The Songwriting Genius Of A Guitar God: In Memory Of Eddie Van Halen

I don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said about Eddie Van Halen since the word got out that we lost him just a little over two months ago. I refuse to discuss his popularizing the two handed tapping technique that everyone and their mother learns eventually. I won’t discuss his invention of the super strat via his Frankenstein guitar, or his “brown” sound. So what can I discuss that most people probably won’t discuss?

Let’s talk about Ed’s creativity as a songwriter. Why? Listen to his riffs alone on those first six records. He’s not just banging out power chords like most guitarists do. He never relied on a co-guitarist. In fact he was never formally trained on his instrument. Yet he was still an even better songwriter than he was a guitarist.

Read that last line again.

Ed said in the past that if he ever took lessons he didn’t think he’d be able to play like he did. I can relate to that. I did take lessons for four years. But both of my teachers, the first teacher being the uncomfortably talented Ron Thal and the next teacher being Christian Corrao, one of the most incredible jazz guitarists I’ve ever heard, taught me both directly and indirectly to think outside the box. Nothing has to be played the way you’re told to play it. Just play what you hear in your head and how you feel and you’ll be surprised with what comes out. I attribute that to why some of my future bandmates either couldn’t understand what I was playing or they just didn’t have the mental capacity to try and learn what I was doing.

There’s no doubt that Ed wasn’t the music world’s first ever self taught guitarist. But as with every other aspect of his career, there was something different about the way he played. Thanks largely to his musical upbringing and his later experiences in cover bands, there’s no question that there was plenty of music in his head. But how the fuck do you convey such concepts when you’re self taught?

That’s why he used all six strings on the guitar, as opposed to just hitting three note power chords, as mentioned before. He needed a way sound as big as he could without relying on a second guitarist. That’s why he wasn’t afraid to use alternate tunings. He was inventive enough that he even incorporated his popularized tapping technique into his songs. I’m not just referring to his solos, I’m referring to the way he’d TAP OUT the fucking harmonics of chords, which took an already pretty chord pattern and made it breath taking. Speaking of tapping for effect, according to Ed himself, the harmonic tapping section of “Dance The Night Away” was designed to emulate a horn section in a pop song, the inspiration being his days playing Top 40 covers.

Fair Warning, my undisputed favorite of the first six Van Halen records, is considered their darkest album. Ed himself had stated that some of his angriest playing is on that record – which is probably why I love it! Tracks like “Unchained” and especially “Mean Street” are probably the most Metal sounding songs the band ever records. Then there were tracks such as “Push Comes To Shove”. The track itself wasn’t angry, but Ed’s solo certainly was. But you could actually FEEL the emotion.

There can be a lot of benefits of being self taught depending on the musician in question. Some people are geniuses and others should just cave in and take lessons. Or give up. For Ed, it allowed for a creativity not seen in Rock guitarists before. Why? Because he didn’t uphold to any written barriers. He didn’t follow structures that were repeated over and over again. He made his own. “Hot For Teacher” is the best example of this. The whole band changes time signatures midway through Ed’s solo for 4/4 to 5/4 and then back again. Not only was it an ingenius way for Ed to have the song fit his solo as opposed to having the solo fit the song, but that little nuance alone displayed his incredible sense of dynamics.

There was no way I wasn’t going have you watch the video!

This to me is the true legacy of Eddie Van Halen. His legacy to me is more than just “Eruption”, or a homemade freakshow guitar and bastardized backline or the showmanship of David Lee Roth. His legacy is that he didn’t follow musical constructs. He bent them to his will and made them his own. He’s probably one of the most copied guitarist ever to the point that I don’t blame him for turning his back to the crowd while he was soloing during the band’s early days. He didn’t anyone copying his technique!

There was no one like Eddie Van Halen before he came along and there will never be anyone like him again. Let’s not misunderstand, there are so amazing guitarists out there right now, but they’ll NEVER have the appeal that Ed or his band had to the public at large. Primarily in that unlike Ed, none of his worshippers ever got girls because they were too busy jerking off to guitar lessons.

Read that again.

Let the article and Ed’s songwriting be a lesson to all you bedroom guitarists out there. I’m glad you know every mode and scale there is to know. But if any of you ever want to be remember for anything, learn how to write a song.

Rest In Peace To The Undisputed KING Of Guitar

Eddie Van Halen

January 26th, 1955 – October 6th, 2020

The Perpetual Burn of Jason Becker

Jason Becker was a rising guitar shred G.O.D who had it all coming to him.  To say he mastered the guitar at a young age would be the biggest understatement in all of shred.  His father, Gary, taught him the basics and Jason took it up about twenty levels.  After steadily building a reputation just by making everyone shit their pants with his abnormally original style he nailed the gig of a lifetime as David Lee Roth’s new guitarist, replacing Steve Vai.  And then, just like that…he had problems walking right….then came any musician’s worst nightmare, he lost feeling in his hands…it was then that he discovered he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  And just like that…it was all over for Jason Becker…or was it?

Since moving in with my girlfriend in New Jersey a little over two weeks ago we connected my Amazon Prime account to her TV when she searched through the documentaries section and discovered the documentary Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet.  We both knew there was a documentary on Jason but neither of us ever saw it but we were tired so we finally got around to watching it two nights ago.  Watching it my mind was flooded with every emotion that can be pulled out of you from a watching a documentary on a guy who should’ve been dead years ago.

The film opens up with a home video of a teenage Jason Becker getting ready to play the Bob Dylan “classic”, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (that’s right I quoted the word classic because the song is garbage!).  This scene alone summarizes the underlying theme of the entire movie, that of a close bond between father and son, a bond between son and a family that would find itself going to the ends of the earth to find a way, any way, to save their ungodly talented son’s life.  It almost makes the story of his career and undeniable musical influence completely irrelevant.  But of course it’s still covered anyway – why would it not be??

As I said earlier, his father was the one to teach him how to play guitar, albeit the basics, and Jason obviously ran like fuck with it.  The movie goes into great detail with this, along with showing 8mm and vhs home videos of Jason practicing at home, listening to the likes of Van Halen, covering Yngwie Malmsteen’s “Black Star” at a school talent show where, well, lets just say the school’s population generally liked hip hop.  And I will also go ahead and say his version sounded even better than the original!  And no that’s not because I can’t stand Yngwie either.

Another gem in this movie is the interviews with several of the people in Jason’s life from his family to the guys he worked with including David Lee Roth drummer Greg Bissonette, ex-Cacophony bandmate/future Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman, as well as peers such as Shrapnel Records founder Mike Varney, who hooked Jason up with Marty to start Cacophony, Steve Vai, Ritchie Kotzen and Joe Satriani.  It’s an absolute privilege to hear their stories of how they all met Jason, the accomplishments they all made together, their takes on his playing, watching him transform into this in-demand guitar genius who’s creative mind knew absolutely no boundaries as far as anyone knew.

It’s actually a fun ride, watching Jason’s rise to the top through the interviews, the videos, the music….that other worldly guitar!!!…blaring in the background.  You see it all, his recording alongside Marty in Cacophony, his desire to break out on his own with the legendary Perpetual Burn, and what really should’ve been his big break with David Lee Roth.  Hell, it’s one thing to worship Eddie but to be the right hand man of the guy who sang on those first six records during that time period?? Score!  Right??

But this was were the fun sadly ended.  And by the time he was diagnosed with the crippling ALS he was just hoping he could at least get a tour in with Diamond Dave before his imminent departure and full on nerve degeneration began.  That now iconic picture I posted here of Jason kissing his Carvin guitar?  Yeah, he’s on his knees because he already was having a hard time standing up without a cane.  Fucked up but it’s still a true story.  Judging by how positive a person his family and friends portrayed him as he most likely would’ve toured with Roth had he not lost feeling in his hands.  That did him in.  His future as a guitar god to a more mainstream audience familiar with Eddie Van Halen?  Over.

From here we see how hard it must have been to lose the ability to do anything at all.  For those of you who don’t know, those with ALS generally don’t survive.  His parents, and caregivers – who ironically are both ex-girlfriends (Jason!  You devil you!) – show more love and support to him than most families would.  His father showed he has a lot of patience because he designed a geometric letter system that’s used for him and Jason’s mother to communicate with Jason using Jason’s eyes in preparation for Jason’s eventual inability to talk ever again.

He lost all hope when his doctor asked him if he even wanted to live anymore, as his throat began swelling up.  He shockingly said he DID want to live.  He wasn’t ready to give up yet!  So he was fitted with a tube in his throat to help him breath and take in food.  And even better?  He’s still writing music with the help of a computer.  He’s released a few albums since he’s been robbed of his amazing ability yet he still has the mental strength to carry on??  How???

Jason’s story up until a certain point is almost similar to that of Randy Rhoads’.  A hot young guitar player who works hard until he gets the gig of a lifetime, makes everyone shit their pants with his playing only for it to be cut short before he could ever reach his true potential.  There is one major difference though.  The thing is, I don’t know how I’d react if I found out I could never play guitar again because I was diagnosed with ALS.  I’d much rather crash a plane into a house and die like Randy did than EVER have to suffer like this poor son a bitch has to do everyday.  Fuck it – I’d refuse to leave the hospital unless I knew I could be euthanized right there and then.  Yeah, I said it.

He’s been in a wheelchair unable to physically do anything for maybe 25 years now – pretty much his entire adult life!  Once again, he has an incredibly devoted support system in his family and two exes turned caregivers (this guy must’ve been the best sex either of them ever had for them to give up everything to take care of him!).  But here’s my problem.  His parents are getting older now.  I think his parents are the only two people who know how to communicate with Jason the way they do.  So what would happen then if they go before he does?  What if anything were to happen with his caregivers?  Sure, the easy answer is a nursing home but things will undeniably never be the same again.  The diet he’s currently on alone is the reason this guy happens to look so healthy.  He won’t get that in a nursing home.  I also worry that once his inner support system is gone he’ll eventually be taken advantage of.  I’d know from experience.  My grandfather, who suffered brain damage thanks to a stroke, had a caregiver.  Guess what?  My father discovered that the rotten piece of shit was taking his clothes and shipping them off to her family back in Granada.  See…point is anything can happen.  I almost want Jason to die just so he won’t experience this shit because I think it will happen.

That being said, I have nothing but endless respect and admiration for Jason Becker.  The documentary, more than covering his outstanding career and subtly highlighting his special bond with his incredibly strong and loving family, sends an important message.  If this guy, who should’ve died at least 20 years ago, is still finding the inner desire to live life everyday in the face of this crippling disease, then you can do anything.  Tony Iommi was introduced to Django Reinhardt after he lost his fingertips.  Django’s hand was crippled in a fire and he could only play with two fingers.  But not even that story holds a candle to Jason Becker’s.  Life is short and as Jason learned things can be taken away in a heartbeat.  In a cruel twist of irony he’s recorded telling his mom that he feels weird that he was the only guy in Cacophony with nothing to bitch about.  “When is something bad going to happen to me?”  He asked.  Well, we know how that ended.  But he fought through it all and will continue to fight.

Jason at his best: