By Mr. Kellison
Song: Hot for Teacher
Song performed by: Van Halen (Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth, Alex Van Halen, Edward Van Halen)
One night a while ago I was at a dinner party and I struck up a conversation with another guy there.
He was about my age, but unlike me was very clean cut, very well dressed. In our conversation I learned that he was a very high-ranking official in his church (for those playing at home, he was the Stake President of the local LDS – aka Mormon – church). I live in a fairly conservative area in Arizona, so this is not unusual. Basically any time I’m at a dinner party of some kind, I’m on my best behavior so as not to embarrass my wife or anyone else.
Anyway, he was a nice guy so we talked for a while. At one point we got on the topic of music. He asked what kind of music I liked, etc. At some point I told him I was a guitar player. Upon hearing that, he said “Oh, well, are you a Van Halen fan?”
I was a bit surprised at this, to say the least. Most Mormon church leaders I know (yes I do know a few) don’t listen to any music that is even remotely heavy, and if they do, they don’t talk about it at dinner parties.
“Of course,” I replied.
“Me too,” he said. Uh, what? Then he paused, and said, “You know, I wish I could listen to them more often, but I just can’t. I’m kind of a straight-laced guy, but when I hear Van Halen, it makes me crazy. It just does something to me. I can’t explain it. It’s something primal that I just can’t help.”
And that about sums it up. Van Halen really is a force of nature, and for me, the ultimate tour de force is “Hot for Teacher”. If this song doesn’t stir something in you, you may be dead. Built over a classic Van Halen groove – the hyperspeed shuffle – this song has a force and propulsion that just will not stop.
To begin with, “Hot for Teacher” has perhaps the most famous intro section of any rock song in history. It starts with Alex Van Halen’s extended drum solo. A classic double bass tour de force.
Now I’m no drumming expert, but I would venture to say that this intro is up there with “Wipeout”, “In the Air Tonight”, and “Moby Dick” as one of the most recognizable and beloved of all drum parts. The recording is actually somewhat controversial, but the consensus seems to be that Alex played most of the parts live in the studio, and overdubbed a few of the tom-tom and cymbal hits. I have no idea how he plays it live. I’ve seen Al play it, but it was hard to tell if he was doing all of it, or triggering some parts, or playing a very slightly modified version. The world may never know. And it doesn’t matter – the recording stands as an incredible achievement and one hell of a lead in to…
Perhaps my favorite guitar passage that Edward Van Halen has ever played, and that, my friends, is saying something. What can I say about this intro solo? It’s everything about EVH’s playing that I love all wrapped up into one intro. It’s in your face, fearless, and that TONE. The section is a rolling tapped arpeggio riff that moves like a rollercoaster up and down the guitar neck. And like any good rollercoaster, this one culminates in a precipitous drop – a rapid fire descending tapped lick set in Edward’s favorite Dorian/Blues scale hybrid (a Dorian scale, or mode to be technically correct, is a type of minor scale that Eddie has always favored, both for the sound and because it happens to lay fairly symmetrically across the guitar fingerboard, facilitating this type of tapping run and fitting nicely with his legato playing style).
And then there’s Dave. OK, let me get one thing out of the way right up front. I am not a Dave zealot, nor am I a Sammy zealot, nor am I a Gary zealot. I love this band – in every incarnation. Period. They have managed somehow to create insanely great music over 30 years, and each incarnation has produced classics. OK, maybe I’m going a little far with the Gary Cherone years, but you get the idea. Enough about that.
Back to Dave. Now, Dave is not a singer so much. He is a showman. An entertainer. I think Steve Vai said it best when comparing his tenures with Dave and Whitesnake: you won’t see David Lee Roth standing center stage hitting a high E and holding it for 30 seconds. And you won’t see David Coverdale doing a splits jump off the drum riser. Both are great – they’re just different.
This lyrics are pure essential David Lee Roth. Cocky, brash, sly, with a Cheshire Cat grin the whole time. Most of all they are just plain fun. “I think of all the education that I missed/But then my homework was never quite like this.” And then there’s the immortal “I don’t feel tardy.”
Michael Anthony of course had the thankless job of being the bass player in a band with Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth. Especially on a song like this, there’s just not much he could do to really stand out. Add to that the fact that he was pretty much buried in the mix throughout the Ted Templeman years (VH’s producer), and you have some grounds for contention. I’m not even going to go into the whole Wolfgang thing, but I will be writing more about Mike soon in another post. For now, though, suffice to say that he holds down the bottom end of this tune admirably, and provides his patented harmonies to the vocal chorus and pre-chorus. One of the nicest parts about this tune being recorded live (more on that below) is that you can actually hear Mike during the guitar solo. Check out his lines at around the 3:05 mark – he plays some really nice fifth and octave intervals that give the song a great sense of movement (yes, even more than it already had) before dropping back in the pocket for the rest of the tune.
The verse breaks are reminiscent of ZZ Top’s “La Grange”, but lighter and less swampy. Eddie skipped playing one of his usual Frankenstein Strats for this tune in favor of a Gibson Flying V, for two reasons: (1) it was the only guitar he could find that day that had dead strings on it, and (2) the dual pickup switch allowed him to switch seamlessly between the verse and chorus sections. The dead strings are something I’ve never heard from anyone other than Eddie. He has always sworn that dead strings sound better when recording than new strings do. Most guitarists love new strings for their bright sound, but obviously Ed knows what he’s doing.
In another classic VH move, the song was recorded essentially live, with Ed, Al, and Mike all playing live in the studio (the vocals were overdubbed later, as they always are). Eschewing overdubs, they played the whole song through – if someone messed up, they just ran through the whole song again. Want proof? Listen to the guitar solo – there’s no rhythm guitar underneath, just bass and drums. This I think is the key to the lifeforce evident in the song – you just can’t get that same raw power when everyone plays their parts separately.
Speaking of the guitar solo…it kicks off with a reprise of the descending tapping lick from the intro, and stays in the same F# minor tonality for the duration of the solo. The solo itself is kinda fascinating, because it contains little of the histrionics for which Eddie is famous – no tapping, no whammy bar madness. There’s barely a harmonic (tap or artificial) to be found. The song is going by at such a walloping speed that you hardly notice that Ed is essentially blowing straight up blues licks over the entire solo. It’s times like this that you remember Eddie’s guitar hero growing up was Eric Clapton. Think Crossroads-era Cream, put a manic shuffle underneath it, and bingo, you’ve got this solo. The Cream comparison is even more appropriate when you factor in the no-rhythm-guitar-underneath-the-solo aspect. It’s pretty much the ultimate power trio tune.
As I said earlier, Van Halen has produced so many classic songs that it’s hard to single out just one. And of course a bunch of them will eventually show up on this list (and the Great Albums list…and the Great Solos list…). But I had to cover “Hot for Teacher” first. It may not be the best song of the Dave era, but it’s up there. And above all else, well…I can’t explain it – it just does something to me.