One thing that irks me, especially from the standpoint of a jazz guitarist, is the term “shredding.”
“Shredding” surfaced in mainstream lingo as a way to describe the playing of hard rock or heavy metal guitarists who were viewed as otherworldly due to the amount of speed and facility they possessed. Listeners were wooed so much by the physicality these players demonstrated, that the content was easily and often overlooked. And there lies my point.
I grew up in the era when shredding ran rampant, and at age 15, I was also thoroughly impressed by these wiz-adults. The following year, however, I discovered jazz through the likes of Joe Pass and George Benson. With this revelation I became more aware of the content side of the coin that ultimately justified the application of expansive technique. To say the least, it changed my perspective about technique overnight.
Soon, I began looking to saxophonists, pianists, and trumpet players for inspiration. It became even more apparent to me that in order to play on the level of other instrumentalists in jazz, I needed ample technique. Of course "level" can be viewed in many ways and is different for everyone. For instance, my guitar hero, Jim Hall, has played some of the most profound music on earth without possessing the kind of “chops,” say, most piano players have. When I use the term "level," I'm referring to a freedom of expression that can only be defined by the individual. In whatever manner you chose to express yourself, the best results come from transcending the perceived limitations of your chosen instrument.
So what does this have to do with shredding? Getting there! For me, John Coltrane reached the pinnacle of musical freedom by transcending his instrument. His musical choices, as well as his sound, are simply arresting. His tone cuts through the music while being sonically involved. My aim has been to hint at the depth and beauty he embodied, through my own music and playing. I am drawn towards that sound and naturally want to cultivate it within my own expression. This is where my point comes into play. Like many jazz guitarists, I enjoy a clean and warm guitar tone, as well as a grittier, overdriven sound. There is a reason for the latter. When I use an overdriven sound, I'm trying to move closer to my interpretation of saxophone timbre.
If I find reason to use that kind of tone on any given night, and the first thing someone says to me after the show is, “Wow, you were shredding,” I’m a little offended, even if they mean well—offended because that person isn't speaking music or content to me, they’re unwittingly thinking sound (overdrive) plus chops = shredding =
context (hard rock guitar playing). Almost by default, my playing loses depth—and face it, depth is what most of us seek. “Shredding” is most troublesome, however, when a journalist uses the term, because they magnify it’s irrelevance simply by the nature of their position. The emphasis is not placed on the development of the guitar in modern jazz, but is intrinsically linked to the past genres of jazz-rock and progressive rock—again, mostly by default. What if the same overdriven solo was heard without overdrive? One would hear pure modern jazz vocabulary.
Indeed, some jazz guitarists decisively come off sounding like they’re shredding. This is either because they enjoy the shred effect, or their jazz vocabulary isn’t well developed, and therefore they relegate themselves to using the guitar tactics that the '80s hard rockers used, such as flashy scale sequences, patterns, etc.
Consider the thousands of hours a devoted jazz guitarist has practiced in order to make their statements stand on the same ground as other jazz instrumentalists. That shouldn’t be overlooked simply because there is a history that comes along with a sound (overdrive). Listen to the content, as you would with any instrumentalist.
I’ll contextualize it better: when was the last time you heard someone describe the playing of Coltrane or Keith Jarrett or Dave Holland, for instance, as "shredding"?