Eddie Van Halen was one of the greatest guitarists to ever pick up the instrument, but he also might be one of the most fascinating figures in rock history.
Back in February 2015, EVH took part in the Smithsonian series “What It Means To Be American.” He sat down for an interview for nearly an hour discussing how he came to America as a young boy and the obstacles he and his brother, Alex, had to overcome as immigrants. Also, you’ll learn how and why he came up with certain playing techniques, which countless guitarists have imitated in years since.
The entire interview is embedded below, and if you haven’t seen it yet, it will likely give you a whole new appreciation for the legendary guitarist who sadly passed away one year ago today (October 6) at the age of 65 following a bout with cancer.
Van Halen: Their 30 Best Songs, Ranked
One thing that doesn’t get discussed enough about Van Halen is how funky they could be. This song, about a prom-queen-turned-porn-star, features one of Van Halen’s deepest grooves, courtesy of Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen, but it’s Eddie’s evocative leads and riffing (along with Dave being Dave) that really makes the song work.
A song by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans that Van Halen covered as a one minute long acapella jam for their most uneven album, this might not have ranked as one of their best songs before October 6, 2020. But if you were putting together your own Van Halen mix today, this would be a great final track, and it definitely sounds different now that Eddie is gone. It also showed that not only were the band members great instrumentalists, they were great vocalists as well.
Like all other hard rock bands from the ’60s and ‘70s, Van Halen was influenced by all forms of blues. But Van Halen had more fun with it than most, as evidenced here. Dave would play the acoustic guitar at the beginning of the song, starting it out solo, but the band kicked in and Eddie came in hot with one of his greatest solos. The end where Dave and Eddie are dueling with their instruments, is just a blast.
It’s difficult for a hard rock band to grow up and Van Halen were one of the few who were able to pull it off gracefully. Let’s be honest -- they wouldn’t have been able to do it without Sammy Hagar. But the band evolved as songwriters and players. This socially conscious song was built on an amazing Eddie Van Halen piano riff, but it also included one of his many incredible solos.
Van Halen were, of course, a great songwriting team, as this list attests to. But they were also amazing song interpreters. They kicked off their career with a supercharged version of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” but their unexpected take on Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman” is nearly as iconic.
When the Eddie Van Halen/Sammy Hagar team worked, it *really* worked. The two of them worked this song out on two guitars in the wee hours of the morning and it sounds like it. This song sounds unlike anything else VH ever did; Eddie’s playing, even without distortion, is fantastic.
David Lee Roth reminds us that he can sing on this song, and his lyrics are a bit more empathetic than usual: “And then they went and they voted you/Least likely to succeed/I had to tell them baby you were armed with/All you'd need.” As flashy as Eddie could be, he knew how to let the song breathe; his playing during the verses dances around Roth’s narration. Of course, he also gets his time to shine on his wailing solo.
‘5150,’ Van Halen’s first album with Sammy Hagar, made a strong case that the band’s second iteration would be as strong as the first, and this song was a big reason why. Eddie played a monster riff during the chorus, and his playing glided through the verses. And it’s one of Sammy’s best VH performances.
An ode to teenage horniness; as always, Eddie, Alex and Michael’s playing was great but the real star is the interplay of their backing vocals with Dave’s leads. As with “Happy Trails,” it makes a good case that Van Halen could have been a great doo-wop group in a different era.
With the addition of Sammy Hagar, it was clear that Van Halen could do a lot more, stylistically, and they weren’t going to stick with just party jams. But they weren’t going to ditch them, either, as they pointed out with “Summer Nights.” And obviously, Eddie still had riffs for days.
“I am the ruler of these nether worlds/The underground/On every wall and place my fearsome name is hear/Just look around, whoa yeee-ah!” It sounds like something Black Sabbath might have cooked up. The opening interplay between Eddie’s guitar scratching (reminiscent of “Voodoo Chile” by his idol Jimi Hendrix) and Alex’s cymbals is hair raising. Which Eddie Van Halen solo is the best one? Tough to say, but this one kind of defines “face-melting.”
Another example of a Hagar-era classic that just wouldn’t have been possible with Van Halen’s original lineup. Here, it’s Sammy’s vocals that take center stage, but Eddie’s keyboards drive the song. Of course, Eddie steps away from the keys for a bit to blow our minds with a solo.
Give the bass player some! This is one of Michael Anthony’s funkiest performances; it almost sounds like something a jazz or blues band could have done in a prohibition-era speakeasy, and you could certainly imagine Roth performing in those snarky vocals in a dark, seedy joint. It’s Eddie’s guitar and Alex’s drums that bring it to the ‘80s; of course, it still sounds amazing today, and it always will.
Roth showed empathy for the lead character in “Little Dreamer,” and he also did it on “Jamie’s Cryin’.” “Now Jamie's been in love before/And she knows what love is for/It should mean, a little, a little more/Than one-night stands.” Of course, many of his songs actually were about one-night stands, but here he shows some feeling for the person on the other end of a tryst.
One thing that set Van Halen apart from their rivals was their ability to write a perfect pop song, and a danceable one at that. Here’s another great example of Eddie Van Halen getting out of the way of the song.
After hearing the lead single from ‘1984,’ “Jump,” fans might have worried that Van Halen was ditching hard rock. No such luck: this ode to fast cars was a guitar-driven masterpiece.
More than forty years later, this song is still mindblowing; at parts, it’s nearly as fast as speed metal, at other parts it sounds like cabaret. And they slip into doo-wop/acapella mode for good measure, just to show you that they can do it. One of the most underrated songs in the VH catalog.
The “woo-woo!” at 1:24, going into Eddie’s solo is perfect, as is Eddie guitar fill at 2:09. You can hear how much fun they’re having here and it’s infectious.
Alex Van Halen is the star here; his drumming on this song is as iconic and instantly recognizable as any of Eddie’s guitar work. Of course, Eddie’s guitar here is stellar. Even though it was their last album with David Lee Roth (for a few decades), they were firing on all cylinders And not only on the song but on the video, which was their last with Roth and certainly their best.
Now, sure...we just gushed about Alex Van Halen’s drumming in the previous entry, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t do the same on “Everybody Wants Some!!” While not as frenetic as “Hot For Teacher,” the lengthy drum intro on “Everybody Wants Some!!” is just as infectious, as is its chorus.
‘Diver Down’ is generally thought of as the most uneven of the first six Van Halen albums, but most other bands would kill for an album that good. “Little Guitars” is the best original on the album; Eddie’s acoustic intro is even more intense than “Spanish Fly” (from ‘Van Halen II’) and “Little Guitars” itself is one of the band’s most joyful songs. Eddie’s riff almost seems to be bouncing around during the song.
Van Halen’s lone number one hit is, of course, the synth-heavy “Jump,” because irony is just funny like that sometimes.
Closing out Van Halen’s self-titled debut, “On Fire” sends listeners out on a hard rock high note (literally) with DLR and Michael Anthony’s wails of “I’m on fire!” It’s the type of closer that immediately just makes you want to start an album from track one again and go for another ride.
Take a look at this! Some songs are just tailor-made to be performed in massive arenas, and “Unchained” is one of them. From the chugging opening riff to the group vocal on the chorus, “what a rocker” this song is!
Van Halen had a way with covers and really had a knack for putting their own spin on classics, especially a rock standard like “You Really Got Me.” It’s undoubtedly VH’s best cover and can easily stand up to the original by the Kinks. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have a lead in like “Eruption” either.
Serving as the opening track on Van Halen’s fourth studio album, “Mean Street” is a unique standout not just on the LP but in the band’s entire catalog. Dave, Eddie, Michael and Alex all shine on this track, and it’s a shared spotlight that’s hard to ignore.
The final single from Van Halen’s stellar debut album, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” remains a mainstay of rock radio over four decades after its initial release. It’s easy to understand why with its brash chorus and ridiculously memorable lines like “You know you're semi-good lookin'/And on the streets again.” Oh, and that opening riff is just killer.
“Have you seen Junior's grades?” More than just a little tongue in cheek lyrically, “And the Cradle Will Rock…” famously gave fans the first taste of Eddie Van Halen dabbling with keyboards, without taking away from his guitar. That sure had some decent returns down the line!
In 1:42 and only the second track into Van Halen’s debut album, Eddie Van Halen cemented his status as a guitar god, and there was no turning back. “Eruption” is so ingrained in rock culture now it’s almost difficult to think of a time without it. It’s the solo that inspired countless people to pick up a guitar; it also caused thousands of six-stringers to sit dumbfounded, trying to figure out how EVH played the damn thing in the first place. Perhaps, it’s both.
Out the gate, Van Halen just weren’t messing around. They were young, hungry and with a mission statement like “Runnin’ With The Devil,” they told you who they were right away. When you’re “livin' at a pace that kills,” there isn’t time for pleasantries. In a debate on the best opening track from a debut album ever, “Runnin’ With The Devil” is always part of the conversation, and it may well be the greatest. In the case of this list, we think it’s Van Halen’s best song ever. Simply put, this song is perfect, even when you isolate DLR’s vocals.