Though the electric guitar has seen more popular days, there are still many players that seek to go down the path of learning how to play fast.
Blues evolved into Rock, then Metal… and ever since the ’80s, many guitar heroes have left their mark in the hall of fame of the fastest guitar players.
But it wasn’t without the help of meticulously crafted beauties well thought out and executed perfectly
Practicing with great instruments for the time needed will make it so that you don’t have to think about how to do the playing and focus instead on how to perfect its speed with precision.
Michael Angelo Batio and Yngwie Malmsteen are some of the most famous shredders, and their skills were insane to say the least, even back then.
But does it really have to be about speed?
No. But we haven’t heard of many famous slow shredders.
Being a good player means (amongst other things) that you know exactly where your place is in the song. This means balancing everything out.
But, in case you can’t play at lightning speed, this element will be missing from your table. So yeah, speed is important. Some people obsess with it, curiously.
But then again, music should be about expressing and feeling things. The more you can do, the more you can express yourself.
The importance of the setup
The right guitar setup for shredding plays a big role in allowing for the development and evolution of the players on each of the techniques required to master the shredding styles.
Having mastered all the techniques can only take you so far.
For example, a guitar with strings that are too high, far away from the fretboard, and hard to press will not be an advantage.
Of course, an experienced player will still be able to play fast, but for beginners, this can be a huge problem since it will be more difficult to replicate and practice all of the needed techniques and tricks combined.
Other than string action, there are a few other things that need to be taken care of in order to play fast and sound awesome.
We’ll be taking a look at each one of those in more detail. But before we do, let’s take a moment to admire what our current generation can do, while paying attention to their guitars to see if there is anything we can notice related to their setup.
String Action – Guitar Setup for Shredding
String action refers to a couple of things, like:
- Height in relation to the fretboard
- Tension and curvature of the neck
- Position in relation to each other
- Intonation – relating to pitch
Getting all of these rights isn’t the easiest of tasks, especially if you have no experience in setting up musical instruments.
For shredding, you want the action to be as low as possible while keeping the strings from buzzing (strings that are too low will hit frets that you don’t intend to), which will not allow the strings to vibrate the way they should and in more serious cases, prevent the string from vibrating altogether.
To set up your guitar with low action, you ideally want to:
(check the links for more information on each procedure):
- Adjust the truss rod – This adjustment enables you to reduce the curvature of the neck, which makes it flatter and more comfortable to play, but increases the tension on the neck.
- Adjust the bridge and saddles – Most saddles can be adjusted in their height and horizontal distance from the bridge. This enables you to compensate and adjust the height of the strings and also their intonation (for tuning purposes)
- Setup the nut – The nut plays a big role in keeping the strings at the right height and angle, and since they are subject to friction when playing, tuning and bending, eventually the slots will open up and strings will drop, resulting in buzzing. Setting up new nuts requires a bit of patience to file them down correctly.
- Using a string action ruler is essential to measure and adjust strings to their intended position.
Getting all of these down will guarantee you comfortable practice sessions, which will inevitably increase the speed at which you evolve and play.
The most commonly used string gauge on electric guitars is 0.10 (measuring the high E string).
This gauge is okay to play most styles since it gives most players a good tactile perception. They do not tension the fretboard as much as thicker strings, they allow for most techniques like bending, hammer-ons/pull-offs, and harmonics.
But when talking about playing fast there’s no way around it.
Lighter strings such as the 0.09 or lower are preferred.
The reasons are:
- They need a lighter touch to make contact with the frets, and thus they make it much easier at faster speeds.
- Bending also becomes easier as it requires less force to perform.
But there are a couple of downsides when using lighter gauge strings on your guitar set up for shredding.
Lighter strings will:
- Have a lower life expectancy and break more often
- Not sound as fat and full as their thicker counterparts
- They also tend to suffer more from stretching, which results in an instrument that will stay in tune for less playing time
To circumvent these issues, players often use locking tuners or Floyd rose bridges, and choose hybrid string sets (a mix of light gauge on the low E, B, and G, and heavier on the D, A, and E strings).
Hybrid string sets offer the possibility to play fast on the high-pitched strings while keeping the ability to play heavier songs unaffected.
If you ever noticed and wondered why some shredder guitars have carvings on the fretboard wood, more commonly from the 12th fret onwards, you guessed it, it’s to play faster.
Scalloping takes friction between your fingers, the strings, and the fretboard wood out of the equation.
Most shredders agree that it makes bending easier and the reduced friction allows them to play faster.
Bending becomes easier simply because with a scalloped fingerboard you can press the strings against the “cavity” while also stretching them as usual. This extra “room for stretching” also opens up new creative-sounding possibilities.
But scalloping a fretboard precisely requires specific woodworking tools and lots of skills to do it right. It is somewhat expensive, and not something everyone can get right on the first tries. Even the smallest mistake can ruin the fretboard forever.
Floating bridges that work in the sense that they allow you to use them to their fullest extent without losing the right pitch on each string are a must.
This involves having them setup right, in the right height, angle, spring tension, and more.
Floating bridges are complex, but when set up right they make a lot of difference and allow you to play using techniques like the dive bomb effectively.
Some guitars meant for shredding will have frets at an angle, on frets close to the headstock and the ones approaching the guitar body.
This aims to match the angle of the frets to the hand positions, wherever they need to be, pretty much like a fan:
Though this isn’t a requirement for shredding, it certainly makes it easier on the players’ hands.
Techniques to master if you want to shred
Having your instrument ready to shred is a requirement, but none of it matters if you can’t play it. Let’s talk about some of the most known techniques shredders use.
First and most important of all – Stretch and Warm up.
Stretching and warming up your fingers should be your top priority every time you intend to practice.
Failing to do so will likely cause serious and irreversible problems like tendinitis over time.
Cutting your career as a shredder short and not being able to play anymore due to pain is a very sad outcome, don’t you agree?
So, always set aside at least 5-10 minutes to do a good stretching and warming up routine session before going all-in.
Hammer-on / Pull-Offs / Legatos
Playing a note with a finger and then using the others to press and release other frets while the string is still vibrating.
This eliminates the need to use the pick for a little while, and done right allows you to play lots of notes fast.
Hitting a note with a pick and then sliding the pressing finger up or down the fretboard is used both as a means of enhancing the licks, but also as a means of re-locating your hands to where they need to be next fast.
Bends are the bread and butter of any rock guitarist. It means pressing down the string, hitting the note, and then bending it to gradually and temporarily alter the pitch or some variation of it.
We’d even go as far as saying it is the most popular technique, and when used in a pentatonic scale surely defines the blues, which is the root of all rock music, and consequently, shredding.
Scales and patterns
The WTF name is very appropriate. What a monstrous lick.
Learning lots of scales and grinding them until you can play them in your dreams in reverse. This should be one of the goals of every musician and aspiring guitar player that wants to master the instrument.
After learning the scales, players can then start to work on them using patterns like playing in triplets, semiquavers, and many others that will repeat the notes in the scale in a certain sequence, expanding the melodic possibilities and allowing them to play more notes on the same region of the fretboard.
Sweep picking and arpeggios
With the right sweep picking technique combined with arpeggios, players can move through all of the strings, playing a single note on each one, and do so at very high speeds.
Again it takes a lot of practice to get the moves right, and it’s better suited for round edge picks.
Amp Settings, EQ and effects
Sound is a matter of perception, and everyone perceives sounds slightly differently, so we cannot state that there is a right tone that suits shredding perfectly.
But as a general rule, shredders tend to like their tone closer to heavy metal, and people refer to it as “scooping the mids“
A good starting point that isn’t too extreme is to set your amp eq like this:
- Bass around 6-7
- Mids around 2-4
- Highs around 6-8
This will of course vary from amp to amp, guitar to guitar, and lots of other factors.
Effects – Guitar Setup for Shredding
- Distortion – In over 20 years of experience with musical instruments, this writer has never seen or heard of a shredder that prefers a clean tone. Please let me know if you find one.
- Wah-wah– Another staple when it comes to guitar-shredding. Kirk Hammet from Metallica springs to mind.
- Delay – The right delay settings can make you sound faster to your audience while playing at regular speeds by repeating notes as much as you want. Just don’t expect to fool other musicians. On the other hand, using everything you have to come up with different forms of expression is ultimately valid.
- Reverb – Another must-have, since it adds extra ambience and makes the notes sound for a longer time. Excellent for bends and single notes, not so much for distorted chords.
Tips to practice shredding
After having your instrument and gear set up and ready to rock, it all comes down to technique.
What follows is a basic outline of what pros do to reach the top levels, to get you on the right path.
This is your number one friend when it comes to playing fast and in time.
Without getting used to playing to the beat you’re guaranteed to sound sloppy.
You should use it when starting, when getting proficient when you’re a pro… Basically, the metronome should be clicking whenever you’re practicing.
Personally, I have a thing for the mechanical kind, mainly because they’ll never be as precise as digital ones, and this mimics the small tempo variations you’d find when playing with a real drummer,. Plus, they don’t need electricity, batteries… You simply wind them up and they’ll click happily.
Practice Routine and muscle memory
This might sound like a cliché if you ever took guitar lessons, but the best way to learn any technique is to
If you want to learn a fast and complicated lick or technique, do this:
- Using any recording software, slow down the parts you want to learn
- Break them down and separate them into smaller pieces if needed.
- Play along with the slow versions until you can do them on your own without mistakes.
- Set the tempo on your metronome to match the slow piece and start playing it until you don’t have to think about it to execute perfectly.
- Gradually increase the tempo by 5-10 beats per minute and repeat the process.
You’ll eventually reach the desired speed while playing flawlessly. From there on you can even try going faster if you want to show off.
It may sound tedious and frustrating to practice this way because when we start we’re usually eager to play fast…
…But our arms and hands’ muscles just aren’t there yet.
Slowing things down, breaking riffs into smaller pieces is the way to develop muscle memory and the right conditioning to be able to play fast without sounding crappy.
Pick and picking techniques
The pick you use plays a role in how fast you can go as well.
Picks are a matter of preference, but usually, shredders prefer them a bit on the rigid side, for sweep picking.
Pointy picks, shaped similarly to a teardrop are the most used, but it’s always a matter of experimenting with what’s best for you.
It’s an old dilemma:
- Playing while standing up means the weight of the guitar will fall over your shoulders. Though guitars usually do not weigh much, over time the weight will start to take its toll.
- Playing sitting down won’t prepare you as well for live performances where you have to be standing up.
Upright Guitar Stands to play will solve this problem, at least when practicing.
If you practice for long hours, consider getting a guitar stand that will hold the guitar in place so you can practice without the extra weight.
In conclusion – Guitar Setup for Shredding
Setting up the instrument just right can certainly give you an advantage on the road to becoming a master shredder, but it is only a part of the equation.
Having the right gear, and continuously improving your skills will take you as far as you want to go. Good luck and don’t hesitate to bring any comments, questions, or concerns.