About 30 years ago, I got into an argument, as teenagers are wont to do, over who was a better guitarist: Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen. Back then, before my progressive rock phase, I was a blues snob of the highest order. So to me, it was Clapton. To my friend, it was Van Halen, all fiery pyrotechnics and bombast. Who won the argument?
No one. I was 17. The kid was 14. We were snobs of a different sort. Imagine if that had happened in my prog phase. Part of the problem with Van Halen for me was that it was all pyrotechnics. But there’s something there in his playing that makes him standout from other fluid players. He’s technically brilliant, yes, but there are other players even better technically than Van Halen.
And they sound like complete crap. Why?
Eddie Van Halen has feel. Listen to a snippet of him play, and you know which band it is. It’s why Deep Purple tolerated Ritchie Blackmore’s ego for so long. It’s how Jeff Beck ended up on everyone’s wish list in the late sixties and early seventies (including the Rolling Stones. Twice.) It’s how Steve Vai became Eddie V’s surrogate when David Lee Roth went solo.
So who won that argument?
It’s still Clapton. Much of what Clapton does is subtle. He, along with fellow ex-Yardbirds Beck and Jimmy Page, pioneered the technique of playing two guitar lines simultaneously or playing the bass line along with the lead guitar. And the thing is they don’t need to show off. Page needs the bombast because Led Zeppelin is bombastic. Except when it’s not. Beck is actually flashier than Page, but it’s so ingrained into the music that you don’t notice it as much.
That’s not that technically brilliant can’t have feel. Queen is nothing without Brian May. (Well, they’re nothing with Freddie Mercury gone, but even they acknowledge that.) Steve Howe not only can machine gun his guitar faster than Van Halen, but he plays it classically. His counterpart in the early Genesis, Steve Hackett, is even faster, yet he sounds like he’s playing a harpsichord sometimes.
What drove it home for me was an interview with Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. Buckingham is usually not held up as a guitar god. He’s more of a song writer. When asked, though, why he didn’t go for the flash and the volume, he said it wasn’t needed for Mac’s music. He then proceeded to play a Van Halen guitar solo. When he finished, he pointed out that a lot of guys who play like that aren’t really playing. They’re just showing off.
The greatest example of this is my favorite guitarist ever, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. I’ve heard Gilmour described as someone who “puts more Gilmour through the guitar than anyone else.” In a recent documentary about Pink Floyd, he was shown during the Dark Side of the Moon sessions playing a solo from “Time.” Stripped of the rest of the song, it could easily have been part of a heavy metal song, played over a classical piece, or even woven into jazz. It’s not anything. It’s just David Gilmour. I’ve heard him get as loud and flashy as Brian May, and I’ve heard him as subtle and almost subliminal as jazz great Stanley Jordan. He is, to me, the perfect guitarist and musician.
But try to tell me with a straight face that Eddie Van Halen is replaceable in the band that bears his name. Go on. I’ll wait.