Any article that charts Eddie Van Halen’s greatest guitar moments is likely to be far longer than most. But there’s a world of game-changing guitar playing outside of Eruption, Unchained and Hot For Teacher.
Here, we present a rundown of unsung EVH cuts that demonstrate Eddie’s guitar genius, spanning Van Halen’s debut, through side projects, soundtracks and the band’s final album, A Different Kind of Truth.
Turn up and enjoy…
1. On Fire – Van Halen (1978)
Given how seminal Van Halen’s debut album would become, it’s hard to think of any of its 11 tracks as “lesser known.” Though perhaps it’s the deepest cut and final track on the record that documents the full metallic force of the four musicians in three perfect minutes, Eddie attacking his guitar with the same kind of aggression that thrash metal bands would be championing only a few years later.
Being arguably the heaviest in this early clutch of songs, thanks to all the palm muting and chromatically ascending three-note-per-string runs, it was the perfect opener for many of the legendary performances around the debut release – including the highly bootlegged hometown show at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on October 15, 1977.
2. Bottoms Up! – Van Halen II (1979)
When people think of the guitar mastery that dominated Van Halen’s second full-length album, songs like Spanish Fly, Somebody Get Me a Doctor, D.O.A. and Women in Love are usually the first to come to mind – and rightly so.
Admittedly, Bottoms Up! can’t compete when it comes to blistering alternate-picked triplets on acoustic or stadium-sized riffs, but what it does have is something truly exquisite — from seductively backed-down opening double-stops and ZZ Top-style boogie riffs to screaming leads treated with the kind of ambience you’d expect on a David Bowie album, tonally quite different from anything else the guitarist recorded.
You can hear just how much fun they’re having during the breakdown when the frontman momentarily breaks into laughter – and this was still only the beginning of their meteoric rise.
3. Fools – Woman and Children First (1980)
Few songs take the listener right into the room with the musicians in the same way as Fools, which starts with a minute and a half of mainly Eddie before the full band comes in.
And when you get to the solo, it’s all there – from earsplitting pinch harmonics, massive overbends and whammy bar dips and dives to the guitarist’s gloriously aggressive and unorthodox blues-rock shredding, colored by the foamy wash of his script-logo MXR Phase 90.
It often feels like Eddie’s laughing his way through these songs, making it up on the spot and somehow catching lightning in a bottle. Though this band were now three albums in, their so-called “brown sound” was still every bit as alluring as it was on the debut.
4. Loss of Control – Women and Children First (1980)
Did Eddie Van Halen invent tech-metal and groove metal at the same time? When you hear “Loss of Control” and factor in the year it was recorded, it can certainly feel that way. Eddie attacks his 6th string in a way that many bands would later make a career out of, the likes of Tool and Pantera reinventing heavy music with more distortion a decade later.
There are several reasons the solo section feels like a rocket taking off; there’s an early run that ascends chromatically into extreme high-end string noise, some big slides across the neck plus a healthy dose of flanger from Ed’s trusty MXR stompbox to color in all the scratches and dead notes. Whoosh, indeed.
5. Could This Be Magic – Women and Children First (1980)
This penultimate track from the band’s third studio album has a folky, almost Led Zeppelin-inspired swing to it and was the first time Eddie recorded with a slide.
According to legend, it was pretty much his first time even trying to play with one – having been handed a bottleneck by producer Ted Templeman during the sessions.
The rhythm guitars were played by David Lee Roth in the same tuning he used to record Ice Cream Man – open E, a half step down – Eddie in Eb standard, switching between fretted notes and slide with the effortless ease of someone who had mastered the art of bottleneck long ago.
6. Hear About It Later – Fair Warning (1981)
The note choices and overall tone heard at the beginning of Fair Warning’s fourth track would become hugely inspirational for players like Steve Vai, particularly on his solo recordings.
The extra-low bass notes were the result of tuning down a half step, as usual, but with the 6th string additionally dropped another whole step (to “drop-Db” tuning: low to high, Db, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb), as with Dirty Movies, Sinner’s Swing! and Unchained – which would play a big part in the album’soverall heavy sound.
The solo features one of Eddie’s most signature licks, an Em9 arpeggio (E, G, B, D, F#) resulting from combining Em (E, G, B) and Bm (B, D, F#) shapes using the 12th, 15th and 19th frets on the 1st and 2nd strings, which can also be heard a few bars intoEddie’s legendary solo in Michael Jackson’s Beat It.
Using repeating notes within wide stretches like this was one of many tricks employed by Allan Holdsworth, one of Eddie’s biggest heroes, to confuse the ear.
7. Secrets – Diver Down (1982)
For a player who was not only dialing in but looking to invent new levels of distortion, there was an incredible sweetness to Eddie’s cleaner tones, which often featured a perfect blend of compression, ambience and modulation to make the notes cut through.
For live shows, Eddie would play “Secrets” on his yellow and black Kramer double-neck and occasionally dial in a crunchy tone, allowing the ultra-clean parts on the recording to roar into breakup. The top neck would be tuned to drop-Db to add weight to the shifting suspensions, and then the lower neck to Eb standard for the solo.
With such colorful chords to play over, it’s one of the more melodically modal leads from this part of Eddie’s career, shifting through major and minor shapes before ending with a powerful minor-7 bend into the high root.
8. Blues Breaker – Star Fleet Project (Brian May and Friends, 1983)
Rough and ready as it may be, this 13-minute weekend jam between Eddie and Brian May ended up being one of the American virtuoso’s earliest excursions outside of the band that took his family name. If you’re looking to steal Eddie’s best blues licks – and/or cop a few from someone many regard as his British counterpart – it’s definitely worth a listen.
With two icons going head-to-head, there’s simply no second-guessing who is playing what, Eddie’s unmistakably bright and scooped tone perfectly complimenting the Queen guitarist’s mid-range warmth. In the mini album’s liner notes, May explained, “You can hear us smiling as we search for answering phrases” during a spontaneous jam between musicians [who were] “just laying back and enjoying the fresh inspiration of each other’s playing.”
9. Get Up – 5150 (1986)
Any doubts over whether Van Halen could continue without David Lee Roth were put to rest on Sammy Hagar’s debut. Much like Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio at the beginning of the decade, Van Halen had found a singer with his own identity who was able to tread new sonic ground, in this case on tracks like Dreams and Love Walks In.
But 5150’s heaviest offering also proved that VH could still deliver guts and glory, hinting at what Hot for Teacher might’ve sounded like at double speed. Eddie also had a new toy in his hands, his Steinberger GL-2T – fashioned, of course, in his signature stripes.
10. A.F.U. (Naturally Wired) – OU812 (1988)
Using ringing tapped harmonics to breathe life into a handful of simple chords is emblematic of Eddie’s musical and tonal inventiveness and ability to “spice up” what would otherwise be fairly regular shapes on the fretboard.
While the main riff isn’t particularly fast, it’s quite deceptive in terms of timing and feel, using a lot of open-string pull-offs that end with chromatic ideas that dramatically transition into the verses.
Then, of course, there’s that metallic part featuring staccato stabs against a palm-muted open string – more experimental in feel and reminiscent of the prog rock associated with bands like Rush – before Eddie goes on to deliver one of his best solos from this era of the “Van Hagar” years.
11. Source of Infection – OU812 (1988)
The minor arpeggios that open “Source of Infection” seem pretty straightforward at first, incorporating open strings and notes tapped around the octave up at the 12th fret. The position shifts then get more tricky, with certain runs doubling in speed before returning back to the original tempo – a technique occasionally used by Eddie to catch listeners off-guard when in the studio and even more so live on stage.
The solo is easily one of most aggressive on the album and quite a workout for the picking hand, with Eddie tearing through unison bends as if they were single-note runs with very few moments of rest.
12. Spanked – For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
If Eddie’s guitars sounded a bit different on the third Sammy Hagar-fronted release, it was because this was the period during which his rig went through its biggest overhaul. The guitarist ended his deal with Kramer and switched to Ernie Ball Music Man, who were already producing his signature strings.
There were also some issues with his late-Sixties Marshall 1959 Super Lead “plexi” amp head, bought second-hand in England and used on the first six albums, so he ended up recording with his Soldano SLO-100 and a prototype of what would eventually become the Peavey 5150.
For Spanked, the guitarist used his custom-made trans-purple quilt Music Man doubleneck guitar, switching from the six-string baritone for the funky riffs to regular guitar for the solo.
13. Runaround – For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
Though Poundcake was rightly chosen as the big single for Van Halen’s ninth album, Runaround still feels like one of Eddie’s biggest moments on the record. It might not feature any Makita drills or melodies composed purely out of harmonics, but what it does, it does incredibly well.
The riffs feature slow bends to push and pull the notes and arpeggios to emphasize the movements, and even a couple of funk voicings more associated with the music of James Brown. It’s also notable for carrying one of Eddie’s most wah-heavy solos, honing in on the snarl of his aggressive blues licks and screaming double-stop bends.
14. Man on a Mission – For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
After the curveball of its curiously jazzy intro, Man on a Mission deserves a mention as one of the finest riffs from the Van Hagar period.
Opting for E standard tuning in place of Eb standard, Eddie snakes his way through open-string hammer-ons and pull-offs while Michael Anthony’s bass climbs underneath in the key of A minor, and it’s their combined, contrapuntal lines that create a magic greater than the sum of the two parts.
The song’s influence can be heard on the single, 17 Girls in a Row by Steel Panther, a band who started life as a Van Halen tribute act on the Sunset Strip before taking on a life of their own.
15. The Seventh Seal – Balance (1995)
The fourth and final album from the Sammy Hagar era may sit among their less celebrated offerings, but it still has its exceptional moments. This opening track, also played in E standard tuning, is a dark and moody affair, starting off with some mystical chants, courtesy of the Monks of Gyuto Tantric University and supposedly similar to the relaxation sounds adopted by the guitarist in his quest for sobriety.
The main riff is played by moving power chords on the D and B strings against a ringing high E, keeping the G string completely muted and allowing the notes played to bleed together and jangle in overdrive.
Overall it’s more of a rhythmic track and fairly light on the fretboard acrobatics that launched the guitarist’s career, with verse parts that feel like a nod to Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, which, to be fair, only adds to its ethereal majesty.
16. Baluchitherium – Balance (1995)
As an instrumental, Baluchitherium perhaps doesn’t get the credit it deserves, as compared to early fan-favorites Eruption and Spanish Fly, which naturally felt more ground-breaking for their time. It is, however, the sound of a guitar hero reinventing himself for a new age and experimenting into areas previously unexplored, arguably fitting more within the realm of film-score music than stadium rock.
The piece was named after an ancient rhinoceros that roamed the earth 30 million years ago, the largest land mammal known to man. “For the instrumental track, we were actually working on lyrics and ended up going, ‘Fuck it, it sounds pretty good without vocals,’” Eddie told GW in his February 1995 cover story. “So we left it. And Sammy was relieved… ‘Okay, I got one less tune to work on.”
Eddie also explained how parts of the recording sounded like a collection of animals at a zoo, incorporating “a bunch of birds and chirps and dinosaur calls and the elephant sounds I’ve made… you can even hear my dog Sherman howling on there.”
17. The Little Things – Fatherless Child (Rich Wyman, 1996)
The three Eddie guest spots on pianist Rich Wyman’s second album, contributing guitar and bass, depict the guitar god in a different kind of environment – more honky-tonk than the hard rock he was generally known for.
But that didn’t stop him from getting up to his usual tricks for the solo, making his guitar sound like a dysfunctional lawnmower before delivering some thunderous blues licks in G.
According to Wyman, Eddie saw a performance of his in Utah, and then brought him into the guitarist’s 5150 Studio in Los Angeles to create the foundations for Fatherless Child, under the expertise of Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones recording engineer Andy Johns.
18. Humans Being – Twister: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996)
The Van Hagar years were drawing to an end when the group were asked to record two new tracks for the soundtrack to the movie Twister, a project that Sammy later confessed he initially wanted no part in. You wouldn’t have been able to tell from Humans Being, however, as the song finds the band in great form.
The intro chords reappear in the main riff with some of the major 3rds removed to make for a darker heaviness, while the drop-in dynamics and subsequent build-up between the solos is nothing short of breathtaking. But it’s that second lead in particular that bears the mark of Eddie at his world-conquering best, thrashing and bending his strings into what feels like oblivion.
19. Respect the Wind – Twister: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996)
The other Van Halen contribution for the disaster film couldn’t have been more different – a mesmerizing, otherworldly instrumental crafted by Eddie and Alex that deserves a mention as one of the guitarist’s most powerful musical statements. And it nearly never existed.
Originally, the second track for the soundtrack was going to be a ballad by the name of Between Us Two, but it was rejected by the producers right as Hagar was leaving to rejoin his pregnant wife in Maui and unable to continue with the sessions. Ultimately, it came down to the Van Halen brothers to fulfill the group’s obligations, and what they delivered was something truly spectacular.
20. From Afar – Van Halen III (1998)
There are numerous reasons the only Gary Cherone-fronted Van Halen record rarely gets a mention in discussions of their discography. The mix didn’t feel quite right, the album was double the length of their brilliantly succinct early masterpieces, and ultimately their new singer didn’t seem to have the same kind of charisma outside of the fine rock group he was already known for fronting, Extreme.
But that still wasn’t enough to stop Eddie from finding his own moments to shine, like the orchestra of reverse guitars that build into his spine-tingling, E minor blues solo. It’s one of the more direct and unambiguous leads in the guitarist’s discography and the mark of a player who could hear what the song needed – in this case, some Gary Moore-esque bends coming straight from the heart.
21. Lost Boys Calling – The Legend of 1900 Motion Picture Soundtrack (1998)
If you’ve ever wanted to know what Eddie would have sounded like when channeling his inner-David Gilmour and observing the English guitar hero’s code of restraint, this final song on the soundtrack for an Italian drama film starring Tim Roth is just the ticket.
Penned by Roger Waters and filmscore legend Ennio Morricone, it might not feature any guitar work from Eddie for its first two minutes, but what he does end up contributing is pure sonic gold, sticking to C# major pentatonic-based ideas for the leads and giving each note enough space to sing.
Eddie engages a Fernandes sustainer for his second solo, its sound gently growling underneath the synthetic atmosphere and disappearing into a whisper for the passage’s fittingly dramatic conclusion.
22. Catherine – Sacred Sin Motion Picture Soundtrack (2006)
Found on the bonus disc of an obscure adult movie by Eddie’s friend Michael Ninn, Catherine could very well be the deepest cut of them all. As well as some avant-garde footage of actress Audrey Hollander, the music video offers a striking glimpse into the maestro’s life in the studio, wailing away on his guitar, pounding away on a drum kit and mixing it all together behind the desk.
It’s the sight and sound of a genius at work and very much in his element, his perfect storm of technique and phrasing continuing to be just as wildly inventive in the new millennium as it was in the late Seventies. It’s easily one of the darkest tracks of the virtuoso’s career – tuned down to C standard (low to high: C, F, Bb, Eb, G, C) and building in tension like a gothic opera – and yet still there’s an unmistakable sense of bluesiness that always finds a way of cutting through.
23. China Town – A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
David Lee Roth may have been approaching his 60s when he returned to the group for what would be their final full-length album, but the energy in these recordings is undeniable.
Twenty-eight years on from his mid-Eighties farewell, you get the sense that this was a band making up for lost time, and now with Eddie’s son Wolfgang replacing Michael Anthony on bass.
China Town is one of the heavier offerings from the Van Halen-Roth reunion, starting with some tapped arpeggios on the 1st and 2nd strings before the band kicks into a hard groove. And Eddie’s solo is just as aggressive, climaxing with a chromatically descending octave motif duplicated on bass.
24. As Is – A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
You’d be forgiven for thinking you were hearing early Alice In Chains when Eddie’s guitar first appears on the comeback album’s seventh track, its funeral-dirge quality sounding notably ominous and suspenseful for a band like Van Halen.
That depth was the result of a detuning the 6th string down to B and the other five strings up a half step (low to high: B, A#, D#, G#, C, F), turning the guitarist’s EVH Wolfgang ax into more of an extended-range instrument. The low root chugs with a B7 shape on the adjacent strings before resolving to a double-octave Eb5 power chord.
There’s a solo tapped the whole way through, one of those classic breakdowns with spoken-word narration from their smooth-talking original frontman, and a fade-out of the band until all that’s left is Eddie’s heavily delayed ambient sustains.
25. Beats Workin’ – A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
As the final track on the last studio release of Eddie’s career, no one could have known it would effectively serve as his parting gift. It was in fact a reworking of Put Out the Lights, which first appeared on the Gene Simmons-produced demos in 1976.
And what a farewell it is, Eddie leaving three simple chords to ring out against Wolfgang’s lower register before the band go into a verse riff that, much like early fan-favorite D.O.A., dances between an open Ab power chord and an F note on the 6th string.
Stepping on his wah for the last time in his band’s studio career, bringing it to a glorious crescendo, the guitarist’s feedback carries on ringing for the final 30 seconds of the track. But as his fans know, the sound of Edward Van Halen’s brilliant guitar playing will echo for eternity.