Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Widdly widdly woo!

Is this the most avant garde, experimental and downright dangerous thing ever to have happened on a popular music recording?

Yes.  Without a doubt, it is.

The whammy bar glissando introduction is almost half arsed, like Mr Van Halen can't really be bothered, but launches into the most mind-blowing assault on tonality and common sense, good old fashioned guitar playing ever recorded.  People have played faster and louder on many other records, this quite tame to many of Van Halen's other recorded guitar solos, but there is something about the fact that this is on a record by the King of Pop himself that trumps all other examples of widdly woo virtuosity.

Musicologists could - and almost certainly already have - write entire theses on this solo.  Obviously, it is technically very difficult to play.  However, most bedroom guitar nerds don't worry about that sort of thing.  Check this note perfect rendition for example:

Not a problem.  Note perfect, even down to the knock on the body of the guitar, although the forced harmonics don't quite have the same ferocity as the original.  You have to admire this man's - and it is almost certainly a man, isn't it? - dedication to learning things really carefully, to the detriment of his sleep patterns, personal hygiene and social skills.  I have known many bedroom based guitar geniuses, some of whom rank among the most accomplished musicians I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.  All totally blow me away when it comes to technical knowledge of how Western music works, from classical tradition to death metal.  However, get them in a band and it all goes wrong, probably for the disregard show to the fundamental life skills listed above; live music is a team sport and not really the preserve of the genuine geek.

(As an aside, I didn't realise that knock at the start was a guitar; knocking on the body of a guitar is something lots of players do to check they're on and live in a less obtrusive manner than playing a note or chord.  If Van Halen did that on purpose, that's an outrageous approach to a recording session and therefore true genius. If it was accidental and the producer (the great Quincy Jones) just thought he'd leave it in, well that's just as maverick and just as innovative; these big money recordings are high stake affairs and little touches like this are gold dust.)

What interests me more than the geeky widdlery and note frequency is the unfettered abandon of the performance, the cavalier approach to musical theory and convention.  I don't have the necessary education to explain it, but some of Mr Van Halen's note choices and musical phrases are challenging to say the least.  This is no solo by numbers that one would normally expect from a session player on a pop record. No sir.  This is a tirade, an outpouring of raw, visceral virtuosity and expression that can only come from a player that a) has done a lot of practising, b) is unbelievably self-assured, possibly almost psychotically so and c) is almost certainly drunk.

I really enjoy and admire technical excellence.  I have huge respect for players that have dedicated their lives to playing just so.  But more than anything, I love players that have done that work, have painstakingly built up a vast chandelier of skills, muscle memory and cerebral knowledge, and then choose to smash the whole lot up in an instinctive, emotional and gutteral mess.

And, to really cement the claim for the most avant garde exhibition of musicianship in the history of pop music, he did the session for free.  As Eddie Van Halen himself said to Rolling Stone magazine in 1984: "I did it as a favour ... I was a complete fool, according to the rest of the band, our manager and everyone else. I was not used. I knew what I was doing - I don't do something unless I want to do it."


  1. I agree. And it's probably the only instance of Van Halen indulgence - "beating it" if you will - that I ever want to hear.

  2. Carl, Carl, Carl. Don't take on so. There is a whole world of really, really fast guitar playing beyond 'Beat It' out there for you to discover. You just have to relax, cast aside your fears and inhibitions and dive into the warm hot tub of Messrs Van Halen, Vai and Satriani. You'll love it: this could be the beginning of a beautiful thing...

  3. What a post!

    I'm a fan of Mr Van Halen's guitar playing - he has a knack of being impressive but not overstated. You never look at the watch going, when will this overrated solo end. He may not have invented taping, fast playing but there is a definate pre and post van halen guitar style. The only criticism of his playing is that the solos are a bit too random, an abstract construction over a song and rarely incorporating themes from the song into the solo

    Check out van halen I II, fair warning and 1984 - The rest I could leave as the song writing is ok but not amazing - Diamond Dave's lyrics aren't the deepest!

    Mr Vai and satriani are also rather good at holding back and being tasteful. I'm currently enjoying some eric johnson!


  4. The article was so good, I've been thinking about
    all day so far.

    The bedroom V band player is a common themes esp with nice cheap effects units - You sound like an axe god in the your bedroom but disappear when playing with drummers/real musicians ;)

    In modern music, the perceived demands for playing all gigs/songs the same has reduced the levels of risk which people take - Who would pay £30+ for a gig where the quality might be amazing/One off or not quite so good ...

  5. Cheers, Andy! But, actually, if I'm honest, the risk is exactly why I go to gigs. I hate seeing a band playing safe; I'd much rather see a band or a player go for something and fall flat on their face, whatever the genre or setting.

    Also, I think the randomness is what I like about Mr V H's playing although I do take your point. EVH is a true virtuoso though - he's an amazing piano player and drummer. Not just a multi-instrumentalist but a master of many instruments and there are not many of those around! Stevie Wonder, Prince, those kind of guys. He may not be 'cool' or fit into some kind of post-Indie ideology of what music should be like, but I couldn't give a toss - he's a genuine, committed and truly gifted musician.

    1984 is the record for me! I had that on vinyl as a kid and the shop had put a sticker over the packet of cigarettes the cherub is smoking on the front. Rock and roll. I'm especially fond of Hot For Teacher - Dave Lee Roth at his most profound and poetic...

  6. Having done a little more research on this solo after the fact (what kind of an idiot does the research before he writes a post?), I've discovered that it may be more pieced together than I previously believed. Steve Lukather, a session guitarist most famous for his work with Toto, played all the rhythm guitar and bass parts on Beat It, and he says that the original solo was played over a different part of the song. Quincy Jones wanted to move it, so they had to cut and splice and reorganise the solo to fit the chorus chord progression. This means that more kudos should be directed at Mr Jones for the experimental nature of the recording, which makes sense. Jones' horn arrangements and general approach to production is famous for its complexity and transcendence of pop music's mass production conventions. For evidence of this, go and listen to Don't Stop Til You Get Enough and concentrate only on the horn section and you'll see exactly what I mean!

    The mark of a truly original producer though is that they select and use the right musicians for the job. Quincy exceeded himself by choosing EVH for this job.


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