How Eddie Van Halen Changed Rock Guitar

Sometimes when people burst into the music scene, they bring something completely different that eventually changes how people learn music. Eddie Van Halen, who died of throat cancer on October 6, 2020, was one of those game-changers.

Van Halen was a self-taught guitarist. According to Rolling Stone, he started out playing the drum but switched to guitar after his brother Alex one-upped him and learned a full song before he did. Eddie Van Halen said he was often playing around and just did whatever felt right to him. Sometimes, what felt right to him turned out to be innovative.

One such thing was Eddie Van Halen's invention of what's now known as finger tapping, first heard in the Van Halen song "Eruption." Premier Guitar explained Van Halen's method had never been done before and inspired many others to learn it too. Finger tapping involves using both hands to pluck the strings of an electric guitar. To finger tap, Van Halen would take both hands to the neck of the guitar. He would use his picking hand to play notes that the fretting hand normally would. Using this two-handed technique, Van Halen could extend what notes he could play. Premier Guitar said he was even able to add a bass line to a chord progression by finger tapping.

Rolling Stone reported that Alex Van Halen told his brother to play with his back to the audience so other guitarists wouldn't steal the idea before they even had a record deal.

Eddie Van Halen's Frankenstrat

But guitar playing techniques were not the only things Eddie Van Halen changed. Rolling Stone explained Van Halen had a tinkerer's mindset and always wanted to modify his instruments to produce the best sound. He would take sandpaper and saws to cut or scrape down his guitars to alter their sounds.

He played around with his guitars so much that one was even dubbed the "Frankenstrat." Basically, the Frankenstrat was Eddie Van Halen's big guitar experiment when guitar makers couldn't make them exactly as he wanted. He took the body of a Charvel guitar, which he bought for $50, took an $80 neck, and stuck a pickup that gave a fatter sound to the guitar. And, for mostly aesthetic reasons, he chainsawed it to look more like a Flying V. The Frankenstrat became so famous that a copy now sits in the Smithsonian.

Van Halen continued to make custom iconic guitars for himself and also constantly upgraded his previous one. Rolling Stone said Van Halen helped bring the custom guitar craze of the '80s. He also worked with guitar makers to create custom additions. He partnered with Floyd Rose to invent whammy bars that stayed in tune, and he was granted a patent for a device that propped up the guitar to make finger tapping easier. Houston Press reported Van Halen was instrumental in changing how guitars were made.

Eddie Van Halen played around with amps too

And if Eddie Van Halen modified his guitars, of course, he'd play around with other equipment too.

Rolling Stone wrote that Van Halen wanted to go for what he called "brown sound." To do this, he had to create a new kind of amplifier. He played using a 1968 Marshall Super lead amp, an echo unit, and an MXR Phase 90.

At first, Van Halen claimed he used several different modifications to his amps, causing many copycats to destroy their equipment trying to be like him. But the truth was he added another thing to his amps to make them sound that way. Houston Press reported he used a device called a Variac to change the amp's voltage. Using the Variac, the amp can run on a lower voltage, making it sound different.

Other guitarists, of course, began to try and customize their own equipment, but Eddie Van Halen was the first to really nail it. His innovations ranged not just in how the guitar can be played but in how they can be made to sound.