Eddie Van Halen : A guitarguitar Tribute
Published on 07 October 2020
The social media world was painted in red, white and black stripes last night.
The world lost one of its most genuinely legendary artists, as the one and only Edward Van Halen finally succumbed to his long battle with throat cancer.
It’s a sad day for all of us who loved his energy, his big white smile and his inspirational art, but it’s also a day to celebrate just how much one little guy from Amsterdam took on the world with his guitar and changed it utterly, forever.
(Photo courtesy of FMIC/EVH)
Take 5 minutes with us as we share a few of the things we love about Eddie’s music, attitude and vision. We won’t stay too long, because we believe the correct way to pay tribute to the great man is to blast some Van Halen at your earliest convenience, preferably with a guitar plugged in, ready to accompany him – if you can keep up!
A New Language of Rock
It’s almost a waste of epithets to try to describe how visionary, inventive and game-changing Eddie’s lead playing was. All of us have felt it. Even those of us who were a little too young to have experienced the first blast of Van Halen back in the day inevitably heard about him soon enough, as all guitarists do. Of course, we’d already heard his solo on Michael Jackson’s Beat It (two takes, didn’t accept a fee: legend), but the formal introduction to Van Halen, via probably the first record, was where our jaws collectively dropped.
They did. You can just hear something in there, on top of all of his command and mastery of technique. So many 80s Hard Rockers copied his style, but your ears can still easily pick up on the myriad differences between those other (great) players and the True Master himself. He picked out eccentric notes, wrote unorthodox melodies and used ‘sound’ itself (handling noise, pick scrapes, all manner of harmonic manipulation) as much as notes to create a whole new vocabulary on the instrument. His solos were hardly ever ‘normal’ in a melodic sense, but we can all sing them, which says so much about his perspective and attitude on the instrument.
We all have our favourites, but in terms of world-changing influence, it’s really just Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. Eddie’s own hero was Eric Clapton, but even ol’ Slowhand’s fans will concede that Eddie eclipsed him by some magnitude.
Who else gave so much in such a concentrated, effective way? We’ve all heard Eruption a million times, but when did it ever stop kicking our arse across the room? One more time, please! Here it is live, from only 5 years ago...
Eddie’s lead guitar playing made him a world famous star, but his rhythm playing is what made him great. It’s cliché to say it, but rhythm playing truly sets a great player apart from a bedroom show-off. Ed’s rhythm playing is every bit as spectacular as his leads, and we don’t just mean his cast-iron riffing: listen to the verses in songs like ‘Mean Street’ (the parts in the chorus are more unusual than they seem, too), ‘Dirty Movies’ (most underrated VH tune ever?) and ‘Hear About It Later’ and you’ll see what we mean.
“Eddie’s lead guitar playing made him world famous, but his rhythm playing is what made him great”
There are tons of examples where he’s supporting David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar (we’re not taking sides here, folks) with playing that is somehow inventive, clever, understated and perfect for the song all at once. This one shows his deadly rhythm playing, and, usually for Ed, a rare outing for some bottleneck slide playing at the beginning!
Painter of Sound
I still get shivers every time I hear Unchained. It’s a prime riff, for sure, but it’s the inspired decision to switch on his flanger pedal for just the low D notes that elevate this into something spine-chilling. The thought process and inventiveness involved is just outstanding, and it’s something not too many people have tried to take forward since then.
You hear it again on the arguably more famous ‘Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love’, where Ed kicks in his phaser for the last few notes of the phrase, turning his catchy arpeggio into a sci-fi epic. Most of Eddie’s invention came from his fingers, though. Take Women in Love, for example. That intro is all tapped harmonics, where Ed fretted a note and then tapped a harmonic an octave above it whilst picking the note at the same time! Nice! It’s difficult to perfect, and the real thing to note here is that the payoff is simply a beautiful piece of music. Most causal listeners just enjoy it, unaware of how much practice (and imagination in the first place) it took to nail that part. Hail King Ed!
Yes, Diamond Dave does talk over the best bit, but at least you get to see Ed playing that amazing intro part!
When Not to Play
One of Eddie’s most valuable gifts as a musician was judging when to play and when not to. In his whole career, how often did he ever take more than the usual 16 bars for a solo? He somehow managed to make you feel like he was flying all over the place, whilst keeping everything really tight and focused. Perhaps that’s why his solo moments are not only so powerful and effective but so wild sounding: you can sense the tension build up and then release in his playing, like energy being shot out of some musical laser cannon.
In the 80s, Eddie got busy with keyboards too, which annoyed some die-hard rockers at the time, but check out a tune like Dreams and you’ll hear a Grade-A 80s power ballad, injected with moments of otherworldly stun-gun guitar from Ed. Again, his ‘solo’ is pretty strange here, undermining what a regular guitar hero would do. He then takes another short bow near the end, unleashing a short melodic echo of the vocal refrain, followed by a brief tapping section that will make you gasp. It just sounds so effortless...
The Best Guitar Sound Ever
From 1978 until today and into the future, the ‘Brown Sound’ (smirking permitted) remains the goal of almost all electric guitar players who use distortion. Look at 99% of hard rock and metal guitar player interviews, and they’ll all namecheck Ed’s tone as the one to beat. Load up literally any guitar modelling plugin, and there will be a preset with some programmers’ attempt at nailing That Which Simply Cannot Be Nailed. Ed’s tone is extraordinary. To the casual ear, it's a nice distorted guitar. To players, it’s the Holy Grail combination of gain, cut, harmonic overtone, body, and dynamic. It’s everything you ever need a guitar to do, sound-wise. It’s crunchy as hell and sustains forever. It’s fat sounding but surprisingly low on the bottom end, so it sits in a mix but sounds huge.
(Photo coutesy of Fender FMIC/EVH)
Examples of this sound are, of course, nearly all Van Halen tunes, but let’s highlight ‘Running With the Devil’ here, since it displays the typical early VH mix (one track of rhythm guitar pushed to one side, the reverb pushed to the other) and also highlights Eddie’s stunning fretboard slides at the end of each riff. Try it! Can you make it sound as badass as him? No, we can’t either.
If there’s one thing to take away from Eddie’s performances and writing, it’s that attitude is everything. He flat-out owns the guitar, but he always makes it seem like he’s just having a laugh with it: it’s this easy, casual way that proves the ultimate command he had. Watch any live footage and you’ll see a guy who simply loved playing, and loved playing to an audience. It’s just in him, and it’s endlessly inspiring to watch and hear.
His attitude extends to his musical decision making, too. We’ve touched on it already, but his unorthodox ideas are often the parts that other players don’t take on board. We’d love to highlight this point using a not-so-well known song written for the movie, Twister. Forget about the film, but check out not only Ed’s simple/genius riff, but his blending of a sublimely beautiful melodic line after the chorus (including another inspired tapping moment that doesn’t not outstay it’s welcome at all), followed by a solo that is essentially a single note! This kind of sums up Ed for us: we all know he can throw out the fireworks like nobody before or since, but that doesn’t mean that’s what he’s gonna give you! This example has so much humanity in it: you can really hear Eddie stretching to share something with us from deep inside.
It’s the joy. You can hear joy in his playing, and it translates right through the speaker and into your soul. What musician could ever hope for more of an effect on his audience? Never before or since has the sound of somebody ‘going for it’ ever had such a positive, life-affirming effect.
His playing was and is like nobody else ever. His style was unorthodox and entirely unique, and he is the ultimate shredder, but none of it was ever off-putting to other guitarists: Ed makes you want to go and play! Listen to some Van Halen for a few minutes and there’s no way you won’t be itching to grab a guitar and make some righteous noise! His freedom on the instrument inspires, and his attitude to playing makes you want to head off in your own direction, not his. After all, how could you ever hope to?
“You can hear joy in his playing, and it translates right through the speaker and into your soul.”
With love and respect from all of us at guitarguitar, we say goodbye to a man who gave us the wonderful, wonderful gift of his music and genius.
Edward Lodewijk Van Halen.
(Photo courtesy of FMIC/EVH)
We’ll keep playing and thinking of you, your positivity and your energy as we do it. Some people get a chance to make a dent on the world as their star shoots across the sky. You smashed it, harder than anyone else ever did, dude.
We’ll miss you. Thanks, Eddie.