What stands out the most about Eddie Van Halen’s playing — more than the virtuosic speed, the innovations in technique, the tone so distinct that it acquired its own name (the “brown sound”), and the unmistakably musical (if not to say tasteful) manner in which all of the above were put into practice — was the astonishment. The man set the pace for the entirety of the guitar-playing 1980s, and he did it all with a look on his face that suggested he was just as shocked and amazed by what his fingers were doing as everybody else.
All by itself, that was a breath of fresh air in the realm of rock guitar. The classic “guitar face” that typically manifests when a player rips off a jaw-dropping solo is one of agony, a twisted rictus of ecstatic strain (stemming perhaps from the music’s roots, however far back, in the blues). Eddie — he was always “Eddie” — was having none of that. Instead, his face expressed nothing more than sheer delighted surprise at the sonic acrobatics he was able to effortlessly coax out of his instrument. More than anything, Eddie Van Halen, who died Tuesday at 65, constantly broadcast to the world that exploding the conceptions of what a guitar could do was just fun.
It’s hard to remember, given how promptly and decisively his band established itself within the center of the American rock mainstream with 1978′s “Van Halen,” just how radical in conception it initially was. In a subgenre then largely given to heavy blues mutations, turgid prog, and neoclassical offshoots and quasi-mystical tomfoolery, Van Halen was a heavy metal party band. That was something that simply did not exist before Van Halen showed up, except for maybe Kiss, and Kiss’s whole deal meant that they would not party with you. Van Halen absolutely would. In fact, they’d practically insist on it.
Après cela, le deluge. Eddie’s guitar trickery and David Lee Roth’s glitzy showmanship lit the fuse for the glam-metal explosion that engulfed the latter half of the ’80s. Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Europe, Poison . . . if they had big hair, a penchant for hedonistic kicks, and a song that ended up as a musical number for “Rock of Ages,” they owed a debt to Van Halen.
And for anyone who didn’t read guitar magazines religiously from the mid-′80s to the mid-′90s, it’s hard to properly emphasize just how large Eddie loomed among guitarists of that era. Save Jimi Hendrix, nobody else was more central to discussions of the greatest players of all time. Not Jimmy Page, not Eric Clapton, not Yngwie Malmsteen, nobody. Every single person who picked up an electric guitar and had one iota of interest in pop or rock stood in his shadow, whether they wanted to or not. His wide-ranging arsenal of tricks — such as double-tapping, where he’d fret notes with both hands to increase both playing speed and the distance between notes far beyond the physical reach of a single hand — became codified as standard tools for guitarists. My own teenage guitar heroes were George Harrison, Pete Townshend, and Neil Young, and even I could play “Panama.” Clumsily, of course. And never the solo.
In a career of flabbergasting guitar performances, there are two I always return to when I want to marvel at his skill. From 1984′s “1984,” there’s “Top Jimmy,” a seeming throwaway where Eddie opens with sweeping harmonics before punctuating each line of the verse with a dizzying array of astonishing fills that flit by so quickly there’s barely time to process them. And right at the very start, there’s the song that opens “Van Halen,” “Runnin’ With the Devil.” Eddie the songwriter creates a riff that flirts with disorientation before resolving cleanly. Oh, and it’s nothing more than full chords. Meanwhile, the solo isn’t anything a guitarist of intermediate ability couldn’t handle — Eddie waiting one more track to drop the hammer and change the conversation forever with the legendary “Eruption” — but it’s a satisfying, perfectly realized melodic idea regardless, proof that he was a musician as well as a technician.
Eddie Van Halen played it like he couldn’t believe what was happening.