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The Astonishing Techniques That Made Eddie Van Halen A Guitar God

Eddie Van Halen on stage in 1978.
Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music
Getty Images
Eddie Van Halen on stage in 1978.

Eddie Van Halen spent a lifetime chasing the sounds that he heard in his head. The encomiums that have proliferated since Van Halen's death on October 6 have made comparisons with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and others who comprise the pantheon of rock's fabled "guitar heroes." A more revealing comparison is with Les Paul, a pre-rock guitar virtuoso who set the template for much of what followed. Like Paul, Van Halen was what I would call a "tinkering virtuoso." That is, he dedicated much of his craft and creativity not only to refining his prodigious guitar technique, but also to tweaking and adjusting the basic tools of his trade. Dissatisfied with the specifications of the two most widely used electric guitars of his day – the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul – Van Halen built his own guitar some time in 1976-77 from borrowed parts, creating a hybrid instrument that looked like it barely hung together but had a sound and feel that created a whole new class of guitars, the "superstrats" that became a new industry standard. Similarly, his celebrated "brown sound" – the highly saturated overdriven timbre that enveloped his playing – came from his experiments with amp modification and the array of effects pedals that working rock guitarists of the 1970s had at their disposal.

That tinkering quality also applied to his playing. Van Halen was not just an awesome guitarist. He developed a repertoire of techniques that transformed the way that the guitar was played. In this the comparison with Hendrix is on target, and again with Les Paul, both of whom expanded the range of what was possible with an electric guitar. Yet whereas Paul wedded his playing to equally innovative recording techniques to create a hyper-modern style of virtuosity that wore its debt to technology on its sleeve, Van Halen used the technologies available to him to create a sense of rawness and immediacy. A killer Van Halen solo or riff has the air of being tossed off on the spur of a moment. It's that blend of spontaneity and precision that runs through his greatest recorded performances.

Here are five songs where we can hear that balance in full bloom. These are not necessarily the "greatest" Van Halen solos, but they represent something of the breadth of his musicianship and cumulatively paint a portrait of Eddie as a guitarist who dwelled in multiple dimensions. But first a note about my choices: As a native Southern Californian who bought the first Van Halen album when it came out in 1978 (when I was the ripe old age of 10) and saw the band twice — on the last tour with David Lee Roth in 1984 and the first tour with Sammy Hagar in 1986 — I feel no conflict in declaring myself an unabashed partisan of the Roth-fronted version of the band (v. 1.0). Thus, I've made no effort to choose a representative cross-section of songs from across the band's career.

"Eruption" from Van Halen (1978)

This aptly named blast is ground zero for any consideration of why Van Halen, the guitarist, matters. "Eruption" stands alongside Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" performance at Woodstock as a definitive statement of what the solo electric guitar can do. It also drew a clear line in the sand marking off a "before" and "after." You can trace a variety of influences that can be heard in "Eruption," but the simple fact is that Van Halen's playing doesn't really sound like anything that had come before. After this, "Eruption" became the sound of thousands of aspiring guitarists shredding away (or trying to) in their bedrooms or garages, or the aisles of the local guitar shop.

Starting with an introductory drum roll from brother Alex and a giant power chord, "Eruption" packs three distinct mini-movements into its one minute, forty-two second duration. The first section might be termed "blues in excess." Pentatonic scales, the basic building blocks of blues-based guitar soloing, are predominant here, but Eddie transforms them via an array of techniques that became signature parts of the Van Halen style: palm muting (whereby the guitarist uses the palm of his hand to dampen the sound of the strings), rapidly fingered hammer-ons and pull-offs (when the guitarist frets the notes without also picking them) and as a climax, a wild mutated depression of the guitar's low E string using his whammy bar to the point where it could reach no further.

Another flourish of power chords leads into the next section. We might call it "staccato neo-classicism" — here Van Halen picks nearly every note at breakneck speed in a passage that culminates with a quotation from a well-known Rodolphe Kreutzer violin etude. Classical influences had been a growing feature of rock for a decade by the time Van Halen recorded "Eruption" in 1978, but Van Halen wielded them with decided force, attacking the boundary that separates high culture from low. And the allusion that closes section two of the performance is really just foreshadowing for the stirring aural jouissance of the piece's final section, which I call "tapping toward ecstasy." Tapping the index finger of his right hand onto the fretboard in tandem with the hammer-ons and pull-offs fingered by the left, Eddie produces a rapidly shifting cascade of notes that ascend up the fretboard and then move back down, pulling along the listener's sense of wonder at how anyone could play so fast and so precisely and then leading them past a point of resolution to a final ear-bending meltdown. Eddie Van Halen did not invent the technique of two-handed tapping on the guitar, but with "Eruption" he perfected it, and the sound of those flowing legato notes would be the defining mark of his playing.

"I'm the One" from Van Halen (1978)

"Eruption" compressed many of Eddie Van Halen's most ear-grabbing sounds into a self-standing solo guitar statement. In a sense, though, it was even more remarkable to hear how deftly the guitarist could integrate so many of the same techniques into something that was more recognizably a "song" with vocals and a conventional verse/chorus structure. "I'm the One" did not possess the tunefulness of other gems on the band's debut – tracks like "Running with the Devil," "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love" and "Jamie's Crying" were the album's songcraft standouts. What it lacked in hummability, it made up for in spades with its unrelenting blues-boogie gallop. From the start of Eddie's opening riff, the song demonstrates his ability to elevate musical elements that might come across as clichés in the hands of another musician through sheer force of execution.

"I'm the One" can be seen as a master class in the fill. Eddie interjects his guitar between each phrase of David Lee Roth's vocals. In the bridge that follows the first verse alone, we hear picked harmonics inflected with the whammy bar after one line, Eddie's pick aggressively scraping the strings of the guitar after the next, a dive-bombing note following line three and then a magnificently fast scale run that brings on the chorus. It's a frenetic sort of call-and-response and a perfect distillation of how readily Van Halen could shape his virtuosity to the contours of a song, demonstrating his prowess one second at a time.

If that's not enough, Eddie plays not one but two solos on "I'm the One," making the song a guitar showcase of a high order. In the first, he plays a finger-tapped run and a swiftly picked ascending line that could be lifted straight from "Eruption" but are presented with a concision that only enhances their impact. The second solo spins notes at a pace that leaves a listener gasping for breath before settling on a tightly played turnaround that stops on a dime for an almost unbearably light but charming a capella interlude of ersatz barbershop harmonies. The abrupt juxtaposition of guitar fireworks and vocal whimsy captures one of the key dualities of the band. Eddie's virtuosity at times seemed like it existed in a different sphere from his band mates and yet, in a song like "I'm the One," it also used that very incongruity to heighten its power.

"Mean Street" from Fair Warning (1981)

Van Halen's fourth album, Fair Warning, was the band's "dark" album, less ebullient and party-oriented than its predecessors. The opening track, "Mean Street," signaled the change of tone with an ominous fade-in on Eddie, unaccompanied, tapping fiercely on the lower strings of his guitar. Here he creates a sense of claustrophobia by tapping the same notes repeatedly. The effect is less melodic than percussive – it's almost as though he's taking the slapping bass technique pioneered by funk players such as Larry Graham and Louis Johnson and applying it to the guitar.

Eventually Eddie extends beyond the fixed pattern, tapping out a series of runs that are punctuated by piercing harmonics. Bell-like notes with unusual sustain, harmonics occur most readily at particular points along a guitar's fretboard – the fifth, seventh and twelfth frets especially. With his tapping techniques, however, Van Halen managed to play harmonics across the fretboard. This was a method that had been employed with great subtlety by musicians such as jazz guitarist Lenny Breau and country music figurehead Chet Atkins. Eddie himself used it to more understated effect on earlier Van Halen songs like "Dance the Night Away" and "Women in Love," but on "Mean Street" he applies the sheets of distortion and echo characteristic of full-blown hard rock, lending the results an unearthly quality. Nowhere is Eddie's sense of sonic exploration more fully on display.

"Cathedral" from Diver Down (1982)

Diver Down is the lesser of the records released by the band during the David Lee Roth era, but its very looseness left room to include not one but two instances of Eddie playing in standalone solo mode. Of the two, "Cathedral" may be Van Halen at his most sublime. The short piece finds Eddie playing with a notably clean guitar sound – no piercing bursts of distortion here! – that is enhanced by his Echoplex delay pedal. What truly lends the work its ethereal quality is the guitarist's manipulation of his instrument's volume knob. Using all the strength of his left hand, Van Halen fingers a lush series of classically inflected arpeggios in pure legato mode while his right hand turns the volume knob up and then down repeatedly in sequence with each note that he plays. The resulting sound is all swell and no attack. Coupled with the delay, which repeats each note as it moves by, the overall effect is uncanny and decidedly un-guitar like – thus the track's title, "Cathedral," meant to evoke the way Van Halen channels the sound of a church organ in all its reverberating grandeur.

(The second impressive solo guitar track on Diver Down is the intro to the song "Little Guitars," which, like the earlier, head-turning "Spanish Fly" from the second Van Halen album, was an acoustic guitar instrumental that proved his trademark technique did not depend on all the trappings of hard rock sound modification to be realized. Like "Cathedral," "Little Guitars (Intro)" evinces the unusual and stunning independence of Eddie's right and left hands to approximate the playing of flamenco guitarists such as Carlos Montoya while using an entirely different set of techniques. Eddie would later say this was an example of his ability to "cheat" in his effort to emulate a sound that got stuck in his head. I would say instead that the forty-two second track encapsulates his capacity for musical reinvention.)

"Drop Dead Legs" from 1984 (1984)

An "album track" on the most successful record of Van Halen's career, "Drop Dead Legs" is full of swagger. The song finds the band confidently locking into a mid-tempo groove that's propelled by a stellar riff by Eddie, who works a stop-and-start pattern that gives the alternating notes and chords room to breathe. When the song opens onto the chorus, Eddie plays a mix of chords and fills that blurs the line between lead and rhythm guitar, highlighted by a sequence of single-note runs that provide a bridge to the next verse.

As the track nears its conclusion, the band arrives at an instrumental coda that reveals itself to be the true living heart of the song. At this point, the drop-dead brilliant riff that holds sway through most of the song is replaced by a still driving but slightly more relaxed rhythmic figure. It begins in a straight-ahead blues vein, but after repeating it twice, Eddie drops in a surprise note that adds just the right touch of something unexpected. Cycling through the outro riff from one variation to the next, building more momentum each time, the guitarist starts to add in his solo almost tentatively like dipping his toe in the water to check the temperature before diving in headfirst. His notes retain a distinct blues feel, bent and twisted with the whammy bar. Then, without warning, the tapping begins, and the stray single notes become a flurry buzzing past. Eddie's phrases retain a halting quality, like he's taking a breath between each go around. With every new pass through, his playing becomes a little more "out," testing the waters of dissonance while still hugging the shore of that riff. As the song's final fade out approaches, it sounds like Eddie might spiral beyond the very limits of the fretboard and into some astral plane of disembodied guitar poetics, but he ultimately stays just in bounds. The last ninety seconds of "Drop Dead Legs" presents Eddie Van Halen as "avant rocker" and is as perfect a pairing of riff and solo as exists in the rock guitar canon.

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Steve Waksman