From Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
By Scott Mervis
He rewrote the guitar manual when the band debuted in 1978. Three decades later, he’s playing with fire again. Where does he rank among the guitar greats?
In the music world, things are churning at a furious pace.
Punk is exploding; “Saturday Night Fever” is raging; the Stones, Floyd and Zeppelin are still thriving; and hard rock is peaking with Aerosmith, Kiss, ZZ Top, Ted Nugent and a swarm of “corporate rock” bands a la Boston.
Out comes a self-titled album by an LA band called Van Halen, which is a little confusing because it’s the last name of the guitarist and drummer, not the usual method for naming a band. Van Halen had spent a few years creating a buzz in the Hollywood clubs, but there’s no YouTube, no late-night shows for these bands, just pictures in magazines.
For the music, you have to go out to the record store and actually buy the album — vinyl — because CDs are still four years away. The album cover — with the Aerosmith-style logo, Eddie Van Halen’s guitar glowing and David Lee Roth’s shirt open — lets on that this is another flamboyant, big-haired hard rock band.
The first 20 seconds are nearly perfect: a surge like a spaceship landing, then a slow pulsing bass, a high-hat count-off, a mysterious flash, then a thick killer blues riff into David Lee Roth’s Paul Stanley-style wail. At 1:58 comes one of the most explosive 10-second solos you’ll ever hear, like a fuse lit at a fireworks factory.
Awesome. But, still, it’s possible to get through “Runnin’ With the Devil” without realizing that the earth was shaking.
Then comes “Eruption,” launching with a frantic drum fill, Jimmy Page-style blues breakdown with fat, distorted guitar and whammy bend. Then something mind-blowing happens at :31. What the hell is THAT? Is that a guitar? How did it make that sound? And then at :58 there’s a lightning fast arpeggiated chord — classical sounding — that could practically raise Hendrix from the dead.
It’s the Eddie Van Halen tapping technique in all its glory, introducing, at that very moment, a musician who would change the whole dialogue about the electric guitar.
“I wish I had been older and had already been a guitar player when ‘Van Halen’ was released,” says Mike Rock of the Pittsburgh band Voice in the Wire. “I can’t even imagine what it was like to grow up listening to guys like Jimmy Page just ripping off the same blues riffs over and over again, then out of the blue, Eddie Van Halen kicks down the door and melts people’s faces off with ‘Eruption.’ ”
Thirty-four years and many trials and tribulations later, Eddie Van Halen, still hailed as one of the great guitar shredders, brings rock’s most dysfunctional group to town with the first VH album in 14 years.
The bigger news is that “A Different Kind of Truth” is the first album with DLR since “1984” and that’s what most hard-core Van Halen fans have wanted all along. But this isn’t Diamond Dave’s album. It belongs to Eddie, who hasn’t played with this much fire and fury since Van Halen bought a synthesizer in the mid ’80s.
Shoulders of giants
Eddie Van Halen was late to the guitar hero game, arriving at a time when it seemed like it had all been done. We already had Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Carlos Santana, etc.
So where can a third-generation rock guitarist rank? Rolling Stone’s David Fricke did a list in 2003 that placed him at No. 70, setting off a small firestorm in guitar stores all over America. When the magazine rebooted that list in 2011, via a survey of guitarists, he jumped a whopping 62 slots to No. 8.
That’s seven slots too low, according to Jason Sichi, guitarist for Pittsburgh metal band Fist Fight in the Parking Lot (previously Mojo Filter).
“Edward Van Halen is the greatest rock guitar player of all time — a title I don’t hand out lightly,” he says. “He’s the reason I picked up a guitar when I was 12 and haven’t put it down since — a blessing and a curse. Eddie, much like Hendrix, revolutionized what people thought was possible on a guitar. Only what Eddie was doing was masterful, full of mind-boggling technique, tone and emotion. Not to mention the legions of imitators he spawned. Suddenly, EVERYONE wanted to put a humbucker in a Strat-style guitar and play his licks.”
Yes, along with being a player, Eddie was mad guitar doctor. For his famous “Frankenstrat,” he surgically applied a Gibson pickup to a Strat neck and body. He held the pick between his thumb and middle finger, something he got from Hendrix, so he could tap with his index finger as well as his left hand, unleashing a harmonic storm.
“There was an old interview with Ted Nugent once where he was discussing how he was just blown away by Eddie’s ‘brown sound’ and was never really able to achieve such amazing tone,” Rock says. “Then one day Ted has the opportunity to meet Eddie and asked if he could plug in and play through Ed’s guitar rig, and lo and behold, he sounded like Ted Nugent, not Eddie Van Halen. Even Sweaty Teddy, a phenomenal guitarist in his own right, using Ed’s own set up, can’t be duplicate what Ed does. It’s just something inside the guy.”
In a piece on Music Radar, Nugent recently placed Van Halen at No. 11 on his list of Greatest Guitarists (Chuck Berry was No. 1), writing, “Rivaling Hendrix for the Guitar Defiance Lifetime Achievement Award, Eddie turned the musical world upside down with his outlandish inventiveness and creativity.”
When Eddie talks about his favorite players, he puts Clapton at the top.
“I knew every note he played,” he recently told Guitar World. “That’s what I was known for around home. Me, Alex and another bass player called ourselves Mammoth and we were the junior Cream. It’s funny; when I do interviews and tell people Clapton was my main influence, they go ‘Who?’ Because they’re thinking about Clapton doing ‘Lay Down Sally,’ not the Bluesbreakers or Cream.”
Pittsburgh’s first glimpse of Van Halen was March 12, 1978, at the Leona Theater in Homestead on the bottom of a bill with Montrose and Journey, a month after the debut album was released. If you saw that, you get bragging rights for life. Later in the year, the band hopped on tour with metal pioneers Black Sabbath, equipped with its own guitar hero, Tony Iommi, and played the Civic Arena in September. Sam Matthews, who works at Pittsburgh Guitars and is a veteran of such bands as The Crow Flies and Brass Chariot, caught that tour in Erie.
“I was up close, on Eddie’s side of the stage, and I was (and still am) a huge Sabbath-head,” he says. “The lights went down and Eddie walked on stage playing a little solo section, doing his ‘Eruption’ thing. My mouth kind of dropped as I had never seen anyone use that tapping technique before. It was really revolutionary at the time. After a few minutes of that, the drums clicked off four, the lights came up, Roth was jumping off the drum stand doing a split, and they were playing ‘You Really Got Me.’ For the next 35 minutes Van Halen ruled the stage and showed how a young and hungry band with a bunch of really great songs could totally steal the show from the headliner. I’ve seen hundreds of concerts and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a headline act take such a beating.”
Matthews wasn’t in for the long haul, though, because as Van Halen rose to be arena headliners themselves, DLR was steering the train in a poppier direction — a point of friction in the band.
“I’ve never had the desire to see Van Halen again,” Matthews says. “While I appreciate Eddie’s outstanding guitar technique and his place in music history, their music beyond their first and maybe second LP doesn’t really move me much.”
Voice in the Wire’s Rock, being a few years younger, had a different perspective. He was happy to pick up the Van Halen story in progress, discovering the band around 1981.
“I remember in first grade sitting in the back of the school bus with a few friends huddled around a tape recorder listening to ‘Unchained’ and just thinking the opening riff was the meanest, gnarliest thing I had ever heard. I don’t think a better combination of notes has ever been written on guitar. To this day, I get chills every time I hear that riff.”
A few years later, Eddie would become just as enamored with the instrument du jour, the synthesizer, which drove the band’s only No. 1 hit, “Jump,” part of Roth’s last ride with Van Halen in 1984. That synth-rock approach persisted through the shockingly successful Sammy Hagar years, until the guitar came to the forefront again on “Balance” in 1995, a messy time for the band as Eddie struggled with the bottle and tensions frayed with Hagar, who was about to get the ax.
And yet, it would only get messier: the botched reunion with DLR (1996), the woeful Gary Cherone experiment (1998-99), the EVH hip replacement (1999), the EVH cancer scare (2002), the sour-grapes Roth/Hagar tour, the short-lived Van Hagar reunion (2003-05), the EVH divorce (2005), the EVH rehab (2007) and the pitiful Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony that same year attended only by … Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony! The light at the end of the tunnel was the DLR reunion tour (2007-08) that also found Anthony out and Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, in on the bass.
“Eddie having the opportunity to play music with his son has really given the guitarist a second wind,” Rock says.
That new quartet, with three-fourths Van Halen blood, has produced the band’s 12th studio album, “A Different Kind of Truth,” that has Eddie playing like it’s 1979 again on songs like “You and Your Blues,” “As Is” and “Big River.”
“I think if you are truly a fan of his playing you could enjoy seeing such mastery in any setting regardless of who is behind the mic,” Rock says. “But you are only truly seeing the iconic rock gods known as Van Halen when DLR is front and center. I think the evidence is in the new album. It defies the odds and genuinely transports the band back to the peak of its career.”
One of the things that sets Eddie apart from so many of the post-Hendrix guitarists is his relative restraint. He’s a master of the short, fast, explosive guitar solo — like the one he tacked onto Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” — and is more interested in playing within the context of the song than taxing people with extended one-man jams.
“For generations we’ve seen genius innovators like Les Paul and shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani or Steve Vai,” Sichi says. “But when you throw all the guitar geek talk out the window, the thing any music lover can connect with, is Eddie writes undeniable infectious hits and epitomizes everything you want in a guitar hero.”
When you scan those lists of great guitar heroes, Eddie is still one of the newest entries, sitting there among players who came 20, even 30 years before him.
“After Eddie, you just had Eddie imitators,” says local metal promoter Lou Hetzer. “At least till the ’90s hit. And in a way you had Dimebag Darrell, Dave Navarro, Tom Morello and a few more that are taking the Guitar God trophy. But, they were ALL influenced by Eddie Van Halen.”
With: Kool and the Gang.
Where: Consol Energy Center, Downtown.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Tickets: $29.50-$149.50; 1-800-745-3000.