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.

Van Halen and 1978

1978 was a good year for me. I graduated from the 8th grade, and started high school. On the third Monday of September, 1978 (the 18th), I walked into 6th period guitar class after dropping an English class because the teacher sucked and I felt my time was better spent ditching school. The class was my councilor’s way of keeping in school the entire day. 1978 was a good year because I had discovered rock music in a big way, and was growing a record collection along with my brother. We were buying the classics, and we were catching up with the current top bands like Led Zeppelin, KISS, Ted Nugent, ACDC, Cheap Trick, and others.

van halen 1

In February of 1978 my brother bought Van Halen’s self-titled debut album in Modesto a few days after its release. This was a southern California band that we’d been reading about in B.A.M. Magazine (Bay Area Music, a free newsprint tabloid found in racks by record store checkout counters everywhere back then) in the back columns that covered the far end of the state. The buzz surrounding the band was significant. So the first thing we did when we got home was put the record onto the turntable and drop the needle.

Running with the Devil announced itself with car horns morphing into a landing alien space ship sound, followed by a thumping bass, and then a powerful guitar. Not just powerful, but the sound was fat, and rich. Good rock song, the solo is cool, but nothing to get excited about.

The next track was Eruption.

Holy fucking shit.

The track is 102 seconds long, nothing but Eddie Van Halen playing the crap out of his guitar. My brother had to listen to it three times before letting the needle advance to the third track. I can say two things: I was born in a world before man had walked on the moon, and I was born in a world before Edward Van Halen knocked rock guitar on its ass.

You Really Got Me was the third track, and the band does more than just cover the Kinks’ classic, they almost reinvent it by putting their stamp on the music. They even managed to leave a verse from the original song out and nobody noticed. That would become Van Halen’s signature: Where does a 500-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere it wants to.

Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love is where the legend of Van Halen started for me. That fat, perfect, heavy sounding guitar opens the song with a staccato arpeggio that wants to take your head off and slam-dunk it. The song itself was written as a parody of punk rockers that shared the L.A. music scene at the time, and it’s only two chords, but God damn it they get more mileage out of those two chords than some bands could with their entire albums. The song has a belligerent attitude. The song does not feature a great guitar solo, but it fits the song (and that’s important).

On the 5th track that guitar solo problem is resolved. I’m the One is wall-to-wall blistering guitar over a swinging shuffle rhythm. This is where Eddie stood out. When handed a standard I-IV-V-I blues progression he takes the format to another dimension and puts frosting on it, frosting with sprinkles. Even when he drops into a blues-style it’s nothing we’ve heard before. The song’s highlight is the acapella break after the guitar solo. Van Halen was a package deal that featured incredible backing harmonies from bass player, Michael Anthony, and Eddie Van Halen behind lead singer, David Lee Roth.

We listened to that first side of Van Halen a second time before flipping the disk over to the second side.

Jamie’s Cryin’ kicks off Side Two. It’s a conventional song written while they were on the studio, and it was clearly for the radio.

The real action follows on track #7 with Atomic Punk. The song is aggressive and excessive and fast, and it’s the kind of song that would take your lunch money. This song is drawn from a well that continues to serve Van Halen to this day.

Feel Your Love is mostly a forgettable song. Sorry, it just is.

Little Dreamer is about as close as Van Halen got to a ballad with Roth as their singer. It works on a couple of levels. Roth’s lyrics paint a dark picture of a doomed woman, but unlike the thousands of other songs written by L.A. bands on this very topic, it is not specific to Hollywood. In fact, in none of the tracks does Roth mention L.A., Hollywood, or Southern California at all, and that is something song writers can learn from today.

Roth’s acoustic guitar playing opens Ice Cream Man on the next track. The album’s second cover song, this one was written by John Brim, a Chicago Bluesman, in 1953 (originally recorded at Chess Records). The anticipation while waiting for the rest of the band to kick in is rewarded. Again we see Eddie handed a blues song only to morph it into something new.

The final track is On Fire, and made of the same driving force that Atomic Punk and Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love are forged from.

Van Halen was recorded in three weeks for around $40,000 and as of this time has sold 10 million copies.

Here’s the thing, I liked the album but I didn’t love it. Not at first anyway. After I began to play the guitar I started to listen to it more, but as a novice I couldn’t relate to anything Eddie Van Halen was doing. Which leads me to the rest of the story…

I learned to play guitar in about an hour. I’m saying I was awesome, but I could strum a tune, and then remember it and play it again. I bought music books for my favorite albums and learned to play all of my favorite songs at the basic level. I couldn’t wait to get to guitar class, which consisted of twenty other kids scattered around the large rehearsal room for the Carmel High School band. The room was big enough that we could all spread out and not bug each other, and we either played alone, or clustered in groups.

Then there were the seniors.

Six or seven 12th graders would bring their electric guitars to school and jam in the back practice rooms of the buildings. Freshmen weren’t allowed. These guys played Aerosmith, Lynard Skynard, and Zeppelin. We all envied them. The seniors didn’t waste their time talking to underclassmen, and sure as hell never took the time to show us how to play something cool on the guitar.

On Saturday, December 2, Black Sabbath headlined the Oakland Coliseum, and all of the seniors drove up to see the show because Sabbath was cool, and nobody wanted to miss the show.

Van Halen was the opening act.

That Monday, December 4, the seniors weren’t playing their guitars. A boom-box (what your grandparents called a portable cassette player that was the size of a refrigerator) was brought into the room, and Van Halen was placed in the carriage, and Eruption was played over, and over, and over, and over. Even the teacher came out to listen to the track. You know the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the apes wake up and find the obelisk? It was exactly like that. The seniors looked like someone had let the air out of their tires. I was already a Van Halen fan, and I was pleased to know that I was culturally ahead of these guys.

The problem was that with Van Halen blasting in the main room nobody else could practice without going outside or into the back, and I wanted to practice. I go into the front practice room because nobody ever used it except me, which was weird because it was huge and had a piano. This time, however, I’m joined by Christian Nesmith, who also was looking for a quiet place to play. The name might sound familiar and that’s because his father is Michael Nesmith, member of the Monkees, and pioneering video artist. Christian was one year ahead of me and a genuinely cool guy.

At the age of 15 he was already a gifted guitarist who played a Seville Les Paul copy. Christian could play anything and did. Unlike the seniors, he was happy to show me, or anyone who asked something cool on the guitar. This was a classy move on his part that I emulated as I got better on the instrument.

So we’re sitting in the front practice room and he tells me he’d seen Van Halen a bunch of times already. He shows me the hammer-on/pull-off move that Eddie Van Halen is best known for doing.  Christian walked me through it step by step until I had it down. He tells me that most people did it wrong by using the side of their pick. Sure enough, later when we come out of the room the seniors are using their picks to hammer the neck.

That was about the most time I spent with Nesmith that semester, but it was one of the most important forty minutes of my life. I incorporated the hammer-ons into my playing as I developed, and by the time I was a good guitarist they were second nature. More importantly I learned it was important to share what I knew with people who wanted to learn. I have no idea how many people I’ve taken time out to pass along a little guitar wizardry, but it’s a lot.

None of that would have happened had Van Halen not opened the Sabbath show.

For full disclosure it was Van Halen’s Woman and Children Fist album that turned me into the massive Van Halen fan that I am today. By 1980 my playing had advanced to the point where I could grasp what Eddie was doing and I could appreciate his genius on a whole new level. 1978 was a turning point for rock music, rock guitar, and little old me.