Rusty Cooley was my guinea pig. I had not yet worked out the details of the shredcam, so I flew down to Houston with my pocket digital camera for a private lesson. With this thing a few inches from his picking hand, I still wasn’t able to get clear footage of what was going on – Rusty was faster than the camera was – and I knew I needed better tools. That’s when I found the Basler camera that I use in the film, which can do hundreds of frames per second depending on the resolution you request of it. I started writing the software for it, and I went back a couple more times to film Rusty and iron out the kinks.

Overall it was hours and hours of footage. And playing for the shredcam is not easy. The camera records uncompressed video, so even a 5-second clip is hundreds of megabytes. It records directly to RAM because disks aren’t fast enough, so I can only record up to about 15 seconds per clip on the laptop I use. So when I say go, you basically have a few seconds to nail your best stuff. Do this for an hour or two, it’s like doing wind sprints.

Troy GradyWho are some of the players you’ve tapped (sorry) to explore the world of shred?

Rusty figures prominently in the film because of his role in the story of developing the shredcam, and of course also because he’s about as scary a player as you’re likely to find. Marshall Harrison also lives in Houston and was one of the early guys I filmed. He’s an interesting case – a Gambale-level sweep picker and fusion harmonist who’s also done interesting work in translating Romantic piano works – Romantic as in Chopin, Beethoven, that era – to the guitar. 

Otherwise I’m knee-deep in filming as we speak. I filmed this fantastic player and songwriter from Canada, Conrad Simon. If you haven’t heard his demo, The Wrath of Con, you’re missing out – amazing playing with highly developed compositional sensibilities. I met Joe Stump at Berklee a few weeks ago, who is a rigorous technician and also greatly relaxed beneath the shredcam. I’m meeting Rusty Cooley playing for the shredcam Stephane Wrembel, a world-class gypsy jazz player, and have dates to speak with Frank Gambale and Jimmy Bruno. I’ve spoken to Ron Thal’s people and to Chris Impellitteri via email. It’s not just about metal players, it’s about the universality of great technique, and the many forms it can take.

“The idea that virtuoso players can play “anything” without really thinking about it is a fantasy.”

How did you go about approaching these players about your project? Were they generally receptive to the idea?

I’ve been pleased with the reception so far. More people seem to share my curiosity than I initially expected, particularly in the mainstream (i.e. non-guitar) media, which was surprising. My initial thought was, how do I explain and pitch this project, and who’s going to care? I was a little worried that advanced players would see the whole technical focus of the investigation as less than relevant to the goal of making good music. But in certain genres of music, like the metal/shred scene, the idea of technical development is at one with the creative process – great riffs often emerge from mechanical practice, for example, and everybody, even the players that already have the technique, practices when they can.

Troy GradyWhat have you learned so far about technique?

The basic idea is that the guitar is an inherently inefficient instrument to play given the layout of the strings and the implement we use to play them, i.e. the pick. It was designed to be fingerpicked, where the multiplicity of fingers (unless you’re Django!) makes it much easier to select a particular string to play on. The major obstacle therefore in plectrum-based playing is getting from one string to another with a degree of efficiency. The secondary concern is synchronizing the hands such that each pickstroke is mated to only the note you intend. If you can succeed in doing these two things, you can play cleanly, and you can do so at speed.

Witness, for example, that playing cleanly on asingle stringis relatively elementary. The only issue to deal with in this case is the issue of hand synchronicity. Yngwie has a great formula for this – you create patterns that repeat with the same pickstroke, and you lock that pickstroke to metrically strong divisions of the time.

When you get into multi-string licks, all hell breaks loose, and the film will delve into the various combinations of techniques that players use to execute them. Yngwie, for example, only ascends via sweep picking, though he descends with a combination of alternate picking and legato – but almost never sweeping. Something like what shred guys call thePaul Gilbert Lick, for example, would be completely alien to Yngwie, and for that reason he never plays it. Paul on the other hand does not commonly use combinations of sweeping, alternate, and legato to play strictly scalar passages, though this complex stew of techniques would be routine for Yngwie. Doesn’t mean Paul hasn’t done it, and doesn’t mean he couldn’t do it, of course – it’s just not part of his active right hand vocabulary, what I call hispick model

You might tend to see all this as a limiting factor but the truth is that the guitar is a limited instrument anyway. On a keyboard instrument like a piano, you press a button, and sound comes out. As many buttons as you can press simultaneously, that’s how many sounds you can make. It’s very powerful. If you lift the lid and peek inside, you realize just how much complexity is being shielded from you by the instrument itself. The guitar exposes all this. It’s up to you, the player, to discover the most efficient way to play something – and that involves whatever combination of left-hand fingerings and right-hand pick motions your pick model gives you.