Speed runs that would make your eyeballs bleed. Insane harmonics. Outrageous end-of-the-world divebombs.
But that was just the start. All this and an awe-inspiring sense of melody, and absolute JOY in playing: The lively, joyful spontaneity of his solos, that I’m-doing-something-crazy grin on his face, the sheer LOVE he had for playing guitar.
Eddie always WAS the band. They changed lead singers like a teenage girl trying on outfits at the mall, but the heart of it was always the guitar. Someone once said that even in the songs that weren’t their best, who cares, because “You always knew there was a solo coming up.” The lyrics, in the early days, probably took about as long to write as they did to sing, and Lord knows you weren’t listening for Alex Van Halen’s just-behind-the-beat drumming (so annoying, stop playing like you have bricks attached to the ends of your drumsticks). No, it was always Eddie’s guitar playing.
The band Van Halen was often mis-categorized as metal, but this was wrong: They were a hard rock band. You could also call them a party band. David Lee Roth, way back in the early days, said, “We play rhythm and blues, shot from a canon.” To get a sense of “rhythm and blues, shot from a canon,” listen to their take on Ice Cream Man from their first album. Unfuckingbelieveable. Play it loud.
From their self-titled debut album:
Eruption, of course. When I first heard that in the mid-1980s, after I had been playing guitar for a couple of months, I blurted, “Is that just one guy?” A lot of people thought he had doubled himself up on the tape. Not a chance; he played it live all the time. (And now I’ll never get to see that! Fuck!)
An underappreciated piece on this album is On Fire, where the guitar work is pure aggression. And yet it’s so full of Eddie’s usual joyful energy. If such a thing as joyful aggression is possible, the guitar work on this song embodies it.
But really, the whole album, with the exception of the perhaps regrettable Atomic Punk.
Second album, Van Halen II: Spanish Fly, which is Eruption squared… on an acoustic. One guitar player in the comments: “Inhuman.” (Another comment, from yesterday: “Angels get to listen to this live now.” Reading that kinda fucked me up.) If you know anything at all about the guitar and have never heard this, click through and listen. After you regain the power of speech you’ll thank me.
And the intro to Women in Love is cool. On this one he does double himself up, or rather, he uses a lot of delay to get the notes to pile up on each other in just the right way. Just listen to the first 0:33.
If you just wanna rock, the best songs on this album are the anthems Outta Love Again and Somebody Get Me a Doctor.
Fair Warning: Unchained. The opening riff is pure rock and roll, pulled down from Plato’s World of Forms and laid down on vinyl. Eddie’s guitar sounds like a fucking chainsaw.
1984: The best guitar work is on Girl Gone Bad and House of Pain, though the latter doesn’t really start blazing until the second half. You can also listen to a semi-isolated guitar track on Girl Gone Bad; the highlight is the solo from around 2:20 to 2:50.
5150: Try the title track. The only opening riff in all of rock that equals the one from Unchained.
Best of Both Worlds is also a fun stompy romp, not for blazing guitar work, but just because. Once I heard this on the car radio with my mother. When the lyrics got to “You don’t have to die and go to heaven, and hang around to be born again,” she was like, “That’s so true!” LOL, Van Halen, mother-approved!
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge: Try the solo on Pleasure Dome. Definitely not one of their better songs, and it runs too long. But damn, that solo! Dear God! It goes from about 4:00 to 5:05.
One moment from I Can’t Stop Loving You. Wait, don’t laugh! Yes, it’s a sappy song, but there’s one moment when Eddie’s (very brief) solo, having just been a very simple melody for about 2 bars, suddenly goes into an amazingly fast run across the fretboard. The whole passage is only 2:36 to 2:44. And it’s absolutely fluid! There are other guitarists who can play that fast, but no one I’ve heard could play something that blazingly fast and make it sound so fluid, so natural, so effortless. It’s like water running over some rocks. And this, by the way, is one of the many reasons that Van Halen imitators always sound like exactly that: Van Halen imitators. No one can really copy the man; it’s simply impossible.
I could go on. I haven’t even mentioned highlights from all the albums. But this isn’t supposed to be comprehensive, just to give you an idea what all the fuss is about. Though in a sense this blog post is pointless: If you don’t understand the guitar (or fretted string instruments in general) it might be impossible to convey to you what a master Eddie Van Halen was. (IS, dammit, and always will be The Master.) And if you do have any acquaintance with the guitar, you’re almost certainly already familiar with his work. But on the off chance that you’re not, wow, what a treat you’re in for!
Heaven just gained an awesome guitarist. God, the rocking that there was in heaven last night!
My favorite comment from the last couple of days: Edward Van Halen, predeceased by many stereo speakers.
R.I.P. King Edward.