Feed Your Ears: Remember the '80s?

If you spend some time looking at guitar videos on YouTube you can easily start to feel as if you've fallen into a wrinkle in time where it's still 1988. All those sweep-picked arpeggios! All that tapping! All those alternate-picked scales! Yes, it seems that among guitarists shred is still very much in style even if leather trousers no longer are.

All musicians have a tendency to obsess over technique, and especially speed. Being able to play fast gives you two important benefits: it's good for showing off at parties and it means you can play at a more sensible speed with greater accuracy and sensitivity.

I try to encourage students not to become consumed by the desire to play faster and faster at the expense of musicality, but there were some great players back then, many of whom are still playing now, and it would be a shame not to appreciate them.

Since this is a "Feed Your Ears" post, your main task today is to open your mind and listen, especially if this kind of music really isn't your thing. Try to ignore, at least on a first time around, the technicalities and enjoy (or don't) the music for what it is. Also try not too look too hard at the hair.

We'll start with Tony MacAlpine. He's usually thought of as a neoclassical player in the Yngwie mould, and you can certainly hear a lot of those familiar techniques in there. He sounds relaxed and rather freewheeling in this performance, though; this and his use of displaced rhythms give his playing a jazzy sort of improvisational quality:

Greg Howe was and still is one of the less well-known masters of late-eighties shred, but far from wigging out on Paganini his foundation was in funk and '60s-style blues-rock. Perhaps as a consequence his playing is usually considered more soulful and melodic than usual, and although he can certainly play fast he used pace tactically and wasn't afraid of playing simpler material as well. In this solo he reminds me a lot of the legendary Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, of whom you'll hear more, doubtless, in a future post:

Speaking of blues, Ritchie Kotzen favoured an all-American country-blues-shading-into-Aerosmith sort of sound. He played a Tele and his sound has that back-porch twang even when he's kicking out 32nd-notes (which he doesn't do as often as you might first think). His tone's a bit thin on this video but it captures his style pretty well -- I know I said not to get obsessed with technique while watching these but check out that legato lick at 0:44...

Many of these players owe some of their tricks to Frank Gambale, whose "economy picking" method is employed here in a typical eighties jazz-rock fusion context. He may not be as clean and perfect as some of the more conventional shredders, but listen to the way high-speed playing combines here with a jazz-influenced approach to rhythm and phrasing:

Looking for some shred exhibiting that Celtic tinge you've heard so much about? I'm delighted to oblige. Here's Steve Morse:

OK, since we're doing a bit of what the marketing folk call "world music", here's something with just the tiniest hint of India about it -- not much, to be honest, but for me this is one of Shawn Lane's finest moments. This is a bit out of place here: he sounds more McLaughlin than Malmsteen, using a huge density of notes, along with a ton of processing including backwards delay, to create a gently undulating wall of sound:

There's something a bit sad about hearing all those 17-year-olds in their bedrooms playing 20-year-old licks at alarming velocity, but you know what? There's something terrific about it, too. After all, there was a time when you could get called a "great guitarist" just because you could play fast. Now it's a part of growing up, and the most creative guitarists grow through it. What's more, a lot of genuinely practical stuff was worked out amongst the spandex and dry ice and it's still worth stealing ideas from these guys about how to develop skills like hand co-ordination, picking efficiency and so on.

Finally, this obviously isn't supposed to be a list of all the "best" guitarists in late-'80s shred, speed, metal or whatever. Music isn't a competition, and top tens are pretty much a waste of time. I haven't mentioned players like Yngwie, Satch, Vai or EVH largely because they're well-known already, and I've tried to pick players with a wide variety of styles to illustrate that, whatever you think about this kind of music, it isn't all just widdly-diddly and it doesn't all sound the same. I hope you enjoyed the ride.