Shredders! (Book Review)
Released: 2017, Jawbone Press
I am a huge fan of shred guitar and hard rock/Heavy Metal instrumental albums. I probably have a couple hundred of those types of albums in my collection. The odd thing is that I’m not a guitar player at all! I just like the sound. Unsurprisingly, I was very excited to learn that Greg Prato was writing the history of Shred/speed guitar.
SHREDDERS is a very fine looking book. It’s a generous 384 pages with a nice glossy cover. He has recruited Alex Lifeson to write the foreword and Uli Jon Roth to write the afterword. There are quite a few photos of the various Guitar gods in question from the 70’s to modern day. Like many of his books, SHREDDERS is an oral history, with a very few brief linking comments from Prato for context.
The book is an oral history and follows the art of shred guitar logically without being a rehash of stories told many times. The chapters are small and digestible, often just a few pages long but focusing on one aspect of the genre. We get some tech talk, essential albums, lots of cool industry stuff interviews with industry professionals, the NAMM convention, the invention of the Floyd Rose Tremolo, the Guitar Institute of Technology and more. There are some really great chapters where I love Prato’s innovative line of questioning. For example he asks Graham Bonnet to comment on each of the prolific shredders he has worked with (Malmsteen, Vai, Impelliterri) and in a similar vein asks Dave Ellefson to comment on each guitarist in Megadeth in a chapter called ‘Megadeth’s Bassist on Megadeth’s Guitarists.’
One sort of side benefit of this book is that it reaffirmed my life-long admiration of my favourite guitarist of all time, Yngwie J. Malmsteen. Even though he is not interviewed he has an entire chapter dedicated to him and he is name-dropped more than any other guitarist in the book by far. Everyone, love him or hate him, basically admits he is the best. Of the holy trio (Van Halen, Rhoads and Malmsteen) that really invented ‘shred’ as we know it, Malmsteen remains the longest running, and most influential of all of them. Eddie Van Halen stopped shredding after a decade and we all know what happened to Randy Rhoads, so that left Malmsteen (now 20 studio albums deep into his career) to carry the torch single-handedly. Everyone, even his detractors, pay grudging admiration and respect to him and when push comes to shove most people say he perfected it (shred) to the point where everyone else who followed him became a bit redundant or derivative.
I’m not a guitar tech guy so my eyes glossed over a bit on the chapters on the gear talk and tablature but for the most part (99%) SHREDDERS held me completely enthralled. The stories of the creation of shred super-groups like Racer X, Steeler, Alcatrazz, Cacophony, Mr. Big and the David Lee Roth solo band were fascinating. I own all that stuff (on cassette!) so I found it especially fun to read about those bands again. Prato has done a magnificent job synthesizing that era and asks all the right questions of all the right people. There is a neat chapter about the short-lived trend of the creation of flashy, specialty custom guitars. It would have been cool to have pictures of Ace Frehley’s ‘exploding’ guitar, Vai’s three-necked ‘heart’ guitar, George Lynch’s skeleton guitar, and Michael Angelo’s four necked guitar and a couple of notable omissions, Mark Kendalls ‘shark’ guitar and Kane Robert’s ‘Machine Gun’ guitar.
I must admit I was a little apprehensive when I learned that Prato was tackling the subject. He is a self-confessed grunge apologist, having written about eight books on grunge/alt (i.e. not Metal) topics and I was unsure he had the ‘chops’, to tackle a subject that on the surface would not seem to be near and dear to his heart. In fact, a book on shredding is almost the antithesis of what I perceived to be his preferred tastes. To be blunt, I rather uncharitably thought to myself, “What would a grunge guy know about shred?” However, I was still excited to read what is the first book ever published on the topic. Some of my apprehensions were unfortunately founded but a bit more about that in a moment.
As Prato explained in his excellent introduction, he has a life-long love-affair with the glitz and glamour of the 80’s shred scene, including a personal concert highlight attending David Lee Roth’s, Eat ‘Em Smile concert back in 1987, a show that I also saw myself, back in the day. It seems that as teenagers that legendary album and tour cemented both of our love for the over-the-top virtuosic shred style.
I do question the inclusion of a bunch of grunge, non-guitar hero types in a book about shredders. Most of these guys could not solo their way out of a wet paper bag. Just because they had the occasional dull solo on a grunge record does not qualify them for entry into club shred! However, as he explained in his intro, he included guys from bands like Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins, who he called anti-shredders …”to get both sides of the story”, which in hindsight is a very clever move. By talking to the anti-shred people a bit it provides nice context to the scene in the late 80’s.
Now I get to the toughest part of the review. I feel Prato really was out of tune by only focusing on America and a small part of the history of shred. He interviewed 70 people, an impressive feat in itself, but he only interviewed about half a dozen people from outside North America, giving the whole story an incredibly skewed perspective. For example, If you interview Steve Vai, Steve Vai is going to talk about Steve Vai and maybe his buddies like Stu Hamm and Billy Sheehan. That is not a criticism, it is only natural that people talk about the past and themselves. The people interviewed did not talk about the utterly massive shred scene that been around for decades and continues to day around the world. Maybe they don’t know or don’t care or maybe Prato did ask those questions and left it all out. Either way, there are massive gaps in the book.
For example, Lion Music based in Finland is completely ignored. This record label founded in 1989 focusing on instrumental, shred, neoclassical, fusion etc type solo artists and bands is not once mentioned. Prato interviews Mike Varney, founder of Shrapnel Records, and many people interviewed talked about the importance of Shrapnel Records, which is very importantly obviously, but nothing about Lion Music! Lion has released as many, maybe even more albums in this style than Shrapnel but gets no mention! How hard would it be to interview Lars Eric Mattsson, the owner of perhaps the world’s largest specialty guitar label? Maybe Mattsson declined to be interviewed, so benefit of the doubt to Prato.
Another example, the current burgeoning Swedish Christian Speed Metal revival with specialty labels such as Liljgren, Doolittle and Rivel Records and incredible young shredders like Tommy Reinxeed seem non-existent. What about the huge Italian neo-classical scene? What about Luca Turilli and the dozens of young shredders in that scene and the record labels dedicated to their craft? No mention of any of them and no interviews. The Japanese scene is huge as well, but we only get a cursory mention of, somewhat predictably, Akira Takasaki (Loudness) the only Japanese guitarist that anyone in America can name. The entire Visual-Kei scene and a shredder like Hide (X-Japan) has sold more albums and played more shows to more people than probably most American shredders combined but does not get a single word. Of course he is dead so he couldn’t be interviewed for the book but you get my point. All of Asia and Europe get completely left out of the book.
The crux is, if you only interview Americans that is all you are going to get, one side of the story. Prato really needed to dig a little deeper, or his editor needed to coax him to think outside the box, and maybe do a bit more research if he is not familiar. Even American David T. Chastain and his esteemed guitar boutique label Leviathan Records and it’s big roster of talent (75+ albums to date!) only gets the briefest of mentions.
The other main criticism, (I’ll keep this one criticism shorter) is that the book is not very contemporary. The vast majority the people interviewed are from the early days of the scene circa 1970-1995. There is a heavy emphasis on the past. Why not interview the young gods such as Jacky Vincent or Tobin Abasi or Dave Garcia or Norman Skinner? These are not just some obscure dudes I’m name-dropping, these are full-on solo artists with records out. Sure, I love reading quotes from Jeff Watson of Night Ranger. I honestly do. I love the band, I grew up with them, I buy their new Night Ranger albums even today. But…could we read interviews with maybe someone more current? There is a cool ten-page section about the future of shred. The ‘new’ artists like Jeff Loomis, Alexi Laiho and Herman Li have each been around for almost 20 years themselves… and they are the ‘new’ guys! It is as if Prato doesn’t follow what is happening anymore or choose to ignore it. He didn’t have to mention every obscure, Youtube sensation, shredder-prodigy on the planet but at least pick the Top 10 from around the globe and interview them!
Prato has done this in the past especially in his book about 90’s Metal where he only looked at the American Metal scene. I have not quite figured out why he keeps ignoring most of the world. Is he is hyper-patriotic American who doesn’t acknowledge the rest of the world? I’m not convinced that is the case because he seems like a very decent guy. I’m not sure if his massive, virtually inexcusable omissions are by mistake? As a self-professed fan of shred guitar I couldn’t imagine he could not know about all the material he neglected. My last guess is that, he is a comfortable writer, with his trusty circle of familiar contacts, writing for an American audience (probably on a budget and deadline) and he just didn’t make the full effort to interview people, labels, bands outside of his comfort zone. That mistake really damaged the book. It is akin to writing a book about World War II saying this is the whole story and only talking about the United States and only interviewing American soldiers. Important, yes, but the whole story…no.
He says in his intro that this is.. “the full story of speed guitar”. It is the biggest and best book on the topic to date, but it is not by far the full story. I feel a bit frustrated because I sort of had this apprehension that he might be a bit out of his league tackling this topic and I even contacted him and offered my services. Nothing came of it, and it was rather egotistical of myself to assume he would need my advice but now the book is published and all the mistakes and/or omissions I privately predicted he would make, came true. SHREDDERS could have been so much more but as it stands it covers only part of the big picture. I only write these extended criticisms, not as an unfounded attack on Prato, but because I’m a Metal nerd and I care deeply enough to write a 2000+ word essay, I mean book review, about Shred guitar! Hindsight is 20-20 and it is far easier to criticize than create, so Prato gets my utmost respect and admiration for writing this amazing book.
Now that I’ve got that mini-rant off my chest I want to re-emphasize the multiple positives, which overwhelmingly, and I can’t emphasize that enough, outweigh the two negatives. There were so many little insightful passages and quotes that brought me sheer delight. For example, the story of Billy Sheehan’s legendary bass solo ‘NV43345’ (hint: read it upside down to figure out what it means) on the 1982 Talas album, SINK YOUR TEETH INTO THAT or Michael Angelo telling the story of the creation of his four-necked guitar, or Ronnie LeTekro’s ‘machine gun’ technique, or Paul Gilbert’s drill-pick innovation; so many amazing fun little stories that brought back so many great memories of hearing and admiring all those great songs and sounds that I enjoy to this day.
SHREDDERS-The Oral History of Speed Guitar (and more) belongs in the library of not only fans of Metal and shred but every music fan, as it documents the birth, growth and maturation of an incredible musical style and phenomena that continues to this day.