ picking and – particularly after Paul Gilberts arrival – string skipping to provide a smorgasbord of licks and tricks that players embraced. Suddenly every hometown hero and local legend was ripping it up utilising some very scary techniques indeed…

After years when rock and metal guitar was viewed technically and stylistically as the poor relation to jazz and blues virtuosos suddenly a whole breed arrived to rip the rulebook apart: truly the golden era of shred! Players such as Vinnie Moore, Tony Macalpine, Paul Gilbert, Greg Howe, Marty Friedman, Jason Becker and Richie Kotzen – not forgetting the commercial face of shred in Joe Satriani and Steve Vai - took rock and metal playing to hitherto unscaled heights of technical virtuosity.

Yet, as quickly as shred guitar was celebrated, a determined backlash ensued that meant the term ‘shredder’ was often used as a derogatory term. This was particularly apparent in the 90’s and early Noughties when ‘shred’ got very bad press indeed – and often deservedly so.

Legions of players emerged who displayed out of control speed picked arpeggios and scales played with scant regard for musicality: weak phrasing, cack-handed vibrato and a supremely limited harmonic vocabulary consisting of minor and harmonic minor scales with a few sweep picked arpeggios thrown in quickly became the norm. These guitarists took the most overtly showy aspects of the style and relegated it to a fast fix, ‘junk food’ type of ‘stunt guitar’ playing that appealed only to other metal based guitarists: your average music fan would remain perplexed and ultimately uninvolved by the gratuitous masturbatory antics displayed. Shred was in danger of disappearing up its own (almost universally male) backside!

Somewhere along the line things settled down, and bands such as Alter Bridge and Avenged Sevenfold emerged with players who utilised shred guitar techniques and styles in music that was commercially successful, and appealed to the average – non musician - rock and metal music fan. Nowadays the ability to play highly technical metal guitar with a vocabulary encompassing all the classic shred facets – arpeggios, speed and sweep picking et al – is pretty much a prerequisite to any serious player in the rock and metal arena.

Yet shred guitar – in its purest sense, as a term to denote extremely technically proficient guitar playing – is not solely a rock and metal guitar style. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can see that shred guitar playing, in its purest sense, has always been with us.

From early pioneers such as Django Reinhardt and Les Paul there have always been players who were willing to push the envelope and expand on what had gone before. Players who pushed the boundaries of what was physically possible, and helped develop the vocabulary that is available to players today.

Andy James follows in this tradition and is proud to proclaim himself as a ‘shred’ guitarist: full on, loud and proud, and unashamedly a shred monster – and why not?

To best approach any academic or physical discipline, it is vital to learn the history of the subject: an awareness of what has gone before, and the evolution of the subject is key to your development and understanding. This holds out for shred guitar playing, and the good news is that with the electric guitar being such a comparatively young instrument the history of the genre is relatively easy to track. Spend a few hours on YouTube and check out the players and bands that follow: it will massively help you understand and appreciate the world of shred guitar playing. Knowledge is power…

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