October 7, 2020 (Note: this article was originally published on January 26, 2019 – Edward’s birthday.) In tribute to Edward, we are re-releasing it. Look for a new article regarding Edward and his legacy in the next few days)
How many musicians have literally changed the way people thought about and played music? Some examples might be Bach and Beethoven in Classical music, Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis in the Jazz world and Les Paul and Jimi Hendrix in more contemporary music. Paul was a guitarist who is thought to have made the first solid body electric guitar back in the Thirties. A tremendous innovator; he also pioneered, designed and collaborated on many recording devices and techniques that became the standard of recording engineers even today. Hendrix stood the world up on its ear when he burst onto the scene in 1967 and changed the way people played and approached the guitar. In that same train of thought, I don’t think you could have a discussion of game changers in music without adding Edward Van Halen to that elite group.
In the late seventies, the modern music scene was somewhat fragmented. Punk had shaken up Rock in the mid-70s, Disco was prevalent, New Wave was making a presence in Rock with bands like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Knack, and Blondie. If you were a straight-ahead Rock fan it seemed like the tide was turning against you and you were left with the super-groups of the early to mid 70s – Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath and Ted Nugent, to name a few. One of the great debates among the group of friends I had at the time was who the best guitarist was in Rock. The argument could get heated, mind you – we almost came to blows whenever this subject arose for reasons that seem silly now. You had the diehard Led Zeppelin fans who swore they would go to their grave believing Jimmy Page was the greatest guitarist ever while others said Hendrix. One friend of mine, a Kiss fan, loved Ace Frehley. I personally liked UFO’s Michael Schenker and the twin guitar attack of Thin Lizzy. Others in contention were Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Nugent and just about any guitarist who played in a largely popular Rock band. Just about all of these players were from the “reverse” British Invasion: that is, mostly American Rock guitarists who grew up listening to bands like Cream, The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Jeff Beck Group, to name a few. The guitarists in these bands – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and especially Hendrix were seen as “guitar gods” and their influence among players was huge. Little did the Americans realize at the time that these British players were influenced by American Blues players from the fifties such as Chuck Berry, Albert King, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf and Albert Collins, to name a few. While the American Hard Rock bands of the seventies were making it big, the guitarists really weren’t breaking any new ground; that is until 1978.
In 1978 a band from California was signed with little fanfare. Record labels signed bands all of the time that they thought they could get more than a few record sales out of. This band – Van Halen, was signed to Warner Brothers Records after producer Ted Templeman had seen them play one night at a local club in L.A. Later, he explained that the only reason he signed them was because the guitarist – Edward Van Halen, was playing his guitar in a manner he had never heard before and knew he had to sign him. The band recorded their debut album – “Van Halen” in less than two weeks. The first single was released – a cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” When I first heard it I can remember that my friends and I were all impressed. It wasn’t until we started to hear “Runnin’ with the Devil” sometime later that we started to pay serious attention to them, however. Here was another straight-ahead Rock tune, with a blazing rhythm guitar that sounded it was born in an electric power station, topped off with a cool melodic solo and David Lee Roth’s banshee screams. Convinced that this was a serious rock band, my friends and I went and bought the album, completely unprepared for what was to follow. We popped it on the turntable, put the needle down and listened with anticipation. “Runnin’ With the Devil” was the lead-in and then came the “shot heard ‘round the world” in guitar circles. The drums opened the song followed by Eddie’s beginning “A” chord and the rest was sonic bombast like we had never heard before. “Eruption” sounded like the equivalent of World War III, with its opening speed riffs, dive bombs and feedback leading into crunchy power chords followed by upper-fret pyrotechnics and speedy tremolo picking. More dive bombs followed, then more tremolo picking, hammer-ons, pull-offs and then the finale; the classically inspired run that sounded like Bach had taken the brown acid and gone insane. A shimmering cascade of notes followed; ascending and then descending triplets, ending with a dive bomb that sonically resembled a P51 Mustang after it delivered its payload and flew off into the sunset.
This etude of less than two minutes was revolutionary. Nothing that came before sounded like it, ever. Every guitar player who heard it was flabbergasted. It broke nearly every guitar-playing rule known to man. What followed in the songs that came after “Eruption” were almost as ground breaking. Eddie played fills in between chords and choruses that nobody else was doing, or had ever even thought of. His solos made you scratch your head in disbelief. He played “sick” sounding chords that shouldn’t have worked but somehow they did. He made sound effects with his guitar instead of pedals, which he used sparingly. The effects he did use were used in ways that had never been done before, such as using an MXR Phase 90 pedal combined with rubbing across the muted strings with the palm of his hand which not only sounded rhythmic and musical but completely badass! Of course, nobody knew how he was doing it; it left everyone guessing, even the “hot” guitarists of the day. I can recall an article in which Mountain guitarist Leslie West was asked by a student to teach him a Van Halen solo that “sounded like a Bach organ fugue” and he told the kid he didn’t know where to begin – well, neither did anyone else. The entire “Van Halen” album broke new ground in guitar playing; it even spawned a new phrase – “Stun Guitar.” Pretty soon every kid was trying to learn how to play like Eddie. In the years before Van Halen came along, my friends and I were pros at picking apart songs to learn them. We did it on just about every Rock guitar album that came out at that time but even we were scratching our heads trying to figure out what Eddie was doing. We were still behind the curve when “Van Halen II” came out and we learned Eddie wasn’t done. Eddie added to his repertoire with things like tapped harmonic passages, muted staccato harmonics, bent-string tapping and he created another masterpiece featuring more legato classical runs – this time on the acoustic “Spanish Fly.”
By this time, Van Halen was all the rage in Rock circles. When their first album came out, they had toured supporting Black Sabbath and by the mid part of the tour the talk was that Van Halen was blowing the headliners off of the stage every night! I began seeing them on the Van Halen II tour which they headlined and was amazed that Eddie could pull off everything he did on record, live! There was no doubt in my mind; the torch had been passed. To me, Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, Ace Frehley, Ted Nugent; these guys were all also-rans in the guitar playing world at that point. Eddie Van Halen was the new King. Nugent and Billy Gibbons said so publicly and according to Eddie; he infuriated Perry and Ritchie Blackmore so much with his playing that neither would acknowledge him when Eddie first approached them. If you thought that Van Halen was a flash in the pan like his contemporaries probably did at the time though, you were wrong. “Women and Children First” was released with more of Eddie’s pyrotechnics giving the songs their punch and to confuse his contemporaries even more, he played a piano through his Marshall amps on “The Cradle Will Rock” and people had a hard time figuring out that he wasn’t playing guitar on it. He seemed to be able to conjure up musical feedback at will on “Everybody Wants Some.” He supercharged the Blues on “Take Your Whisky Home” and showed his musical diversity, playing slide guitar on “Could This Be Magic?” The real coup-d’e’tat’ was yet to come, however…
In 1981 I was making the rounds at the music stores when I saw the new Van Halen album – “Fair Warning.” I didn’t even know they were releasing a new album but there it was and I proceeded to snap it up immediately. I bought the cassette of it, not having a turntable at the time and took it back to the dorm room I lived in. My roommate was out and he having the only cassette player (boom box) at the time, I quickly grabbed it and popped the cassette in. What followed sounded like unholy hell unleashed. It was this muted, staccato, syncopated series of “notes” followed by a barrage of open stringed and tapped harmonics leading into feedback that would probably give your neighbors a heart attack if you played it loudly at 3AM.
This was shock and awe, ten years before Desert Storm. Our troops probably could have played this over their loudspeakers and Saddam Hussein’s troops would have flung their arms in the air and ran away thinking the world was coming to an end. Of course, I didn’t know how he was making those sounds but I didn’t care, I just kept rewinding the tape – willingly letting him blow my mind. If I had any doubt before as to Eddie being a musical deity, there was none after that. The songs that followed continued the assault. His playing on “Mean Street” was just that – mean as hell. He got brash on “Dirty Movies”, in your face on “Sinner’s Swing” and reserved but then exploding on “Hear About it Later.” The classic “Unchained” followed by “Push Comes to Shove” and “So this is Love” – each showed Edward had an innate ability to create memorable guitar passages at will. His quest to make noises sound musical continued with “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” as he played a kid’s toy synthesizer, coaxing it with taps and bumps to make otherworldly sounds emanate from it. He finished off the album with the synth-driven “One Foot out the Door”; climaxing with a mind-blowing guitar solo that left you wishing the song and the album weren’t finished.
As amazing and groundbreaking as “Van Halen” was, “Fair Warning” was a Hard Rock/Heavy Metal tour de force. The next album – “Diver Down” was intently more commercial with several cover tunes, to Eddie’s dismay but he still managed to get some killer riffs in there. He showed what a master he had become at arranging on the Motown remake – “Dancin’ in the Streets.” Covering a Motown song is no easy feat, yet Eddie struck again. He created a groove with this syncopated and delayed rhythm played on a synthesizer that made pops and squeaks, making the band’s rendition of the song an upbeat, catchy treat. The sounds fit in so well so that you don’t really pay attention to how amazing Eddie’s arrangement of the song was. I still listen to it when I hear it come on – it’s amazing. The best song on the album in my opinion was “Hang ‘Em High” and it was full-on Eddie. He took syncopation to the next level as he concocted a mind blowing intro followed by tasteful whammy goodness. It was basically a three minute guitar solo with Ed filling in the gaps just about everywhere but the way he arranged it around the verse, chorus and bridge, it fit perfectly. He showed there were no limits to his innovation with the echo-laced “Cathedral” as he fingered notes on the fingerboard with his left hand while controlling volume swells with his right on the volume knob, emulating a church organ. Again, no one had ever heard anything like it on a guitar:
Recorded totally off the cuff to fill in for the extra time used in the filming of the video “Oh, Pretty Woman”, the completely grungy “Intruder” lead-in found Eddie making extraneous noises on his guitar using of all things, a beer can! He slid the can up and down the strings while bending notes down with the whammy bar until it groaned. He then slid his guitar pick up the strings until it made contact with the pickup pole pieces to produce a droning feedback. It’s one thing to make noise on the guitar. It’s completely another to make noises sound musical and fit in with the song and Ed was a master at it. Was he a genius or a madman? You decide.
The Montoya-inspired “Little Guitars” intro preceded the song of the same name as Eddie played the lower open strings with his thumb while he tremolo-picked notes on the higher strings before he staccato-picked chords and hit open-string harmonics to the intro conclusion. His ability to improvise in unusual ways when the situation called for it was uncanny!
For the next album; “1984” Ed took the reins and steered the band in the direction he wanted it to go. He built his own studio in his back yard, away from Templeman’s and Roth’s influence of doing cover tunes in order to have hit records and showed he could make hit records his way. Like a mad scientist in his newly-built laboratory, he had everything at his disposal to make his next creation. He started out by getting a little spacey with the synthesizer on“1984“, leading into “Jump” – a song people either loved or hated. Evidently, most people loved it as it went straight to number one on the Billboard charts. It was a pop song but Ed was never afraid to take chances and just about every time he did it came out amazingly. The truth was that Ed was a master tunesmith; he knew how to make a song that appealed to the masses and yet he still managed to squeeze in a killer guitar solo.
“Panama” was typical Van Halen bombast – crunchy power chords, delectable harmonics and a guitar-hero solo in a slightly more commercial hard rock tune that still had attitude. For this album, Ed took inspiration from one of the few guitarists he actually admired – Allan Holdsworth. His Holdsworth-inspired solos on “Top Jimmy” and “Drop Dead Legs” and “Girl Gone Bad” kept his creations fresh while still maintaining his mad scientist persona. “Hot for Teacher” showed Ed didn’t have to do any tapping or whammy wildness to play great guitar – he played the entire song on a Gibson Flying V, switching between rhythm and bridge pickups for the jazzy rhythm parts and the solo. My personal favorite on the album – “House of Pain” was just a straight ahead rock tune with a lot of Eddie’s stampings; whammy wiggles, pinch harmonics, scalular runs and finger slides with a touch of that Holdsworth weirdness. Those first six Van Halen albums set the standard for what Hard Rock music became in the 80s and just about all of it was due to Eddie’s influence. He rewrote the book on guitar playing.
Outside of the music buying public, Ed’s influence was felt all over the guitar-playing world. He drew praise from just about everyone in guitar circles. Everyone wanted to know how he got his killer tone and outrageous sounds. He single-handedly changed the kind of guitar the public wanted. Like Les Paul, he couldn’t buy the kind of guitar he wanted off of the shelf so he built one himself. When he showed the world the guitar he had built from parts and painted in his famously outrageous paint scheme, everyone wanted a guitar like his and a few companies actually started copying it. Pretty soon, tape stripes could be found on factory-made guitars such as Gibson and Dean, while players took their own guitars and customized them to look like Eddie’s. The sales of Gibson Les Pauls shrank because everyone wanted a hot-rodded Strat-style guitar. The name players of the day also felt Ed’s influence. Suddenly they were switching to Strat-style guitars with humbucking pickups in them. Floyd Rose tremolos – which Eddie helped develop, also became standard on these guitars. Companies like Charvel, ESP and Hamer came out of relative obscurity and built Strat-style guitars with features similar to Eddie’s.
Not being happy that suddenly guitar manufacturers were copying his designs and making money from it, Ed immediately changed the look (but not the sound) of his guitars so that these companies would either have to stop selling clones of his guitars or go back to the drawing board. Most just switched to single-color guitars but kept the features that the Eddie-influenced players wanted. Players still continued to customize their guitars with paint schemes influenced by Ed’s “anything goes” mentality into the 90s and even today.
Musically, young kids coming up wanted to play like Eddie and “Eruption” became the template from which all young players tried to show off their talents. In 1981 Mike Varney of Shrapnel records started looking for unknown guitar talent. He got players such as Marty Friedman and Michael Angelo Batio to submit tapes from which he would pick what he felt were the best ones and release them on albums such as “U.S. Metal.” A lot of these players did an “Eruption” – styled solo to showcase their talent. The “Metal Massacre” series of albums was similar, showcasing such unsigned bands at the time like “Steeler” with Yngwie Malmsteen and “Ratt” with Warren DiMartini.
Today, Ed’s influence on guitar making is still being felt. His EVH line of guitars and amps, made in collaboration with Fender, quickly became a major player in Rock as well as Country music.
Now, it’s time for a little bit of fun. Here’s a mashup of some of Eddie’s solos and groundbreaking riffs. See if you can tell which songs they are from:
I hope you enjoyed this little trip back in time. I must admit – prior to making the decision to write this article, I had barely listened to the Van Halen catalog in the last several years. When their last studio album came out – “A Different Kind of Truth” in 2012, I enjoyed it but I felt it wasn’t up to the same groundbreaking standard as Ed had set with the first six studio albums. As I listened to the older songs again I couldn’t help but be amazed at Ed’s sustained ability to take guitar playing and Rock music to another level. Just about every song was a masterpiece in arranging, creativity and musicianship. While some were better than others, all were at a level not achieved previously. As much as Hendrix was the guitar innovator of the sixties, I believe Ed went beyond that. That is why I personally rate them as the two top Rock guitarists ever with Ed being my personal favorite. The players that followed were all influenced one way or another by Eddie. Now, thirty five or forty years later, there still isn’t anyone who has stepped forward and taken Rock guitar to the next level. To me, it isn’t about how many notes you can play, it’s about who changed the game. He is still King Edward.
Happy Birthday, Ed!
What is your favorite Van Halen song/album or memory about Eddie?