When I first heard Van Halen back in the late ’70s, my immediate thought was: what kind of scales was he playing? The kind of straight-ahead hard rock scales I was used to were pretty much straight pentatonic blues: this was not how Eddie Van Halen rolled. It wasn’t his speed that made the difference: Jimmy Page could do 16th notes just as handily, but they were all more-or-less variations on the “blues box”. And it wasn’t the case that no one else broke the blues box: Steve Howe of Yes somehow managed to bypass the limits of the pentatonic by importing jazz, country, and classical riffs into a rock idiom; same goes for Robert Fripp of King Crimson. And Steve Hackett of Genesis pioneered the two-fingered tapping technique.
Eddie Van Halen wasn’t the first to do any of this, but he was an original talent nonetheless. He had none of Page’s sloppiness when performing live, his legato was smooth and superior to Howe’s and Fripp’s, and unlike Hackett, he was less a constrained ensemble player than he was a spotlight-soloist par excellence. And it was his introduction into a hard rock idiom of fluid, looping, oddball scales and modes, coupled with a perfect juiced-up Marshall-stack “brown sound” that made him unique. He never had to struggle with playing anything: he seemed to be utterly overjoyed when he was onstage with his guitar.
Full disclosure: although I love “Panama” and “Why Can’t This Be Love?”, I was never a full-bore Van Halen fan, and for one basic reason: his singers. I could not abide the cartoonish macho posturing of David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar for more than, say, an album side at most. Hagar was a marginally better singer than Roth, Roth was a far better stage presence than Hagar, but both compromised the band artistically by their pseudo-virile antics, and it kind of showed. That Van Halen himself had fraught relationships with both Roth and Hagar says something. Consider what Van Halen would have been like had they had a Paul Rodgers or an Ian Gillan fronting them. Or Eddie Vedder. Hell, even a Scott Weiland or Chris Cornell or Chester Bennington for godsake! The band could have had both dramatic range and a level of gravitas that they deserved, more than a pair of roosters strutting and clucking about. (For one album they in fact did use a non-rooster vocalist, Gary Cherone, but the album was an artistic and commercial flop.)
But if you could ignore the silly testosterone-soaked parading about, Van Halen were a damn fine bunch of musicians. They had a level of complexity in their songs and arrangements that was hard to find before them in a Hard Rock band, with the possible exception of Led Zeppelin, and even then, Led Zeppelin only in the studio, and best executed in Zeppelin IV and after. When you listen to “Achilles’ Last Stand” in Presence, for example, you can hear Page liberating himself from the pentatonic box, perhaps rambling on the path that Eddie trailblazed a few years later. Van Halen the band were certainly not anything approaching a “prog rock” ensemble, but the three instrumentalists certainly had the chops for becoming one. That they didn’t is perhaps a path they were wise not to take. Still…
Eruption is a masterpiece of a guitar solo. Van Halen himself said that his inspiration for it was Page’s solo in “Heartbreaker”, and while the influence is clear, Van Halen’s effortless fluidity transcends Page’s somewhat labored riffing without Jones’s and Bonham’s rhythmic support. It has an almost classical, orchestral feel to it, and its segue into, of all things, a cover of the Kinks “You Really Got Me” is nothing short of brilliant. Eddie Van Halen’s playing transcends The Kinks’ version by that river-like flow of his lead-lines, and a rhythm section that pushes it along, jazz-like, rather than anchoring it down. Still their finest moment in my humble opinion, as well as their first.
Requiescat in Pace.