Eddie Van Halen was exactly what the rock ‘n roll doctor ordered to cure the Saturday Night Fever sweeping the nation during the late Seventies. When Van Halen was unleashed upon the unsuspecting masses in 1978, rock guitar playing was changed overnight. The threat that rock would become an afterthought in the face of a changing mainstream was temporarily thwarted. The only downside was the creation of a pool of guitar players who, throughout the Eighties, used Eddie’s techniques as tricks rather than as a natural method to create music. Even the incredibly gifted Randy Rhoads, who along with Ozzy Osbourne kept rock relevant despite the advent of disco and dance music, admitted that it pained him to incorporate Eddie Van Halen’s licks into his live solos just because ‘it impresses the kids.’
It’s nearly impossible to narrow down a list ten guitar solos by a rock legend with an extensive catalog of material. It’s naturally a subjective endeavor; the only advantage I claim is the insight provided by my 23 years of playing experience and countless hours spent fruitlessly trying to imitate The Master before giving up and establishing my own style.
Eddie took two approaches to soloing during his career. One was to try first, second, third (or even more) takes for solos on the studio albums. Later, he told Bud Scoppa during a lengthy interview for Guitar World prior to the release of OU812 that different takes would sometimes be spliced together to form one solo. “Sometimes I’ll do three solos,” said Van Halen, “and I’ll go, ‘I like the beginning of that one, I like the end of that one, I like the middle of that one.’ Whatever sounds good. Ain’t no fuckin’ rules. And I ain’t proud. I don’t give a fuck if it’s in one take or not. Whatever gets me off!”
I have no problem with the splicing method. After all, Eddie played all the solos himself. And nothing can hold-up the recording process like a guitar player who is anal retentive over his solos. It’s sometimes easy for a guitar player to tell when Eddie appeared to do something off-the-cuff, like on ‘Sinner’s Swing!’ Other times, it’s impossible to tell unless Eddie could recall himself during an interview. Like many guitar players, Eddie would often forget how to play some of his own songs after they would lie dormant for a while. He once admitted to having to go to a store to buy his own albums prior to a tour so that he could re-learn the material. He also admitted that he couldn’t play covers to save his life. What was a detriment in his early days, though, brought him great success when the band finally broke through, in large part, because Eddie Van Halen only knew how to be himself.
1. ‘Eruption’ (1978): Eddie Van Halen could have thrown his guitar into a dumpster after recording this one minute and forty-two seconds of guitar wizardry and still been a guitar hero for life. Though most well-known as the track on which Eddie unveiled his patented two-handed tapping technique to the world, to focus on that aspect alone is an oversimplification. Everything about the track- the tone, the use of the tremolo bar, the blinding speed and precision- set EVH apart from his late-Seventies contemporaries. The distortion coming out of the amplifiers makes the guitar work scream, which became known to guitar gurus as the infamous ‘brown sound.’ Although Eddie himself toyed with his amplifiers and guitars despite having no formal training in electronics, anyone who has studied guitar for a number of years knows that 99% of a guitarist’s tone comes from one thing and one thing alone: your own hands. (Eddie once relayed a story about how a suspicious Ted Nugent once plugged into Eddie’s rig before a show and, to Mr. Nugent’s surprise, he discovered that his tone still sounded exactly like Ted Nugent.) Eddie was never one who relied much on effects. This track was probably recorded with a classic MXR phase 90 pedal and an Echoplex for delay. The ultimate triumph of ‘Eruption,’ however, is simply how musical it sounds. Try grabbing an acoustic guitar and playing the blinding licks in the upper register down an octave at half speed- you’ll realize that Eddie wasn’t using his ability to play at unheard-of speeds to cover-up a lack of musical vocabulary.
2. ‘Beat It’ (1982): Eddie’s reputation was so well known even before the release of Van Halen’s 1984 that legendary producer Quincy Jones called upon him to provide a guitar solo for the opening track of what would become the best-selling album of all time worldwide, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. With the rhythm tracks already laid down by studio session veteran and Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, Eddie walked into the studio and winged two solos in front of The Gloved One himself. He estimated during an interview with Joe Bosso in the February 1990 issue of Guitar World that the entire project took 20 minutes. Ironically, it is this solo more than any other provides the best example of Eddie’s downright nasty distorted guitar tone. The artificial harmonics generated at 2:52- and at 3:06 especially- howl as if the amplifiers were possessed by demons. To an untrained ear, it sounds ‘cool.’ To the trained ear, there comes a realization that such tones are not possible in lesser hands during this time period- or even now. (An artificial harmonic is generated by shifting the pick attack to pinch the guitar string with the pick and thumbnail simultaneously, and they aren’t always easy to generate properly. Eddie’s use of them seems to be innate and is uncanny.) The use of wide intervals and two-handed tapping gives the solo a sense of urgency that the track demands. The ‘thank you’ letter that Quincy Jones wrote to Eddie afterward was signed, ‘The Fucking Asshole’ because Eddie began cursing at Jones during his initial phone call, thinking it was a prank because of a bad connection.
3. ‘Spanish Fly’ (1979): If anyone had attributed Eddie’s guitar pyrotechnics on the first album to studio effects rather than raw talent, these critics were silenced by this solo acoustic guitar track on Van Halen’s sophomore effort, Van Halen II. Eddie picks furiously and precisely on a much less forgiving
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