I am a high school history teacher and sometimes I fill in as the guitar teacher. On my first day of guitar class six years ago, I gave the students a survey about their musical experience, interests, goals, etc. One of the questions was: “Who is your favorite guitar player?” After I collected the surveys and began to review them, I was shocked and saddened to see that the most common answers for that question were “I don’t have one” or just a question mark.
If my high school guitar teachers in the early ’90s had asked me who my favorite guitarist was, I would have replied, “I can only pick one?”
If I had been asked that question in elementary school in the ’80s, though, I would have had an easy answer because I knew only one by name: Eddie Van Halen, who died last week at the age of 65.
With Eddie on guitar, along with his brother Alex on drums, David Lee Roth on vocals, and Michael Anthony on bass, Van Halen was the coolest band there was when I was a kid. As far as lead singer-guitarist pairs within rock bands, the ’60s gave us Mick and Keith, the ’70s gave us Plant and Page, and the first half of the ’80s gave us Diamond Dave and Eddie.
David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen were perfect for the glitz, glamour, and decadence of the ’80s hard rock scene. Roth was the over-the-top, super-charismatic, loquacious, high-kicking frontman—and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing was unlike anything anyone had heard before. As music critic J.D. Considine wrote, “Unlike virtually every rock guitarist before him, he didn’t simply build upon the electric-blues vocabulary of Clapton, Beck, Page and Hendrix—he created a whole new language, one that replaced the bluesy string bends and stinging sustain of old with screeching tremolo dive-bombs and lightning-fast hammer-ons and pull-offs. As far as guitarists were concerned, it was as if the wheel had been reinvented.”
My introduction to Van Halen came with their album 1984. Released during the heyday of MTV, the songs and the videos “Jump,” “Panama,” and “Hot For Teacher” were fun and bawdy, just like the band wanted them to be. (Disclaimer: Today, as an adult and parent—and, for that matter, as a teacher—I cannot always condone the lyrics and imagery of Van Halen songs and videos that I liked when I was between the ages of 10 and 17.) A downside to the raucous, provocative, humorous image of the band is that it may have made Eddie Van Halen seem like a mere party boy and unserious musician.
The latter couldn’t be further from the truth. On the band’s biggest pop hit, “Jump,” the most prominent instrument is surprisingly not Eddie’s guitar: the song’s iconic riff is played on a keyboard synthesizer by . . . Mr. Edward Van Halen.
“Jump” also features two different instrumental solos (unthinkable these days): a guitar solo by Eddie and a synth solo by Eddie. Even though he never learned to read music, he was clearly the brains behind the operation of one of the biggest bands of the decade.
After 1984, Roth left and was replaced by singer Sammy Hagar. Eddie Van Halen continued to grow as musician and songwriter, and on both of the next two albums—5150 and OU812—played both guitar and keyboard parts, which alienated some of the hard rock purist fans. In “Finish What Ya Started,” Eddie stripped away the distorted effects from his signature guitar sound. Hard rock purists complained that his playing sounded too much like country music. Although I, then a young teen, wasn’t a country fan, I remember thinking it was rad: “What can’t this guy do?”
The band’s 1991 album, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, opened with Eddie’s new trick: using a power drill to play the guitar on the single “Poundcake.” The drill was largely a gimmick, yes, but a symbol of his Eddie’s experimentation and technical creativity.
In the fall of ’91, I saw Van Halen in concert at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland—it was a blast. My favorite part was an extended version of Eddie’s legendary unaccompanied guitar solo, called “Eruption.” I was a junior in high school and had been playing guitar for two and a half years. I started because I had discovered the Beatles, followed by the magical format of classic rock radio: the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead, and many others. While I quickly came to love the playing of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, and Jerry Garcia, that night I was in the presence of my original guitar hero.
By this time, I had gone back and listened to the band’s older material. Like Prince, Van Halen exploded into superstardom with their sixth album, both released in 1984 (Prince’s Purple Rain and Van Halen’s 1984). And as with Prince, Van Halen’s first album came out in 1978. Van Halen’s self-titled album opened with “Eruption,” which segued into the band’s supercharged cover of The Kinks’ seminal classic “You Really Got Me.” I can only imagine being a bit older and that being the first blast of Van Halen I’d ever heard. I’m envious of those who experienced it that way. Here’s a 4-minute version of “Eruption” and “You Really Got Me” from a 2015 live performance, long after Eddie reunited with David Lee Roth and they started performing with Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen on bass (I picked this because in the old days, live versions of “Eruption” alone could be 10 minutes long):
As Considine noted, a generation of guitarists were influenced by the likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix—just as those greats had in turn all been influenced by the blues guitarists who came before them, such as Robert Johnson, Albert King, Hubert Sumlin, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy. Eddie Van Halen wasn’t unfamiliar with this musical legacy—I read an interview years ago where he discussed how he loved Clapton and learned all of his solos—yet his style sounds nothing like Clapton’s, nor like anybody else’s. Eddie didn’t just synthesize what came before and add his own distinctive tweaks; he made something new.
And Eddie Van Halen’s influence on others has been immense. Following the 1978 debut, a stream of technique-driven rock guitar virtuosos followed—including Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, and many others. Their so-called “shred” guitar style continues to have an audience today.
For pop-oriented rock/hair metal bands of the 1980s (Poison, Mötley Crüe, Whitesnake, etc.) it was all but required to have a technically proficient lead guitarist who could take a solo in every song. Why? Because Eddie raised the bar in rock guitar playing. If you wanted to compete in that scene, your lead guitarist needed chops. That changed in the 1990s: With the rise of Kurt Cobain and grunge, flashy guitar solos came to be seen as “masturbatory,” “self-indulgent,” and a symbol of the old, no longer cool era.
There’s a longstanding debate among Van Halen fans: Which is better—the David Lee Roth era (pre-1985) or the Sammy Hagar era (1985-1996, dubbed “Van Hagar”)?
To me, the debate always seemed largely unnecessary. Both frontmen had their strengths and weaknesses. And both eras had Eddie Van Halen. So is it really that important?
Looking back at the videos, and reading some of the reassessments of the band from over the last decade, it might be tempting to dismiss Eddie Van Halen as “just a guitar player in a hair metal band” or “a relic of the outdated, misogynistic sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll ethos of the 1980s” or “a guy who likes immature album titles.” But if you do, you dismiss an excellent musician and one of the greatest rock-and-roll guitarists who ever lived.