Revenge of the Guitar
(For Don, Aric and Mike)
by Matt Mattheisen
Click HERE for a larger version of the cover.
The year was 1978 and the entertainment industry had its face buried in snowdrifts of cocaine. Eventually a producer would raise his head from snorting a hastily cut line to give us crap like Man Beast! Myth or Monster? and the Starland Vocal Band. Needless to say there wasn’t a lot of product for the masses to be inspired or moved by. But, the muses mercifully gave a gift that year of gigantic proportions that was so exciting and technically brilliant that it not only revitalized the hapless consumer, it changed the entertainment world as we knew it. Personally, it changed my life and the lives of those around me for years to come. To this very day we still talk about it.
No, it’s not Star Wars I’m referring to. It was the first Van Halen album.
Remember the cover of the album? Look it up on Amazon if you get a chance. It was divided up into four squares with each member in their respective corner as if to say the band was ready to rock and conquer the four corners of the earth. Fluorescent trails of light swirled around Dave, Michael, Alex and Eddie’s bodies giving them an otherworldly appearance as if they had just arrived to our planet via electrical storm.
I especially remember staring at the cover of the album and concentrating on Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. It was a white, Stratocaster style body with black racing stripes intersecting in different angles. (Those stripes weren’t painted on by the way. For all you Van Halen aficionados, the racing stripes were created with black electrical tape.) I would stare at the guitar while listening to the album to see if there was something contained on the guitar itself that made it sound so alien and beautiful.
As for songs, the first track on the album was "Running With The Devil." It wasn’t the strongest song but it proved to be a hit. Most significant to the song was that the guitar work was quite pedestrian considering the rest of the album. Producer and then coach for the band, Gene Simmons of Kiss, probably suggested putting "Devil" as the album’s first song due to its hit potential. Relevant to this debatable song placement was the fact that Simmons was managing Liza Minelli’s career at the time so Gene’s judgment, though not cocaine induced (Simmons was and always has been a teetotaler), was nonetheless questionable.
The second track was Eddie’s unaccompanied guitar solo, "Eruption." Whether you are a musician or not you have heard this song or you are at least vaguely familiar of that which I speak. It is the most celebrated and famous unaccompanied guitar solo in history. Rock guitarists, jazz guitarists, classical guitarists, bass players, posers, punks, Jews and Gentiles stopped in their tracks the first time they heard it.
There were moments when it sounded like a guitar, the power chord intro, the slower pentatonic licks, but the rest of it sounded like it had come from the mind of an insane genius. The jaw dropping speed, the dive bomb whammy bar that punctuated each section of the solo and the sections of furious tremolo picking made ones jaw drop but it was especially the ending of the solo that would change guitar playing and rock and roll forever.
No one knew how Eddie played the ending. Guitar teachers slowed the solo down to 16 rpms on their turntables but that proved to be fruitless. Musicians congregated in music stores and clubs and scratched their feathered manes in disbelief. Even when the band was playing around Los Angeles, Eddie would often turn his back to the audience to retain the mystery.
Eventually though, word had spread that at the end of Eruption and throughout various other songs on the album, Eddie was doing something called two-handed tapping. Basically what that means is that instead of placing one hand on the guitar neck and using the other hand to pick, Eddie fretted notes on the guitar neck with both hands. Yes, other guitarists had done it before. Brian May from Queen, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, but no one had done it so musically and exploited the technique to such a creative and exciting degree up to that point. Eddie created long interludes with the technique that were breathtakingly fast and employed large, dramatic intervals that shook the listeners perceptions of how rock guitar should sound. He played scales and runs that were long, liquid ideas that were thrilling to listen to. And all the old wankers with their multimillion album sales and tired old chops mumbled to themselves in their mansions and stared at their guitars as "Eruption" kept playing over and over in their heads. Eddie did it all with not a lick of formal training, without a hint of studio trickery and without a self indulged stiff British accent. He was an immigrant, half-breed punk with a smart-ass grin who along with his band mates made the turgid musical world of the late seventies their newly conquered realm.
From that point on Eddie was instantly placed amongst the rock guitar gods. There was no waiting in the guitar god antechamber for a body of work to be built or legends to be fabricated. Clapton was a fair guitarist when he was with the Yardbirds but it took him years and several albums to ramp up to legendary status. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were on the same career track. They had at least several albums to their credit when musicians and writers began to notice and appreciate their talent. The only other guitar player to achieve such meteoric achievement in such a short time was Hendrix. The only other guitar player since Eddie to reach it was Yngwie Malmsteen. (The Great Swede terrorized guitar players in the late eighties.)
As for my own epiphany back in that ancient year of 1978, I had borrowed a recorded cassette copy of that first Van Halen album from a friend. I had a cheap tape recorder with a small built in speaker. A type similar to those the teacher would use to play the audio to a filmstrip we were watching in class. I plugged in my dad’s big pair of headphones into the tape player and lay back on my bed to listen. I made it through "Running With The Devil" without much fanfare because I had heard the song many times before on the radio. Then began "Eruption" and my body was instantly scattered with endorphins and my head felt tingly all over. I stopped the tape player and rewound the song. I wondered if the guitar player switched back and forth between a guitar and keyboard. Maybe the tape had suddenly sped up as if it was being eaten? I listened again and again and again. Each time I became more inspired and stupefied.
Up to that evening I had thought that I might want to play guitar someday. From that night forward I became driven and obsessed. Practicing four hours a day, sleeping with the guitar, reading about it, talking about it and now writing about it. I have never been the same since that evening. I gotta think I wasn’t the only one that was inspired by Eddie’s solo. As a matter of fact, I have students that still bring the solo in to learn.
One thing that I also remember about that evening and the experience was a daydream I had as I was listening to the song through numerous times. I imagined the school music teacher had given me a showcase during our spring concert to play a guitar solo in front of the school. I played "Eruption." Of course I blew everyone’s mind because that’s what happens in fantasies like that. And undoubtedly in fantasies like that, there was also this girl in it that I had a huge crush on. After I was done playing, she came up to me, smitten by my prodigious talent and energy, and coyly asked if I wanted to make out by the jungle gym. I turned her down to the cheers of my friends, some of whom I currently play music with, and I then imagined we rushed outside and ran flea flickers while the rest of the audience spilled into the parking lot to their station wagons.
Star Wars was a great movie and a significant event during that year of our Lord 1978, but that first Van Halen album, that was the New World.
May the Rock be with you.