Some rock-star deaths hit like a sledgehammer. On 6 October, as the black news ripped through social media, fans both illustrious and unknown found a thousand ways to echo the same sentiment. Not Eddie Van Halen. Death was so diametrically opposed to the life force in the Californian virtuoso’s fretwork. The black-and-white valedictory photos filling news feeds so drab compared with his kaleidoscope of DIY SuperStrats. The past tense of the eulogies so jarring when applied to the man who announced the future when he arrived in 1978, all megawatt smile and hands ablaze.
“Eruption erupted through my radio as I was warming up on my guitar,” remembers Joe Satriani of the instrumental that marked the boldest line in the sand since Jimi Hendrix detonated the Bag O’ Nails nightclub in 1966. “I was instantly mesmerised by the sound. In that moment, Eddie captured my heart with his musicianship. He expressed his joy of music in every note he played.”
In modern times, virtuoso players are 10-a-penny, Eruption a rite of passage. But it’s a hard thing to convey the impact of hearing the second track from Van Halen’s self-titled debut album back in 1978. There had been wizards, speedsters and sonic adventurers before – from Jimi’s outer-reaches space blues, to Clapton’s precocious strut on Hideaway, to Alvin Lee hitting what seemed like the redline with I’m Going Home at the Woodstock festival. But with Eruption, Van Halen left them all standing. “He basically came in and laid waste to the competition,” says Joe Bonamassa, “while changing the game like no-one since Hendrix. I’m just glad I was alive to witness it.”
Eruption clocked in at under two minutes; the average pop single lasted longer. But that was enough to run the gamut, fusing violent whammy abuse, breakneck rat-a-tat picking and – the pièce de résistance – a two-hand tapping kiss-off that seemed beyond human physiology. “He was a keyboard player, first of all,” points out Steve Hackett, “and he talked about the keyboard developing his finger strength. So he was applying that to the tapping technique, turning the guitar fretboard into a keyboard. A tapper el supremo. And then there were the machine-gunning effects, interspersed by motorbike noises. He was just so full of surprises.”
A piano prodigy from the age of six, who threw rogue notes into early Bach recitals, it’s diverting to imagine what Van Halen might have achieved had he heeded his father’s nudges towards the classical world. But the smart money says that it wouldn’t have come close to the swathe he cut through the rulebook and world order of electric guitar. “He raised the bar higher than anyone ever had before,” considers Mark Tremonti of Alter Bridge. “He introduced the guitar world to more tricks and techniques than any other player that I can think of.”
For a revolutionary, Van Halen’s influences were traditional. Despite his image as the quintessential West Coast shredder, Eddie and his older brother Alex arrived in California from the Netherlands in 1962, with a mere $50 to the family’s name – but just in time for the British Invasion. “I remember hearing Jimmy Page when a friend brought over the first Zeppelin album,” said Eddie. “I completely tripped on it. I might have gotten into Cream, then dug back to find the Bluesbreakers. I was developing technique in a fun way.”
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