When I was in eighth or ninth grade, there was a young guitar virtuoso in my school who could play the "Eruption" solo. I didn't know anything about this song, not even its original author, but I knew that this was the peak of guitar performance. The kid, Steele Kempton, ripped through it at a talent show, bringing down the house. (At least that's the way I've mythologized the scenario.) It wasn't until a few years later—when streaming made it easy—that I actually heard Eddie Van Halen play it. That's when I finally understood exactly why this was the pinnacle of guitar solos.
The song appeared on Van Halen's 1978 self-titled album as something of an encore to "Runnin' With the Devil" and an intro to "You Really Got Me." Added as an afterthought, not originally written for the record, the guitarist insisted there is a mistake on the cut. And, of course, "Runnin' With the Devil" and "You Really Got Me" are two of the band's most popular recordings. Like everyone else, I've heard them a million times, but I've actually sought out and played "Eruption" more than any other song in the Van Halen catalog. When I entered my classic rock phase in middle school, this is what I considered the absolute mastery of the instrument. This is what I could point to and say, with no hyperbole, this is shredding.
Today, Eddie Van Halen, the man whose fingers tapped that dizzying solo, died at the age of 65 after complications from a lengthy battle with throat cancer. To me, his name is synonymous with, yes, his band, but also one of the best guitar solos of all time. A spout of playing that changed rock n' roll forever.
It's true, there were no shortages of self-indulgent guitar solos in the '70s. But this one changed the game of how they would sound and what they would mean, heading into the '80s. Every solo that followed would try to emulate the sound of Eddie's mind-melting "Eruption."
That key is the tapping, which is a two-handed technique of doing exactly that: tapping the strings up the neck. It had been a technique used in solos before but never to this degree. As Eddie explained in 1978, other musicians “popped the finger on there to hit one note. I said: ‘Well, fuck, nobody is really capitalizing on that. … So I started dickin’ around, and said, ‘Fuck! This is totally another technique that nobody really does.’ Which it is. I haven’t really seen anyone get into that as far as they could, because it is a totally different sound.”
The moment revolutionized rock music for the '80s and still holds a spot as the guitar solo to perform if you want to prove you're good at guitar. (Or win over a talent show audience.) In fact, there's an entire YouTube subculture dedicated to kids trying to play the "Eruption" solo. And that should be a perfect example of Eddie's legacy in 2020 when people are eager to declare guitar music dead.
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