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Eddie Van Halen’s 20 Greatest Solos

“Eruption,” “Panama,” “Right Now” and more — the quintessential modern guitar god’s most memorable six-string feats

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It’s hard to imagine what rock & roll would sound like without Eddie Van Halen. Like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton before him, he single-handedly (or perhaps, in his case, double-handedly) changed the vocabulary of guitar for a generation. His pyrotechnic finger-tapping, elastic dive-bombs, and bursts of melody redefined the guitar solo and inspired legions of copycats in the process. But no matter what he was playing, he did it with heart. To honor the late guitar hero, who died Tuesday at age 65, we’ve selected 20 of his greatest solos — from unforgettable licks to genuine “how’d he do that?” head-scratchers — that show off his brilliance.

From Rolling Stone US

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“Cathedral” (1982)

Diver Down was hardly an artistic high point for Van Halen. The 30-minute 1982 album is a rush job padded with no less than five cover songs, including a soused a cappella version of Dale Evans’ “Happy Trails.” It does, however, boast a few VH gems, among them, “Cathedral,” one of Eddie Van Halen’s most celebrated instrumental pieces. To create the track’s ethereal throb, Van Halen plugged an old Fender Stratocaster into an echo unit and manipulated the way the device repeated the notes to generate haunting, pulsating, organ-like tones that sound like they’re emanating from a cavernous house of worship. As for how the song got its title, David Lee Roth was more than happy to share his version of events in a 1982 interview with Creem. “Eddie came into the studio with that and I said, ‘That sounds like Bach, you could play it on the organ,’” Roth said. “Eddie was like ‘Bach who?’ I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it, Eddie, name it something churchy and it will fit.’” T.B.

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“Panama” (1984)

Given the level of sexual innuendo contained it its lyrics, the casual listener would be forgiven for thinking that “Panama,” the third single from Van Halen’s 1984, was inspired by a debauched night of backstage partying in Central America. But it’s actually about a car — not “California Girl,” David Lee Roth’s heavily customized 1951 Mercury that he drives in the brilliantly disjointed “Panama” video, but “Panama Express” a race car that once caught the singer’s eye at a Las Vegas track. Eddie Van Halen’s solo is appropriately revved up, featuring Chuck Berry–inspired double stops that accelerate into a series of high-test tapping licks. And the guitarist didn’t stop there: concerned that his usual whammy-bar–powered ersatz engine growls wouldn’t adequately punctuate the song’s breakdown, Van Halen backed his 1972 Lamborghini, which he once referred to in Autoweek as a “go-kart with 12-cylinder carbs,” up to the studio and recorded the sound of the engine screaming into the red zone. T.B.

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“Drop Dead Legs” (1984)

“Drop Dead Legs” is one of those Van Halen songs that even the casual fan recognizes, despite the fact that it was never released as a single and wasn’t performed live by the band until their 2015 tour. But while the most identifiable components are Eddie’s syncopated single-note riffs and the rhythm section’s AC/DC-ish stomp, the real gem is the minute-or-so outro solo that shows Ed tossing out some truly out-there phrases and licks, not to mention plenty of whammy bar squeals, squiggles and flutters. “That ride out solo was very much inspired by [fusion guitar hero] Allan Holdsworth,” Ed said. “I was playing whatever I wanted like jazz — a bunch of wrong notes here and there — but it seemed to work.” It’s a more restrained and exploratory EVH lead, but one that is still a thrill-a-second ride. R.B.

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“Hot for Teacher” (1984)

“’Hot for Teacher’ is beyond any boogie I’ve ever heard,” Eddie Van Halen told Guitar World in 1995. The usually understated guitarist isn’t boasting as much as testifying to the whole truth; this is A+ material, from the moment that Alex Van Halen kicks into the song’s trademark drum rumble to almost five minutes later, when the track reaches its gonzo conclusion. The song’s pubescent fantasy of a video, in which each band member is shadowed by his pre-teen doppelganger and a bikini-clad homeroom teacher gyrates on her desk, secured “Teacher” a spot in the pop-culture firmament — it’s gotten the Glee treatment as well as being covered on South Park — but it’s Eddie’s jaw-dropping lead break, which builds intensity and swagger for an astounding 32 bars, that earns the song extra credit among the world’s aspiring shredders. T.B.

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“Jump” (1984)

Although “Jump” would become Van Halen’s first (and only) Number One single, it took Eddie Van Halen several years to sell the keyboard-heavy track to his bandmates. “When I first played ‘Jump’ for the band, nobody wanted to have anything to do with it,” Van Halen told writer Chris Gill in 2014. “Dave said that I was a guitar hero and I shouldn’t be playing keyboards. My response was if I want to play a tuba or Bavarian cheese whistle, I will do it.” The guitarist wasn’t totally indifferent to alienating his base, so Van Halen made sure that “Jump” featured one his most succinct and well-constructed guitar leads to date … then defiantly followed it with an equally inspired keyboard solo that established him as a master of not one, but two instruments, cheese whistle notwithstanding. T.B.

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“Dreams” (1986)

Emboldened by the success of 1984’s “Jump,” Eddie Van Halen doubled down on the keyboards for 5150, the group’s first album after the departure of David Lee Roth. “Dreams” is one of these synthesizer-driven numbers, a slab of anthemic middle-of-the-road rock over which new vocalist Sammy Hagar ably demonstrates that where conventional vocal chops and range were concerned, he left his more stylized predecessor in the dust. Van Halen’s solo is also more conventional than what his fans might have been accustomed to but demonstrates a restraint and total command of melody and structure that weren’t always evident in his earlier work. “I feel like I’m much more song-oriented now,” he told BAM around the time of 5150’s release. “When you first start out, you want to do all the technique shit, but I think I’ve gotten to the point where playing guitar means more than just playing fast and being a gunslinger.” T.B.

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“Mine All Mine” (1988)

OU812, released in 1988, sees Eddie & Co. refining the more layered, keyboard-supported commercial-rock sound that would characterize most of vocalist Sammy Hagar’s tenure with the band. It also shows the group making a concerted effort to distance themselves from the scores of “hair metal” groups — largely created in the image of David Lee Roth–era Van Halen — that had taken over both MTV and the charts at the time. Just for good measure, Eddie would occasionally remind his audience that although he had chosen a different musical path, he would always remain a towering presence in the flashy solo set. To that end, Van Halen unpacks his entire bag of tricks — from whammy-bar dives and speed-picking to two-handed tapping acrobatics — for the solo of “Mine All Mine,” and you can feel the shadow that he casts grow just a little bigger with each note. T.B.

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“Right Now” (1991)

Sammy Hagar once said “Right Now” came about because “Eddie and I wanted to get serious and talk about world issues.” Which, admittedly, is just about the last thing you’d ever want to hear from Van Halen. Furthermore, all that adulting — Hagar’s overly sincere lyrics; Eddie’s similarly serious-sounding keyboard tinklings; a message-heavy video — only served to overshadow the fact that the song (which, it should be noted, hails from an album named F.U.C.K.) houses a pretty awesome solo, one that whips together flash moves (i.e., siren-like pinch harmonics) with melodic licks and phrases in a tight, pop-single–appropriate eight-bar format. It’s the kind of guitar lead you could sing — although you’d probably sound like a blubbering maniac if you tried. R.B.

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“Humans Being” (1996)

One of the last gasps of Van Hagar, “Humans Being” was written and recorded at a time when the band and its singer were at loggerheads. And make no mistake — Twister soundtrack contribution “Humans Being” is far from an A-level Van Halen song. The solo, on the other hand, is pretty stellar, kicking off with a hooky eight-bar segment chock full of trademark Eddie-isms, from tapped passages to whammy-bar squeals, before downshifting into a longer and looser instrumental section that comes off like a more languid take on the “we’re runnin’ a little bit hot tonight” breakdown in “Panama,” and that’s studded with sliding octaves and police-siren–like dissonance. What’s more, later on in the song Ed reprises the entire first part of the solo verbatim, just for the hell of it. “Humans Being” hit Number One on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart in May of 1996; roughly three weeks later, Hagar was out of the band. R.B.

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“China Town” (2012)

Similar to Women and Children First’s “Romeo Delight,” the rampaging “China Town” finds Van Halen playing it fast and heavy just ‘cause they can. Which also means that, in classic VH style, the solo is pure Eddie unleashed — and, in some spots, almost playful, from the “horse whinny” whammy-bar manipulations that crop up in his main solo and outro lead, to the loopy guitar-and-bass unison tapping phrases that kick off the tune and reappear later on. “A lot of people thought that I used a harmonizer or octave box on the intro to that song, but that is just [bassist] Wolfgang [Van Halen] and me,” Ed told Guitar World. The song is probably as much fun to play as it is to listen to, which made it one of the few A Different Kind of Truth cuts to be performed regularly on Van Halen’s 2012 and 2015 tours. T.B.