Shred guitar, eh? There’s nothing more likely to cause a rock or metal fan to snigger into his pint than the merest mention of the likes of Michael Angelo or Rusty Cooley. These are genuine players who could run rings around the majority of guitarists in terms of technique, yet have a popularity rating somewhere below that of Gary Glitter.
And yet the truth is that most fledgling guitar players want to play as fast as possible. But it takes years of focused dedication to get even half as good as you think you are. Steve Vai – arguably the best-known shredder of the lot – has produced a 10-hour guitar workout specifically for public consumption, while former Mr Big axe grinder Paul Gilbert practised for a minimum of eight hours a day for a decade. How many teenagers do you know who possess that level of dedication?
Having said that, there’s absolutely no correlation between being an awesome guitarist and even just an okay songwriter. Jimmy Page is no face-melting shredder, yet his songs define the term ‘hard rock’. Brian May is of a similar ilk, and the affable Queen man is always dragged up on stage whenever Vai or Joe Satriani are in town, resulting in him feeling (in his own words) “humbled… a fish out of water”.
More than likely, the sentiment is probably mutual. But there’s always an exception to the rule: who is arguably the only jaw-droppingly technical shred guitarist who is also in a massive band? Edward Van Halen.
Guitar instrumentalists – possibly a more precise definition of ‘shred guitarists’ – are subject to the usual parameters; some are better than others. But maybe that’s part of the problem. Because when shred is bad, it’s stupendously terrible. Which makes a guide such as this all the more useful.
Shred as a conscious sub-genre was essentially born in the 80s, and the albums here reflect that – although we’ve also recommended some latter-day choices in our playlist.
Want someone to blame for all this? Blame Mike Varney, founder of Shrapnel Records, and a man who made it his mission in life to bring the very best guitar players to the forefront via his label.
The best exponents don’t play fast for the sake of it, or just because they can. They play fast because it’s their style, and the ability to mould mind-boggling technique into music that the average rock fan can enjoy is a rare treat.
Shred: don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. And check this lot out for starters.
Steve Vai - Flex-Able (1984) (opens in new tab)
Although many would suggest the iconic Passion & Warfare as the Vai album to go for, the Zappa-tinged Flex-Able is Vai at his most pure.
Featuring such gems as Salamanders In The Sun and the peak of ‘stunt guitar’ instrumentals The Attitude Song, it was no surprise that Vai was poached by David Lee Roth a couple of years later; DLR’s Eat ’Em And Smile is a shred album with vocals, after all.
A stalwart of guitar magazines since, Vai remains at the top of his game, producing albums that tread the line between baffling chord changes, and music laden with enormous hooks.
Yngwie Malmsteen - Rising Force (1984) (opens in new tab)
You can't really talk about classic shred without bringing up the Swedish meatball's seminal '84 record. At times he plays too fast for the human ear to follow, which could be why he polarises the opinions of even the closest friends.
Malmsteen builds his music around classical styles, most notably JS Bach and violinist Nicolo Paganini, and although most of his records come with vocals akin to a Scandinavian raider picking bones from his teeth, the excitement his guitar playing generates is undeniable.
Joe Satriani - Surfing With The Alien (1987) (opens in new tab)
Compared to others from the shred fraternity, the style of this amiable San Franciscan (who taught both Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett) is more laid-back, and more explicitly blues-based.
He’s one of the more prolific too, and managed to fit in a spell with Deep Purple (one of his classic rock heroes) after Ritchie Blackmore jumped ship in 1993. This seminal album features some of the most beloved tracks of his career, such as the fleet-fingered Satch Boogie and the propulsive, irresistible title track.
Greg Howe - Greg Howe (1988) (opens in new tab)
Howe’s debut, mixing his bluesy style with neck-snapping rhythms, made some of the biggest waves of all, and was recorded with help from turbobassist Billy Sheehan.
Such was the potency of the stir, Howe was asked to back up Michael Jackson on his History tour of 1996 – the kind of gig you're not offered unless you know your way around a guitar. He has also toured with N*SYNC and Enrique Inglesias (the music might not be much, but those are massive artists). He just might be the best player you’ve never heard of.
Racer X - Street Lethal (1986) (opens in new tab)
When this album reached the UK, guitarists Bruce Bouillet and Paul Gilbert became overnight stars. If the dumbed-downed music of Mötley Crüe and other Sunset Strip bands wasn’t for you, Racer X mixed hairspray with pink guitars and roaring shred to smarter effect.
The original line-up managed another two albums before Gilbert went off with bassist Billy Sheehan to form Mr. Big. They resurfaced in 1997 before disbanding by 2009. If the likes of YRO don’t get you off, you must be dead or terminally shred-resistant.
Cacophony - Speed Metal Symphony (1986) (opens in new tab)
This band featured not one, but two kings of shred: Marty Friedman, who went on to huge success with Megadeth, and the tragic Jason Becker who, during a stint with David Lee Roth on his Little Ain’t Enough album, was struck down with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Becker’s plight is all the more harrowing when you revisit this awesome collection of tunes. He was just 17 when he recorded it. The nine-minute title track serves up increasingly crazy guitar stunts, and it’s easy to see why Roth and Mustaine picked their respective guys.
Vinnie Moore - Mind’s Eye (1987) (opens in new tab)
After a gig writing music for a Pepsi TV ad, he released a cornerstone album. Equally restrained and incendiary when required, this is one of the few albums of the period that stands up today. It’s his ear for a melody that helps set him apart from all the also-rans. Moore is also one of the more accessible shredders, and commits to lengthy clinic roadshows and the like
Chastain - Mystery Of Illusion (1985) (opens in new tab)
The band featured guitarist David T Chastain, notable for his shred technique (and also for the fact that he became a self-made record company mogul after setting up his Leviathan label).
One of several bands he played in, this line-up featured drummer Fred Coury (soon to join Cinderella) and singer Leather. While side projects such as CJSS allowed Chastain (the man) to live out his jazz fantasises, Chastain (the band) were arguably the heaviest of all the artists recommended in this Buyer's Guide, enabling charred fretboards to smoulder amid decent metal tunes.
Tony MacAlpine - Maximum Security (1987) (opens in new tab)
Not quite possessing the worst hair in rock of the time (that honour goes to Rudi Schenker), multi-instrumentalist MacAlpine fused jazz, classical and rock – and a groove so phat it caused tectonic plates to buckle – into a very cool style. And it didn’t get much better than on this debut, backed up by an equally shred-worthy George Lynch on The Vision.
MacAlpine is almost as proficient on a keyboard as on a fretboard, and he has previously been seen and heard playing both as part of Steve Vai’s touring band, in which he occasionally gives his employer a decent run for his money.
Impellitteri - Stand In Line (1988) (opens in new tab)
A warning: this guy plays so fast that even in some shred circles he’s a figure of ridicule because of his advocacy of the ultra-speedy left-hand hammer-on technique.
Stand In Line was his first major release, but that was quickly outdone a year later by the now legendary – and unintentionally hilarious – Speed Soloing tuition video (opens in new tab). That said, no matter what you think of the style, the man’s skill is without question – he’s the shredder’s shredder. If your local pub quiz has the question: 'Who the fastest guitarist of all time?' the answer is Chris Impellitteri.