How to Shred on Guitar



You’re a guitar player. You’ve listened to some Yngwie Malmsteen, Jason Becker and Steve Vai tracks (…. right…?) and now you want to shred on guitar.

I know exactly where you are coming from! I remember feeling exactly the same when I was starting out my guitar journey. It’s a bit frustrating, especially when you are starting out, and you want to play music several years beyond your ability level.

But - you can get there!

After playing for nearly two decades, I’ve learned a lot and reached a pretty high level with my technique. I think it’s fair to say I can shred pretty good now.

From what I’ve learned with my own experience and through teaching students, there are three main areas that you need to work on in order to become a guitar shredder. Here they are:

1) You Need to Develop Your Technique

Having a high level of technique is mandatory for being a shredder, by definition. You have to be able to play a lot of notes, very quickly!

Your lead guitar technique can be broken down into the following areas:

Linear Picking

This is how you pick notes on a single string. When you are picking through 3 note per string scale patterns, you are working on your linear picking technique.

Picking-Finger Timing and Linear Picking

A problem guitar players often face when they start working on their technique, is that the pick sometimes seems to run away with itself and the fingers can’t keep up.

Or, maybe you’ve sometimes found that the pick and the fingers are not quite in time with each other?

Fortunately, it’s simple to fix.

Let’s take the following scale segment:

guitar picking exercise in key of e minor

And say you found the pick and the fretting hand fingers were doing slightly different things.

We can double up each note as follows:

guitar picking exercise in key of e minor to help two hands stay in time

You can play the notes as quavers or as semi quavers depending on your ability level

And practice. You will find this exercise helps get your two hands working in time together very nicely.

You can do this to any exercise where your find your hands running away from each other, and that by practising this, with time, this problem will go away.

Sweep Picking / String Transitions

While every shredder will have heard of sweep picking, with the technique being regarded as the holy grail for intermediate level players, few guitar players think about it’s application and a deeper level.

A vital part of linear picking is how you transition between strings and mastering this is a key foundational element of sweep picking.

Sweep picking starts with the ability to smoothly transition the pick between strings, and then that technique is extended across multiple strings, with things such as legato and tapping techniques eventually being integrated with sweep picking.

This is simple to practice, and a series of two string arpeggio exercises will help you get to grips with this technique very quickly.

Note Ornamentation

It’s not just what you play, it’s how you play.

When most people think of a great guitar player, they are listening to two areas of their playing (although if you asked them, they would not be able to say so):

  • their timing
  • their use of note ornamentation

It doesn’t matter how fast you can play, if your note ornamentation sucks, your playing is going to sound bad.

With note ornamentation, we are talking about things like:

  • Vibrato
  • String bending
  • Slides
  • Legato
  • Staccato

And all the different ways that we can use those ideas in combination with each other.

Using these ideas well, will instantly transform not just your playing… but how other people enjoy your playing.

What Does it Mean to Have Good Note Ornamentation?

Here’s a quick list of what it takes to have good note ornamentation:

A) Smooth Transitions Between Combined Techniques

Can you transition from a slide to a vibrato smoothly?

Can you transition from a pre-bend into a bend on another fret smoothly?

Smooth transitions between techniques are vital.

B) Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy

The more areas of your ornamentation you can accurately control, the better it will sound.

When you are doing slides, can you slide up 12 frets and hit the right note, every time?

When you are doing a vibrato, are you controlling the pitch, contour and timing; simultaneously?

There is a surprising amount to consider, but control of every single element of your playing can be trained.

C) Timing of Techniques

You don’t want to mash your techniques together as fast as possible. Can you effectively use techniques to draw emphasis to specific parts of your soloing?

For example, rather than bending a note up into a bent note vibrato, can you bend a note up, hold it at just the right pitch, and then hit the bent note vibrato on a chord change to create dramatic emphasis?

How you time your techniques is very important!

D) Combined Techniques

Really, this should have come first.

The first step in having great note ornamentation, is combining techniques together.

You don’t just bend a note, you slide into the bend.

You don’t just do a bent note vibrato, you do a bend with a dip then your bent note vibrato.

Combining ornamentation techniques creates killer sounds in your guitar playing… and this is the start to having people fall in love with your playing.

2) Theory Skills

The ability to play a lot of notes very fast is an important skill, but just as important is knowing what notes you can play at a given point in time.

No matter how fast you can shred, if you play the wrong scales, it’s going to sound pretty bad!

We could break down the theory behind guitar soloing into three, easy to apply rules:

The First Rule of Guitar Soloing - You’re a Slave to the Harmony

The harmony dictates the notes you can and can not use; and how you can use them.

This first rule is a basic approach we need to accept from the start. It’s more of a mindset, or an attitude, than a rule.

The Second Rule of Guitar Soloing: Conceptually, Chord Tones Come First

Chord tones always sound good and form the melodic foundation of your soloing. When we think about the notes we want to play, everything is structured around chord tones.

We’re getting into some music theory now. Check out this article on the music theory of chords if the topic is new to you.

To bring this back to the guitar, practically, arpeggios are ways of playing chord tones. By learning your arpeggio shapes, your hands gain access to a simple set of patterns that instantly give you all the chord tones on the guitar. Very cool!

This is one reason why it is so important to learn scale and arpeggio patterns on the guitar and not just tabs.

So, a good foundation for soloing, is learning to solo over a simple chord progression just using your arpeggios, changing arpeggio with each chord.

This is called “chord tone soloing”.

This will also train your ears to recognise the consonant notes.

Exercise Try soloing over a simple chord progressing using arpeggios. Make it sound interesting - don’t just play up and down your arpeggios! Skip around inside patterns, move between patterns and introduce interesting rhythms.

The Third Rule of Guitar Soloing: Introduction of Non-Chord Tones

Chord tones sound nice, non-chord tones add spice.

If you did the exercise in Rule 2, you will probably be thinking that following rule 2 sounds boring. And you’re right, it gets a bit tedious after not too long.

That’s because, at some point, we need some non-chord tones to add some interest. Non-Chord tones are dissonant notes - when they are played by themselves in isolation against the chord, they sound bad.

Now, with a consonant note, it always sounds good, all the time. With a dissonant note, we have to be careful how we play it.

In the right context, dissonance sounds awesome. In the wrong context, it sounds awful.

You can see some examples of how we can use non-chord tones in the melodic techniques section in this lesson on how to improve your improvising on guitar.

Generally speaking, your use of dissonance will sound good if:

  • You move from a dissonant note to a consonant note
  • You sandwich a dissonant note between two consonant notes

These are very general rules to get started with - we will go into more depth on this another day!

It can seem like a lot to juggle in your mind, but with time, your note choice becomes automatic and based on emotion rather than a complex set of maths!

Getting Started With The Right Notes

The simplest way to get started with using the right notes in your soloing, is to use the minor pentatonic scale. This scale is mainly chord tones with a couple of easier to use non chord tones added for flavour, and it is very easy to make this scale sound good.

If you want an introduction to using this scale, then you can check out my beginners guide to improvising on guitar.

You can combine the scale with arpeggio patterns. Try this sort guide on how to integrate scales and arpeggios in your guitar playing, for some exercises on how to do that.

3) Character Traits

So we’ve talked a lot about what is required musically and technically to be a shredder, but what about you? What character traits are required from you to become a shredder?

You Need Discipline

No discipline = no skills.

It’s a simple as that.

If you are not prepared to practice every day for several years, then you are not going to acquire the skills that you want to acquire.

Fortunately, when you practice the right things and stick to it, this is as simple as just sitting down and working through it for 20-30 minutes.

But it takes discipline on your part to do that.

Reaching higher levels of skill is dependant on the daily amount of time you spend practising, but this is a topic we will look into in more depth another day.

You Have to Persevere

You have to persevere.

There will be days when you don’t want to practice.

There will be days when everything sounds bad.

There will be days when you’re crazy busy and you’re not sure how to find the time.

But… you have to persevere.

It’s going to take longer than you think it will.

But, it’s the only way. If you want to shred, it’s the only option.

If you don’t, you will never reach the level of skill that you want to reach.

You Have to Develop a Laser Like Attention to Detail

Attention to detail is a must.

If you want to play a few Rolling Stones riffs and Nirvana songs, you don’t really need to be that good at guitar. You can get by with sloppy technique, the occasional bum note and a poor sense of rhythm.

It’s not a big deal.

If you want to be shredder, you have to pay attention to detail. With every area of your technique.

You have to position your thumb on the pick with millimetre accuracy.

You have to play accurately on a millisecond time scale.

You have to position your fingers correctly on the strings, every single time.

You have to be in control of every single element of your playing.

Everything requires accuracy. It might sound overwhelming, but when you consider training yourself at your guitar playing over the course of several years, you actually have plenty of time to work through everything that you need to.

You Have to Ask Questions And Develop an Inquisitive Mind

Modern culture is destroying the inquisitive mind piece by piece, and no-one seems to care.

But if you want to develop your guitar playing, you have to start asking “why” and figuring out the answers.

If something doesn’t sound right with your playing, there is a reason why. There is something that you are doing, or not doing, that is creating that sound.

And there are a limited amount of variables that can be responsible - all of which you can control.

You have to be able to figure out what you are doing wrong, so that you can correct it.

Here is an example of some of the questions you could be asking yourself when you hear something in your guitar playing that isn’t quite right:

  • Is your left hand doing something wrong?
  • Is your right hand doing something wrong?
  • Is your brain struggling to process time divisions and rhythm correctly?
  • Is your theory knowledge not good enough to support what you want to do?
  • Do you know the theory, but your hands can’t apply it fast enough?

Whatever your guitar playing problem is, there is a reason why, and you can figure it out.

If you want to be a shredder, a good one, then you have to figure it out.

Form a hypothesis, test it, if it doesn’t work, form a new one and test that. Eventually you’ll figure it out.

You can hire a teacher to help you figure it out, but, a teacher should be seen as a guide to enhancing your thinking, and not a substitute for your thinking.

If your playing is technically accurate, but you still can’t get the sounds you want, again, you have to ask yourself why:

  • Do you need to improve your note ornamentation?
  • Do you need to improve your phrasing?
  • Do you need to learn some new scales?
  • Do you need to work on your ability to [improvise on guitar]({{ < ref “/blog/2021-03-09-9-ways-to-improve-your-guitar-improvisation“ >}})?
  • Are there some music theory tools you need to learn?

“What if I don’t have these character traits?”

Not many people have these traits, and you might now be thinking “what if I don’t have them?”.

Well, you might be further along than you realise. Reading this article shows that you ask questions and seek solutions.

Also, just because you don’t have these character traits now, doesn’t mean that you won’t have them in the future. It takes work… but it can be done.

I know I didn’t have them, and I have to continuously work on refining them.

You can train these traits into your personality. It takes time and you should expect to repeatedly fail for several months at it.

You can grow them by how you approach your guitar playing… and how you approach life in general.

Fix things, figure things out. Ask questions. Seek answers. Keep trying. When you catch yourself being intellectually lazy, pinch yourself and set your mind to work.

As an example, I was analysing a piece of music by Bach a few months ago, and there was a sharp in it. A single sharp note.

It took me two days to figure out why that sharp was in there.

Take the time to figure things out.

Conclusion

So that is a bit of a whistle-stop tour of what it really takes to shred on guitar. This are all things that will take years to practice and properly develop. Which points are you going to work on first?