Eddie Van Halen
Submitted by HeadDino on Wed, 05/28/2008 - 22:47
Watch Eddie Van Halen in Action at the bottom of this page!
Famous / Infamous for
Famous for: Repopularizing electric guitar, homebuilt "Frankenstein" strats, two-handed tapping, the brown sound, and being the most well known guitarist of his generation.
Infamous for: alcohol and tobacco abuse, sissy, girlie, catfighty breakups with lead singers.
Obvious: Eddie's most discernible influence is Allan Holdsworth. You can hear it in his legato lines and eccentric phrasing.
Not-so-obvious: Eddie's always claimed his biggest influence was Eric Clapton in Cream, though you'd never know it by listening to a Van Halen album. The only time I've ever heard that influence was when Ed guested on Brian May's Starfleet Project album back in the 80s. The Clapton influence is not apparent in his normal style. Eddie doesn't display Clapton's precise sense of meter or attention to detail when soloing. Eric is anal and precise. Eddie is loose, haphazard, and unconcerned about it. Other: with all those piano lessons and a son named Wolfgang, you know that there's some classical music influence buried in him somewhere.
Innovation. Originality. Unorthodox approach. Thinking out-side of the box. Eddie took every burp, fart, and previously unwanted sound that an electric guitar is capable of making, and instead of purposely avoiding those sounds — as everyone else had — he embraced them and incorporated them into his unique style. Whether he actually invented the things he is credited for is academic at this point. Eddie popularized many things that are now commonplace. Eddie popularized two-handed tapping. It was a fad in the 80s. Every player had to have tapping in his repertoire. But almost everyone who went tapping suffered the same, unwanted fate: they got accused of sounding like Eddie, whether that was their aim or not. So the tapping fad quickly fell out of vogue and now resides somewhere between cliché and taboo — for everyone except Eddie. It remains an integral part of Eddie's style. Eddie also popularized what came to be known as the Super Strat: A strat shaped body with a humbucker in the bridge position, no tone control knob, and (eventually) the Floyd Rose tremolo. He later bolted a hinged board to the back of his strat so he could prop it horizontally and tap it like a keyboard. He held an electric drill near the pickups and incorporated the resulting sound into a song (Poundcake). Another strength is that Eddie is an accomplished piano / keyboard player. He had many years of piano lessons as a kid, so he has a solid musical foundation — that you almost never hear in his guitar playing!
No other player blurs the line between what is strength, and what is weakness more than Eddie. There are several aspects of Eddie's style that would probably be called a weakness in other players. In Eddie, however, they're just part of his eccentric uniqueness. I will however say, that while there are many great Van Halen songs, there are at least as many lousy ones. Particularly in the Roth years. Just because David Lee Roth could concoct a "jive vocal" over any jam noodling Eddie came up with, didn't mean that every fun-to-play riff was a strong song idea. And for a guy with a background in keys, Eddie is a predominantly rhythmic guitar player. He has a good melodic sense, but you don't hear much melody out of Ed on guitar — you hear it when he's on keyboards. And it took Sammy Hagar to bring a consistent sense of compositional structure and vocal melody to Eddie's songs. Granted, most of Ed's biggest fans love the very aspects I'm calling weaknesses, and much prefer the Roth-era Van Halen to the later versions.
Eddie is associated with a tone he dubbed the Brown Sound — the guitar sound featured on Van Halen's debut album Van Halen (a.k.a. Van Halen I). The sound was achieved using a strat-bodied guitar with a maple neck and a Gibson PAF humbucker in the bridge position. He ran this ax through a mid-60s 100 watt Marshall Super Lead. For an exhaustive description of the entire setup, see the Legendary Tones article on the Brown Sound. It's a classic, EL-34 Marshall Plexi tone, featuring cranked power-amp saturation. It's a fairly clean sound — not the higher gain sound of later Marshalls and 80s metal. There is, however, a great, natural compression to it. For effects, Eddie used an Echoplex and liked MXR pedals: certainly the Phase 90, the MXR Flanger — I'm pretty sure I've heard the Distortion + on occasion too.
Oddly enough, the guitar sound that everyone flipped over on Van Halen I was not double tracked. The dry part of the rhythm sound comes from the left side of the stereo spectrum, the wet side — a big-room ambience comes from the right side. Same story when Ed plays fills or launches into a live solo during the rhythm take, such as on I'm the One. When he takes a solo that wasn't recorded in the same take as the rhythm track, such as on Running with the Devil, it comes from the right or from both sides. In many instances, there is no rhythm guitar track under the solo section. So the overall guitar sounds far more live than produced. This would change on later albums, but Van Halen I is the album everyone still talks about when discussing the trademark Eddie sound.
Eddie brings a whatever works attitude to his music and his lead style. No one shows more ambivalence (or is it disdain?) toward the accepted rules and axioms of the trade than Eddie. Eddie doesn't accept or follow the rules. He breaks them — both consciously and subconsciously — and makes up his own rules as he goes along. What's amazing, is that he gets away with it! Who else would? For whatever reason, Eddie gets a free pass on his playing. Every guitar hero on the planet has been asked about Eddie, (usually by Guitar World's Steve Rosen,) and you never hear anyone say anything negative about Eddie's playing.
Ed's instantly recognizable for his tapping technique. The two-handed version combines hammer-ons and pull-offs such as the Hot For Teacher intro, and also for the various percussive and harmonics tapping techniques on tracks like Mean Street , Dancing in the Street, and Spanish Fly. Though he's got a great picking hand, when he's not tapping, Eddie is largely a legato guy, though his style frequently incorporates tremolo picking. He uses the Blues and Dorian scales frequently — though his playing doesn't sound particularly bluesy. Many of his songs use Mixolydian mode, but due to his cavalier approach, harmonically "wrong" notes (outside the scale) often creep in unintentionally. Moveable fingering shapes also frequently contain notes outside the scale. Further, he seems oblivious to a song's tempo when he takes a solo, and usually plays ahead of the beat on fast songs and behind it on slower ones. He seldom bothers to compose a solo, but rather goes for spontaneity. Similarly, he doesn't worry about leaving mistakes on a recording if the vibe is right. Eddie is unconcerned with all of these issues. If it sounds good, it is good has been his mantra for over 20 years. Depends on who's doing the listening! But he believes it and so do his many admirers.
So when you add it all up, you get an irreverent, wacky, eclectic style that is uniquely Eddie. It isn't bluesy, it isn't melodic very often, it's almost got a be-bop element to it. But there are no absolutes with Ed — just when you think he's never gonna play a melodic solo again, he'll go a do a nice one.
What vibrato? That's that thing with the bar, you use for dive bombs, right? Ed doesn't use a lot of finger vibrato. When he does, it's singing musical sound, not too aggressive, occasionally slow and wide - rarely fast.
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