With the release of 1978’s self-titled Van Halen album, 23-year-old Eddie Van Halen rewrote the rules of rock guitar. His sheer speed, unusual note choices, inspired finger tapping and whammy work, and fiery tone inspired guitarists everywhere. His impact was especially felt among crotch-rock guitarists in big-name bands, who saw their dreams of becoming “the next Jimi Hendrix” blown away in the 1:42 it took to listen to “Eruption.” Within months, it was virtually impossible to go into a music store or listen to a garage band without hearing some guitarist doing a rough approximation of Eddie’s groundbreaking instrumental. While the band’s rise seemed meteoric, the musicians had, in fact, spent years perfecting their act.
In the Beginning . . .
Eddie Van Halen and his older brother Alex were born and raised in Holland. Their father, Jan Van Halen, was an accomplished clarinetist in big band and classical styles. At age six, Eddie began taking classical piano lessons from a strict Russian master who’d slap his knuckles with a ruler whenever he made a mistake.
In 1967, the family moved to Pasadena, California, where the brothers discovered rock and roll. “I wasn’t into it at all back in Holland,” Eddie told me. “Wasn’t much of a scene going on. When we came here, I saw Hendrix and Cream around ’68, and I said, ‘Fuck the piano! I don’t want to sit down. I want to stand up and be crazy!’ The main influence for me, believe it or not, was Eric Clapton. I mean, I know I don’t sound like him, but I know every fuckin’ solo he ever played, note-for-note, still to this day. I used to sit down and learn that stuff note-for-note off the record. The live stuff – like ‘Spoonful,’ ‘I’m So Glad’ live – all that stuff. But when we first came to the U.S., I started playing drums, and my brother was taking guitar lessons – flamenco, nylon strings, stuff like that. While I was out doing my paper route so I could keep paying the payments for my drum set, he’d be playing my drums. And eventually he got better. I mean, he could play ‘Wipe Out,’ and I couldn’t. So I said, ‘Keep the drums. I’ll play a guitar.’ From there on, we’ve always played together.”
The brothers named their first band Mammoth: “It used to just be me and Al and a different bass player. I used to lead sing, and I couldn’t stand that shit! I’d rather just play. Dave Lee Roth was in another local band, and we used to rent his P.A. We said, ‘Fuck! It’s much cheaper if we just get him in the band!’ So we got Dave in the band, and then we were playing this gig with a group called Snake – they opened for us. We were all tripped out, because the bass player was singing. That was Michael Anthony, and we asked him to join. So we all just kind of hooked together. We all stuck with each other, because by the time we graduated from high school, everyone else had to go to school to be a lawyer or whatever.”
In 1977, Kiss bassist Gene Simmons offered to finance Van Halen’s demo tape. Then they caught the attention of Warner Brothers’ Ted Templeman, who would produce all six Van Halen albums featuring Dave Lee Roth as lead singer. The first Van Halen album – and arguably the best – was recorded and produced in just three weeks.
The Debut Album Heard Around the World
We played one-on-one for a while and then stopped to cool down. “What band are you in?” he asked.
“I’m not in a band.”
“What are ya doin’ here?”
“I’m an editor from Guitar Player magazine. I came here to interview Pat Travers, but he blew me off.”
“Pat Travers blew you off? I can’t fucking believe that! Why don’t you interview me? Nobody has ever wanted to interview me.”
“Who are you?”
“Edward Van Halen.”
Whoa! We sat down at courtside and Eddie Van Halen gave me what he refers to as his first major interview. Coincidentally, it was also my first important rock interview.
The first Van Halen album, Eddie told me, took three weeks to record – one week for the instruments and two weeks for the vocals. “We went into the studio one day with Ted, and we all just played live and laid down like 40 songs. And out of those 40 we picked ten and wrote one in the studio for the record. So we’ve got plenty of songs. The album is very live with no overdubs – that’s the magic of Ted Templeman. I’d say out of the ten songs on the record, I overdubbed the solo in two or three songs. One of them’s doubled in “Ice Cream Man” and “Jamie’s Cryin’.” All the rest are live! I used the same equipment I use live, the one guitar, soloed during the rhythm track, and Al just played one set of drums [laughs]. And Mike, you know. And Dave stood in the booth and sang a lot of lead vocals at the same time. The only thing we did overdub was the backing vocals, because you can’t play in the same room and sing with the amps – otherwise it will bleed on the mikes. The music, I’d say, took a week, including “Jamie’s Cryin’,” which we wrote in the studio – I had the basic riffs to the song.”
Amazingly, the album’s standout track – one of the most important guitar solos in rock history – was included as an afterthought. “My guitar solo, ‘Eruption,’ wasn’t really planned to be on the record,” Eddie explained. “Me and Al were dickin’ around rehearsing for a show we had to do at the Whiskey, so I was warming up, you know, practicing my solo, and Ted walks in. He goes, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ I go, ‘That’s a little solo thing I do live.’ He goes, ‘Hey, it’s great. Put it on the record.’” Another great track, “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” featured Eddie soloing on a rented Coral Electric Sitar.
Asked to describe the difference between the album and a concert, Van Halen responded, “Well, between that record and the shows we’re doing now, I’d say none. [Laughs.] Because we were jumping around and drinking a beer and getting crazy in the studio too. There’s a vibe on the record, I think, because a lot of bands, they keep hacking it out and doing so many overdubs and double-tracking and shit like that, it doesn’t sound real. And then a lot of bands can’t pull it off live because they overdubbed so much stuff in the studio that it either doesn’t sound the same, or they’re standing there pushing buttons to get their tape machines working right or something. So we kept it real live, and the next record will be very much the same.”
After we’d talked for about 40 minutes, Eddie led me over to the band’s trailer and handed me his guitar. It had noticeably low action and wider string spacings at the nut than any I’d seen. A couple of weeks later he called and I asked him about it. “That’s to help the vibrato setup,” he explained. “You gotta know how to set the thing up so it won’t go out of tune, which took me a long time to get down. I mean, no one ever told me. But I figured it out, and I just play the fuck out of that thing now, and it won’t go out of tune. The amount of springs that you use in the back affects it too. I have Fender springs, but they’re a little looser. Really, though, it’s got a lot to do with the way you play it. That vibrato bar is actually like another instrument. You’ve got to know how to use it. You can’t just grab it, jerk the thing, and expect it to stay in tune.”
The pickup, it turned out, was a Gibson P.A.F. extracted from a 1961 Gibson ES-335. “I had the coil rewound to my specifications,” Eddie detailed. “I just use the one pickup because that’s just basically the sound I like. You can get different tones out of it. One volume knob and one pickup – that’s all there is to it. No fancy tone knobs over here! It’s simple and it sounds cool. I dip the pickup in paraffin wax, which cuts out the high, obnoxious feedback. It’s kind of a tricky thing, because if you leave it in there too long, the pickup melts. This just gets rid of that real high squeal, like a microphone feeding back.”
The rest of his setup consisted of a homemade pedalboard and Marshall amps. “I use two Echoplexes,” Eddie explained at courtside. “I also use an MXR flanger, just for little subtle touches, and an MXR Phase 90. It doesn’t really phase; it just kind of gives me treble boost, which I like. Cuts through for solos. I had a different motor put in the Univox echo box so it will go real low and delay much slower. Like on the record, on ‘Eruption’ on the end of my solo, all that noise – that’s a Univox echo box, which I put in that practice bomb we have onstage. I thought it looked cool. That’s about it.”
As Eddie and I were winding down our conversation at that Day on the Green, my pal Jon Sievert, Guitar Player’s staff photographer, came over and asked to take some backstage shots. Eddie suggested he shoot the two of us playing the white-and-black Strat together. After the article came out in the November 1978 issue of Guitar Player, Eddie called to express his thanks.
The Van Halen album sold more than 6 million copies, reaching #19 in the charts. Its adrenaline-laden rework of “You Really Got Me” was the first Van Halen song to break into the Top 40. The band launched a major tour, opening for Journey and Black Sabbath. While Dave’s larger-than-life personality and distinctive singing voice were usually front and center, it was really Eddie’s guitar genius that propelled the band to the top of the heavy metal/hard rock scene, a phenomena that ultimately would trigger Dave’s departure. Before that happened, though, the classic Van Halen lineup would record five more albums together.
Everybody Wants Some
Eddie quickly discovered that fame has its price. By the end of the first tour, he’d grown irritated with manufacturers cloning his guitar and players swiping his techniques. “I just don’t understand how someone could walk onstage with my guitar, because it is my trademark,” he insisted. “You know, when people see a freaked-out striped guitar like that, with one pickup, one volume knob, they obviously know it’s mine. The same thing with playing fingertaps. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery – that’s a crock of shit.”
To stay ahead of other players, Eddie built a new guitar. “It was my idea to have it rear-loaded, so it wouldn’t have a pickguard,” he explained. “So Charvel routed the guitar for me, because at the time I couldn’t afford a router. So they claim that they built it for me, which is actually bullshit. You know, all they did was what I told them to do. That’s the guitar on the second album cover. I’ve tried a bunch of different pickups in there. I finally ended up using a DiMarzio with a P.A.F. magnet, rewound with copper tape around the windings. I rewound it myself, which took a long time.”
Van Halen returned to a heavier sound for 1980’s Women and Children First, showcasing much more ambitious songwriting. On December 29, 1979, Eddie called to tell me about changes he’d made to his guitars and setup, and mentioned the band had just wrapped up Women and Children First. “We just go in there and play live,” he said of the sessions, “and I depend on making it sound good out of the amp, instead of, ‘Oh, well. Fix it in the mix.’ That’s why it also goes so quick. We just finished recording our third album in six days – well, we finished the music in six days.”
I asked if he’d recycled anything from the Gene Simmons demo or from the leftovers from the first album’s sessions. “No. You know, it’s weird: I like to be excited too. I think you’ll kind of trip off the next album. It’s hard rock. There’s a thing on there with a real weird vibrato noise. It actually sounds like an airplane starting. Dave wanted to call it ‘Tora! Tora!’ [laughs]. I wanted to call it ‘Act Like It Hurts.’ We haven’t decided yet. It’s kind of a trippy album. I like it. I think you’ll have to listen to it a couple of times. It’s a little bit different than the past.”
The album’s single, “And the Cradle Will Rock,” featured Eddie on keyboard. “I played a Wurlitzer electric piano through my Marshall stacks, and it sounds like my guitar! Wait ’til you hear it! I play it for people, and I have to tell ’em that’s a piano. And they go, ‘What?!’ It sounds real good. It’s real simple. I’ve been trained on classical piano since I was six years old, but it doesn’t show. [Laughs.] You know, it’s nothing tasteful. I just picked the thing up and started banging on it. Wait ’til you hear this noise on it; it’s tripped out!”
On guitar, Eddie dialed in a denser, crunchier sound, but his basic setup remained the same: A homemade guitar, primitive pedal board, and Marshall amps. “You know, that’s funny,” Eddie told me. “Last year when we opened for Ronnie Montrose and Ted Nugent and all these people, they’d look at my pedalboard – a little piece of plywood with an MXR phase shifter duct-taped onto it – and they’d go, ‘What is this shit?!’ And then after the show, they start trippin’. They go [in a quiet, respectful voice], ‘Whoa! How do you get that sound?’ I really think it’s funny. I see Montrose with his $4,000 studio rack with his digital delay and his harmonizer and everything else, and I swear to God, I can’t tell he’s using it. And Nugent, we opened three shows for him in Maryland. On the first day he’s just kind of saying, ‘You little fucker, you – what is this garbage pedalboard you’re using?’ By the third day, he came to our soundcheck and asked me if he could play through my equipment. I just said, ‘Hey, Ted, you can play through it if you want, but it’s not gonna sound the way it sounds when I play through it.’ Because it really isn’t the equipment. It’s in the fingers. Not to sound egoed-out, but it is.
Women and Children First brought Van Halen headliner status. I was pleased to write Eddie’s first national cover story to promote the album’s release. It was actually Eddie’s idea: He called and said he’d reveal all of his playing secrets in exchange for a Guitar Player cover. He delivered on his word during a crazy day-long interview in Hollywood – with Neil Zlozower there to shoot photos. (Neil also did the live cover shot.) The April 1980 Van Halen cover was the fastest-selling and most sought-after issue published during my twenty years at the magazine.
The band Van Halen rapidly acquired a larger-than-life image, with a reputation for partying hard. They were also known for destroying dressing rooms when venues failed to fulfill a contractual stipulation about not having any brown M&Ms mixed in with the others (“They’re supposed to make you horny,” Dave told Eddie.). Dave’s flamboyant preening and overblown TV and stage raps amused millions of fans but caused Eddie to simmer behind the scenes. He was also growing frustrated with Dave’s lack of enthusiasm for exploring new musical directions. Dave, meanwhile, took umbrage whenever Eddie became the main focus of media attention, such as when he won yet another poll in a music magazine. “To tell you the truth,” Eddie insisted, “I’m not into the star bullshit at all. I mean, a lot of people get off on it. They let their hair grow, buy a Les Paul and a Marshall, and wanna be a rock and roll star. I don’t even consider myself a rock star. I enjoy playing guitar, period.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t know me who hate me, because they think I’m some egoed-out motherfucker, but I’m not at all. That’s just one thing that I never expected. Doing interviews – God! I remember once I did a Top-40 AM radio interview in the beginning. I’m not much of a talker, really, and they’re all motor mouths. Dave’s real good at it. You’re excited when you’re listening to him, but when you play the tape back, he actually didn’t say anything, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just excitement. I can’t do that. So here’s Dave motor mouth getting the guy all jazzed up, and then he turns to me and goes, ‘I understand you and your brother are from Amsterdam, Holland.’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ That was it! Big long pause. I just wasn’t ready for a big long story. I’m not an entertainer with my mouth, but everyone expects me to be. I just feel like saying, ‘Everything I got to say is in the notes.’”
Tension between Eddie and Dave fuelled 1981’s Fair Warning, Van Halen’s darkest album. Like its predecessors, the album went multi-platinum, but there were no party songs or anthemic rockers. It was fast and funky, furious at times, and most of all edgy. At just 31 minutes, it yielded no hits and was also the band’s poorest-selling record to date. Eddie soon found inspiration from another source when he began dating actress Valerie Bertinelli, whom he’d eventually marry.
After a grueling ten-month world tour, the band was rushed into the studio to record 1982’s Diver Down. On July 22, 1982, Eddie awoke me in the middle of the night to talk about it. “Last year when we came off the Fair Warning tour, we were gonna take some time off and spend a lot of time writing and this and that. Dave came up with the idea of, ‘Hey, why don’t we start off the new year with just putting out a single?’ And Dave wanted to do ‘Dancing In the Street.’ He gave me the original Martha Reeves and The Vandellas tape, and I listened to it. I’m going, ‘Fuck! I can’t get a handle on anything out of this song!’ I couldn’t figure out a riff. You know the way I play: I always like to do a riff as opposed to just hitting barre chords and strumming. So I said, ‘Hey, look, if you want to do a cover tune, why don’t we do ‘(Oh) Pretty Woman’?’ It took one day. We went to Sunset Sound, recorded it, it came out right after the first of the year, and it started climbing the charts. So all of sudden Warner Brothers is going, ‘Hey, fuck, man. You gotta hit single on your hands. We need that album, man. We gotta have that record.’ And we’re going, ‘Wait a minute. We just did that to keep us out there, so people know we’re still alive.’ But they kept pressuring, so we jumped right back in without any rest or any time to recuperate from the tour, and started recording.
“We spent 12 days making the album. We had a totally different approach this time. We used a different studio too. It’s now called Warner Brothers Recording Studios, but it used to be called Amigo. It’s owned by Warner Brothers, and they have a real big room. It was nice to have a change, because we’d done every other album at Sunset Sound. It was just a lot of fun going to a different studio. Getting back to what I meant about different approach in recording, the reason it went quicker . . . . I guess Fair Warning took longer than any album we’ve ever done, just because I did more overdubs and there were more things on tape that had to be mixed. I did so many different guitar parts. But this album [Diver Down] was actually cheaper to make than our first one. It cost like 46 grand. And the reason why was the different approach.”
Eddie’s main guitar was still the “regular old-faithful red-striped garbage Strat, the same one I used on the first albums. The same guts, everything’s the same. I might be crazy, but that guitar sounds better than anything I ever bought or built or owned. That is the only guitar that I use to record, except for like ‘Cathedral,’ where I used a regular Stratocaster to get a little more of a nasal type of sound.”
On Diver Down, the band streamlined guitar parts, toned down Dave’s vocal extravaganzas, and added hints of keyboard synth. But where was the songwriting? The album’s hit singles were the covers of “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and “Dancing in the Streets.” “Where Have All the Good Times Gone!” was a Ray Davies Kinks song. “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now),” featuring Jan Van Halen on clarinet, dated back to the Roaring ’20s. “Happy Trails” was written by Dale Evans to use as the theme song for radio and TV’s The Roy Rogers Show.
In all, the band contributed just 17 minutes of new songs to the album. And one of these tracks, “Intruder,” was done to accommodate a video. “The only reason we did that is because we did a video for ‘Pretty Woman,’” Eddie explained. “We had a transvestite tied up and two midgets harassing her, squeezing her ass and doing this and that. And Dave was Napoleon, Mike was a Samurai warrior. Alex, my brother, was Tarzan, and I was like a gunslinger, wearin’ leather pants and twirlin’ a gun and stuff. And a hunchback was in it; he was in a bell tower, looking down at the two midgets harassing this supposedly pretty woman. And he would hop on the phone and call each one of us. I’d hop on a horse and come to the rescue, and so would Al and Dave and Mike. And at the very end, Dave pulls up in a white stretch limo – you know, he’s always the one that’s got the classy, crazy shit. He looks at her, and she starts running towards him like he’s her hero. And she pulls her wig off, and you see that she’s a dude!
“And the reason we did ‘Intruder’ was because the video was longer than ‘Pretty Woman.’ So we just went right back in and said, ‘Hey, we need some more music.’ I used a beer can, all kinds of weird stuff, just making noise. It took a minute and 40 seconds to do – no overdubs, nothing. In the very beginning I twirled my vibrato bar, and it kind of sounds like a chain. The next thing you hear was done by rubbing a can of Schlitz Malt against the low E. The cricket sound was picking above the nut with the vibrato bar all the way down. And I rubbed the springs on the back. The thing that sounds like an elephant – rrrrnngh, rrrrnngh – that was so funny. My guitar has one pickup. I just took my pick and right where the neck joins the body, I would scrape the pick up the string to the pickup, and the string was hitting the magnet pole of the pickup. Like that. It was so much fun.”
Another original, “Little Guitar (Intro),” a gem of an instrumental, came from an unexpected source of inspiration. “I came up with ‘Little Guitar’ – the Spanish-sounding thing – when I bought a couple of Montoya records,” Eddie detailed. “I’m hearing this guy going [imitates machine gun fire], fingerpicking. I’m going, ‘My God, this motherfucker is great! I can’t do that.’ So I listened to that style of playing for a couple of days, and I cheated. Steve Lukather, the guy from Toto, he was in the studio when we were mastering it, cutting the disc, and he’s going, ‘How the fuck did you do that? You overdubbed that, huh?’ I’m going, ‘No, I didn’t.’ What I’m doing is trilling on the high E and just slapping my middle finger on the low E. So I’m doing the trills and pull-offs with my left hand. I just think it’s funny. If there’s something that I want to do, I won’t give up until I can figure out some way to make it sound similar to what I really can’t do.”
For Eddie Van Halen, who always insisted that family comes first – and to him the band is always family – this was the last straw. In April 1985, Roth was out of the band, and by June, Sammy Hagar was announced as his replacement. The band’s first two albums with Sammy – 5150 and OU812 – both shot to #1. Dave, meanwhile, briefly hit the Top 10 with Eat ’Em & Smile in 1986 and Skyscraper in ’88.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.