The passing of Eddie Van Halen this week triggered an almost unparalleled communal retrospection. It’s undeniable – as far as guitarists go – that Eddie Van Halen was among the greatest musicians of all time.
So much of the modern template of what we understand both rock and metal as is owed to the pioneering work of Eddie and his band of cocky upstarts. Indeed, the entire retro-rock and ever surviving hair metal movement (certainly in its final death throes now) has constantly tried to recreate the epicness that Eddie and co. captured in their tenure at the top of the mountain. It was lightning in a bottle that buzzed about for the better part of 20 years, and even then sometimes flashed on the horizon right up until the band’s final album A Different Kind Of Truth in 2012.
However, as is the case for all innovators, Eddie Van Halen was an artist who would not and could not sit still. In memory of the great shredder comes ten of our picks of Eddie’s finest compositional work. Not best solos or rockstar moments – rather, these are the moments that we believe show the creative genius and ultimately, the ballsy risk taker behind who the music world understood Eddie Van Halen to be, the guy with the guitar that gave millions of kids the rockstar dream.
1. You Really Got Me (1978)
What hasn’t already been said about the band’s explosive 1978 self-titled debut? The album laid the blueprint of modern shred guitar, and was arguably the most influential rock music put out since the era of Hendrix and The Beatles. Perhaps the thing that gets slightly less praise is the enormity of the guitar tones that feature here, on particular display in this muscly cover of The Kinks classic. Sabbath might have had the riff wrapped up with their grim marches, but Eddie took it to the dance floor here.
2. Romeo Delight (1980)
By the time the 80’s came around the rock and metal world were beginning to go their separate ways. Van Halen’s third album Women and Children First however refused to be placed in their camp – as evidenced by this faux-speed metal rager, showcasing their further exploration into heavier territories whilst maintaining the colourful expressiveness that made those first two albums so endearing.
3. Hear About It Later (1981)
The band’s 1981 record Fair Warning failed to push the envelope as much as their preceding releases, but this deep cut shows off Eddie’s knack for writing stadium-sized, mid-tempo and dynamic stompers well before the band’s controversial synth era made that the new normal. As much a masterclass of tone as opposed to technical chops, this shows off Eddie the song-writer over the shredder. Speaking of restraint…
4. Little Guitars (1982)
History will most likely remember the band’s Diver Down record more for its artwork, which was splashed across Eddie’s signature ‘Frankenstrat’ guitar that was a mainstay in his axe arsenal for decades. However, this covers-heavy record still features some wonderful moments, notably on this quirky faux-glam number, which features some ‘Hot For Teacher’ style tapping and kicks off with a flamenco guitar duet to add some extra X-factor. One of the more dynamic and restrained, but nevertheless creative moments in Eddie’s career, with his decision to hold off shredding ultimately showing his commitment to serving the song.
5. Top Jimmy (1984)
Van Halen arguably hit peak hair metal on their 1984 album – but the opening minutes of this cut sound more like a snippet from Tool’s Lateralus record. Of course it doesn’t take long for the cheeky riff to kick in, sounding like the Stones on even more coke than usual, and wonderfully supporting the lyrical spit-fire of David Lee Roth in full swagger mode. Bonus points for some serious whammy bar action come solo time.
6. Why Can’t This Be Love? (1986)
One can only imagine the horror and revulsion that the metalheads of 1986 must have felt towards this bubbling synth number, the first single that the band put out with singer Sammy Hagar. Of course, the band were most likely buoyed by the wild success of megahit ‘Jump’ from the previous album cycle – and the same funky sense of groove pulsates through this number – but the risk taken by the band, in particular Eddie, to rely so heavily on the keys over strings to start a new chapter of the band can only be admired.
7. When It’s Love (1988)
This piano/synth led number from OU812 might sound more like something out of the The Bold and the Beautiful, but it’s hard not to be swept up in the larger-than-life atmospherics achieved here; held down by a bluesy riff that kicks the tune into gear. Eddie and co. might not have been quite as good in making their musical points in this era, but there’s no denying the strength of songwriting here, topped off with a solo that keeps things short, sharp and very sweet.
8. Poundcake (1991)
The band’s 1991 album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was seen as a return to form for many guitar purists, swapping the synth-heavy style of the previous albums for that good ol’ bag of guitar-driven rock and roll tricks. This, the opening track, leans heavily into a fanfare riff that, while potentially coming across as cheesy in the 90’s grunge dominated era, somehow inspires a level of excitement that must have had all the radio rock fanatics feeling guilty as hell. The fact that, led by this single, the album went to number one on the Billboard charts and maintained it for three weeks is a testament to Eddie’s mastery of the riff.
9. The Dream Is Over (1991)
Sure, as we’ve already said, the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album is full of cringe and macho chest-beating, but if there’s any band that can get away with it, it’s Van Halen, given that they kind of invented the Bill and Ted-esque starry eyed rockstar dream in the first place. On this cut, Eddie reignites that boy wonder, going from the driving power riffs of the verse, to the almost U2-like chorus, capped off with some signature shredding. Stadium rock that makes Oasis seem like a bar band.
10. She’s The Woman (2012)
Van Halen’s (probable) final record A Different Kind Of Truth may have come at a tumultuous time for the band (even by their standards) but with David Lee Roth back in tow, the group were able to put out a collection of tunes that, like on Women and Children First, sound both charmingly retro yet at the same time contemporary. That’s perhaps no more apparent than on ‘She’s The Woman’, the stomping track that features the grit of early Van Halen with the songwriting sensibilities of composers who’ve been around the block. Sure, it might sound like a tribute band at a Las Vegas hotel from time to time, but for better or worse, Eddie Van Halen continued to operate within realms distinctly his own here.