Usually in rock history, when a band has been named after a member who isn’t the frontman — the Spencer Davis Group, Paul Revere & The Raiders, the Dave Clark Five — it’s seemed confusing, even jarring in retrospect. Not so with Van Halen.
Despite being fronted by one of the most charismatic frontmen in rock history (and him ultimately being replaced by a couple more who were also stars in their own right), the band’s signature forever remained the guitar innovation and mastery — as well as the synths, arrangements and songwriting — of one Eddie Van Halen.
Boosted by the similarly masterful stickwork of drummer brother Alex, Eddie gave VH an immeasurable advantage over every other L.A.-based, crossover-ready hard rock band of the ’70s and ’80s –and there were so very many — from the very moment his two-finger tapping first roared out of the speakers. There’s a reason you only got two tracks into the first Van Halen LP before hitting a solo guitar showcase: This was Eddie’s band, first and foremost, and that on its own was plenty to take over the world with.
With the sad news of his death at 65 rocking the music world this Tuesday (Oct. 6), we’re taking a look back at Eddie’s 15 best — songs that still sound like they’re setting fire to whatever soundsystem they’re being played on, and make you feel the phantom callouses on your fingers with every blistering scrape across the strings.
15. “Jamie’s Cryin’” (Van Halen, 1978)
A third-person tale that only Van Halen would think was a good idea for them to tell, of a girl refusing to go all the way and suffering tear-inducing heartbreak as a result. Frontman David Lee Roth’s “he made her feel sooooo saaaaad…” schmaltzing at least feigns sympathy, but Eddie’s guitar is all sneering, taunting malice — likely for the best, as VH was always more convincing as charismatic heels anyway. Tone-Loc would sample the lick for his massively popular “Wild Thing” a decade later; whether the irony of it being repurposed for an unabashedly pro-sex anthem was noticed by anyone remains unclear.
14. “Beautiful Girls” (Van Halen II, 1979)
Let it never be said that VH couldn’t boogie: “Beautiful Girls” puts some funk in its strut with Roth and EVH’s finest Toxic Twins approximation. While the song is primarily driven by the latter’s stutter-stepping riff and the former’s sweet-sassafrassin’ nonsense, special shoutout to the great Michael Anthony, whose bass bubbling provides the song its buoyancy, and whose shimmering backing vocals ultimately leave the song’s most indelible impression.
13. “Feels So Good” (OU812, 1988)
Synths obviously became a much more integral part of the Van Halen experience during its Sammy Hagar era, and Eddie was as open to expanding his craft on 88 keys as he was on six strings. “Feels So Good” was one of his finest explorations, an arpeggiated throb underlining a sublime organ-patched hook — the kind of sonic approximation of internal ooey-gooeyness that Dave probably never would’ve let ‘em get away with. Sammy was more amenable, and though his gushing lyric here isn’t exactly William Blake, he only really needs three words to get the point across.
12. “Runnin’ With the Devil” (Van Halen, 1978)
A pretty good way to start a career in rock: A screaming horn sound crescendoing and then disappearing into a foreboding bass-and-hi-hat thump, laying the runway for one of the most life-affirming guitar riffs of the ’70s to take flight. By the time the group gets to the parent-baiting titular refrain — replete with Roth’s possessed minister babbling and screeching on top — their immortality was already ensured. There’s a spectral guitar breakdown on the bridge too just in case, though.
11. “Spanish Fly” / “D.O.A.” (Van Halen II, 1979)
It’s not “Eruption” in terms of guitar mag iconicity, but “Spanish Fly” is nearly as impressive: Eddie showboating on an acoustic for once, putting the thing through its paces until the instrument itself sounds unrecognizable, deconstructed. (It was inspired by Eddie just fiddling around at producer Ted Templeman’s New Year’s Eve party, natch.) On Van Halen II, that leads right into the underrated fan favorite “D.O.A.” — as lean and mean a riffer as the band ever devised, and one that seems to point the way to the menacing sleaze rock that would fill arenas for the next decade.
10. “Panama” (1984, 1984)
In truth, perhaps a distillation of Roth’s singular greatness more than EVH’s. “When a critic accused Dave of writing about nothing more than sex, partying, and cars, Dave realized that Van Halen had actually never done a song about an automobile,” reads the straight-faced note about the song’s inspiration on ClassicVanHalen.com — as unaware or unconcerned about Diamond Dave missing the critic’s point as the frontman himself no doubt was at the time. Nonetheless, Eddie’s six-stringing is the Hemi engine here, burning so hot you can practically hear his fingers get singed on the harmonics.
9. “I’m the One” (Van Halen, 1978)
Speaking of songs for automobiles: ZZ Top had written most of the best driving songs of the ’70s, but while that Texas trio sounded like seasoned outlaws masterfully evading the law in their rearview, Van Halen just kinda floored it and hoped for the best. “I’m the One” is the group’s speediest early roadrunner, Eddie leading the way with his can’t-catch-me fretwork and brother Alex never more than a step behind — all four briefly pausing for rock’s least-expected barbershop breakdown (?) before resuming kicking dust. “C’mon baby, show your love,” Roth and Anthony insist in tandem, but by the time you start applauding, the band’s already the next state over.
8. “Hot For Teacher” (1984, 1984)
OK, now you’re just showing off. “Hot For Teacher” is the sound of a band assuming they were about to become the world’s biggest and guessing correctly: the Brothers Van Halen flailing away on drums and guitar like they’re competing for Mom and Dad’s attention in the intro, before Roth and Anthony work their tandem routine to perfection on the chorus. There’s a song here, sure, but it’s overwhelmed on all sides by the individual peacocking of all four members — rightfully basking in their own majesty and soaking up the accolades, as if they were doing a coordinated dance routine at their own Vegas showcase. Which, of course, they actually did do in the song’s omnipresent but unconvincingly choreographed music video; one of many able demonstrations that the band would never be in stunning lock step anywhere else as they were on record.
7. “Right Now” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, 1991)
If a Chicago Bulls PA announcer named Tommy Edwards hadn’t remembered about an obscure Alan Parsons Project instrumental when trying to come up with a song to soundtrack players introductions, “Right Now” probably would’ve gone down as the sports-rock pump-up song of the ’90s. Eddie’s manic piano intro has all the tension and drama you could ask for, and when the song finally kicks in, it’s as satisfying as a James Worthy buzzer-beater. Also easily the most ambitious video of the Van Hagar era, though Sammy was so mad about the clip’s explicit messaging distracting from his lyrics that he openly refused to cooperate during filming; it won Video of the Year at the ’92 VMAs anyway.
6. “Dance the Night Away” (Van Halen II, 1979)
Van Halen’s first top 20 hit, and arguably their first pure pop song. Recognizing that his jubilant main riff was enough to seal the deal, Eddie declined to include a solo on this one, instead filling out the bridge with some proto-“Panama” chugging and some graceful tap harmonics to keep the vibe floating. Still, his greatest contribution to the song’s crossover prospects might’ve been lyrical: He convinced frontman David Lee Roth to change the chorus from the questionably provocative “dance, Lolita, dance” to the chorus still unavoidable on classic rock radio today.
5. “Beat It” (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, 1982)
If not the biggest hit that Eddie Van Halen ever played on, maybe the most impactful: breaking down genre and color barriers on the radio and MTV, and helping turn Thriller into a blockbuster the likes of which the world has never seen before or since. Didn’t need to compromise much to do it, either: The growling, snapping riff would have been at home on that year’s Diver Down, and the tapping frenzy that the solo destabilizes into musta sounded real interesting in between Chicago ballads and Irene Cara bangers on 1983 top 40 radio.
4. “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” (Van Halen, 1978)
In case it wasn’t obvious from all the double-entendres, scorching riffs and general mic-licking lasciviousness, no, love was not a subject matter of particular priority for Van Halen: it took them until 1984’s “I’ll Wait” to even sorta attempt it, and even then, eh. But what they had was so orgasmically rotten — how else to describe that two-note croak at the end of EVH’s octave-racing iconic intro riff? — that the absence of rock’s most traditional subject matter was never even noticeable; wondering when Van Halen was gonna start talking about love was about as necessary as hoping Lou Reed would pivot to songs about eating his vegetables.
3. “Unchained” (Fair Warning, 1981)
Even for a guitarist with as many iconic riffs in his arsenal as Eddie Van Halen had by the time of 1981’s Fair Warning, “Unchained” was a raising of the stakes: thicker, tougher and badder than he’d ever sounded, even whilst splitting the melodic difference between “Dance the Night Away” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.” If EVH and Angus Young of AC/DC were trading off baddest axeman status at the turn of the ’80s like Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan passing each other on the all-time strikeout record, this was EVH fanning 18 and staring down Young as he stepped off the rubber — while Roth hooted and hollered from the home dugout. “The title reflects the band’s lifestyle,” Chuck Klosterman wrote of “Unchained” for Vulture in 2018. “The music reflects the power of their reality.”
2. “Jump” (1984, 1984)
Overplayed, inevitably, but still magical: Eddie Van Halen finally convincing the rest of his band to get out of his friggin’ way and let a nation overrun by synthesizers see that yeah, he could do those better than anyone else too. Of course, there’s still a guitar solo here, too — one that jumps melodies, time signatures and dimensions with an ease that shouldn’t be possible on a two-LP prog-rock concept album, let alone a Hot 100 No. 1 single. But it gets washed away by those glorious, spiraling synth waves, a baptism for a decade in which all the biggest rockers were gonna have to start making some adjustments if they didn’t want to get left in the mesozoic era of pre-MTV.
1. “Eruption” / “You Really Got Me” (Van Halen, 1978)
Before “Eruption,” generations of air guitarists need full use of both hands, after it, only one finger per was required. Decades later, with instrumental virtuosity no longer The Thing in popular music, 30 seconds of Eddie going HAMmer-on with his Frankenstrat would still be enough to wake a SoundCloud rap or Lana Del Rey devotee from their somnambulist haze and scream “HOLY S–T WHAT IS THAT??!?” And of course, it really lands because the song’s final explosion is into the opening chords of their pitch-perfect Kinks cover: a breakout hit that cemented the changing of the guard, and which showed much potential hard rock still had yet to reach as popular music.