I first learned to play guitar on a wooden Wilson tennis racket, with a piece of broken antenna from my Dad’s FM radio clumsily rubberbanded to the strings as a makeshift whammy-bar. On this ersatz guitar, I masterfully played along to every song on every Van Halen album while performing in front of a mirror in my Dad’s bedroom (I was a latch-key kid), pretending that there was a backline of Marshall stacks behind me. I had zero interest in playing air-guitar to any other band or musician at the time.
As silly as it seems, playing along to Van Halen on a tennis racket was formative to developing a good sense of rhythm and dynamics, without getting discouraged by the fact that I wasn’t hitting any of the correct notes with my fretting hand.
When I finally owned a real guitar, the first thing I tried to learn—in a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect—was the legendary two-handed tapping arpeggio sequence from “Eruption”. It didn’t take long for me to realize that learning “I Wanna Be Sedated” was a more appropriate mountain to climb. But nonetheless, it fueled my lifelong interest in playing guitar. I eventually learned how to play that part of Eruption, but to this day I still can’t do that crazy back-and-forth thing he does with his left hand at the very end of it.
In my high school computer class, we were assigned the task of writing a program that alphabetized a grocery list. This was an assignment that held a sub-zero level of interest to me. Instead, I decided to waste my time learning how to write a program that instructed the computer to flawlessly execute that very same “Eruption” arpeggio through the tinny one-inch speaker of the IBM PC Junior, using dozens of painstakingly formulated
SOUND() commands, strung back to back in what may have been the dumbest looking IBM BASIC code that has ever been written.
But the only thing that mattered to me was that my code actually worked. It was a revelation to me that computer programming could actually be used to do fun things, rather than just the boring stuff my teacher wanted me to do (Spoiler: I eventually flunked that class).
One of the only classes I excelled at was “Newswriting”. As the Managing Editor of the school newspaper, I abused my position of power to publish a half page, hagiographic review of Van Halen’s first concert appearance in Honolulu, which in retrospect is almost as embarrassing as the combination bouffant-mullet hairstyle I apparently had when I wrote it.
My musical sensibilities took a 180° turn shortly after I wrote that article, when I learned how to tune in to the University of Hawaii’s radio station, KTUH, and discovered a whole new world of what was referred to the time as “college music” (and later, “alternative music”). But even though I was more likely to be listening to Louder Than Bombs and Lincoln than Fair Warning and OU812 in the 90’s, I never disowned my love for Van Halen.1
I’ve collected many Van Halen bootlegs since I was a kid, but I think that Ed’s extended solo from the officially released “Live Without a Net” concert video is still the best example of why musicians from all different genres of music revere him as an unassailable legend. He was unfortunately responsible for spawning a million crummy imitators, as well as “Jump” (without a doubt the worst song of the David Lee Roth era), but he was the dictionary definition of an “original”, and unquestionably changed the way people played guitar, forever.