Eddie Van Halen changed the way guitar is played more than anyone else aside from Hendrix, and to be honest, its kind of close.
Van Halen was self-taught and his ear was acclimated to his father’s woodwind playing. He runs odds scales and works in very odd notes into his guitar work, but it is a testament to his genius that those sounds are never too jarring. His style is often imitated, but never replicated. Its further out than you think.
He expanded a rare technique known as two hand tapping, which allowed him to totally eliminate the sound of the pick from the guitar, while playing sequences of notes that normally are too far apart to finger easily. It literally changed guitar playing as we know it.
Other guitarists were fast. Van Halen was at warp speed.
This incredible speed was probably another factor in letting him get away with so many discordant scales and notes, when soloing, the destination will often justify the journey. Each musician has to decide what sort of player they will be, how many notes outside of their key signature they will use. To few and you’re boring. Too many, and you’re irritating. Van Halen did a masterful job of keeping his playing exciting, but never tasteless.
His group was an assault on music, and for my money, the greatest hard rock band of all time (86 million sold, TWO Diamond albums) until they lost David Lee Roth in 1984. No one has ever fused jazz and rock more seamlessly than Van Halen, something he doesn’t get enough credit for. The chord progressions in Van Halen songs are utterly unique, in fact the song structures are surprisingly complex. Van Halen was at his best writing songs around Roth’s natural baritone range, and he is an amazing songwriter.
From the moment he made his major label debut in 1978, he changed everything, at that moment either you could play “Eruption” or you were a dinosaur. The next decade was filled with mostly soulless Van Halen clones, but it was obvious they didn’t measure up.
After that, his techniques were re-interpreted (finally) and assimilated into the general pool of skills you learn. If you want to learn rock guitar you learn Van Halen’s repertoire. You couldn’t duplicate it, but just trying made you better.
Like those that burn brightest, Van Halen burned out quickest. Sammy Hagar had greater range than Roth, his home 5150 studio allowed him greater freedom, his fame allowed him more control, and the result was rapidly declining returns. That divine Frankenstrat/Marshall sound became an overproduced mess, the driving hard rock sound got diluted down to just regular rock. Van Halen is a genius that needs to be pushed, but there’s no one around him to do it. Pity.
He was great and then he was gone. But he’s given us more than pretty much anyone else has.