Becoming the Shred King

Duncan Lammas – photo by Robert Shooks

The highly anticipated Battle of the Bands competitions are something that West Michigan music lovers flock to each and every year.  This year’s Heavyweights (Hard rock and metal) competition was certainly no exception.  In fact, even more buzz surrounded this year’s event with the addition of the Shred King competition, whereby local guitarists battled it out by demonstrating their mad soloing skills for the hundreds of fans/voters gathered in front of the stage.  After all of the votes were counted, it was revealed that West Michigan had chosen Duncan Lammas, guitarist for the popular local progressive metal band Flood the Desert, as its king for 2012.  Duncan, who is also a local guitar teacher, took some time from his busy band and teaching schedule to chat with Sonifly* about his recent victory, his teaching methods and, most importantly, what it takes to attain the level of musicianship required to be crowned the Shred King.  Here’s what he had to say:

Sonifly*:  So, let’s begin with the “awesome.”  You were just crowned “Shred King” at the 2012 Heavyweights Battle of the Bands.  Congrats! Are you still on cloud nine about that, or what?

Duncan:  Thank you, thank you.  It was a cool thing and I didn’t really expect to win.  It was an honor.

S:   How long have you been playing guitar?

D:  I’ve played guitar for about ten years and keyboards for around fifteen.

S:  Did you take lessons or are you self-taught?

D:   A few teachers here and there.  I had a neighbor/teacher, but I’m mostly self-taught.  I probably learned more by going online, finding tablature and watching YouTube videos.  To be honest, I was always a little lazy when it came to learning other people’s songs.  I mean, I’d learn the verses, but when it came to the solos, I was always wanting to improvise.

S:  How long have you been giving guitar lessons?

D:  Probably around three years, mostly for friends or just in a really low-key environment.  It’s only recently that I started with Take Lessons, where it’s more formal.

S:  Tell me more about Take Lessons.

D:  They’re mostly online and contracted with Best Buy’s new music departments.  What they do is they promote online and if you buy an instrument from Best Buy, you get lessons.

S:  Do you primarily give acoustic or electric guitar lessons?

D:  So far, only acoustic.  I’m still waiting for a little shredder, Eddie Van Halen to come in.

S:  Right!  Your new prodigy?

D:  Yes!  But when that kid comes in, they never want lessons, they just want to shred it up on whatever song.

S:  Do you read music or play by ear?

D:  I probably play by ear more than anything else, and it’s usually just fine.  I can usually at least get the gist of what’s going on.  Now, granted you could get all crazy; a lot of keyboardists can throw me curves because they have heavily modulated chords, but most any guitar songs, as long as I can watch one time through the progression, I can usually do it just fine.

S:  Give me an idea of what I’d expect when walking into my first guitar lesson with you.

D:  Let’s pretend you’ve never played.  We’d probably start with three strings at a time, either top or bottom, and then do open chords.  Open chords are probably the easiest way to learn how to navigate and how your hands should sit. If you’re a rock player, I teach you a power chord first, because that’s something you need.  Gotta know the power chords 1-5-8 notation-wise.  Once you’ve got that, if you’re in standard tuning, you can use what I call the “dot system.”  As long as you’re doing your power chord on the bottom two strings, you can pretty much play any dot on the guitar and it’ll sound cool.  I always encourage people to go home and write their own song.  Use this tool, go home and write your own song.  That forces them to not just play something they heard, but encourages them to develop their own style and do something outside of their comfort zone.

S:  So your lessons sound like they’re very much catered and designed around the individual player, rather than you having a formulaic approach.

D:  Yeah, I never enjoyed rigidity in my own lessons.  It sucks the creativity out of it.

S:  What do you think is the most challenging thing about learning to play guitar?

D:  Working your original set of finger calluses!  That is the only part that is literally physically painful, and can limit how much you can do.  I didn’t let it get in the way of practicing, though.  When a finger would hurt, I’d just play with others and kind of moved on.

S:  Is there a lesson, technique, or concept that you look back on and think that it was a waste of time?  Something that could be a potential pitfall for beginners?

Duncan Lammas – photo by Robert Shooks

D:  The best advice I can give to beginners is – out of everything else, all your practice, the number one thing that works for me is only after you’ve been playing for an hour will you make musical progress.  I can play for an hour and I will play all of the things I know how to play, which is great, awesome, good practice.  But you haven’t developed anything new.  After about an hour, your brain gets bored and wants to do something new, to explore.  I think that is the zone where you get the most accomplished, from a development standpoint.  If you get bored with a speed passage you’re playing, play something else.  If you can, play something else that uses the same technique, but maybe play it in a major scale if you’re looking to freshen it up.  That way you can come back to it with a fresh hand so you don’t get frustrated and sit there and cramp your hand up from doing the same thing over and over.

S:  That’s really good advice.  I like it.

S:  What sort of practice schedule do you recommend to your students and what do you have them focus on most?

D:  I always encourage everyone to play every day, even if they don’t have much time to commit to it.  Especially for new players, just working up your finger calluses, even if it’s only for 20 minutes a day, it’s still going to help.

S:  Are there any books, DVDs, or other tools you would recommend to someone who is just learning guitar?  Anything that helped you?

D:  I have a book called “Speed Metal” that I like.

S:  What do you think was the most important thing you learned in getting to where you are as a guitarist?

D:  I’m going to go with tenacity.  Sometimes it’s not even about who’s better or who’s faster, it’s about staying in the game and continuing to learn even after…well…ESPECIALLY after you’ve been humbled.  That’s the hardest part, when somebody goes out to a concert and gets thoroughly rocked, it can be a little bit intimidating to pick up a guitar again.  But I think that’s nonsense, it should be more inspiration to get on the guitar, motivation to get better, so I try and do that.  I try to draw positivity from the experience.

S:  Did you have an “Aha!” moment where you knew you were meant to play music?

D:  I remember playing in my bedroom when I was around sixteen and I assumed that everyone would want to hear me because I liked me. *laughs* And I only know this because my mom told me, but of course, you know because my opinion matters so much to me and the rest of the world… so if I liked me then everyone else must.  *laughs* But that’s just so tongue-in-cheek.

S:  What’s your favorite guitar to play and why?

D:  It’s gotta be my “C-More” – that’s his name – it’s a Schecter ; I also love my Lumen, (I have a Lumen endorsement) and I use it for more non-active, or passive sounds/pick ups.  It’s a little bit more “real” sounding, whereas the Schecter is a little more digital, a little more fake, it’s just louder and angrier, and I like that.

S:  What guitar is at the top of your Wayne’s Worldesque “It will be mine, oh yes it will be mine” list?

D:  I would really like to try a lot of the Parker guitars.  They’re basically bad ass guitars, but they’re super light weight. I’ve had a history of back problems, so I’m always in search of a really good guitar that’s really light weight.  Usually “light weight” means cheap, which means you have crap tone and that’s no good.  Any of those Parkers, you’re talking four figures.  But it’s a dream.

S:  What advice would you give to someone who aspires to one day become “Shred King”?

D:  *laughs* Keep playing man, stay hungry, stay tenacious.  Don’t discount or underestimate other musicians.  Learn from all styles, all influences.  Everyone has something to offer.

S:  Thank you for your time, I know you’re busy

D:  Oh, thank you for your interest and for doing this!

Flood the Desert – photo by Robert Shooks

Duncan is currently in the studio with his band, Flood the Desert, recording an EP due out this summer.  Flood the Desert were also invited to open for Geoff Tate of Queensryche on his May 6th stop in Grand Rapids.  Congratulations, guys!


Find Flood The Desert on:


*Sonifly has become Band Merch Now