Guitar legend Eddie Van Halen’s orgiastic soloing was the unique selling point of the U.S. band Van Halen. Now he has died.
David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen (front) in Wantagh, New York in 2015 Photo: dpa
Visually, the U.S. band Van Halen remains brightly remembered in the form of singer David Lee Roth’s skin-tight spandex pants. Acoustically, the fretwork of guitarist and keyboardist Eddie Van Halen, who founded the quartet with his drumming brother Alex in Pasadena in the greater Los Angeles area, is defining.
With their debut album (1977), Van Halen ushered in a phase in the hard-and-heavy sector that was less about the influence of blues and bad-man fuss, as was the case with the druids Led Zeppelin, and more about a continuation of the phallus-driven boogie à la Aerosmith, which Van Halen transformed further in the direction of metal in Californian rococo style. Eddie Van Halen also had straightforward rock riffs at the ready, but his orgiastic soloing was the band’s unique selling point; a howling and howling triumphant procession through all scales, to which the passionate sports climber David Lee Roth could gymnastically gyrate around even more outrageously on the top of the speaker towers at concerts, while down on the stage Eddie Van Halen rode off as cavalry one pirouette after the other.
The Van Halens grew up as the sons of a jazz musician in Nijmegen. "The name givers are, the assumption suggests, of Dutch origin," the author combined on the debut’s wash sheet. As teenagers, the Van Halens emigrated with their family to the USA. Originally their band was to be called Mammoth, Kiss singer Gene Simmons financed the first demo.
In 1974, Van Halen began the oxen tour as a bar band covering common hits to boost drink sales at the bar until 1976, when they were sent on the grand orbit through U.S. stadiums as the opening act for superstars like Santana. At the peak of their success, Van Halen played to a crowd of 300,000 at a festival in 1983.
Complex phrasing tricks
There was never a lack of self-confidence about it. "Crash! Boom! Bang! Van Halen means getting high on life and going for it. We drive out the evil spirits at full volume," David Lee Roth proclaimed. And Eddie Van Halen: "I do everything exactly the way I want it. Who is the guitar god that can determine, you have to hold the guitar this way or that way?"
Eddie Van Halen’s specialty was playing with both hands on the guitar neck. In addition, he performed gimmicky full brakes at extreme tempos, letting melodies shatter through complex phrasing tricks, only to pick up the next moment with low-speed howling and splintering effects elsewhere in the song. "Eruption," the guitar solo introduced by a drum break from his brother on the debut album, became the first of the band’s countless anthems.
Then, in the Eighties, Van Halen anticipated the theatrical "hair metal" phase of hard rock with chart hits. Songs like "Jump" (1984) and "Why can’t this be Love" (1986) managed to blend hard rock with bubblegum pop, so that the music also worked as music on hold in dentist’s offices. After Roth’s departure, singer and guitarist Sammy Hagar was enlisted as backup. His rhythm guitar strangely did not bring Eddie Van Halen to more soloistic sophistication. Van Halen sold tens of millions of albums, and they made a living from "greatest-hits" and occasional reunion concerts alone.