From the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Chris Buono
In a career spanning more than four decades, Eddie Van Halen made an indelible mark on the guitar world. Van Halen, who succumbed to cancer in October 2020 at age 65, was the quintessential guitar hero, not to mention a skilled songwriter, arranger, engineer, and producer. He gave us music that was loved all over the world and which will continue to inspire rock musicians and listeners alike for generations to come.
With his striped “Frankenstein” guitars and his elusive “brown sound,” Van Halen is celebrated as a purveyor of all things electric guitar. But the truth is he was a nimble and inspired multi-instrumentalist. As early as his namesake band’s third album, Women and Children First (1980), Van Halen was recording parts with assorted keyboards. In fact, it was the mega-hit “Jump” from 1984, built around a riff played on an Oberheim OB-Xa synthesizer, that solidified Van Halen as a household name.
Van Halen also applied his virtuosity, inventiveness, and rhythmic swagger to the acoustic guitar throughout his recorded output. In this lesson we’ll look at selections spanning nearly the entire Van Halen catalog, ranging from 1979’s Van Halen II through the group’s 1995 release, Balance. From the deep swing in “Take Your Whiskey Home” to scorching solo pieces like the flamenco-influenced “Little Guitars (Intro)” to the touching tribute to his son Wolfgang, “316,” you’ll find unplugged Van Halen has plenty of gold to uncover, too.
Throughout the gaggle of songs Van Halen composed for his band, there’s a hefty dose of bright progressions consisting of major and sus4 chords. One application that never failed Van Halen was playing triads on three adjacent strings. That approach translates well on acoustic, as evidenced throughout “Take Me Back (Deja Vu),” from Balance. Check out Example 1 (below), patterned after the song’s intro, in which a I–V–bVII–IV (D–A–C–G) progression in D major unfolds on the top three strings against the ringing open D. Make an effort to avoid playing the fifth and sixth strings as you use a 16th-note strumming motion. At the same time, apply a medium attack with only a slight accent on the chords that fall on the downbeat of one and the upbeat of two.
Bolstering these triads with five- and six-note voicings, more open strings, and strategically placed palm-muted root notes on the backbeat, Example 2 illustrates the concepts behind the intro to the pop hit “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” also from Balance. With open strings surrounding the fretted notes, it’s important to arch your fretting fingers such that the notes ring uninterrupted. Also, be mindful of the rests on the upbeat of beat one and the palm mutes on beat two of each bar.
A triadic approach also plays a big role on a solo acoustic piece from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991) called “316,” the title of which commemorates the birthdate of Van Halen’s son Wolfgang. As seen in Example 3, the piece is played in the key of A major and resides in 6/8 time. Van Halen does it fingerstyle; I suggest assigning your thumb to strings 6 and 5, index to string 4, middle to string 3, and ring to string 2. Be sure to let the arpeggios ring throughout and dig the bluesy bend in the final bar—the sort of choice embellishment Van Halen would use off-the-cuff in front of screaming fans in packed stadiums.
There are many exciting facets to Van Halen’s playing: techniques such as tapping, tremolo picking, harmonics, divebombs, and pick scrapes. Something often overlooked is his greatest attribute—his killer swing feel, on overdrive on “Take Your Whiskey Home,” from Women and Children First (1980). Example 4 exemplifies this rhythmic approach as it flows in a 16th-note swing referred to in the rock-guitar vernacular as “swunk.” A palm-muted root note at each bar’s downbeat establishes a dynamic starting point, and assorted dyads and triads provide a dynamic contrast. Use a harder pick attack, and release your fretting pressure soon after each strum, for added tightness.
Tapping Into It
For better or worse, Van Halen’s signature technique was two-handed tapping. Along with his fretting fingers, he used a pick-hand finger to hammer-on and pull-off notes on the fretboard. Both hands combined to play blistering legato sequences and runs, many of which were arpeggio-based and otherwise impossible to play. He also developed a variation on tapping that produced brilliant-sounding harmonics: By lightly tapping on strings dead center to the frets, he produced bright overtones. Always the showman, he didn’t hesitate to apply his inventive electric guitar techniques to his acoustic playing.
Following the trailblazing “Eruption” (Van Halen, 1978)—an unaccompanied electric guitar solo with a game-changing tapping cadenza—Van Halen applied the same approach on Van Halen II (1979) with “Spanish Fly,” but on a nylon-string acoustic. Example 5 is inspired by the intro, in which Van Halen put his harmonic tapping to good use. In bar 1, hold down an open-position Esus4 chord and lightly tap 12 frets above each open or fretted note—compare the required action and touch sensitivity to satisfyingly tapping the Return key after you finish typing a long message. Continue the same approach in bar 2, this time tapping the notes in an open Asus2 shape. Throughout the two bars, remember to make an effort to arch your fretting fingers so that all of the notes and harmonics ring as long as possible.
Patterned after the legato tapping in “Spanish Fly,” Example 6 sets your fretting hand in the fifth position. The tapping action takes place at the 12th and 14th frets, all while bringing to the fold another rhythmic signature, the use of quintuplets (five evenly spaced notes per beat). If you need a device to help you count the five subdivisions, just try saying or thinking “hip-po-pot-a-mus” on each beat.
Start the first beat of bar 1 by pre-fretting the seventh-fret D and fifth-fret C (both on string 3) with your third and first fingers, respectively. Then, using your pick hand’s index (or middle) finger, tap down on the 12th-fret G on that same string. The tapped note should feel like a hammer-on if you’re doing it correctly. Immediately after that, flick your tapping finger up towards the ceiling, pulling off to the D below. (You could alternatively push your tapping finger down in pulling off to the D, but you’d sound less like Van Halen.) You’ll then pull off to the C, followed by the open G string and then a hammer-on back to the D. Repeat the sequence for the rest of bar 1, and transfer it to the D string in bar 2.
Also, notice the last note of bars 1 and 2, where you have a “hammer-on from nowhere,” articulated by the fretting hand’s first finger on the lower adjacent string. This is essential to Van Halen’s economy of motion and overall fluidity.
“Little Guitars (Intro),” a solo piece from Diver Down (1982), is perhaps the most adventurous of Van Halen’s acoustic guitar episodes. While watching the flamenco pioneer Carlos Montoya one night on TV, Van Halen was inspired to compose a short instrumental. Not having studied the music formally, he didn’t have the requisite right-hand technique, so he came up with a workaround, using a thin pick to produce flamenco-like effects.
Example 7 takes its cue from the opening of “Little Guitars (Intro).” Each measure kicks off with a pronounced downward strum, followed by a simple arpeggiated pattern. All chords throughout incorporate open strings, most of the time surrounding nested fretted notes. The ornamental melody played with harmonics in bar 2 is signature Van Halen. Given the nylon strings, be sure to employ a light touch with your fretting hand, but a firm pick attack.
The last nine bars reveal how Van Halen simulated the traditional flamenco technique, in which the fingers tremolo-pick notes on the treble strings while the thumb sounds a melody below. Eschewing your picking fingers, use a flatpick to produce the tremolo effect on the open E, B, and G strings. I suggest taking a cue from Van Halen and holding the pick between your thumb and middle finger, while using your wrist, rather than your elbow, for the rapid back-and-forth motion of the tremolo picking.
Starting in bar 2, while maintaining the tremolo-picking on the open strings, play the melody on the low E string with your fretting hand. For the open notes, you’ll need to use your first finger to pick the string, and the fretted notes will be played with the “hammer-ons from nowhere” described in Ex 6. For this tricky melody, use whatever fingering combination feels comfortable for sounding the melody in a clean way.
It’s been said that it’s not about what guitar you play, but how you play it. For undeniable proof, just listen to Eddie Van Halen unplugged, whether on steel- or nylon-string guitar. Even without the dimed Marshall amps, the whammy bar, the pedals, the rack gear—any of it—Van Halen sounded like no one but himself.
Chris Buono is a guitarist and educator based in Toms River, NJ. He plays myriad styles on fretted and fretless guitars and has produced instructional content for TrueFire, Hal Leonard, and other music publishers.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Many of the teachers who contribute lessons to Acoustic Guitar also offer private or group instruction, in-person or virtually. Check out our Acoustic Guitar Teacher Directory to learn more!