It’s hard to imagine what rock & roll would sound like without Eddie Van Halen. Like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton before him, he single-handedly (or perhaps, in his case, double-handedly) changed the vocabulary of guitar for a generation. His pyrotechnic finger-tapping, elastic dive-bombs and bursts of melody redefined the guitar solo and inspired legions of copycats in the process. But no matter what he was playing, he did it with heart. To honor the guitar hero on his birthday, we’ve selected 20 of his greatest solos — from unforgettable licks to genuine “how’d he do that?” head-scratchers — that show off his brilliance.
The fourth single from Van Halen’s debut and a fan favorite to this day, “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” was originally written as a tossed-off parody of the nascent punk movement. “It was a stupid thing to us — just two chords,” Eddie Van Halen revealed to Guitar World. In keeping with the song’s slash-and-burn aesthetic, Van Halen laid off the pyrotechnics in the song’s solo, delivering instead a ferocious, melodic drone (doubled with an electric sitar for added buzz) that would seem perfectly at home on a Sex Pistols or Buzzcocks album. Perhaps that’s why “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” would ultimately end up impacting the very genre it spoofed: Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong has often said that its solo was one of the first he ever learned. T.B.
Head over to YouTube and type in “Eruption Cover,” and you’ll find 12-year-old kids that can rip through Eddie’s signature one-minute-and-42-second solo with pinpoint accuracy. Which speaks less to the difficulty level of the instrumental, originally part of Eddie’s pre-show warm-up regimen, and more to its status as a modern-day musical standard.
Indeed, it’s only slight hyperbolic to say that there’s rock-guitar soloing pre-“Eruption,” and then there’s everything (the entire 1980s, for starters) that came after. The first half of the song is all big power-chording and high-speed shredding (with a tip of the hat to Cactus’ 1970 boogie-rocker “Let Me Swim”), but then Ed drops the A-bomb: a series of cascading note triads that he sounds using two-handed tapping — “like having a sixth finger on your left hand,” he said — that are so mesmeric, so alive, it’s as if you’re witnessing him build a bridge to the future of guitar in real time.
Eddie, of course, wasn’t the first person to ever tap a note on a fretboard, but, as he explained in 1978, other players “popped the finger on there to hit one note. I said: ‘Well, fuck, nobody is really capitalizing on that. … So I started dickin’ around, and said, ‘Fuck! This is totally another technique that nobody really does.’ Which it is. I haven’t really seen anyone get into that as far as they could, because it is a totally different sound.”
That sound rearranged the DNA of rock guitar forever. R.B.
The same month Van Halen was released, a young Eddie was asked in one of his first interviews if there was a particular solo that stood out to him on the album. “I like ‘I’m the One,’ the boogie,” he responded. It’s not hard to see why. “Eruption” might be the Van Halen track that garners all the guitar glory, but for sheer rip-snorting six-string madness, “I’m the One” is tops. A bizzaro rock-r&b-boogie-blues-jazz-swing amalgam, the song whizzes by at a breakneck pace, with Eddie’s guitar nimbly careening through the musical twists and turns and decimating the line between rhythm and lead playing in a blur of deep dive bombs, screeching pick slides, brain-scrambling finger taps, aggro riffing and chording, and superhuman shredding. Oh, yeah — it was also “pretty much spontaneous,” as Ed pointed out. It’s enough to make you howl with laughter — which, about 30 seconds in, David Lee Roth actually does. R.B.
For the first minute or so, “Ice Cream Man,” a cover of a 1950s-era tune by Chicago bluesman John Brim, is pure DLR schtick, with the singer’s acoustic-guitar boogie and thinly veiled double entendres taking center stage in what appears to be little more than a deep-cut novelty track. Even after Michael Anthony and the Van Halen brothers join the party, it’s strictly in service to Dave, who continues to chew the sonic scenery like only Dave can. Until, that is, Eddie’s lead guitar comes in and completely dominates the proceedings. His opening lick, a flurry of notes that encompasses practically the entire upper octave of the fretboard, sounds as if it was actually launched from the heavens, before descending down into the mix via a tangle of tapped, sliding notes and moaning dive-bombs. From there, he’s off to the races with a dazzling display of juiced-up, futuristic blues shredding. Eddie once called “Ice Cream Man” a “change from the slam-bang loud stuff” that characterized Van Halen — which still made it about 50 percent more slam-bang than just about anything else on offer in 1978. R.B.
An unusual cover choice from a band that made something of a habit of them, “You’re No Good” was written by Clint Ballard Jr. and sung, in its most famous form, by Linda Ronstadt. For the leadoff track on Van Halen II, the band slowed it down and heavied it up, outfitting it with crushing power chords and Roth’s vocal caterwauls. Eddie, meanwhile, goes all out on the solo, attacking the tune with screaming whammy-bar pulls and dips, cascading percussive harmonics, loopy octave taps and sprinting runs up the guitar neck. If the end result sounds like nothing so much as a true-blue Van Halen song, there’s a reason for it: “I’ve never actually heard the original,” Eddie once admitted. R.B.
Eddie Van Halen rarely cites the influence of other players, but when he does, the nod invariably goes to Eric Clapton — and more specifically, to Cream-era Clapton. “His early stuff is what inspired me to pick up a guitar,” Van Halen told Rolling Stone in 2015. “What I really liked was Cream’s live recordings, because you could hear the three guys three guys just play.” And while Van Halen, the band, had four members, at its core is a virtuosic power trio created in the image of the guitarist’s heroes. The zeal with which Eddie, drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony attack instrumental interludes is no more evident than during the extended solo section of Van Halen II’s “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.” The guitarist’s volume swells, swaggering blues runs and harmonic flurries are only slightly more thrilling than the spectacular swing and power with which the rhythm section supports him. T.B.
He would eventually settle on the guitar, but Eddie Van Halen began his musical journey as an aspiring concert pianist. He would put those classical chops to good use while composing Van Halen II’s “Spanish Fly,” a minute-long “Ed-tude” for solo nylon-string guitar that features a combination of the guitarist’s trademark two handed-tapping and lightning fast flamenco-esque note flurries. An inspired piece of music, “Spanish Fly” was also a warning shot fired to remind the legions of hard-rock guitarists who were beginning to imitate his playing style that he could transcend the genre at will. Future Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde, for one, got the message. “The first time I heard ‘Spanish Fly,’ I remember thinking, How can anybody get that fuckin’ good?” he says in Abel Sanchez’ Van Halen 101. “It was beyond insane.” T.B.
Along with the last 45 seconds of “Eruption,” the first 30 of “Mean Street” — in which Eddie unleashes a sort of “funk-slap” version of two-handed tapping — is perhaps the most often-attempted EVH-ism by budding guitarists (and, apparently, accomplished keyboardists). Which serves to overshadow the fact that the actual solo in “Mean Street” is a scorcher. Intro’d by a screaming, sky-high wail and punctuated throughout with notes that quiver, stutter and convulse inside of longer runs and phrases, the lead adds another layer of unease to what is already a dark and tense atmosphere. Regarding the aggressive nature of the solo, Eddie once commented, “I wasn’t trying to be mad, but it just seemed to fit.” R.B.
Steve Lukather of Toto was the principal guitarist on Michael Jackson’s epochal Thriller album, but when it came time to record the solo for “Beat It,” producer Quincy Jones had only one player in mind: Eddie Van Halen. When Van Halen arrived for the session, Jackson was working in an adjoining studio and the guitarist convinced Jones to reconfigure the song’s arrangement to accommodate his idea for a solo. “I was just finishing my second take when Michael walked in,” Van Halen told CNN in 2012. “Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. He gave it a listen, turned to me and went, ‘Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually make the sing better.’” The seminal mashup ended up benefitting both parties involved: Jackson had a Number One hit, and Eddie Van Halen, who was already a heavy-metal hero, became a bona fide rock star. T.B.
“Push Comes to Shove” was “Roth’s idea of trying to cash in on the reggae thing,” as Eddie told Billy Corgan in a joint 1996 Guitar World interview. And while it misses that mark by a wide margin, it’s still a pretty killer tune, all hushed vocals, prowling, disco-dude bass and skittering, darkly atmospheric guitar. The high point is unquestionably Ed’s solo, which, like the rest of the song, pretty much ignores any hint of reggae, this time in favor of a jazz-fusion–y approach, alternating blazing, Al Di Meola–like runs with smooth, Allan Holdsworth–esque legato lines and long notes that dip and soar through the mix. The lead was one Eddie was clearly proud of, telling Corgan, “That song has an incredible guitar solo! I’ll never forget that one.” R.B.
Diver Down was hardly an artistic high point for Van Halen. The 30-minute 1982 album is a rush job padded with no less than five cover songs, including a soused a cappella version of Dale Evans’ “Happy Trails.” It does, however, boast a few VH gems, among them, “Cathedral,” one of Eddie Van Halen’s most celebrated instrumental pieces. To create the track’s ethereal throb, Van Halen plugged an old Fender Stratocaster into an echo unit and manipulated the way the device repeated the notes to generate haunting, pulsating, organ-like tones that sound like they’re emanating from a cavernous house of worship. As for how the song got its title, David Lee Roth was more than happy to share his version of events in a 1982 interview with Creem. “Eddie came into the studio with that and I said, ‘That sounds like Bach, you could play it on the organ,’” Roth said. “Eddie was like ‘Bach who?’ I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it, Eddie, name it something churchy and it will fit.’” T.B.
Given the level of sexual innuendo contained it its lyrics, the casual listener would be forgiven for thinking that “Panama,” the third single from Van Halen’s 1984, was inspired by a debauched night of backstage partying in Central America. But it’s actually about a car — not “California Girl,” David Lee Roth’s heavily customized 1951 Mercury that he drives in the brilliantly disjointed “Panama” video, but “Panama Express” a race car that once caught the singer’s eye at a Las Vegas track. Eddie Van Halen’s solo is appropriately revved up, featuring Chuck Berry–inspired double stops that accelerate into a series of high-test tapping licks. And the guitarist didn’t stop there: concerned that his usual whammy-bar–powered ersatz engine growls wouldn’t adequately punctuate the song’s breakdown, Van Halen backed his 1972 Lamborghini, which he once referred to in Autoweek as a “go-kart with 12-cylinder carbs,” up to the studio and recorded the sound of the engine screaming into the red zone. T.B.
“Drop Dead Legs” is one of those Van Halen songs that even the casual fan recognizes, despite the fact that it was never released as a single and wasn’t performed live by the band until their 2015 tour. But while the most identifiable components are Eddie’s syncopated single-note riffs and the rhythm section’s AC/DC-ish stomp, the real gem is the minute-or-so outro solo that shows Ed tossing out some truly out-there phrases and licks, not to mention plenty of whammy bar squeals, squiggles and flutters. “That ride out solo was very much inspired by [fusion guitar hero] Allan Holdsworth,” Ed said. “I was playing whatever I wanted like jazz — a bunch of wrong notes here and there — but it seemed to work.” It’s a more restrained and exploratory EVH lead, but one that is still a thrill-a-second ride. R.B.
“’Hot for Teacher’ is beyond any boogie I’ve ever heard,” Eddie Van Halen told Guitar World in 1995. The usually understated guitarist isn’t boasting as much as testifying to the whole truth; this is A+ material, from the moment that Alex Van Halen kicks into the song’s trademark drum rumble to almost five minutes later, when the track reaches its gonzo conclusion. The song’s pubescent fantasy of a video, in which each band member is shadowed by his pre-teen doppelganger and a bikini-clad homeroom teacher gyrates on her desk, secured “Teacher” a spot in the pop-culture firmament — it’s gotten the Glee treatment as well as being covered on South Park — but it’s Eddie’s jaw-dropping lead break, which builds intensity and swagger for an astounding 32 bars, that earns the song extra credit among the world’s aspiring shredders. T.B.
Although “Jump” would become Van Halen’s first (and only) Number One single, it took Eddie Van Halen several years to sell the keyboard-heavy track to his bandmates. “When I first played ‘Jump’ for the band, nobody wanted to have anything to do with it,” Van Halen told writer Chris Gill in 2014. “Dave said that I was a guitar hero and I shouldn’t be playing keyboards. My response was if I want to play a tuba or Bavarian cheese whistle, I will do it.” The guitarist wasn’t totally indifferent to alienating his base, so Van Halen made sure that “Jump” featured one his most succinct and well-constructed guitar leads to date … then defiantly followed it with an equally inspired keyboard solo that established him as a master of not one, but two instruments, cheese whistle notwithstanding. T.B.
Emboldened by the success of 1984’s “Jump,” Eddie Van Halen doubled down on the keyboards for 5150, the group’s first album after the departure of David Lee Roth. “Dreams” is one of these synthesizer-driven numbers, a slab of anthemic middle-of-the-road rock over which new vocalist Sammy Hagar ably demonstrates that where conventional vocal chops and range were concerned, he left his more stylized predecessor in the dust. Van Halen’s solo is also more conventional than what his fans might have been accustomed to but demonstrates a restraint and total command of melody and structure that weren’t always evident in his earlier work. “I feel like I’m much more song-oriented now,” he told BAM around the time of 5150’s release. “When you first start out, you want to do all the technique shit, but I think I’ve gotten to the point where playing guitar means more than just playing fast and being a gunslinger.” T.B.
OU812, released in 1988, sees Eddie & Co. refining the more layered, keyboard-supported commercial-rock sound that would characterize most of vocalist Sammy Hagar’s tenure with the band. It also shows the group making a concerted effort to distance themselves from the scores of “hair metal” groups — largely created in the image of David Lee Roth–era Van Halen — that had taken over both MTV and the charts at the time. Just for good measure, Eddie would occasionally remind his audience that although he had chosen a different musical path, he would always remain a towering presence in the flashy solo set. To that end, Van Halen unpacks his entire bag of tricks — from whammy-bar dives and speed-picking to two-handed tapping acrobatics — for the solo of “Mine All Mine,” and you can feel the shadow that he casts grow just a little bigger with each note. T.B.
Sammy Hagar once said “Right Now” came about because “Eddie and I wanted to get serious and talk about world issues.” Which, admittedly, is just about the last thing you’d ever want to hear from Van Halen. Furthermore, all that adulting — Hagar’s overly sincere lyrics; Eddie’s similarly serious-sounding keyboard tinklings; a message-heavy video — only served to overshadow the fact that the song (which, it should be noted, hails from an album named F.U.C.K.) houses a pretty awesome solo, one that whips together flash moves (i.e., siren-like pinch harmonics) with melodic licks and phrases in a tight, pop-single–appropriate eight-bar format. It’s the kind of guitar lead you could sing — although you’d probably sound like a blubbering maniac if you tried. R.B.