By Andrew Catania
When I was putting a Van Halen tape in and listening to it for the first time, I was blown away. My first exposure to Eddie Van Halen was Eruption. The son of Dutch Immigrants was about to take the world by storm.
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 (Yngwie Malmsteen), 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, 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 afterward was completely changed by EVH?
Before 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 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.
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,” an amplified 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.
EVH changed the whole industry on how we knew it. Being an innovator and one hell of a player makes Eddie Van Halen important.
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