The electric guitar is easily one of the most popular and widely used instruments in music of the entire last century. Next to the synthesizer, it’s probably the most diverse instrument on the planet, capable of fitting into almost any musical situation with ease.
Played cleanly, it’s a perfect accompaniment instrument for any style. However, it’s also used in some of the most extreme forms of music – and is the instrument most known for being an outlet for extremism in its own right. Combined with a high-gain amplifier, it produces a sound that’s both angelic and demonic all at once.
Shred guitar is pretty much the most extreme, in your face way of playing guitar. It’s not just loud and distorted, it’s extremely fast and complex too – finger-blistering melodies and passionate arpeggios played with a fervor that demands, and gets, your attention. It’s one of the ultimate ways of expressing just what’s possible to play on an instrument.
It’s not without its detractors, however – some people will say that shredding is soulless, unmusical, and solely egotistical. Those people are dead wrong – and often jealous of the sheer technical ability of those who can shred.
Shredding doesn’t have to be the only thing one ever does on a guitar – but as a way of displaying extremity of emotion, of pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on the instrument, and of being just plain entertaining, there are few forms of music that can match it.
Just like when Paganini wowed audiences the world over with his prodigious, almost inhuman skill on violin, the best shredders are themselves proud examples of just what is possible – making the most extreme, fast, and intense music, combining amazing technical skill with a virtuoso display of melody.
Where to start if you want to learn more? Well, there’s no better way to learn than by listening to some of the best and most important shredders of all time.
Eddie Van Halen
No discussion about shredding could possibly omit Eddie Van Halen. The founder (along with his drum playing brother Alex) of the band that bore his name, Eddie Van Halen is one of the most influential guitarists ever.
His famous solo “Eruption” was the catalyst for an entire generation of guitarists who were wowed by Van Halen’s technique, while songs such as “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” showed that far from being just an extremist, Van Halen had an unmistakable pop sensibility that endeared his songs to millions worldwide.
Van Halen is one of the single most influential guitarists who has ever lived – in many ways, he was the guitarist’s guitarist, such was his influence on players across many different styles and genres. He was truly an innovator on the instrument, and anyone looking to learn about shred guitar would do well to have a listen to his music.
Yngwie J. Malmsteen
Yngwie J. Malmsteen is another one of those guitarists who can legitimately claim to have influenced an entire generation of players. Known since the release of the first album to feature him (Steeler, by the band of the same name) as a serious player, Malmsteen really came into his own as a both a poster-boy for shred guitar, and a neo-classical virtuoso with the release of his 1984 album Rising Force.
Malmsteen is rightfully one of the most technically respected guitarists to ever play, with both dazzling proficiency, but a real individualistic flair – sometimes this can admittedly border on egomania, but there’s an argument to be made that a player with this much skill may have some right to be at least a touch arrogant. Pieces such as Far Beyond The Sun showcase why he may have a point.
Like Van Halen, Steve Vai can rightfully be called a guitarist’s guitarist. His musical output is extremely varied in style and genre – from working with nonconformist maestro Frank Zappa, to playing on the Halo 2 soundtrack, Vai has covered a lot of bases.
His prodigious skill on the instrument is undeniable, and his overall skill as a musician is also unquestionable – Zappa once famously tasked him with transcribing a recording of speech into musical notation!
Joe Satriani, or Satch, is not just known as an amazing guitarist but also as a teacher of the instrument. He actually taught two players on this list – both Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett took lessons from Satriani!
Outside of teaching, he has played all over the world, and is known for a slightly more bluesy feel to his music than a lot of other shredders. For a good start on his music, check out his famous Surfing With The Alien.
Paul Gilbert once sent Ozzy Osbourne a demo tape, hoping to become his new guitarist and tour the world with him. He might have actually got the job of replacing Randy Rhoads, too, based on the sheer brilliance of his playing on the demo – until it was found out that Gilbert hadn’t even finished school yet!
Sadly for Gilbert, taking a teenager on the road didn’t strike Ozzy or his management as a great idea, but in the years since, it doesn’t seem to have held him back. Classic Gilbert showcase tracks include Fuzz Universe, and his band Racer X’s Technical Difficulties.
Kirk Hammett is one of the most famous proponents of shred guitar in the world, being the lead guitarist for the biggest metal band in the world, Metallica.
While his musical output is not as lead guitar driven as other entries on this list, Kirk is one of the most influential shredders in the world based on the sheer people that have heard him play, and decided to pick up a guitar thinking “I want to do that.”
Listen to any Metallica album for his work (bar the infamously devoid of solos St Anger), but the tracks Ride The Lightning, One, and Fade To Black feature some of his best work, and some of the best melodic shredding in metal.
There are of course plenty of other shredders – thousands of them! Any guitarist worth their salt should at least have a go at learning something from these virtuosos – and for non players, the amazing melodies and sheer speed should be impressive enough for at least a listen!