If you want to trigger a debate among guitarists, inject the subject of shredding into the conversation. Besides seeming to have advocates and detractors in equal numbers, the topic gives rise to more fundamental questions: What constitutes shredding? Who were and are its greatest practitioners? Is shredding all about technical skill, or is it possible to convey real emotion in those blizzards of runs, the way a blues guitarist can rip your heart out with a single note?
Many guitarists trace the art of shredding back to the first Van Halen album. Others insist the phenomenon began earlier, with Uli Jon Roth's work in The Scorpions or even with Alvin Lee or Ritchie Blackmore, at the dawn of the '70s. Few would deny, however, that the era in which shredding fully took flight was the middle to late '80s.
Three guitarists in particular Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson were extolled as frontrunners in the field as the concept of shredding took hold at that time. Each made pioneering albums in the '80s that remain signposts for any player shredder or not. Below, we present thoughts from each of them on a shred-guitar legacy that, rightly or wrongly, they are credited with furthering. Be sure to let us know how you feel about shredding, in the comments section.
Joe Satriani, from Guitar World, December 2010: "I couldn't understand how people would think that I was a shredder. If you listen to Surfing with the Alien or Not of this Earth, which came out around the same general period, you would know that I was just a total oddball and had nothing to do with that whole movement. When I think of songs like Echo' and Midnight' and Always with Me, Always with You,' from Surfing I mean, there's no way those compositions could be on a shred' record. I remember thinking, I'm much more bluesy than everybody.' Maybe people weren't seeing or hearing that at the time; they were all caught up in a scene. I was really just using speed fast, aggressive playing as an effect."
Eric Johnson, January 2011:"I'm probably a bit hypocritical when it comes to shredding. I'll do a show and shred a 15-minute solo, and then listen to a tape of it later and think, What am I doing? That was good for about two minutes.' Part of it is entertainment. But on the other hand, if you play a show where you just shred for two hours, you'll see a lot of the crowd especially the guys' wives or dates start to zone out, and want to go home. And who can blame them? That sort of playing is okay if it's done properly and within the context of a song. But I came to love guitar because I heard Brian Jones play a cool fuzz-tone lick on Satisfaction.' I heard Hendrix do the same thing on May This Be Love.' I love melody, but then again some people listen to shredding and hear strong melodies there. It's a matter of what turns you on. I don't think it's about whether you shred or not, it's about the musicality behind it. And that's subjective."
Steve Vai, August 2012, from a forthcoming interview with M Music & Musicians:"In the '80s, the trend was the ability to play the hell out of your instrument. That's how I envisioned myself playing, and I really liked it. A lot of people were pseudo-shredding a lot of the '80s bands had people who were great guitar players who were doing nothing but that and there was nothing wrong with that. It was acceptable and it was part of what was going on. But then it hit a wall, as most genres and trends do. Somebody came along as always happens and started creating new music that was very different. And that was grunge. But it wasn't as if players like Joe and Eric and me said, Oh boy, what are we going to do, now that people are no longer playing guitar solos?' Playing as we did was why we started playing in the first place, and changes in trends weren't going to stop us. Now there's a trend in shred-guitar playing that dwarfs what we were doing back them. To me it sometimes sounds less like music than like fascinating ways to impress yourself. But there are people who feel that way about how I play. That's fine, and to a degree it's true. Some of how I play is because I like to fascinate myself. But it's certainly not everything."