Featured ArticlesNews & OpinionCelebrating the Ascension of the Guitar God Eddie Van Halen.

Mark Dignam3 months ago8810 min

Oh my God… no, that was Clapton, right?! Remember that story, how a wall in 1960s London was spray-painted with the meme-worthy line, “Clapton is God.”? This was during Clapton’s Yardbirds, John Mayall & Bluesbreakers time, and every guitar player after, including Eddie Van Halen, followed the man and his smooth riffs and blues runs, for years later. Until, of course, Jimi Hendrix entered from stage left, or as we like to call it, Seattle. Reputedly, Clapton’s jaw dropped when he saw Hendrix play for the first time, and the game got well and truly changed. Then from the great machine of urban myth, Hendrix is reputed to have answered the question, “What’s it like to be the greatest guitar player in the world?” with the quip, “I don’t know, ask Rory Gallgher.” There is much in the way of late night inebriated debate on whether this story is really true or not, but it speaks to the large and misty lore surrounding our great rock guitar Gods. Each genius, each celestial body of a player, orbiting the other in either major or slight ways; particularly around that legendary hotbed of the swinging European folk, rock and blues scenes of the late 60s, into the 70s and beyond. There was a lot of intermingling, a lot of musical alchemy going on, and as rock was getting heavier, and perhaps darker. With Black Sabbath and Led Zepplin leading us into fantastic worlds of heady story telling, gestated (still), in the belly of British and African American folk songs, and earthy minor pentatonic scales… something else was happening in Pasadena, California.

Eddie Van Halen, a young Dutch immigrant kid, learned all of Clapton’s solos note for note, channeled the spirt of Jimmy Page, and then he and his brother Alex stole a couple of other band members from other local acts, to start playing high school functions and small clubs. Eddie saw rock n roll as if it were salt water taffy, and he stretched it to its limits and beyond. Enter the band Van Halen, and its Nuevo Guitar King.

Born January 26th 1955, the son of a touring Clarinet player father and Indonesian mother, Eddie cobbled his guitar together from cheap bits of other instruments, and pioneered a style that was so fast, slick and innovative that it was almost a technology in itself, on top of its supreme musicality. With the tremolo bar, finger taps and flourishes, Van Halen made every other player in the late 70s and 80s put their instruments back in their cases, and sit forlornly with a box of Kleenex. It was flash, it was slightly bombastic, but always extremely tight and melodic, and it literally birthed a brand new style of rock.

Gene Simmons of Kiss, made a valiant but unsuccessful effort to produce the band but found no takers in the la, la land of late 70s major label madness (You know, there were A+R people that turned down the Beatles, and Led Zepplin too?!). But in 1978 Van Halen found themselves on Warner Bros, releasing a lack luster debut single of the Kinks, “You Really Got Me”, before setting the world on fire, with a string of meteoric hits. The 80s then seemed to belong to songs such as “Jump”, “Panama”, and “Hot for Teacher”; lifted further, by Eddie’s blinding virtuosity. If you’ve ever screamed into the handle of a hair brush in front of a mirror, or done the splits in the air from your teenage bed to “Jump” then you know the rest is history. Van Halen changed rock, changed rock guitar playing, even updated touring debauchery, in demanding bowls of M&Ms with the brown ones taken out (possibly as an easy to miss contract out, if they weren’t happy with other things). The band trashed hotel rooms, and partied their way around the world, and we all sang along, and played air guitar, badly. His signature red guitar with white stripes became the must have for teenage wannabes, and the unlikely Dutch moniker became a household name among music fans, whether they liked the genre or not.

Van Halen, along with carnival barker extraordinaire, David Lee Roth on vocals, Michael Anthony on bass, and Eddie’s brother, Alex Van Halen, on drums, rejuvenated party music, hitting undeniable homeruns out of the California ballparks, away from the Beach Boys; away from the dreamy, mystical hedonism of 80s hard rock bands, like Deep Purple, Rainbow et al, and even the new British invasion, of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, etc., that would come to be called, Heavy Metal. Van Halen’s music, and Eddie’s guitar style in particular, shifted the gears, in a genre that seemed to have stalled, in a boy’s club of Indiana Jones adventures. Van Halen brought us beer pong party rock, mixed with NASA technology, and invited the girls in, to a much too exclusive (and misogynistic) arena, and (thankfully) they came. Van Halen widened horizons with his fun filled songs, played the electric guitar in a searingly experimental way, that up to that point, had never been seen before. Once again, the game got well and truly changed.

Eddie Van Halen died after a long, arduous struggle with cancer on Oct 6th 2020. We will now, take to our knees, and pray to the deities of our own particular choosing, and of course, Eddie.

One comment

  • DeclanSynott

    October 11, 2020 at 11:04 am

    Great tribute, Mark.


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