• Work through sweep arpeggios in the style of Jason Becker.
• Add more chromatic notes to your improvised solos.
• Make your riffs more compelling with unexpected rhythmic subdivisions.
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Shrapnel Records introduced the world to some of the most virtuosic rock and metal guitarists to have ever plugged into a high-gain amp. Starting in the ’80s, an era that has subsequently become infamous for guitar gods, Shrapnel’s founder Mike Varney carefully selected the cream-of-the-crop players for his unique record label.
Some Shrapnel alumni are best known for sweep picking, others for insane alternate picking, and yet others for emphasizing legato fretwork. But all of them are known for playing a lot of notes in a very musical way. What made many of these players great, in my opinion, is that each took a unique approach to playing and writing within the fairly specific “shred” genre.
Want to acquire some tricks of their trade? Let’s take a look at key ideas and techniques used by several of Shrapnel’s heaviest hitters.
Most people associate Shrapnel guitarists with technical lead playing, but before we go there let’s first visit the often-overlooked art of playing rhythm. In my opinion, Paul Gilbert and Bruce Bouillet of Racer X were absolute masters of creating rhythmically exciting and unexpected metal riffs. These were often based on strong rhythmic hooks that included subdivisions and interwoven exchanges, and took surprising aural twists and turns.
Ex. 1 is a Racer X-style riff in A minor that illustrates the basic idea of taking one rhythmic pattern and throwing in surprise subdivisions. This riff’s main rhythmic pattern is based on three-note groupings of 16th-notes. In the first measure we encounter a new subdivision on beat 4. Hear how those 32nd-notes surprise the ear? It’s a great example of what Racer X was known for.
Another example of this effect is in the riff’s second fill. We have a 16th-note triplet run to wrap up the first repetition (starting on the “and” of beat 3 in measure 2), and again, the change in subdivision from the main 16th-note pattern creates an additional rhythmic twist.
Now that we’ve had a dose of rhythmic content, let’s shift over to the kind of lead playing that makes many listeners’ jaws drop. Because he introduced pop and R&B-inspired chord changes and funky rhythms to what was fundamentally a hard rock and metal label, Greg Howe is arguably one of the most distinctive Shrapnel artists. To make things even more interesting, he favored an innovative tapping technique and infused his playing with chromatics.
Inspired by the record Introspection, Ex. 2 is a Greg Howe-style lick over a series of dominant 7 chords. Hear how the chromatics are interwoven between E7 and B7 chord tones on the weak parts of the beat? This is a common jazz guitar technique, but it’s made very Howe-ish thanks to Greg’s grooves, feel, and note choices.
Next over A7 comes one of Greg’s most famous tapping techniques. This line also demonstrates his “hammer-on from nowhere” technique, which means that the hammer-on note isn’t approached by a previously picked note. Finally, we have another of Greg’s famous tapping techniques over the F#7. Here, we take three-note-per-string scales and instead of picking every note or playing full-on legato, use a hammer-hammer-tap pattern to cover the ascending phrase.
Another Shrapnel powerhouse is Tony MacAlpine, who is famously known for his blazing picking and his blend of classically inspired themes and contemporary instrumental music. Ex. 3 pays tribute to his approach to arpeggios.
The opening phrase is one of my favorite Tony-isms. We’re creating a major 7 arpeggio, in this case Dmaj7, by only using the lowest two strings. Keep in mind that there’s absolutely no picking here—it’s strictly legato and tapping. But the real interesting thing about this kind of line is the context in which Tony often uses it. Here, we’re in a Bm tonality, so we can use a D major arpeggio (Bm’s relative major) and still stay in the key.
We’ve explored a variety of tapping and arpeggio ideas, but haven’t yet encountered one of the most common staples of the Shrapnel guys: alternate picking licks! Many of the Shrapnel guitarists are well known for playing long, scalar runs in which they pick each note. If used wisely, this can be one of the simplest ways to enhance your playing, as these runs are mostly pattern-based and primarily built on the three-note-per-string scale fingerings.
A simple alternate-picked line in B minor, Ex. 4 starts with a six-note scale shape that’s copied across three octaves. You’ll find this fragment (the first three beats of the first measure) on many Shrapnel albums. Keep in mind that strict alternate picking is crucial for the accuracy and cleanliness of a lick like this, so be sure to practice it slowly.
Because these lines work so well in the three-note-per-string fingerings, they’re often conducive to some sort of triplet subdivision. The kicker with such licks is that they’re very pattern-based and can end up sounding too much like an exercise. Use them wisely and musically.
And last but not least, what would a column on Shrapnel be without a mention of the legendary Jason Becker? For dedicated shredders, his playing and spirit need no introduction, but if you need one, check out this trailer for the excellent documentary Not Dead Yet.
Ex. 5 is a workout in Becker-style sweep arpeggios. One point that was unique about Jason’s particular approach to sweep picking is that he extended certain arpeggio shapes further than other players did. In this example, all of the shapes extend down to include two notes on the 5th string. It’s fairly rare to see the Bm and E shapes extend down that far, but that’s part of Jason’s nuanced magic. The key to successfully playing sweep arpeggios lies in the picking pattern. It’s always a specific, non open-ended pattern that isn’t as simple as just constant downstrokes and upstrokes. A hammer-on or pull-off is included every time there’s two notes played on the same string.
Keep in mind that playing anything cleanly and accurately lies in practicing very slowly, in time with a metronome. These guys were all masters of fast playing, but I believe they were standouts because they used their chops in clever and musical ways, and that composition was their first priority. So when you’re sitting down with your metronome to blaze through these licks, just remember that music comes ahead of technique.
This blazing live performance of Racer X’s “Scarified” from 1988 illustrates how Paul Gilbert and Bruce Bouillet varied the rhythms within their warp-speed riffs.
Greg Howe improvises an incredible solo over his tune “Come and Get It.” Check out 0:45-0:48 for a great example of one of his signature tapping techniques.
Here’s Tony MacAlpine playing “Pyrokinesis” with an excellent view of his fretboard. Marco Minnemann plays the drums on this track and MacAlpine plays everything else. Look for his tapped arpeggios sequences and notice how he weaves them into both the melody and the solo.
The legendary Jason Becker performs a dazzling mix of feisty, extended-range arpeggios in this clip from a guitar clinic in 1989.