How Eddie Van Halen 'scared the hell out of a million guitarists'
Many of Van Halen's greatest songs were played on Eddie's homemade "Frankenstrat" guitar
Eddie Van Halen, who died at the age of 65, opened up dozens of new possibilities for the electric guitar with his inventive and largely self-taught techniques.
The guitarist combined lightning-fast two-handed picking techniques with hammer-ons, pull-offs, complex harmonics and a range of innovative devices that he patented, and became a pole star for generations of musicians.
"Ed's a guy or two in a century," said friend Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains earlier this year. "There's Hendrix and there's Eddie Van Halen. These two guys turned the world on its axis."
Tributes to 'Mozart of Rock' Eddie Van Halen
Fellow guitar legend Joe Satriani pondered in 2015: "Eddie brought the smile back to rock guitar when everything brooded a bit. He also made a million guitarists the heck for being so damn good."
Originally a pianist, Van Halen, the son of a Dutch band leader, played weddings and bar mitzvahs with his family after they emigrated to Pasadena, California in 1962.
An amazing talent, he beat 5,000 students for first prize in a local piano recital for four years despite being unable to read a musical note.
"I cheated on my teacher for six years," he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1995. "He never knew. I would watch his fingers and play it."
As a teenager he switched to drums, then guitar, and formed his first band with his brother Alex in 1964. The Broken Combs made their debut at Pasadena Elementary School one lunchtime, cementing the siblings' desire to become professional musicians.
Eddie first mimicked the British rock trio Cream and learned Eric Clapton's solos note by note.
But it was watching Led Zeppelin at the Los Angeles Forum in the early 1970s that changed his guitar playing forever. A lightbulb went out as Jimmy Page played the Heartbreaker solo and tapped notes on the guitar's neck with both hands.
It was an opportunity for Page to show a boat - but Eddie took the technique and refined it so he could play a seemingly impossible flurry of notes and jammed harmonics.
"It's like having a sixth finger on your left hand," he explained in 1978. "Instead of pecking, put a note on the fingerboard."
The approach was so revolutionary that Alex encouraged his brother to play with his back to the audience so other bands wouldn't steal him before Van Halen had a record deal.
When her self-titled debut album was released in 1978, Eddie's guitar colleagues were blinded.
"It was amazing," said Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist Zakk Wylde. "I'm going, 'That can't be a guitar. What is that?"
LA punk musician Phast Phreddie Patterson wrote in a 1978 edition of Waxpaper: "Edward whines with his guitar as if his life depended on it. Grinning boyishly ... like a child with a new toy, he tries to make as many sounds as possible to get out of his instrument. " as electronically as possible. The results are amazing. "
'No' to long solos
Eddie never claimed to have invented the "two-handed tap" technique - classical guitarists used their picking hands to play notes that their eating hand usually covered for years - but he popularized it with rock audiences.
"And on top of that, I've never really heard anyone do what I've done with it," he said in a 2017 interview. "Which were real pieces of music."
That really is the key. Eddie always placed emphasis on melody and feeling over extravagant technology. And while Van Halen's material leaned toward hard rock, they always used catchy hooks and memorable riffs.
Some of his best work has been his most economical. In the chorus of Jamie's Cryin ', he responds to David Lee Roth's voice ("Oh-oh-oh, Jamie is crying") with a simple two-note phrase that has the tight precision of a Motown backing voice.
He even kept his solos short and structured them like mini movements within songs with a defined beginning, a defined middle and a defined end.
"I haven't heard anyone outside of early Clapton play a long interesting guitar solo," he noted.
An exception is Eruption from Van Halen's debut album, which only comprises 102 seconds of melted fingerwork, while Eddie dives over the fingerboard and incorporates both classic scales and his tapping technique.
The song was originally the guitarist's warm-up exercise, but when producer Ted Templeman heard it, he wisely realized it was well worth performing.
"I played it two or three times for the record and we kept the one that seemed to flow," Eddie later recalled. "I didn't even play it right. There's a bug on the high end. Whenever I hear it I always think, man, I could have played that better."
He was always a perfectionist and even surpassed Michael Jackson. After Eddie was asked to play on Beat It in 1983, he not only recorded one of pop's most memorable solos, but rearranged the song.
"I didn't know how he was going to react," Eddie told CNN. "So I warned him before he listened. I said, 'Look, I changed the middle part of your song.'
"Now in my mind he's either getting kicked out by his bodyguards for slaughtering his song, or he's going to like it. And so he listened to it, turned to me and said, 'Wow, thanks a lot for the passion Not just to come in and do a solo, but actually take care of the song and make it better. '"
Legend has it that Eddie's 20-second solo on Beat It was so dangerous that the speakers in the studio's control room caught fire. In the heat, the seemingly insurmountable barrier between white rock and black pop was razed to the ground.
Van Halen's fingerprints were everywhere in rock music by the late 1980s - but the star dismissed many of his acolytes as "typewriters".
"They all play as fast as they can, as loud as they can, scream as high as they can. But they don't scream or even play fast with a unique quality," he said in 1985. "It leaves me cold." "
"Always a hobbyist"
But while his style of play spawned thousands of imitators, it wasn't Eddie's only innovation.
In 1985 he patented a device with which musicians could put a guitar around their neck and bring it into a horizontal position in order to "develop new techniques and sounds that were previously unknown to any player".
He also created a new type of guitar head and invented a device called the D-Tuna that allowed guitarists to switch between alternate tunings on the fly. Together with guitarist Floyd Rose, he even created a whammy bar that worked without leaving the strings out of tune.
Speaking to Popular Mechanics in 2015, Eddie said he was "always a hobbyist" and started modifying his own instruments out of necessity.
"My playing style really grew because I couldn't afford a distortion pedal. I had to try to squeeze those sounds out of my guitar ... so I started hammering away with a screwdriver."
Van Halen was more selfless and ironic than the prog rock giants of the 1970s
Eddie's bespoke guitars gave Van Halen a unique tone and tone, while his famous Shark - which was cut into the shape of a flying V with a chainsaw - caused dozens of aspiring guitarists to destroy their instruments.
His souped-up "Frankenstrat" was even shown in an exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art last year.
"Nobody taught me how to do guitar work: I learned through trial and error," he told Guitar Player magazine. “I've messed up a lot of good guitars this way, but now I know what I'm doing and I can do anything I want to get them the way I want them. I hate being off the shelf Store guitars to be bought. "
The craft was evidence of an almost obsessive urge to conjure up the sounds Eddie Van Halen heard in his head. It may not have made it easy for him to work with - the band's internal politics and shifting lineups were more than complicated - but his love for and influence on rock music is hard to overestimate.
"When I'm home on a break, I lock myself in my room and play the guitar," he told Guitar World in 1981. "After two or three hours, I start doing this total meditation. It's a feeling very few people experience. And that's usually when I come up with strange things. It just flows.
"When you're a musician, you just play until you die. It's no ordinary job."
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