Eddie Van Halen at the Keyboards

The rock guitarist also contributed keyboards to some of Van Halen’s biggest hits.

by Marshall Bowden

The death of Eddie Van Halen this past week brought many tributes to his obvious talents as a rock guitarist, and ‘s a difficult loss for fans of the band. One thing I haven’t seen discussed nearly as much is EVH’s overall musical contribution to the band, which was really as its musical director, and his keyboard work, which was always pitted against the band’s hard rock identity by some fans and the original group lineup.

When the band’s first album came out I was sixteen years old and I couldn’t help but be interested because I was a big Kinks fan, and Van Halen’s first hit single was a remake of their song “You Really Got Me.” Then there was “Running With the Devil,” “Jamie’s Crying,” and “Eruption,” Eddie’s amazing guitar solo track, the most impressive I remember hearing on record since Terry Kath’s “Free Form Guitar” on the first Chicago Transit Authority (know as Chicago thereafter) album. I kind of lost interest after that, not being a hard rock fan, but the group continued to move forward.

Van Halen II was in the same mode as the debut album, and it was a big hit. On the third album, Women and Children First, Eddie made his first appearance with a keyboard, plugging a Wurlitzer electric piano into his Marshall amp on the album’s opening track “And the Cradle Will Rock…” It sounded a lot like Eddie’s electric guitar work, with which it was paired in the mix, so it didn’t create a lot of controversy until it was time to perform the song onstage:

“That was also the first time I played keyboards in the studio. A lot of people don’t know that because it doesn’t really sound like a keyboard. I had an old Wurlitzer electric piano and I pumped it through my Marshalls. I just pounded on the lower registers and put it through an MXR flanger to get that weird sound.

“Ted said, ‘Wow! What the hell is that?’ [laughs] ‘Oh, nothing, just me, screwing around.’ So we recorded it. That was my first encounter with the band not wanting me to play keyboards – when we did the song live, Mike played it. They didn’t want a guitar hero playing keyboards onstage.”   (Guitar World, interview, December 1996)

The next album, Fair Warning, was a tough album that ended up being the slowest moving, saleswise, of the David Lee Roth era. Honestly, this is a pretty good hard rock album with more seriousness than their previous records. Most important, the next to last track is a two-minute keyboard instrumental by Eddie entitled “Sunday Afternoon in the Park.” It’s a pretty cool track, and it seems to end much too soon–perhaps they should have expanded it a bit as the album, like several Van Halen albums of this era, is barely over 31 minutes long. The song melds into the final track, “One Foot Out the Door,” a thrasher that nonetheless uses the synth line as its base.

Diver Down, released in 1982, is the first incarnation’s weakest album. Featuring five covers, it seems like a preview of what Diamond David Lee Roth’s solo career would be like. Neither Eddie nor Alex Van Halen has had very much good to say about the record. Eddie recorded the brief solo guitar piece “Cathedral,” which he had worked on for a year or so, to be included on the record. Though it is a guitar piece, the way Eddie overlaps patterns gives it the feel of an industrial synth piece. Eddie did bring out the synthesizers for the group’s arrangement of “Dancing In the Streets” but it gave him little satisfaction to merely arrange someone else’s song. “It takes almost as much time to make a cover song sound original as it does writing a song,” he said. “I spent a lot of time arranging and playing synthesizer on ‘Dancing in the Streets,’ and they [critics] just wrote it off as, ‘Oh, it’s just like the original.'”

Up to this point, the main elements keeping Eddie Van Halen from using more keyboards as part of the band’s sound were lead singer David Lee Roth and producer Ted Templeman. Both felt that moving away from the simple four-piece, guitar-based hard rock sound the band had started with would alienate many of the group’s fans. But as Eddie began to write music for the band’s next album, 1984, he worked at the 5150 Studio that he had been building, creating demos and feeling as though he had the ability to work freely without Roth and Templeman looking over his shoulder. 

The synth piece that would turn into “Jump,” featuring I, IV, and V chords over a sustained pedal note in the bass, was something EVH had worked on and recorded in 1981 but that was initially rejected by the band. During the 1984 sessions, Templeman asked David Lee Roth to listen to the rejected track and Roth came up with an idea for the lyrics. The resulting track was given the opening slot on the 1984 album, preceded by Eddie’s keyboard intro, titled “1984.” On tour “Jump” was performed including its intro, and Eddie played keyboards on stage, though on later tours the keyboards would be played by an offstage musician while Eddie played guitar. 1984 also contained the synth-rock track “I’ll Wait,” the second single to be released from the album, which charted at #13. The rest of 1984 was guitar-based rock and the singles “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher,” the latter a high-speed metal shred, were also hits. 

“We recorded Jump live in the studio with me playing keyboards, and then I put the guitar on later. I used an [Oberheim] OBX-a keyboard, which they stopped making. I think we just recorded one take,” Eddie remembered. (Guitar World, interview, December 1996)

It’s impossible to overstate the new lease on life that “Jump” and 1984 gave the band, but it also led to the demise of the original lineup as David Lee Roth left the group and was replaced by singer Sammy Hagar. Hagar remained for the recording of four studio records, most of which sold well. Eddie wrote several keyboard-based compositions for the group, including “Love Walks In” and “When It’s Love,” both of which became hits. These were stadium corporate rock numbers of the type that other rock bands, such as Heart and Foreigner, were doing and while they sound a bit generic now, they are signs that EVH was in tune with what was going on in the sound and production of rock music in the 1980s. It also got the band through the 1980s, a rough time for hard rockers, in fairly good standing.

By 1991 the band was looking for a ‘return’ to their rock roots on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Hagar’s limited vocals and even more limited ability as a songwriter made it unlikely that the band would record anything as startling as their first few albums. Synthesizers were becoming less ubiquitous as well, and so Eddie dropped them, playing the acoustic piano (and some organ) on the hit song “Right Now” instead. 

“Respect the Wind”, Eddie Van Halen & Alex Van Halen, 1996 Twister soundtrack

The whole deal with Eddie Van Halen’s keyboards reminds me a lot of how I listened to Zeppelin fans on a call-in show at the release of In Through the Out Door complain about the use of synths on the album even though these same fans were fine with the use of similar technology on “Kashmir” and a few other iconic Zeppelin tracks. I mean, Eddie Van Halen had a talent for composition and for using keyboards for sonic texture, and it undoubtedly benefited the band. It’s impossible to see how they would have continued to be as big a touring act as they were or expanded their audience through the 1980s without Eddie’s attention to the sound of the band and his dedication to bringing in musical elements that defined the group as more than just another hard rock band.

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