I was reading an article about the greatest rock metal guitarists of all time. Endlessly debated, this is a topic that most of my musician friends have an opinion about and has been a catalyst for some truly great debates.
I was talking with my friend Jake — who is also a guitar player — about one guitarist in particular. Eddie Van Halen. I am certain you have heard of him and are generally aware that most consider him to be one of the all-time great guitarists. I don’t disagree with that — he created some true innovations in rock guitar playing.
Jake and I were discussing one Van Halen song in particular — the song “Eruption.” If you have not heard it, it’s an instrumental track where Eddie plays basically the full range of things, he either invented or evolved as solos, riffs and other, well, really rad ways of playing the guitar.
There is a story about Eddie Van Halen inviting another strong guitar player — Nuno Bettancourt (lead guitar for Extreme) — to play with him. Nuno came in, plugged in his guitar and started doing the two-finger tapping that Eddie and his contemporaries made the single most recognizable part of any rock guitar solo.
Eddie’s reaction to this was immediate and maybe not what Nuno was expecting. “Hey now, none of that.” The fact of the matter is that the two-finger tapping that sounds really intricate is actually not very difficult to play. It’s cosmetic and interesting sounding but isn’t really a foundational component of solid songwriting.
My theory on “Eruption” is that Eddie was trying to give his fans a single serving that summarized the totality of what they were expecting to hear from him so that he could move on to evolve the next step in his innovative playing, focusing less on the acrobatics of his solos, and more on the development of complex melodies or exploring what other things the instrument was capable of decoupled from expectations.
I’ve always said that a cake made entirely of frosting sounds like a great thing until you have it sitting in front of you. In practice, you cannot create sustainability from something that is meant as a complement to a more solid and durable prime.
Eruption seems to exist as Eddie saying something to the effect of “here’s the stuff you really like, so I’ll make a record of it, and now we can move into making some really solid compositions.”
Development of strategy should not just be the solos. There are some truly amazing things that create short-term energy but fizzle out as time and enthusiasm dissipate. I think Eddie understood early on that he could not build a 40+ year career in rock music on two-finger fret tapping alone, so it is with any trendy or untested strategic process. There is a time for acrobatics — and they can be fun — and there is a time for building on solid, tested, well-established and design-oriented tools.
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