Emerging out of the late 1970’s, guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen brought new standards to electric guitar playing which influenced thousands of wannabes and others who went on to become highly respectable guitarists in their own right.
Born in Holland, Eddie and Alex Van Halen emigrated to the US with their parents in 1962. The brothers were originally trained as concert pianists giving them a solid musical background, but later switched instruments wanting to play rock. Initially it was Alex who played guitar and Eddie who played drums, but Alex’s desire to play the drums ultimately forced Eddie to switch instruments when his brother’s talent exceeded his own on the drums. Eddie spent hours practicing the guitar, and was influenced by guitarists such as Eric Clapton, apparently learning to play every solo almost note for note. By the mid 1980’s he was arguably one of the best guitarists in the world in a band renowned for its flamboyant stage shows.
In 1972 the brothers formed a band and eventually teamed up to form the group “Mammoth” with the effervescent David Lee Roth and bass player Michael Anthony, who also provided solid backup vocals to Roth. It wasn’t until 1974 that the band began to play under the name of Van Halen after it was revealed the name Mammoth was already taken by another band. It was Gene Simmons from Kiss who financed their first demo tape after hearing them perform a gig at an L.A night club and gave them their first big break into the recording industry. Producer Ted Templeman, from Warner Bros, picked up the group and they recorded their first self titled album which was released early in 1978.
Undoubtedly, the bands major success was driven by the skill and technical flair of Eddie Van Halen on the guitar. Arguably the new Hendrix of the late 70’s, Eddie coaxed an almost limitless variety of sounds out of his guitar through controlled feedback, fuzz, his famous finger tapping technique, note choice, whammy bar technique, melodic content and clean technique. Combining his technical ability on the fret board with modified amps, tuning set ups and guitar wiring, Eddie thrilled audiences with his high speed accuracy and big guitar sound; where many inexperienced guitarists disguise their lack of ability or confidence in their playing by simply cranking up the distortion and volume on the amp. Using both his left and right hands to extract the maximum of rock mayhem from the instrument, his extended guitar solos, like “Eruption”are favorites at concerts. If you look at music notation for his guitar solos, one could easily think there were two guitarists playing, such is the flurry of notes on the bars. Eddie makes it look easy and there is no doubt that later bands in 1980’s borrowed heavily from Van Halen’s early success, having a flamboyant lead singer and highly skilled guitarist or guitarists, seemed to become a standard MO.
Despite some, perhaps copy cat bands, few guitarists of the modern era have reached the pinnacle of skill demonstrated by EVH. He was Guitar Player Magazine’s guitarist of the year for several years running early in his career. Classic solos include: Eruption, The Ice Cream Man, Outa’ Love Again (for the riffs), Spanish Fly (outstanding flamenco illustrating his right hand strength), Women in Love (magic harmonic intro), Hear About it Later, Cathedral, Full Bug (amazing riffs) Take Your Whiskey Home (another amazing acoustic into), Jump, Hot for Teacher, Best of Both Worlds, 5150, AFU Naturally Wired, Source of Infection, Black and Blue, Pound Cake (for the drill), 316, Doin’ Time, Amsterdam, Big Fat Money.
The above licks come from a variety of albums spanning three decades which also saw changes in EVH’s playing. The departure of David Lee Roth after the 1984 album allowed Sammy Hagar to join as lead singer and the band enjoyed a softer more pop feel. The guitars came back for OU812, an album apparently titled in response to Roth’s solo venture titled “Eat em and Smile”, but some fans preferred the days of Roth’s richer vocals and harder rock sound. The band probably kept pace with musical trends of the time, with the more hard edged sound being dominated by bands like Metallica and Guns n Roses and later grunge rock which was a departure from the glam metal of the late 80’s. Fans remained loyal but there is no doubt the playing style was a more refined and less maniacal, raw sound we heard in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Hagar left the band in the late 90’s and a period with former Extreme singer, Gary Cherone, proved less successful. EVH has in the last few years been battling with mouth cancer and other health issues, but this year teamed up again with former front man Roth and replaced Michael Anthony on bass with his son, Wolfgang, for a reunion tour.
Eddie Van Halen is one of the great guitar heroes of his generation and explored guitar techniques which put many in the shade. There were few guitarists who were as fast or developed as many sounds whilst exploring the limits of the equipment of the era. He inspired many guitarists and helped cement a successful format for many copy cat bands, both amateur and professional. I borrowed the technique of holding the pick with my middle and index fingers, frowned upon by many purists, but if it was good enough for Van Halen, it would be good enough for me. I’ve spent many hours listening to every album and solo and I am still blown away by solos from songs like the Ice Cream Man. Eddie, you’re seriously good.