Shred guitar is usually associated with the heavy metal genre, but it has existed since the instrument hit the spotlight. The act of shredding is playing the guitar in a fast and virtuoso manner, regardless of the music style it is all about speed and accuracy. The techniques and music theory of the process are quite simple, the harder part is the time and practice you must dedicate to have the skill.
The Music Theory of Shredding
The concept of shredding is perfect for beginner guitar players, as the guitarist is mostly playing arpeggios and scales. When you play a chord by individually plucking each string, that is an arpeggio, and an essential technique in shred guitar. Be sure to mix your scale playing up, do not just ascend and descend the scale, get creative.
Heavy metal and hard rock are the default genres for most shredders, so it is common to hear the names like Ritchie Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen, or Yngwie Malmsteen. That style of music is mostly minor, diminished, and harmonic scales. Heavier styles of metal will often riff on Phrygian and Locrian modes, as well as jazz and fusion genres.
Even if you do not fully understand the concept of these guitar scales, it is best to start playing them along with your sweep picking and shredding practice. You need to build muscle memory with your fretting hand, if necessary play easy chords or even pentatonic scales when you are first starting out.
The Gear for Shredding
If you are going for the heavier sound, you will need the gear to handle it, and even the right guitar body helps. Electric guitars with cutaways give you more room to reach the higher frets. Some players these days even go for more than 6-strings, as certain metal and fusion genres require notes beyond the original guitar range.
You will also need a powerful amplifier with effects like overdrive, distortion, and fuzz to get your guitar signal to stand out. Since individual notes are being played at lightning speed, the sound needs to be pushed to the max to cut through the mix. You can technically shred on an acoustic guitar and mic, but it will not have the same power and urgency.
If you want to do special effects like “dive-bombs” you will need a Floyd Rose Tremolo to help facilitate any heavy string bends and keep it from going out of tune. If you want to thicken your sound you will need reverb, delay, chorus, and other modulating effects that will add the right layer or atmosphere. If you only want a clean sound, then stick to high gain on an amp and just focus on the technique!
How to Shred
The art of shredding is not just about fast picking, the left and right hands need to be in sync to get the proper vibe. Keep it simple at first by only fretting chords, if you do not know any diminished or seventh chords it is ok to use G-C-D or Dm-G-C. Be sure to learn the different positions and inversions for these chords, you can use a guitar chord chart to help you with this. That way you can play them up and down the neck.
With your picking hand, pluck each string downward from top to bottom in a sweeping motion, and then switch to the next chord and do that again. Pick slowly! Make sure every string is hitting and sounding correctly and the transitions are smooth with no errant noise or long silence between them. The number one mistake guitar players make with shredding is not starting slowly enough and jumping ahead without perfection.
After you are comfortable with this downward sweep picking start adding in an upstroke. This will make it harder to keep the other strings silent. Your fretting hand will have to act as a mute to dampen any string noise. Sweep picking is not the only way to shred but is the most efficient way to move across all the strings quickly.
We can also alternate pick a single string without swiping across all of them, and again we want a clean sound. This can also be sped up for that tremolo effect that is the hallmark of the shred. Another technique commonly used is tapping, where we move our picking hand up and tap the notes out along with our fretting hand. Along with the occasional pull or push of the whammy bar, that will be the extent of basic guitar shredding.
The Key to Shredding on the Guitar
Now all of that may seem a little too easy, at least compared to how amazing the art of shred guitar sounds. How can something so basic get to a point of virtuosity? By making sure both of your fretting and picking hands are always synchronous. They must play at the right exact time, mute all other sounds, and do it at a high rate of speed!
Generally the notes are played in a legato fashion, which means smoothly and with no breaks. Staccato is the opposite and the way you play guitar for genres like funk. For proper shredding every note needs to be hit with clarity and purpose. Even when adding in common techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs, the note speed and flow must remain the same.
Playing tabs for practice is ok, but always be sure to pay attention to your notes and chords. Since you will be playing this over and over, knowing your chords will help you memorize your fretboard. There is plenty of time to learn because shredding requires nearly daily practice with a metronome. And you can only move up in speed after perfectly executing the move for a couple days.
Critics of shredding will often call it math rock, and that is true to an extent. Whether you want to sweep, shred, or tremolo at high speeds, there will be a lot of boring and repetitive practice. You can spice up practice by playing along to your favorite songs, but it will take time to get a smooth yet lightning sound across the guitar strings. If shredding practice isn’t a little tedious and even strenuous, then you aren’t doing it right!
Of course not all shredding is simple, there are virtuoso players that break into complex music. As you grow with your theory knowledge, try new scales and riffs with your sweep and alternate picking techniques. No matter how complicated the music is, the real hard part will always be the constant repetition and daily practice while building your speed on the guitar.