Personalities | Eddie Van Halen | Hail to Heavy Metal | Guitar Heroes

Eddie Van Halen redefined the sound of heavy metal at the end of the 1970s. His high-velocity solos, distinguished by his finger-tapping technique and tremolo-bar effects, on Van Halen’s 1978 debut album heralded a new era in hard-rock guitar that rejected the clichés of a jaded genre.

His solo on Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ in 1982, which effectively compressed his style into one 30-second explosive burst, took Van Halen’s guitar sound into the mainstream.

Born in Holland in 1955, Van Halen moved to Pasadena, California with his family and older brother Alex in 1962. His father had played clarinet and saxophone in Dutch jazz bands, and both sons studied classical piano before Alex took up drums and Eddie started playing guitar at the age of 12. They formed a band in 1972, recruiting bassist Michael Anthony and singer David Lee Roth. They played the competitive Los Angeles rock scene as Mammoth until they changed their name to Van Halen.

The album Van Halen (1978) made an immediate impact on the heavy metal scene. Eddie poured 10 years of obsessive practising into his solo instrumental, ‘Eruption’, with its innovative use of two-handed tapping, high-speed fretwork, vibrato and tremolo picking. His ‘Frankenstrat’ guitar (pictured on the album cover), made from a Charvel body and neck with a modified Gibson humbucker pickup and Fender tremolo arm, provided his distinctive tone. The band’s swaggering, high-energy rock style was vigorously displayed on ‘Running With The Devil’, ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love’ and a cover of The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’, and the album went platinum by the end of the year, turning Eddie into an instant guitar hero.

Van Halen II (1979) capitalized on their initial success with Eddie’s singular riff providing the compelling component to ‘Dance The Night Away’ – their first hit single – while his acoustic playing on the instrumental ‘Spanish Fly’ and use of harmonics on the introduction to ‘Women In Love’ broadened his scope. Women And Children First (1980) and Fair Warning (1981) consolidated Van Halen’s position as a guaranteed Top 10 album band in America – as well as a stadium-filling live act – and Diver Down (1982) brought them another hit single with a cover of Roy Orbison’s ‘(Oh) Pretty Woman’, while Eddie refined and developed his own style on the instrumentals ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Intruder’.

Following Eddie’s groundbreaking solo on Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’, the album 1984 (1984) propelled Van Halen to superstardom with their No. 1 hit ‘Jump’. He also expanded his repertoire of riffs and runs on ‘Panama’ and ‘Hot For Teacher’. Ironically, 1984 was kept off the top of the US album charts by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and the simmering competitive tension that had been growing between Eddie and Roth led to the singer’s departure in 1985.

Van Halen’s success continued with new vocalist Sammy Hagar. The album 5150 (1986) finally gave them a No. 1 album. The band overhauled their sound mix, and...

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