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Eddie Van Halen has spent a lifetime chasing the sounds he heard in his head. The praise that has multiplied since Van Halen’s death on October 6 has drawn comparisons with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and others who make up the pantheon of rock’s legendary “guitar heroes”. A more revealing comparison is with Les Paul, a pre-rock guitar virtuoso who set the pattern for much of what followed. Like Paul, Van Halen was what I would call a “virtuoso tinker”. That is, he devoted much of his craft and creativity not only to perfecting his prodigious guitar technique, but also to modifying and adapting the basic tools of his craft. Dissatisfied with the specs of the two most used electric guitars of his day – the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul – Van Halen built his guitar in 1976-77 from borrowed parts, creating a hybrid instrument that barely seemed to hang together but they had a sound and feel that created a new class of guitars, the “superstrats” that became a new industry standard. Likewise, his famous “brown tone” – the highly saturated overdrive tone that enveloped his playing – came from his experiments with the modification of amplifiers and the range of effects pedals that ’70s rock guitarists had. available.
That quality of tinkering also applies to his playing. Van Halen wasn’t just a fantastic guitarist. He developed a repertoire of techniques that transformed the way the guitar was played. In this the comparison with Hendrix is focused, and again with Les Paul, who have both expanded the range of what was possible with an electric guitar. Yet while Paul married his playing with equally innovative recording techniques to create a hyper-modern style of virtuosity that carried his technology debt up his sleeve, Van Halen used the technologies at his disposal to create meaning. of rawness and immediacy. A Van Halen solo or killer riff looks like it’s suddenly thrown away. It is that blend of spontaneity and precision that runs through his greatest recorded performances.
Here are five songs where we can feel that balance in full bloom. These aren’t necessarily Van Halen’s “greatest” solos, but they represent something of the breadth of his musicality and collectively paint a portrait of Eddie as a guitarist living in multiple dimensions. But first a note about my picks: as a Southern California native who bought Van Halen’s first album when it came out in 1978 (when I was 10) and saw the band twice – on the last tour with David Lee Roth in 1984 and first tour with Sammy Hagar in 1986 – I feel no conflict in declaring myself a brazen partisan of the band’s version with Roth (v. 1.0). So, I made no effort to pick a representative cross-section of songs from the band’s entire career.
from Van Halen (1978)
This aptly named explosion is the zero point for any consideration of why Van Halen, the guitarist, matters. “Eruption” stands alongside Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” performance at Woodstock as a definitive statement of what the solo electric guitar can do. He also drew a clear line in the sand, marking a “before” and an “after”. You can trace a variety of influences that can be heard in “Eruption”, but the simple fact is that Van Halen’s playing doesn’t quite sound like something that came before. After this, “Eruption” became the sound of thousands of aspiring guitarists tearing apart (or trying to do it) in their bedrooms or garage, or in the hallways of the local guitar shop.
Beginning with an introductory drum roll from brother Alex and a giant power chord, “Eruption” packs three distinct mini-movements in its one minute and forty-two second duration. The first section could be called “excess blues”. Pentatonic scales, the basic building blocks of the blues-based guitar solo, are predominant here, but Eddie transforms them through a series of techniques that have become distinctive parts of the Van Halen style: palm muting (for which the guitarist uses the palm of the hand to dampen the sound of the strings), hammer blows and quick finger pull-offs (when the guitarist presses the notes without even picking them up) and as a climax, a wild and mutated depression of the guitar’s low E string using its whammy bar to the point where it couldn’t get any further.
Another burgeoning of power deals leads to the next section. We could call it “detached neoclassicism” – here Van Halen takes almost every note at breakneck speed in a passage that culminates with a quote from a well-known violin studio by Rodolphe Kreutzer. Classical influences had been a growing feature of rock for a decade when Van Halen recorded “Eruption” in 1978, but Van Halen wielded them with firm force, attacking the boundary between high and low culture. And the allusion that closes section two of the performance is really just a foretaste of the exciting audition enjoyment of the final section of the piece, which I call “tapping into ecstasy”. By tapping the index finger of his right hand on the fingerboard in tandem with the hammer-ons and pull-offs with his left fingers, Eddie produces a cascade of rapidly moving notes that rise up the fingerboard and then move down again. , dragging the listener into a sense of wonder at how they can play so quickly and accurately and then take them past a point of resolution to a final collapse that folds the ears. Eddie Van Halen didn’t invent the technique of two-handed tapping on the guitar, but with “Eruption” he perfected it and the sound of those fluid linked notes would be the hallmark of his playing.
“I am that”
from Van Halen (1978)
“Eruption” squeezed many of Eddie Van Halen’s most captivating sounds into an independent solo guitar statement. In a way, though, it was even more extraordinary to hear how skillfully the guitarist could integrate so many of the same techniques into something that was more recognizable a “song” with vocals and a conventional verse / chorus structure. “I’m the One” lacked the melody of other gems in the band’s debut – songs like “Running with the Devil”, “Ain’t Talkin ‘Bout Love” and “Jamie’s Crying” were the highlights of the album. What he lacked in humility, he made up for with his relentless blues-boogie gallop. From the beginning of Eddie’s opening riff, the song demonstrates its ability to elevate musical elements that might appear cliché in the hands of another musician through sheer force of execution.
“I’m the One” can be seen as a master class in full. Eddie steps his guitar between each phrase of David Lee Roth’s voice. In the bridge that follows only the first verse, we hear the gathered harmonics flexed with the hit bar after one line, Eddie’s pick aggressively scraping the guitar strings after the next, an explosive note after line three and then a beautiful scale fast run that brings the refrain. It’s a kind of frantic call and response and a perfect distillation of how readily Van Halen could mold his virtuosity to the contours of a song, demonstrating his skill one second at a time.
If that’s not enough, Eddie plays not one but two solos on “I’m the One”, making the song a showcase of high-end guitar. In the first, it plays a finger-touch run and a rapidly selected ascending line that could be lifted directly from “Eruption” but is presented with a conciseness that only enhances their impact. The second solo whirls the notes to a beat that leaves the listener breathless before settling for a well-played turnaround that stops on a dime for an almost unbearable but fascinating sound a cappella interlude of surrogate barber harmonies. The sudden juxtaposition of guitar fireworks and vocal fantasy captures one of the band’s key dualities. Eddie’s virtuosity at times felt like he existed in a different sphere than his bandmates and yet, in a song like “I’m the One”, he also used that same inconsistency to increase his power.
from Fair warning (1981)
Van Halen’s fourth album, Fair warning, was the band’s “dark” album, less exuberant and party-oriented than its predecessors. The opening track, “Mean Street,” signaled the change in pitch with a menacing fade-in on Eddie, unaccompanied, tapping fiercely on the lower strings of his guitar. Here it creates a sense of claustrophobia by repeatedly touching the same notes. The effect is less melodic than percussive – it’s almost as if it’s taking the slapping bass technique pioneered by funk players like Larry Graham and Louis Johnson and applying it to the guitar.
Eventually Eddie extends beyond the fixed pattern, touching a series of sequences punctuated by piercing harmonics. Bell-like notes with an unusual sustain, harmonics occur more easily at particular points along the fingerboard of a guitar, particularly the fifth, seventh, and twelfth frets. With his tapping techniques, however, Van Halen was able to play harmonics across the entire keyboard. This was a method that had been used with great subtlety by musicians such as jazz guitarist Lenny Breau and country music figurehead Chet Atkins. Eddie himself used it to achieve a more sober effect in Van Halen’s previous songs such as “Dance the Night Away” and “Women in Love”, but in “Mean Street” he applies the distortion and echo sheets characteristic of hard rock full blown, lending the results an otherworldly quality. Nowhere is Eddie’s sense of sonic exploration more fully on display.
from Diver Down (1982)
Diver Down is the younger of the records released by the band during the David Lee Roth era, but his extreme fluency left room to include not one but two instances of Eddie playing solo. Of the two, “Cathedral” could be Van Halen in its most sublime form. The short piece sees Eddie playing with a particularly clean guitar sound – no burst of piercing distortion here! – which is enhanced by its Echoplex delay pedal. What really gives the work its ethereal quality is the guitarist’s manipulation of his instrument’s volume knob. Using the full force of his left hand, Van Halen fingering a lush series of classic arpeggios in a pure legato fashion as his right hand raises and then lowers the volume knob repeatedly in sequence with each note he plays. The resulting sound is all magnificent and no attack. Coupled with the delay, which repeats every note as it moves, the overall effect is eerie and decidedly un-guitaristic – hence the track’s title, “Cathedral”, was meant to evoke the way in which Van Halen channels the sound of a church organ. in all its reverberating grandeur.
(The second impressive lead guitar track on Diver Down is the introduction of the song “Little Guitars”, which, like the previous “Spanish Fly” from Van Halen’s second album, was an instrumental acoustic guitar that proved that his trademark technique did not depend on all the traps of hard rock sound modification to be made. Like “Cathedral”, “Little Guitars (Intro)” shows the unusual and stunning independence of Eddie’s left and right hands to approach the playing of flamenco guitarists like Carlos Montoya using a completely different set of techniques. Eddie would later say this was an example of his ability to “cheat” in his attempt to emulate a sound that got stuck in his head. I would say instead that the forty-two second track embodies his capacity for musical reinvention.)
“Drop Dead Legs”
from 1984 (1984)
“Drop Dead Legs”, an “album track” on Van Halen’s most successful record of career, is full of swagger. The song finds the band confidently locking into a mid-tempo groove that’s propelled by a stellar riff from Eddie, working a stop-and-start pattern that gives alternating notes and chords room to breathe. When the song opens to the chorus, Eddie plays a mix of chords and fillings that blurs the line between lead guitar and rhythm guitar, highlighted by a sequence of single-note tunes that provide a bridge to the next verse.
As the track nears its conclusion, the band comes to an instrumental coda that turns out to be the true living heart of the song. At this point, the bright, falling riff that dominates most of the song is replaced by a still enthralling but slightly more relaxed rhythmic figure. It starts in a direct bluesy streak, but after repeating it twice, Eddie leaves a surprise note that adds just the right touch of something unexpected. Going through the final riff from one variation to another, building more momentum each time, the guitarist begins to add his solo almost tentatively like dipping his big toe in water to check the temperature before diving headlong. Its notes maintain a distinct bluesy, twisted and twisted feel with the whammy bar. Then, without warning, the touch begins and the single stray notes become a buzzing past. Eddie’s sentences maintain a hesitant quality, as if he’s catching his breath between each round. With each new passage, his playing becomes a little more “out”, testing the waters of dissonance while still hugging the shore of that riff. As the song’s final fade approaches, it seems like Eddie may spiral beyond the bounds of the keyboard and into some astral plane of disembodied guitar poetics, but ultimately he just stays within the bounds. The final ninety seconds of “Drop Dead Legs” features Eddie Van Halen as “avant rocker” and is a perfect match of riffs and solo as it exists in the canon of rock guitar.