Eddie Van Halen revolutionized the guitar. “Revolutionized” may be a strong word, but it’s accurate. The iconic guitarist, who died Oct. 6 at the age of 65 from throat cancer, was one of only a handful of guitarists to pick up the instrument and make the entire guitar community place their faces squarely in their palms and say “Dammit, why didn’t I think of that?”
At the height of the guitarist’s time in the spotlight in the 1970s, the instrument had become Woody Guthrie’s chief weapon against fascism; Jimi Hendrix used it to evoke both the horrors of war and the image of the Madonna; Frank Zappa claimed that his guitar wanted to kill your mama, and Jimmy Page mastered the extraordinarily subtle art of using his guitar as an instrumental phallus. By the time Van Halen’s debut album was released in 1978, Guthrie and Hendrix had succumbed to disease and misadventure, respectively, Zappa was spending most of his time slinging mud at various members of the band Angel while working on album Sheik Yerbouti, and Page was in the throes of heroin addiction two years shy of the end of Led Zeppelin.
This isn’t to say that the late '70s were void of guitar innovation — the band Television was reassembling guitar music at the molecular level every night at CBGBs in New York City. But, to most young guitar players across the nation growing up in the shadow of these titans, the old way was just that — old. Punk rock had reduced guitar playing to “three chords and an attitude” and anything more than that was regressive and Jurassic. The world was changing, and new titans were about to emerge.
In February 1978, buyers of Van Halen’s self-titled debut album were shocked to hear a 1-minute-42-second instrumental called “Eruption” that would turn out to be the musical equivalent of opening Pandora’s box. Eddie Van Halen could play fast enough to strip the paint off buildings and level forests. And an entire generation of guitarists said to themselves: “I want to do that.”
Thankfully for Eddie Van Halen, most people had no idea how he was able to play so fast. During an event hosted by the Smithsonian Museum of American History, he claimed to have witnessed Jimmy Page at the Los Angeles Forum playing his guitar solo on “Heartbreaker” with only his left hand, as his right was up in the air. Van Halen realized at that point that one could simply do that, but with both hands, allowing for an expanded range of notes and much faster playing, a technique later to be called “tapping.”
“I never heard anyone do [with that technique] what I did, which was actual pieces of music,” Van Halen had said.
Other guitarists had stumbled upon the idea of tapping before Van Halen did; Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett played a tapping solo on “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” in 1973, and Canned Heat guitarist Harvey Mandel used a jazzier take on tapping throughout his career in the '60s and '70s. But neither of these guitarists used tapping with the level of fury and celebration that Van Halen did. The way they applied tapping was similar to if someone discovered nuclear fission and used it to cook their sandwiches.
To this day, the ability to play “Eruption” is a holy grail of technical skill that many guitarists only dream of having. One of the rights of passage of any young guitar player is to hear “Eruption” for the first time and decide whether or not it’s worth even attempting to learn. (I opted to learn “Ventura Highway” by America instead).
Unfortunately, at the dawn of the 1980s, many of those aspiring guitarists came of age and believed that turning up the volume and playing really fast would be an acceptable substitute for substantial songwriting, giving birth to musical kaijus such as guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen and the dominant rock and roll style of the '80s: “hair metal.”
Forty-two years after the release of Van Halen’s debut, that record continues to resonate with audiences even after hair metal was squashed out of existence by the arrival of grunge in the '90s. As a result, one of the most unfortunate misconceptions attached to Eddie Van Halen’s legendary status is that his sole great talent was his speed.
Eddie Van Halen was somehow able to harness the massive sexual prowess of Jimmy Page and the volcanic spontaneity of Cream-era Eric Clapton while injecting his own precision, sense of humor and desire to innovate into a style of playing that was often imitated, but never duplicated.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s finally time for me to learn how to play “Eruption.” In the meantime, here are five songs that prove Eddie Van Halen was about much more than just speed:
“Respect the Wind,” Twister: Music to the Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996)
The greatest guitarists in music create a new language with their instrument, a language that only they speak, allowing the guitar to communicate ideas that only they feel, resulting in sonic ideas that outgrow their creators. “Respect the Wind” is the culmination of Eddie Van Halen’s development of his own language. Composed entirely of improvised guitar and synthesizer and credited to simply “Eddie & Alex Van Halen,” the song was written for and played over the closing credits to the 1996 film Twister. There’s not a single moment when Van Halen goes overboard into a frenzy of tapping, instead opting for a series of slow, screaming notes similar to David Gilmour’s expressive solos. When juxtaposed with images of gathering storm clouds, vast plains and blue skies, it’s clear that Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing not only evokes the power of nature but is a force of nature in itself.
“Mean Street,” Fair Warning (1981)
In a body of work overflowing with testosterone and auditory lust, Van Halen’s guitar has never sounded sexier than it does on the opening track to Van Halen’s 1982 album Fair Warning. From the dazzling opening barrage of sounds evoking the chaos and terror of the inner city to the titanic main riff, the funk-flavored breakdown and the layers of guitar overdubs that close the song out, “Mean Street” is both intimidating and strangely erotic. It’s Van Halen capturing the essence of sex with lockstep precision yet with enough instrumental grease to keep the mood messy, never letting an ounce of seriousness taint the party. Eddie’s guitar supports David Lee Roth’s raving about “the crazies on my block” and declaration that “the end is dead ahead,” though none of that matters. If he makes it out of this part of town alive, the first thing he’s going to do is go get laid.
“Intruder/Oh Pretty Woman,” Diver Down (1982)
It may have just been an excuse to add 1 minute and 39 seconds to another song for the sake of making its music video longer, but “Intruder,” the distinctly listed intro to Van Halen’s cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” is a mini-stroke of genius. Roth plays a simple, droning synthesizer line while Eddie Van Halen wrings a whole mess of sounds out of his guitar using a Schlitz beer can and a whole lotta feedback. It whips up the subtle sexual undertones of Orbison’s original into a meringue of big dick energy, allowing Roth’s tongue-in-cheek vocal performance to transform the song from a humble appreciation of the opposite sex into a celebration. Without “Intruder” as an intro, then “Oh Pretty Woman” would simply have been a high-energy cover of a popular rock song and not the glorious centerpiece of Diver Down that it became.
Not to mention, the video whose length required the creation of “Intruder,” is absolutely ludicrous, featuring Michael Anthony as a Samurai, Alex and Eddie Van Halen as Tarzan and a cowboy, respectively, and David Lee Roth as Napoleon coming to the aid of a drag queen being tied up and accosted by little people — one of whom is global treasure Warwick Davis. It’s one of the most gloriously ridiculous moments of all of MTV history and perfectly emblematic of the excess of the '80s as a whole, as well as an indication of peak Van Halen’s tongue-in-cheek approach to the idea of “We can do no wrong.”
“Cathedral,” Diver Down (1982)
Ahh, the old trick of playing a note on the guitar while raising the volume knob, creating a “swelling” violin-like sound, a trick possibly brought to mainstream attention by Dicky Betts’ heavenly intro to The Allman Brothers Band’s live version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Eddie Van Halen, of course, built an entire song around it, creating a cascading, genuinely cathedral-like sheet of sound that foreshadowed his growing interest in sonic experimentation. He had already fiddled with synthesizers on “Sunday Afternoon in the Park,” but “Cathedral” was Van Halen’s step toward blurring the lines between the two instruments, similar to how he made a piano sound like a guitar on “And The Cradle Will Rock...” two years earlier. In 1984, two years after “Cathedral” and once the band fully embraced synthesizers alongside their guitars, Van Halen had a number one hit with “Jump.” Eddie’s sonic tinkering had finally paid off.
“Finish What Ya Started,” OU812 (1988)
At their core, Van Halen was not a serious band, which may be the reason why when Sammy Hagar took over fronting the group in 1986 they went from a laughing gang of droogs with musical chops to a typical '80s AOR act with excessive sentimentality and accompanying synths. However, whenever Hagar was able to stoop to the boys’ level of let's-just-fuck-around-and-see-what-happens, the flame was lit, and this is perhaps no more evident than on the 1988 hit single “Finish What Ya Started.”
Possibly the “smallest” Van Halen song, at least on a sonic level, Eddie Van Halen smartly leaves his Godzilla-sized overdriven guitar sound at home for an intimate yet still slimy and slinky finger-picked twang that compliments Hagar’s sly innuendo-laced vocal. Eddie Van Halen was able to achieve the distinct sound by plugging his Fender Stratocaster directly into the studio mixing board. The entire band is playing “smaller,” but it’s Eddie’s jazzy precision that keeps the song earthbound and cool as opposed to ballooning into knuckleheaded Def Leppard-style schlock. If “Mean Streets” is Van Halen’s musical articulation of great sex, then “Finish What Ya Started” is irresistible foreplay.