Between 1986 when I discovered Yngwie Malmsteen and 1990 when I discovered Alex Lifeson I was a fledgling guitar student learning basic chords and scales. Given that it was the mid to late 80s and I was only 13 I didn’t have guys like Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix to find inspiration from. No, I was into the modern guitarist of the day. First it was Frank Hannon from Tesla, Warren DiMartini from Ratt, George Lynch from Dokken, of course Eddie Van Halen, and White Lion’s Vito Bratta that I found inspiration from. I can say that looking back I still think all of those guys were great guitar players. And that’s to say that I think they put on the spandex and the pointy guitars because that was the brand of the day. They were much more than just hair metal guitarists(Eddie Van Halen was always his own person.)
But a year or two into playing guitar I’d discovered in the back of either Guitar or Guitar Player magazine a full page ad for a record label called Shrapnel Records. It was a record label started by a guy named Mike Varney and it was dedicated to guys that were what you would describe as next-level guitarists. These were the guys that practiced 8 to 12 hours a day and excelled at both neo-classical styles, jazz fusion, and blues-based guitar. Lightning fast arpeggios, extremely fast picking, and breezing through scales with hammer-ons whilst having one arm tied behind their back. Guitar shredders for sure, but these were more than just dudes impressing the chicks at the talent show or local bar. A lot of these guys were Berklee College of Music and Musician Institute graduates.
Each time I’d pick up a guitar magazine I’d get to that back page and pick one or two of those Shrapnel albums to find on my next trip to the mall. It seemed only logical that in order to become as good as these guys I needed to absorb their essence and their very souls through their recorded output. Practicing would help with that as well, but devouring their very souls seemed more fun. Now in doing this I was bound to snag a few not-so-great albums, and indeed I did pick up more than my share of pure wankery, but I did find some real gems, too. Here’s a few of the guys that to this day I feel were pretty amazing musicians, and unfortunately never got the recognition they deserved.
Greg Howe is a guy that possessed some serious musical chops. The first thing I bought of his was his debut album Greg Howe on Shrapnel that was released in 1988. Howe had the speed and picking prowess to make any fledgling guitarist’s jaw drop to their bedroom floor. But he also had a real funky, groove-as-far-as-the-eye-could-see, kind of thing. He could fit in some neo-classical arpeggiated runs then flip the switch and sound like Jeff Beck on an espresso binge. Soulful, classy, and pure, raw talent.
His debut stood out from so many of the other Shrapnel Records of the time due to the fact that it had some serious low end. A lot of these guys put out records that were forever locked into a sonically mid-range Twilight Zone. Unless you read the credits on the cassette sleeve you’d never know there was a bass player on the album. Of course the guitarists were the stars of the show at Shrapnel Records, but the bass and drum duties weren’t handed over to just anybody. They had solid players backing these guys and Greg Howe made sure the efforts of his bass and drum guys were heard loud and clear. His debut was like a power trio dialed up to 11. His shining moment in my eyes was his 1994 album Introspection. A tour de force of driving tracks, thunderous bass lines, and a mixture of both metal riffs, funk, and some serious jazz fusion runs that would make Larry Coryell jealous.
Greg Howe put out a record with his brother in 1989 under the name Howe II. The record called High Gear was the Howe brothers rocking out in Van Halen fashion with the typical L.A. rock odes to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I dug the record when I bought it at 15 but it doesn’t really hold up. Good if you want to relive those cock rock days with some exceptional guitar.
Essential Greg Howe: Introspection, Greg Howe
Vinnie Moore was most definitely in the neo-classical group of guitarists. The Yngwie Malmsteens, the Tony MacAlpines, and the Godfather of neo-classical guitarists Ritchie Blackmore. But unlike those first two that gave that brand of playing a bad name, Vinnie Moore was a fast yet eloquent player. He wasn’t the braggart that Malmsteen was. His albums were a mixture of heavy metal, melodic rock, and baroque, moody chamber music. He mixed a healthy dose of keys in his albums which added that “dragon rock” vibe to the songs. You could imagine him playing his guitar atop a three-headed dragon as he flew to the rescue of some damsel captured by an evil warlord. Well, you get the picture anyways.
His first album was 1986s Mind’s Eye. It was the fiery guitar shredding we’ve all come to know and love(or hate) about solo guitar albums. It has a heavy Rainbow/Dio vibe. Maybe if Blackmore had gone on to play guitar on Dio’s Holy Diver it might’ve sounded something like Mind’s Eye. But for me, his best record was 1988s Time Odyssey(not released through Shrapnel, but Polygram). I feel what Moore was going for sound-wise came together beautifully on this record. The gritty metal riffage was toned down for a more refrained sound. The keys were brought up in the mix while the guitar sound was tightened. His solos had a regal feel to them, as did his chord structuring. Tracks like the atmospheric “Prelude/Into The Future” had the scope and sound of some futuristic tale which explodes into something that resembles the solo section of “Highway Star” taking place in space. One of the most beautiful pieces is “April Sky”, which has Moore tackling none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s done quite tastefully and I remember listening to this song over and over as a 14 year old idiot in my bedroom at night. It’s lovely still, to this day. He also tackles the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and before all you Beatles purists get your panties in a bunch just know it’s a tastefully done rendition. This could’ve really been bad in another guitarist’s hands of the 80s hair metal ilk, but Vinnie Moore does it justice. “The Tempest” is 8 minutes of neo-classical goodness. A mix of Deep Purple, Dixie Dregs, and a lost Beethoven sonata. Time Odyssey should be the go-to record for classy guitar shredding.
Vinnie Moore was class all the way.
Essential Vinnie Moore: Time Odyssey, Mind’s Eye
Michael Lee Firkins
Doing a complete 180 degrees we come to Michael Lee Firkins who was more Eric Johnson and Steve Morse than Yngwie Malmsteen and Ritchie Blackmore. Firkins released his Shrapnel debut in 1990 to little fanfare as far as I could tell. He came out of the gate with a looser, twangier vibe though he could still shred with the best of ’em. A song like “Laughing Stacks” had a southern flair with very little of the bright lights, big city commotion of so many other guys of that era. This really was one of the last Shrapnel releases I bought and it was a breath of fresh air from all the Bach and Beethoven posturing. Firkins’ breezy, playful finger-picking style brought to mind Steve Morse’s work with the Dixie Dregs but without all the jazz fusion brain melting.
I feel Michael Lee Firkins never got the credit he deserved. Of course when you’re trying to stand out in a roster full of guitarists and you’re wearing jeans and a t-shirt while everyone else is in day-glo clown suits it’s hard to get noticed. I think he’s a pretty great guitar noodler myself.
Essential Michael Lee Firkins: Michael Lee Firkins, Chapter Eleven
Jason Becker started out in the band Cacophony with future Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman when he was like 16 or 17 years old. Cacophony was this neo-classical heavy metal hybrid of a band that was just so-so. But Friedman and Becker both put out solo records with Shrapnel and Becker’s Perpetual Burn was my favorite. His was another heavy classically-minded power metal record but you could tell the guy had bigger aspirations than just the typical lightning fast arpeggios and pompous solos. Perpetual Burn showed a guy that was looking forward. “Altitudes”, “Air”, and “Opus Pocus” showed some real inventiveness and personality. He shined through on Perpetual Burn.
Becker went on to join David Lee Roth’s band for the A Little Ain’t Enough record. Shortly after joining Roth’s band Jason Becker was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and was told by his doctor he had three to five years left to live. He’s still alive today. Though he can’t walk, talk, or speak he communicates with his eyes through a system his dad created. He also still composes using a computer. Of all the Shrapnel alumni, in my eyes Jason Becker is by far the most inspirational. He took a death sentence and turned it into a chance to rebuild himself from the ground up. No amount of guitar noodling and speed picking can match that.
Essential Jason Becker: Perpetual Burn
Well I’m off to finish my Sunday. We had to move our clocks forward an hour late last night. Daylight savings time, you know. So I’ve actually lost an hour. Woke up at 7:13am, but it was actually 8:13am thanks to the state of Indiana’s ridiculous daylight savings time nonsense. I’ll get that hour back in October. But that does me no good right now. Suppose I’ll go listen to some Shrapnel Records alumni. Maybe that’ll make me feel better.