There are those few, iconic, earth-shaking moments, after which you know nothing will ever be the same again. In the history of the electric guitar, there aren’t many that compare to February 10th, 1978. That was the day the eponymous debut album from Van Halen dropped, and the impact crater it would leave on the rock guitar landscape would be comparable to Jimi Hendrix chopping down London with the edge of his hand in the late ’60s.
I’ll never forget coming home with that little record as a long-haired eighteen-year-old would-be guitarist. ‘Van Halen’ was all it said on it. It was only 35 minutes and 34 seconds long. Just over half an hour. And every second of that brief running time was pure racing mercury, injected directly into my veins and frazzling circuits in my brain. Van Halen the band was brothers Eddie and Alex on guitar and drums respectively, Michael Anthony on bass and angelic and vital backing vocals, and, at first, the wild and charismatic acrobat entertainer David Lee Roth on vocals—sometimes sung, often just barked enthusiastically and perfectly. They were a glorious synthesis. ‘Van Halen’ the album was recorded in just three weeks, almost entirely live. The band blazed through the studio like wildfire, coming in and laying down the tracks before shooting off again. To think of those kinds of time scales in recording today is pretty much madness. It was back then too. That spontaneous livewire energy was like magic in a bottle. If you told me that every track was recorded in one take, I would believe you in a heartbeat.
That energy, that pure electricity, comes through in every wild second on that record. From the iconic opener and declaration of intent ‘Runnin’ with the Devil’ to deeper cuts like ‘Atomic Punk’ to a rollicking cover of an earlier watershed moment in guitar, The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’, this was so clearly the sound of a band that was having the time of their life. All over the album there are whoops and gang choruses and laughs and even a goddamn kazoo for fu*k’s sake! Despite that infectious joy, however, it wasn’t the sense of fun that made the world sit up and take notice of Van Halen when they set off that conflagration and walked away without looking back. In an era of pompous, indulgent bands like Kansas (god bless ‘em) dominating the airwaves, it certainly helped that these guys were putting out an album where each song sounded like an entire night’s party somehow compressed into an average of three-and-a-quarter minutes. But that wasn’t what propelled them into outer space.
No, that was the rocket boosters Eddie Van Halen had in his fingers and the galaxy map he had in his mind. When that first Van Halen album dropped, nobody had heard guitar playing like that before. In the intervening decades, popular consciousness has cast Eddie Van Halen as the stereotypical guitar ‘shredder’—a virtuoso player obsessed with speed and technicality above all else. Yet while this characterisation may apply to the countless imitators that followed in his wake, it was never accurate when describing Eddie. Yes, the very second track on that debut was the appropriately titled instrumental ‘Eruption’—a watershed moment in rock guitar, all fiery tremolo runs, mercurial legato, credited with bringing the technique of finger-tapping to the masses—and the whole album was shot through with seemingly casual bursts of insane speed and other hallmarks of guitar shredding, but unlike most shredders, Eddie was never indulgent or tasteless. He deployed these techniques always with the thought of how they would suit the song at the forefront of his mind.
There are tracks on that first album the guitar playing of which could power a small settlement. ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love’, ‘I’m The One’, and ‘On Fire’ feature blistering runs of such searing tone of Eddie’s famous ‘Brown Sound’ so as to still sound cutting edge. But it was his understanding of composition and his sense of rhythm that really set Eddie apart. He had a much more mature understanding of music and a deeper feel than the shredder caricature could ever hope to capture. Much like Jimi Hendrix before him—who was also capable of dazzling feats of speed and virtuosity, and who is too sometimes remembered best for those—Eddie’s real power lay in his rhythm, and his use of interesting chord voicings. Van Halen records are peppered with inversions and triads and sus chords. The guitar playing breathes, and ebbs and flows with the songs, sometimes leading, sometimes supporting, but always mindful. ‘Could This Be Magic?’, ‘Unchained’, ‘Secrets’, ‘Top Jimmy’—their discography isn’t just a host to Eddie’s deeply rhythmic, innovative and textured guitar playing, it’s founded on it.
Perhaps the most revealing thing for me is the fact that the one Van Halen tune I turn to most often when I want to experience Eddie’s otherworldly magic is a song that doesn’t even have a ‘proper’ solo in it. It’s ‘Dance the Night Away’, off of the band’s second album, ‘Van Halen II.’ Van Halen recorded and released this album a mere year after that first record lit the world on fire. Think of it this way: You’re a young band, shooting up into the stratosphere, and you have a guitarist who is being revered as a god capable of nigh-on any technical feat imaginable. The second track on your first album established him as such. What will the second track on your second album be? What kind of epic echo will ‘Eruption Part II’ be? What sort of insane technical chops will it display? A lesser band—and a lesser guitarist—would have been bursting at the seams to prove their dominance even more with an ‘Eruption Part II’. What Van Halen, and Eddie, did instead was ‘Dance the Night Away’—a playful, wistful romantic ode to youthful romance, all major chords and echo-y triads and supremely tasteful guitar licks filling in the spaces exactly when they need to (there is technically an ‘Eruption Part II’ on the album, the Spanish guitar shred up, ‘Spanish Fly’ but you get my point). I’ve listened to it non-stop for years. Today it hits me extra hard.
I always remember an anecdote I read about the Van Halen brothers. The story goes that Alex originally started on guitar, with Eddie learning drums. The young Alex would go out partying all night, and when he’d come back he’d always find Eddie in his room, on his guitar. He’d been practicing all night. It wasn’t long before the brothers switched instruments. Thank god they did. Eddie Van Halen gave us magic. He changed rock guitar forever. He passed away yesterday of cancer, aged just 65 years old. Rest in peace, Eddie, and thank you. We hope you get to dance the night away forever now.
The giants of rock music paid tribute on Twitter to the immense talent.
What a Long Great Trip It’s Been.. pic.twitter.com/M5pmkVi7hW— David Lee Roth (@DavidLeeRoth) October 7, 2020
Heartbroken and speechless. My love to the family. pic.twitter.com/MQMueMF2XO— Sammy Hagar (@sammyhagar) October 6, 2020
We are enormously saddened to hear about the untimely passing of Eddie Van Halen. We considered him an inspiration, an idol, and after spending a summer together on the road in '88, a friend. Sending love to Alex, @wolfvanhalen & everyone in the greater VH family.— Metallica (@Metallica) October 6, 2020
📸 @RossHalfin pic.twitter.com/wZ9ZKNmK0q
. @EddieVanHalen was one of the nicest guys I ever worked with and we shared so many laughs together. His influence on music and especially the guitar has been immeasurable. He was an absolute legend. Eddie, I’ll see you on the other side, my friend. Love, Ozzy.— Ozzy Osbourne (@OzzyOsbourne) October 6, 2020
Just when I thought 2020 couldn't get any worse, I hear Eddie Van Halen has passed. So shocking- One of the nicest, down to Earth men I have ever met and toured with. A true gent and true genius. RIP. So sad.Thoughts go out to his brother Alex, and his family. pic.twitter.com/fwIw040YMX— Geezer Butler (@geezerbutler) October 6, 2020
I’m just devastated to hear the news of the passing of my dear friend Eddie Van Halen. He fought a long and hard battle with his cancer right to the very end. Eddie was one of a very special kind of person, a really great friend. Rest In Peace my dear friend till we meet again. pic.twitter.com/Qs8tsLPANJ— Tony Iommi (@tonyiommi) October 6, 2020
My heart is broken. Eddie was not only a Guitar God, but a genuinely beautiful soul. Rest in peace, Eddie! …Eddie Van Halen Dead at 65 from Cancer https://t.co/gITtcndQVv— Gene Simmons (@genesimmons) October 6, 2020
Oh NO! Speechless. A trailblazer and someone who always gave everything to his music. A good soul. I remember first seeing him playing at the Starwood in 1976 and he WAS Eddie Van Halen. So shocked and sad. My condolences to Wolfie and the family. https://t.co/ExAWzFAEYJ— Paul Stanley (@PaulStanleyLive) October 6, 2020
Legendary guitar and musical innovator Edward Van Halen. 1955-2020. Heaven will be electric tonight. pic.twitter.com/hdLd7atI74— Lenny Kravitz (@LennyKravitz) October 6, 2020
Crushed. So fucking crushed. RIP Eddie Van Halen. You changed our world. You were the Mozart of rock guitar. Travel safe rockstar.— —Nikki Sixx— (@NikkiSixx) October 6, 2020
I am in complete and utter shock over the news of Edward Van Halen’s passing…Very few musicians ever come along that change the entire landscape of their instrument and King Edward was one of those few. One of the G.O.A.T! #RIPEVH #RIPEdwardVanHalen 😢😢😢 pic.twitter.com/1uuMLt1cvv— Mike Portnoy 🤘 (@MikePortnoy) October 6, 2020
RIP Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen were a tremendous influence on both Vinnie & Dime & Pantera. Hopefully they are all rocking out together now! pic.twitter.com/XtnL33aGsd— Pantera (@Pantera) October 6, 2020
The word “innovator” gets thrown around a lot in this industry.— Nita Strauss (@hurricanenita) October 6, 2020
In my humble opinion, there is no one it applies to more than the great @eddievanhalen.
Thank you for being THE innovator of these six strings and blazing a trail for so many of us to attempt to follow. 💔 RIP pic.twitter.com/5xG2Ywimk6
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