With the globe caught in the throes of a devastating pandemic, the country embroiled in social unrest and turmoil, and ultimately split along party lines during a presidential election, the tragic news of the passing of Eddie Van Halen did not receive the appropriate amount of coverage in lieu of the monolithic impact he had upon not just the Rock and Metal world but also the realm of popular music altogether.
The solo that changed the world. One cannot help but see “Eruption” for what it was: the most important moment for the electric guitar since Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Eddie Van Halen took that Hendrix spirit of freedom and innovation polished it with an impeccable, personal technique, and launched his playing into the stratosphere tapping up and down the fretboard and using his Floyd Rose locking tremolo system to create dramatic shrieks and dive bombs, new sounds and new techniques that would enchant guitar players for four subsequent decades.
The Los Angeles Scene
Were it not for Van Halen, the grimy glamor of the Sunset Strip might not have occurred. It was Eddie’s band that would become the vanguard model for the Hollywood scene with his over the top playing and rock-solid band. Someone had to set an example for Motley Crue, right? After learning of his death last week, I went on a deep dive for as much Van Halen footage I could find and, in the process, came across some interesting material to help illuminate what those early seminal years for the band were like. Full disclosure: EVH is not my favorite guitarist of all time. That spot is reserved for Randy Rhoads. Evidently, there was a bit of a rivalry between Van Halen and Randy’s Quiet Riot, the two bands that dominated that early L.A. Metal scene.
That rivalry is certainly reflected in the interview. In an interview that same year with Guitar World, Randy Rhoads said, “I do a lot of the same licks as Eddie Van Halen…I wish I could take time and come up with something that nobody else has done.”
Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. elaborates on the rivalry between Van Halen and Quiet Riot. Evidently, he loaned quite a bit of gear to EVH back in the day including his Ibanez Destroyer which was used to record Women and Children First. One cannot help but ponder what it would have been like to witness the early success of Van Halen (as well as Quiet Riot). Van Halen’s success shone a light on southern California causing it to become the mecca for prospective guitar heroes.
Heavy Metal Pioneers
The impact Van Halen had upon the burgeoning Heavy Metal scene at large simply cannot be overstated. While the band certainly would go on to break any kind of genre mold, they were extremely heavy for the late ‘70s when they debuted. Heavy Metal as we know it was still in its formative years at that time and usually, most of the credit is given to NWOBHM bands that were like the second thrust from across the pond after the initial triple entente of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Judas Priest. While Def Leppard and Iron Maiden are undoubtedly pioneers in the Metal world, Van Halen was setting precedents stateside. The influence those early albums like their debut and my personal favorite, Fair Warning, had on up and coming players that would go on to become legends, from Jake E. Lee to Dimebag Darrell, is inestimable. EVH became the idol for every aspiring guitarist with his charming smile and virtuosic talent.
Van Halen is a uniquely American phenomenon cultivated by the impact of those who came before yet completely original in form. Sure, KISS (of whom Gene Simmons gave the band their first break discovering them in L.A.) had delivered fire-breathing, hotter than hell Hard Rock, but Van Halen had a remarkable edge. There was a fire there, an intrinsic hunger, the yearning for discovery, and eventual conquest – all characteristics fueled even further by the magic of his guitar wizardry.
The ingredients that added up to EVH’s savage virtuosity were a keen musical ear, a desire for experimentation, and a staggering technique, the result of thousands of hours of diligent practice. Furthermore, his cool attitude made you like the guy as he was always grinning ear to ear when in his element with an axe strapped around his neck. To even hypothetically contemplate the reach of his influence is a most arduous task for it eclipses any preconceived notion. If you were a fan of guitar in the ‘80s, he was likely your Michael Jordan. Like number 23, he brought our country together rallying behind his uncanny greatness.
EVH innovated by expanding pop culture’s guitar vocabulary and raising the bar to any who could potentially try to rival him. While I mentioned that Randy Rhoads is my personal favorite, EVH changed the world. His presence upped the ante for any who would present themselves as guitar heroes thereafter. From collaborating with Michael Jackson to having the guts to release a synth-led single in “Jump,” to the “Right Now” video constantly played on MTV with its social messaging, he dared to exceed the limitations of the past.
There may not have been a Randy Rhoads were it not for seeing EVH back in the late ‘70s. That could have been the impetus for his greatness though he did admit that he felt that he had yet to find his own sound. Who else may not have been? That is a question as far-reaching and vast as the sea of artists that comprise modern, especially heavy music. The Van Halen energy contributed to Thrash, to the swagger and sleaze of Glam, and the musicianship across the board fueled the expansion of myriad genres. His selfless act of placing his famed bumblebee guitar in the casket of dedicated devotee Dimebag Darrell illustrates the kind of guy he really was as he had previously told Darrell that he would make a copy of the guitar, his favorite, for him. The world may be gripped by chaos at the moment, but we still must take the time to pay respect to a man whose legacy is incalculable, who contributed perhaps more than any other guitar player to the art, and who never failed to entertain us enriching our lives with the joy of music over a career that spanned five mammoth decades.