From former Guitar Player writer Jas Obrecht’s blog:
Eddie Van Halen: The David Lee Roth Era
With the release of 1978’s self-titled Van Halen album, 23-year-old Eddie Van Halen rewrote the rules of rock guitar. His sheer speed, unusual note choices, inspired finger tapping and whammy work, and fiery tone inspired guitarists everywhere. His impact was especially felt among crotch-rock guitarists in big-name bands, who saw their dreams of becoming “the next Jimi Hendrix” blown away in the 1:42 it took to listen to “Eruption.” Within months, it was virtually impossible to go into a music store or listen to a garage band without hearing some guitarist doing a rough approximation of Eddie’s groundbreaking instrumental. While the band’s rise seemed meteoric, the musicians had, in fact, spent years perfecting their act.
In the Beginning . . .
Eddie Van Halen and his older brother Alex were born and raised in Holland. Their father, Jan Van Halen, was an accomplished clarinetist in big band and classical styles. At age six, Eddie began taking classical piano lessons from a strict Russian master who’d slap his knuckles with a ruler whenever he made a mistake.
In 1967, the family moved to Pasadena, California, where the brothers discovered rock and roll. “I wasn’t into it at all back in Holland,” Eddie told me. “Wasn’t much of a scene going on. When we came here, I saw Hendrix and Cream around ’68, and I said, ‘Fuck the piano! I don’t want to sit down. I want to stand up and be crazy!’ The main influence for me, believe it or not, was Eric Clapton. I mean, I know I don’t sound like him, but I know every fuckin’ solo he ever played, note-for-note, still to this day. I used to sit down and learn that stuff note-for-note off the record. The live stuff – like ‘Spoonful,’ ‘I’m So Glad’ live – all that stuff. But when we first came to the U.S., I started playing drums, and my brother was taking guitar lessons – flamenco, nylon strings, stuff like that. While I was out doing my paper route so I could keep paying the payments for my drum set, he’d be playing my drums. And eventually he got better. I mean, he could play ‘Wipe Out,’ and I couldn’t. So I said, ‘Keep the drums. I’ll play a guitar.’ From there on, we’ve always played together.”
The brothers named their first band Mammoth: “It used to just be me and Al and a different bass player. I used to lead sing, and I couldn’t stand that shit! I’d rather just play. Dave Lee Roth was in another local band, and we used to rent his P.A. We said, ‘Fuck! It’s much cheaper if we just get him in the band!’ So we got Dave in the band, and then we were playing this gig with a group called Snake – they opened for us. We were all tripped out, because the bass player was singing. That was Michael Anthony, and we asked him to join. So we all just kind of hooked together. We all stuck with each other, because by the time we graduated from high school, everyone else had to go to school to be a lawyer or whatever.”
In 1977, Kiss bassist Gene Simmons offered to finance Van Halen’s demo tape. Then they caught the attention of Warner Brothers’ Ted Templeman, who would produce all six Van Halen albums featuring Dave Lee Roth as lead singer. The first Van Halen album – and arguably the best – was recorded and produced in just three weeks.
The Debut Album Heard Around the World
We played one-on-one for a while and then stopped to cool down. “What band are you in?” he asked.
“I’m not in a band.”
“What are ya doin’ here?”
“I’m an editor from Guitar Player magazine. I came here to interview Pat Travers, but he blew me off.”
“Pat Travers blew you off? I can’t fucking believe that! Why don’t you interview me? Nobody has ever wanted to interview me.”
“Who are you?”
“Edward Van Halen.”
Whoa! We sat down at courtside and Eddie Van Halen gave me what he refers to as his first major interview. Coincidentally, it was also my first important rock interview.
The first Van Halen album, Eddie told me, took three weeks to record – one week for the instruments and two weeks for the vocals. “We went into the studio one day with Ted, and we all just played live and laid down like 40 songs. And out of those 40 we picked ten and wrote one in the studio for the record. So we’ve got plenty of songs. The album is very live with no overdubs – that’s the magic of Ted Templeman. I’d say out of the ten songs on the record, I overdubbed the solo in two or three songs. One of them’s doubled in “Ice Cream Man” and “Jamie’s Cryin’.” All the rest are live! I used the same equipment I use live, the one guitar, soloed during the rhythm track, and Al just played one set of drums [laughs]. And Mike, you know. And Dave stood in the booth and sang a lot of lead vocals at the same time. The only thing we did overdub was the backing vocals, because you can’t play in the same room and sing with the amps – otherwise it will bleed on the mikes. The music, I’d say, took a week, including “Jamie’s Cryin’,” which we wrote in the studio – I had the basic riffs to the song.”
Amazingly, the album’s standout track – one of the most important guitar solos in rock history – was included as an afterthought. “My guitar solo, ‘Eruption,’ wasn’t really planned to be on the record,” Eddie explained. “Me and Al were dickin’ around rehearsing for a show we had to do at the Whiskey, so I was warming up, you know, practicing my solo, and Ted walks in. He goes, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ I go, ‘That’s a little solo thing I do live.’ He goes, ‘Hey, it’s great. Put it on the record.’” Another great track, “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” featured Eddie soloing on a rented Coral Electric Sitar.
Asked to describe the difference between the album and a concert, Van Halen responded, “Well, between that record and the shows we’re doing now, I’d say none. [Laughs.] Because we were jumping around and drinking a beer and getting crazy in the studio too. There’s a vibe on the record, I think, because a lot of bands, they keep hacking it out and doing so many overdubs and double-tracking and shit like that, it doesn’t sound real. And then a lot of bands can’t pull it off live because they overdubbed so much stuff in the studio that it either doesn’t sound the same, or they’re standing there pushing buttons to get their tape machines working right or something. So we kept it real live, and the next record will be very much the same.”
Jas asks that you please help support his blog and independent music journalism by making a donation via the Paypal button at the top of his blog. Visit his blog to do so!