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Crazy Little Word Called “Shred”
By Alex Jasperse - 07/31/2007 - 08:26 PM EDT

When it hit, it hit hard. And back in the early 1980s, both the guitar community and pop charts felt the shock wave. It was an ideology, a philosophy and a way of life. It became a marker to judge whether or not a guitarist had any talent or credibility. It spread like wildfire, and kept many guitarists locked away in their bedrooms for hours of blistering practice each and every day. And this was all because of a crazy little word called shred.

[shred] a guitar playing style where technical proficiency is used to maximize (and sometimes specifically demonstrate) speed.

Back when I was beginning to learn how to play guitar, I’d sit at the end of my bed for hours trying to strum out basic chords in some quasi-rhythmic way. My timing was off, my intonation was awful, and I made the guitar buzz and squawk – but it didn’t matter because I was having fun. Within several months, my playing skills had improved and I began tackling scales and power chords, thinking that I was going to become a strong guitarist who would be able to achieve stardom – and soon. My naiveté strengthened each and every day, because I thought “well, if my chops are getting better and better each day, and I can impress my friends with the guitar, how much longer will it be until I become famous?” But then one day while I was browsing the record store, I came across a name that’s defined guitar virtuosity ever since: Joe Satriani.

Wandering around the record store a few years ago, I saw a Satriani album promoted in one of the listening stations. Maybe it was the hoodie and sunglasses he was wearing, maybe it was the really cool guitar he was holding or, maybe it was the title which read Strange Beautiful Music. Any way I looked at it, this album somehow caught my attention, so I popped the headphones on…

It was really cool – something that I hadn’t heard before. I remember thinking “okay, all the guitar bits are amazing, but where are the vocals?” After listening for only another minute or so (there was a fellow ahem-ing me to move), I decided that although I didn’t know what the vocalist sounded like, I would buy the album. And that was the day I entered the world of “shred”.

I spent so many hours listening to the album over and over, trying to process and understand what seemed (at the time) like a never-ending rush of notes. The tone, the dynamics, just everything was so cool and so different compared to what I had heard before. Within a month I had amassed almost a complete Satriani collection. Then, what I now know as “the classic shred symptoms” began: I found out that Satriani taught a fellow named Steve Vai, and I felt compelled to buy as many of his albums as I could. Then I found this borderline-insane Swede named Yngwie Malmsteen. And then I found the “master” himself: Eddie Van Halen.

By the time I had fully educated myself in the art of trying-to-fit-as-many-notes-as-humanly-possible-within-a-musical-sentence, I was midway through grade 10. I began to find myself spending time with as many of the guitarists I could find, who just like me, had become fixated and attached to the concept of shred. Aside from the grazing pack of Nirvana kids ‘playing’ guitar in the hallways at lunch, I found that my fellow shredders were all fixated on the dream that they were going to become the next guitar hero or better yet, god. 

For hours we’d sit and talk about the different warm up routines and exercises that would bless us with the ability to make our fingers move at insane speeds. There’d be the “so what speed did you do a chromatic run at last night?” and one would say “oh… only at 180 bpm, but –” and would be interrupted by a “well, I hit 200 bpm, and I’m playing eighth notes unlike your quarter notes.” I began to realize that shred was all about one upmanship.
By the end of grade 12, I had spent a considerable amount of time researching the evolution of guitar playing, and I realized that the concept of “shredding” (or just the word, at least) was nothing more than an over-hyped badge of honour. It was a simply a word that was used to describe the so-called ‘elite’ class of guitarists who could play fast more than anything else. But what this badge covered up was the fact that there weren’t a lot of guitarists who were creating, because too many were just using their skills. And I discovered that this was one of the major reasons why there was a huge rebellion against shred by the end of the 1980s.

Although in some respects it’s safe to say that shred has largely come and gone, as a word, it has become entrenched in our vocabulary. We guitarists have an inherent fascination with speed and out-doing one another, whether we’re in the music store, listening to a song or talking amongst ourselves. How has the word shred – either referred directly or indirectly to – become part of how we define a good guitarist? Why do we tend to worship those who can play fast, and only support those who don’t or can’t?

To a certain degree, our fascination with shred borders on the fact that there’s an embedded machismo in the guitar world. Speed and force, in guitar playing, just as in other ‘power’ pursuits like car racing or hockey, is seen as the height of skill. But in truth, it’s a social construction: mastery can also be revealed in more controlled and modest ways. Joe Satriani, for example, proved – and continues to prove – that melody can be put before speed without anything being compromised.

So what is my point, then? As we all know, if nobody challenges the status quo and ventures into the unknown we’d be at a loss. Progress is only made when people push the boundaries. But when it comes to pushing the speed records of shred, the progress that is made is, well… minimal. Shred doesn’t expand the boundaries of a genre, it simply allows for more notes to be used. So, does a guitarist who’s able to shred deserve any more validity and respect then one who doesn’t? I don’t think so, but that’s up to you to decide.

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