In February 1978, a neutron-bomb of a debut album was dropped on American soil. An album that sounds “like it has no fathers”. That album’s side 1 sent a soundwave rippling thru speakers thousands of miles away from its epicenter in Los Angeles.
The first 4 songs in order:
“Runnin’ With The Devil”
“You Really Got Me”
“Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love”
A more recent reviewer described the album best:
…Like all great originals it doesn’t seem to belong to the past and it still sounds like little else, despite generations of copycats.
This past week, the world lost the inspiration for those copycats. Eddie Van Halen died at age 65, 20 years after his first cancer diagnosis.
The Mad Scientist
Every guitar teacher I’ve had in my life that was older than me can recount the many hours after school they spent in their bedrooms rewinding VH albums to figure out that sound. Eddie represents the limits of what’s possible when you don’t believe in limits. His modded guitar, Frankenstrat, was a classic Gibson cross-pollinated with Fender parts including a new tremolo system designed to stay in tune with those swooning divebombs.
In the hook of the Atlantic’s tribute, The Mad Genius Of Eddie Van Halen, James Parker writes:
He boiled strings, cut vibrato bars in half, put the head of one guitar on the body of another—and created a sound that changed rock forever.
In 2015, Eddie himself penned a piece for Popular Mechanics going into his inventions and patents. In a relatively recent interview with Joe Rogan, David Lee Roth discussed Eddie’s innovations in recording. It’s common for guitarists to compose their solos before recording. But in the late 70s, with the emergence of multi-track recording being cheaper and easier Eddie would improvise 5 or 6 takes. And just as he built his guitar from parts, he would mix and match segments of the recording to splice together the solo that would make the album. Afterwards he would go back and learn how to play these frankensolos jumping wildly up and down the neck where the tracks were fused together.
Over the years, EVH’s distinct voice has been emulated and even carries a nickname. The “brown” sound. In recent interviews he has clarified that when he referred to Van Halen’s “brown” sound in a 1985 interview, he was actually referring to the organic, lumber-like pitch of his brother Alex’s snare drum. Not his guitar sound. Despite the clarification, the “brown sound” has been entrenched as a reference to Eddie’s tone.
Still, all the technical details wouldn’t amount to anything if it was just an obsession of guitar nerds in their basements, digging rabbit holes to depths reserved for lonely gear heads and maybe sommeliers. In the hands of its maestro, the wood, string, and circuits assume unprecedented possibility, just as “brown”, came to mean more than its uttered intention.
His noises, his phrases, came rainbowing out of an electric abyss: something out of nothing, creativity at its origin… his most idiosyncratic zoomings arose, blissfully, playfully, from the void. That’s how it feels to listen to Eddie Van Halen.
Eddie played fast. He inspired generations of shredders. He lived fast. He had a penchant for Lambos. In fact, he and and Sammy Hagar shared the same mechanic, who fatefully connected them after the band parted ways with Diamond Dave. He married rising star Valerie Bertinelli, a paragon of 80s cuteness, and still didn’t slow down a step. Even in the past 20 years, while fighting many battles on the health front, he has managed to tour (his son Wolfie took over bass duties for much of the last decade, combining with Alex Van Halen on drums, redefining the upper-bound of what it means to be a “family band”).
Eddie was turbocharged. If you believe we are each endowed with a set number of RPMs per lifetime, then Eddie might have lived to a 120 if you consider how high he revved in his 65 years.
“He spent his whole life as a rock star and had never been anything but that,” Martin Popoff, author of “Unchained: A Van Halen User Manual,” told The Post. “Since his young teens in Pasadena, he was lauded as a star.” “A famous story Eddie told about his acclimation to alcohol was that [as a kid] he got bit on the hand by a German shepherd and was bleeding. His father gave him a cigarette and a shot of vodka and told him he would be fine.”
Eddie preferred to write songs on keys before transposing to guitar. When it came to music he was in control. A genius redefining his craft. But when I read bits of his story, I have a hanging sense that he was not quite in control of himself. That his hands could never be idle. It is not his fortune but ours that the gods placed an electric guitar in those hands.
I had planned to write about something else this week, but it’s been a EVH Youtube and tribute merry-go-round for me for a few days. Here are some of my favorite finds.
- The Mad Genius Of Eddie Van Halen (The Atlantic)
- The Astonishing Techniques That Made EVH A Guitar God (NPR)
Here are five songs where we can hear that balance in full bloom…they represent something of the breadth of his musicianship and cumulatively paint a portrait of Eddie as a guitarist who dwelled in multiple dimensions.
Includes song commentaries accompanied by videos.
- How Eddie Van Halen Hacks A Guitar (Popular Mechanics)
Eddie Van Halen
The nitty-gritty including patents. Why am I not surprised he electrocuted himself? (Interestingly, he also ran his circuits so hot in the recording of the solo for Michael Jackson’s Beat It, that the monitor in the control room caught fire.)
- How EVH Corrupted -Then Saved – Valerie Bertinelli (Pagesix)
Rockstar stories are cliché but Eddie’s life was the prototype. A backstage look at the virtuoso’s fast life.
- Sitting in with Paul Shaffer’s Band (YouTube)
The Late Show with David Letterman
All the segments of EVH playing outros to commercials in a 1985 episode of Letterman when the show recorded in LA. It’s fun to see Eddie’s playful side in a non-concert performance setting.
- Tribute (Youtube)
Howard reminisces about Eddie and does a nice job highlighting what makes him special. He has a guitar-playing superfan break down Eddie’s style and explain why its familiar sounds are so distinctly his.
- A Party at Eddie’s house (YouTube)
This was one of my favorite videos despite it’s choppy quality. Eddie’s raw joy and energy playing a big party in the backyard of his LA mansion. How do you get invited to stuff like this?!
- Isolated guitar track for Panama (Youtube)
Just Eddie. No drums, keys, or bass.
- Ain’t Talkin Bout Love reaction (YouTube)
Lost In Vegas channel
Ryan and George share the joy of hearing Van Halen for the first time. I always find it fun to watch somebody else appreciate and breakdown a great song. See if this one makes their “staylist”. (I plug these guys all the time because their breakdowns are a fun way to discover new music or find angles to appreciate songs you already dig.)
On the day the news broke, Valerie Bertinelli’s message on Instagram:
40 years ago my life changed forever when I met you. You gave me the one true light in my life, our son, Wolfgang.
Through all your challenging treatments for lung cancer, you kept your gorgeous spirit and that impish grin. I’m so grateful Wolfie and I were able to hold you in your last moments.
I will see you in our next life my love.
Oh that impish grin. The devil smiles whenever a 12-year old makes a guitar squeal through a hot amp for the first time. Rock in peace, Eddie.