The 20 greatest shred guitarists of all time
Shred cannot be confined to one genre of music: it’s evident in rock, metal, neo-classical, jazz and fusion styles. It’s been around for a long time too, with this countdown of 20 guitarists, courtesy of Total Guitar, covering nearly 40 years of shredding.
One thing’s for certain though, and that’s that all these guys are quintessential guitar heroes. Whether they’ve spent years refining their techniques and learning the essential scales and arpeggios to perfect their shred, or whether they had a natural aptitude for speed and developed their skill without lessons or books, these are 20 of the most inspiring, innovative and technically virtuosic shredders you will ever come across.
Prepare to have your face melted!
Al Di Meola
Best shred moment: Race With the Devil On A Spanish Highway
After attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, Al joined the bands Chick Corea and Return To Forever before releasing his first solo album, Land Of The Midnight Sun, in 1976. He is the father of shred guitar, and without his fast and accurate alternate-picking style we may not have guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, Jason Becker, Shawn Lane and countless others. Respect!
Best shred moment: In The Name Of God
Dream Theater’s axe wizard is a regular face on the G3 tour alongside Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, and is one of rock’s most respected shredders. As a mark of his influence, you’ll find his guitar instructional video/DVD Rock Discipline on the shelves of countless new
Best shred moment: For The Love Of God
An early student of one of the most famous guitarists of all time (Joe Satriani), Steve Vai commands an intimidating technical prowess, cutting his teeth as transcriber and player for Frank Zappa. Vai is nothing if not eclectic and quirky with his shred style, and is often cited as player of the ‘stunt guitar’. Tracks like Bad Horsie and Sisters have done much for instrumental guitar.
Best shred moment: Guitars Suck
Having released several albums under the moniker Bumblefoot, Brooklyn-based shredder Ron Thal took over the Guns N’ Roses guitar spot in 2006, replacing Buckethead. A master of almost every aspect and style of guitar playing you can name, Thal is most notable for his playing with a thimble worn on the fourth finger of his picking hand, which he uses to tap notes above and beyond the 24th fret with amazing accuracy.
Best shred moment: Technical Difficulties
While he started out playing air guitar to The Beatles’ songs, Gilbert earned his rep through his über-technical yet melodic style in ‘80s metal legends Racer X, on his revered solo albums and on the G3 tour alongside Satriani and Petrucci.
Best shred moment: Awakening
John McLaughlin was a household name in the ‘70s and fused jazz and rock guitar with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, packing energy and virtuosity like none before.
His diverse influences (including Jimi Hendrix, jazz musicians Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and Indian guru Sri Chinmoy) led him into Indian music with his quintet Shakti, who were one of the first bands to be labelled ‘world fusion’. You can hear him shredding on acoustic guitar in this group.
Best shred moment: Rising Force
Stockholm’s Yngwie Malmsteen has always been known for his classical influences, even releasing Concerto Suite For Electric Guitar in 1998, which was accompanied by a full orchestra. Listen to Yngwie play and you’ll hear harmonic minor scales and sweep-picked arpeggios aplenty, and all with the flair of virtuoso technique. We wouldn’t expect anything else from the Swedish maestro, whether there’s an orchestra involved or not!
Best shred moment: Low Levels, High Stakes
Because of his wacky scales and chords, Allan is ‘too fusion’ to be a standard shredder, but his fast legato, whammy bar work and fret-hand stretches make him an incredible player (just ask fans like EVH or Satch). Early days with prog band UK produced minor classics like In The Dead Of Night, before he went solo with respected albums Road Games, Secrets and None Too Soon. He even backed the guitar synth - the SynthAxe!
Best shred moment: Speedball
Such were the Wylde Thing’s axe skills that he landed the gig as Ozzy Osbourne’s lead guitarist at the tender age of 19. Since then his distinctive speed, wide vibrato and liberal use of pinch harmonics has seen him attain major cred in the shred community. And he’s even awesome on when he plays an acoustic guitar.
Best shred moment: Stressfest
First and foremost, Steve Morse is an awesome alternate picker, showcasing his licks with stints in the Dixie Dregs and Kansas. But it is his smooth phrasing and tasteful note choice that have won him fans the world over, elevating him into our most blazin’ shredders list. Legendary rock band Deep Purple obviously agree: Steve is the axeslinger in their current line-up, in place of Ritchie Blackmore.
Best shred moment: Serrana
Jason Becker was the Shrapnel label’s early legato and sweep-picking hero. Becker highlights include playing with Marty Friedman on Cacophony’s Go Off!, some tasty solos on the David Lee Roth album A Little Ain’t Enough, and his solo rendition of the Disney classic When You Wish Upon A Star. Sadly, Becker developed ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in the early ‘90s, which prevented him from playing. He is still able to compose with the help of a computer.
Best shred moment: Smoke On The Water
This madcap widdler fronts Swedish power trio Freak Kitchen and is renowned for his wacky and unconventional guitar style. Technically awesome (his two Freak Guitar solo albums have been released on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label), Mattias Eklundh has been known to play his Caparison signature Apple Horn model with a range of bizarre objects, the weirdest being a vibrating dildo!
Best shred moment: Enemies Of Reality
You know Nevermore’s Jeff Loomis means business with his Schecter seven-string! With influences ranging from Dimebag Darrell, Yngwie Malmsteen and John Petrucci, Loomis’ playing is jaw-droppingly good. He may have missed out on a slot in Megadeth but, equally able with super-fast legato and sweep-picking approaches, Jeff’s precision and speed marks him several notches above many of his shredding contemporaries.
Best shred moment: Lane’s Blitz
Initially the ‘secret weapon’ in southern rock band Black Oak Arkansas at the age of just 15, the late Shawn Lane was an ‘80s underground shred hero championed by Paul Gilbert. On his 1992 debut solo album, Powers Of Ten, Lane demonstrated his outrageously fast picking, legato phrases and stretchy fretting skills - try the 12th, 16th and 20th frets… and with no tapping, either! Candidate for the fastest guitarist ever? It’s gotta be close…
Best shred moment: Tornado Of Souls
Marty Friedman (far right) is best known for being Megadeth’s shredder-in-chief during the ‘90s. Largely self-taught and renowned for his improvisational skills and unconventional picking technique (he favours upstrokes), Friedman’s first Megadeth album, Rust In Peace, is considered to be the band’s best to date - where Marty dared to go beyond traditional scales and fused both Eastern and Western styles in his guitar solos.
Best shred moment: Jump Man
‘Buckethead’, as finger-lickin’ fretmeister Brian Carroll prefers to be called, is probably most famous for his tenure with the second incarnation of Guns N’ Roses. His enigmatic style was first heard on solo album Bucketheadland (1992) and he has released over 30 albums since! His track Jordan is said to be the most feared track by players of Guitar Hero II. Maybe his extraordinary talents have something to do with being brought up by chickens…
Best shred moment: Under The Influence
Hailing from Houston, Texas, Rusty Cooley is one of the most gifted and proficient pickers in the guitar world. He displays his skills on seven and eight-string guitars, which he also uses to lay down some crushing riffs in his band Outworld. His instructional material includes The Art Of Picking, Extreme Pentatonics, and his Shred Guitar Manifesto, which has been cited as an influence by none other than John Petrucci of Dream Theater. If it’s good enough for John…
Best shred moment: Terminal Illusions
Meshuggah mastermind Thordendal is a seven and eight-string player who combines intense odd-time riffing (eg, playing a 5/4 riff over a 4/4 beat) with occasional über-speed soloing, like a thrash version of jazz player Allan Holdsworth. Thordendal’s playing provides the pivotal foundation to Meshuggah’s aggressive sound - just check out 1:50 of this video. Thordendal is also so committed that when he took over the bass on one tour, he even played the guitar solos on it!
Michael Angelo Batio
Best shred moment: No Boundaries
Michael Angelo Batio is revered for his freakish ambidextrous ability to play equally well left- or right-handed. He also has a patented string dampener, which allows him to play harmony parts on both sides of his Dean double-neck guitar simultaneously. He is a close friend of Mark Tremonti and has performed live with Alter Bridge on a number of occasions. He also taught RATM guitarist Tom Morello.
Best shred moment: Satch Boogie
Satriani’s second album, Surfing With The Alien, sold by the truckload and sparked a rebirth for instrumental guitar music into the early ‘90s. He was previously a guitar teacher, passing on his masterful knowledge of theory and technique to pupils including Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett and Rick Hunolt (Exodus). In 1996, Satch created G3, a tour that has featured the virtuosic talents of John Petrucci, Paul Gilbert, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson and Yngwie Malmsteen, among others.