Oct 12, 2020
This week rock guitar God Eddie Van Halen died after a long battle with throat cancer. As a guitar who was 13 when Van Halen's first album was released, and whose band provided the soundtrack to my adolescent years this hit me hard. With this in mind, I wanted to talk about things podcasters can learn from Eddie Van Halen.
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The band was formed in 1972. Some of the top songs in 1972 were Saturday in the park in Chicago, Brandy (You're a fine girl), I'll take you there (the staple singers). Not exactly a thriving time of high energy, guitar-oriented hard rock. They played clubs for years.
In 1976 (four years later) Gene Simmons of Kiss financed a demo tape, and arranged a performance in front of Kiss's management and was told that "they had no chance of making it" and that they wouldn't take them. Gene then removed himself from further involvement.
A year later when they were playing the famed "Starwood: club Ted Templeman of Warner Brother saw the band and they were offered a contract.
As they had been playing clubs for years, the band was well-rehearsed and ready to go. Their first album was recorded in three weeks with almost no overdubs.
There are two popular guitars in rock music. A Stratocaster has a thin sound and used by blues players and it had a whammy bar. A Les Paul has a thicker, chunkier sound. Eddie took the guts of a Less Paul and put them into the Stratocaster (called the Frankencaster). He made the guitar himself using a guitar body that cost fifty dollars and a guitar neck that cost eighty. He ended up with a thicker, chunkier guitar tone that had a whammy bar. The guitar that cost $130 to make has a replica that now goes for thousands of dollars.
He stated that because he was poor he had to find ways to make the noises on the guitar.
In the process of creating his own guitar, Eddie states, "I ruined a bunch of stuff." The bottom line he never stopped experimenting. In the song intruder, you hear Eddie creating bizarre sounds on his guitar. It turns out that some of those sounds were Eddie Swiping a Schlitz beer can up and down the neck. In the song poundcake, Eddie uses an electric drill. The bizarre noise on Automic Punk is Eddie running the side of his hands up and down the strings. He was always looking for ways to make different noises (like an elephant) with his guitar. The strange wooshing noise in the middle of the song Panama is Eddie's Lamborgini.
He had an endless curiosity and was constantly experimenting.
He would watch his teacher's fingers and then play whatever he just saw. His parents forced him to play the piano and won contests when he was ages 9-11. After using the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five he picked up the guitar. Because he never learned guitars lessons "by the book" he believes he wouldn't play the way he does if he had done "Traditional" guitar studies.
I mentioned how he created his own guitar. He holds a patent for a device that allows you to stand and hold the guitar flat. He perfected a style of playing called "tapping" where he play notes with both hands. This lead to the invention of guitar tablature as people couldn't figure out how to put down on paper what he was doing on the fretboard.
How did Van Halen get their sound? Drummer Alex Van Halen prefers straight forward rock. Eddie liked progressive rock, and David Lee Roth like disco at the time. Eddie referred to this as ingredients in your soup.
I like singer Gary Cherone from the band Extreme. He joined Van Halen and recorded Van Halen III. On that album bassist Michael Anthony has stated that Eddie told him what and how to play, Gary stated that Eddie was playing bass and drums, making it more or less an Eddie Van Halen Solo album. One point here is this album came out in 1998, and was not sober until 2008. This was the first album to not go platinum (it did achieve Gold status). I was also the longest studio album.
When they were in the clubs, they were playing covers. As Eddie put it, no matter how hard I tried I couldn't play what was on the record. I could only be me. Consequently, when you hear a Van Halen record, it sounds like a Van Halen record.
When they couldn't get a record deal they started throwing their own parties and concerts. They toured for 11 months straight to promote their first album including 23 shows in 25 days in the UK. When he got home Warner Brothers alerted the band that they owed the record label three million dollars and a new album. They wouldn't take no for an answer. They stuffed flyers in lockers of high schools. If you liked them or not, you were at least going to know about the band. Slowly they built an audience of 3-5000 people which attracted the attention of Warner Brothers.
In the early days, he asked his Dad how he dealy with stage fright. His father gave him alcohol and cigarettes (and would later die from Alcohol-related issues). After Eddie got sober, his son was in the band and Eddie said, "If my sixteen-year-old son can be out there kicking butt, then I guess I better get out there."
Eddie built himself a studio and was always recording, experimenting, but it is assumed that there is quite a bit of music that was not released.
One of the things you can hear in a Van Halen record is fun. Watch Eddie play guitar and you will see one thing that never changes. He smiles. Why? Because he came to this country from Holland with his parents who brought a piano and what amounted to $50. He didn't speak the language and got bullied as he was considered a minority.
In the book Runnin' wit the Devil" he states that the Van Halen brothers (along with David Lee Roth) gave Michael Anthony an ultimatum right around the time the “1984” album came out. In a nutshell, they did not believe Michael’s contributions to the band’s music entitled him to an equal 1/4 split of the profits, so they drew-up a contract that stipulated that he would no longer share in any royalties from Van Halen recordings from the “1984” album on, and I believe it also limited what he would receive from the previous records, touring, and merchandise sales as well. In effect, while Michael would technically still be in the band, he would essentially become a paid employee from that point on.
Most die-hard fans found this offensive. We want to believe you all get along and are best buddies.
In 2006 Eddie Van Halen replaced Michael Anthony with his son Wolfgang. He knew this was not going to be a popular choice, but he put his family first. What father wouldn't want to play with his son?
Eddie Van Halen wasn't on social media. The website as I write this now does not even have a notice that Eddie has died. For years his audience had no idea what he was up to. Michael Anthony found out he had been replaced via the Internet. He could have kept that connection stronger by keeping people in the loop.
Why? Eddie was a nice guy, but an introvert. He just wanted to make music. Upon his cancer diagnosis, he retreated even further.
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