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As a Guitar Virtuoso, Eddie Van Halen Set the Template for Rock Music

Van Halen brought new energy and virtuosity to guitar in various songs he played for. His 'tapping' technique on the guitar is iconic.

Call it a coincidence or a premonition, but the last book that I read was Runnin’ with the Devil: A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen, written by former band manager Noel Monk (together with journalist Joe Layden). Having completed reading it on September 25, in time to pass it on to a fellow Van Halen buff, little did I know then, or for that matter, most of us did, that barely a fortnight later, on October 6, 2020, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen (“Eddie”) would move to another world. After battling throat cancer for five years, Eddie passed away at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California at the age of 65.

Also read: Legendary Lead Guitarist Eddie Van Halen Dies at 65

I first entered the musical vision of Van Halen on hearing his self-titled debut album in 1978 as a follow up to monitoring his band’s chart success across two United Kingdom-based publications that I was subscribing to then – Record Mirror & Disc and New Music Express. The album kept slipping in and out of the ‘Top 50’ (before eventually peaking at no.34). As soon as I discovered the arrival of the vinyl at the Melody Record Library – remember, it was only physical format market then – located at Mumbai’s Kemp’s Corner, and paying a rental of a princely Rs 50 then, I realised that listening to the album was way beyond value for money.

A template for rock music

Although I was born well before the demise of guitar luminary Jimi Hendrix, I never heard about him, let alone his music, before he passed away in 1970, and hence, there was nothing that I had heard even remotely similar when I heard Van Halen, the album. For me, the album was revolutionary, for want of a better word. It completely altered perceptions of what an individual – yes, Eddie – could indulge in with his guitar. And, once that change was heard, Eddie’s rock guitar would set a global precedent for all time to come. The music and its public performances were devoid of pretentions, played straight from the band’s musical heart, with the common thread being Eddie Van Halen’s mastery of the instrument, setting a template for rock music, and what followed thereafter, forever.

Also read: With His Signature Guitar Style, Eddie Van Halen Changed Rock Music

History behind the record has become rock lore: Eddie may have slowed down Cream records to learn how guitarist Eric Clapton played ‘Crossroads’ or even ‘I’m So Glad’, but it really is hard to hear any Clapton similarity on any Van Halen album (trust me, as I have seen Clapton perform live twice!). Eddie has also referred to Jimmy Page in his interviews as an inspiration (especially, ‘Heartbreaker’ from 1969’s Led Zeppelin II) but, for me, it is really difficult to hear anybody else’s influence in Eddie’s work.

For instance, among the covers on the debut album is ‘You Really Got Me’, which really does not appear to have been chosen because of any great admiration for Originators Kinks or its composer, member Ray Davis, but rather because Eddie’s distinctive riff got raucous audience feedback when performed live. Energy, in fact high octane energy, pervaded the debut album, thanks to Eddie’s incredible guitar virtuosity, showcasing – and popularising – a solo technique called tapping wherein both left and right hands on the guitar neck are utilised.

Although Eddie certainly popularised tapping, he did not invent the technique, with Steve Hackett of Genesis, during the Peter Gabriel era, utilising it on various tracks that I can recollect, like ‘The Musical Box’ (from 1971’s Nursery Cryme) and ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’ (from 1973’s Selling England By The Pound). But while Eddie has admitted that he was not the first, it is impossible to deny that his skills advanced the technique to a new level by using it to make melodies. Undeniably, the most well-known application of this playing style was in the introduction to ‘Eruption’, the second track off Van Halen’s debut album, which starts like the 1970 ‘Let Me Swim’ introduction by little known American rock band Cactus.

Collaborations with fellow rock musicians

Van Halen, before the band became to be known as such, initially consisted of brothers Alex and Eddie, who were born in Amsterdam, sons of Dutch musician Jan Van Halen and Indonesian-born Indo Eugenia Van Beers. Alex was playing the guitar and Eddie was on the drums when they moved to Pasadena, California in the early 1960s, before better sense prevailed and Eddie took to guitar and made it an extension of his body, running through band names The Broken Combs, The Trojan Rubber Co. and even Genesis – with Mark Stone on bass – until Michael Anthony replaced him. David Lee Roth completed the initial line-up with the then-named band as Mammoth, officially changing its name, in 1974, to Van Halen, which vocalist Roth considers to be his initiative.

Guitarist Eddie Van Halen performs during a private Van Halen show to announce a tour, in New York, January 5, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

While Van Halen’s discography is widely available on the net, what is not commonly known is the frequent collaborations Eddie had with various musicians through the years. Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ is the obvious one, but Eddie has also worked with fellow rock musicians like Queen’s Brian May, Roger Waters, and Toto’s Steve Lukather. He also helped out on 1977 demos for Gene Simmons of Kiss, and even performed/co-produced one-time bandmate Sammy Hagar’s 1987 solo album, ‘I Never Said Goodbye’, largely playing bass! In addition, Eddie made a cameo appearance in the music video for Frank Sinatra’s “L.A. Is My Lady”.

Black Sabbath’s Evil Eye

While Eddie also moved outside his comfort zone, playing on albums by Thomas Dolby, rapper LL Cool J, Nicolette Larson, pianist Rich Wyman, and as a producer for Private Life, the biggest surprise for me is the unconfirmed report of Eddie having performed with Black Sabbath on a song called ‘Evil Eye’.

As the story goes, Van Halen was touring Europe around the same time Sabbath was in a UK studio recording their 1994 album, Cross Purposes. Eddie apparently called Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi and invited himself over for a jam session. “[Eddie] played on ‘Evil Eye’,” Iommi recalled in his 2012 memoir. “I played the riff, and he played a great solo over it. Unfortunately, we did not record it properly on our little tape player, so I never got a chance to hear it!”

Also read: Led Zeppelin Wins ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Plagiarism Case

Despite this assertion, and the lack of a song credit supposedly due to restrictions placed by record label Warner Bros Records, many fans continue to insist that the song’s solo is performed by Eddie. In 2018, Tony Martin, who was Sabbath’s vocalist at the time, revealed that he had found a recording of the jam session though, the tape has yet to see the light of day.

Meanwhile, Eddie has also received further recognition in a scene from 1985’s Back To The Future movie, which shows character Marty McFly slipping a cassette marked “Edward Van Halen” into a Walkman and blasting it into his future father’s ears to wake him up. In 2012, Eddie admitted it was “just a bunch of noise” that he recorded without pay – as “Donut City” – apparently as a favour to record producer Quincy Jones, who had produced Jackson’s ‘Beat It’.

Cut to the present: On October 6, 2020 Eddie’s only son and bassist in the final line-up of Van Halen, Wolfgang, announced on his Twitter that Eddie had died from cancer. His death arrived 10 days after original Van Halen bassist Mark Stone also passed away due to cancer.

Van Halen’s catalogue includes more than two albums’ worth of unreleased songs — both in demo and live form — including more than 15 tracks that have never been bootlegged. Whenever the time appears for a new retrospective box set, we hope, fans will find a treasure trove. Until that happens, let us rejoice having lived in the same era as Eddie Van Halen. Indeed, there will never ever be another guitar player like him.

Parag Kamani is a rock music aficionado.