Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.
The Birth of Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen (January 26, 1955 – October 6, 2020) was the main songwriter in Van Halen—let alone one of the band's two namesakes—but he'll forever be known as one of the greatest guitar players in rock history. He co-founded the band way back in 1972 with his brother Alex, who started out on guitar, but switched to drums. The singer was David Lee Roth and the original bassist was Mark Stone.
By 1974, Michael Anthony was in the bass slot and Van Halen was establishing an insanely loyal following on the LA club circuit. They played the Whisky a-Go-Go Myron's Ballroom, and Gazzarri's. That's where Rodney Bingenheimer of KROQ saw them one night in 1976, he told Gene Simmons of Kiss, and he was so impressed he cut a 29-track demo with the band.
That demo went nowhere, but several months later, representatives from Warner Bros saw Van Halen play a killer set to almost nobody at the Starwood in Hollywood. Like Simmons, they were immediately won over and signed the band to a two-album contract. It was that first album, released in 1978 and simply titled Van Halen, that hit rock music like a volcano. And no one represented said volcano better than Eddie Van Halen, the man who turned fingerboard fret-tapping into an art form. Hence, "Eruption."
EVH: Greatest Guitarist of All-Time
Eddie Van Halen has always referenced Eric Clapton as one of his major influences on guitar. He says he memorized virtually every Clapton guitar solo from the Cream era note for note. He also cites Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin as being a major influence, less in style than in approach. Eddie always loved Page's "reckless abandon."
In 2012, Guitar World magazine asked readers to name the greatest guitarist of all-time. Eddie Van Halen was voted #1, beating out Brian May (Queen), Alex Lifeson (Rush), Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne), Jeff Beck, George Harrison, Les Paul, Page, and Jimi Hendrix. Obviously, Eddie Van Halen's guitar playing left an impression on obsessed guitar lovers. What's so distinctive about it?
The two-handed fretboard tapping technique used by Eddie Van Halen wasn't something he created. Tapping had been used by guitarists in different musical genres dating all the way back to the 1950s. As he admits in the video below, Eddie credits Jimmy Page with influencing his decision to tap. But, whoever came first is besides the point. Eddie took the technique to the next level.
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Two-hand tapping wasn't the only thing which made Eddie's guitar playing so unique. He was lightning-fast, mastered the tremolo bar for insane divebomb effects, and weaved melody in and out of his guitar assaults.
What truly lends the work its ethereal quality is the guitarist's manipulation of his instrument's volume knob. Using all the strength of his left hand, Van Halen fingers a lush series of classically inflected arpeggios in pure legato mode while his right hand turns the volume knob up and then down repeatedly in sequence with each note that he plays. The resulting sound is all swell and no attack. Coupled with the delay, which repeats each note as it moves by, the overall effect is uncanny and decidedly un-guitar like – thus the track's title, "Cathedral," meant to evoke the way Van Halen channels the sound of a church organ in all its reverberating grandeur.
Birth of the Frankenstrat
One of the most famous guitars in history is Eddie Van Halen'sFrankenstrat. There's even a Frankenstrat Wikipedia page! The guitar came about because Eddie wanted a guitar that played like a Fender Stratocaster, but had the tone of a Gibson with a whammy bar. He built one himself by purchasing parts and rigging the electronics together, tweaking and improving it many times along the way.
Eddie wore out the original Frankenstrat a long, long time ago, but he's had Fender and Kramer make versions of the instrument for him. Hell, the Kramer version is just about as famous as the Fender it was based on. In fact, when I was a young man getting into Van Halen, Eddie was playing the Kramer "hockey stick" Frankenstrat with the same paint job.
Frankenstrat & The Smithsonian
How famous is Eddie Van Halen's Fender Stratocaster? Well, famous enough that a replica is on display at the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. That's pretty damned impressive. Next time you're in DC you should pay it a visit.
© 2014 Wesman Todd Shaw