It happened again just the other day. A new guitar student began lessons with me. He had some experience with the guitar ... but not much. He was there for his first lesson and I asked him what he would like to do. He said "Show me how to play like Eddie Van Halen. Show me how he does that thing with the drill." I thought "OH NO. Here we go again."
For those of you who don't know, in a famous Van Halen tune, Eddie found that if you hold an electric drill up next to the pickups on an electric guitar, you can hear the "whirrrrrrrrr" of the drill motor coming through the speakers as you squeeze the trigger. It made for a cool effect ... one of many that Eddie has thought up throughout his career. I'm no fanatic Van Halen fan, but I say give the man his due. He is an inventive player who has changed the language of Rock guitar forever and deserves his place in it's history. It's impossible to contemplate modern Rock guitar without seeing Eddie's finger prints all over it.
Eddie's spectacular solos are indeed filled with some unique techniques (dive-bombs, finger tapping, pinch harmonics etc). What concerns me is the notion that the "gimmicky" parts of his guitar playing is the real essence of his style. This does both Eddie and guitar students everywhere a disservice as it keeps us from understanding the true nature of his contributions. If you're really listening, you see that these finger tricks are just the "frosting" on the cake. Eddie is a real musician who knows his stuff and practices his butt off. That's what makes Van Halen great ... TRUE MUSICIANSHIP.
What do you really like about Eddies music? Is it just the funny stuff he does in his solos? NO. You like how the chords flow. You like the melody that the singer sings ... those funky lyrics. You dig the bass line, those rippin' riffs and that driving beat. Ya' gotta' see that it's a total package. Those cool solo tricks he does might take up a total of 20 seconds out of a 5 minute song! If you think about it you'll see that you have a lot more to learn from EVH then finger tapping ... and that drill thing.
I can't say I've learned every obscure lick from all those Van Halen tunes. I just sight Eddie as an example of how great the gap between the reality and the myth can be. I happen to know that he started taking piano lessons quite young and was considered very talented. He learned how to read music. He said this is where he also started to learn music theory and began developing his ears. He used to walk around with his guitar strapped on ... practicing all day! His songs are filled with complex melodies (a guitar SOLO is just an improvised melody), interesting chord sequences, lush vocal harmonies and some of the most awesome riffs in guitar history. So where does that stuff come from? Two words ... TRUE MUSICIANSHIP.
I was just reading an article about Jimi Hendrix's 1967 gig at the Monterey Pop Festival. The author seemed more interested in talking about the clothes Jimi wore than the music he played! He went into ecstasy retelling every minute detail of Jimi setting his guitar on fire. I'm thinkin' "This is a GUITAR magazine. Save this crap for the National Enquirer. Tell me something about his guitar playing".
A lot of times people seem to want to avoid the topic of true musicianship because they think it's the difficult, boring part of becoming a guitar player ... but the truth is, learning theory, technique, notation and ear training doesn't have to be a chore. Music is actually interesting and easy to understand if it's explained the right way. It ain't brain surgery. It's just taught really badly a lot of the time. Students get turned off and intimidated. They might even get defensive about maintaining their ignorance. "What the heck do I need to know that crap for?" I've been known to describe RAP and DEATH METAL as "pay-back" for the administrators and parents that couldn't figure out how to continue paying for music classes in the school systems! What did you expect? If kids aren't expose to true musicianship, this is what you get!
In our profit hungry society, music isn't an art form anymore. It's a COMMODITY. The record companies need a steady stream of new acts to promote so the profits keep flowing and their shareholders get paid off. How about all these cute teen actresses. They make a couple of movies ... wind up in the tabloids. Suddenly one day, WOW. She can SING too! Next thing ya' know she's a multi-platinum recording artist. Give me a break!
I think that if you ever want to do anything truly CREATIVE with music, you have to know something about how it works. You have to understand it's history. You need to rise above the narrow constraints of peer group culture and embrace the broader context of music as art. Only then can you appreciate true musicianship.
One last example. I was 10 years old when The Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan Show. That's when I began to seriously persue music. I still hold a fondness for the Fab Four even though I feel I've moved on beyond Pop/Rock in general. Students often ask "Were The Beatles really as great as people say or was it all just hype?" After much consideration, I always say "YES ... they were that great". I often call them the original "PROG-ROCK" (progressive rock) band.
But to truly understand The Beatles, you have to understand that there were actually 5 of them! There was John ... Paul ... Ringo ... George ... and GEORGE. The Beatles would have probably remained just another garage band from Liverpool if they hadn't been fortunate enough to hook up with their producer, GEORGE MARTIN. Sir George (he was knighted for his work with The Beatles) was a bit older then the four lads and was a genuine, degree carrying, classically trained (piano and oboe) REAL musician. He wasn't happy at first to be assigned to work with these 4 crude Rock n' Rollers. They finally won him over with their talent, charm and determination. They also loosened him up a bit ... and the rest his Rock n' Roll history.
Sir George's influence on The Beatle's music can not be overestimated. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is, in many ways, a George Martin album! If you go back and look at those recording sessions, you see Sir George right there in the thick of it ... creating many of the most forward-thinking aspects of that masterpiece. That's just one example.
One of my own favorites is Eleanor Rigby from Revolver (the album just before Sgt. Pepper), one of the most amazing pieces of popular music ever written. Hauntingly brilliant lyrics ... the story it tells of two lost and lonely souls and how powerless the church can be. Is my life also that pointless? Won't God save me from despair? There must have been a lot of that going around in England in the years following Word War ll.
And the music so brilliantly compliments the lyrics. But wait! Think back. Can you hear the INSTRUMENTATION behind the vocals in Eleanor Rigby? Is it that Rock band sound we hear in most Beatles tunes? Is it the old 2 guitars, bass and drums?
NO. It's a CLASSIC STRING QUARTET ... and a brilliant one at that ... 2 violins, viola and cello ... and NOTHING else could have expressed that feeling of total despair in quite that same way. Metallica, with all their doom, gloom, and distortion couldn't have touched it. It's just brilliant.
Do you think those four kids from Liverpool wrote that string quartet? They wouldn't have even known where to start! It was Sir George Martin ... the nerdy guy with the music degree hangin' on the wall ... and that's true musicianship.
Oh ... and by the way ... I did show the kid the drill thing.