Born a year after Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani was listening to and drawing from the same era of music as his fellow guitar hero, who died Tuesday at 65. Both men would grow to become virtuosos of the instrument, but Satriani says Van Halen had something else that set him apart: his sibling chemistry with his drummer brother Alex. In his own words, Satriani talks about Eddie’s “impeccable rhythm” and the Van Halens’ musical bond.
When I first heard “Eruption” come over the radio, I was in a little studio apartment in Berkeley, California. I actually had my guitar on, and I was totally transfixed. It was like hearing Hendrix the first time when I was a kid. The only difference was I was grown up and already a musician.
I’m sure you’ve interviewed people who went on and on about how he innovated this, that, and the other thing. And he did. But he also combined everything that went before him in such a beautiful, fun way. This I know from experience, because I was his age — I’m a year younger. I always considered him the greatest of my generation of players who came right after the big ones: after Hendrix, Page, Beck, and Clapton. But he did it with a smile, and that was so important at the time because there was a lot of grimacing and snarling and pretension around the guitar. It was getting very complicated.
There was a feeling I had for a few years that the guitar was under siege and it was going in a weird direction. And then all of a sudden, the savior appeared on the radio and spoke directly to me. I’ve never lost that excitement every time I hear his guitar playing. It always raises my heart level and I get a smile on my face. I’m just so happy that somebody did it — that someone was doing it. He put so much joy into every little note that he played. He smiled and he let you know that it was all for fun. But at the same time, every musician knew they couldn’t touch him.
His rhythm was impeccable and intoxicating, and his note choice was hysterically funny and brave. He wrote great songs and didn’t bore you to death with hours and hours of tedious stuff. It was always rock & roll. He had a swagger and an impeccable rhythm that drove every one of his songs.
What separates the real thing from the people who lovingly try to tribute the greats and/or try to imitate them is that they can never get the rhythm together. But the Van Halen brothers — Eddie and Alex together — had a devastating attack to the beat. Their sense of the pocket is just so intense. It’s so recognizable. And that’s what invited the whole world to listen. There’s a little song [on 1984] that’s overlooked called “House of Pain.” You just listen to that, the way that they pound that rhythm. I don’t want to separate them, because every time we hear Eddie, we hear Alex. It’s a beautiful thing: the joy of brothers playing together, and the love there is just undeniable.
As told to Joseph Hudak