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Eddie Van Halen: The Only Guitarist To Rival Jimi Hendrix?
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In Depth

Eddie Van Halen: The Only Guitarist To Rival Jimi Hendrix?

From his two-hand tapping technique to innovations with amps and guitars, here’s how Eddie Van Halen rewrote the guitarist’s rulebook.

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When Eddie Van Halen died, on 7 October 2020, at just 65, we lost the world’s most influential living rock guitar player. The Van Halen guitarist’s legacy can barely be calculated: he took the biggest leap in style, tone and technique the world had seen since Jimi Hendrix. He also received unanimous accolades and plaudits from peers in every genre of music. And, like Hendrix, Van Halen expanded the whole language of rock guitar, forever changing what was perceived as possible. Taking what had gone before – and with fearless imagination and prodigious technique – Van Halen elevated rock guitar playing to previously unimagined levels. Concise and exceptionally musical, his playing never devolved into self-aggrandising fretboard noodling. As a lead guitarist, Eddie Van Halen always served and elevated the song.

Listen to the best of Van Halen on Spotify

World-changing two-hand tapping

Van Halen was just 23 when, in 1978, he stunned guitarists the world over on his namesake band’s self-titled debut album. The record’s second track, the solo instrumental piece Eruption, was originally intended as a warm-up piece until producer Ted Templeton insisted it was recorded and placed on the album; in just over two minutes, the world was introduced to the guitarist’s signature two-hand tapping technique – a world-changing, era-defining one minute and 42 seconds for ever guitarist who heard it.

Each new Van Halen album offered similar epiphanies. Whether Eddie was transposing his tapping technique to a nylon-stringed classical guitar on Spanish Fly (Van Halen II, 1979), the slapping intro to Mean Street (Fair Warning, 1981), or Cathedral’s violin bowing and delay excursions (Diver Down, 1982), just about every track had some mind-bending lick, run, harmonic squeal, or tremolo swoop that was unique and utterly engrossing.

Rewriting the book

Not only rewriting the technique book for every guitarist who followed, Eddie Van Halen’s two-hand tapping, harmonics – both natural and pinched – and the ultimate extension of Jimi’s whammy-bar abuse also forever changed the sound of the guitar.

To be able to execute the sounds he heard in his head, Van Halen realised the gear he was using just couldn’t keep up with him. In order to play faster, he flattened the fretboard of his guitar and added bigger frets. To keep it in tune he helped create the Floyd Rose Locking Tremolo guitar bridge. When the single-coil pickups on his Stratocaster failed to deliver the gain and volume needed to drive his amp, Eddie ripped the pickup from a Gibson ES-335 and added it to his Fender Strat, creating the first ever Start-style guitar with a humbucker in the bridge. And thus, the “Superstrat” was born. Now industry-standard features on any guitar, these modifications are all traceable back to this one remarkable sonic experimenter.

The signature “Brown Sound”

Recorded almost entirely live, Van Halen’s debut album left a fresh sonic footprint driven by Eddie’s legendary – an incredibly hard to copy – “Brown Sound”. Not getting enough overdrive and compression from his vintage Marshall Plexi amp, he used a Variac transformer to alter the voltage going into the amp, making the valves work harder in order to create more drive and sustain. To this day, his tone on the group’s first few albums has rarely, if ever, been equalled by any other guitarist. Eddie was also one of the first players to tune his low E string down to D – a move that that, along with development of the Peavey 5150 high gain amp, essentially created the sound of modern rock and metal.

Influences and legacy

Eddie Van Halen’s influences included Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Ritchie Blackmore, and he especially admired the extreme legato of English fusion genius Alan Holdsworth, whose style Eddie mixed with a healthy dose of blues emotion and feel, transferring it into the rock realm.

As well as his undoubted genius as a player – both on lead and rhythm guitar – and his astonishing contributions to both guitar and amp design, Eddie’s most enduring legacy must surely be the music he left, which was always delivered with swagger, style and an immense sense of fun. Many virtuosos choose to place their music in narrowly defined specialist niches or genres, but Eddie Van Halen delivered his through arena-filling, sun-drenched party anthems. Kudos must go to his brother, Alex, and Michael Anthony, on drums and bass, respectively, for underpinning Eddie’s remarkable rhythm guitar playing: a mixture of driving rock and swing, with a groove seldom heard in rock music and which was perfectly complimented by David Lee Roth’s vocals and Michael Anthony’s stellar harmonies.

Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love, Beautiful Girls, Dance The Night Away, Panama, Hot For Teacher, Unchained… The list of classic Van Halen songs is extensive, and Eddie Van Halen is at the centre of each and every one. Singalong accessible rock anthems, they’re all powered by his driving riffs, fills and explosive solos – all delivered with an infectious grin on his face.

A true one-off innovator, a sonic experimentalist and virtuoso, Eddie Van Halen is the only rock guitarist to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jimi Hendrix. He will be sorely missed.

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