Riffer’s Delight: A Brief History of Shredding

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd | May 18th, 2011

Steve Howe, lead guitarist for Yes, 1978

At various points in history, it’s been de rigueur for guitar bands to rebel against the perceived snootiness of guitar noodling — trills and triplets with serif flourishes, seemingly playable by people with freakishly large and dexterous hands. For instance, Brit punks in the 1970s and ’80s, with ramshackle barre chords and studied sneers, were rebelling against the disenfranchisement of the working class and the incoming threat of Thatcherism. But they were also just really sick of prog and glam rock. And while I’m a huge fan of tentpost noodlers like Yes and Genesis and Crimson and the like, I can see it: After a bunch of years of Peter Gabriel dressing up as a mushroom and Ziggy Stardust sporting extreme eyeshadow, and practically everyone playing their guitars like they’re doing harpsichord solos at a Baroque salon, you might want to cleanse your palate with something a little less… decadent.

That era of prog rock was probably the apex of noodling, but it mutated its way into ’80s and ’90s pop music in the form of the post-Hendrix epic guitar bridge, courtesy power-dudes with long tresses and severe names: Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Slash. But they were certainly different from its noodling predecessors; where bands like Genesis and Yes were informed by fantasy, performance art and some holdover psychedelic hippieism, those fellows’ fretboard dexterity was an overt expression of virile hypermasculinity. A tweaking solo, high up on the fret, was basically a peacock spreading its wings.

Noodling mostly died down in rock with the early grungers (read: Nirvana, who, like their punk predecessors, were bucking what they correctly perceived as wankery). But it’s here that an interesting psychic transference occurred. As the prevalence of guitar noodlers dipped, the prevalence of vocal noodlers rose, mostly in the form of Mariah Carey. “Vocal noodling” has an actual, in-the-dictionary definition — melisma, a now-critically overused term that nobody even knew existed before then-Slate pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones started using it in his columns. Mariah, with her sprinting runs and staggering range, was using her pipes to flashily noodle, and eventually became a quintessential practitioner of it; I imagine you could probably transpose some of her early songs to a Moog and sound pretty close to something off Foxtrot. I’ll never forget first hearing the outro of “Someday,” off her debut album in 1990, when she hit that freakishly high note and skipped around it a little bit like she was bending the strings. Steve Vai, seriously, suck it up.

Marnie Stern

But with the (flawed) democratization of sound and style thanks to the internet, there’s been a concurrent noodler’s liberation front. Crossing over into instrument ‘wankery’ is no longer fraught with the stigma that it once was, and it no longer carries the same meaning. For one, the genre of math rock revitalized the noodle and made it headier, albeit somewhat more insular. And in the wake and tradition of scrappy art-noodlers like Hella, Battles and — daresay — Animal Collective, there is an open place for people like New Yorker Marnie Stern, who both shreds and noodles with stunning virtuosity (and whose frequent use of the word vagina on her blog and at shows reframes the often male-associated concept in a gender-neutral light, too). Another example of noodler’s freedom is D, the fourth album by Austin band White Denim, who have built a career on finger-tappy funk that benefits from its inherent scrappiness. Like Stern’s last album, Marnie Stern, White Denim has traversed their way through various stages of noodle to settle on a sound that expands their grasp of guitar frippery into a broader, serener pop sound. It’s a lesson in soloing — epic trills don’t have to be about sexual primacy, nor must a flashy noodle stand on its own outside the context of the song. My favorite track, “Burnished,” is built on a repeating riff that tickles up the fret and bends until it embeds like a radio chorus; counter riffs lie behind it, while the vocals lie soft and neutral in the cut. There is a Yes-worthy bridge, touche to that. Despite its ’70s pedigree, though, the 40 years behind it prop it up into present tense; as the riff has been neutralized, the wank has been exorcised. I feel okay about listening to guitars again.