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.