Eddie Van Halen Broke the Guitar Solo

He was a virtuosic technician with an ear for pop. How was anyone else supposed to follow him?

Eddie Van Halen, shredding, his hair long and both hands tapping on the neck of his guitar
Copyright: xPOP-EYE/Horstmannx/Reuters

Eddie Van Halen, who died on Tuesday at age 65, was one of the most confounding musicians of the rock ’n’ roll era. He was a full-blown musical genius whose last name would, for fans and detractors alike, become synonymous with party-on oafishness; he was an aesthete who named his son after Mozart, yet whose band defined hedonistic populism for a generation; he was a player of downright avant-garde sensibilities who nonetheless set the standard of pop-radio guitar solos for a decade. He was one of the two or three most influential guitar players since Jimi Hendrix, and certainly the most influential soloist.

Among hard rock fans, Eddie Van Halen’s origin story is about as well-worn as Batman’s is among comic book fans. (For an exhaustive and definitive account, I recommend Greg Renoff’s terrific book Van Halen Rising.) Born in Holland to a musical family who relocated to Pasadena when he was 7, Eddie famously never learned to read music but became a prizewinning classical pianist by the age of 10. Like many young Californians, he was inspired to pick up guitar by the surf music of the Surfaris and the Ventures. By the mid-1970s, Eddie and his drummer brother, Alex, had hooked up with a local bass player named Michael Anthony and a charismatic frontman named David Lee Roth. The foursome began playing under the name “Mammoth” before dispensing with metaphors altogether in favor of “Van Halen.”

Van Halen’s live shows quickly became legendary in the Southern California rock scene, but the band had trouble attracting major-label interest. Ironically, for an act that would go on to be so groundbreaking, labels initially thought Van Halen to be hopelessly dated: Roth seemed like a hackneyed West Coast derivation of Steven Tyler, while Eddie’s riff-driven compositions seemed more in the passé modes of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple rather than having the FM-friendly sheen of Boston or Styx. The increasingly deafening word-of-mouth around the band finally prompted Warner Bros. president Mo Ostin to check out a show, after which he offered them a contract on the spot. Van Halen’s debut, Van Halen, was released in 1978. Critics panned it; it went on to sell more than 10 million copies.

Van Halen contained a number of songs that would become classics or demi-classics, including “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Jamie’s Cryin’,” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.” But the album’s signature track was “Eruption,” a 1-minute-and-42-second guitar instrumental that’s one of the most aptly titled recordings in all of popular music. “Eruption” is a blitz of noise, technique, and sheer propulsion, like someone stuffing Jimmy Page and Andrés Segovia into a blender with a bunch of Everclear and Hawaiian Punch.

“Eruption” isn’t much of a composition, but that’s a little like saying that Deep Throat isn’t much of a love story. “Eruption” was incendiary and epochal, all squall and snarl and speed. It was a showcase for Eddie’s two-handed “finger-tapping” guitar technique, which he didn’t invent but so thoroughly mainstreamed that for 1980s rock radio it was practically a genre requirement. Eddie was 22 when he recorded “Eruption” but still sounds every bit of the puckish pubescent prodigy, high on his own freakish ability. (It’s a testament to how little anyone knew what to do with this band that “Eruption” is, for some inexplicable reason, the second track on Van Halen rather than the first.)

“Eruption” made Eddie a god, and he soon became a fixture of chops-and-gear magazines like Guitar Player and Guitar World. Along with fellow SoCal visionary Randy Rhoads, in the late 1970s and early 1980s Eddie created a blueprint for mainstream rock guitar playing that would last well over a decade. It was a style marked by distortion, technical dexterity, and avalanches of notes, guided by a conception of virtuosity that could often feel strangely conservative, if not reactionary. (Both Van Halen and particularly Rhoads were enthralled with classical music.) When this style fell into the hands of lesser musicians, namely an endless parade of long-haired white dudes who tended to preen better than they played, it often seemed like one more arrogant step in the white expropriation of rock music from its Black musical roots.

But there was always a lot about Eddie Van Halen that his paler imitators never grasped. For starters, Eddie could really swing—even on early tracks like “Ice Cream Man” and “Everybody Wants Some!!,” when the rest of his rhythm section is, shall we say, figuring things out, Eddie is snugly in the pocket, with an instinctive sense of groove and bounce. He plays like a guy who’s actually listened to R&B music, which is probably just one reason he was tapped to play on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” delivering perhaps the most ubiquitous guitar solo of the 1980s. (Eddie did it for free, too.)

Another thing people tended to miss was that Eddie Van Halen had a preternatural ear for pop music. It’s rare for a band’s technical virtuoso to also be the member who most keenly understands what’s going to take off on the radio: The latter skill requires an instinctive simplicity that star soloists often lack. But in Van Halen, that role was absolutely Eddie’s, and from the beginning, the band had some real earworms, like “Jamie’s Cryin’” and the wonderful “Dance the Night Away” from Van Halen II. They’re hooky and infectious, full of killer riffs and indelible guitar flourishes; they’re dumb, sure, but not as dumb as you’d have to be to hold that against them. Which brings us to 1984, and 1984.

1984 (whose title is officially styled MCMLXXXIV, in true brown M&M’s fashion) is Van Halen’s finest hour, a commercial juggernaut that was also a culmination of the band’s abilities. “Panama” is the best pure rocker they ever recorded. “I’ll Wait,” co-written with Michael McDonald, was the most convincing love song they’d made to date. “Hot for Teacher” fused Eddie’s pyrotechnics to an Exile on Main St.-style boogie and featured David Lee Roth at his horniest and funniest. And then of course there was “Jump.”

At this point I should probably confess I’m not actually that big of a Van Halen fan. I have enormous admiration for Eddie’s gifts, but a lot of the band’s music I could honestly take or leave, particularly once Roth departed in 1985. But I love 1984, and I absolutely adore “Jump.” It’s an exquisite pop record, so warm and alive, the sound of a bunch of guys who are totally aware that they’ve stumbled onto the best song they’ll ever write in their life. It’s four minutes long but feels like an epic; the sheer drama when the riff comes back in after the short lull at the end of the synthesizer solo, like everyone collectively stopping to gather their breath, is, to my ears, more thrilling than any moment of “Eruption.”

About that riff. Eddie Van Halen had initially written the song’s iconic synthesizer hook back in 1981, but he couldn’t get his bandmates interested. At the time there was a widespread prejudice among rock audiences against synthesizers, evidenced by the “No Synths!” disclaimers that sometimes graced guitar-based rock albums during the 1970s. Many fans saw synths as, well, synthetic, and as an existential threat to the primacy of the electric guitar. In the early 1980s, no band was so associated with, and so reliant upon, that primacy than Van Halen.

Maybe that’s one reason that “Jump” is so joyful, Eddie driving away on the keys of an Oberheim OB-Xa like a man liberated. The guitar doesn’t take center stage until more than two minutes into the song, on a solo that’s a brisk eight bars long, before giving way to a shimmering synth solo also played by Eddie, getting back to his piano-playing roots. “Jump” always sounds to me like a brilliant musician escaping from a cage he’d been trapped in for too long, and few things sound better.

“Jump” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts and stayed there for five weeks, the band’s first and only chart-topper. By that time Eddie Van Halen’s playing was already well on its way to becoming the definitive guitar-solo style of 1980s pop, rock, and even rap radio hits. It wasn’t until grunge that this started to shift, usually in ways that either de-emphasized the centrality of the solo as a compositional showpiece altogether, or saw guitar gods turning into masters of texture and soundscape (à la Tom Morello and Jonny Greenwood) rather than blazing gunslingers. It was almost as if there wasn’t anywhere left to go in Eddie’s wake, his abilities so singular that all that was left was homage.

In his later years, Eddie Van Halen often seemed ambivalent about his own legacy and life’s work. In a 2015 Billboard profile, he told Chuck Klosterman that he hadn’t bought a new album since 1986 and had almost entirely stopped listening to music, period. He was clearly a man in a lot of pain, from a variety of ailments. (He was first diagnosed with cancer in 2000.) When I heard of his death yesterday, I went and listened to “Jump,” that sound of liberation, a song that will last forever.