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The Joy of Shredding: Notes on Camp Guitar

Two contestants face off at "Shred For Your Life" at Santos Party House.

Here is what your Radio Vulture correspondent spent last night watching: two hours of competitive guitar-soloing. A grand celebratory tournament of string-bending, sweep-arpeggiating, speed-riffing, showboating, and general tomfoolery, all conducted in a spirit of good fun and camaraderie that one (female) attendee described to me as amusingly homoerotic. This was the special-edition holiday all-star battle in a series called “Shred for Your Life,” at Santos Party House in downtown New York — a kind of event I wasn’t sure actually existed outside of regional Guitar Center giveaways and cartoons — and I would like to confess that it was about a million times more awesome than I was expecting.

It also leaves us with a slight problem, because it’s going to be difficult to describe that awesomeness without lapsing into guitar-geek language or else sounding like some kind of Nordic epic poem. But just imagine, if you will, one early face-off. A pleasant, boyish guitarist named Blake Mills — dressed in a pleasant, boyish sweater — plays a fine, very musical country-picking solo. His rival, Timo Ellis, sets up a giant pedal board and plays a gnarly rock solo. The panel of star judges — Andrew W.K., Kirk Douglas of the Roots, Vernon Reid of Living Colour, and Matt Sweeney — can’t come to a decision: It’s apples and oranges, they say, and they can’t fault either performance. Can the contestants play again? This time, Ellis breaks out the pedal board and turns his shredding into a zooming, spacey laser battle that seems like an easy win: No way is the little country picker going to compete with this. That is, until pleasant/boyish Mills chugs an entire beer, uses the bottle to play an impressive slide solo, and then stomps it into shards of glass as he plays his final chords, bringing half the audience to its feet.

Normally I would not describe any kind of show in such breathless terms, for fear people will show up in the comments section to say they were there and it wasn’t nearly that cool — but in this case, I’m confident every last person in the room agreed about the beer-bottle thing being incredibly slick.

Mills’s musicality wound up winning the tournament, beating out contestants like Damien Paris (a stocky metal prankster), Lily Maase (of the Suite Unraveling), and “Randy Rolando.” Rolando was actually Jaleel Bunton of TV on the Radio, dressed up in a jumpsuit and juicy wig, and followed around by a woman in a fake fur coat who spritzed activator on said wig. (For his second, more lascivious solo, "Randy" also arranged to have lotion spurt from the headstock of his guitar.) Bunton is part of how the event got started in the first place: Creator Marc Razo got the idea while working at the Lower East Side bar Max Fish, and watching Bunton and Sweeney fool around with an old guitar they’d come across. Since then, Razo has built up the event, acquired a little sponsorship, and found a space for things at Santos.

And if you asked him, or most anyone else involved, they’d tell you the evening is a celebration of musicianship and the joy of playing an instrument — which I would venture is true but not necessarily the whole story. Before the contest began, a screen onstage was showing a video loop of people joyfully playing air guitar, pool-cue guitar, broom guitar, fishing-net guitar — you name it. And the variety of those people seemed to underline how much this image, this way of moving — the knees-bent, tongue-curling, hair-flowing, windmilling pose of the alleged rock god, with all the various phallic and sexual and swaggering connotations it brings to mind — is such a cultural basic for Americans at this point, a gesture coded so far into our experience, that it’s poised right on the border of being entirely camp. It’s not that this stance is completely hollow — we still love it. We only have one way of arranging the human body that does the same work as effectively, and that’s MC poses. But the rock type is enclosed in an extra set of invisible quote marks; it’s a reference, a mild parody of itself, to the extent that an event like this can contain multiple references to Satan and have that be fundamentally cute. This stuff is fun precisely because it’s the parodic museum-piece part of guitar-playing, full of the same lovable ridiculousness that rap battles use punch lines to get at. So if you happen to be a quite-good guitar player, an event like this makes for a great opportunity to unleash all the geeky, showy, or vaguely ridiculous chops you’ve been developing in your spare time and can’t safely unleash on an audience outside the protective umbrella of a goofy competition.

But that’s just part of musicianship, right? Kirk Douglas, of the Roots, is on television playing guitar most every night (on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon), but he said there’s no telling how he would fare in a competition like this: “I would have shredded for my life! If I was in the situation of the last contestant, who went against the winner, I could have wilted like a flower, or I could have stomped like a beast. You never know until you’re actually … shredding for your life.”