The 50 best Van Halen songs - the ultimate American party soundtrack

25. Women In Love

Along with the same album’s Spanish Fly, the unaccompanied guitar intro to Women In Love is a rare early documentation of Eddie Van Halen’s stunning technique stripped of amp distortion. The 30 seconds of clean-toned, tap-harmonic-infused lines display yet another tool in the guitarist’s seemingly bottomless arsenal, while the song’s lyrics detail a rare instance in which David Lee Roth actually loses the girl.

24. Little Dreamer

This live staple of the group’s early days shows the polish and comfort of a road-tested tune. David Lee Roth gets the chance to prove he can do more than just wail, squeal and leap around as the band’s hyperactive frontman – on this track, he shows he can actually sing. And sing well. Eddie offers some attention-grabbing rapid-fire pyrotechnics in the solo, but he clearly steps back and helps create a mid-tempo, brooding groove so Diamond Dave can have the spotlight.

23. Jump

Eddie previously played synthesiser on songs like One Foot Out The Door and Dancing In The Street, but here he plays his Oberheim OB-Xa like a true keyboard instrument instead of a surrogate guitar. “Certain people didn’t want me playing keyboards because they thought I should only be a guitar hero,” he recalled. “But hey, I’ll play a Bavarian cheese whistle, if I can play it well – whatever that is.” Eddie called his guitar solo – spliced from two separate takes – his favourite solo he never wrote.

22. Spanish Fly

Eruption turned the rock guitar world on its head. So what did Eddie Van Halen do for an encore? He unleashed another acrobatic, tap-infused shredfest – on acoustic guitar. A jaw-dropping performance, Spanish Fly had modest origins. Eddie was “fooling around” on an acoustic when producer Ted Templeman “walked in and said ‘You can play acoustic?’ I looked at him like, What’s the difference? It’s got six strings! I ended up coming up with Spanish Fly.”

21. Somebody Get Me A Doctor

Although it didn’t appear on record until Van Halen II, Somebody Get Me A Doctor dates back to the band’s club days and appears on the demo (with the intro chords reversed) that they recorded with Gene Simmons in 1976. In addition to a riff that’s as funky as anything in the Van Halen catalogue, Eddie offers up a solo that is positively blazing. Just how blazing? At its conclusion you can actually hear him get a round of applause from the band.

20. Dirty Movies

David Lee Roth spins a seedy tale of a prom-queen-turned-porn-queen, and Eddie matches him with a suitably lewd-sounding guitar melody – only his second slide guitar performance (after Could This Be Magic?) on a Van Halen record. Eddie cut the song on a modifi ed Gibson SG, which underwent further alteration during the recording sessions. When the guitar’s bottom horn impeded his ability to reach the uppermost frets with his slide, he recalled, “I took a hacksaw right there in the studio and sawed it off.”

19. Jamie's Cryin'

One of the few songs on the first album that was written in the studio, this pop-friendly track also features one of the album’s few overdubbed solos. The juicy midrange rhythm tone came from a korina Ibanez Destroyer, which Eddie said “was a great-sounding guitar – until I took a chunk out of it to make it look different. On the cover of Women And Children First, it’s missing a piece. Boy, did I screw it up.”

18. Little Guitars

The title refers to the miniature Les Paul replica built by Nashville luthier David Petschulat that Eddie used to record this song, which gave the guitar parts a distinctive, bright tone. Even cooler is the way Ed plucks chordal figures on several strings simultaneously to create a choppy effect similar to what Pete Townshend played on Won’t Get Fooled Again, but Eddie used only his fingers instead of an organ processed through a synthesiser. American critic Chuck Klosterman recently called its intro “Eruption without electricity”

17. Push Comes To Shove

Although Eddie said that Push Comes To Shove “was Roth’s idea of trying to cash in on the reggae thing,” it’s really more of a slow, grinding funk song, thanks to Michael Anthony’s disco bass line, Alex’s steady drumming and Eddie’s chorus-processed rhythms that slink instead of skank. The guitar solo, however, veers into jazz-fusion territory as Eddie unleashes smooth legato lines reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth and palm-muted melodic runs à la Al Di Meola.

16. Atomic Punk

Eddie often credited Black Sabbath as an early musical influence, and you can really hear that inspiration during this song’s verses when he plays rapidfire staccato eighth notes that evoke Paranoid. But Tony Iommi never played anything as brutally boisterous as EVH’s intro, where he summoned a wash of dissonant white noise by rubbing the strings with his palm and processing the signal with an MXR Phase 90, creating what sounds like a helicopter with chainsaws for rotor blades.

15. D.O.A.

By combining Eddie Cochran teenage blues, Tom Waits gutter grit and one-chord punk-rock raunch, Van Halen created a poetic anthem of untamed youth that’s the aural equivalent of a 50s juvenile-delinquent exploitation film. Eddie’s acrobatic solo ascends, dives and spins out of control like a stunt pilot and ends with him wiggling an obnoxious mocking melody with his whammy bar, like a stiff middle finger waved under a police officer’s nose.

14. Take Your Whiskey Home

This throbbing, mid-tempo song is distinctive in the DLR-era Van Halen catalogue for how positively restrained the band sounds. Roth sticks mainly to his lower register, floating somewhere between singing and speaking the lyrics, while Eddie weaves a snakelike single-note riff around the rhythm section’s incessant and steady thud. But this is Van Halen, of course, so there are still a few fi reworks: a nimble and bluesy acoustic-guitar-and-vocal intro, and two quick but deadly EVH solo spots.

13. Ice Cream Man

In his pre-Van Halen days, David Lee Roth used to perform this horny mid-century blues – originally by John Brim – in solo acoustic form. It became a Van Halen staple early on, before being recorded for posterity on the band’s 1978 debut. And while Dave’s vocals and acoustic guitar (tuned to open E) are a highlight of the studio version, Eddie made sure to firebomb the proceedings with one of his most electrifying solos on record.

12. Everybody Wants Some

Van Halen at their most primal. Alex pounds out a tribal beat, DLR whoops and wails, and Eddie rubs out animalistic noises on his guitar strings before raining down massive chord chunks. And while the largely ad-libbed lyrics are mostly nonsensical (‘I took a mobile light, lookin’ for a moonbeam’), the chorus is as direct and forceful as it gets. As Eddie said of the song’s massive sound, “I just turn it up. Everything is on 10.”

11. Light Up The Sky

Both Eddie and Alex proclaimed this their favourite Van Halen II track in 1979 due to what Eddie called its “progressive” feel. “The changes are a little more bent than the commercial stuff.” True enough: the intro joust between guitar and bass heralds wide dynamic shifts between quiet passages, balls-out rock riffage and a drum breakdown, capped by a solo full of tremolo picking and precise whammy waggles. There’s a lot of drama in these three minutes.

10. And The Cradle Will Rock

The hard-rocking Cradle was actually Eddie’s first foray into using keyboards on a Van Halen song. He performed the rhythm part on a Wurlitzer electric piano cranked through his 100-watt Marshall amp. The resulting sound was oddly guitar-like and contributed to the song’s haunting vibe. Still, Eddie received blowback from some of his bandmates. “They didn’t want a ‘guitar hero’ playing keyboards,” he recalled. “And that kind of ties in with why they didn’t want Jump.”

9. You Really Got Me

Van Halen’s cover of The Kinks’ You Really Got Me premiered on LA radio station KMET months before their debut album. Allegedly, it was rush released because Eddie let Barry Brandt of Angel hear the track, which inspired Angel to record their own version. “It bummed me out that our first single was somebody else’s tune,” Ed said. Even so, Van Halen made the song their own with three-part harmony vocals, Eddie’s raucous guitar tone, and the first taste of his revolutionary tapping technique. No wonder Angel’s version never materialised.

8. Eruption

The song that flummoxed, inspired and intimidated a generation of wannabe guitar players. Its first few seconds are practically a direct lift from the intro to Let Me Swim by 70s boogie rockers Cactus, but what follows is arguably the most inventive, groundbreaking and utterly mind-blowing rock guitar demonstration of the past four-plus decades. 

Eddie’s instrumental tour de force explodes with lightning-fast runs, screaming pinch harmonics, insane dive bombs, nods to 18th century violin etudes and furious tremolo picking, among other techniques. And if the song doesn’t necessarily represent the first time a guitar player ever tapped, it is at least the first time people heard a guitarist tap for a good half minute. 

To this day, it’s the yardstick by which all shredfests are measured, but that doesn’t mean EVH was wholly impressed. “There’s a mistake at the top end of it,” he told Guitar World. “Whenever I hear it, I always think ‘Man, I could have played that better.”

7. Panama

Panama is Van Halen being quintessentially Van Halen. Roth is all brash swagger, with the hottest ride on the block. And, hey – he may have just stolen your girl, too! Musically, Eddie’s riffing, paired with the propulsive rhythm, is the aural equivalent of burnin’ down the avenue full blast with the top down. And that whooshing sound heard during Dave’s midsong soliloquy? That would be the engine of Eddie’s Lamborghini, with microphones on the exhaust pipes.

6. Mean Street

Originally recorded as a demo called Voodoo Queen, Mean Street was reworked with darker lyrics, a dramatic chorus and a bridge lifted from early versions of She’s The Woman, the song that surfaced on A Different Kind Of Truth and that the group unveiled during their performance at New York City’s Cafe Wha? in early 2012. Eddie’s outrageous intro was inspired by funk slap bass. “I tapped on the 12th fret of the low E and the 12th fret of the high E and muffl ed both with my left hand down by the nut,” he said.

5. Runnin' With The Devil

On the two occasions that Van Halen recorded this song as a demo – first with Gene Simmons producing in 1976 and again in 1977 with Ted Templeman and Mo Ostin as producer – it came directly after House Of Pain. The intro’s unique dissonant, descending sound effect, created using a collection of car horns and tape manipulation, was actually the ending of House Of Pain, and the car horns appeared briefly throughout that song. 

While the effect was somewhat distracting between songs, Templeman realised it would make a brilliant attention-getting intro, so he decided to sequence Runnin’ With The Devil as the first song on Van Halen’s debut album. With its basic chord progression and melodic guitar ‘solos’, Runnin’ With The Devil is one of the simplest songs Van Halen ever recorded, but like Smoke On The Water and Iron Man, a big part of its power comes from that simplicity. Yet, to paraphrase Roth’s lyrics, the simple things weren’t so simple. 

Little embellishments – like the harmonised vocals on the chorus, the rhythm section’s deep groove that swings as much as it stomps, and even the way Eddie rakes the strings between the bridge and stop tailpiece on his Ibanez Destroyer on the intro – make Van Halen’s recording nearly inimitable. Perhaps the most striking feature of this song is Van Halen’s raw, violent and hungry attitude. It’s the kind of thing that only exists during that magical make-or-break moment when a band announces its presence to the world at large.

4. Beautiful Girls

Back in the 70s and 80s, most aspiring bands enjoyed the rite of passage of playing at strip clubs and wet T-shirt contests. This privilege has now passed on to the club DJ, but while it lasted it was one of the best gigs an up-and-coming musician could hope to get (especially if you managed to get lucky after the show). 

“It was one of the reasons why we played,” Alex explained. “It’s just life. It’s seeing everything, enjoying it, and taking it a little bit further than it should. You had to do the wet T-shirt contest during the fourth set. You had to get the girls lubed up, and then they would get looser and start to hike their skirts up.” 

While Van Halen had plenty of songs that could fill the bill, they went one better by writing their own ode to ogling called Bring On The Girls with a bump-and-grind riff, raunchy rhythm and lascivious lyrics guaranteed to get things going. Due to record label pressure, the band toned down the lyrics slightly from the 1977 demo version and renamed the song Beautiful Girls when they recorded it for Van Halen II

3. Unchained

Unchained is not just a welcome major-key party anthem in the middle of the moody Fair Warning – it’s the Van Halen song that sold a million guitar fl anger effects pedals. By carefully setting the fl anger speed to sweep up in pitch on one half of the main riff and down on the next, Eddie created a risingand-falling rollercoaster vibe that gave the fans a chance to throw their hands in the air and go along for the wild ride. A short, surprisingly restrained solo begins with some fl ash but quickly swings straight into melodic territory, bringing the break to a crisp crescendo. 

The song makes a perfect showcase for Roth’s swagger, Michael Anthony’s harmonies, Alex’s percussive thunder, and, per Eddie’s choice on this album, plenty of guitar overdubs. And hearing Eddie play several guitar parts at once is just more of a good thing. Whether the ad-libbed conversation between Dave and the apparently sharp-dressed producer Ted Templeman was really a spontaneous creation or a rehearsed bit is still up for discussion, but it hardly matters – it’s proof that the band’s playful personality was still in evidence, despite a widening rift between producer and artist. 

“I felt at the time that [Templeman] didn’t understand me anymore,” Eddie said. “I’d get so frustrated at not being able to do what I wanted. I ended up doing 90 percent of the guitar tracking at four o’clock in the morning with our engineer, Donn Landee.” They say adversity inspires greatness, and with Unchained, the ire clearly fuelled the fire.

2. Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love

Much as Slash has gone on record saying that his legendary guitar intro to Sweet Child O’ Mine was written as a joke, Eddie Van Halen downplayed Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love as “just a stupid thing. Just two chords”. But to paraphrase Spinal Tap, there’s a fine line between stupid and clever. And this classic track from Van Halen’s 1978 debut (as well as Slash’s work on Sweet Child, for that matter) falls firmly into the latter category. 

Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love was one of the last songs written for Van Halen, and Eddie originally conceived the straightforward, two-chord basher as a knock on the then-burgeoning punk movement. But apparently “punk rock” as played by Eddie Van Halen includes an opening riff built on heavily palm-muted, arpeggiated chords, a third-verse breakdown fi lled with chiming harmonics, and a hooky, almost vocal-like guitar solo that, on the album version, Eddie doubled with an electric sitar. Of playing the sitar, he recalled, “It sounded like a buzzy-fretted guitar. The thing was real bizarre.” 

In the end, perhaps the joke was on Ed, as Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love has gone on to become one of Van Halen’s most iconic tunes. In addition to being a classic-rock radio staple, it was played on almost every tour the band did with Roth. And in perhaps an even greater testament to its popularity, it was one of the few DLR-era songs that remained in live sets during the Sammy Hagar years.

1. Hot For Teacher

A quintessential classic Van Halen song must have several crucial elements: thundering drums, rumbling bass that is felt more than heard, an outrageously cocky vocal performance, a killer guitar riff, and an acrobatic guitar solo with more thrills and spills than Evel Knievel jumping 25 explosive-filled cars with a dirt bike and a fifth of Jack Daniel’s. 

Hot For Teacher delivers all of these elements and then some, making it the definitive Van Halen song. The song begins with a bang, with Alex Van Halen pummelling a rapid-fire intro that sounds more like a dragster warming up for a race than a drum kit. Eddie kicks the dynamics up a notch, furiously tapping his Flying V’s fretboard before blasting off into power-chord overdrive. The song’s real appeal, however, lies in its infectious nitro-fuelled boogie-blues shuffle, which sounds like ZZ Top juiced on meth and Viagra. 

“That song was beyond any boogie I ever heard,” Eddie recalled, “it was pretty powerful.” DLR walks a tightrope between macho metal posturing and tongue-in-cheek humour, making a possibly obscene scenario seem absurd. Eddie’s solo is pure excitement, distinguished by dazzling ascending runs and a loose, flowing feel that makes even his most challenging passages sound effortless and unforced. The boisterous climax, lifted from the band’s 1977 demo of Voodoo Queen, is an aural orgasm that probably left most first-time listeners shouting “Oh my god!” in weak-kneed unison with Roth.

Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.

With contributions from