Van Halen’s 2012 tour srtarts TONIGHT!
Written by Jeffrey Lee Puckett
In the winter of 1978, the heads of teenage boys began exploding nationwide because of something called the “brown sound.” You can look it up. The guilty party was Eddie Van Halen, who happily confessed and then blew up some more.
The weapon was Eddie’s guitar, delivered via “Van Halen,” his band’s debut album. No one had heard anything like it before and, arguably, since. It was a game-changing moment for rock guitar, up there with Jimi Hendrix making feedback do whatever he wanted and Jeff Beck reinventing the wheel.
“I’ll never forget sitting down with ‘Van Halen’ and how huge his sound was,” said guitarist Mark Maxwell of Louisville Crashers. “It was mind-blowing to hear him play. He’s a freak of nature.”
My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel, selected by Rolling Stone as one of today’s finest guitarists, used to play “Van Halen” and “1984” incessantly. “The essence of Eddie Van Halen is the same thing I love about all my favorite guitar players, and it’s that they’ve mastered the guitar but it also seems like they could have played anything,” he said. “He’s just an incredible musician.”
Eddie didn’t outright invent anything he’ll be doing Saturday, when Van Halen’s tour opens at the KFC Yum! Center.
The tapping technique for which he is best known, where he taps on the fretboard using his right hand as he continues to play with his left, is a centuries-old technique that had been used by a handful of players on rock and blues records since the late 1960s. The fact is, however, that no one can do it like Eddie, who also utilized a long list of mechanical changes to his guitars, pickups and amplifiers.
But the most important thing that Eddie brought to the table is his basic technique, the strength in his hands that gave his playing an insane aggression even as he could turn on a dime to toss off a subtle aside. In the band’s early days, Eddie used to play some solos with his back to the audience, both to increase the mystique and to not give away any secrets.
There was no need. One could learn every solo down to the last intonation, use the same equipment down to the last vintage tube, and still not sound like Eddie or come anywhere near sounding brown. No one has yet. When Rolling Stone put together a list of the 100 greatest guitarists, Eddie came in eighth, and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready spoke to that specific point.
“A lot of it is in his hands: the way he holds his pick between his thumb and middle finger, which opens things up for his finger-tapping,” McCready wrote. “When I found out he played that way, I tried it myself, but it was too weird. But underneath that, Eddie has soul. It’s like Hendrix — you can play the things he’s written, but there’s an X factor that you can’t get.”
Brad Spencer, who plays in Charlestown, Ind., cover band Parts Unknown, began trying to play Eddie’s seminal “Eruption” when he was 12. He’s now 42. “To this day,” he said, “I still haven’t learned it.”
There are some who think Eddie is rock guitar’s last innovator, and it’s hard to argue the point. There have been plenty of exceptional guitarists since 1978, but innovation is a tricky business. Perhaps the only guy who comes close is U2’s The Edge, but his gift is for building a sound through extreme use of electronics. It’s impressive, but he’s the first to admit that he isn’t a stunning player.
So if you’re at the KFC Yum! Center tomorrow night, take a moment and reflect — or genuflect, if that’s your thing — because you’ll be witnessing history.
“He made kids in my generation want to play guitar,” said Louisville’s Eric Whorton, 37, a pretty fair player himself. “Ed launched record labels, magazines and a whole genre of music based on shredding. He came up with a sound on those first five records that people have been trying to re-create ever since.”