The other day, I was in the office when “Unchained” by Van Halen came on the radio.
I’d not listened to the band for a while, but in those three minutes and 31 seconds, I was reminded of just how formidable a guitarist Eddie Van Halen is.
There are plenty of influential guitarists in rock n’ roll, sure, but few are true gamechangers in the way that Eddie Van Halen was.
So, in celebration of this, I thought it’d be fun to scour the web for some of Van Halen’s words of wisdom when it comes to guitar playing. You can check out my picks below, and feel free to share some of your own in the comments!
On influences, via Guitar Interactive (lost interview with Steve Rosen, 1978):
“Since the last five or six years, I really haven’t been into any one guitarist; I like everybody. I’ve listened to Blackmore and Beck; especially Wired, I like some of that stuff. Before that I just never really got into him. I didn’t like him with Beck, Bogert & Appice. But the main guitarist I’d say that influenced me to play the most was Clapton. I used to love the way he played; he was real smooth and a lot of feeling. Every review I ever read of the album or my playing it’s always Blackmore, Beck, and Page influence. But I never really sat down and copped their licks like I did Clapton. I guess a lot of people think I sound like Beck or Blackmore because I do use the bar and they do also so it kinda gets the same kinda sound. The only thing Blackmore got me hooked on was the whammy bar. Because I never really liked the way he played that weird staccato stuff. But I feel a lot of my licks are different than theirs. Like the wide stretch things I do I try and make it sound a little bit different.”
On the importance of keeping it real, via Esquire:
“Eric Clapton is Eric Clapton. Nobody does Clapton better than him. Nobody does Hendrix better than Hendrix. Music is an individual form of expression and if you start second guessing or trying to be something you're not… We're not trying to be anything other than who we are. You know a lot of people look at[David Lee Roth], and they trip on him. And they go, "What's up with this guy?" You know? I mean back in '78, we went to Europe, and there were like a bunch of gangsters, and people looked at him like they didn't get it. You know? But eventually they did because he means it. It's not an act. What you see is real. It's not an act. That's who he is.”
On imitators of his two-handed tapping, via Billboard:
“That was a different trip. It was like, ‘What the hell did I start here?’ Because[that technique] had been a part of my playing for so long, and then everybody else started doing it. I did not take it as flattery. But it ultimately didn’t matter, because I still play that way and none of those other people stayed with it.”
On performing on “Beat It” with Michael Jackson, via Billboard:
“I think it’s funny the way people talk about that. It was 20 minutes of my life. I didn’t want anything for doing that...I literally thought to myself, ‘Who is possibly going to know if I play on this kid’s record?’ So I went to the studio and listened to the song twice, and I didn’t like the section they wanted me to solo over. They wanted me to solo over the breakdown. I asked [Thriller producer] Quincy Jones to edit the chords underneath the solo. Then I could play the solo in the key of E, but it was the chords underneath that made the solo interesting. So I guess I did rearrange it.”
On what to do when you make a mistake, via Van Halen News Desk:
“The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given was from my father, at an early age when we were making music. I would make mistakes and I’d ask, “what do you do?” And he’d say, in Dutch, ‘gewoon door blijven gaan,’ which means ‘keep pedalling through. Don’t stop and don’t let the audience know you made a mistake. Or, smile and do it twice, then people will think you meant it!’”
What’s your favourite Van Halen moment? Share your stories in the comments!
“I'm sick to death of people saying we've made 11 albums that sound exactly the same, In fact, we've made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”
“I honestly believe that you have to be able to play the guitar hard if you want to be able to get the whole spectrum of tones out of it. Since I normally play so hard, when I start picking a bit softer my tone changes completely, and that's really useful sometimes for creating a more laid-back feel.”
As a young guitarist, I completely rejected any notion that music theory would help me in my journey. At the time, I justified this as a “punk rock/music is freedom” attitude to playing. If I learned my theory, I told myself, I’m just putting myself in a box. “[Insert guitar hero of the week] didn’t need theory, and they were a genius. Why do I?”