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, www.stevenmartinguitar.com. 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.