Van Halen – The Story of Eddie’s Guitar Tapping Prowess

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Eddie Van Halen – guitar tapper extraordinaire! Van Halen wasn’t the first guy to tap a melody on the guitar. But he was the first to introduce it to rock and heavy metal music in a big way, making it central to his playing style.

Having taken ownership of this technique, he also took it to the next level, with blazing runs that nobody had ever tried before. But how did it all start? The Hawk has got you covered with the full story.

What’s it all about?

The story of Eddie Van Halen’s tapping prowess is in many ways a part of the story of Van Halen’s original growth to prominence in the 1970s. After all, he didn’t start out in the band as a phenomenal tapper, and the earliest fans never really saw him do it. But by the time they first released an album, the eponymous ‘Van Halen’ in 1978 it was there all right. So how did it happen?

Well first off, let’s remind ourselves of what we’re talking about – here’s the go to example of Eddie in full flight. We’re talking, of course, about ‘Eruption’.

Listen to him go! Even if you can’t see it on the studio version of the recording, you can instantly tell which are the tapped sections. The way those notes just flow seamlessly into one another at such a blistering pace. Truly breathtaking.

A Prodigy

Honestly, Eddie was always likely to go this way, being somewhat of a musical prodigy from the time he could crawl. The brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen were born into a musical family in the Netherlands. Their father Jan was quite a proficient as a jazz saxophone and clarinet player, but at the outbreak of World War II and the fall of the Netherlands to the Nazis, he became a member of the Dutch resistance.

Captures as a P.O.W, he was reprieved from prison camp or worse when his captors heard about his musical talents, and placed him an orchestra touring occupied Europe. After the war, Jan continued his musical career, playing live shows and radio gigs, until relocating to Indonesia where he met his wife-to-be, Eugenia van Beers.

The Brothers Arrive

A 6 week radio gig turned into 6 years, but eventually, the couple returned to Amsterdam where Alex van Halen was born, followed a couple of years later by his brother Eddie. Music was an ever present for the boys – Jan would take them to shows he played and let them hang out, and they both started piano lessons from the age of 5.

Jan’s career was going well – certainly he was one of the highest regarded Dutch clarinet players of the era. But the call of a better life in America was ever present, so in 1962, the whole family boarded a steamship and left Europe behind. They eventually arrived in Pasadena, California with their luggage, 15 dollars in their pocket and a piano.

Old School

Times were hard at first, but the Van Halen parents dreamed that their sons would make a success for themselves as concert pianists. They dug deep to continue the piano lessons, even hiring fellow immigrant Stanley Kalvaitis as a teacher. Kalvaitis was a graduate of the Imperial Conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia (fellow alumni included Tchaikoysky).

Kalvaitis was old school when it came to piano teaching – the kind of dude who’d whack students with a ruler every time they made a mistake. But he recognized the talents of the Van Halen brothers, entering them for local competitions where they excelled. So whilst the classical music education might not have led to piano careers for either Eddie or Alex, it did mark them out as talented musicians, and instilled a deep understanding of music in the pair.

Still, as a couple of newly minted California surf dudes, neither brother really appreciated the strict classical education, or the need to perform recitals note for note. Eddie rebelled by – wait for it – memorizing the pieces instead of sight reading the written scores. Phew!

Ready to Rock…

But more important, both decided pretty early on that they preferred contemporary rock music. Alex took up guitar and Eddie drums – then, with both making limited progress, they switched, and the course of Classic Heavy Metal history was now set.

They started playing in bands early on in high school – Beach Boys and Beatles numbers, later progressive rock like Cream. Eric Clapton was an early influence.

Practice Makes Perfect

And even in those days, Eddie was showing the practice discipline that would make him a guitar hero one day – eating drinking and sleeping with the instrument. The Van Halen parents were disappointed that the piano was by now being heavily neglected – they insisted on continuing practice for a time, before eventually giving up.     

Jan Van Halen lost a finger when a trailer fell and crushed it – a devastating blow at the time. Bu tit seemed to reconcile him to allow his sons to follow their rock music dreams. He bought a Gibson Les Paul Gold-top for Eddie and a drum kit for Alex – all on tick, and total cost of over $800. It was a fortune at the time, and a massive gamble, but now the brothers were set up.

They got more serious about their school band – Trojan Rubber Company (don’t ask) – and pushed themselves further and further. An early highlight was a rendition of Cactus’s ‘Parchman Farm’, then regarded as one of the fastest rock tracks recorded. The Van Halen brothers tore it up.

Various Rebrands

At about the same time, a young David Lee Roth saw the teenage sensations play at Jewish temple – another piece of the puzzle was falling into place.

From about 1971 to 1978 (when they really hit the big time with their first album and world tour), Van Halen spent pretty much the whole time paying their dues as a backyard party and club band. During that time, they started out as Genesis, before discovering that the name was already taken by a certain British pop / rock combo at which point they re-branded as Mammoth.

To begin with, they were a trio – the Van Halen brothers and a dude named Mark Stone on bass. Eddie took care of the vocals, albeit reluctantly. They grew a decent local following, and had a reputation for attracting trouble makers (and often the cops) at their shows. Eddie’s virtuoso reputation was already becoming established – though still not with any tapping. Their stage show was also still quite limited, which was of course where Dave Lee Roth would fit in.

Dave Lee Roth – Terrible Singer!

Roth wanted to join Genesis / Mammoth, and talked the brothers into giving him an audition – but it didn’t go well. He looked the part, sure, but the main stumbling block was that he couldn’t sing a note. Literally. They hit a single note on the piano and asked Roth to sing it, but no dice.

Roth’s view was that showmanship could make up for vocal limitations. And this is very true – look at Ozzy Osbourne, who’s had a fifty year career as a heavy metal singer without ever having had a great voice. But the Van Halen’s weren’t yet ready for that line of though, having based their own band on musical excellence, and so they gave Roth short shrift.

Band Rivalry

Humiliated, Roth formed his own band, Red Ball Jet, with a mission to outdo Van Halen. Sure, they wouldn’t be able to match them for musical ability, but they’d blow crowds away with their sheer entertainment value – mostly coming from Roth with his wacky costumes, screams and various stage antics. It developed into quite a rivalry on the backyard scene – the ‘musical band’ versus the ‘entertainment band’.

LA has no shortage of large backyards – there were endless small gigs over hot summers, attended by ice cream trucks full of beer. (This is where the seed was first planted for the later Van Halen number ‘Ice Cream Man’.

Yeah, But He Has A PA…

So, how did this fierce (and sometimes unfriendly) rivalry eventually resolve itself? As usual, via pragmatism. Van Halen didn’t have their own PA system. Dave Lee Roth did. Roth agreed to rent his PA to Mammoth, which gave him plenty of opportunity to hang out with them and worm his way in.

He lectured the band relentlessly on how they should add entertainment value. Rock crowds didn’t want to hear virtuoso recitals, he’d tell them – they wanted shorter, focused songs with plenty of party vibe. This sales patter eventually wore them down – that plus the fact that with Roth as a member, they could use his PA for free.  He was in.

They still didn’t rate his singing very highly, but what choice did they have? And anyway, despite his limitations, Roth was certainly a force of nature. He graduated the band from backyards into clubs – a definite step up in the local pecking order. He also persuaded the others to change the band name to Van Halen, in spite of the brothers misgivings.

Soon after, they fired Mark Stone, who liked to party and get wasted a little too much. They’d already lined up Michael Anthony from another local band, Snake – a great bass player with the added bonus of a decent singing voice. It meant the now famous Van Halen vocal harmonies could be realized, and the ‘Classic’ Van Halen line up was born.

What About the Tapping?

But Eddie still wasn’t tapping. How did that missing piece fall into place? Mostly by chance acquaintances. Another local guitarist, Terry Kilgore was a friend of Eddie Van Halen, and sometimes gave lessons. One of his students at the time was Chris Holmes, who would later be part of the classic W.A.S.P. line up.

To pay for the lessons, Holmes worked painting houses in the area. Looking through the window of one of the houses, he saw gold records lined up on the wall, an plucking up the courage to ask about them, he found that they were blues guitarist Harvey Mandel’s awards. Holmes was ignorant of Mandel’s prowess at the time, but Kilgore wasn’t, and went over to the same house to ask Mandel for lessons.

There, Mandel mentioned that he’s started to experiment with two handed tapping, having got the idea from a band mate of his own. Kilgore in turn showed the technique to Eddie Van Halen who was intrigued, and determined that he’d incorporate this method into his own playing – BUT in a way that nobody had ever seen or experienced before.

He didn’t let on – certainly didn’t showcase the technique much on stage until at least 1977. But, as was his way, he was working it, honing it, making sure he’d be the best. They carried on with the parties, clubs and local auditoriums – have a listen to this one in Pasadena. And Eddie was preparing himself all the time.

And all the while, the following built to a fever pitch. There was the famous Battle of Pasadena even as far back as 1974, when riot police and helicopters broke up a gig.

Made it

So you can imagine what the level of expectation was by 1978. When legendary producer Ted Templeman finally discovered the band and pushed Warner to sign them, he was intoxicated by Eddie’s playing, and encouraged him to bring out the tapping to showcase his greatness – on that first album, and increasingly in his live playing.

The album duly came out – Eruption and all – and the Eddie Van Halen tapping legend was born. He’s always been a bit coy about his origins, and like all great players, he has plenty of influences. But most people agree that the chance encounter with Harvey Mandel was what kicked it all off.

And the legend would only grow, thanks to a world tour mostly supporting Black Sabbath. Now, Black Sabbath in 1978 were at a low ebb, worn down by the constant booze and drug-fueled in-fighting. Things were looking bleak, and indeed, Ozzy would be fired not long after the Van Halen tour.

‘Let’s find someone rubbish…’

They’d already been shown up by KISS on a previous tour and didn’t want to take any chances. ‘Get us a local bar band from LA,’ were the instructions handed down.  

Management duly obliged – Van Halen were still doing the local club scene after all. Sure enough, it was a disaster for Sabbath, who were blown away by the upstarts most nights. They looked past it compared to these LA powerhouses, who were informed during the UK leg that their album had just gone gold.

Making an Entrance

During the US leg, Van Halen outdid Sabbath by pretending to parachute into the stadium in LA. Real skydivers had dropped into the area behind the stage, then switched places in the back of a van with Van Halen, who were dressed in the same outfits.

After a cocaine snorting war with Roth in Alabama, Ozzy went missing and the Sabbath portion of the show had to be cancelled. (Van Halen had played their set). The fans were non-plussed and trashed the place.

It all culminated in a triumphant last night in San Diego, by which time they’d become world stars, in a clear changing of the guard. Black Sabbath didn’t even pretend they could compete at that time, and would re-invent themselves in due course, but Van Halen had arrived in all their tapping, bending and screaming glory.

Eddie was now a trailblazer, setting the scene for all those 80s shredders we know and love – Steve Vai, Jason Becker, Yngwie – the list goes on. Let’s play out with some footage of that 1978 tour with all its relentless energy. Enjoy.

Who’s the guitar virtuoso king in Classic Heavy Metal? Eddie Van Halen with his ground breaking tapping style? Or do you prefer somebody else? What’s Eddie’s legacy now?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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