Dutch/American rock giant Edward Lodewijk Van Halen or Eddie was the force behind his band Van Halen, together with his brother Alex on drums, bassman Michael Anthony and singer David Lee Roth. On their self-titled debut album Van Halen (1978) Eddie newly codified electric guitar playing with his amazing blend of tone, technique and unnatural skill. He used two-handed tapping, using both hands on the guitar neck, natural and artificial harmonics, tremolo picking and vibrato to express his rhythmic sensibilities and melodic style. He would be a major influence on legions of young guitarists the world over. He was listed at #8 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitarists, and #1 in Guitar World magazine’s readers’ survey for The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. His playing encompasses a wide variety of styles which we will cover here today with a list of some of his finest solos.
Eruption (Van Halen, 1978)
Considered a pivotal moment in the evolution of guitar playing, in just 1:42, this instrumental gem redefines sonic and technical possibilities of the instrument in unmitigated brilliance. It divided the electric guitar world in two, B.E. (before Eruption) and A.E. (after Eruption), it was that good. He brought two-handed tapping, quick flutter picking and phrasal runs combined with harmonic and echo effects to centre stage. It put guitar ‘heroes’ on alert and became a massive influence to rockers all over the world. The axe that did the damage is in his hands on the album’s cover: a Frankenstrat.
Ice Cream Man (Van Halen, 1978)
A simple walking blues intro on acoustic that sets up the explosive body of the song with solid power chords leading to some rapid-fire pick articulation, tapping, tapped slides and bends, then a generous scoop of whammy bar. Originally written and recorded by Chicago bluesman John Brim (Chess Records, 1953), Van Halen covered it on request by David Lee Roth, and they certainly made it their own. It is one of 2 covers on their debut album, the other was everlasting hit You Really Got Me by the Kinks.
Cathedral (Diver Down, 1982)
Apart from being the fastest shredder in town, Van Halen is also known for his innovative ways of getting different sounds from his guitar. In the instrumental Cathedral this is on full display. He used a 1961 Fender Stratocaster (using echo and chorus effects) and performed it by hitting the fretboard hard with his left hand while turning the volume knob off and on with his right. It sounded something like a church organ, giving it its title. It goes to show that just because you can shred a guitar just like-a-ringing-a-bell doesn’t mean you have to.
Beat It - Michael Jackson (Thriller, 1982)
Teaming up with pop king Michael Jackson was certainly the last thing anyone expected from the hard-rocker, but as it turned out, his solo in this classic Jackson hit won him even broader exposure than ever; the album is the best selling record of all time. It is said that Eddie cut this in one take and did it free of charge, which shows the scope of his musicianship, the willingness to play outside the ‘box’ and his touch for giving. His solo here is definitive Eddie Van Halen, replete with amazing finger tapping phrases, whammy bar plunges and piercing pick harmonics woven into the melody; very clean, crisp.
Mean Street (Fair Warning, 1981)
This high-octane number kicks open Fair Warning in classic Van Halen hard-driving rock mode. This guitar razzle-dazzle display comes heavily from his use of the Floyd Rose tremolos, nimble pick harmonics and whammy bar surfing. The intricate legato fingerwork on the intro dives straight into the main drive delivering one of the band’s darker songs, “Now you know this ain’t no through street/The end is dead ahead/The poor folks play for keeps down here/They're the living dead”.
Spanish Fly (Van Halen II, 1979)
After Eruption blew everyone’s minds, (as did everything else), Eddie got his hands on a nylon Ovation acoustic and came up with this masterpiece of cross-cultural excellence. It would become a solid fixture on the tour setlist. As the story goes, Eddie was toying with an acoustic when producer Ted Templeton asked “You can play acoustic?”, Eddie quipped, “It’s got 6 strings, what’s the difference?”. Then proceeded to double tap his way into this beautiful instrumental. ‘Spanish Fly’ of course refers to the ‘so called’ aphrodisiac meant to oil erotic impulses, in essence, the very thing the Spanish guitar style was meant to invoke. Pure genius. (one imagines Paco De Lucia saying, ‘What the fuck!? And he’s Dutch?’)
Jump (1984, 1984)
Jump was Van Halen’s shot to the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 that year. Their biggest charted song to date. The synth intro was something new in the mix, which confused fans, (but they recovered), and it showed once again, the willingness of the band to venture into somewhat new territory. The Oberheim OB-X sound synthesiser carries the melody like a boss and Eddie’s solo here is another peak reached to perfection.
I’m the One (Van Halen, 1978)
Their debut album was stuffed with shit-kickers like I’m the One, a high-voltage rocker that shows the band in top form. The rhythm section behind Roth’s wild vocals are as tight as you want, and Eddie delivers 2 solos, the second is sheer meticulous shredding, changing key and rolling it into a climatic slo-mo flourish where the man’s guitar has the last word.
Hot For Teacher (1984, 1984)
The title says it all, lusting after your teacher, which appealed to the younger gents, (politically dicey in today’s manufacture), featuring supermodels in bikinis dancing on desks over classroom settings in the video. (!) So, we’re here to mention how Eddie’s awesome pistol work on his solo will send you in other directions, yet complementing the storyboard. His instinct for timing on outbursts that remain in the melody are his trademark. “I winged that one,” he said in an interview with Guitar World magazine, “...if you listen to it, the timing changes in the middle of nowhere”.
Runnin’ with the Devil (Van Halen, 1978)
This stomping rocker showcased the entire band’s first impulse, which was to open their debut album with kick-ass confidence. Eddie’s raw raking of his Ibanez “Shark” Destroyer in the intro is hungry and loud, as if to say, ‘we’re here to stay!’. The song’s throbbing melody marches proudly along, “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow…”, the scene was set, they would take the stage and command the world’s attention. And that they did, solidifying what gave them their signature sound: David Lee Roth’s squeal, Eddie’s legendary solos, and Michael Anthony’s backup vocals. Mission accomplished.
So that’s our roundup of Eddie Van Halen’s best and most varied solos. There will be those who say ‘What about this and that?’, like One Foot Out the Door, Hang ‘Em High, and Dance the Night Away, for example, which were wicked too, but there isn’t enough ink to write them all up, sadly. We hope you enjoyed our selection. (you know you did ;)