Why are there so many shredders?
The standards for being called a “fast” guitar player are incredibly high, and the bar is constantly rising. The top speed demons can clock in at playing sixteen or more note in a second. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even think that fast – let alone think about those notes and play them at the same time!
It’s no joke though. Just search for players like Rusty Cooley, or Shawn Lane – their alternate picking is unbelievable. Truly, literally unbelievable; it’s not rare to see accusations of videos being fake! From firsthand experience, though, trust me when I say it’s real. It’s not just alternate picking, either. There are players like Frank Gambale who can whip out lightning fast economy-picking runs, and TJ Helmerich is a monster when it comes to 8-finger tapping.
Even unknown players have some crazy chops, go hang out at a Guitar Center and you’re bound to see at least one super-speedy player. But that doesn’t answer the quest! Why are there so many? Most other instruments don’t have such a huge push for speed, so why the guitar?
How are guitars built for speed?
Point number one is that they have frets. Guitarists who are considered fast tend to be two, or even three, times as fast as violin players who are considered fast. Thanks to frets, there isn’t really a comparison – you don’t have to worry about intonating with your fretting like a violinist does, you can be less accurate while getting perfect results.
Frets also allow super fast hammer-ons and pull-offs. When you hammer on, you are essentially slamming the string against a fret. Obviously, that doesn’t work so well on fretless instruments.
Point number two is that guitars are loud. How on Earth does that help? You can put less effort in to get a clear sound! The lighter you pick, the faster you can go. Especially on an electric guitar, the instrument takes up the slack. Acoustic players can still play extremely lightly with a pick, if the particular instrument is very resonant.
The third point is that plectrums allow for greater efficiency. If a drumstick is a hacksaw, the plectrum is a scalpel. A small point of contact with the surface creating sound means less effort getting it across, through, or to it. Back to violin comparison, with a big old bow you have to put more effort into reversing its direction. A plectrum can literally only require the slightest flick of the wrist.
Why do guitarists care?
While guitar has advantages over other instruments, why not just go electronic if you care about speed? After all, you’ll never match the speed at which notes can be spat out by a computer!
That’s the catch: it’s not really about the speed. It’s more about the skill – guitarists can be a competitive bunch. Just search “guitar battle” in youtube and you’ll see what I mean. On top of that, ever since the ‘80s, shred’s been ‘in’. Instructional videos featuring retro pastel backdrops and background extras wearing spandex are still used by guitarists today.
Speed’s a really easy measurement of who’s better than who. It’s an actual score, you can say guitarist A is better than B because they’re 10bpm faster. It provides a clear goal; you know you’ve got the piece down when your metronome hits the right bpm and you can play along.
What it won’t do, however, is make people want to listen to you!
But you said there are all those famous shredders!
Yes. And they’re all amazing.
They’re not amazing because they’re fast, though. The speed is incredible but, if they just had that, no one would care. These monster players also have monster musical ideas, they play fast because the music they want to play is fast – they don’t play at insane speeds just to impress you. That’s a side effect.
A lot of guitarists listen to these player and are blown away. Naturally, they want to learn to play like them. Great so far, but a mistake is often made. Some of these guitarists examine their idols and come to the conclusion that, in order to be like them, they just need to go fast. If you’re going to cover their tracks, sure, you need to get up to speed.
The problem is when you base your entire style on speed without any music content. Diving into the playing of Shawn Lane is truly scary, his mastery of odd note groupings inspired by Indian musical tradition is incredible – that’s part of why his fast playing sounds different to other shredders.
If you write bad music, playing it twice as fast won’t help you. You can practice speed, and you can learn how to write good music. There’s time for both, and you need both. Try finding something fast, but play it slowly. Does it sound good at a lower speed? Most of the time the answer will be yes, with it just lacking some of the right feeling.
If you’re having trouble with songwriting, there are plenty of resources on this very site to set you on the right path!