Need for Speed: The 50 Fastest Guitarists of All Time
From Les Paul to Paul Gilbert, Johnny Winter to Johnny Hiland, and Paco De Lucia to Al Di Meola, fleet-fingered guitarists have made their mark in every genre throughout the modern history of the guitar.
Guitar World exceeds the legal limit with this roundup—in alphabetical order—of the 50 fastest masters of the fretboard.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Summoning Redemption”
ALBUM: Gateways to Annihilation (MORBID ANGEL)
When a guitarist cites Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Mozart as influences, you could probably bet your life savings he’s a shredder.
But guitarist Trey Azagthoth is not the typical fret burner, preferring the brute force and bludgeoning energy of death metal over the more rarified air of instrumental rock.
Azagthoth’s rough and raw solos sound completely spontaneous, eschewing the technical precision of a prewritten solo for sheer emotion that comes directly from the gut.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Part 1”
ALBUM: Annwn (OCRILIM)
He may look like some geek from a Tolkien fest who has an unhealthy obsession with Gollum, but precious few players can match Mick Barr’s intensity and speed, which has reportedly been clocked at up to 24 notes per second.
The music that Barr records under the pseudonyms Octis, Ocrilim, Or:12r3 and Orthrelm is challenging, to say the least, for its avant-garde atonal melodies. But although it may sound like noodling to the untrained ear, Barr’s bizarre scales and lack of repetition prove that he’s working on another level altogether.
It’s rock, Jim, but not as we know it.
Michael Angelo Batio
SIGNATURE SONG: “Full Force”
ALBUM: Lucid Intervals and Moments of Clarity
Michael Angelo Batio encompasses everything a shred guitar hero should be.
Renaissance-inspired name? Check. Insanely fast, overthe- top (literally) ambidextrous technique? Check. Wacky, unconventional dual- and quad-neck instruments? Check and check.
Casual music fans may consider Batio little more than an oddity or cult figure (allmusic.com didn’t even bother writing a bio for him or rating any of his seven albums), but real guitar fans know and appreciate him as the shred god he truly is. As generous as he is gifted, Batio has revealed the secrets of his incredible technique to players like Tom Morello and Mark Tremonti as well as to readers of his old Guitar World columns.
Even with his help, we still can’t figure out how he plays so friggin’ fast.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Seranna”
A titan of neoclassical shredding, Jason Becker’s astounding arpeggios made him a youthful champion of the Shrapnel Records stable in the late Eighties.
He went on to play with David Lee Roth but was stricken with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) while working on Roth’s 1991 album, A Little Ain’t Enough. The condition has left him almost completely paralyzed and unable to speak, but he continues to compose music via a computer program that can track the movements of his eyes and head.
His courage, determination and continued creativity in the face of extreme difficulty are every bit as inspiring as the dazzling virtuosity of his youthful guitar work.
SIGNATURE SONG: “China Boy”
ALBUM: Swingin’ on the Strings (JIMMY BRYANT & SPEEDY WEST)
Jazz legend Barney Kessel once called Jimmy Bryant “the fastest and the cleanest guitar player I have known.”
Listening to Bryant’s timeless instrumental duos with pedal steel guitarist Speedy West, one instantly realizes that Kessel wasn’t complimenting Bryant’s punctuality and hygiene.
Bryant played a wild fusion of country and jazz equally influenced by Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz and Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys western swing, and he became an important figure on the West Coast studio scene, accompanying country artists like Tennessee Ernie Ford and Tex Williams as well as pop artists like Bing Crosby and Spike Jones.
Bryant’s work with Speedy West recorded in the Fifties showcases his talents at their unrestrained peak.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Nottingham Lace”
ALBUM: Enter the Chicken
He may wear a KFC bucket on his noggin, but that ain’t no chicken pickin’ emanating from Buckethead’s amps.
The guitarist known to his parents as Brian Carroll is one of the most eccentric players to ever master the six-string, one whose playing can shift in a 32nd-note triplet from downright weird computer meltdown noises to hauntingly beautiful arpeggios.
While he’s become known to the general public through his soundtrack work on major films like Saw II and his collaborations with Guns N’ Roses and actor Viggo Mortensen, Bucket’s three dozen or so solo albums remain the best source for experiencing his mad genius.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Cowboys from Hell”
ALBUM: Cowboys from Hell (PANTERA)
Dimebag grabbed the baton from players like Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads and proceeded to shove it up the ass of pretentious neoclassical guitarists with his incredibly heavy, unapologetically raw pentatonic shredding.
The solos Dimebag recorded with Pantera and Damageplan are impressive, but his true talents exploded on the concert stage, where he could let loose with wild abandon, inspired by hell-raising crowds and shirt-raising hotties.
While most thrash bands did away with solos during the Nineties, Dimebag kept the shred flag flying like the stars and bars over the South Carolina State House.
Paco de Lucia
SIGNATURE SONG: “Rio Ancho”
Born into a family of Spanish flamenco performers, the late Paco de Lucia came to the international guitar arena with a background rich in colorful history, artistic passion and centuries of mesmerizing guitar technique.
A traditional flamenco performer from the mid Sixties to the late Seventies, he crossed over to fusion, jazz and world music audiences via virtuoso collaborations with Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell.
What De Lucia brought to the party was the rhythmic fire of flamenco, a stunning five-finger picking style and a dizzying repertoire of rasgueados, picados and other flamenco techniques. His forays into jazz, classical and other genres have also enriched his expressiveness within the flamenco idiom.
In any genre, Paco de Lucia made those nylon strings burn like molten lava.
Al Di Meola
SIGNATURE SONG “Race with Devil on Spanish Highway”
ALBUM: Elegant Gypsy
A blizzard of dotted 32nd notes in the shape of an Italian-American guy from New Jersey, Al Di Meola was one of the premier guitar architects of the jazz rock fusion genre that started in the Seventies. He’s responsible for bringing the rich guitar heritage of Spain and Latin America into the fusion arena.
His lightning-fast left hand is complemented by distinctive right-hand palmmuting techniques that some Seventies wags were fond of describing as “that rubberband sound.”
Di Meola’s work with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, his solo efforts and collaborations with fellow guitar legends John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia have considerably raised the standard of excellence for both acoustic and electric guitar performance.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Hangar 18”
ALBUM: Rust in Peace (MEGADETH)
Marty Friedman played dueling neoclassical leads with Jason Becker in Cacophony before going on to make thrash metal history as the lead guitarist for Megadeth on their classic albums Rust in Peace, Countdown to Extinction, Youthanasia and Risk.
His shredded arpeggios, hyperactive sweep picking and winning way with exotic scales have stood him in good stead, both in his Megadeth work and his current incarnation as an American expatriate who is definitely big in Japan.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Race with the Devil”
ALBUM: Capitol Collectors Series (GENE VINCENT)
Cliff Gallup recorded only 35 songs as a member of Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps before he quit the band to focus on life as a family man, but that was enough to leave an indelible impression on players like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
With a jazzy style that fused the influence of Chet Atkins and Les Paul, Gallup developed a sophisticated sound that made most blues-influenced rock and rollers sound downright primitive in comparison.
Gallup’s cascading triplets and chromatic lines still inspire the same awe as when listeners first heard his solos more than 50 years ago.
SIGNATURE SONG: “6 .8 Shaker”
In the Eighties Gambale proved that sweep picking wasn’t just for neoclassical rockers, using the technique to great effect on his progressive jazz fusion solo recordings and performances with jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and keyboardist Chick Corea.
A graduate of GIT, Gambale returned there to teach for four years, sharing the secrets of his speed-picking technique with students.
His unique approach to sweep picking along with his aggressive tone has helped him gain an audience beyond jazz fusion fans. Gambale remains an innovator, having recently developed an alternate tuning he calls “Gambale tuning,” which he says gives him greater liberty to voice any chord, including closevoiced chords.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Eternal Rest”
ALBUM: Waking the Fallen (AVENGED SEVENFOLD)
It’s easy for critics to dismiss Avenged Sevenfold because they look like a bunch of emo-punk kids who raided Axl Rose’s wardrobe, but no other band has done as much to introduce Generation Y to the shock and awe of a brilliant guitar solo.
Justin Timberlake may be bringing sexy back, but Synyster Gates brought almighty shred to the forefront with his numerous extended no-holds-barred solos on A7X’s albums.
A GIT graduate, Gates is a surprisingly versatile guitarist influenced by players ranging from Django to Dimebag.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Elmira Street Boogie”
ALBUM: 88 Elmira Street
It was always a treat to watch the late Danny Gatton’s stubby fingers dance like fire on the maple fretboard of his battered Telecaster.
The “Telemaster” fused country, blues, rockabilly and jazz into a blue-collar virtuoso style that the man himself once called “Redneck Jazz.”
His unique combination-picking technique (plectrum plus fingerstyle) propelled chicken-pickin’ riffs, muscular jazz chords, blue notes and open-string banjo runs, all of which he made dance gracefully side by side. Gatton took his own life in 1994, opting out of a world where instrumental prowess is no guarantee of commercial success.
His legend and legacy live on.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Scarified”
ALBUM: Second Heat (RACER X)
Paul Gilbert has always been a reluctant guitar hero. He’s humble, good humored, polite and obliging, but when he straps on that guitar, he becomes the biggest, baddest monster in the entire shred forest.
Gilbert’s Eighties work with Racer X and Mr. Big paved the way for a varied and compelling solo career.
His fleet and flawless fretwork has always been tempered by highly developed harmonic sensibilities born of his abiding love for pop music.
Maestro Alex Gregory
SIGNATURE SONG: “Heavy Metal Mandolin Boogie”
ALBUM: 12 Jokes for Heavy Metal Mandolin
Maestro Alex Gregory probably earned more enemies than fans in his time.
He sued Ibanez over the seven-string guitar (he patented and developed a seven-string Strat with Fender in 1987, three years before the Ibanez Universe hit the market), took the title of “Maestro” (allegedly bestowed upon him by Queen Elizabeth in 1983) and released an album depicting himself pissing on the graves of Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai.
Even so, he’s earned the respect of many heavy friends, including drummer Matt Bissonette, bass player Dave LaRue and guitarist Albert Lee, all of whom have participated in musical projects with the Maestro.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Orange Blossom Special”
ALBUM: Johnny Hiland
Ten years after the untimely death of Danny Gatton, Johnny Hiland emerged with an album released by Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label chock full of impressive country/rockabilly/blues/jazz/rock performances that rivaled those of the Telemaster himself.
Hiland has since broken into the extremely competitive Nashville studio scene, playing on sessions for high profile A-list artists like Toby Keith, Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis.
Like Gatton, Hiland’s playing is as tasteful as it is flashy, displaying an uncanny knack for melody even as he burns up the fretboard at light speed.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Fred”
ALBUM: Believe It (TONY WILLIAMS LIFETIME)
Allan Holdsworth developed a cult following of jazz fusion and progressive rock fans for his work with Tony Williams Lifetime and Bill Bruford’s side project U.K., but his name became a household word in the guitar community in the early Eighties when Eddie Van Halen cited him as one of his main influences.
Holdsworth’s flowing legato lines are inspired by the sound of the saxophone and violin, and in his quest for the perfect tone he’s experimented frequently with guitar synthesis systems like the SynthAxe.
The blinding speed of Holdsworth’s left hand is truly mind boggling, but even more impressive is his ability to perfectly improvise over incredibly complex and unorthodox chord changes.
SIGNATURE SONG: “17th Century Chicken Pickin’ ”
ALBUM: Screaming Symphony
It’s easy to dismiss Chris Impellitteri as another in a long line of Yngwie clones, especially since he plays neoclassical metal on a Stratocaster with a scalloped fretboard and he hired former Alcatrazz singer Graham Bonnet to front his band.
But anyone who looks past Impellitteri’s hyperspeed sweeppicked harmonic minor scales will notice incendiary chromatic lines rivaling the precision and intensity of Steve Morse and bluesy phrasing that gives his playing distinct character.
Impellitteri enjoys an impressive devoted following in Japan, where he still appears on the cover of guitar magazines.
SIGNATURE SONG: “The Washing Away of Wrong”
ALBUM: The Devil Knows My Name
It takes a sick and twisted mind to be able to play guitar with Marilyn Manson, David Lee Roth and country singer k.d. lang.
But John 5 has exhibited more than enough warped imagination and dazzling dexterity to shine in all these wildly diverse musical settings.
Whether it’s a barn dance or a ritual virgin sacrifice to the Lord of Darkness, count on Mr. 5 to turn up with all the right licks, and the clothes to match.
The Great Kat
SIGNATURE SONG: “The Flight of the Bumble Bee”
ALBUM: Beethoven on Speed
It’s hard to know whether the Great Kat’s thrash metal interpretations of classical music compositions are meant to be taken seriously—especially when her albums have titles like Beethoven on Speed, Bloody Vivaldi and Rossini’s Rape—but when this Juilliard-trained virtuoso plays it’s certainly no joke.
With a heavy leather dominatrix persona so over the top that she makes Yngwie Malmsteen seem like Tony Randall, the Great Kat would make a fine role model for young ladies who want to shred if she didn’t scare the living shit out of them.
SIGNATURE SONG: “You Can’t Save Me”
ALBUM: Into the Black
Richie Kotzen made his debut at the tender age of 19, quickly establishing himself as one of the fastest young guns in the whole Shrapnel Records corral.
From the start, his style has been admirably fluid, incorporating techniques like tapping and sweeping to create extended legato passages of daunting complexity.
Kotzen has lent these skills to Poison and Mr. Big. In recent years, he’s emerged as an all-around classic rock talent, adding a soulful Paul Rodgers/Rod Stewart/Steve Marriott–influenced vocal style to his considerable resources as the Winery Dogs' guitarist.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Needled 24/7”
ALBUM: Hate Crew Deathroll (CHILDREN OF BODOM)
An incredibly prolific guitarist who is the member of several bands—Children of Bodom, Sinergy and Kylähullut—as well as a frequent guest performer with bands like Annihilator, Godsplague and Pain, Alexi Laiho has probably recorded more notes than Bach ever wrote down on paper over his entire lifetime.
Laiho has mastered the same sweep, tapping and precision picking techniques and neoclassical scales that placed his Scandinavian predecessors on the map, but unlike his cohorts he’s never shown any ambition to record a guitar concerto or metal opera.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Savitri”
ALBUM: Good People in Times of Evil (HELLBORG, LANE AND SELVAGANESH)
Many guitarists pursue speed for its sheer ability to impress others.
For Shawn Lane, it was merely one of numerous avenues of expression that he discovered on a strange and twisted path to musical enlightenment that started when he joined southern rockers Black Oak Arkansas at 14 and culminated in his mastery of Indian music in the years before he passed away at age 40.
Few, if any, guitarists can play faster than Lane could, and his arpeggio sweeps and precision-picked lines blasted more rapid-fire notes than the average human mind could comprehend, blending into a hypnotic blur that leaves listeners feeling intoxicated and disoriented.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Country Boy”
ALBUM: Heads, Hands and Feet
One of the all-time greatest country guitar pickers comes not from America’s sunny deep South but from rainy, gray England.
Albert Lee developed his own greased-lightning combinationpicking technique (plectrum plus third, fourth and fifth fingers) and a masterful command of country licks, open-string runs, B-bender gymnastics and all things that go twang in the night.
He can unleash cascades of crystalline notes that fall on the ear like a gentle country rain and execute tear-jerking string bends that slither and slide like a moonshiner’s wagon down an icy stretch of road. Lee has played with everyone from Emmy Lou Harris to Eric Clapton to the Everly Brothers. Now 70-ish, he shows no sign of slowing down.
SIGNATURE SONG: “I’m Going Home”
Circa 1969, Alvin Lee was the fastest gun in all of guitardom.
He wowed Woodstock with 11 minutes of fretboard frenzy called “I’m Going Home” and was duly rewarded with a large watermelon—presumably an organic hippie tribute to the unmitigated ballsiness of Lee’s playing.
Lee and his band, Ten Years After, were among the cream of the mid-Sixties British blues boom—contemporaries and, some would say, co-equals of groups that featured Clapton, Beck and Page.
More than just 10 itchy-fast fingers, the late Lee always balanced his six-string mastery with a strong singing voice, charismatic center stage presence and solid songwriting skills, making him not just another speed demon but an all-around classic rock contender.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Born”
ALBUM: This Godless Endeavor (NEVERMORE)
Leave it to Dave Mustaine to light a fire under a guitarist’s ass.
When Jeff Loomis auditioned for Megadeth at the tender young age of 16, Mustaine told him that he’d become a great guitarist one day but he was too inexperienced for Megadeth. Instead of giving up, Loomis persevered, and six years later he formed the band Nevermore with two ex-members of Sanctuary, with whom he had briefly played as well.
Loomis’ trick bag is deep and diverse, including sweep arpeggios, atonal tapping, whammy pedal effects and tremolo picking, and his solos are like mini compositions within the songs.
He may never find a spot in Megadeth’s ever-rotating second guitar spot, but he’s already established himself as a worthy player.
SIGNATURE SONG: "Far Beyond the Sun"
ALBUM: Rising Force
When Yngwie Malmsteen released his debut solo album, Rising Force, in 1984, he unleashed the fookin' fury of guitarists, who were already having enough trouble keeping up with Eddie Van Halen.
Malmsteen's all-encompassing mastery of speed techniques like sweep-picked arpeggios, tremolo picking, legato, string skipping, tapping and more inspired guitarists to either woodshed or use their guitars as firewood.
Although countless imitators have challenged Yngwie's speed-king crown, none can match the impeccable precision with which he plays each note and how he makes absolutely every one count from a melodic perspective.
Even more frustrating is how easy he makes everything look when he plays onstage, performing kung-fu kicks and acrobatically flinging his guitar without ever missing a note. Bastard.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Legend of the Loch Ness”
ALBUM: Sleight of Hand
Mann-Dude was the ultimate big-hair Hollywood Eighties shredder, but unlike the bulk of preening poodle boys who clogged the classrooms at GIT, he always seemed to have his tongue planted firmly in his cheeks (instead of sucking them in to highlight his cheekbones).
Mann-Dude certainly had the pedigree to prove he wasn’t just a joke.
He had previously played drums on a post-Zappa Steve Vai project and was one of only a handful of guitarists who released instrumental shred albums on a major record label (MCA). Ever since stonewashed jeans and K-Swiss high-tops went out of style, Mann-Dude has been missing in action. Dude!
Larry Collins and Joe Maphis
SIGNATURE SONG: “Flying Fingers”
ALBUM: Flying Fingers (JOE MAPHIS)
The modern-day shred guitar duos of Dragonforce, Trivium and Avenged Sevenfold have nothing on the furious pace and precision of the performances by Larry Collins and Joe Maphis in the Fifties.
Even more impressive is the fact that Collins was only 10 years old at the time, yet he could keep pace with virtuosos like Maphis and Merle Travis without missing a note.
Check out the videos of “Flying Fingers” and “Wildwood Flower” from vintage broadcasts of the program Ranch Party to witness some of the craziest playing you’ll ever witness, including Maphis and Collins attacking a single double-neck Mosrite at the same time.
SIGNATURE SONG: "Birds of Fire"
ALBUM: Mahavishnu Orchestra
Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist John McLaughlin was the first guitarist to play jazz riffs with all the fierce intensity and brute volume of rock guitar.
The world has never been the same since. McLaughlin's Seventies recordings with Mahavishnu pioneered the jazz fusion genre and rocketed electric guitar instrumental music into the Hot 100. His later acoustic work with Shakti was equally influential in forging the world fusion genre.
The clarity, precision, profound conviction and blinding speed of McLaughlin's guitar work has always reflected the emotional depth of his lifelong spiritual devotion and the arduous discipline involved in serious spiritual practice. His dense note clusters propel us toward realms of bliss far beyond this mundane existence.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Lifeforce”
ALBUM: Mind’s Eye
Vinnie Moore was one of the first contenders to challenge Yngwie Malmsteen for the speed-king throne, releasing the stunning solo effort Mind’s Eye on the Shrapnel label in 1986.
While Moore sold respectable amounts of his solo albums, he never reached much of an audience beyond aspiring shred guitarists, who eagerly purchased Moore’s instructional videos in which he revealed the secrets behind his immaculate technique.
Moore persevered as a solo artist through the Nineties, but in 2003 he took over the lead guitarist spot in UFO vacated by Michael Schenker.
SIGNATURE SONG: "Cruise Control"
ALBUM: Free Fall (DIXIE DREGS)
People laughed back in the Seventies when Steve Morse first sought to combine fusion and Southern boogie with his band, the Dixie Dregs.
Fans of the two respective genres here hardly on speaking terms back then, but the last laugh belongs to Morse, who is still going strong today.
He has plied his lightning licks and tenacious technique in the service of numerous genres and bands, including latter-day lineups of Deep Purple and Kansas.
SIGNATURE SONG “The Ballad of Conley and Billy (The Proof is in the Pickin’)”
ALBUM: Diamond Rio
Originally a banjo player, Jimmy Olander quickly shifted his attention to guitar when he realized he’d get more gigs, adapting his advanced five-string banjo playing techniques for the six-string guitar.
In addition to mastering rapid flatpicked bluegrass lines and chicken pickin’ Tele twang, Olander performs amazing pedal steel imitations using a guitar equipped with Joe Glaser string-bending devices on the G and B strings.
Although Diamond Rio’s radio-ready tunes rarely give him enough room to truly let rip, when the spotlight shines on him he never fails to impress with his taste and technique.
Cary and Larry Parks
SIGNATURE SONG: “You Really Got Me”
ALBUM: Welcome to Howdywood (BOY HOWDY)
Even the most diehard country music fan has probably forgotten the band Boy Howdy, which is best known for the hit ballad “She’d Give Everything,” but the sibling dual-guitar team of Cary and Larry Parks recorded several impressive dueling-guitar solos that deserved a much bigger audience.
The sons of bluegrass fiddler Ray Parks, Cary and Larry grew up in the crossfire of Los Angeles’ country rock scene and the more traditional sounds they heard at home.
As a result, their unique playing styles blend the chickenpickin’ twang of the Bakersfield sound, the clean cross picking of Kentucky bluegrass and the rowdy attitude of Hollywood rock, best heard on their blazing countrified cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” which comes across like Van Halen and Bill Monroe jamming at a Buck Owens concert.
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SIGNATURE SONG: "Pull Me Under"
ALBUM: Images and Words (DREAM THEATER)
There are those who swear that prog-metal pioneer John Petrucci has a few extra fingers on both hands that he craftily keeps hidden during photo shoots.
How else can one explain the man's ability to make six- and seven-string electric guitars generate quantum-shifted note clusters exceeding the speed oflight?
Maybe it's the six daily hours of practice he put in during his formative years, and his rigorous studies at Berklee, where he mastered the intricacies of sweep and alternate picking. Petrucci's guitar work with Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment and as a solo artist exemplify the present-day ideal of extreme guitar discipline.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Lover (When You’re Near Me)”
ALBUM: Best of Capitol Masters
The Wizard of Waukesha’s technological contributions to the electric guitar and multitrack recording are so great that people sometimes overlook his accomplishments as a guitarist.
His recordings with the Les Paul Trio in the Thirties and Forties helped establish the jazz guitar lexicon, but he was equally handy with a cornball melody for a Top 40 pop hit.
A formidable fretsman and crafty stylist, his highly active brain always seemed to be a little bit ahead of the next chord change, and his nimble fingers knew how to follow. Les’ “New Sound” recordings of the late Forties and early Fifties were the perfect merger of technique and technology.
SIGNATURE SONG: “After You’ve Gone”
A dapper Belgian gypsy with a pencil thin mustache and a miraculously nimble left hand, Django set the Twenties and Thirties alight via incendiary guitar performances with the legendary Hot Club of France Quintet and other jazz ensembles.
It was a time when the very notion of the guitar solo was just being invented, and Django set a pace that guitarists today are still struggling to match.
The astounding thing is that he did all this with just the index and middle fingers of his left hand—his third finger and pinkie had been seriously maimed in a caravan fire. Yet Django did it all: lightning-fast diminished scale runs, frisky double-stop passages and the most lyrical finger vibrato in all of guitardom.
There’s a plaintive undertone in even the most jaunty Django passages, and likewise a playful wink lurking just behind his most heartbreakingly romantic playing.
Django remains the original and ultimate gypsy king.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Crazy Train”
ALBUM: Blizzard of Ozz (OZZY OSBOURNE)
Metal’s martyred boy-child, Randy Rhoads embraced the tapping, divebombing innovations of Edward Van Halen and brought these techniques to a new plateau in the early Eighties.
He came out of Quiet Riot and the Hollywood hair-band scene to find fame with Ozzy Osbourne, but his life was cut tragically short before he had time to realize his full potential.
During his brief yet stellar career, he played with the blazing intensity of a man who somehow knew he only had a few short years to share his gift with the world.
Uli Jon Roth
SIGNATURE SONG: “Sails of Charon”
ALBUM: Taken By Force (SCORPIONS)
Although Ritchie Blackmore gets most of the credit as a guiding light of the Eighties shred phenomenon, Uli Jon Roth established the blueprint for neoclassical metal through his highly sophisticated guitar playing with the Scorpions and with his own band, Electric Sun.
Roth undoubtedly has the playing and compositional skills to dominate as a shred guitar hero, but he pursued loftier goals in the Eighties and Nineties by devoting his ambitions to performing and composing classical music instead.
In 2003, Roth recorded an interpretation of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and since 2005, he has frequently made surprise guest appearances with the Scorpions and Smashing Pumpkins.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Satch Boogie”
ALBUM: Surfing with the Alien
Shred was born in 1987 on the day Joe Satriani released Surfing with the Alien.
Satch took all the rock guitar virtuosity that had gone before—Hendrix, Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, etc.—and brought it all a giant step further, adding a few new tricks to the lexicon of hot guitar moves and upping the land speed record for notes-per-nanosecond.
But where earlier ax heroes employed techniques like tapping and dive bombing to dazzle and astound, Satriani’s mastery lies in his ability to subsume daunting technical maneuvers into beguiling, seemingly effortless melodic statements that appeal to guitar geeks and the general public alike.
His secret? Satch is one guitar virtuoso who never lost touch with his rock and roll heart.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Pull the Plug”
ALBUM: Leprosy (DEATH)
Chuck Schuldiner passed away in 2001, but were he alive, he would almost certainly be amused by the new legion of metal guitarists inspired by him that emerged in his absence.
During the rise of his band Death, Schuldiner’s outstanding solos—which featured playing as melodic and precise as that of anyone who put out a record on the Relativity or Shrapnel labels—were often overshadowed by Death’s jackhammer rhythms and dark lyrics.
However, anyone taking a look back at his work would instantly realize that Schuldiner could tap as tastefully as Eddie Van Halen and rip up a fretboard as well as anyone else. Eleven other guitarists shared the spotlight with Schuldiner in Death, including James Murphy and Andy LaRocque, but none shined more brightly.
SIGNATURE SONG: “Practice What You Preach”
ALBUM: Practice What You Preach (TESTAMENT)
You simply have to admire Alex Skolnick’s dedication to the guitar.
Right when Testament were ready to hit the big time, Skolnick bailed to pursue his love of jazz, preferring to make music in San Francisco clubs with players like bassist Michael Manring and eventually making his way to New York City to study jazz at the New School.
Most players have trouble mastering one style of music, but Skolnick impresses whether he’s blasting out thrash metal solos with Testament (which he has since rejoined) or tearing up the fretboard with his jazz band, the Alex Skolnick Trio.
SIGNATURE SONG; “Speed of Light”
ALBUM: Episode (STRATOVARIUS)
Maybe the harsh Scandinavian winters are the reason why Europe’s northernmost countries boast the most neoclassical shredders per capita.
Finland’s Timo Tolkki and his band Stratovarius released their first album in 1989, about the time that shred mania reached its peak, and fortunately for them they established a huge following in—where else—Japan by the time grunge took over in 1992.
Like Malmsteen, Tolkki’s ambitions reach far beyond power metal into classical music, and his precision fretwork is inspired more by virtuoso violinists than other guitarists.
Herman Li & Sam Totman
SIGNATURE SONG: “Through the Fire and Flames”
ALBUM: Inhuman Rampage (DRAGONFORCE)
When the first Dragonforce album came out in 2003, critics were convinced that Herman Li and Sam Totman’s outrageously fast guitar solos were the product of studio trickery.
However, Li and Totman later proved that they were the real deal both onstage and under the scrutiny of skeptical editors right here at Guitar World headquarters.
Individually, Li and Tottman boast jaw-dropping speed and precision, but when they lock horns in tightly synchronized harmonies they can make heads explode from sonic overload. Who needs amphetamines? Just put on a Dragonforce’s Inhuman Rampage to jumpstart your day.
SIGNATURE SONG: “For the Love of God”
ALBUM: Passion and Warfare
Steve Vai can do things with a sustainer and twang bar that surely ain’t natural and certainly indicate a high tantric mastery of all documented and undocumented alien love secrets.
Discovered by Frank Zappa and fostered by David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, Vai emerged in the Nineties as a solo artist and guitar hero of major stature.
His astounding technique defies categorization. In his graceful hands, the guitar becomes a cosmic antenna, channeling other dimensions and parallel universes. His best work combines the swagger of a lifelong rock and roller with the romantic soul of a poet. As if this weren’t enough, he’s also a first-rate composer and has great cheekbones.
Eddie Van Halen
SIGNATURE SONG: “Eruption”
ALBUM: Van Halen
Though numerous players have surpassed Eddie Van Halen’s speed and precision, Ed deserves credit for developing and perfecting the techniques that have become essential elements of the shredder’s vocabulary ever since Van Halen’s debut in 1978.
Eddie’s tapped triplets helped players with sloppy picking technique double and triple their speed, but his incredibly precise tremolo picking showed that you still needed excellent right- and left-hand coordination if you truly wanted to impress.
Although players like Night Ranger’s Jeff Watson took tapping to ludicrous eight-finger extremes, no one ever sounds as good as Eddie when he’s in the groove.
SIGNATURE SONG: “43% Burnt”
ALBUM: Calculating Infinity (DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN)
Who says that hardcore punks can’t shred?
Dillinger Escape Plan guitarist Ben Weinman pioneered a style known as mathcore, which isn’t as nerdy as the name suggests but certainly requires an IQ above 100 to be fully appreciated for its unique blend of punk intensity, technical precision and the anomalous jazz melodicism.
Still think punks can’t shred with the best of them? We dare you to try and figure out one of Weinman’s solos.
Go ahead, tough guy.
SIGNATURE SONG “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo”
ALBUM: Johnny Winter And
Long before Stevie Ray, Johnny Winter was the original white-guy-from-Texas blues guitar demon.
Critics have often remarked on the irony that a pale-skinned, crosseyed albino turned out to be one of the greatest interpreters of America’s seminal black musical idiom.
Winter has the hardlivin’ outsider’s perspective that it takes to play the blues for real, but it’s matched with the rockera chops of a guy who came up alongside immortals like Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield.
The best of Winter’s phenomenal playing is imbued with both fire and fluidity. Flurries of notes crawl all over the 12-bar grid at every conceivable angle, like a hoard of spiders fanning out in search of prey. In the whole vast river that is the blues, nothing quite possesses the eerie intensity of Winter’s best work.
Our list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a few other speed demons, most notably Eighties neoclassical shredder Tony MacAlpine, Outworld guitarist and shred instructor Rusty Cooley, Gary Moore ("White Knuckles," anyone?), Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt, Australia's Tommy Emmanuel and, of course, Zakk Wylde.