Alex Skolnick: The Shred Epidemic

I don't consider myself a "shredder." I realize this is a statement that may be surprising to some, but it's true. 
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I don't consider myself a "shredder." I realize this is a statement that may be surprising to some, but it's true. There are those who call me a shredder and I don’t take it as an insult. But I hope there’s more to me as a musician—otherwise I should just quit now.

For one moment, let’s compare the role of a guitar player to that of a cook. "Shredding," that oft-used term to describe fast soloing, can be compared to its culinary equivalent. In other words, whether we’re talking about scales and modes or cabbage and chicken, both scenarios involve chopping items into very small bits. A less literal but more pragmatic comparison might be the following: "shredding" within a piece of music is like adding any strong ingredient such as basil or hot pepper to a recipe. Used tastefully, it can enhance an existing dish with a touch of spice and intensity. But used unsparingly and egomaniacally, it can overpower the creation and ruin it entirely. Who wants to eat a dish where all you taste is one ingredient?

I’ve been described as a shredder by radio hosts and fans. Knowing they mean it endearingly, I smile and take it with a proverbial grain of salt (that other potentially overpowering ingredient). But when labeled as such by websites, blogs, magazines, and those on-line music guides, especially the ones that have the gall to use the word "genius" to describe themselves,it can be difficult to digest. Sometimes it causes heartburn.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, I don’t relate to the so called "shred community." Shred community? Ok, maybe it’s just me, but I fail to find anything communal about a bunch of half-mad monkeys with whammy bars enviously eyeballing each other as they compete over who can play the fastest.

Here’s another thing:Shred has become a tiny subgenre in itself, one that has taken on the stigma of a musical ghetto. Just as urban ghettos represent disadvantaged areas of a city, the shred genre is a failing neighborhood of music, populated by sonically impoverished guitarists (and occasionally other instrumentalists as well), unwilling or unable to rise above the oppression of their own egos.And just like the in the real ghetto, their predicament is exploited by greedy corporations, with suburban music store chains and rock clothing outlets in place of liquor marts and check cashing facilities.

Yet there is an even bigger reason I cringe when I see my name or my music aligned with that of the "shred people." That reason is this: For the most part, their work has little or no connection to what I feel music is. To them, speed is their primary purpose, the sole reason their music exists. To me, speed is that pungent, strong spice, an effective and powerful ingredient to be used when appropriate—please take note of those last two words: "when appropriate." I’m going to say them once more: WHEN APPROPRIATE!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t play fast; In fact, I’ve always liked certain music with very fast guitar solos. In many cases, these solos pushed me to practice harder. But here’s a really important point: it was never just about the solos. Let’s take a quick look at three of these tracks I heard early on that inspired me to practice playing fast. These are not necessarily my Top Three, just ones that caught the attention of these very young ears whose listening tastes back then were more in line with the likes of Kiss, the Sex Pistols, Devo and the The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack:

“You Really Got Me,” (Van Halen, Van Halen).It is the brilliantly played riff, huge guitar sound, personality filled vocals, and pulsating groove, which draw you in. Eddie Van Halen’s call and response guitar licks blend perfectly with David Lee Roth’s suggestive vocals. When the solo comes, Eddie’s blues attitude, extreme bends, and three-fingered tapping show up just long enough to say what needs to be said. It is tasty, effective, and not overdone.

"Mr. Crowley” (Ozzy Osbourne, Diary Of A Madman)Randy Rhoads’ solo is a direct result of the JS Bach influenced chord progression, gothic keyboard intro, and Ozzy’s haunting vocals. Randy combines rock licks with baroque classical flavor (recorded back when that was a new and exciting thing to do). The final solo includes a tasteful mandolin imitation—further conjuring thoughts of Europe in the medieval dark ages.

“Short Tales Of The Black Forest.” (Al Di Meola, Elegant Gypsy). Al’s steel-string guitar gracefully trades off with Chick Corea’s acoustic piano. The two improvisers maintain an intense yet delicately woven dialogue, never trying to outdo each other (unlike a certain live guitar trio recording of the same song—of which I’m not a fan). The fiery guitar and piano licks always serve the greater purpose of the atmosphere and ambience, creating the sensation of traveling to a place of the listener’s imagination. (A black forest perhaps?)

These three very diverse songs have a common link that can be described with one word—it’s a word I hesitate to use but one for which I can’t seem to find a suitable alternative: vibe.If you can get past the images of tie-die-clad, incense-wielding characters like the ones I grew up around in Berkeley (Dude, I’m feelin’ the vibe, man!),vibe seems to describe that which is indescribable—the magic quality that great music has. With the vibe comes the capacity to make you feel a certain way, affect you emotionally, conjure up memories, help create new ones and bond with friends over the song, making it real music.

If a song can retain these qualities while incorporating great fast licks then that’s wonderful. But when a song is built around the showing off of technique, as is the case with so much in the shred genre, then it becomes the equivalent of fast food—all flash, no substance, and "bad for you." And nowhere is that type of music more prevalent than at the annual Winter NAMM convention in Anaheim, California. I recently had a five-part series on NAMM, on my own blog, SkolNotes. NAMM is an event I’ve had a lot of conflicting feelings about. On the one hand, it is a lot of fun to walk around, try out new guitars and amps before they hit the marketplace, and see friends in the music industry whom you never run into all in one place. On the other hand, you find yourself bombarded by an onslaught of sound, of which personal expression is painfully absent. Shredding abounds.

At NAMM, there isn’t a whole lot of real music. Instead, you mostly hear something I refer to as “NAMM music.” NAMM music exists for the sake of gear endorsements, product demos, and clinics. It does not create moods or memories and would never be played at a party (unless it was a party for music gear-obsessed geeks). You sometimes hear it in the background of commercials for sports channels and auto supply shops—you know it, that amped up elevator music with static rock grooves and a guitarist who sounds as though he’s taken a bit too much Viagra. NAMM music has no soul. It must be stopped.

The whole instrumental rock movement has gone hand in hand with NAMM and the two have created a bit of an incestuous feeding frenzy. I’m not saying there haven’t been some great albums that fall under the category of "instrumental rock."But it’s a bit like "jazz fusion," which started out as a musically interesting movement by Miles Davis and his disciples,* only to become cheapened by imitators, watered down by the industry, and eventually morphed into one of the most hate-inspiring, offensive musical genres of all time: "smooth jazz."

Instrumental rock has spawned its own ugly freak of a bastard love child—his name is Shred.

Shred, as it exists today, has all but lost the great qualities instrumental rock once had.When brought to the forefront in the 1970’s, instrumental rock had a leader who understood that it wasn’t just about playing flashy guitar licks. This English gentleman applied the same high standards of the great artists he enjoyed, ones who reflected his diverse listening tastes. His name? Jeff Beck.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to see Jeff Beck in concert for the first time ever, at New York’s Irving Plaza. His guitar expressed deep sensitivity, emotion, texture, and expression, communicating with the audience as if it were playing for each person individually. We were transfixed in silence for some songs, cheering at the top of our lungs for others. Even the friends I went with—non-guitarists who weren’t even born when this music was popular—were deeply moved. Jeff made the concert not so much about him, but about his other band members, their group dynamic, and the collective experience of the music. Because he had the class, humility, and dignity to step out of his own way and that of his band, his own star shined brighter, His band, no slouches themselves, were free to interact with him and each other, adding their own personalities to the recipe. This collective stew was then spiced up by Jeff’s stellar licks which were sometimes fast and flashy—but only when appropriate.

That night, I had a brief conversation with someone I was introduced to—he concurred with everything I’ve just said here. This fellow concertgoer, who was also seeing Jeff for the first time, is considered one of the current greats himself: Allman Bros and Govt. Mule guitarist Warren Haynes.Despite years of collective experience spent on stages and in studios (especially Warren, one of the busiest guitarists of all time), it was like being kids again. There were many fellow guitar enthusiasts in there that night but it didn’t matter who any of us were—professionals, hobbyists, or non-players alike. We were all one class and school was in session. Jeff Beck was and is a master we can all learn from.

In conclusion, I’m not telling anyone to stop shredding. Shred away. But get your priorities straight about your playing. Making good music that affects people on a deeper level should be placed ahead of impressing your peers and fellow guitar players. Never lose site of the fact that your solos—flashy or otherwise—should be a fitting topping for an already delicious dish, like the chanterelles and poblano chiles accompanying the roast monkfish at Apiary restaurant in New York.*Just as a chef doesn’t settle on a topping first, then try to create a dish around it, an effective guitar solo is the result of a good piece of music, not the other way around.

*Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, to name a few.

**reference courtesy of chef Scott Bryan.