february 2007

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


Troy Grady
To hear Troy Grady discuss his project, you can only help but feel a sense of urgency and adventure. Grady, a lifelong guitar devotee and shredder himself, realized one fateful day that a select group of guitar gods could perform musical feats that shock the mind and numb the hands. The unfortunate catch was very few of us could figure out just how to replicate those wicked fast runs. While a dedicated group (including Grady) would spend hours watching and rewinding Yngwie Malmsteen instructional videos, the rest of us were more content to just shrug our shoulders and cop slower licks.


Troy Grady Eventually Grady’s innate curiousity got the best of him; the humble Brooklynite recently set out to discover the secrets of the shred gods and bring fire back to Earth. Investing in a $2,500 dollar camera capable of capturing over 130 frames of full color video per second (for reference, the typical movie camera captures 30 frames per second), Grady set out to produce a documentary, now titled Cracking the Code, which will attempt to dissect the playing and mechanics of some of the fastest guitarists around.

Make no mistake; this isn’t just a movie of metal-heads pounding out lightning-fast riffs. Grady looked up players with bluegrass, jazz and even classical inclinations, all in an attempt to discover what techniques and tricks unite these various musicians. He has set up an informative blog to track his effort, and he’s even garnered the attention of national press outfits like Newsweek and MTV News. It’s an interesting and impressive effort, and he was kind enough to give us a few minutes to discuss what he’s learned so far.


What brought you to this shred crossroads? Do you feel you’re qualified to explore such a mysterious, alluring area of the guitar?

I think I do a decent job of synthesizing critical observations into digestible nuggets. I’ve done a lot of thinking and also a little writing on the subject of guitar technique going back at least fifteen years – some of which appears on my web site and is perhaps the best available example of whatever strengths I may have as a technician and critic. I also have a healthy appreciation for the scientific method. I’m innately curious about the way things work – in a “hey, let’s drop the old TV tube off that abandoned building” kind of way – and as a player I can execute much of the material you’ll see in the film.

But the truth is, I wasn’t really thinking about any of this when I decided to make the movie, and it would be more than a little egotistical if I was. The story of the Code is essentially autobiographical – it’s the story of how I learned to play, charting a path from novice to able practitioner that probably mirrors what most guitar players struggle with as they learn the instrument. So I’m an entirely ordinary guy, and this will hopefully hit home with anyone who’s ever watched one of the masters at work and thought, hell, how do they do that?


The title of the documentary, Cracking the Code, sounds incredibly intense. As the secrets unfolded, was there a eureka moment, where everything just clicked?

Sophomore year of college, I had been watching Yngwie’s instructional REH video all year, pissing off my roommates to no end. One day I was working on a lick I had developed, a three-octave harmonic minor run, fully picked, and for whatever reason it was going well – very well. In fact by the end of the day it had gone from a non-starter to total burn, completely clean. Shocking.

After looking at it for several weeks, in concert with the video, I decided there were things Yngwie was doing – and things he wasn’t doing – that were true of this lick as well. I was off and running. I spent the next couple years elaborating the concept and analyzing a zillion players, who all, I had decided, used the same technique as Yngwie. I ended up writing a manuscript on these observations and getting course credit for it at Yale.


Tell us a little about the “shredcam” and its origins.

Eight or ten years out of college, I decided to put a band together, and in the process figured I should polish the chops. So I went out and bought a stack of instructional videos I had always wanted to see; these were things like Michael Angelo’s Star Licks and Speed Kills videos, and Paul Gilbert’s Intense Rock. Intense Rock was a landmark, a ton of players cite it as an influence, and Mike’s videos are, of course, as scary as they come. And lo and behold, the technique I’m seeing is entirely different from Yngwie’s. Troy Grady

At some point along the way I began thinking, ok, for as many star players that exist, are there as many effective mechanical formulae? I had a little recurring daydream about retiring from a rock guitar career to a comfy spot in the guitar department at Berklee, and using my academic clout to convince master players to submit to videotaped pseudo-scientific investigations of their technique. Then I thought, hell, I’m a recruiter with guitar skills – I don’t need a rock career or a chair at Berklee, all I need is a camera! 

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 Grady Who 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.


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