A singular presence in the history of popular music and a revolutionary figure in the development of rock guitar, Eddie Van Halen died earlier this week at the age of 65. To help us pay tribute, we reached out to one of contemporary rock and metal’s most gifted and influential young guitarists, Animals as Leaders’ Tosin Abasi, to reflect on the genius of EVH with our contributor Shaun Brady. – Ed.
I grew up listening to whatever was on MTV. I can still see the “Hot for Teacher” video in my head. I distinctly remember the over-the-top irreverence and playfulness mixed with extreme musicianship. It’s quintessential rock and roll, but then you add the double bass drum and Eddie Van Halen tapping. I wasn’t playing guitar yet, but I was enthralled with that video.
At this point I wasn’t old enough to make my own money and buy my own CDs. If Van Halen was on the radio or on TV I would hear the songs, but I didn’t know any deep cuts, and I didn’t know their history. But I had been exposed.
I started playing guitar at the age of 12, at a time when Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were dominating the airwaves. As I got better, I purchased an instructional video called something like Play in the Style of Eddie Van Halen. It exposed a lot of the detail in what he was doing. He bridged the gap between raw rock-and-roll energy and precise advanced techniques. Usually people who are playing in that very precise way don’t incorporate that raw feel, but Eddie was the perfect middle point between both things. So I learned all those licks and started to listen to them more.
Learning guitar, you become a different type of listener. Eddie made such an impact on guitarists. There’s Van Halen as an epic rock band, but every electric guitar player is aware of Eddie’s contributions. He originated certain techniques. At the time he came on the scene, he was doing things that no one had really done before, whether it was two-handed tapping or his speed and accuracy, diverging from blues-based lead playing. As a student I really wanted to be able to do a lot of the same stuff. It just sounds so cool.
I call him a “quantum leap” player. There’s the zeitgeist of what electric guitar players sound like, and then all of a sudden you have this one person who comes from out of nowhere and it seems like they’re from the future. Even though I didn’t live through that actual period, I was aware of that. There were people [before him] who played fast or fierce, but for him that was just a starting point. He took it further, and Eddie Van Halen’s aesthetic contributed a lot to the modern metal guitar tone. His impact had occurred long before I started playing, but I was still aware that what he was doing was far beyond a lot of the stuff I was hearing in rock music. It had a signature. You could always tell who it was when you heard him.
There are so many Van Halen songs where you could take just the isolated guitar part and [realize that] it’s not just a chord progression, it’s a musical statement. He was excellent at that. And then there was the way he played: He didn’t just play straight rhythm and then take a solo for a moment. He used ad libs and embellishments throughout the song that made for a highly stylized way of playing rhythm guitar. There’s so much personality and so much effortlessness to it.
“Hot for Teacher” is basically a study in two-handed tapping, as is “Eruption.” “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” has a really cool riff; you could play the first four or five notes and instantly know what the song is. On “Dance the Night Away” he uses harmonic tapping, where he’s tapping 12 frets away from the root note and creating an artificial harmonic. It almost sounds like a steel drum. There are tons of examples, but those are the main ones for me.
He’s probably the most impactful electric guitar player in a modern sense. Once rock became rock, Eddie became the template for what it meant to be a modern lead guitar player. He wasn’t just the lead guitarist; he contributed to the songwriting, he was an amazing performer, and this doesn’t get talked about as often, but he even made contributions to musical equipment. The 5150 amplifier is, to this day, one of the best high-gain amplifiers you can use for a rock or metal recording. It’s one thing to get good at your instrument or to write music, but to be able to contribute to the tools that people use to make music moving forward is a huge thing, and I feel like it was probably effortless for him. It’s nice that he’s immortalized in that way.