Top Ten Van Halen Riffs

Published on 27 April 2022

 

Eddie Van Halen is rightfully spoken of as one of the great pioneering faces on the Mount Rushmore of all-time guitar legends. Alongside Les Paul, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, nobody else has come close to wielding the sheer world-changing influence of the Man from Amsterdam.

Most of his glory seems to be centred around his revolutionary lead playing, and with good reason: the tapping, the harmonics, the whammy bar drops ‘n’ dives, the timing, the taste… it’s actually not that hard to spot a master when you hear one in this context. In fact, those last two reasons - his timing and sense of taste - play a major part in today’s blog.

Yes, today we want to discuss the most potent and powerful part of Eddie’s art: his rhythm and riff playing. Solos alone maketh not a master of the art, and Ed’s ability to create ultra-memorable riffs, hip-shaking rhythms and amazing sonic signatures are, we feel, the real reason he was and is so revered. We love the solos but his riffs are just as much fun to play, and he had hands-down the greatest crunchy guitar sound ever committed to tape. Today, then, in no particular order, we list our ten favourite Van Halen riffs!

 

Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love

We may as well begin with the most well-known VH riff that isn’t the Jump keyboard part! Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love, from the band’s debut record, nails three of Ed’s trademarks in one simple two bar phrase. Firstly, there’s the catchy, melodic yet attention-grabbing nature of the Am arpeggio which makes up most of the part. Secondly, there’s the simple/complex properties so indicative of his style (it sounds more elaborate than it is, yet it’s still pretty flashy). Lastly, this riff demonstrates Eddie’s game-changing attitude to effects use: the short delay on his signal adds depth and atmosphere, and the phaser - switched on for the last four notes only - reveals his superb taste for drama. Any more would be too much, and any less would lose the magic. Perfectly judged.

 

Unchained

Keeping to the theme of genius effects pedal implementation, no one has put a flanger pedal to more badass use than Eddie did here on the Unchained riff. The man’s a tease, too: he performs one go-through of the riff with his straight (i.e. superb) amp tone, and then kicks in the flanger for the second go, using it only on his low D notes for a supersonic jet engine noise. There’s a reason the MXR EVH Flanger has an ‘Unchained’ button built into it: it’s the best setting EVER. Again, it’s his decision to use the effect only on certain notes that elevates this already good riff into something unforgettable.

 

Summer Nights

This Van Hagar cut from the 5150 album shows off a tasty Eddie rhythm riff created on the unusual (and very cool sounding) Trans-Trem. Designed by ‘cricket bat guitar’ guru Ned Steinberger, the Trans-Trem offered a new way to physically change pitch on a guitar, many years before the invention of the Whammy pedal! The Trans-Trem actually sounds quite like a slide, especially when used to shift full chords in real time, since the relative pitch of each string remains the same. You pull the pitch up or push it down and then lock it in place, with the strings all staying in tune with each other. It sounds crazy but it works a treat, as you can hear here: give this great track a spin in order to hear it for yourself! Ed changes the pitch up a minor third for the main riff, and actually drops it a tone below standard for the solo! 

 

Mean Street

This Fair Warning album opener is a masterclass on funky timing and groove, with a riff that’s simple and deadly. Be amazed by the freeform tapping intro, but wait for the main riff to slash its way into your ears, before Ed’s brother Alex drops the beat and seals the deal. The whole tune is a ‘how to’ on both leading and supporting the song with finesse. And once again: that tone!

 

Hot For Teacher

Here’s another example of an epic Ed intro followed by an ever better main riff. This monster boogie-athon from 1984 - a dizzyingly silly ode to fancying one’s schoolteacher - is pretty eccentric when you stop to think about it, but the tune itself is so breathlessly paced, you won’t have time to! Ed’s riff is in the key of A and throws in some nice chromatic notes and flattened fifths for a tasty melange of party metal.

 

Poundcake

It’s back to Van Hagar for this stomping tune from 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album. This song throws up a bunch of other influential Eddie techniques, most notably the use of natural harmonics in a deliberately harmonic context. We’ll hear more about harmonics in our next riff choice, but the call and response verses on Poundcake here (Eddie’s guitar responds to Sammy Hagar’s call) are as fun as they are clever. 

And yes, there are always extra points available for using a cordless power drill to make noises!

 

Women in Love

Here’s a (slightly) more relaxed and reflective side of the mighty VH, with this fan favourite from Van Halen II. If there’s one thing we’re constantly noticing with these songs, it’s that they all have instantly notable intros. Whether it’s a crazy noise like the aforementioned Poundcake drill intro, or the deliriously giddy drum part that begins Hot for Teacher, it's clear that VH are experts at announcing themselves to their audience.

Women in Love is attention grabbing in a prettier, more chill manner. Ed employs natural harmonics again here, this time tapping each note an octave higher than fretted (if he’s holding down a 5th fret position D power chord, he’d tap the 17th fret of the A string, for example) to make beautiful harp-like tones. The part itself is very simple, but the application of it is masterful, and that’s often what differentiates greatness from merely ‘good’.

 

Panama

As the movie Superbad so ably demonstrated, this tune is the perfect choice for ‘doing donuts’ in a deserted car park, preferably in an appropriated police car.

What’s Panama about? Well, allegedly, Diamond Dave was criticised by a journalist for only ever writing about ‘women, partying, and fast cars’. Roth instantly realised that only the last part of that statement was incorrect, and went about remedying it by writing about a fast car he saw in a Las Vegas (where else?) race called ‘Panama Express’. For our money, it’s also about women and partying, but that’s just us.

Panama starts with an epic syncopated chordal riff, employing a subtly off-kilter time signature and one of music’s best divebombs (not too much, just enough for coolness’ sake) and then progresses to perhaps Van Halen’s most eminently stompable riff. If this music doesn’t get you moving, you are a brittle, boring stone and need to rethink your attitude towards life. Take Roth’s own words from Jump as a lesson: ‘I get up, and NOTHING gets me down’. Life’s better already, isn’t it? Next!

 

Somebody Get Me a Doctor

It was a toss up between this one and DOA, both from VH’s second album. We opted for this one, since it’s sort of like the Runnin’ With the Devil riff only better. All the great Eddie hallmarks are here: chordal riffing using inversions (Ed often dodges the root note of a chord), judicious use of slides when travelling to and from notes, and a breakneck pace that sonically adds gas to the engine, as it were. His playful playing charges ahead, with brother Alex’s colossal drums matching the momentum to bring that potent Van Halen vibe to life. It’s really all about energy, and Ed knew that better than most. This tune, like so many of his, shows an intuition for fun and drama that loads of people tried to copy and nobody quite equalled.

 

Up For Breakfast

Our final choice is a lesser-known cut from 2004’s Best of Both Worlds collection. As we know, Eddie was partial to a good bit of synthesizer action, particularly in the Hagar-era, and this number shows off a particularly memorable blend of guitar and keys. A low pedal tone pulses throughout the track, with Ed’s snarling guitar slashing out over the top. This is a nice example of his ability to syncopate and play off his own keyboard parts. It’s also a telling demonstration of the man’s overall attitude: how many other indisputable guitar heroes were so happy to quickly drop the guitar in favour of keys? It proves he was in it for the music and the sound, not just the ego-wins of being the best guitarist ever, which he clearly was.

The lyrics are nonsense, of course, but when did that ever matter with Van Halen?

 

How Many Great Riffs Can a Band Have?

These ten riffs could quite easily have been ten others from the VH catalogue and still be a cast-iron collection. There’s so much to learn about guitar playing by just getting these riffs under your fingers, not least in terms of timing. Listen to how Ed complements the vocals with his playing, when he plays and when he doesn’t,  how he accentuates certain parts either with a slide or an effect, and then take in the biggest lesson of all: how much flat-out fun it sounds like he’s having. Other players may have eventually gotten faster, heavier or meaner, but nobody had that easy flair, that off-the-cuff genius that bled into every note and space he made in his music. There’s art there for days, and he did it all with a big grin. It’s a lesson well worth learning.

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About the author

Ray McClelland

Features Editor, Glasgow

I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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