Three Ways Eddie Van Halen Changed Rock Guitar Forever

Van Halen's promo art for the tour that brings them to Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on September 25.
Van Halen's promo art for the tour that brings them to Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on September 25.

Love him or hate him, Eddie Van Halen changed the rock-guitar world forever. I play guitar and have been in bands for many years, so he was always someone I was aware of. There was no way to ignore Eddie's presence if you were interested in hard rock of any kind back in the early '80s. He was one of those polarizing players who people either wanted to imitate or strongly reacted against.

For a long time, I fell somewhere in the middle. I admired his obvious mastery of the electric guitar, but I generally hated the kind of "Camaro culture" that seemed to be Van Halen's (the band) bread and butter. But even though I never embraced their albums, I came to the realization that Eddie Van Halen changed rock guitar forever, and for several reasons. Here are a few.

3. EVH Changed the Course of Rock Guitar
A small handful of players in rock history have dramatically changed people's expectations of what was possible to do with an electric guitar. That doesn't necessarily mean that I have to like their music, but it would be dishonest to say that they didn't drastically change things, and in more notable ways than many other players. Jimi Hendrix is one of those guys: no one sounded like him when he came onto the music scene, and he rewrote the book on what great rock playing was, coaxing sounds out of a Stratocaster that no one else had been capable of until that point.

Like Hendrix and a few others, EVH blew people's minds when he exploded onto the national scene with his band's debut album in 1978. Many people identify him as creating "tapping," as if that's his biggest contribution to guitar playing, but there were players like Jeff Beck and a few others who had used finger-tapping to some degree or another, going back decades. But none of them had ever used it the way EVH did, and it stood out in a way that people admired more than they had with anyone previously. Regardless, nothing that preceded it sounded like the guitar work on Van Halen, and lots of earlier rock gods were left making excuses or begrudgingly giving the young player credit.

The second part of EVH's effect on rock guitar was that suddenly, in order to be considered an amazing player, a person had to master a whole bunch of new techniques. Just playing the same pentatonic and blues licks that everyone else knew didn't cut it very well anymore if you wanted to sound contemporary. What was expected from rock guitar previous to that 1978 album and afterwards was completely changed.

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2. EVH Played a Major Role in The Evolution of Electric Guitars
Prior to EVH, most famous rock guitarists played instruments made by one of a small number of manufacturers, such as Gibson or Fender. There were other guitar companies, including a few small builders who did custom work, but for the most part people only had a handful of options when choosing a guitar; this was especially true if you weren't rich and famous with lots of connections. Even before he became a rock star, Eddie wasn't satisfied with the guitars available to him, and he was the kind of guy who would experiment with his gear.

He combined what he thought were the best elements of a Fender Strat with the higher output pickup from an old Gibson, and created his own "Frankenstrat," a guitar that, in a very real way, became the template for an entire industry of new guitar-builders. His playing style involved rigorous use of a Stratocaster tremolo, a system that would not hold a tuning very well when used heavily, and he became one of the earliest users of Floyd Rose double-locking tremolos, which made them an almost mandatory part of any hot-rodded "superstrat" in the '80s. EVH was such a trendsetter that his preferences shaped the guitar industry, and still do.

1. EVH Was Also Instrumental In Changing Amplifiers
EVH's early guitar sounds have been thoroughly studied, and still are. Enormous forums on the Internet are dedicated to his gear and his "Brown Sound," the name given to the early sound of his amp and guitar. When the first Van Halen album came out, the distorted amp tone he had got a lot of attention quickly. Back in the '70s, many hard-rock guitar players were always looking for a way to coax more grind out of their amps, and EVH had achieved something many other players wanted for themselves.

Like his guitar, EVH's amp was a mystery of sorts, with many folks developing theories as to how he'd made an old Marshall, which were not particularly high gain amplifiers on their own, sound the way he had. There were theories about his amplifier tech adding a device called a Variac to modify the amp's voltage, as well as other ideas about how EVH got his sound; everyone who played hard rock seemed to want the EVH "package," a hot-rodded Marshall amplifier with an equally hot-rodded Superstrat-style guitar. That gear setup nearly defined the '80s for people playing hard rock or heavy metal, and it's still very popular today.

A lot of players I've known hate Van Halen and EVH's style of pyrotechnic guitar playing, and that's fine. Like everything else, it's not for everyone. I begrudgingly became a fan of his playing on the first three albums, but you couldn't pay me to sit through the terrible material of the Van Hagar years; they sound like album-length commercials for tequila and sunscreen to me. Even then, my appreciation for that early material is primarily for the guitar mastery and the debt I feel I owe the guy for his contributions to modern musical gear I like a lot.

But I can always sit back and listen to "Eruption," and lose myself in the wall of glorious sound.


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