People have been playing stringed instruments since prehistory, but nobody legitimately knows who invented them. Some believe the harp evolved from the musical bow, virtually identical to the stringed hunting weapon, which existed before ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Greek mythology credits Hermes, herald of the gods, with inventing a crude interpretation of the lyre — he supposedly brushed up against an abandoned turtle shell, prompting its tendons to vibrate in gorgeous harmony. Others say a man named Lamech, close descendant of Adam and Eve, designed an Arab precursor to the guitar called an oud (also spelled ʿūd), inspired by the shapely silhouette of his dead son hanging from a tree, which is clearly the most metal of all possible explanations.
What we can safely assume is that an early variation of our now-cherished guitar most likely originated in Spain, in place of the lute, during the early 16th century. We can also safely assume that, all along the way, nobody who plucked ye stringed instruments of olde could have anticipated the absolute metaphysical mastery of guitar that contemporary shredders display.
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To that end, lend your ears to this unfathomable shred collaboration, in which a group of talented guitar deities pushes the boundaries of finger speed and precision, all while concocting melodies that could make even the toughest among us shed a tear:
Let your jaw fall to the floor as 13-year-old Feng E casually plays his way through an ambitious arrangement written by 65-year-old fingerstyle guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel:
Look at this absolute god effortlessly navigate three fucking fretboards at once:
And just, the sheer speed, dear lord:
If you can believe it, these are only a few examples of the guitar wizardry happening nowadays. As a spectator, it would almost seem like guitarists have become so excellent at their craft that the only thing limiting them is the capability of the human body — the speed at which hands and fingers can move, and the melodies that our brains can come up with. Surely, players are better now than ever thanks to the internet, and in turn, the infinite amount of educational resources they have available to them.
Knowing all of that, can we really push the boundaries of guitar any further, or have we reached the peak of our shredding abilities?
The consensus among the absolute best of the best: There will always be room for improvement, if only in terms of new, inventive ways to play.
“Mind-blowing guitar virtuosity has been around for years, from Paco de Lucía to Santana to Stanley Jordan, who plays guitar and piano at the same time, wowing audiences in our shows together,” says Sharon Isbin, multiple Grammy Award winning American classical guitarist and founding director of the Guitar Department at the Juilliard School. “What’s constantly changing is the virtuosity of imagination. That’s infinite, and will always challenge the fingers and technology to evolve in ways we haven’t yet envisioned.”
“Each time I premiere a new work from a composer, for example (over 80 to date), my technique on guitar bends and stretches and emerges anew to fulfill the rich imagination of creativity,” Isbin continues. “It’s a live, unpredictable process. Audiences crave it. Learning and recording the virtuosic new Affinity guitar concerto Chris Brubeck wrote for me, which pays tribute to his father Dave Brubeck’s 100th birthday (this Sunday), made me reevaluate the definition of possible. When I play duos with Steve Vai, Heart’s Nancy Wilson or fiddle master Mark O’Connor, each combo demands a new kind of virtuosity and technique, one that never existed before, as does my latest with sarod master Amjad Ali Khan in our new Strings for Peace album of North Indian classical music.
“So, it’s not just about shredding and acrobatics; it’s about expanding the ear, mind and vision. Sometimes it’s scary, like dancing on the edge of a cliff; other times exhilarating. What’s next in the guitar world will always be a big surprise. That keeps it exciting!”
David Leisner, composer, master teacher at the Manhattan School of Music and “among the finest guitarists of all time,” according to the American Record Guide, tells me all of this in slightly simpler terms: “There’s an astounding level of virtuosity out there in the world of guitar playing, but technical ability and innovation are never-ending, and even more infinite are human imagination and musical artistry, which transcend technique.”
This becomes increasingly clear when you consider the fact that many pop songs all use the same basic chords — something that Australian musical trio The Axis of Awesome highlights in an expertly choreographed mashup, demonstrating that despite their shared notes, they all sound distinctly different.
Even at the simplest levels of ability, music relies on imagination and creativity, facets of humanity that are seemingly endless. Or as master composer Sergey Prokofiev once said, allegedly on his deathbed, “There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C major.”
Still, we are at some sort of crest and can safely say that there are more fantastic guitarists now than ever. “We’re definitely in the middle of a peak level of education, training, available and free information, general playing level and so on in the field of classical guitar,” says Grammy-winner Jason Vieaux, composer and “perhaps the most precise and soulful classical guitarist of his generation,” according to NPR. “China’s rigorous and highly-organized Conservatory systems and training are producing thousands of excellent guitarists.”
However, another peak will always come into view. “Every few years, like clockwork, there emerges a player or three that really knocks everyone’s socks off in terms of ability,” says “soft shred pioneer” MYRONE, who also plays in Firstborne. “The ones who are really pushing the limits right now are Plini, Tosin Abasi and Yvette Young, and there are probably a few young guns waiting in the wings, sharpening their craft until it’s their turn to emerge on the world’s stage.”
Guess we all better get back to practicing then.