Eddie Van Halen, the guitar god who boosted hard rock into a neon future

The late rock legend is best remembered for his searing guitar solos—but Eddie Van Halen's most genius creative moment was one that horrified fans, rock purists, and even his own bandmates

Eddie Van Halen, who died yesterday at age 65, is being rightfully celebrated for his stunning guitar technique. As the musical force behind the band Van Halen, his guitar solos sounded like a mix of the blues and hurricane lightning strikes; the opening of 1981’s “Mean Street” is a flurry of hammer-ons and pull-offs so fast and searing he could be playing electricity.

But while Van Halen is best known as a rock god, his most commercially successful moment on record was when he tossed the instrument aside. Van Halen’s titanic, inescapable 1982 #1 Billboard 200 hit “Jump” did feature a typically jaw-dropping Van Halen guitar solo. But its main hook was driven by a fist-pumping, upbeat keyboard line, which seemed to boost singer David Lee Roth’s Vegas exhortation (“Might as well jump!”) out of the rock past and into a neon future.

Rock purists—including, I’ll admit, an ‘80s tween me—were horrified at this pop betrayal. But “Jump” wasn’t (just) a sell-out. It was also the victory of Eddie Van Halen’s experimental daring. 

Van Halen, the band, did solid numbers from early on; the group’s second album, Van Halen II, hit #6 on the US charts in 1979.  David Lee Roth mostly wanted to keep on keeping on with the tried and true formula of his own chesty mugging, Eddie’s searing guitar solos, and a polished live stadium rock sound. But Eddie was restless. On 1981’s Fair Warning he pushed for a more layered, darker, less mainstream sound. He largely got it, but not through negotiation. “I would sneak back into the studio at 4am with Don Landee, the engineer, and completely re-record all the solos and overdubs the way I wanted them,” he remembered

The weirdest song on the album for Van Halen true-believers is undoubtedly “Sunday Afternoon in the Park,” a sweet title for two minutes of distorted keyboard burping, as Eddie’s Electro-Harmonix Mirco-Synthesizer trudges along beside his brother Alex’s heavy drumbeat. The song segues into “One Foot Out the Door,” which features a guitar solo that breaks land-speed records—but also more of that synthesizer, blorping and throbbing around the edges, refusing to be left behind.

Synths also elbowed their way into a number of tracks on 1982’s Diver Down, especially on the discofied cover of Martha and the Vandellas’s “Dancing in the Street,” where itchy keyboards head out to the dance floor to imitate Eddie’s fleet-fingered solo, or vice versa.  

1984, though, is where Eddie Van Halen truly took creative control of the band—which meant, among other things, turning them from a hard rock group that used synths occasionally to a full-on guitar synth, grimy-shiny hybrid cyborg. The opening title track is all Eddie’s keyboards, channeling some of the distortion of “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” to create a kind of swampy Vangelis uplift— the creature from the Black Lagoon is rising out of the murk to climb a celestial staircase to the stars. The transition into “Jump,” with its ridiculously radio-ready ‘80s synth hook, driven by that filthy ‘70s rock, is nothing less than ecstatic—an apotheosis of best-selling avant trash.

The other synth fusion track on the album, “I’ll Wait,” didn’t have the same kind of commercial success as, but is it’s own kind of triumph. Brooding and baroque, it manages to be both more Bach and more blues than “Jump”—it’s a brashly ominous pop art painting of mud. “Jump” is great because it’s so perfect; “I’ll Wait” is maybe even better because it shambles in with odd, warty misproportions intact.

Van Halen’s guitar inspired lots of retro rock gods, no doubt, but Cut Copy, Coldplay, and other rockers who picked up the keyboard also owe him a nod—not to mention all the folks who have sampled that “Jump” riff.  The fact that Eddie in his heyday is remembered most as a guitarist, rather than for his keyboard experiments, isn’t a reflection on where he was most influential so much as it’s an indication of  the critical hierarchy of those instruments. Guitars are seen as more authentic, visceral, and cool, while keyboards are artificial, less serious, a sop to market considerations. Part of Eddie’s genius, though, was that he refused to make those distinctions himself. A master of the guitar, he found at least one of his most authentic selves by synthesizing an experimental pop hybrid that was both cutting edge and inextricable from the often-derided, manufactured pop sound of the ‘80s.  His bandmates, and some of his fans and critics, might have preferred at one point that he stick with his most famous instrument. But Eddie, after some thought, figured he might as well jump.