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 to 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. Close your eyes and 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 want anyone to copy his technique – imagine that!

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 remembered 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 Official Demise Of A Musical Dynasty: In Memory Of Vinnie Paul

It was early this past Saturday morning, around 2am, when I got up to take a quick piss.  I looked on my phone for shits and giggles and saw that I friend of mine posted something, captioning “holy shit!” above it.  It was a the Billboard article announcing that former Pantera/Hell Yeah drummer Vinnie Paul was dead at 54.  I thought I was just tired; but after a few minutes I realized that this was in fact reality.  There were no facts at the times, all that mattered was that one of the greatest of all time was gone.

The facts, since then, have slowly started to become known.  We now know that he died in his sleep in his Las Vegas home (booze and strippers, duh!), and of a heart attack.  According to the Las Vegas police, there were no signs of foul play.  Then today came the news that, just like his late brother, he’ll be buried beside him and their mother…in a KISS coffin.  Of course it’ll take some time for the toxicology report to come out.  I don’t want this to focus too much on his well publicized lifestyle here.  But let’s face it: despite his machine like intensity on the drums, he never seemed to burn too many calories.  That’s most likely because he never slowed down the drinking.  I mean fuck me did this guy and his brother, the late Dimebag Darrell, know how to party or what??

As I said before, I’m not here to discuss what everyone else is bound to write about.  I’m going to talk about why this son of a bitch from Arlington, TX will forever have a spot as one of the greatest drummers of all time.

So what the fuck makes a musician one of the best?  That person is able to make himself recognizable in songwriting style, technique, skill and sound.  That guy has to be able to make himself stand out.  From non metal guys like Stewart Copeland and Phil Collins (yeah, Phil Collins was a drum god at one point!) to hard rock drummers such as John Bonham to Vinnie’s own idol, Alex Van Halen, each of the guys I mentioned had the ability to make themselves easily distinguishable because they possessed all the qualities I just mentioned.  Vinnie, along with his brother, clearly knew this early on.  And while it would take three independently recorded albums before they were signed to their first deal, the wait would be worth it, because they, along with Rex Brown and Phil Anselmo, created a new sub genre of Metal, making them the single most important Heavy Metal band of the nineties.  Pantera were to be the band that single handed SAVED Metal during the rise of the Grunge scene, and later Alternative music.

Starting with their fourth album, 1990’s Cowboys From Hell, Pantera burst out like a goddamn raging bull with tracks such as the title track, “Psycho Holiday”, “Heresy” and everyone’s excuse to mosh, “Domination”.  There are other classics on there that I could’ve named just now but I chose the ones I just mentioned because those tracks are filled with an extraordinarily seamless combination of interlocking with…groove??  Oh yeah, Vinnie never lost the groove no matter how mechanical or technical those tracks were.  He’d explain years later that, while he respected drummers with fast left hands (think blast beats), he was more concerned about making people move.

1992’s Vulgar Display Of Power saw Pantera develop a much edgier sound all around.  I mean they were already edgy, but starting here the band were starting to sound more like the soundtrack to a fist fight!  Between Phil’s rougher vocal delivery to Diamond Darrell…as he was unfortunately still calling himself at the time…downtuning his guitar and those drums.   Unlike most Thrash bands, Pantera were not JUST about precision and speed.  Vinnie Paul as a drummer was more than JUST an anchor.  He knew when to keep it tight and he also knew when to let loose and just go with the shuffle:

With tracks such as this one above, and “No Good (Attack The Radical)”, you started to hear Vinnie’s creativity.  There are syncopated rhythms in “No Good” that sounded so new.  They’d also be the basis for shitty nu metal bands later on but I’ll get to that soon.

1994’s Far Beyond Driven.  Without question it’s THE most important album in Pantera’s history.  Why?  Because it debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.  No Metal band before Pantera had EVER pulled that off before and now no one could EVER take that away from them.  It is also the HEAVIEST album to EVER debut at No. 1.  With the opening track, “Strength Beyond Strength”, your ass is kicked immediately.  It’s one big explosion and Vinnie’s much louder, much more POWERFUL drums are taking full charge.  Sounded like Vinnie had done some tinkering in the studio, both with his drum kit, as well as with the mixing board.   I mean goddamn – just listen to this fucking track!!!

I said earlier that to be the best you had to find your own sound among other things and Vinnie’s drums sounded so much deeper than on any other album up to this point.  Turns out he in fact was tuning his heads real low…like almost to the point of being loose.  And those bass drums!  They sound so triggered.  But as the story goes, while in the studio, Vinnie used wooden beaters in the studio and also taped quarters on his bass heads, right at the spot where the beaters would make contact.  The result was a clicky, yet stronger, clearer, more powerlful bass drum.  It’d also set the tone for the way many other, far more extreme Metal bands would record in the years to come.

If his brother, who was finally going by Dimebag at this point, was to be my generation’s Eddie Van Halen, then Vinnie was to be my generation’s Alex.  Both were brothers, both played together for so long that they could read each other’s minds with ease.  They both understood each other.  But on the downside, Alex, amazing as he was, was clearly destined to be overshadowed by his game changing brother.  Vinnie would be no different.  Dime’s playing and his SOUND were a MASSIVE game changer at this time, and rightfully so.  But every guitarist, bassist, or even singer are only as good as their drummer.  Eddie would’ve been just some asshole who taps had it not been for Alex.  Dime would’ve probably just been a guy with a scooped sound and a whammy bar had it not been for Vinnie.

Take for example “13 Steps To Nowhere” off 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill.  This unmistakably is THE darkest, most intense album in Pantera’s entire discography – and my personal favorite!  It’s a headbanger for sure, very Sabbath inspired with just enough technicality to justify it as old school to the core.  It sounds like Vinnie here perfected the trigger sound on his bass drums, and found just the right EQ setting for his low tuned toms, as they cascade from high to low before Phil’s fucked up verses.  Right in the middle, the Sabbath moment takes over as the song breaks down beautifully, allowing Vinnie’s drums to breathe.  You hear every nuance, every reverberation, every BOOM.  It’s pure destruction.  It’s so sexy.

Then a problem arose in the music world.  In the four years between the release of ‘Trendkill and their final album, 2000’s Reinventing The Steel.  Starting with KoRn, actually going back to ’94, several “Nu” bands came along and tried to focus strictly on groove.  The guitarists all had a scooped sound, they all tuned down lower than even Dime thanks to the revival of seven string guitars; the drummers were playing nothing but snycopations, especially shit bands like Disturbed; and the singers all wore green shorts like Phil and were all just angry without a cause (well to be fair Jonathan Davis was apparently molested as a kid).  Unfortunately, Pantera were to get the blame for this, as most of these fuckers freely cited Vulgar as a major influence.

But the biggest problem with all those fuckfaces – and the biggest reason music SUCKED in the early 2000’s – was that they completely missed the point.  Pantera as a band, and as individual musicians, took close to a decade to perfect their sound.  Did any of them understand that Dime and Vinnie were insanely talented musicians since they were kids?  Did any of those retards know that Pantera started out in 1983 as a GLAM band??  Oh it’s true.  It took years for them to develop into a harder sounding band.  It also took the drive to always want every album to be better and better.  Thanks to their refusal to truly do their homework – and actually learn to play their instruments – these Nu/Rap Metal pieces of shit chose to just be followers…and ultimately forgettable.  Thankfully.

After the break up of Pantera in 2003, Vinnie and Dime went on to form Damageplan.  Their sole album, 2004’s New Found Power, was a major change in their sound.  The brothers wanted to try something new and while I surely wasn’t a fan of all the track on the record, I understood that this was an experiment and perhaps things would change.  I was however a fan of a the beyond sludgy “Moment Of Truth”.  It’s so slow, so heavy and it allowed Vinnie to sound like nothing short of a fucking jackhammer.

Unfortunately, as we all know, that second album would never happen, as Dime was gruesomely murdered before years end while on stage.

Vinnie stayed away from the public for a few years afterward.  His final band would be Hell Yeah.  I’ll be honestly.  I don’t mean to disrespect Vinnie, but he could’ve done so much better than joining a “supergroup” with the assholes from Nothing Face and Madvayne.  If he enjoyed himself, then hey good for him.  But I personally found Hell Yeah to be so beneath what he was capable of.

His unexpected death last Friday marked the end of en era, and a musical dynasty.  If you’re new to this blog you’re expecting me to say some shit like “he’s with Dime now”.  Not here.  I’m athiest.  I don’t believe that shit.  But with his death, gone are the one family that were as successful and ultimately as influential as they were playing this kind of music.  No one before the Abbott brothers could pull it off and no two brothers have repeated it just yet.  Vinnie Paul alone changed the game with his signature sound, and many drummers will say that they started playing because of Vinnie Paul.  In fact, while in the middle of writing this I stopped to write a new Spotify playlist, featuring my favorite Vinnie Paul moments in Pantera and even Damageplan.

To end this I’m going to leave you with the very first Pantera video I ever watched back in 1996 on an episode of Beavis and Butthead.

Rest In Peace Vincent Paul Abbott 1964 – 2018

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: