Written By Braddon S. Williams
Certain memories never lose their brightness and clarity. The first time I ever heard the music of Van Halen is one of those special events in my personal history.
Their debut album was released in 1978 and had been out for maybe a month when I decided to take a chance on it and spend some of my meager teenage funds. I remember being intrigued by the striped guitar Eddie was holding on the album cover, and the implied sense of combustible energy flowing out of the pictures of the four individual band members. There was a sense of pure adrenaline even in still photographs of Van Halen.
Somehow I had avoided hearing anything from the debut on the radio up to that time, so my virgin listening experience was pristine. To add to the sonic bliss I was about to bask in, my mother told me I would have to listen on headphones due to her having company in the house when I arrived home. I recall being instantly impressed with Ted Templeman’s production work from the opening notes of Runnin’ With The Devil. From the first power chords, Eddie’s fabled “brown sound” was a revelation, but nothing could have prepared me for my first hearing of the seismic fusillade of Eruption. Upon completion of the sonic maelstrom of pure guitar mastery that Eddie’s signature solo showcase displayed, I must have looked like a bug-eyed psychopath to my mom and her friend, as I’m sure I lost control of my facial muscles for an undisclosed period of time. There was no time to recover as You Really Got Me followed with more glorious rock ‘n roll hedonistic glee. I think I made it to the end of side one before having to tell the (hopefully amused) women that my life had undoubtedly changed forever.
As far as guitar playing goes, that assessment was certainly true. In my lifetime, there have basically been two guitarists who have changed the entire landscape of rock music; Jimi Hendrix and Edward Van Halen. By the time Eddie arrived and turned my world upside down I had been playing guitar for 3 years, and had played trumpet for around 6 years, meaning I had enough musical knowledge to grasp that what I was hearing was pretty miraculous.
Van Halen (the band) delivered blistering hard rock, but tempered their songs with pop sensibility coupled with clever lyrics and irresistible choruses; in short, they had a little something for everyone. Consequently, their concerts attracted just as many female fans as males, which was not unnoticed in my teenage libidinous years. Van Halen’s concerts were bigger, brighter, louder, and more FUN than anyone else’s, and I was fortunate to be in attendance for 5 shows from 1979 to 1984.
One thing I always loved about Eddie Van Halen on stage was his big, goofy smile that never seemed to leave his face. So many musicians of that era took themselves so seriously, or were trying too hard to look tough. Ed was clearly enjoying rock stardom to the maximum, and obviously knew he was playing at an otherworldly level, so that smile invited all of us fans into the perpetual party that was the core of Van Halen Nation.
As the years went by and more landmark albums arrived, Eruption continued to expand, encompassing more intricate layers and displays of magic, including the glacial elegance of Cathedrals, Ed’s breathtaking exploration of volume swells. Eventually, David Lee Roth departed and Sammy Hagar entered, and Eddie indulged his love of keyboards, but throughout all the changes he remained a guitarist’s guitarist, and we all kept a close eye and ear on all he accomplished.
In the wake of Eddie’s reinvention of rock guitar, many imitations sprung up, and many more were simply inspired to raise their game to new levels of technical feats of fancy fretwork. Through it all, Edward Van Halen continued to innovate, both as a player and as an inventor. He tinkered with his guitars, with his amps, with his pickups; anything to achieve the sounds in his head. I hope I can describe something that has always awed me about his playing…it’s as if Eddie had his own rhythm system in mind, and his note placement resulted in phrases and fusillades of notes that landed in uncharted and unexpected territory. It was like nobody told him that what he was playing shouldn’t logically work, but once you heard it, those notes and phrases were perfectly located. Obviously his lead guitar work is rightfully regarded as legendary, but his rhythm guitar playing was staggeringly good, as was his songwriting.
I’ve read reports that he never learned to read sheet music, and remember reading an interview where he claimed he didn’t even count in his own songs, reasoning that his brother (drummer Alex) had that part covered. I could go on and on, but I’m going to stop now and offer a simple thank you to King Edward Van Halen for his legacy, for his music, and for his life. Be at peace, Ed…your music will forever be the soundtrack to summertime for me and millions of others!