A passing: Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)

The death of Eddie Van Halen is a big enough deal as to require some comment by me.

Van Halen’s efforts in 1978 produced a seemingly odd instrumental named “Eruption” that radically changed the entire spectrum of guitar music. It introduced the concept of “tapping”, that is- tapping with the finger on the string 12 frets away from its insertion. This can be moved around the fret board and produces a very unusual tone compared to simply plucking a string.

Eddie was not the first to produce sounds from tapping strings.  Steve Hackett of Genesis did it in 1975. Canned Heat guitarist Harvey Mandel was doing it in as early as 1968 at the Whisky in LA.  But no one did it like Eddie Van, who originally only did it in clubs and as a warm up exercise. But when it surfaced on Van Halen’s first album in 1978, the 1.4 minute instrumental explosion changed everything from the ground up.

Every player, including me, had to learn it but few could really do it justice. I could do about ten seconds of it before every finger cramped. Otherwise, “tapping” became the order of the day and every guitar shop had at least two or three acolytes trying it out on instruments sporting fast fret boards and lots of amplifier distortion effects. It’s said that Eddie plugged in an electronic gadget to increase the voltage to his Marshall amp, blowing them up pretty routinely.

The fact, however, is that most players couldn’t play it and even if they could, the amount of technical ability didn’t translate into listenability. You really can’t take it for too long before your ears start to ring. That said, Eddie did a lot more for guitar music than Eruption. His creativity and imagination was unparalleled. I learned to play some of his slower songs and very much enjoyed them. In their prime (late 70s and 80s), Van Halen with Diamond Dave Roth was a great band.

So one of the guitar magazine guys once asked Eddie how he came to be such a facile player. The story is interesting. When in high school, Eddie discovered that his life was guitar and nothing else mattered. He routinely skipped school, got up early in the morning, sat on the edge of his bed and practiced. Continuously, then had a sandwich for lunch and practiced again all afternoon, then supper after which his brother went out to socialize and Eddie say on the edge to practice until bedtime- every day for days on end.

So my response to that is that if I had that kind of passion for playing, I could probably play like Eddie too but I had a day job and I didn’t live for music. I had other passions that I lived for. Music was a side issue.  And BTW, if you read very erudite criticism of Eddie’s playing, they are all the same. It sounds “practiced”, practiced music lacks soul and soul is what the ear likes to hear.

If you dial into watch Neil Young play “The needle and the damage done”, he doesn’t have much of a singing voice and his guitar chords are rudimentary but trust me, you can’t take your eye off him.  Similarly, BB King always on the same area of the fret board and he rarely looks to see where he’s playing. He doesn’t have to. His fingers know where to go intuitively.

Sadly, the musical heros of my youth are sinking quickly. Some from old age. Some from suicide as they are unable to make the transition from the 60s and 70s to the new world. Eddie and the Band “Van Halen” were absolute masters of their trade in the 80s and now, having flashed across the sky in a blinding burst, have descended into history.

Rest in Peace Eddie Van. A life well lived.

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