The endless banter and countless articles about the greatest guitarists and drummers in rock-n-roll usually all end up in the same place with Hendrix/EVH (guitar) and Bonham/Peart (drums) topping the lists. This painful year claimed Neil Peart first in January and last week, Eddie Van Halen was suddenly gone. It is unlikely that the world will ever see a guitarist make the impact that first Hendrix, and later EVH, brought to rock-n-roll. Having been on this planet during Van Halen’s career, we are the lucky ones.
My road to Van Halen was a slow one and it wasn’t until 1984 that I really took notice of the band (I wasn’t a teenager yet so blame my parents for taking too long!). At first, I saw Van Halen as MTV rivals with Duran Duran especially when “Jump” and “The Reflex” were fighting it out in 1984. I remember Friday Night Video Fights being a huge deal and I feel like they went head to head. Did they? Who won? I don’t remember but I do remember the irresistible synth-hook of “Jump” and how cool David Lee Roth seemed on camera.
The videos for “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher” sold me on Van Halen and hard rock and eventually glam metal started to creep into my tape collection. But, before I could get into Van Halen properly, Diamond Dave left the band and my first rock concert was his Eat ‘Em & Smile tour in November of 1986. I didn’t buy a Van Halen tape until Sammy Hagar had joined at they released 5150. Van Halen was huge and as much as I loved Poison and Cinderella, you always sensed that Van Halen was operating on a higher level.
There has been much written on Eddie’s innovative technique and mind-blowing fretwork and there isn’t much I could add. However, let’s also remember Eddie Van Halen as a band member who never put his own playing ahead of the song. While his solos are the stuff of legend, they always sat within the song just right. His work on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” is just one example of how his solos could turn a great song into a timeless moment in popular culture.
One of the 80s sharpest synth-pop artists, Thomas Dolby, was joined by Eddie Van Halen on “Eastern Bloc” and the results were memorable (video below – the blazing solo starts at 3:30). Much like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s solo on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, EVH adds texture and grit in just the right amount and steals the spotlight without trying too hard. To me, the greatest virtuosos are always the ones who find a way to serve the song and Eddie Van Halen always did that.
The entire David vs. Sammy debate was never really a debate. You were comparing apples and oranges. One was the consummate rock-n-roll showman and one was a hard-working professional who cared about the details. Both versions of Van Halen made incredible music because they had the greatest guitarist of our lifetime anchoring every song. Rest well, Eddie.
Epilogue: I was trying to find the Friday Night Video career stats for “The Reflex” and found this world premiere promo for MTV. File it under “of interest” if you’re a Duranie. So, which DD song would you have loved to hear EVH add a solo to? If I had to choose, it would be either “First Impression” or “Too Much Information”.