One minute and 42 seconds of Van Halen’s guitar transformed music
John Covach is director of the University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music and a professor of music at Rochester and the Eastman School of Music. He is the author of, “What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History,” and maintains an active career as a performing […]
John Covach is director of the University of Rochester's Institute for Popular Music and a professor of music at Rochester and the Eastman School of Music. He is the author of, "What's That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History," and maintains an active career as a performing and recording musician. Follow him @JohnCovach. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
(CNN)Apart from all the other things for which he is now being remembered and mourned, Eddie Van Halen -- who passed away Tuesday at the age of 65 -- was among the most important figures in the development of electric guitar playing in the second half of the 20th century.
There is perhaps some irony, then, in the fact that the only No. 1 Billboard single his band ever had, 1984's "Jump," is dominated by Eddie's keyboard playing. That song, of course, also includes one of Van Halen's blistering guitar solos, but his versatility as a musician had always played a role in his guitar prowess. Behind the mesmerizing licks and exhilarating power chords was an exceptional musical gift and a keen pop intelligence. Since the 1970s, Van Halen captivated many with his innovation and virtuosity -- but he was also a traditionalist, building on rock's past.
Most of what made Van Halen -- the band and the guitarist -- so influential in rock history can be found in their self-titled 1978 debut album. For those of us who heard that LP when it was first released, it was a kind of revelation. Some of the key elements that made the music so impressive, however, were not entirely new.
Here was a band fronted by a charismatic singer and a guitarist with attitude. In this sense, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen were much like the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page or Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. And like the music of the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith, Van Halen's work was often aggressively riff-driven and -- sometimes overlooked amid the furious flurry of notes and bare-chested prancing and wailing -- loaded with classic pop appeal.
"Running with the Devil" opens that debut album, featuring a catchy Van Halen guitar hook set above Michael Anthony's throbbing bass notes. And as gigantic as the riff that starts the song is, the verses are far more subdued, with Roth's vocal accompanied by quieter electric guitar chords, punctuated by single-note fills. Of course, the choruses are loud and assertive, featuring a return of the powerful guitar riff and the band's trademark backing vocals.
When Van Halen's guitar finally does break loose, it emerges almost like a trumpet fanfare on steroids, sounding its call before retreating back into the opening guitar riff. Many focus on the more flamboyant aspects of his guitar playing, but the tasteful restraint employed on this track shows another side of Van Halen's guitar mastery: where others might have overplayed, Eddie -- possessed of more sheer fretboard technique than most -- holds back.
The second track on the debut album is perhaps one of the most celebrated guitar solos in rock. Providing a detailed analysis of "Eruption" in his 1993 book, "Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music," rock musicologist Robert Walser calls it "the solo that transformed rock guitar." If the guitar playing on the opening track is about restraint, this second track is its opposite: it is dynamic and flashy.
Van Halen's techniques in this song were not new: tapping, fast single-line playing and rapid picking, use of "classical sounding" music, and dive-bomb vibrato-arm swoops were all employed by previous guitarists. Steve Hackett employed tapping, for instance, in early 1970s Genesis tracks such as "Supper's Ready" and "Return of the Giant Hogweed"; Yes guitarist Steve Howe had played "classical" sounding lines and employed rapid picking; Jimi Hendrix had made dive-bomb swoops famous. But by imaginatively combining, extending and refining these techniques, Eddie Van Halen created a minute and 42 seconds seconds of music that turned everybody's head while raising the bar in terms of rock virtuosity. As it turns out, the track was not originally planned as an album track; according to Van Halen himself, it arose from a warmup session in the studio.
These two opening tracks from the debut album nicely illustrate the range of Eddie Van Halen's guitar mastery and a significant portion of his legacy. While emphasis is often placed on how new and innovative what he did was, much of it was built firmly on the playing of others, a fact that Eddie himself (an avid Eric Clapton fan) would eagerly admit. As a figure in popular music history, Eddie Van Halen stands as an innovator with deep roots in rock tradition.