How Eddie Van Halen Changed Rock Guitar

The year before Van Halen put out their self-titled debut, the biggest things in rock were long, ponderous solos and the back-to-basics riffing of the Sex Pistols and Ramones. Then came “Eruption.” In just 102 seconds, Eddie Van Halen redefined the vocabulary of rock guitar — like Jimi Hendrix and his personal hero, Eric Clapton, had done a decade earlier — with an array of fluttering melodies, laser-beam licks, and sea-sickening dive bombs. More than 40 years later, it’s still exhilarating. Even if you didn’t play guitar, you’d have to ask yourself, “How’d he do that?”

Van Halen was a self-taught prodigy. He’d started out on drums but switched to guitar when his brother, Alex, nailed “Wipe Out” on the kit before him. “Eruption” was just him and Alex noodling around during the sessions for Van Halen, prepping for a gig, until producer Ted Templeman insisted they record it. “I do whatever I want,” Eddie said in his first big interview, with Guitar Player, in 1978. “I don’t really think about it too much — and that’s the beauty of being in this band. … Everything is pretty spontaneous.”

That pioneering spirit guided Eddie throughout his life, and across four decades — until his tragic death from cancer on October 6th — he made countless innovations in rock music. Not only did he radicalize the way the instrument was played, he redefined how it could be built and how it could sound. His famous “Frankenstein” guitar was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Play It Loud exhibit in 2019, and one of his guitars was previously featured at the Smithsonian — just two examples of his influence on art and culture. Here are his greatest contributions to the vocabulary of rock & roll.

He treated the guitar like a piano

Although classical guitarists had already pioneered using their picking hands to play notes their fretting hand normally would — in order to give musical phrases a wider range — Eddie confounded rock fans with what became known as “finger tapping,” playing the guitar with two hands, kind of like a piano, on “Eruption” and other songs. (Both Ed and Alex took classical piano lessons as youngsters.) The approach was so revolutionary that Alex encouraged him to play gigs with his back to audiences so aspiring ax men wouldn’t steal it before the band had a record deal.

“I was watching Jimmy Page going [sings hammering guitar lick], like that, with one hand, in ‘Heartbreaker,’” Eddie told Rolling Stone in 2008 of why he started playing that way. “I thought, ‘I can play like that, and you wouldn’t know if I was using this finger or this one.’ But you just move it around and it’s like, ‘You’ve got one big hand there, buddy. That’s a hell of a spread.’”

He was guitar’s mad scientist

A constant tinkerer, Eddie always sought ways to modify his instruments for maximum impact; he’d whip out sandpaper and saws to customize them in ways to make the sounds in his head. His most famous guitar was known as the “Frankenstrat” or “Frankenstein” because of the way he built it himself from a $50 Charvel body and an $80 neck. He had the audacity of affixing it with a humbucking pickup, which creates a fatter sound and is typically found on Gibson electrics, like Les Pauls. “I’ve experimented with it a lot,” he told Guitar Player in ’78. “If you put the pickup really close to the bridge, it sounds trebly; if you put it too far forward, you get a sound that isn’t good for rhythm. I like it towards the back; it gives the sound a little sharper edge and bite.” He put his own frets on it and got rid of all the knobs and switches of popular guitars at the time, using only one volume knob. He then painted it with angular stripes.

He also chainsawed a copy of a Gibson Explorer to make it look more like a Flying V. “Nobody taught me how to do guitar work: I learned by trial and error,” he told Guitar Player. “I have messed up a lot of good guitars that way, but now I know what I’m doing, and I can do whatever I want to get them the way I want them. I hate store-bought, off-the-rack guitars.” Although he wasn’t the first prominent guitarist to meddle with his instrument — David Gilmour had his “Black Strat” and Les Paul had the freakin’ Les Paul, for instance — Eddie inspired the custom-guitar craze of the Eighties.

 

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