“EedleeedleBeeedleedleedleeDleldelbeeldeldleBedleeedlEelddlebedeleeedle . . .”
- Eddie Van Halen guitar intro to Eruption
I once tried to transcribe the Van Halen guitar solo from Michael Jackson’s hit Beat It on my Stratocaster electric guitar. After many hours of diligent repetition that made my ears bleed and my blisters ring, I can proudly say I was able to duplicate the opening two notes.
I tried to learn more, but my fingers got entangled in the strings and I had to have them surgically removed. The strings. Not my fingers.
The effort left me humbled and defeated and pretty much ended my rock and roll career. Plus I had no talent. I didn’t even play the air guitar all that well.
When I was in my teens I was seduced by the power and energy of the electric guitar and the exciting, if self-deluded prospect of joining the rarified ranks of guitar gods with all of the benefits that came with the position.
You know, like throwing mattresses out of hotel windows and descending into drugs and sleeping during the day. The romance of rock and roll stuff.
In the heyday of rock, the electric guitar was a very seductive instrument. It was possible to devote some time to it and in just a few easy chords, play in a band. From there you were just a recording contract away from fame and fortune and signing away all of your publishing rights.
I mean, just look at three chord wonders like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Start putting blues solos on top and you are Eric Clapton. Increase the wattage and you are Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. Throw in some feedback and you are Jimi Hendrix. Smash the guitar to smithereens and you are Pete Townsend. And that was just the 60s.
How hard could it be?
Until I tried to play the electric guitar, long after the original rock gods were immortalized by excessive admiration and stylistic cloning, I didn’t appreciate how difficult it was. It turns out that there are a lot more wrong notes than right notes. And volumes over 9 ensure death threats from roommates who don’t appreciate talent when they hear it.
Or if you have never really grown up, wives and children.
To be honest, I was never a big fan of Van Halen. I just didn’t like the music all that much. To my ears, Eddie Van Halen played way too many notes. I couldn’t keep up with them. It was hard to sing along to Van Halen without yodeling.
But as a failed guitar player, I understood and appreciated Eddie Van Halen’s mastery of the instrument. And the sheer speed, precision and complexity of his playing was an art form all its own.
To be a rock god of his stature is not just mastering a twangy, six-string instrument. It is mastery of raw power. It is sonic domination over sensitive pickups, glowing rows of 12AX7 vacuum tubes atop a wall of pumping speakers, racks of wave altering electronics, and manipulation of tight metal strings that are pulled and stretched into positions physics never intended.
And to be a true rock god you have to do this on stage while jumping, running, smoking, posing, and avoiding flash bombs and dangerous lead singers.
Eddie Van Halen’s mastery was not that he was able to play things that were so difficult, it was that he made it look so easy. He performed with a wink-and-smile ease that boasted, “look ma, three hands.”
I don’t idolize rock musicians as I once did. It seems kind of dated and silly now. These musicians were groundbreaking, but they were not gods. There were, and are, others of extraordinary talent that were never hoisted to that mythic pedestal. Alas, they never got the opportunity to trash hotel rooms or place brown M&M riders in their contracts.
Yet it seems losing Eddie Van Halen, along with other rock guitarists throughout the years, that we are losing just a little bit more than a talented musician and stylist. Because the pedestal and the era that he stood on is dying too.
The concept of “rock god” as we used to know it is pretty much dead. Nowadays playing the electric guitar is more about playing a respected instrument well and less about transcendence to virtuosity with theatrical poses and antics that inspire head-banging adulation, reverence, and mattresses thrown from hotel windows.
Adding Covid to Cancer, we have lost a lot of very talented musicians to the big Cs in 2020. More than we have a right to lose. Fortunately their legacies are grooved in vinyl, which will play round and round as long as posterity, the ultimate music critic, allows.
Since my musical tastes have expanded significantly in life, the other night I tried to play air saxophone to John Coltrane’s Favorite Things. It doesn’t translate well. Plus I pulled a groin muscle when I tried to do a jump kick.
Long live rock. Be it dead or alive.