The recent and seemingly sudden passing of guitar icon Eddie Van Halen has left the music world stunned. In the eponymous band he co-founded with his drummer and brother Alex, Eddie trailblazed a dazzling, virtuosity-centered approach to the electric guitar that completely redefined the sounds we associate with the instrument. He quickly rose to become one of the world’s most influential players, and interest in imitating his style has only increased in the days since his passing.
In this piece, we’re going to go over three simple but important things to do if you’re interested in invoking the sounds of Eddie in your own playing. While there is clearly more to the playing of a guitarist as accomplished and nuanced as Eddie Van Halen than what will be discussed in this piece, the below tips examine some of the most important and iconic aspects of his playing. All three of them are relatively easy to pick up, and are great places to start!
Try skipping to about 1:31 to see what I mean!
Tremolo picking was a huge element of Eddie’s playing in general, and of his soloing particularly. To those whom may not know, tremolo picking is a guitar technique where a single note is played repeatedly at a very high speed through the deft use of alternate picking. While tremolo picking is a common enough technique in guitar playing, what made Eddie’s use of tremolo picking unique to him was the very specific way he tended to implement it in his soloing. While counter examples certainly exist, Eddie would typically tremolo pick up and down the 1st and 2nd strings of his guitar, utilizing the instrument’s high-end frequencies. Additionally, when doing this he would be viewing the scales vertically instead of horizontally, as they are often taught.
While this concept can be applied to any key, below is tablature for the C-major/A-minor scale played vertically along both the 1st and 2nd strings. Try coming up with some licks by tremolo picking along the vertical scale shape written below.
The notes in an A-minor scale along the 2nd string
The notes in an A-minor scale along the 1st string
The licks you came up with by tremolo-picking along these scale shapes are probably pretty reminiscent of many of Eddie’s solos, especially his early work. While this way far from the only trick up Eddie’s sleeve, it was an important one. The next step is to try integrating some high-end, tremolo licks into your more typical soloing. This kind of vertical tremolo picking also works as a great way to climatically end a solo!
Set Phasers To Stun
Hear the phaser tones on that intro riff!
Another important ingredient in Eddie Van Halen’s sound was his heavy use of modulation pedals. The most notable of these pedals was the MXR Phase 90, of which a slightly altered Eddie Van Halen signature model was later released. Eddie used his Phase 90s, among other modulators, to create the swirling, hazy guitar tones that were prominently featured throughout Van Halen’s discography. Eddie would consistently set the speed knob of his Phase 90 pedals to around 9 o’clock, preferring the distinct tone created by the slower setting.
Eddie would also experiment with MXR-brand flangers slightly later into his career, and that pedal can be heard on such early-mid period Van Halen classics as “Unchained” and “And The Cradle Will Rock”. Eddie would often keep three of the four knobs on his flanger pedal set to 11:30 (as in slightly before the midpoint), with the regeneration knob turned all the way up, creating an up-and-down sweeping sensation.
Please Don’t Tap On The Glass
Even when considering all the rest of Eddie Van Halen’s contributions to the guitar and to music in general, he is still most identified with his two-handed tapping technique. Tapping is a popular guitar technique where both the left and right hands are used to hammer-on notes. Although Eddie didn’t invent tapping, having himself learned the technique by observing such players as Harvey Mandel and Steve Hackett, he was certainly the musician to popularize the technique and give it mainstream awareness.
When tapping, Eddie would often play typical scale shapes lower on the guitar with his left hand, then add notes higher on the fretboard by tapping them with his right hand. Let’s get into how he did that.
Although Eddie obviously played in a variety of keys, for now let’s stick to the key of C-major/A-minor that we also used in our previous example. Start by playing a typical A-minor scale, starting on the 5th fret of the 6th string. If you need a refresher on how that scale goes, it’s written out in tablature below.
Now, below are some more notes in the same key, but outside of that scale position:
Some may recognize the above scale shape as an E-phrygian, although that fact does directly concern what we are about to do. Try soloing by primarily using the above A-minor scale shape, but add in some of the notes from the E-phrygian by tapping on them with your right hand. You may either add them by peppering in single tapped notes here and there, or by creating tapping runs using both hands. If you are new to tapping as a technique, then I’d recommend starting simple, only adding a few tapping notes here and there before working your way up to anything more complicated. If you’ve already been tapping for a while, then have at it!