The Guitar God’s Guitar God

A ‘Guitar Player’ magazine writer-editor and devoted Eddie Van Halen disciple on how EVH changed his instrument, and rock and roll, forever.

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Eddie Van Halen at home in 1980. Credit: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns.

Just how influential was Eddie Van Halen?

By 1976, the young Dutch-born, Pasadena-raised guitarist’s impressive playing had already gained him renown across Southern California, where his namesake band, Van Halen, had emerged as a mainstay not just in the backyard party scene but also on the Sunset Strip rock-club circuit. 

On a global level, though, Mr. Van Halen — “Edward” on many album credits, “Ed” to his friends, and “Eddie” or “EVH” to his fans — has had a staggeringly huge influence on electric guitarists since the moment Van Halen’s self-titled debut album was released in 1978.

Sadly, Eddie Van Halen succumbed to throat cancer on Oct. 6. He was 65.

As a longtime writer for Guitar Player magazine, I’ve interviewed hundreds of guitar heroes and professionals over the years, and, similar to the way older generations of musicians might recall the life-changing moment they first saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, many rock guitarists who were active in the ’70s have told me how awestruck they were when they heard Van Halen’s first single — the quartet’s boisterous, speaker-melting cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”

Amazed by the scorching tone, explosive riffing and white-hot soloing, many of these interviewees remember exactly where they were standing when they first heard that track, realizing in that moment that the bar for virtuoso hard-rock guitar playing had just been instantly, and eternally, raised.

But “You Really Got Me” was only the gateway to learning about EVH’s astonishing talents. Guitarists who bought the album were even more stunned by the short instrumental that preceded it — a spectacular minute-and-a-half-long guitar cadenza called “Eruption.”

To this day, “Eruption” remains a guitar game-changer, for multiple reasons. First of all, it popularized techniques that legions of guitarists have imitated ever since, including vibrato-bar dive bombing and “finger-tapping” — a thrilling two-hands-on-the-neck approach that Edward did so brilliantly he’s been widely (though incorrectly) credited as having invented it.

“Eruption” and other early Van Halen tracks also caused a sea change in hard rock, metal and, in some cases, pop/R&B guitar choices, as suddenly players worldwide wanted a “Super Strat” like Eddie Van Halen’s striped “Frankenstein” ax — a parts-bin Fender Stratocaster-style instrument EVH built, wired and painted himself. Notable for having just one pickup — a high-output humbucker Eddie wound himself and mounted straight onto the body — a single knob (volume) and, later, a clever Floyd Rose locking tremolo system, EVH’s guitar was imitated almost as much as his playing.

Being a professional guitarist myself — I play and record with Jefferson Starship, and took on the EVH role in a Van Halen tribute band — to me perhaps the most amazing thing about “Eruption” is that it was basically performed by a kid. Astoundingly, EVH was in his early 20s when he threw down that highly influential track as well as all the other pioneering guitar mastery on his band’s debut. In other words, as extraordinary as the guitar playing was on that first album — don’t miss the solo on “Ice Cream Man,” or the incredible lead and rhythm work on “I’m the One” — this “kid” was just getting started.

But before they could return to the studio, Van Halen — which also included David Lee Roth on vocals, Michael Anthony on bass and Eddie’s older brother Alex on drums — had to tour their debut album. Swinging well above their weight class, Van Halen were soon opening for Black Sabbath, Journey and other arena acts, wowing audiences everywhere they went.

Some headlining guitarists were actually intimidated to follow Van Halen each night. In a 2008 cover story interview I did with Neal Schon for Guitar Player, the Journey guitarist told me what it was like having the young, hungry, meteorically successful Pasadena band opening shows. “Ed is one of the greatest rock and roll guitar players of all time, right up there with Jimi Hendrix and everyone else, and he had extreme fire and loose abandon on that tour,” Schon said. “Van Halen were touring their first record, we were touring our first record with Steve Perry, and Montrose was in the middle slot. Ronnie [Montrose] hated it. I told him, ‘Man, I’m glad you have to follow that and not me!’”

In a 2005 cover story, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry recalled for me that when Van Halen became popular in the late ’70s, Aerosmith were at a challenging point in their career, and the Boston-bred rockers were, admittedly, a little jealous of the California band. “We were dealing with the stress and strain of being in the band for nearly 10 years, and we were barely holding it together,” Perry said. “At the same time, Van Halen was starting this new movement in guitar, because Eddie was a genius. He was single-handedly moving guitar to a whole new level. We were the preeminent stadium headliners who were starting to crumble, and here were these young upstarts coming up, just reaching the peak of their game.”

For guitar lovers, each successive Van Halen album contained incredible EVH moments. On 1979’s Van Halen II, Eddie’s impressive, near-inimitable nylon-string solo piece, “Spanish Fly,” proved he didn’t need a blazing Marshall full-stack behind him to dazzle listeners. “Could This Be Magic?,” off 1980’s Women and Children First, proved EVH could blaze on a steel-string with a slide. The mesmerizing solo piece “Cathedral,” off 1982’s Diver Down, proved he could hypnotize with a crystal-clean Stratocaster and a timed echo effect. And the band’s kajillion-selling 1984 release, simply called 1984, yielded many radio hits, including the band’s only Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single, “Jump.” The album was also arguably the high-water mark for Edward’s oft-underrated rhythm guitar playing, exemplified by his relaxed but potent riffing on “Panama,” “Girl Gone Bad,” “Drop Dead Legs,” “Hot for Teacher” and other tracks.

And when the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson and his legendary producer, Quincy Jones, invited Eddie Van Halen to solo on the 1983 megahit “Beat It,” a new trend was launched: Suddenly many R&B and pop songs began featuring shredding guitar solos.

After 1984, Roth left the band for a solo career (though he would return in 2007), and Sammy Hagar took over lead vocal duties. Van Halen would continue to enjoy massive success, going on to sell 80 million albums worldwide. (There were also a couple years when Van Halen was fronted by Extreme singer Gary Cherone, resulting in 1998’s release, Van Halen III.)

Hagar-era EVH moments worth checking out include the wild vibrato-bar work on “Summer Nights” (1986), the twangy blues moves on “Finish What Ya Started” (1988) and the ear-bending “where’s beat one?” intro on “Source of Infection” (also 1988). Of course, if you’re wanting to explore every great EVH lick since 1978, a multi-day deep dive into the Van Halen catalog may be in order.

But here’s a tip for you newbies: Many lifelong EVH fans (myself included) feel that some of Eddie’s greatest solos and most epic riffs appear on one of the band’s poorer-selling albums — 1981’s sleeper masterpiece Fair Warning, which sold a comparatively meager two million copies.

Tapping (literally) into the harmonic overtone series, Eddie launches Fair Warning with “Mean Street,” a hard-rock tour de force featuring an innovative, highly percussive two-handed intro. And when the band finally roars in with Eddie to play the song’s highly syncopated main riff, you’re reminded that while EVH’s guitar pyrotechnics garner lots of attention, it is groove and pocket that are at the core of every Van Halen song.

Meanwhile, other Fair Warning tracks, such as “Dirty Movies” and “Hear About It Later,” showcase the self-taught virtuoso’s natural ability to stack huge, Beethoven-esque riffs and countermelodies. The bright major triads of “Unchained” harken back to 1978’s “Runnin’ With the Devil” while also — thanks to some added chugging on detuned low strings and the clever use of a flanger pedal — helping to power one of the heaviest guitar intros of all time. And the guitar solo on “So This Is Love?” proves Eddie could fuse tasty blues lead lines with a jazz-fusion-approved legato fretting approach à la one of his favorite guitarists, Allan Holdsworth. Another of his favorites, it’s worth noting, was Cream-era Eric Clapton, whose blues-focused vocabulary EVH turbo-charged and took to outer space.

I’ll never forget when I first heard Eddie Van Halen. I was a budding 12-year-old guitarist going to my first-ever rock concert — AC/DC — at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. Boomboxes in the crowd outside the arena were, naturally, cranking the Aussie band nonstop beforehand, and passing by one of them, I heard a volcanically hot guitar solo with an impossibly clear tone firing out of the speakers.

“That’s Angus! That’s gotta be Angus!” I exclaimed to my friend. I was in full fanboy mode, excited that in mere hours I would be watching another of the world’s greatest rock guitarists, Angus Young.

But as I continued listening to that soaring guitar solo, I noticed there was no band underneath it, and it was magically evoking Hendrix one moment and Bach the next without ever surrendering its powerful hard-rock sound. It was hitting me with a million notes per second, and yet, miraculously, I could hear and feel every single one.

I soon had to admit that as much as I loved Angus, this wasn’t him. This shit was next-level. This was someone else.

Turns out, it was “Eruption.” It was Eddie Van Halen. I remember exactly where I was standing.

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