Sh*t I Learned from Van Halen 1 That I Apply to Writing




40 years ago Van Halen, a band out of Pasadena, California, released their debut self-titled album, and in the process knocked the rock guitar world on its collective ass. My brother bought that album the week it came out because we’d been reading about the band’s exploits in BAM (Bay Area Music) Magazine for a while, and wanted to hear what all the shouting was about. The second track of the album was called “Eruption”, and was an unaccompanied guitar solo piece.

It melted our teenage brains.


Not just from the speed, but the technique, and the tone of the guitar. Even more impressive was the fact that Eddie Van Halen stuck this mind-boggling playing style into every song on the album. There had been instrumental guitar pieces before, but they had been belabored by their creators to standout from their regular fare. Eddie just did it in two takes with no over-dubs. In fact, the entire album was recorded “live” meaning the band played the tracks live in the studio, and there are few over-dubbed guitar tracks.

Not just the guitar blew us away, the song writing, and the vocal harmonies were something not found with such quality on hard rock albums.

I had been playing guitar for six months already, and Van Halen became my benchmark for measuring my own playing. Four years later I could perform everything on any Van Halen record. I worked hard, and I practiced endlessly to become a solid player.

I don’t play guitar much these days. My passion is now writing. When I made the commitment to become an author I decided to use my experience as a guitarist and apply those lessons to becoming a better writer. I’ve already written about that, so today I’m waxing philosophical on how I apply lessons from that first Van Halen album to my writing…

  1. Work with what you have, and don’t fret about the things you don’t have.

David Lee Roth is not a great singer. He is a stylist who works his way through a song instead of singing it. This meant that Van Halen wasn’t going to record lofty ballads, but it didn’t restrict them in any way. In 1986, Van Halen replaced Roth with Sammy Hagar who is a fantastic singer, and this allowed Van Halen to stretch out its song-writing structure…but it wasn’t the same as what they did with Roth. His limited vocal ability forced Eddie to innovate his song structure to accommodate the restrictions, and the result is a dozen classic hard rock songs.

What they did have going for them was the backing vocal talents of bassist Michael Anthony, and guitarist Eddie Van Halen. Early on they made the wise move of working on their harmonies, and this work paid off on every song they recorded.

Writing application : I am not Faulkner, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write a good story. I don’t worry about my perceived limitations, I just write what I write the way I want to write.

  1. Practice, practice, practice.

On every track of that first album you hear a band that is tight. The hours of rehearsal and performance are obvious, and they play from intuition.

Writing application: I have writing drills. I’ll write five or six pages of nothing but opening paragraphs, or I’ll write descriptions of characters using other writer’s voices (how would Poe describe a woman at a bar compared to Raymond Chandler?). I’ve written car chases, make-out sessions, and foot chases. When I’m not drilling I’m writing 500 to 2,000 words a day no matter what.

  1. If you’re doing a cover-tune – OWN IT.

Van Halen’s third track is the Kinks’ classic “You Really Got Me”, but it don’t resembled the Kink’s version very much. Van Halen found another gear for which to play the song, and today “You Really Got Me” is a signature song for both Van Halen and the Kinks, and this is true without stepping on toes.

Writing application: If you are doing genre writing don’t worry about cliché, just do it well, and put your stamp on it. Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, and Stephen King all wrote novels about vampires, and they’re all different, and they’re all classics.

  1. Be concise.

In 1978 the average hard rock song was almost six minutes long. The songs on Van Halen all come in under four minutes. The band never overstayed its welcome.

Writing application: Don’t over-write. Are you writing to serve the story or your ego?

  1. Have some style.

Van Halen did things their way, and while sometimes it didn’t work it was always on their terms. But it mostly worked. On the radio you can spot Van Halen in five seconds from their overall sound. In photographs they also stood out thanks to David Lee Roth’s eye toward visual presentation. They didn’t dress like everyone else, and their stage set up featured what was then the next generation of lighting techniques.

Writing application: Be yourself. You like to swear? Knock yourself out and fill the page with f-bombs. You like sex? Dirty, dirty sex? Cool, make me sweat. Serial Killers are your jam? Kill away. Talking cats that solve mysteries? Hey, if that’s your thing then that’s what you write.

If you sit down to write a story based only on if it’s going to sell, or if it has a waiting market you should quit now. There was no market for sparkling vampires or S&M when “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” were written, and those authors would still be at their day jobs. And do you really think that in 1996 the big publishing houses were all looking for a children’s novel about a boy wizard who goes to wizard school?

I can go on and on, but that would violate #4.

Thanks for your time and rock and write on.