Instrumental Technique - Do I Really Need to Know How to Shred?

Yes. But the reason I say yes might not quite be for the reasons you may think.

Ultimate Guitar

The term "shred" can apply to any musician although it is very commonly used by guitarists to explain high levels of technical prowess on the instrument and the ability to play clean and clearly at vast speeds. The reason I say yes might not quite be for the reasons you may think. A lot of young players these days are very technique orientated and this has some really great advantages but you have to be very careful not to slip into a few traps. Let's explore the main purpose and goal of instrumental technique, and that is to use it as a tool, a vehicle to be able to play the notes you wish to express.

Technique is the physical ability that slots in place between the point of conceptualisation of an idea and making the air vibrate as sound waves to be heard by the listener. It also plays a large part in making music sound human, dynamic and expressive, the other main part of this involves timing discrepancies which I believe is a mental rather than technical ability. The overall idea being that we are all constantly limiting ourselves to what we can physically play so we try to increase our technical ability as a way of freeing ourselves to the point that we can play anything we can think of. There's nothing worse than having a great idea trapped and imprisoned inside your own head, destined to live out a life of solitude because you do not possess the necessary skills to free the little idea and transform it into the brilliant sound waves it has the potential to become, but I digress. 

It is worth mentioning early on that when I talk about working on technique I do not necessarily mean being able to play things fast. Technique for guitar can cover everything from the type of picking and how you execute it, to slides, bends, vibrato, the actual touch and contact of notes, finger independence etc.

Some observations I see these days on players who seem too technique orientated (especially when it comes to speed) have led me to believe there are a few things you need to keep an ear out for when focusing on improving your technique and they are as follows; do not allow your playing to be monotonous. If you practice scales up and down constantly as a way of working on your technique then there is a danger that you will only play scales up and down when you improvise, and that can sound very bland. Try to vary the ways you practice technique and keep it creative. Always keep in mind that you are improving your technique to give you the ability to play things that you can create in your head. So do it that way, think up some ideas that you enjoy, or steal someone else's that you love, and use them to work on your technique. So keep it creative.

Secondly, playing fast can be impressive, and if it's taken you 3 years of hard dedicated work then you may feel the need to play fast a lot to express your hard work and display the fruits of your labour, but labouring is how it will sound to the listener. A fast phrase is great, but use your technical phrases sparingly they are just another tool for expressing and if you spend 3 minutes shredding as fast as you can it is going to sound very taxing and will get "old" pretty quick. So try to restrain yourself slightly and your pull the quick stuff out at the most creative and expressive times and your playing will sound so much mature because of it.

Thirdly, speed can be good but if you're improvising you can only play as quickly as you can think, and the flipside is that the average listener will most likely be more limited than you in their ability to digest and understand notes at blistering speed. This can be used to great effect if that's the idea you are trying to put across but is it really worth all that hard work trying to get every note to sound so crisp and clear if they whizz past so fast that nobody can make them out anyway?

My fourth point is that you can never "win" at technique, if it is helping people to pick up and play guitar or any other instrument and they enjoy it then that's fine, but there is a danger of not ever feeling satisfied. Someday you might be able to play 32nd notes at 220bpm, but you can't play them at 300bpm. Then if you eventually get it up to 300bpm then you still can't play it at 400bpm and it goes up and up. Unless you are planning to get into the Guinness book of records working on technique for techniques sake is almost pointless and you will forever be chasing your tail. 

Now, that's a lot of negativity for a guy who has just told you that you should learn to shred. So let me reiterate that the above are observations and dangers I've seen in other players so do not interpret them as reasons not to work on technique but see them as points to keep in mind and traps not to fall into. I feel the advantages far outweigh the potential dangers of the disadvantages.

The ability to play anything you can think of is a huge advantage. It is the pinnacle of musicianship and will free you up to no end. If you can achieve this, then all you need to worry about is increasing your ability to come up with cool ideas, which is certainly an article for another day. Technique "can" be an avenue to come up with cool ideas, it probably shouldn't be the only avenue but it can sometimes help open you up to playing new things. To use a guitar specific example the first time you hear and work on playing string bends will open a huge other world of ideas and add lots of little details to your playing.

Another example could be right hand tapping (assuming you play right hand guitar) this will instantly extend the range between two adjacent notes that you can play and can give you huge melodic leaps that may not have existed in your style of playing before. One other use for technique is to make the physical act of playing feel easier to you. If you can make the faster more complex phrases sound and feel effortless then the regular simpler playing will feel like a dream and all this will allow you to have one less thing to think about come performance time and let you focus on other things such as connecting with the audience, thinking about the next idea while playing, and enjoying the moment more. 

Although on the page the advantages seem to take up less space than the disadvantages this is because I feel each of the advantage points carries a lot more weight behind each of them. My last thought and final piece of advice is not to get bogged down by technique, work on it, improve it, try to become as technically proficient as you can but only as a way of freeing yourself up and allowing both the creation of ideas and your involvement in "the moment" and other playing and performance situations to flourish. 

About the Author:
By Steven Martin, If you enjoyed this article, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to get in touch with any questions or comments in the boxes below.

37 comments sorted by best / new / date

    "do not allow your playing to be monotonous" The same thing can be said about writing and walls of text.
    I found someone who's playing is monotonous but who doesn't want to realize it.
    The ideas you developped in this article are very interesting and helpful, but english is not my first langage and i found this thing really difficult to read. I dont know, phrases are very long and it was kind of hard for me. Anyway, thanks for the article, in the end it's still a very good one
    English is my first language and trust me, it is very difficult to read because OP needs to paragraph.
    I read in a book called Zen Guitar: "Acquire only the technique you need, and no more." It pretty much says it all, if you ask me.
    that is probably the dumbest thing I've ever heard , reason being a musician is always expanding their abilities [or at least should be if they actually consider it an art as it is]and learning techniques is a huge part of that and any type of technique can be implemented into any type of genre so to say you simple don't "need" a particular skill set says to me either you're ignorant or lazy.
    1)If you weren't so eager to flame me, you would have understood that our views do not necessarily conflict. 2)By the same token, go head and give the finger to classical guitarists for not using a pick, tapping and bending, rock guitarists for not playing in a self contained way like classical and jazz guitarists, etc. 3)When did I say you should not be seeking to advance as a musician? Technique, although important, is only part of a musician's prowess. 4)I really couldn't give two shits about what you think of me.
    Actually, I find "learning the technique you need" very important philosophy, and I follow it myself. If you want to learn, say, funky rhythm playing, you should learn it. If you couldn't care less about sweep picking, don't learn it. It keeps playing interesting and helps you to achieve what you want from the instrument.I think that picking out techniques you find appealing is an integral part of developing a personal playing style. There are players who are famous for great legato style or fast, clean alternative picking because they have embraced that part of their playing. It has nothing to do with "laziness" or "ignorance" if you choose to spend more practice hours on technique you prefer over another. Any art is about much more than technique, ability or even the end result.
    You are the one who is ignorant and lazy. You didn't even think about and analyze the quote. You just took the quote and ran way too far with it. It doesn't literally mean stop expanding your abilities once you have learned all of the traditional techniques for your style of music acquired. It means keep the skills you are displaying relevant with the piece of music. For example, if your band is covering Every Rose Has It's Thorn, a Kirk Hammett style solo won't fit right. In your defense, a better quote would be "Use only the technique you need, and no more"
    People, you have to actually read the article. Stop complaining that it's too long.It's someone elses philosphy. You have to open your mind to it,even if you disagree in the end. It's a subjective expirience and philosophy. Just make sure you understand it before you scrutinize it.
    Chris Zoupa
    I think there are multiple ways to look at practicing shred for speed and competence and using it in improvisational contexts. Up and down is the way I'd practice my shred but you can't blame that on bland improv if that makes sense. Some cool points in this article though.
    PARAGRAPHS, dude. That's all I can say. I'm sure it was a good article, but such large walls of text are hard for my old eyes to digest.
    Thanks for the feedback! I do agree with you on this point and I'll break it up a bit more in future! Thanks for reading
    Thanks for reading Ladies and Gents! Please don't misunderstand, I wasn't saying everyone needs to know how to shred. The world would be an awful place if everyone was a shredder; I am however saying that you should not be bound by your own physical limitations. You should work on your technique up to a stage where you are free to be able to play anything your mind wishes to conceive and that you wish to express.
    steven seagull
    Ok that makes more sense when you put it that way, in the article it kind of implies that everyone wants to play a certain way. Like you've just said though, you just need to the chops to play the music that's in your head and that's a very individual thing.
    Rebel Scum
    You don't need to know how to shred for instrumental technique. Look at Dave Gilmour's stuff with Floyd for example.
    I agree, but I think the point OP was getting at was that you shouldn't "shred for shredding's sake". Rather, "Shredding" should be reserved for moments when your own intuitive compositions call for some speed. The listener can get lost in monotonous quick fingerings if your goal is simply to play fast to impress. Let it come naturally. Looking at the history of the instrument it would be silly to say that quick playing in needed to be a great player.
    He did say you shouldn't shred for shreddings sake. But he also said that you need to know how to shred, which I don't agree with. Not being able to shred might limit your songwriting a bit, but you don't need to know how to shred in order to be a good player. As a matter of fact, I've never found any shredding interesting at all, other than the wow factor of how fast they play, it gives me absolutely nothing. Even a fast song can have a melodic non-shreddy solo.
    Simply because a person has made a career out of not using something does not mean it isn't worth learning as a musician you should strive to learn as much about your art as you can if you respect it and any guitar technique can be used for any genre so as I stated to another individual if you don't think this is true you're either ignorant and not very creative or you're simply lazy.
    At what tempo and note duration does it stop to be considered "shred"? While his lead work rarely features them, Gilmour can and has played fast scale runs.
    Apologies for the BMP/BPM typo, it was auto-corrected and I've emailed the editor to rectify this.
    Most people did misunderstand the message. As stated above, you should get to the level where what you think is easily translated to your playing. Personally I have been in situations where I'm writting a song, or have this great solo idea but I cannot play it...and it sucks big time.
    @steven-a-martin Thanks for posting! I've been working on my shredding skills lately, and find that I do get into a rut where I play some phrases I'm working on and then just kick up the metronome to a higher bpm. My accuracy and coordination still improve, but I'm really not doing anything creative and my improvisational skills are not quite up to par yet. I'll definitely be exploring new ways to practice my technique moving forward. Thanks!
    steven seagull
    Bit of a pointless article, nobody "needs" to know how to play at a certain speed or know certain techniques. People pick up the guitar for many reasons and they all have their individual goals. It's like saying everybody needs to learn how to cook Thai food because it's so wonderful and spicy and loads of people like it. That's all well and good but if YOU don't like Thai food then there's little reason to learn how to cook it. You're far better off focussing all your efforts on learning stuff you do want to eat.
    This excuse has already been used too many times. Even though it seems a good thing when you think of it it does not work like this in a real life situation. You only need to learn how to shred if you're going to shred. You only learn technique if you're going to use it. If you have a good idea it doesn't matter if it uses bends, sweeps or anything as long as it's a good idea. By the way, tapping, bends and basically almost technique is not shred specific, you can tap slowly, and of course bend slowly. Your article is more focused on learning techniques than really shredding, so I really recommend you to change the article's title.
    "You only need to learn how to shred if you're going to shred."Exactly. There seems to be a misconception that learning how to play fast and technical automatically translates to your "average" playing. I don't think learning how to shred improves your overall playing. It only improves your shredding skills.
    Shredding rather people know it or not, is full of emotion. I HATE when someone says, "there is no feeling in that type of playing." Now if we consider most of these people are blues players, the one's who hate metal usually: lets look at an example. Stevie Ray Vaughan looks like he is full of emotion and his music drips with it. He himself has shred in some of his songs. Although different, its in their. Anyone who has seen Yngwie Malmsteen on stage cannot tell me that he has less feeling in his music, look at him on-stage. Compared to SRV they look identical with their, "In the zone" type faces. Same can be said for dimebag. Muddy Waters. Steve Vai. Johhny winter. So in respect to that, I whole heartly agree that shredding has its place, but disagree that there is no emotion in it. Its all feeling. In this article I am glad to read the authors thoughts about right place right time. Not all songs call for super speed, If you listen to the artists above including Yngwie their songs are like roller coasters and go up and down. Any peice of music has to have some excitement. Either thru tension or speed..
    The idea you brought up about the listener's perception of the notes being played is interesting, what sounds fast or intricate to me may not be the same for the average listener. Just a new way to think about it I had never thought of. Thanks!
    i wonder when someone will come up with a Bpm cap .. so some people can reach that cap and consider themselves "made" ... maybe then , we will return to quality sounding notes ... Speed is a tool , not the goal ..