How Eddie Van Halen revolutionised rock guitar-playing forever

Icon and Image/Getty ImagesRock guitar legend Eddie Van Halen died on October 6 at the age of 65.
  • Guitar god and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Eddie Van Halen died on Tuesday at the age of 65 after a long battle with cancer.
  • Throughout his five decades as lead guitarist of the rock band Van Halen, Eddie’s virtuosic and at times histrionic playing defined a generation of rock guitar.
  • Perhaps his most famous solo is at the beginning of the 1978 song “Eruption,” which features his signature hammer-ons and chromatic tapping.
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One day about six or seven years ago, I walked into my family’s music room and saw it hanging on our wall: a replica of Eddie Van Halen’s iconic red, white, and black “Frankenstrat” guitar that my dad had bought.

I had always been a fan of Van Halen, but as a drummer, I was more interested in nailing the double-bass drum part in “Hot for Teacher” than learning the solo from “Eruption,” like some of my guitar playing contemporaries.

Even though I had no idea how to create the deviously mesmerising sounds Eddie had produced on the instrument, I couldn’t help but admire it and think that it was this guitar, and a pair of divine hands, that was responsible for flipping the world of rock guitar-playing on its head.

Simply put, the rocker, who died Tuesday at the age of 65 after a long battle with cancer, was unlike any other guitar player before him.

His explosive solos and dizzying finger-tapping not only elevated him to the level of guitar god and earned him a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, but inspired generations of guitarists to shred in his footsteps. What stood out just as much as his playing is that Eddie always donned this beatific smile, as if he also couldn’t believe the noises coming out of his amp while tapping his way through another one of his prolific solos.

Eddie has said he was inspired to begin tapping in his solos after seeing Jimmy Page use hammer-ons in the song “Heartbreaker” — he expanded on it to use both hands. But it also likely stemmed from his background in classical piano.

As children, Eddie and his brother Alex Van Halen followed their father’s footsteps and were both trained in classical piano before Alex switched to guitar and Eddie to drums.

After realising that Alex was a better drummer, Eddie picked up his brother’s guitar and taught himself how to play — the fact that he couldn’t read music despite his classical training made his profound erudition of the instrument even more miraculous. Moving his right hand onto the fretboard naturally mimics the way both hands play the piano.

Though he didn’t create the fret-tapping technique that became synonymous with the band’s sound, Eddie perfected it

Contrary to popular belief, Steve Hackett of Genesis was doing the technique before Eddie in the early 1970s on tracks like “Musical Box” and “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.” But while Eddie has admitted that he wasn’t the first, it’s impossible to deny that his virtuosity advanced the technique to a new level by using it to make melodies.

Instead of long meandering solos based on the blues scale that seemed separate from the melody of a song, Eddie’s solos were the song. They were so innovative that a new way of writing music, tablature, was created to convey on paper what Eddie was playing.

Arguably the most well-known application of this playing style is in the introduction to “Eruption,” the second track off Van Halen’s debut self-titled 1978 album.

It’s full of chromatic tapping, hammer-ons, and dive bombs yet there’s nothing about it that seems superfluous, every single note helps hook the listener in. Even more impressive — or perhaps frustrating to other guitarists — is that the solo started off as a riff Eddie would jam with Alex while warming up for a gig or before the “Van Halen” recording session until producer Ted Templeman encouraged him to record it.

Immediately after the release of ‘Van Halen,’ the landscape and vocabulary of rock guitar were changed forever

Thousands of guitarists worshiped Eddie’s playing and it became a measure of success whether or not you could play the “Eruption” solo. Record labels wanted their own Eddie Van Halens who could reproduce the wunderkind’s raucous licks. Both up-and-coming and established guitarists in the rock world were amazed by his skill.

“I just love it – Eddie is one of my biggest influences ever. He changed the way guitar was played, and he became a huge influence on me,” former Guns N Roses guitarist DJ Ashba told Classic Rock in 2018. “He’s one of the [No. 1] reasons why I picked up a guitar. It just blew my mind, the way he approached the guitar. It was just incredible.”

Former Kiss and Grand Funk Railroad guitarist Bruce Kulick added: “The first time I heard Eddie Van Halen, I was absolutely floored… I was also petrified.”

Not only did Eddie change the playing style of forthcoming generations of guitarists, but he also pioneered new technical innovations for the instrument.

Eddie was like a mad sonic scientist — he tinkered with amplifiers and guitars with the hopes of making new experimental sounds. Like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, Eddie too would eventually conceive his ultimate creation: the “Frankenstrat,” which allowed him to navigate an entirely new and unexplored frontier of guitar playing.

Eddie liked the sound of Fender guitars and their vibrato bar, but they only came with single-coil pickups. The Gibson Les Paul, on the other hand, had a humbucking pickup featuring two coils that cancelled out any interference and had a fatter sound. He bought a knock-off Stratocaster body and neck and wedged a humbucking pickup in the middle, thus creating his monstrous guitar.

His inventiveness had a lasting impact on the industry. Eddie continued to design instruments throughout his career, working with companies like Fender,Music Man, and Charvel.

Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson.Lynn Goldsmith/ Getty ImagesEddie Van Halen playing with Randy Jackson, Michael Jackson and Jermaine Jackson during the Victory Tour.

After making his mark on heavy rock and metal, Eddie went on to influence the pop world too.

In the 1980s, Eddie began tinkering with keyboards and synths to keep up with the popularity of New Wave giants like Blondie and the Talking Heads. “Jump” from the album “1984” perfectly married his wild soloing with a pop synth lead to land Van Halen their biggest commercial success yet.

He also performed the iconic guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and actually changed the song to what would become its final version.

There will probably never be another guitar player like Eddie.

Sure, through the years he had his battles — alcoholism and drug abuse; fallouts with bandmates including David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar; and eventually, complications with his health. But through it all, his passion for the guitar remained. Looking back, it’s easy to see why Guitar World voted him the best guitar player of all time.

During the last day-and-a-half I’ve been listening to a lot of Van Halen tunes and I can’t help but smile, just like he did while on stage every night, when I listen to one of Eddie’s wild solos. That’s probably all he ever wanted.

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