I clearly remember, as a teenager, the day I got my first CD from a band I had always heard of, but didn’t have very clear ideas about. I only knew that the guitar player knew his s**t and was said to have re-designed the whole concept of playing the instrument. So one day, when I was on holiday in New York, I entered a huge Virgin store and decided that it was time to get to know the man. I bought Van Halen‘s Best Of Vol. 1, which opens with Eruption. That song literally blew my mind.
When you grow up listening to rock & roll, you hear and read a lot of stories about techniques, styles, and troubled lives… It’s a mix of craftsmanship and attitude, and it’s part of the mythology surrounding bands and musicians: each and every player has their own approach to the instruments with which they’ve chosen to write their personal chapter in the book of music. But very few narratives have been passed on with such a reverence as Edward Van Halen‘s unique method of playing the guitar, and the process that led him to create his signature sound and gears.
In the past few days a video has been making the rounds. I highly recommend you watch it: whether you like rock & roll or not, it’s one of those inspiring accounts of wild and creative days, the humble recall of a truly American dream by someone who travelled from The Netherlands to California to rewrite the history of contemporary music.
The “living guitar deity Eddie Van Halen”, as Rolling Stone calls him, was recently invited at the Smithsonian for its ongoing program “What it means to be American“, and the video I’m referring to is the live coverage of the event.
Eddie’s experimentations include crossing a Gibson with a Fender to get the infamous “Frankenstrat” (which later on was paired in studio and on stage by his signature “Wolfgang”), re-inventing tapping and hammering as well as re-conceiving the art of playing with his second hand on the fret, or using an electric drill on the chords to get a sound out of another dimension, while on a quest to find the perfect amplifier (which of course resulted in him creating his signature model).
His joy when he plays on stage is contagious to say the least, but there is also a very visceral (and sometimes darker) relationship with the guitar which can be found in lesser known performances taken on camera, or more obscure videos captured in his mythical studio “5150”. I’m referring for example to the one shot for Catherine, an instrumental song he created for the adult film Sacred Sin, which is emblematic of his physical struggle to get the notes he is searching for, no matter what.
Going back to the event at the Smithsonian, you can call it a simple “interview” or “master class” as you prefer, but in my opinion it’s a pretty interesting dive into what is known as modding, or the act of modifying hardware or software “to perform a function not originally conceived or intended by the designer, or achieve a bespoke specification”. In this respect, I can hardly imagine a story more fitting than Eddie’s.