How Van Halen's debut album changed everything, by the guitarists it changed

Van Halen in 1977
(Image credit: MediaPunch Inc / Alamy Stock Photo)

“The first time I heard Eddie Van Halen, I was absolutely floored,” says former Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick. “I was also petrified.”

When the debut album by Van Halen was released in early 1978, it was a bolt from the blue. For the older generation of guitarists, still in thrall to the likes of Hendrix, Clapton and Page, it was something entirely new. Eddie Van Halen’s playing a was a paradigm shift away from the blues rock template musicians had followed for a decade, and a step towards something altogether more futuristic. And for those musicians picking up the guitar for the first time, Van Halen was a dazzling, technicolour leap into the unknown, a different kind of template altogether.

Below, some of the world’s great guitarists reflect on the impact of Van Halen’s first album.

Jason Becker

“All through junior high school, when kids heard me play guitar, they asked if I could tap like Eddie. I didn’t know what they were talking about. One day my dad brought home a cassette tape that he had found in the gutter; it was this album. I was excited to hear what the hubbub was about. I instantly fell in love with everything about the music, especially the guitar. I started trying to learn Eruption, like most of us guitar nerds did.

“As time went by, I learned that everything about this band was incredibly special; the tunes, the groove, the feel, the vocals, the effortless swing, the tone, I could go on and on. This album made me grow as a musician as well as a player. It got me started on my journey to playing with Cacophony and then David Lee Roth. Little did I know at the time that I would be a small part of that bands’ story. What a trip.”

DJ Ashba (Guns N’ Roses, Sixx A.M.)

“I just love it - Eddie is one of my biggest influences ever. He changed the way guitar was played, and he became a huge influence on me. He’s one of the #1 reasons why I picked up a guitar. It just blew my mind, the way he approached the guitar. It was just incredible. So that would definitely be way up on my list, for sure.”

Alex Skolnick (Testament)

“When I heard the sound of Eddie’s guitar, just the pure sound he made, it was magical. I never knew a guitar could sound like that. It just kind of reached out and grabbed me like nothing else had before.

“I’d already been playing guitar for a few years, but hearing the first Van Halen record made me want to be a lead guitarist. Before then, I sort of hoped to be a singer-type guitar player. Now I could suddenly imagine myself on a stage playing lead guitar and doing just that. This is the album that did it for me. It wasn’t just for the sake of being a virtuoso, though, because everything Eddie did was so musical.”

Nuno Bettencourt (Extreme)

“For me what I always loved in a record was a mix of the guitar work but also great work from the whole band. But, I think from a guitar sound perspective Van Halen affected me a bunch of times. Van Halen’s first album was big for me. That showed me the kinds of sounds you could get out of an amp.

“It has great playing but also amazing tone. That album was a breakthrough for me and for a lot of people from my generation. That wasn’t the first guitar album that I loved but it was so important in terms of tone.

“The sound of that album was so alien to me that it might as well have been a spaceship flying over my house. Before that I loved Queen and Led Zep and you knew that was guitar. Then, all of a sudden I heard Van Halen and thought, ‘What is going on here?!’ It was a whole different world. The attack on that album is fantastic. The whole band was great as well, the songwriting was crazy.”

Paul Gilbert (Mr Big)

“This album is just unfair to everyone. Eddie’s innate musical genius ears, combined with the athletic prowess he got from eight-hours-a-day bedroom practicing, along with an indestructible rhythmic groove developed from jamming with his brother, results in a record of non-stop jaw-dropping awesomeness.

“Nobody knew what to do when this album came out. Imitation was fun but futile. The best thing to do was just go see the live show – to laugh, scream and join the party. And don’t forget David Lee Roth lines like, ‘Goddamn it, baby. I ain’t lyin’ to ya. I’m only gonna tell you one ti-ii-ime… AHHHHHHHH YAAAAAHHHH!’

“If we guitarists could just get our Variacs on the right setting, we could finally all get Eddie’s mythical tone. Pheeeeeshh, it ain’t the gear! I am starting to notice a pattern here, that many of the best rock musicians had fathers who played jazz clarinet. Wanna sound like Eddie? Better start digging Artie Shaw. ‘Bop na na shoobie doo-wah!’ Seriously, I’m way into the clarinet these days. Suddenly, all of those Woody Allen movie intros sound way more cookin’.”

Kiko Loureiro (Megadeth)

“When I began taking electric guitar lessons at the age of 13, the first thing my teacher got me to do was Black Dog from Led Zeppelin. But after that, he taught me what Eddie Van Halen was doing on this album. Now, that was in about 1985, so the album was several years old by then. But, it was all new to me. Of course, a lot of guitarists were already aware of the stuff on this album, but for me it was a revelation.

“I went out and bought a copy of the album, and I listened to it all the time, to soak in what was being [done] technically, and I could appreciate why Van Halen took the world by storm when it came out. Eddie Van Halen changed the way people thought about the guitar, and even now it still amazes me. Nobody needs to be told this was a crossroads for guitar playing.”

Bruce Kulick (Kiss, Grand Funk Railroad)

“Like a super-charged Camaro that screams by you on the road, here’s a musician that took lead guitar to another level. You can hear the influences of the British players I love so much, but it’s all done with power and grace, with flash and fireworks off his hand built stripped guitars.

“EVH is a brand, an icon of modern lead guitar with attitude and tone with a super command of his instrument. His riffs on the debut release turned the rock world on in new directions that made my head spin. There were new licks on the horizon that I needed to understand and learn from this great American guitarist.”

Satchel (Steel Panther)

“This changed everything – for me and for everybody. What amazes me still is the economy of the sound and the minimalism of the arrangements. As incredible as Eddie’s playing is, he doesn’t pile on all kinds of needless stuff. It all sounds like one guitar performance throughout. Nothing is doubled or tripled. If you listen to this record on headphones, there’s one guitar and it’s only on one side, and it still sounds massive.

“There’s such a natural quality to it all. Like the Machine Head album, it sounds like Eddie is just winging it, playing whatever comes to him. But you know that’s not the case – the band played these songs live all over L.A. clubs, so they obviously had this stuff down cold. The whole thing is pretty magical.”

Reb Beach (Winger, Whitesnake)

“Nobody had ever heard something like this. It was completely groundbreaking. I was at a school for creative kids in Vermont, and one of the kids there had the Van Halen record. I checked it out, and I stole it from him – it’s one of the only things I ever stole. I feel bad now, but there was no way I was gonna give this back. Forget it.

“I listened to it every day and thought it was amazing, but I wasn’t really influenced by it – not really, I don’t think. I got the idea of tapping from Eddie, but I couldn’t do it like him. I tried learning Eruption, but I just couldn’t do it justice.

“Still, it was exciting and it felt very vital. The band was a three-piece, with the greatest solos you ever heard. It seemed as if the needle was going to jump off the record because the music was so alive and forceful. Fantastic songs, an incredible singer and guitar playing that knocked you on the floor. What more could you want?”

John 5 (Motley Crue)

“It’s one of the most important albums in the world of guitar. Very few things changed the landscape of guitar playing like the first Van Halen album. I remember my guitar teacher brought it over, and it absolutely shocked me. The sound, the spirit and, of course, Eddie’s complete mastery of the instrument – it blew my mind.

“Before this, I’d listened to Hendrix and Kiss, and I was getting into some country guys. I was taking guitar lessons, but it was just something I kind of did. All of that changed when I heard the Van Halen album. From that moment on, I was completely inspired. I said, ‘I’m going to learn this whole record, and I’m going to dedicate my life to playing the guitar.’

“I played it all the time, and in time I did learn the songs. Whether or not I mastered it, who can say? No one can play quite like Eddie. No one. But I had a great time doing the songs in cover bands. I loved it completely. It’s not that often that somebody comes along and expands the language of the guitar in such a profound manner, and that’s what Eddie did here.”

Scott Holiday (Rival Sons)

“I first heard this record when I was eight or so. My aunt was playing a cassette of it at a party, and so what I do? I stole it! I just took it right out of the tape player. I didn’t have the cover, so I made my own artwork and stuck it inside an empty case. I think I drew a picture of a hot guitar or something.

“Let me tell you, I wore that tape out. When it comes to guitar albums, it eclipsed everything else completely. I wasn’t playing guitar yet – I was sort of dreaming about it – so I didn’t know the difficulty factor in what I was hearing. If I’d been playing already, maybe I would have thought, ‘My God, how can somebody do this?’ To me, it just sounded like so much fun. I was like, ‘All right, I’m going for this. This sounds cool.’

“There’s total joy that comes out of Eddie’s playing. I mean, listen to Eruption – even if you don’t like shredding, you can still hear that this guy is having a blast. A jazz guy can hear it; a soul guy can hear it. It’s inarguably one of the most important guitar pieces ever recorded.”

Doug Scarratt (Saxon)

“Oh. My. God. When this came out, nobody – and I mean nobody - had ever done what Eddie Van Halen did here! At the time I heard the album, I was into jazzy stuff, but what he did was mind-boggling. It was a new style of guitar playing.

“I was teaching myself at the time, and learning as I went along. I spent ages trying to emulate what the man did on a track like Eruption. But I might as well have been attempting to learn Chinese! It was so out of my league. Eddie Van Halen transformed the whole concept of the guitar on this album. When you watch him playing live from those days, his style is… well, it’s absurd!”

Myles Kennedy (Alter Bridge, Slash)

“That first Van Halen album was the one that got me wanting to play guitar. They were a huge deal in the States at the time. I heard Eruption and I was, like, ‘Oh, what’s that? I need to learn how to do it.’ I still don’t know how to play it, not well.”

Damon Johnson (Thin Lizzy, Black Star Riders)

“Any of us that play electric guitar, young or old… if Scott Gorham was here he would have to tip his that to Van Halen, and I’ve got youngsters that come to our shows and we talk about guitars and they say the same thing. There was almost a punk energy in Eddie’s playing. There was this total recklessness in the way he played. Someone said it eloquently in a guitar magazine years ago; they said “Eddie plays like someone who’s falling down the stairs, and he always lands on his feet.”

When he launches into a solo you go ‘How does he think like that?!’ It’s like he just grabs the neck and tries to choke this expression out of it. And the tone, the whole brown sound thing, there’s nothing like it. As I think some other players I’m friends with, like Doug Aldrich or Richie Faulkner from Judas Priest, would say… we’re all still trying to get that sound. It’s a cascading sound, and Eddie wrote the book on that. There were virtuosos before him but they seemed to come more from jazz or fusion or places like that.

I saw Van Halen seven or eight times when I was a kid. The first time was 1980, when I was about to turn 16, and I saw them play Birmingham, Alabama. I met some of my friends in Birmingham, I had moved to a different town, but I had this group of friends and we were all music junkies together. So we all arranged to go and our parents dropped us off. And it was life-altering. Eddie gets so much attention for his lead-playing obviously, but he’s equally the best with his rhythm playing. It really helped guys like me look at the fretboard differently.”

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