Eddie Van Halen’s Wicked Genius

Reimagining the Possibilities of the Guitar

Eddie Van Halen’s Wicked Genius

Seth Chaffee

If you ask anyone, including myself, who the greatest guitar player of all time was, you will most likely hear one name: Eddie Van Halen. 

Although you have people like Jimi Hendrix, who unarguably changed how people listen to guitar, Eddie Van Halen took Hendrix’s influence–of tuning most of his songs down a half step and using different kinds of distortion–and turned the guitar into a new instrument. 

“Runnin’ With the Devil”–the first song in Van Halen’s first album in 1978, self-titled “Van Halen”–is a declaration of the band’s virtuosity. 

It’s a song with simple but powerful chord movements that transition the listener into something unheard of before: an explosion of talent called “Eruption.”

This two-minute guitar solo is unlike anything that came before and tells the world that Eddie Van Halen had arrived. (See video above)

Eddie Van Halen redefines how a guitar can be played by “tapping”, which is a hammer on pull off technique used with both hands on the neck. 

Since Eddie couldn’t afford any pedals or fuzz boxes as a kid, he introduced finger tapping into rock and roll and it made people’s jaws drop. It was such a unique sound that when it was first heard around the world, people had no idea what they were even listening to. 

Yet, Eddie’s tapping isn’t all that’s happening. It’s perfectly complemented by insanely fast guitar moves: complex pull offs, massive bends and rapid hammer ons. 

Eddie does smooth transitions with the whammy bar and even drops eighth notes that are hit more quickly than anyone had ever done before. In “Eruption,” Eddie rewrote the rules of a  guitar playing.

And we, the listeners, are introduced to one of the greatest guitar solos of all time–making an evolutionary leap in how guitarists play.

Eddie continues to transform musically and to reform the instruments he played, literally rebuilding the guitar so it could keep up with his genius.

Like the mad doctor Frankenstein, Eddie created his own monster guitar, which he called the “Frankenstrat”, stitching together the parts of a Gibson Les Paul with a Fender Stratocaster to invent the Van Halen sound we all know and love. 

As I listen to his music today, I am challenged to become a better guitar player. He makes us all better musicians. 

When he died on October 6 of last year, the music community was left speechless; in a way, we had lost our voice.

Yet, I believe that once someone dies, they are appreciated more and we can see and recognize the impact they made. For many generations to come, Eddie will inspire us to become great, to make something new and to try to do what he did as a guitarist.