Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Edward Van Halen, 1955-2020
There had been rumors that Eddie Van Halen wasn’t doing well so last week’s news of his passing wasn’t really a shock, but still sad. I spent a lot of time as a kid learning his licks. It got me thinking about how we progress — how humans can advance rapidly in some ways but are perilously slow to change in others.
Eddie changed rock guitar in one minute and forty-two seconds.
In discussions of “most influential rock guitarist of all time” he might not come out on top, but he will be in the finals. Hendrix, Page, Clapton, et al — some would argue that the most influential rock guitarists were actually bluesmen: Robert Johnson, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker. It’s somewhat age-dependent. If you’re a little bit older than me maybe you were out of the Van Halen demographic when they hit and you’ll vote for Clapton or maybe Chuck Berry. If you are about my age, though, you heard the first Van Halen album in 1978 and could not believe your ears.
The centerpiece was the 1:42 solo guitar intro to a cover of The Kinks' You Really Got Me. The solo deserved and got its own title, Eruption, and featured a passage of two-handed tapping: a technique of using both hands for hammer-ons and pull-offs to produce extremely fast, fluid arpeggios that one might have expected to come from an organ, not a guitar. None of us had heard anything like it. Eddie wasn’t the originator of the technique, but he was the first to blow it through a Marshall stack and put it on an album that sold ten million copies. He wasn’t the most technically accomplished or fastest guitarist; jazz and fusion players like John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola were shredding long before it was a thing. Eddie wasn’t the most musical guitarist, either. Joe Pass, Chet Atkins, Julian Bream, the guitar has attracted — or created — many superb artists in various genres. I’m not sure there is an instrument that more kids practice more willingly.
That said, Eddie‘s playing was captivating and influenced rock music in a way that few others have. The band Van Halen had everything it needed to do the job without a lot of extra weight. A great sound, for starters. Guitarists still strive to copy Eddie's "brown sound." He did have a special rig with a Marshall Plexi running on reduced voltage and an MXR Phase 90 pedal and his homemade "Franken-Strat“ guitar, but he also sounded like himself playing on Michael Jackson's Beat It through a rented amp. Van Halen (the band) also had a great, distinctive drum sound; what Eruption was for guitarists, Alex Van Halen’s drum intro to Hot for Teacher — that sounded exactly like a Harley-Davidson engine before settling into a fast shuffle — was for drummers. And great bass; Michael Anthony was super solid, locked in the pocket. Great vocal harmony and great production, awesome filling of the stereo image with just three instruments.
The band, Eddie in particular, always seemed to be having a blast on stage. Van Halen’s music was raunchy and suggestive — it was rock, after all — but in a happy, goofy way that kept it just this side of misogyny and creepiness, whereas many of the hair metal bands that followed cleared that line in the air. Singer David Lee Roth played a cartoon version of the flamboyant rock’n’roll sex god. His lasciviousness was about what you’d expect from a guy wearing spandex tights with the butt cheeks cut out and a horsetail in between — too funny to be threatening. My dad didn’t mind Van Halen but he couldn’t stand Ted Nugent.
The songs (Eddie was the main songwriter) were cleverly composed, with great riffs and estimable harmonic interest while remaining playable (some of them anyway) by a decent high school garage band. Not well, necessarily, and finding a singer (three people had to be able to sing really well, actually) who could get anywhere close to the inimitable Roth was always an issue, but millions of young guitarists like me found it quite possible to get all the way through some semblance of Runnin' with the Devil and Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love. The same could not be said of — for instance — the Rolling Stones. Especially with no internet. I labored for hours trying to figure out Honky Tonk Woman before giving up, only to learn years later that it was in open D or some such tuning, which I hadn't realized was an option. Duh. Clear once known.
There is a principle in athletic (and musical) training, that the carrot be placed at the right distance from the donkey. For maximum improvement, the skill to be learned must be neither too easy nor too difficult. If the carrot is too far away, the donkey won’t bother. If it is too close, he will simply eat it. The right distance, he will strive.
Eddie Van Halen placed the carrot right where it needed to be to inspire my generation. When we first heard Eruption, many of us had our minds blown and assumed it was impossible. Alien. Superhuman. But a few set to figuring it out. And they realized that the neoclassical-sounding double-handed tapping technique wasn’t impossible, it was actually a logical and ergonomic way of playing legato on electric guitar. That initially-impossible-sounding tapping passage is only on the B string. And when the kid across town figured it out, the rest of us thought, "He’s not that good, if he can do it I can do it." And the wave spread from garage to garage, bedroom to bedroom. Where we heard Steve Howe and surrendered, Eddie threw us a rope. I don't know if it was intentional. He showed in live concerts that the recorded version of Eruption was only a fraction of what he could do, and if he had gone full afterburners on the record maybe we wouldn't have been able to catch on, but for whatever reason, he encouraged us rather than dismaying us.
Check out this live version on YouTube when you have a minute.
Now, lots of guitarists can play Eruption from that first album, almost to the point that it has become a cliche, the new Stairway to Heaven that drives guitar store employees insane. Hell, I can play it, sort of. Go to any Guitar Center on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll hear at least one credible rendition. Or maybe that was twenty years ago, I haven’t been to a guitar store in a while. The point is, once the door is opened a crack, humanity pours through.
Oddly enough, Eddie owed at least some of his prowess to early training as a violinist. To which he paid tribute in Eruption by including a fragment of a Kreutzer elementary violin exercise.
Then came Stanley Jordan, tapping with ALL his fingers, playing Bach inventions for crying out loud. And hair metal lead guitarists took the technique right to the edge. Other rock guitarists after Eddie — and some not far behind — rivaled and perhaps exceeded him in straight-line virtuosity. Joe Satriani was right there, as was Steven Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen, but Eddie had gotten that first knockout punch in, and he never relinquished his title. Album after album, he maintained his knack for playing stuff that sounded great and was really hard but not so hard that the kid with his $150 guitar in Des Moines would give up. Even the guitar gave us no excuses; Eddie had assembled his Franken-Strat from scavenged aftermarket parts ($50 for the body, $80 for the neck) when it was all he could afford, proving the truth of something that Pat Metheny once said: "Music is food, the guitar is a fork."
History is more concerned with innovators than with those who merely excel. The innovation transcends the accomplishment. Dick Fosbury changed track and field with his revolutionary high jump technique, still known as the “Fosbury Flop.” Approaching at an angle and arching backwards over the bar, Fosbury's technique allowed the jumper's center of mass actually to remain below the bar as the body snaked over whereas previous techniques counted on clearing the bar with center of mass. The name was bestowed by commentators who first saw him jump, and was not meant as a compliment. He won his gold medal at the 1968 Olympics with a jump of 7’ 4 1/4”. The current world record is 8’ 1/4”. Interestingly, Fosbury never held the world record. Flopper Dwight Stones held the record from 1973 to 1976, but outlier straddle-style jumper Vladimir Yaschenko took it (7' 8 1/4") from 1976 to 1978, which just happens to be the year of Van Halen's debut album. The floppers took over for good after that. I guess that example occurs to me because high jump was my event in high school, and I was a flopper, albeit a rather poor one. Nobody even discussed the “Western straddle” or “upright scissors” techniques, Fosbury had knocked them into a cocked hat. Quantum physics, anyone?
I guess when someone of stature dies you take time to think. As a fellow musician, I think of the hours, the accumulation of skill paid for in blood. Thousands of hours; when his friends were out partying, Eddie was in his room becoming himself. We know the 10,000-hour rule from Outliers, that’s a minimum. Eddie practiced eight hours a day for years. When you go to YouTube and look at a Van Halen concert from 1983, you are seeing the tip of an iceberg. It takes an unimaginable amount of work to make it look that easy.
And then, it’s gone.
Except that it’s not. Eddie lives on in the tens of thousands who now play Eruption like an etude, and in those who absorbed the technique and who used it as a booster stage to even greater musical heights.
Nobody lives forever. Eddie battled the usual rock’n’roll demons and drove in the fast lane for quite a while so he was probably more mortal than most. Still a bummer. In the end you want to leave more than you take. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might,” the old preacher said. Which is pretty much the formula for anyone worth his salt, and Eddie certainly played the guitar with all his might.
Rock on, Eddie, rock on.
Couple of Van Halen “What Makes This Song Great“ Youtube videos by Rick Beato that I recommend if you’re interested in the details:
What Makes This Song Great Episode 22: Van Halen
What Makes This Song Great Episode 61: Van Halen