Frank Zappa – Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar
Frank Zappa has always sadly been relegated to the “weird confusing stuff I wont listen to” corner of music consumption. Which may be silly, but it’s understandable, because the man produced one of the most formidable, perplexing, and massive discographies (some 100 albums) in the history of recorded music. So if you’re one of those people who has never gotten into Frank, one way you can correct your mistake is by jamming the Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar album.
A triple album from the early 1980’s featuring nothing but guitar solos compiled from studio experiments, live performances, and splicings of the two, this album truly is a love letter to the electric guitar, and all of the possibilities afforded the instrument by effects (and also provides a tongue-in-cheek humor rarely seen in the genre).
Zappa was a master of high-end studio gear, and that is on display throughout this album. The track below, “Ship Ahoy,” is a beautiful piece, featuring a sample-and-hold percolation effect achieved by a combination of a Mu-tron Bi-Phase and Octave Divider, as well as a voltage control filter circuit from an old Oberheim keyboard. Listen to how absurdly funky the result is!
Marty Friedman – Dragon’s Kiss
Marty’s first solo album produced after the dismantling of Cacophony is, for all intents and purposes, a Cacophony album where Marty played most of the solos (Jason Becker co-wrote and performs on three of Dragon’s Kiss‘s most insane tracks).
It’s not hard to see why Dave Mustaine hand-picked Marty to join Megadeth prior to the Rust in Peace sessions. Although his absurd technical capacities are on display all over this record, what makes it stand out to me, even above his Cacophony performances, is the edge and attitude contained in the solos, phrasings, and compositions. This album is Marty Friedman unleashed – a polished, yet raw display of the talent that would be honed to laser-precision in Megadeth.
Dysrhythmia – Test of Submission
Too many lists of the “greatest shred albums ever” have a very precise, genre-based definition of what makes a shred album, and by consequence, often miss many of the most important contributions to the general web of guitar-based music. Dysrhythmia is one of those bands.
A trio led by guitarist Kevin Hufnagal, bassist Colin Marston, and drummer Jeff Eber, Dysrhythmia is one of the great modern bands. They compose with the mission of making each instrument play a distinct part (which translates onto their merch, which feature t-shirts that read “No Breakdowns, No Dancing, No Fun”), and you can study an album like Test of Submission from guitar, drum, and bass angles alike.
Kevin’s guitar playing is particularly of interest, and far removed from traditional conceptions of “shred” and “technique” – there are no Van Halen tappity-tap solos or Dimebag squeals to be found on this album. His barely-distorted tone, alternate tunings, and airy polyrhythmic style is wholly unique, and it should be no surprise to you when listening to this to understand why Luc Lemay recruited Colin and Kevin to join Gorguts when the band began re-gearing a few years ago. All of their albums are great, but Test of Submission in particular shows the band firing on all cylinders.
Joe Satriani – Surfing With The Alien
An acknowledged classic that doesn’t really need any more ink spilled over it, except in light of the rise of modern guitar marvels like David Davidson and Tosin Abasi, who owe a good deal to Satriani, maybe more than any of the other shred giants of the 80’s.
The reason why Satriani remains so fresh to me is that his melodic and phrasing ability was a cut above the rest. For a brief period, he studied with jazz pianist and legendary teacher Lennie Tristano, an experience that I believe had a profound impact on his playing despite his never continuing down the path of jazz.
Vektor – Black Future
One of modern metal’s most underrated innovators, Vektor meld black metal, thrash, progressive, and technical shred guitar through the lens of science fiction themes to create a completely unique metal language.
Although guitarists David DiSanto and Erik Nelson are incredibly talented lead players, what really qualifies this album for the company of great guitar albums is its uncompromising pursuit of ridiculously cool, complex riffs. This band never lets up on the riffs, which fly by at a mile-a-minute pace. And these riffs, although clearly rooted in a love for classic metal songwriting, never once feel dated or “retro.” Vektor deliver some of the freshest guitar playing in music today.
Wishbone Ash – Argus
Wishbone Ash are the most influential band you’ve never heard of, and Argus is one of the great, undersung records of the 1970’s. Although many people point to Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Thin Lizzy as the innovators of the twin-guitar attack, Wishbone Ash were writing dueling guitar harmonies back in the early 1970’s, and are where one of the fundamental pieces of heavy metal guitar vocabulary comes from.
Indeed, Wishbone Ash were a huge influence on Maiden and Lizzy, and although they are decidedly not heavy in the classic sense, Argus is definitely heavy in the Led Zeppelin kind of way.
Pat Martino – El Hombre
The only jazz record on this list is here for a reason: Pat Martino was many things, and one of them was a proto-shredder. Self-taught in the Philadelphia underground jazz world, Pat honed his chops by his ear, and learned enough to be able to play what he felt along to the music that he loved so much.
I could’ve chosen any number of jazz guitar albums by greats like Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, John Scofield, Barney Kessel, and others, but I picked this one because, arriving in 1967, it’s an album bursting with the spirit of rock n’ roll – not the sound necessarily – and in a genre full of virtuoso guitar players, Pat Martino was (and is – he’s still shredding well into his 80’s today) an outlaw cowboy of the instrument. He’s shreddy, he’s melodic, he’s inventive, he’s exciting. If you’ve never dived into jazz guitar, this is a great album to start with, and his solo on the classic American song “Just Friends” is one of the all-time great guitar performances.
Blotted Science – The Machinations of Dementia
Blotted Science was formed by Ron Jarzombek (Spastic Ink, WatchTower) as an experiment: what would instrumental technical death metal, composed using a completely unique harmonic progression system, sound like? Oh, and featuring Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse on bass.
The answer is utter insanity. Blotted Science are vastly under appreciated (partially because as a fiercely independent musician who operates on his own schedule, Jarzombek doesn’t tour much, and also given Alex Webster’s heavy touring and recording duties in Cannibal Corpse), but they are one of modern metal’s most interesting innovators and experimenters. Both their debut The Machinations of Dementia as well as follow-up EP The Animation of Entomology are shreddy, tech-death riff feasts. Gorge your soul.
Cloudkicker – Beacons
Cloudkicker’s 2010 full-length Beacons inaugurated a whole new category of guitar-based music: the one-man, non-touring, bedroom project band. Ben Sharp showed that armed with Tomas Haake’s drum sampling machine, Pro Tools, and a couple SM57’s, you could not only make high quality music, but also make music that really connected with people – guitar fans and casual music fans alike.
What stands out to me about Beacons five years later is how remarkably simple it all is. Yes, there are some Meshuggah-esque superimposed time signatures and complicated riff patterns, but for the most part, this all boils down to simple little melodies and compound 4/4 time. Ben Sharp is able to achieve such a full sound, with all matter of multi-layered guitar lines, without ever making excessively brainy or overwhelmingly convoluted music.
Revocation – Chaos of Forms
Although Existence is Futile put Revocation (and lead guitarist David Davidson) on the map, it was on Chaos of Forms that the band truly came into their own. This album is literally a guitarist’s feast, brimming with the kind of life, energy, and excitement that the 80’s shred giants first brought to the subgenre.
There are vocals on here, so maybe it’s not technically a pure “shred” album, but the classic metal song structures and hooky riffs are just as much a part of the way this album celebrates the electric guitar. Inflected with jazz, funk, and classic rock, Dave’s solos on this album were what led MetalSucks to proclaim him the top guitarist in modern metal back in 2011. Four years and several albums later, Revocation’s third record still feels as vital and insane as it did when it came out. A modern classic.
Steve Vai – The Story of Light
I realize this may seem an odd choice – it’s not Steve’s most oft-referenced magnum opus Passion and Warfare, but many people have overlooked his recent materials. This album isn’t all about the shred – in fact, some of the better songs are the more song-y ones, you know, with singing – but all the things he plays are spot on. When listening to this album, I’m reminded that although Steve is most well known as a guitarist, he is above all a gifted composer.
Plini – The End of Everything
Australian prog guitarist Plini has been clawing his way into the hearts of music lovers the internet over for a couple years now, and has been featured on such reputable websites as Gear Gods during their ill-advised but fun Australia Week. He’s a tasty player, with shred chops galore, but like the Vai album I referenced above, puts the composition above wankery.
I think Plini may be the only guitarist alive who loves the Lydian mode as much as I do. RIDE THAT IV CHORD YOU MAGNIFICENT BASTARD, RIDE IT TO THE SUN
Dream Theater – Metropolis Part II- Scenes From A Memory
This one absolutely shaped the entire second half of my life until now. It was when I first heard this album that I knew what I wanted to do (and that I needed to get practicing immediately). This is for certain the creative pinnacle of the band, and the best songs from the band are all contained herein. Everyone was at the top of their game, and they were still really concentrating on premeditated, carefully composed songs and themes, rather than the way they write now (kind of jamming out stuff then recording as they go).
John Petrucci’s playing was at its most melodic, and the shredding, although very prominent throughout, is always memorable and appropriate. There’s not one forgettable section in the whole packed-to-the-brim 76 minute disc.
Light some candles and get progged:
Periphery – Juggernaut: Alpha & Omega
My favorite thing about Periphery, as a guitar player, is that like native hunters who use every part of the slain animal for something, they use every part of the guitar. They use it for all the things it’s best for – heavy riffing, leads of all kinds, ambient passages, clean stuff, jazz, the works. This album (both parts) is a celebration of the guitar, an absolute love of the tone, which is crafted with such care and precision that you wonder if it will ever sound this good again.
Plus, that fuckin’ BASS TONE!
Necrophagist – Epitaph
Necrophagist became the standard bearers for the tech-death movement with this album, then promptly disappeared off the face of the earth. The album redefined clean guitar playing, and the melodic guitar solos sounded otherworldly over the barrage of speedy double-picked rhythm guitars and blast beats.
Legend has it that old man Necro will only rise out of the bog to release another album when the world needs it the most.