Is 'Fair Warning' Eddie’s Best Work?
Eddie Van Halen pushed his singular talent past its limits on this overshadowed masterpiece.
- Explore Eddie’s lesser-used approaches to two-hand tapping.
- Learn simple ways to create dramatic guitar parts.
- Make navigating complex time signatures a breeze.
New Adventures in Tapping
Eddie’s use of two-hand tapping is, of course, legendary. But on Fair Warning, he took it to some new places. He steered clear of the more-familiar tapping licks he used in “Eruption.” One new technique he employed on “Mean Street” is percussive tapping. Combining tapped notes and harmonics with percussive fretting-hand slaps, it’s akin to playing drums on guitar. In Ex. 1, tap the opening harmonic with the side of your picking-hand thumb, tapping right on top of the fret to make sure it clearly sounds. This is followed by some muted notes, which are sounded by lightly slapping the open strings with your fretting-hand fingers at about the third fret. Rest them on the strings as you slap to prevent them from ringing. The riff is punctuated by double-stops, in which both notes are tapped with the picking-hand index finger. Eddie often included his “Mean Street” intro during his live solo. (Note that while Eddie often tuned down a half-step, all examples here are in standard tuning.)
Eddie also had the ability to use tapping in a more melodic way, by slowing things down and substituting slides for the usual hammer-ons and pull-offs. In this way, tapping is more of a phrasing choice, meaning the melodies could be played in a more standard way using a pick, but tapping imbues them with some of Eddie’s singular style. For Ex. 2, fret the slides with your middle or ring finger, with the tapped notes played as usual. Eddie can be heard employing this version of tapping at the 3:02 mark of “Push Comes to Shove,” as part of one of his most moving guitar solos.
Creating Dramatic Riffs, Simply
For his rhythm parts, Eddie often used simple rock guitar techniques, but played them in slyly nuanced ways to created irresistibly catchy parts. Throughout Fair Warning, he bases riffs around open-string pull-offs, creating a “bouncing” effect which propels the riff along. But when playing Ex. 3, you won’t quite conjure all the magic unless you pay close attention to the accent marks in the music notation. Accents indicate when to play a note slightly louder, which on guitar translates to picking a bit harder. As much as Eddie’s playing features cool techniques, it’s also his grasp on how powerful these musical subtleties can be.
Eddie created another subtle effect by using partial chords extensively in his songwriting, an example of which being he would often drop the low root note from a standard root-fifth-octave power chord. Notice when playing Ex. 4 how this reduces the chords’ thickness, as they take up less sonic space. In a band setting, this allows them to sound with more clarity where the bass player has already got the low end covered. Now let’s explore how this gave Eddie room to add more magic.
A hallmark of the production of Fair Warning is Eddie’s frequent use of overdubbing, or layering of guitar parts, something he hadn’t yet explored extensively. But sometimes he simply creates the illusion of two guitars playing when it’s just one. Ex. 5 demonstrates how omitting the low root note can also facilitate playing two parts simultaneously with clarity. The key here is the execution of the palm-mute: Rest your picking-hand palm on the guitar’s bridge just enough to cover only the 6th and 5th strings. This way, the chords on the higher strings can ring freely. You can hear Eddie take a similar approach towards the end of “Mean Street.”
Playing Melodies with Style
Sometimes, however, adding an element can increase clarity. Throughout Fair Warning, Eddie plays more than a few memorable guitar melodies. To make them speak more clearly, and to give them a bit more character, he’ll often plays them simultaneously in two octaves. Doing this on guitar requires playing notes on two non-adjacent strings, which you can easily visualize by thinking of the standard three-string power chord shape with the middle string omitted. This is accomplished by lightly resting the inside of your fretting-hand index finger on that middle string, so it won’t be sounded by your pick. Ex. 6 illustrates how to create octaves in two different registers of the guitar, and Eddie used it to similar effect in “Unchained.”
In “Dirty Movies,” Eddie unexpectedly used a slide to inject a different sort of character into his guitar melodies. To ensure each note is solidly in tune, place the slide directly over the fret wire. Then the main challenge will be to prevent it from sounding any unused strings. Strings lower than the ones being played can be silenced with a well-placed palm mute. Then while holding your pick, allow your free picking-hand fingers to rest lightly on the underside of the higher strings not being played (Ex. 7). Note that accomplished slide players like Derek Trucks and Bonnie Raitt choose to instead play fingerstyle, producing a fuller, rounder tone than a pick. Either way, dialing back your guitar’s often-neglected tone knob a bit will help to tame any tonal shrillness.
Are Complex Time Signatures Really So Odd?
In its pre-chorus, the classic party anthem “Unchained” suddenly becomes a quasi-prog-rock adventure, featuring complex shifting time signatures. At the outset, this sort of thing can seem like a daunting challenge, but it’s really all how you think about it. Ex. 7 features time signatures of 6/4 and 7/4. How can we navigate these measures without pulling our hair out? Well, often these complex time signatures can be broken down into a combination of simpler ones we use every day. Let’s look at measure one, which is in 6/4. If we think of this as simply 4/4 plus 2/4, it’s more manageable. In much the same way, measure two’s 7/4 can be broken down into 4/4 plus 3/4.
While the final two songs of Fair Warning are arguably also-rans, I still can’t escape the notion that if I could only listen to one Van Halen album for the rest of time, it would be this one. Eddie’s playing seems almost supernatural, and the breadth of his creativity makes Fair Warning a triumph, album sales be damned.
The East Coast punk rocker was first drawn in by the "pure malevolence coming out of the speaker" and Eddie's ability to make "pure evil with a guitar."
Sting's Dominic Miller, Pete Thorn, and Our Editors on Riffs That Sound Easy But Aren't
Plus—our latest musical obsessions!
Question: What’s a riff that sounds easy, but is hard to play?
Photo by Christoph Bombart
A: “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. It’s one of those guitar parts that sounds so straightforward (A minor, E7, G, F, C, etc.), yet no one actually plays it correctly.
I was guilty of this, too, until I went forensic with it and discovered all these subtle nuances with every chord—suspended chords, hidden licks, passing bass notes, and more. It’s an exquisite guitar riff placing Keith Richards right up there, in my opinion.
Dominic Miller's Current Obsession:
I probably share my current obsession with most of my contemporaries, namely The Beatles:Get Back documentary. I can’t get my head around how their sound is so perfect, making me think hard about what it takes to make a band gel. It’s chemistry and theirs is #%^ing rocket science as far as I’m concerned because all the elements work so perfectly together, yet in isolation none of the parts sound like anything special. Even the timing and tuning are off a lot of the time. What you end up with is the truth. I envy non-musicians and music fans mostly because they feel the truth more than most musicians do. Perfectionism is the enemy in recording situations. Neil Young’s Harvest is proof of that. A sublime album because it’s just straight-up honest. I was 14 when I first heard it and it spoke to me as it still does now, but if I put my muso hat on it’s all over the place. Kudos to the producers of the era! Takeaway? Next time I’m in a studio, I want to first cut the tracks live, second, don’t obsess about perfect timing and articulation, and last, but not least, make sure we have a good time.
Albert Madariaga—Reader of the Month
A: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” by Tears for Fears.
Tears For Fears - Everybody Wants To Rule The World (Official Music Video)
The opening riff is easy, sure, but getting the timing and the accents right and keeping it going is a bit challenging.
Albert Madariaga's Current Obsession:
I’m currently obsessed with a new amp head I’m having custom-built by an amp guru in North Texas. He asked me about my favorite tones, the guitars I play, my technique, how I use pedals, and styles of music. When he told me that he believes the best amp for me will be modeled after a specific Dumble (I’m not going to tell which one), it was a “Hell, yeah!” moment. He no longer builds amps for a living and is doing this one-off just for me. Gonna wrap it in purple tolex with a nice accompanying grill cloth then backlight the front panel. I can’t wait!
Jason Shadrick—Associate Editor
A: When I was younger, I had a hell of a time figuring out “Satellite” by Dave Matthews Band.
Dave Matthews Band - Satellite
On the surface, it’s a medium-tempo, single-note riff that sounded as if Andy Summers sat in with Bela Fleck. I distinctly remember when I got the first three notes—all stacked fifths—and felt like I really accomplished something. My real breakthrough was when I saw DMB on MTV. I recorded it on a VHS tape and watched it every morning before school until I could cop Dave’s fingering. I’m still not sure if it’s 100 percent, but it makes a great finger-stretching warm-up.
Jason Shadrick's Current Obsession:
I haven’t been able to stop listening to Tallgrass by Bret and Joslyn Boyer. It’s a collection of old-time folk and traditional tunes masterfully arranged for acoustic guitar and upright bass. Bret has been a friend and guitar hero for nearly 20 years and his inventive playing doesn’t browbeat you with overly complex feats of technical mastery or dense harmony—even though he can play that card when needed. The father-daughter duo’s sole focus is the song, and that approach has become all too rare.
Pete Thorn—Contributing Writer
A: Van Halen, “Beautiful Girls.” This one swings HARD. To get the feel and the duration of the notes correct is a challenge.
Van Halen - Van Halen II - Beautiful Girls
You have to skip between the strings quite a bit and mute the notes just right, both with your left hand and your right, like when he clips short the open E and B strings, as a dyad, “Bang a Gong” style. And when he bounces in the intro from the A-string riff to the A5 dyad on the G and D strings, down to the F# on the low-E string—all tight, groovy, and seamless! It’s got a groove, a swing, a pocket that is super deep. And you have to use your guitar volume knob to clean up in the verses! It’s very dynamic. Such great rhythm guitar playing, interspersed with bursts of Eddie’s super-fun lead stylings! “I’m The One” is another super-deep swung groove that almost no one can play correctly! But I chose “Beautiful Girls” because no one ever mentions it as a “difficult to play” riff, even though I think it really is!
Pete Thorn's Current Obsession:
The new Failure album, Wild Type Droid. They’re always stretching, within the rock genre … they never stagnate. Great songs, mixed with awesome production. I toured with Kellii Scott, the drummer, in a band called Blinker the Star for a while, and he’s one of the grooviest, deep-pocket rock drummers I’ve ever played with. He’s very deliberate with his playing, like Dave Grohl. I love that style of rock drumming. No BS, just POWER. Great fills that support the song. And Ken Andrews is a force to be reckoned with all the way around, as a writer, player, and producer/engineer/mixer. Give it a spin!