Earlier this week, the death of Eddie Van Halen shook the music world.
If you want to know just how much Eddie meant to people, you’ve only got to look at the sheer wealth of tributes from across the entertainment industry that have flooded in.
It’s testament to just how important and how revolutionary a figure he was. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that Eddie Van Halen changed the face of popular music and redefined what it meant to be a guitarist for a generation of players.
Lots of guitarists have been labelled as “virtuosos” over the years, but few actually are.
That’s not to say they aren’t great musicians or that they don’t have flair, panache and gusto in abundance. But actual, field-leading virtuosity? Not so much.
Eddie Van Halen was different. He was a virtuoso in the truest sense of the word; as important to the electric guitar as Rachmaninov and Chopin were to the piano.
As John 5 put it in a recent tribute:
“Eddie Van Halen was a modern-day Mozart, and it is just so sad to see him go. He was so young. He is immortal and will live on forever. He was an inventor and the greatest guitar player of all time... The thing is, he took guitar to such new places that no one has done before, and he was just such an incredible player. And on top of all of that, he was an incredible songwriter too.”
The revolutionary impact of his playing reverberated pretty much from the get-go. Legend has it that when Van Halen supported Black Sabbath at London’s Hammersmith in 1978, half of the crowd vanished after Eddie and co. finished their set; decamping to nearby pubs to try and make sense of what they’d just witnessed.
In the face of the literal Eruption that Edward brought to the stage, the lumbering, power chord chug of Iron Man was positively Jurassic.
Van Halen’s magic wasn’t just his formidable technique; it was the way he incorporated that genius into some of the most tight, considered and accessible popular music of the era.
Eddie was never what you’d call a “noodler.” He didn’t indulge in solos for the sake of solos or the kind of pissing contest extended jamming that guitarists of the previous generation were prone to. He wrote great songs, and then served and elevated those songs with the exceptional, out-there guitar playing he committed to record.
Sometimes, that virtuosity was on display in full force. Listen to the explosive lead breaks in “Unchained” or the incendiary introductory riff from “Hot For Teacher” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. But even when Ed pared it back, he still delivered the goods like no-one else. The solo in “Ain’t Talkin’ About Love,” for example, is deceptively simple, but devastatingly effective. You may be able to play it. But play it like Eddie? That’s another thing entirely.
Eddie Van Halen was a true original; there’ll never be another like him. But, that’s no bad thing. His innovative spirit lives on in the generations of players inspired by his music, seeking their own sound just as Eddie found his.
RIP Eddie Van Halen, and thank you for the music.
Coming up with a great cover is an art in itself. Effectively, you’ve got to take a strong template established by someone else and rework it enough that your voice shines through, while retaining the integrity of the original piece. It certainly isn’t easy. When you think about it, there have been many, many cover versions released over the years, but only a minority of those can hold a candle to the original version.
“Playing the guitar is like telling the truth - you never have to worry about repeating the same [lie] if you told the truth. You don't have to pretend, or cover up. If someone asks you again, you don't have to think about it or worry about it because there it is. It's you.” – B.B. King