There’s just a strange disconnect when I discuss Van Halen’s playing with the “fan boys” that I typically encounter in the Van Halen forums. They often throw their hands up and conclude that Eddie is some sort of genius-freak and that there is no use trying to play his licks. This is a primary reason why I love posting and being on this forum…there is a love for getting to the truth of what people are actually playing here and I am grateful that this attitude generally prevails here.
I will say that I think the lick does have those doubled notes intentionally, especially since the drums are following the guitar. I think the TAB that I posted is accurate for that riff…it is from the Cherry Lane transcription which is frequently wrong, but I think they have that part right. I’ve listened to the slowed down album and I hear those doubled notes on the low E in the first part and on the A string in the second part. I’ll listen again…
Of course, because Eddie is considered a god by several generations of people at this point, and we don’t question gods. This goes double for anyone who was learning to play guitar in the '70s when Van Halen hit, since picking technique was pure voodoo back then. Eddie is in fact at least partly responsible for making it less voodoo, by ushering in the age of technical fetish that was the '80s, with its hair bands and instructional VHS tapes. He is the ur-technician, and we dissect him around here, only out of love, not hate!
I’m not really hearing seven notes in any of these live takes. So that’s six repetitions, all of them six notes. And definitely, none have seven picking movements. So if this riff is supposed to be seven alternate picked notes, then Ed is failing to play it correctly in every single example. If we’re going Occam’s Razor, there really isn’t much evidence suggesting this was ever intended to be seven notes, and plenty pointing to six - either pure alternate, or alternate plus some legato.
So… do we have any other examples of two-string, six-note scale phrases in Ed’s vocabulary with partial picking on the lower string and UDU on the second? Sure do. I’m lookin’ at you, Spanish Fly!
In my opinion, the sextuplets in “Spanish Fly” from ‘Van Halen II’ and the same patterns from his live guitar solos over the years are all picked…here’s the opening run from the ‘Van Halen II’ version as my friend Bill and I see it-well sort’ve…I’ve changed the very last Am arpeggio run to a lower position since I recently got a late 70s Ovation classical. It’s nearly impossible to play that run at the 12th and 15th positions on an old, non-cutaway Ovation or any other non-cutaway classical. As I’ve mentioned before, the pickslant and very light palm muting combine with the detuned nylon strings to give the impression that the B string portions are Down-Hammer-Hammer. They are indeed picked and you can hear the click of the pick on all the notes in the slowed down version of the track :
I’m not hearing that at all. In fact, what you can hear is that the third pickstroke - which isn’t even always present, actually arrives later than the fretted note on certain repetitions. You’ll hear it as a clearly audible ‘click’ after the note, which is effectively a hammer at that point. This gives us a good reference for what an ‘unpicked’ note sounds like in this track. We know this is an unpicked note, and not simply a soft pickstroke followed by a loud one, because there is simply not enough time to play two pickstrokes in the gap of space between the fretting and the picking.
[Edit: And also, the pitch is the same - it’s the same note, fretted and picked at different times.]
[Edit again: Actually the pitch is higher. I think he may actually be picking the high E string on these occasions, in other words, displacement of the third pickstroke to the top string, exactly as in Girl Gone Bad. Yes, actually, I’m pretty sure of that now - I can post an audio example. ]
They are simply unsynchronized.
Where it gets fun is finding live footage of Eddie playing this. And various shots of this, such as UsFest, there are indeed six visible picking movements. Except once again, not all the notes “sound” picked.
Ergo: When Ed plays these six-note sequences, there is variation. It may be timing/synchronization variation as we are hearing on certain repetitions in Spanish Fly. It may be an ‘airball’ - an attempted picked note that simply misses the string and flies over the top. I do this all the time, and it’s visible under the slow motion camera. And it may simply be legato, intentional, subconscious or otherwise.
Does it sound cool? Totally. Especially Spanish Fly on the recording. It would be very difficult to replicate this sound with straight dud-udu, or even straight dhh-udu. The timing ‘errors’, such as they are, combined with the aggressive digging in on the higher notes, give it an unpredictable and organic sound.
II think this is an “agree to disagree” moment. I clearly hear that all the notes are picked on the ‘Van Halen II’ just as you clearly hear that they are not. I also feel like he picks or attempts to pick all of these notes when he plays them during the live solos. I think that the live solos also point to him picking all of the notes on the album. If every instance of him playing these sextuplets by picking or attempting to pick all of these notes further leads to me to believe that he picked all of them on the record. I hear the pick click on each note.
Also, from my experience from when I combine the light palm muting on the B string with the softness of DWPS and when I play it on essentially the exact same guitar that Eddie used on the album recording and when I can point to other examples of Eddie playing with this extremely subtle and light palm muting (in the opening passages of “Eruption” for example), I’m convinced that this is how Eddie played it on the record. I’m totally open to learning from evidence that might change my perspective, but at this moment I still remain convinced that this sextuplet pattern was played as I described it. That “aggressive” digging in sound that you hear on the high E string notes, in my experience, is made more aggressive in contrast with the B string portion and the lightly palm muted/DWPS D-U-D…especially with that lovely “popping” Upstroke on the first note on the E string as the palm muting is completely lifted. Stirring stuff! Playing it on the nylon string Ovation tuned down approximately a whole step gives it another dimension…Voila! The sound is there!
That said…I understand what you are talking about with the “unsynchroniazation”. He may indeed be making timing errors exactly as you describe…I can hear and understand what you are talking about, but I feel like these errors may have occurred in the course of attempting to play the lick as I have described.
Your interview with Joscho Stephan shows him playing similar picked sextuplets…but obviously in a more exact way.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s what’s really going on during this section of Spanish Fly:
Essentially, what Ed is playing is ascending sixes with pure alternate picking. However what’s coming out is not quite that. The first note is pretty obviously picked with a downstroke. The second note is an upstroke but it sounds like an airball on all repetitions. In other words, the pick sounds like it missing the string entirely on the way back up. This is very a common picking error.
The third note is interesting. It is a downstroke, and it is almost always displaced to the high E string while the left hand frets the B string. We know this, because, because we hear two different pitches. One is the hammer pitch produced by the left hand fretting the B string. The other is the picked pitch of the E string, produced by unintentional barre of the pinky laying across it at the same fret. That’s why the pitch of this note is a fourth higher.
On top of this, the third pickstroke is often late, which I’ve indicated here graphically. This is a hand sync issue and I think this it pretty easy to hear when you listen for it.
So, do we have any other evidence that Ed plays sixes this way? We definitely do:
I didn’t notate this clip but I think it’s even more obvious here what is going on. All the same elements are present. The intial downstroke. The weaker, possibly airball second note. The displaced third pickstroke, and occasion sync issue between the third fretted note and pickstroke. In fact, the displacement in this clip is so apparent that I would bet a lot people have transcribed this over the years as two notes on the B string, and four on the E. It is not. It is ascending sixes with displacement - same as the album, and possibly (probably?) the same as what occasionally happens in Girl Gone Bad as well.
The reason these phrases have been transcribed incorrectly so many times over the years is because what is happening here is complicated. When you listen to “Spanish Fly” on the album, it plays mind games with you. You can’t tell if you’re hearing four notes on the top string, or three. In a sense, you are hearing both! If these are mistakes, they are certainly mistakes with great finesse, to such an extent that it is almost impossible to transcribe this in such a way as to actually capture the feel of what is being played.
Again, I feel the need to state that I love Ed’s playing. This might not be textbook picking technique. And it might be impossible to replicate for anyone but Ed. But I don’t really think you could play “Spanish Fly” better than the way it’s played on the album. You could play it more specifically as notated, but that wouldn’t necessarily be better.
Indeed, I agree! I think his intent was “ascending sixes all picked”. I think what came out was Eddie-fied, as it always is!
Excellent points Troy and I agree with them all! I think that what Bill and I have transcribed is the best way to approximate the feel and intent of what we are hearing in the album version…the way you have broken down exactly what is happening in the clip and in your description is clear and makes perfect sense to me!
I transcribed the complete Live Without A Net many years ago (the summer of 1997 to be exact) and I intend to work on a revised version eventually that contains corrections that Bill and a few other players have taught me…I’ll definitely use your breakdown here to help me go over the picked sixes section again.
Here is a clip of me playing the piece right after I finished the transcription in 1997:
Hah thanks…I wish I had nailed it! I just did the Down-Hammer-Hammer thing on the B string. After all I’ve learned since I made that recording and in your posts, I’d now pick them and try to mess it up as cool as Eddie did
I feel as though he was stitching together a bunch of stuff in the moment? Perhaps that’s why it’s “sloppy”.
Either way this is one of the best shots I’ve seen of this run, he seems to be relying on his thin pick to flop over the strings. I think he has the 60 max grip pick there.
So I’ve been looking at the clips and trying to read and understand Troy’s observations on the drum and guitar riff from “Girl Gone Bad” and I’m circling back to the ‘1984’ album version.
I think the modern live versions are basically showing Eddie trying to play 6-note phrases, essentially alternate picking going D-U-D then U-D-U for each six note phrase with occasional unintended things happening, yet all pretty well coming out more or less in time with the drums.
But I listen to the album version at 25% speed and I think I’m hearing a group of 8 notes followed by a group of 6 notes. Like this:
That very first note on the 3rd fret of the 6th string and then later on the 10th fret of the 5th string is sort’ve a “pick-up” note as he gets into the lick proper. Am I making any sense or am I in the weeds?!