The Pro/Anti Shred Debate: Advanced Guitar and Music Theory in Rock and Roll

Recently (well since the grunge era) there has been a bit of an anti-shredding (shredding: rapid paced guitar playing typically involving lots of advanced scales) movement in the guitar community where high technical skill is actually looked down upon if it doesn't have emotional value and actually take the song somewhere. I can't entirely agree with this as it tends to be more anti advanced playing than anything else. I do agree that there tends to be a lack of emotion in some guitar shredding, but don't think we should turn our back on advanced techniques all together.

One of the great things about rock music is that you don't have to be a music theorist to make great music. Some of the greatest guitarists and musicians of the rock 'n' roll scene couldn't even read music let alone write it. Still, knowing some music theory and advanced techniques should not be a bad thing if it inspires you to new creativity.

Some genres place a lot of emphasis on high technique, especially on guitar (think metal or jazz) while other place very little on in and instead put all the emphasis on emotion and simplicity (think minimalist punk and blues...I guess). I think there are great musicians on both sides, some that can quote you music theory at will and others that probably can't even tell you what key their songs are in. The same is true for guitarists as I think there are great guitarists in all genres, some are heavy metal guitarists that can play blisteringly fast, others can barely hold a bend, but milk that bend for all the emotion it is worth.

I think there has been too much emphasis on technique, but at the same time not enough emphasis on musical creativity. I would like to see a guitarist (and other musicians) pour all their emotion into a single note, but also not be afraid to play a couple of high speed licks, 9th chords or mixolydian arpeggios... if they fit the song and what they are trying to say. Some guitarists are anti shred or higher technique, while others consider these techniques to be an absolute necessity. I think we should stop worrying about pro or anti shred and concentrate on creativity and adding something to the song that takes it somewhere.

Some songs just sound better with a barn-burning guitar solo while other sound better with a subtle touch that just adds the perfect emphasis. The same is true for chord progressions. Sometimes a song is great with a simple 3 chord progression, while other times it needs 11th chords and progression changes on each chorus. I really like bands where the music works as a whole and isn't restricted to any stereotypes like having guitar solos, no solos, power chords only, no power chords... even cliches and genres should not necessarily be avoided, but also not necessarily embraced. They should be used for the effect they cause, when that effect is desired.

Musical expression is about just that: expression. To overly restrict ourselves as musicians is too limiting. Sometimes setting limits on your creativity is a good thing as it can inspire you to new heights. At the same time it is easy to get caught up in your own constraints, which can limit your creativity and lead you to create, well... boring music.

Two of my favorite guitarists, Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa. Both have a higher technique that involves a lot of music theory, advanced techniques and some high speed playing, but at the same time, they both only play the notes necessary to take the song where they want to take it and express the emotions they want to express. I think that is what makes them great at their instrument.

I'm also a big fan of the White Stripes. Jack White's guitar playing is certainly not as complex from a music theory standpoint as Zappa or Beck, but he is always pushing the creative boundary and giving the song what it needs to go somewhere (which at times is no solo at all). Plus, the White Stripes as a band as always working within their own minimal framework towards new creative ideas. They have set limits on themselves, but aren't getting tangled up in those limits. I think that is part of why they're such an exciting band.

In the end, the purpose of this little rant was to illustrate that I think it is easy to get caught up in our own creative constraints whether they be using only flashy advanced techniques, or only minimalist ideas. Sometimes, both extremes (hardcore shredders, and hardcore minimalists) are equally boring.

As musicians we should all strive to not be obsessed with technique, but also not afraid of it and to concentrate on creativity and expression..

As a guitarist, I've hear both sides of this debate all the time. Some guitarists are all about showing off their advanced technique. Others are all about showing off their minimalism... Well, they're both good, if they are creative and take the song somewhere emotionally.

This concludes my rant for the night. Hopefully it was slightly coherent, and not too boring.


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