How to Play Like Van Halen | Guitar Techniques to Use in Your Songs
In this lesson, we are going to learn how to play like Van Halen. Guitar techniques to use in your songs. As well as give you insights into how he approaches the guitar. This will help you in learning how to play some of his songs.
Van Halen in the ’70s
Van Halen originated in Pasadena California in the early ’70s. They honed their craft by playing high schools, backyard parties, and local clubs. In the process, they managed to build a local following.
Eddie and Alex’s parents were musicians so they developed at an early age, a commitment to music. When the guitar bug hit Eddie, he would practice up to 12 hours a day. Talk about dedication huh?
Anyway, by 1978, they were in the studio recording their first studio album titled, Van Halen. This album had a fresh new sound filled with Eddie’s guitar techniques. Vast originality that hadn’t been heard since Hendrix a decade earlier.
One of the things that made Van Halen sound the way they did, is Eddie’s willingness to experiment. Not only with guitar techniques, but with the equipment itself. Amplifiers, pedals and of course guitars. It is this experimentation that gives him his sound.
I recommend you follow in this path to develop your own sound. After all these years, I still run into people wanting to get his guitar tone. I say, “do what he did. experiment”. If you practice inventive experimentation, you will develop a unique sound as well.
One thing that gave Van Halen a unique sound was Eddie’s use of guitar pedals. Mostly, Flanger, Phaser, Reverb, & Delay. These sounds can be heard all over the first Van Halen album. In such songs as Eruption, You really got me, and later in songs such as Unchained.
Flanger pedal is switched on and off sparingly in certain parts of songs.
Phase 90 is used mostly for guitar solos.
Reverb can be heard nicely in the intro to You Really Got Me.
Delay is used to give ambiance to the overall guitar tone. A very common thing in lead guitar playing.
Eddie had a wide variety of tricks that he used in his music and these are just a few. I recommend you get some guitar pedals yourself and experiment as he did. It might spark your creative inspiration.
The minor pentatonic scale and the blues scale are what make up a lot of Eddie’s lead guitar work. These two scales are very similar. Used by many great guitar players because they work so well in many applications.
If you want to play guitar solos, this is a great place to start and highly suggested that you do so. What you can do with just the minor pentatonic scale alone is limitless. And the blues scale is just adding a note to this scale to give it a different flavor.
Hammer-ons, & pull-offs
These are techniques that you should master if you want to play guitar solos. They are not only all over Van Halen’s songs but in many solos by your favorite guitar players.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are what give the guitar scale character. What makes it sound musical and not such a sequence of notes. These techniques along with bends, slides, trills, and vibrato allow you to create your own style of guitar playing.
In this example, we have a hammer-on from the 5th fret to the 8th fret on the first and second strings, and a hammer-on from the 5th fret to the 7th fret on the third, fourth, and fifth strings.
Pull-offs are the same thing just in reverse. You would pull-off from the 8th fret to the 5th fret on the first and second strings, and from the 7th fret to the 5th fret on the third, fourth, and fifth strings.
Bends and vibrato
Other common guitar solo techniques that Eddie uses, are bends and vibrato. In this case, you would strike the note, bend it up and shake it to add vibrato.
You can do these two techniques separately or together. Either way, they should be added to your bag of guitar wizard tricks and used often. Not too much, but enough to express yourself in this way.
In this example, we have a pull-off from the 8 to the 5 on the first and second guitar strings with a bend up on the 7th fret of the third-string and a vibrato added at the end. This is a very common guitar lick. I suggest you learn to master it.
Here is an example of a bend release
Here we have a vibrato on the 5th fret third string, then we bend up the 7th fret on the same string, release it and add vibrato at the end. This is a great way to add a release to the bend as well as vibrato.
These are repeated hammer-ons and pull-offs. These are another common technique used by many great guitar players. Randy Rhoads, Angus Young, Tony Iommi, and many, many others.
In this example, we have multiple trills on the third string. One at the 2nd fret, 3rd fret, 5th fret, and 7th fret. The number in parenthesis tells us the note to trill off of. This is a very cool technique and can add some pizazz to your guitar playing.
This is the technique that puts Eddie on the map. The technique that made people go huh?. It’s one thing to do this slowly, but when it’s done at rapid speed as he does it, it can be quite a crowd-pleaser.
Here we have an example of finger tapping. You tap on the 12th fret with your index or middle finger (picking hand) and you do a hammer-on from the 2nd fret to the 4th fret.
You then repeat this action but this time you hammer-on from the 4thfret to the 7th fret and end the lick with a finger tp on the 12th fret again.
This is just an example, but if you work with it, you’ll see that you can do all kinds of cool things with this technique. It is all over Van Halen’s songs. Once you get it down, you’ll be able to hear when a guitar player executes it.
Whammy bar action
If finger tapping is what put Van Halen on the map, it is his whammy bar action that made him a guitar hero. It is what he does here that made a whole generation of guitar players (in the ’80s) want to put a whammy bar on their guitar.
The whammy bar tricks that he does are remarkable. Listen to the first Van Halen album (or any of them really) and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The control he executes over this piece of metal is astounding. And when asked about it he says is he just practiced and experimented with it.
These are another cool technique that Van Halen uses to the maximum effect. You can hear them all over his playing. He uses both natural and artificial harmonics. These are a fun way of adding character to the song.
At certain places on the fretboard (most commonly the 7th and 12th frets), you can produce natural harmonics by lightly touching the string above these frets.
Artificial harmonics are produced when you gently rub your thumb over the string right after you pick the note. This gives you a “squeal” type of sound. Very cool guitar tricks and ones I recommend you try out.
Van Halen’s rhythm playing
Although it is fun to focus on all the cool stuff Van Halen does to play jaw-dropping guitar solos, you don’t want to overlook Eddie’s rhythm playing.
Anytime a band (like Van Halen) has one guitar player, it’s the job of the guitarist to design his rhythm playing to the fullest. That way he produces a thick full sound. This is easy to produce with two guitar players, but with one, he has to be really good.
Van Halen does not disappoint in this area. Here are some of the things he does to produce his signature rhythm sound.
Eddie plays a lot of triads. Simple three-note chords. He often arpeggiates these chords to get a much fuller sound. This is quite different than the power chord that most rock guitar players use.
These are the most common triads in the family and used in hundreds of songs. I suggest you learn them and use them whenever possible.
These are typically played on strings 2-4 over the bassist (Michael Anthony) low E. This can be used quite effectively if you don’t over saturate the gain with this chord type.
These are sometimes called inverted chords, double stops, sixths, thirds, etc. No matter what the name, they are all basically upside-down power chords. These are utilized a lot in Van Halen’s rhythm playing. They give more of a dissonance sound than regular power chords and triads.
Dominant 9th chord
This is more of a jazz chord but is used quite effectively by Eddie because his gan is moderate. These types of chords work well in rock if the gain isn’t overdriven too much.
This chord type requires all four fingers in the places shown in the chord diagram. When you form this chord and play it, you’ll hear it has a certain sound quality. It works well with moderate overdrive.
This is a common technique brought from the blues. Listen to great blues players like Stevie Ray Vaughn and you’ll hear the shuffle quite often in his music. Eddie incorporates this into some of his music too.
As you can see you play a chord at the 3rd fret and add the 7th fret note with the pinky. This is a very common shuffle rhythm found in blues and rock music.
These are when you play a chord for rhythm and then accent the notes within the chord to provide a melody line. Kind of like playing rhythm and lead together. A very good choice when you only have one guitar player.
Here we have a C major chord in the first measure and in the second measure, an example of how you would arpeggiate the notes within the chord. Try this technique with any chord and see how it gives a different type of sound then just strumming the chord.
Eddie Van Halen actually does many, many, more things with his guitar and this lesson would go on indefinitely if I was to present them all. But I believe this will give you a good insight into his guitar playing and how you can use these concepts yourself.
Always be learning. Practice daily on improving your rhythm by using these techniques. Then take some time to work on your lead guitar playing. Your scales and techniques to make them come to life as Eddie does. Before you know it, you’ll begin to develop your own sound.
If you need more help learning these techniques, be sure to check out my guitar method books. Currently available through my website, Amazon (in both print and Kindle edition) and in my eBay store (where you can get a “personally signed to you” Author copy).
They help you learn faster and easier with a step-by-step formula that has been honed throughout the years of learning, playing and teaching. They cover all the concepts taught in this lesson.
No matter if you are getting started as a beginner, you need to enhance your rhythm playing, or are looking to master the art of creating face-melting guitar solos. These books will do the job. I recommend you check them out.
And if you’re in the Denver, CO metro area and feel taking private one-on-one instruction would help you even better, contact me through my website and we’ll get you set up with some lessons that’ll have you playing guitar in no time.
Best of luck, and until our next lesson, take care.