Watch Some of Eddie Van Halen’s (RIP) Greatest Performances: “Shredding Was Eddie’s Very Essence”

Grow­ing up around met­al­heads gave me an appre­ci­a­tion for the gui­tar hero­ics of bands like Metal­li­ca, Iron Maid­en, Judas Priest, etc. But one band every­one loved, I didn’t get. David Lee Roth, Sam­my Hagar (let’s not speak of the Cherone era)… it didn’t mat­ter to me. Van Halen seemed to be hav­ing way too much sleazy fun to fit my nar­row ideas of met­al. No spikes, no skulls, no black mass­es. “Run­nin’ with the Dev­il” sounds like a camp­fire song, I said….

Sit down, they said, shut up, and lis­ten to “Erup­tion.” So I did. And I said, Oh. Then I lis­tened care­ful­ly to all the rest. I didn’t become a fan of Van Halen, the band. But it was obvi­ous that Eddie Van Halen him­self, who passed away yes­ter­day from can­cer at the age of 65, deserves the rep­u­ta­tion as the most inno­v­a­tive gui­tarist since Hen­drix. His end­less cre­ativ­i­ty pow­ered the band through its tumul­tuous line­up changes; his play­ing com­plete­ly changed the design of met­al gui­tars, not to men­tion the met­al solo; his DIY gui­tar designs turned him into a builder of his own line of gui­tars and ampli­fiers.

There didn’t seem to be any­thing he couldn’t do with the instru­ment, but unlike many a gui­tar vir­tu­oso, Van Halen was entire­ly self-taught. “Nine­ty per­cent of the things that I do on gui­tar, if I had tak­en lessons and learned to play by the book,” he once said, “I would not play at all the way I do… Cross­ing a Gib­son with a Fend­er was out of neces­si­ty, because there was no gui­tar on the mar­ket that did what I want­ed.” He’s refer­ring to the “Franken­stein” guitar—a heav­i­ly mod­i­fied Fend­er Strat—one of many such gui­tars he built, rewired, and paint­ed to suit his needs.

Van Halen first showed off his pio­neer­ing two-hand tap­ping and vibra­to dive bombs on the first of many “Franken­strats” in “Erup­tion,” record­ed as a short instru­men­tal inter­lude between “Run­nin’ with the Dev­il” and “Jamie’s Cryin’” on the 1978 debut Van Halen. He had innu­mer­able moments of bril­liance, in the stu­dio and onstage, in decades after­ward, includ­ing his unfor­get­table gui­tar work on “Thriller” and “Beat It,” clas­sic solos that “will nev­er be matched,” as Quin­cy Jones tweet­ed in trib­ute yes­ter­day. (See “Beat It” live in a very low-qual­i­ty video above.)

But gui­tarists still turn to “Erup­tion”, again and again, as “the peak of gui­tar per­for­mance,” Esquire’s cul­ture edi­tor Matt Miller writes. “It’s true,” Miller con­cedes, “there were no short­ages of self-indul­gent gui­tar solos in the ‘70s, but this one changed the game of how they would sound and what they would mean, head­ing in to the ‘80s. Every solo that fol­lowed would try to emu­late the sound of Eddie’s mind-melt­ing ‘Erup­tion.’” Van Halen insist­ed the solo wasn’t as com­pli­cat­ed as fans made it out to be. There remains an “entire YouTube sub­cul­ture ded­i­cat­ed to kids try­ing to play” the solo, to mas­ter the tone and tech­nique of the man who may have been the most met­al gui­tarist of them all.

We’ve bare­ly touched on Van Halen’s lega­cy as a soloist and inven­tor of weird gui­tars, sounds and effects, and not at all on his equal­ly impor­tant roles as a show­man, song­writer, key­board play­er, and rhythm gui­tarist. No mat­ter how ridicu­lous­ly fast and tech­ni­cal met­al becomes, or how many extra strings play­ers add to Eddie’s six, no one has ever matched his lev­el of style and inven­tion. It is no less the case in 2020 as it was in the late 70s that one can point to his solos and say, “with no hyper­bole,” writes Miller, “this is shred­ding.” Tru­ly, shred­ding was Eddie Van Halen’s very essence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

15-Year-Old French Gui­tar Prodi­gy Flaw­less­ly Rips Through Solos by Eddie Van Halen, David Gilmour, Yng­wie Malm­steen & Steve Vai

Musi­cal Come­di­an Reg­gie Watts Rein­vents Van Halen’s Clas­sic, “Pana­ma”

The Evo­lu­tion of the Rock Gui­tar Solo: 28 Solos, Span­ning 50 Years, Played in 6 Fun Min­utes

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Donna Jensen says:

    Was there real­ly no one bet­ter you could get to write this, Open Cul­ture? You should have asked me, I was nev­er too cool to love Eddie Van Halen.

  • Philippe says:

    Thank you Don­na — I total­ly agree…

  • Noel says:

    I agree too. The writer is fac­tu­al­ly incor­rect about erup­tion com­ing before Jamie’s Cryin’ lol.….
    Why do we get bozo’s who know very lit­tle about the sub­ject they’re writ­ing about? He was­n’t even a VH fan sure­ly you could’ve got some­one else

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