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How Eddie Van Halen Changed Rock Guitar Forever

The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.

Eddie Van Halen changed the face of rock music and sent a generation of young guitarists into their rooms to practice.

Eddie Van Halen changed the face of rock music and sent a generation of young guitarists into their rooms to practice.

Van Halen Arrives

Van Halen’s self-titled debut album hit the streets in February 1978, and rock guitar would never be the same. Released into a climate dominated by disco, punk, and touchy-feely singer/songwriters, Van Halen brought the band’s flamboyant Sunset Strip sound and attitude to a rock world begging for something new.

The album featured the band’s most legendary lineup of David Lee Roth (vocals), Michael Anthony (bass), Alex Van Halen (drums), and the incomparable Eddie Van Halen on guitar.

Van Halen sold over 10 million copies and take its place among the top rock guitar albums of all time. Many hard-core Van Halen fans regard the record as the band’s penultimate contribution to the hard rock world.

Eddie’s incredible tone and style, already well-known on the Strip, brought him instant fame as the hottest young guitarist in rock. His career would go on into four decades, and Van Halen would eventually become the biggest band in the world.

But there would also be turmoil and hardship amid an endless battle of egos.

The legend of Eddie Van Halen is one of an innovator, an icon, and, maybe, a genius. The path of hard rock music would forever change because of his contributions to the guitar world.

A Guitar Hero Is Born

Many still remember the confusion and total awe they felt the first time they heard Van Halen. On every track, Eddie ripped impossible sounds from his guitar, and it sometimes seemed like he wasn’t even playing the same instrument as everyone else. He had to be doing something different and rumors of hot-rodded amps and tricked-out guitars and effects pedals floated around the guitar community.

It turned out some of it was true. Eddie did work tirelessly on his guitars and other gear to get the most out of them.

But it was also true that Eddie was just plain better than everyone else. Inevitably guitarists around the world began to come to the same conclusion: The bar has been raised. It’s time to either quit and take up the saxophone or get practicing that guitar.

And they were right. This brash young player they heard on the record would one day be recognized as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.

Thankfully, many young guitarists chose to follow his lead and kept on practicing. With Van Halen, the young Eddie Van Halen kicked off a guitar revolution, and for decades players have emulated his style. Some went on to expand on the template that Eddie had laid down, form their own bands and make their own history.

The shred generation brought some of the greatest guitarists rock music has ever known to the forefront. Van Halen started it all.

Eddie Van Halen's Guitars

Eddie’s guitars are a big source of interest for fans and players looking to get some inside secrets. He himself built the main guitar he used on this album and eventually became famous for, the Frankenstein strat. It consisted of a scrap Charvel Strat body and neck, fitted with a custom-wound Gibson PAF pickup and various Fender parts.

He did this because, unlike today, there really wasn't anything on the market back then that played like a Strat but had a thicker tone. Next time you worry about whether or not your guitar is good enough to remember that Eddie Van Halen built his out of junk parts!

There are plenty of rumors about Eddie’s early gear, but one thing that seems to be consensus is that he also used a ‘70s Ibanez Destroyer on much of the first record. He later cut a chunk out of it, and VH enthusiasts now know this guitar as the “Shark”. His experiment negatively changed the tone of the guitar, to Eddie’s chagrin.

The Shark (which had a stop-bar tailpiece) would have been more stable as far as tuning goes. It’s reasonable to think that if he loved the tone as much as the stories say he did he may have used this guitar whenever the whammy bar wasn’t required.

How fascinating to think that the legendary “brown sound” originated with an Ibanez guitar!

Eddie's Historic Frankenstrat Guitar

Eddie's Historic Frankenstrat Guitar

Van Halen I: Track by Track

1. Runnin' with the Devil

The song starts out with what sounds like a car flying down the highway with the horn blaring. Maybe the band is warning us of what’s about to happen. It’s interesting that Van Halen opens up with this song, as it’s probably the weakest on the album. Eddie gives us nothing here, but maybe a little peek. It’s a decent song with a solid rhythm track, but the fireworks are yet to come.

2. Eruption

This is the track that caused millions of kids to lock themselves in their bedrooms with their guitars. If Running with the Devil was the lob of the softball, here Eddie bashes it out of the park. The first time you hear it you're left asking yourself, "What just happened here?" The story goes that Eddie used to play this and other solos with his back to the audience to hide his tricks. The two-hand tapping, the Echoplex dive-bombs, even that chewy, semi-phased tone must have been alien to the crowds at the Whisky back in the 1970s.

3. You Really Got Me

This is a cover of the Kinks' 1960s hit, with a little Eddie flavor to make it special. The band covered several popular songs on their early albums, the alleged theory being that if they started off covering a hit they were already half-way there.

4. Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love

The arpeggios making up the intro riff and verse section, along with the solos, give this one a bit of a Spanish feel. The smashing chords in the chorus ooze with brown-sound tone and the chilling interlude makes you believe Dave really has been to the edge once or twice.

5. I'm the One

Eddie just plain smokes throughout this swinging track. With a catchy chorus and several soloing opportunities it may be the most underrated gem on Van Halen, maybe even rivaling Eruption when it comes to his skills.

6. Jamie's Cryin’

One wouldn't feel right describing a Van Halen song as "sassy" but this sure comes close. It's all about the tone on this track. Speaking of tone, Tone Loc stole this riff . . . er, I mean, sampled this riff . . . for his 1988 hit Wild Thing. Sheesh!

7. Atomic Punk

Once again we're shaking our heads and wondering if that's really a normal guitar Eddie is playing. After shrugging off the initial "Huh?" brought on by a little phaser and pick scraping, we settle into a really mean-sounding piece. And a note here: Listen to the tone Eddie grabs on the four-note passage that follows under the verse. That's hands, not gear.

8. Feel Your Love Tonight

After the streetwise angst of the previous track, Feel Your Love Tonight lightens things up. This is the tune you crank when you're cruising along in your convertible on a summer day. Total California vibe!

9. Little Dreamer

An almost sorrowful tune, and there's that tone again. This song probably reminds us all of someone we once knew who never seemed to get things right. Or, maybe it reminds us that with the right amount of tenacity we can squeeze incredible sounds out of our guitars. Either way, it’s a great tune.

10. Ice Cream Man

Another swinger that begins with a bluesy acoustic riff and morphs into an all-out shred fest. Eddie at his finest and another Van Halengem. VH would go on to include this type of bluesy acoustic feel in a few tracks on their albums that followed.

11. On Fire

The album concludes with not just a bang, but perhaps something more akin to two eighteen-wheelers smashing head-on at full speed. Along with some tasty solos, Eddie whips out a monster main riff on this one, and again it's all in the hands. It's mean, it's heavy and it leaves you wanting more.

Eddie went on align with Peavey to create this signature Wolfgang model. Today he markets his own gear, including guitars and amps, under the EVH brand name.

Eddie went on align with Peavey to create this signature Wolfgang model. Today he markets his own gear, including guitars and amps, under the EVH brand name.

Van Halen II and After

And those who wanted more would not be disappointed. Van Halen II followed in 1979, and while it has not achieved the legendary status as the debut album it is still an amazing record.

Songs like Dance the Night Away, Women in Love, and Beautiful Girls continue to get pop radio airplay to this day. Relatively obscure tunes like D.O.A and Somebody Get Me a Doctor proved VH still had the edge, and Spanish Fly showed us Eddie knew his way around an acoustic guitar as well.

More genius followed. Women and Children First came in 1980, and Fair Warning, likely the band’s darkest album, in 1981. The release of Diver Down in 1982 was a bit of a disappointment for some fans.

Aside from the incredible track Cathedral and the upbeat Little Guitars, most of Diver Down consists of cover tunes and filler.

In 1984 Van Halen would achieve the biggest success of their careers with a little help from MTV. The single Jump (with Eddie on keyboard) put the finishing touches on the band’s stardom, and the accompanying album appropriately titled 1984 rocketed up the charts.

Unfortunately one of Van Halen’s greatest tests would soon follow. David Lee Roth’s choice to pursue a solo career left them without a vocalist and put the band’s future in question.

Eddie Van Halen's Legacy

Eddie Van Halen’s influence on the history of rock guitar is undeniable. Music was changing fast in the early 1980s, as legions of young players attempted to emulate their new guitar hero. The word “shredder” soon became part of our vocabulary as a kind of guitar arms race was underway.

Many of the bands now disrespectfully referred to as “hair bands” are direct extrapolations from the Van Halen model: the flamboyant singer, the gunslinger guitarist, fun music, and the party-hard attitude. Unfortunately, those bands are sometimes remembered more for the way they dressed and the power ballads they put out. The fact that there were some absolutely incredible guitar players during the glam metal period is often overlooked.

George Lynch, Warren DeMartini, Vito Bratta, Reb Beach. Eddie paved the way for these guys and countless others. When the grunge fad hit in the early ‘90s it sadly became uncool to play guitar well.

Fortunately, this dark time has passed, and young players are back to discovering what shred is all about.

Van Halen Lives On

Most people know the rest of the story. Van Halen continued on after Dave with a pretty talented guy named Sammy Hagar, and the band set off making more incredible music for the next couple of decades. But that relationship too would fall apart, and Sammy, along with bassist Michael Anthony, would eventually find themselves on the outs with the Van Halen brothers.

In 2012, Dave came back for A Different Kind of Truth which got the band a fair amount of media attention and mainstream radio airplay. Michael Anthony was replaced on bass by Eddie’s son Wolfgang. Anthony apparently has aligned himself with the Sammy Hagar camp down in Cabo and seemed none the worse for wear if YouTube can be believed.

Eddie shows brief glimpses of Eddie-ness on the new record, but the desperate ambition that dripped from his earlier work has not been seen for quite a long time. However, this was still Van Halen, and the album did have much of that same old vibe. Did anyone really expect less?

A World Without Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen passed away on October 20, 2020, after years of battling serious health issues. He left this world revered by many as the greatest rock guitarist who ever lived. He created the soundtrack for a generation, and it unlikely we will ever see another like him.

It is just as unlikely we will ever see another band like Van Halen. They kicked off one of the greatest periods of American rock music and they left a void that may never be filled. Music has changed, and not for the better, but at least we have the memories.

Van Halen was a band that had seen and done it all, but the debut album is where it all started. In the three-plus decades since its release, they would go on to become rock royalty. But before MTV, and Sammy, and Monsters of Rock, there was this first album, recorded by four guys that made their name on the Sunset Strip.

Eddie Van Halen, January 26, 1955–October 6, 2020

Eddie Van Halen, January 26, 1955–October 6, 2020

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Christopher Nowak on December 17, 2019:

I believe that Eddie Van Halen was one of the first guitar players to practice the guitar tapping technique.

Guitarists such as VAI, SATRIANI and BATIO are examples of people who have advanced this technique as well as speed techniques

SteveB on November 07, 2019:

Eddie yes, but he's not human, not normal : )

Yah...but Alex Lifeson, Steve Lukather and Terry Kath (Early Chicago) hmm.. better add Joe Satriani are the ones that kill me with their tone and originality. Lukather and Lifeson, with one song...can change your soul for the better...La Villa Strangiato (Alex) & Better World (Lukather-Toto). Can shred, but have immense soul.

Dave on June 19, 2017:

Eddie was 22 when they recorded Van Halen in Sept '77

jim Jennings on January 05, 2017:

I was one of those kids trying to figure out what the hell Eddie Van Halen did on guitar, and it took me a long time to find out, and I'm still learning, I grew up with Eddie Van Halen, and his guitar playing was and still is a big part of my life, I still love playing his song's, and I get asked to play eruption a lot still, hopefully guitar shredding will, come back around, because I've finally gotten pretty good at it by now, but I miss the good old days.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on April 29, 2016:

Great work here. I enjoyed the read.

EVH was totally a game changer. There were so so many clones. Then Malmsteen came along.

I was definitely one of those kids trying to figure out how to sound like that. I got so frustrated I got rid of my strat and my marshall, and went to playing acoustic exclusively.

Guitar Gopher (author) on November 11, 2013:

@Quail: Yeah, Dave isn't what he used to be, for various reasons I assume. I try to remember him for what he was back in the day.

Quail on November 10, 2013:

David lee roth you are a terrible frontman now, I saw the 2012 tour and you were the worst, to bad you can't find your old self.