From the GW archive: This interview was originally published in the December 2010 issue of Guitar World.
The legendary Racer X and Mr. Big guitarist chats with Guitar World about the art of shred guitar.
GUITAR WORLD: For flat-out, unapologetic soloing, who blows your mind?
Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Gary Moore, Akira Takasaki, Eric Johnson, Randy Rhoads, Shawn Lane, [harpsichordist] Gustav Leonhardt, [violinist] Itzhak Perlman and [pianist] Glenn Gould.
What album/song inspired you to play fast?
The first two Van Halen albums, UFO's Strangers in the Night, Disillusion by Loudness, Frank Marino and Mahagony Rush Live, and Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same, to name a few.
What helped you progress dramatically as a guitarist?
I practiced all the time for a long time. My goal was to learn one new thing every day, with no days off. It didn't have to be complicated or fast—it could be a chord, a new place to bend, a new phrase, a Beatles song...anything. But if you add up 365 new things per year, and multiply it times a decade of practice...I don't have my calculator nearby, but I'm guessing it's a big number of things. When I was 22, I started getting tired of listening to myself, so I took a day off.
What was your biggest technical hurdle?
From the start, I held the pick in an unusual way. I used to bend my thumb way back in order to get a good angle for fast playing. I played that way for 10 years. It actually worked really well—I recorded the first Racer X album, Street Lethal, that way—but it would hurt my thumb if I practiced too much, so I decided to try something else. It took me nine months of practice to adapt to a new way of holding the pick. I actually still use the old way for strumming, but the majority of the time I use the new method.
What key performance in your discography is a successful example of what you try to achieve?
The first song on my first album is not a song—it's a guitar solo! It's called "Frenzy," and it's pretty much nonstop maniacal guitar playing. I had just turned 19, and I had some serious muscle then.
Is shredding a good thing?
It's a wonderful thing. It's just an unfortunate name. But I am getting older, so it should be expected that I get a little cantankerous about kids inventing new words. And unfortunately many shredders, including myself, aren't always "balanced" musically.
After that day off at 22, I started working on other things to make my playing more complete, like songwriting; vibrato; phrasing; learning about chords with thirds, sevenths and other notes in them; trying to learn piano-based pop songs on guitar; and other things. Racer X fans were probably mad at me for it, but I really like music, and I felt like I had built this powerful vehicle and it was time I figure out where I wanted to drive it.
What are you working on, and what is your goal as a player?
I am trying to build the biggest callus possible on my first finger so I can do one-finger bends and vibrato like B.B. King. It took me about six weeks to get to the point where I could do a whole-step bend on the high E string without serious pain. Usually, I use a bunch of fingers together. But being able to do it with just the first finger by itself opens up so many doors for new phrases.
Photo: Neil Zlozower