Thursday, November 21, 2013

Song #429 of 9999 - Eruption by Van Halen

Song #429 of 9999

Title: Eruption
Artist: Van Halen
Year: 1978
Album: Van Halen

You don't have to be a fan of Van Halen to recognize the talent and creativity of lead guitarist and band namesake Eddie Van Halen. "Eruption," the guitar solo that introduced the unique flair that came to characterize not just the man but also the band wasn't even supposed to appear on the eponymous debut. Producer Ted Templeman overheard Van Halen practicing it in the studio and insisted a recording be made. Van Halen has stated that it wasn't even a particularly good recording and cites mistakes none of us would probably recognize even if we were pointed directly toward them.

Although he had been performing a similar solo live for a few years before Van Halen was recorded, the "Eruption" recording marks the first time Van Halen incorporated the two-handed tapping technique that would make him famous. People who travel in guitar circles have often heard that Van Halen was not the first to use such techniques, that they dated back to pre-Baroque lute playing, but I can tell you with certainty that no-one had heard anything like this in 1978. The electric guitar, especially when fed through processors and pedals such as those being manufactured in the mid- to late-1970s, is especially well-suited for such a technique because it offers significantly more sustain than any acoustic instrument. The sound is fluid, almost like an organ or a synthesizer, where air or electrical current (respectively) can course infinitely allowing for a steady and lasting stream of notes.

Setting aside the specific virtuosic technique displayed in "Eruption," I'd like to talk about the composition itself because I think, in lesser hands, even with Van Halen's ability, a guitar solo of this nature could easily come off as a bunch of overwrought wankery. This is a serious composition worthy of being labeled a toccata, but perhaps short enough to be viewed merely as a cadenza serving as a prelude to the following track ("You Really Got Me"). 

The piece is through-composed but has a clear structure and a strong sense of direction. It opens with an A section marked by two improvisatory cadenze, each pronounced by a sustained chord—first tonic (Ab Minor), then subdominant (Db)—played by the band. The improvisations explore the entire range of the guitar and even playfully quote Kreutzer. At 0:46, an aggressive B section begins in the key of the tonic which utilizes an array of ornamentation before transitioning to the new key of C Minor. At 0:58, the two-handed tapping technique is employed, outlining triads which skillfully navigate the piece toward Eb Major while emphasizing a rising chromatic melody: cm (i), fm/c (iv 6/4), d°(ii/vii°--transition chord), Eb (I), Cb (bVI), Db (bVII), Eb (I). Once this apex is reached, the melody is turned around and a series of descending chromatic riffs leads to a grand cadence in the key of....Eb Minor! The piece is a journey and, along the way, Van Halen offers as many tone colors and textures as he can cram into 90 seconds, while simultaneously showing off his formidable chops. "Eruption" is a modern showpiece worthy of the same recognition given to similar works by Paganini or Liszt, although arguably it has more in common with, say, a toccata by Bach—it is Baroque in almost every sense of the word. Either way, it's the intelligent construction that keeps it from becoming album filler and elevates it to the level of serious composition.


  1. Steve Hacket was tapping like that on Nursery Crime and Foxtrot. Eddie went to a Genesis show. Eddie is amazing, but that trick goes to Mr Hacket.

    1. I think it's a little simplistic to say "tapping like that" with reference to Hackett. I also could find no mention of Eddie attending a Genesis show. Most mention Canned Heat guitarist Harvey Mandel and Van Halen has stated that Jimmy Page was the inspiration for his tapping method. Either way, my point is that this was a fresh and original use of the technique.

  2. Brian May did a similar thing on the solo of "It's Late" on the "News of the World" LP a good 12 months before the first VH album was issued.

    1. I'll check it out. I've seen mention of May using the technique but obviously not to this extent.

  3. Also on Van Halen II there's a little gem called Spanish Fly. Eddie does his tapping on a little Spanish guitar.
    Just listen to Return of the Giant Hogweed on Nursery Crime (1971), no need to read it, it's there.