Eddie Van Halen was an idol for an entire generation. Van Halen, along with bands like Journey, KISS, Bon Jovi and Motley Crue defined the 1980s fantasy of being a rockstar. Thanks to MTV and the popularity of music videos, band members were as recognizable as movie stars. Eddie was able to break the stereotype that virtuosos should always be serious or brooding characters. Van Halen brought joy to rock and roll.
The name of Van Halen is synonymous with incredible solos and lightning fast shredding, but what made Eddie special wasn’t his skill or flawless technique, it was his creativity and limitless passion for music.
Perhaps the easiest place to find his bag of tricks on full display is the solo in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” one of the biggest singles of all time. The story behind that track encapsulates his approach to life, he decided to record the legendary solo for a case of beer and dancing lessons from the King of Pop because he didn’t want to complicate their equation with contract work, initially uncredited on the track from Thriller.
Van Halen, who passed away on Oct 6th after a long battle with cancer, managed to push the boundaries of the electric guitar in a way the world hadn’t seen since Jimi Hendrix. His unique style has left an indelible imprint on all rock music that has come out since the 80’s. He expanded the repertoire of guitar players to include fireworks like tapping, tremolo picking and blistering legato (playing only with the left hand) runs across the entire fretboard. When people heard the unaccompanied guitar track “Eruption” off Van Halen’s debut album for the first time in 1978, they couldn’t believe what they were listening to. Getting those sounds out of a guitar was unheard of.
Reducing Eddie to just his solos would be doing him a disservice – many professional guitarists will tell you that he was one of the best rhythm guitarists of all time. Eddie was an innovator, an inventor of sounds and styles that keep him relevant to this day, more than 40 years later. He was a master of the keyboards, responsible for the unmistakable intro to “Jump”. He built his own guitars, hot-rodding different parts from his favorite models to create the “Frankenstrat”, the iconic red and white striped guitar. He didn’t stop there, he modified his amplifiers with a light dimmer to coax a rawer, more powerful sound that is instantly recognizable. It became so popular that it was even given a name, the “Brown Sound”. Head into any recording studio today and you will find some kind of replica of that particular sound, which is plastered across modern rock music.
Six songs are not nearly enough to define his legacy, but in my opinion this is the best entry to discover Eddie’s work.
Runnin’ With The Devil (Van Halen I, 1978)
The first line of their first song signifies what Van Halen is about – “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow.” This song began the Van Halen era, introducing Eddie and the band to the world with a bang. Melting horns bring in the staccato bass and legendary intro.
Ain’t Talkin Bout Love (Van Halen I, 1978)
This song gives you everything you want from a classic Van Halen tune – iconic riff, catchy chorus, a steady beat and a great solo. This is a tune that sticks in your head from the moment you listen to it, one of the band’s best.
Hot For Teacher (1984, 1984)
I must confess, this is my favourite Van Halen song. The lyrical content is meant to be relatable and frivolous but the musicianship on this track is par excellence. The breakneck pace of the song seems effortless because of the years that Eddie and his brother Alex (the drummer of the band) spent practicing together in their garage. Listeners get treated to the Eddie show with leads, dynamics and intelligent rhythm on full display.
Jump (1984, 1984)
This is Van Halen’s most successful single and perhaps their most well known song. A perfect blend of pop and rock, this song rocketed to the top of the US charts. The song is defined by its instantly recognizable keyboard line. Eddie shows off his entire synthesizer arsenal with acrobatic arpeggios sprinkled all over the track, most notably in the pre-chorus where he plays a 4:3 polyrhythm over the drums.
Panama (1984, 1984)
The band wrote this song after lead singer David Lee Roth was accused by a reporter of singing about only women, partying, and fast cars. He realized he’d never written a song about fast cars, and decided to write one. During the bridge of the song we can hear Eddie revving his vintage Lamborghini Miura! The rhythm guitar work on Panama is quintessential Eddie and this strong is a strong contender for having the best Van Halen riff. This song is a staple in pop culture, heard everywhere from Superbad to Family Guy.
Why Can’t This Be Love (5150, 1986)
This single is often unfairly criticized as it marked a departure from the original vocalist, David Lee Roth. However, Sammy Hagar shines on this synth driven catchy track which is a perfect 80’s time machine. An interesting fact about this tune is that on the first two world tours after this song was released, Sammy Hagar played all the guitar parts and the solo while Eddie Van Halen only played the keyboard sections.
Shaayak is an Economics and Finance Major at Ashoka University. He is a guitarist at Delhi band Apartment Upstairs and a music producer. He has also worked with the Centre for Social and Behavioural change to produce an audio adherence program for Iron and Folic Acid pills for pregnant women in rural areas.
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