Rick Lubbers column: Van Halen's guitar expressed decades of emotion
When a top 10 list isn't enough, here's a baker's dozen of his best performances.
The deaths of rock guitar legends hit me hard. No other performances elicit as much emotion and personality as musicians playing a guitar from the soul. I know these musicians chiefly — and intimately — from their music, and those sounds are the soundtrack of my life.
Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Dimebag Darrell Abbott.
Eddie Van Halen.
Hearing of Van Halen's death Tuesday afternoon evoked thousands of childhood and teenage memories.
It is impossible to overestimate his status as a rock guitar trailblazer and influencer. He took finger-tapping to unheard of levels and cultivated an unrivaled sound. College music courses would be needed to properly examine his expertly crafted and flawless solos. And, if anything, he's underrated as a riff guru and rhythm guitarist.
It's difficult to envision the hard-rock scene without Van Halen as an influencer — and would heavy metal have existed at all?
When you play "Guitar Hero," you are basically replicating Eddie's finger-tapping ways to follow the song and earn big points.
Eddie's playing spawned a million guitarists toiling away in their bedrooms, basements and garages — and 10 times as many air guitarists.
In honor of Eddie, I spent some time revisiting his vast catalog of music and trying to pare it down to a top 10 list of sorts.
I couldn't quite get there.
So here's a baker's dozen of Eddie's best guitar work (basically the songs that keep popping to the top of my massive Van Halen playlist):
Van Halen turned to covers often during its career (sometimes to a detriment), but Eddie's guitar attack turns this Kinks classic into a modern-day rocker. The basic beat remains true to the original, but Eddie's dirty opening riff and blistering solo make this the song's new standard version.
Even the casual music fan recognizes Eddie's opening riff from this classic. Eddie's deservedly known for his outstanding solos, but he created a lot of classic, memorable riffs, too. The opening seconds to this popish Van Halen standard always put a smile on my face. Eddie's riff here is just pure guitar joy.
Eddie strips down his sound a little on this "Van Hagar" tune. But even with a bit of the sharp points whittled down, his style gives this song some lively bounce, and he puts his signature stamp on a country-ish sounding guitar.
Van Halen is probably better known for the hit "Human's Being" from the soundtrack of the '90s tornado flick, but the album ends with a tasty instrumental from the brothers Van Halen. Eddie is more subdued here than at other times, but his guitar sound helps create a foreboding, somber piece. Listening to the guitar, it's easy to envision a tornado slowly forming, stretching to the ground and creating havoc before dissipating and disappearing.
Eddie does flamenco! This little-played gem off an otherwise cover-filled VH album features a classical guitar intro more reminiscent of Spain than of Southern California. Eddie then grabs the listener with a guitar hook that forms the foundation of a catchy rock-pop tune.
Sammy Hagar's first album as lead singer of Van Halen was a chartbuster and featured more of the keyboard sound that was prominent in "1984." "Summer Nights" ditches the keys for a pure garage rock guitar riff from Eddie. The rest of the song is a rock guitar thrill ride of solos and rhythms.
Beginning garage bands beware — even the simpler Van Halen songs can prove challenging when it's time to pick the strings. Eddie's simple, catchy riff on this tune is easy to follow along until you get to the solo. It starts simple enough, but Eddie then fires off notes so quickly that it's hard to catch up, if at all.
One of Eddie's most well-known solos isn't even on a Van Halen album. Many fans mistakenly assume that Eddie plays all of the guitars on the song — that honor goes to Toto's superb guitarist Steve Lukather — but the solo is 100% vintage Van Halen. Eddie's fantastic solo gave Jackson's "Beat It" a hard-rock edge that helped drive the song to the top of the charts. The "Beat It" solo gained Eddie new fans a year before Van Halen's massively popular "1984" hit the airwaves.
Eddie puts on an otherworldly guitar clinic for the first 30 seconds of "Mean Street" and then lays down a meaty riff to drive the song into hard-rock bliss. The subsequent solo sounds like a wrestling match between the musician and his guitar, with Eddie finally coming out on top.
OK … the theme and lyrics are Van Halen at their most adolescent, but the guitars are some of Eddie's best work. From his opening note to the end of the song, Eddie's Frankenstrat is a whirling dervish of hard-rock sound complete with a solo that leaves the listener sublimely dizzy.
I still remember where I was when I first heard the opening song on Van Halen's debut album, and decades later, this song still sounds fresh, thanks to Eddie's trailblazing sound. Hard-rock guitar players never sounded like this before, and millions have tried to emulate it ever since. "Runnin'" features some of Eddie's simpler work, but the blessed sound he created for the piece demands a spot on this list.
Quintessential Eddie at the height of his powers. The opening riff is as tasty as any he ever created … heavy sounding and hard-driving. Eddie plays so many notes with his riff, solo and rhythms that the song ends with a single, quiet strum of a guitar — as though he played his guitar to death. If "Eruption" generated a horde of solo copycats, "Unchained" unleashed a mob of heavy metal guitar players seeking to recreate that unique sound.
Still the gold standard for hard-rock guitar instrumentals and solos. This is Eddie at his finger-tapping, virtuoso-playing best for a tight 1 minute, 43 seconds. And that's all it took for Eddie to blow up the rock guitar landscape and redefine it for generations to come. It was a mind-blowing listen the first time around and still holds up hundreds (thousands!) of listens later.
Rick Lubbers is editor of the News Tribune. Write to him at email@example.com or call 218-723-5301. Follow him @ricklubbersdnt on Twitter.