Shredding is a high-octane, fast and furious guitar style popularized in the 80s by six-string wizards such as Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Randy Rhoads, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, Paul Gilbert, Dimebag Darrell, Dave Mustaine, Marty Friedman, Glenn Tipton, K.K. Downing… the list goes on and on and on!
It’s possibly the definitive guitar sound of the 1980s, and since then has consistently been one of the most enduring and popular styles of play for many guitarists.
While sometimes controversial, and often unfairly derided as part of the excessive aesthetic of the era, shredding is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential things to ever happen to the instrument – and, indeed, to the musical landscape.
Speed is perhaps the most important defining characteristic of shredding. Shredding simply wouldn’t be shredding if it was slow!
It’s a very extreme form of guitar playing, and the ability to play cleanly at extremely high speeds is the most important thing for a shredder.
Players simply must practice for hours upon hours to achieve these speeds, or the whole thing just falls apart – it sounds a mess. Without practice, the precise, beautiful screams of shred guitar sound instead like fumbling missteps across the fretboard.
Control, therefore, is everything to the shredder. A metronome is key to learning how to play fast music with precise control. Each passage a shredder plays at full speed is the result of hours of meticulous practice.
Playing at high speeds exposes imperfections in technique that simply aren’t apparent at lower speeds – playing fast can be extremely unforgiving!
One negative thing often said about shred guitar is that it, indeed, places too much focus upon speed, and upon control at high speed – to the detriment of other aspects of music.
While this can certainly be true for some players, the style is both too ubiquitous and too diverse for this to be fair for all players.
It is, however, true that it is essential for a shredder to be able to competently play difficult passages at high speeds.
Sometimes the sheer speed of these passages is a key factor in their difficulty – a less accomplished player may simply not be able to move his or her hands at such speed with such precision.
Another essential part of shred guitar is a specific type of sound. The style uses a ver overdriven guitar sound, coming from a high-gain amplifier.
This sound is not just loud, but extremely harmonically rich. This richness means that full chords can often sound a little messy, but smaller chords with tighter voicings have a characteristic fullness and depth that more than makes up for having fewer notes.
And furthermore, individual notes can sound almost as loud as full chords, due to the fact that overdriving a guitar signal naturally compresses it too – making the loudest and quietest sounds much closer to each other in volume.
Heavily overdriving or distorting the amplifier turns the guitar into an entirely different sounding instrument – from a timid creature with a thin sound into a monster that dominates across the frequency spectrum.
With such a heavily overdriven sound, individual notes can ring out for longer with more volume – and fast passages of individual notes are made richer and thicker sounding due to the extra harmonic undertones and overtones provided by the distortion!
This means that the electric guitar makes for a perfect instrument for solos! This is precisely why so many bands and guitarists used it, and continue to use it for that – even without guitar anywhere else in a piece of music, a distorted guitar tone is a common choice.
There are many techniques used in shred guitar. Here are some, but not all of them!
Sweep picking is an advanced guitar technique. It is essentially a way of playing arpeggios extremely quickly and fluidly. Done correctly, sweep picking allows the player to play multi-octave arpeggios that cover the fretboard with relative ease, compared to picking them normally.
The most basic form of sweep picking uses arpeggios that have one note per string. It involves using the picking hand as if one were strumming a chord, while the fretting hand frets each note of the arpeggio as it is picked.
The picking hand does not pick each note discretely, but instead tries to move the pick across the strings in a fluid, unceasing motion.
More advanced sweep picking methods include playing arpeggios that both rise and fall, more complex arpeggios with multiple notes on some strings, and incorporating other techniques such as tapping.
Alternate picking is, quite simply, picking in an alternating up-down motion. This up-down motion is strictly maintained, even when changing strings.
This technique is perfect for playing runs on single strings, as an alternating motion lends itself extremely well to playing fast. It is also an extremely natural motion to perform, compared to economy picking, which takes more work to learn.
However, playing in extremely strict alternate picking means that a player often has to make larger jumps across the strings with the picking hand when moving the pick from string to string – which is why a lot of fast players learn to use economy picking too.
Economy picking is another way of playing from one string to another. Instead of strictly and rigidly following an up-down-up-down or -down-up-down-up pattern, as in alternate picking, economy picking involves picking in the direction of travel when moving from string to string.
For instance, if the next string you’re going to play is lower down – pick down, even if you would pick up if picking alternately. It’s a little similar to sweep picking, in that the picking hand needs to be able to move fluidly and precisely, even at speed.
Tapping involves using the fingers on the picking hand to instead fret notes on the guitar. This can be used to reach higher octaves quickly, or to play passages at high speed.
This can be on single strings, or also done across multiple strings. This is of course possible without the high gain sound of shred guitar, but the natural volume boost and compression that come with a high gain are great at bringing the most out of tapped notes.