Devin McKnight is currently a working musician in Brooklyn, NY. You might have previously seen him playing guitar in such indie rock projects as Speedy Ortiz, Grass is Green, and Philadelphia Collins. At the moment, his main focus is the rock band he fronts, Maneka, which fuses elements of jazz, improvisation, math rock and shoegaze.
I obviously do not know Eddie Van Halen. I haven’t studied every riff or lick he’s written or improvised; I’ve known people who have a more intimate experience with his guitar work. In fact, I don’t think I know any of his songs or solos in their entirety. Many times when figuring out metal guitar riffs, my eyes have started to gloss over, and I get bored and start writing something instead. This roughshod process pretty much characterizes me as a guitarist.
I am, however, a big fan of his playing. In my opinion, he’s probably the only shredder that has real staying power creatively. He never sounded robotic. He never sounded like he was just running through scales. He was tasteful, he was expressive, and in his time, he was extremely innovative and unique. I can instantly tell if I’m listening to the White Snake dude or the Mötley Crüe dude and NOT Van Halen. To me, even Kirk Hammett and Dave Mustaine pale in comparison. His playing is really in a league of its own.
I think the collective eye roll we all experience when talking about ‘80s hair metal is that it is usually all white dudes professing their love for fast cars, boobs, cocaine, and beer. In 2020, that shit is beyond played out and tired, and for good reason. I’d be lying, though, if I claimed I was above Eddie Van Halen’s style and uniqueness as a guitarist. Somehow his charms and abilities transcend all of that in my head. So in effort to track his perhaps unlikely impact and relevance in my life experience, I will explore my chronological memories of Eddie Van Halen’s playing.
When I was a kid, I loved Michael Jackson’s music more than a lot of things. My cousins and I watched Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker maybe every time I saw them, and since we had the same babysitter for entire summers, that was every damn day. I was 4 or 5 years old. This was peak “impressionable” Devin.
Believe it or not, my favorite part of the movie was any moment that featured his live guitarist super loudly shredding. And in the “Beat it” music video, I was addicted to the sound of that aggressive mysterious instrument. Lo and behold, this was enough to make me convince my dad to get me guitar lessons around the age of 6. I always had this image in my head of loud ass distorted guitar. That is what I wanted. Everyone who has started guitar at a young age probably knows that your parents do not share the vision of loud ass distorted guitars from a tone deaf 6 year old. So, I started with a little kid sized nylon string. Not quite the same, but I genuinely loved the idea of going to lessons. However, I barely practiced because I was 6 and also wanted to be a professional soccer player.
In an effort to spark my interest in the art of guitaring, my mom and dad got me a little knock-off strat and an amp that I could distort. I immediately learned the rhythm parts to “Beat it” with the help of my awesome teacher, Dave Reynolds. I never got good enough to do any of the fancy stuff back then, and I quit pretty soon after.
My friend Ross, pretty much on cue when there was a piano in the room, would play the synth line from “Jump.” I kind of hated it. I still kind of do.
I still lived in Boston and was only actively interested in guitar music. I wrote guitar riffs and played in my little math rock band. I didn’t want much more. I also detested “shredding” in the heavy metal sense. I was in a sort of phase.
I went to music school where there were Steve Vai wanna-be’s lining the walls, practicing their tapping riffs on unplugged Ibanez guitars with tuning locks. The alpha male, music jock spirit was a big turn off for me. My friend Gio, whose record collection I made a habit of perusing when I was over, put on 1984 while we were hanging out. The music was mostly in the background but I kept catching little riffs that made me say oh, word to myself. Then finally I asked, “what is this?” To which he replied, “Van Halen man.” Then I told him how much I liked it and he said in a chuckle, “I thought you’d like it.” Apparently my penchant for pitch-bending using the whammy pedal reminded him of Eddie’s use of the whammy bar. Go figure.
One of the last tours I went on in Speedy Ortiz was with The Good Life. I sped down the freeway in California blasting 1984. By the time we got to Texas later on that tour, I was in a phase where I was listening to Van Halen whenever I was listening to music with headphones on. My friend Roger Lewis was playing drums for The Good Life at that time. He is a black man, maybe 15 years older than me, who wears vintage classic rock and heavy metal band t-shirts non-ironically. Naturally he was the first person on the tour I thought to talk to about Eddie Van Halen while I was on my kick. Roger said, “1984 is definitely good, but you gotta hear Fair Warning.” I couldn’t imagine a Van Halen record I hadn’t heard of would be better than 1984. As it turns out, Roger was right. Eddie does way more with less on that record. Every solo says something different. And the guitar driven song arrangements have a certain complexity that only a few songs on 1984 come close to. Roger is the best. I love Roger.
I began teaching guitar at the Manhattan School of Rock. My very first student was a precocious 14 year old metal head. Whenever I meet a student like this, it’s my duty to figure out just how deep these shred licks go. I ask myself, do they only know two pentatonic scales? Can they name any notes on the neck? Can they play chords that aren’t power chords? How much do they really want to know about the instrument or is this purely a physical muscle memory driven pursuit fueled by youtube tutorials?
As it turns out, this kid really ripped. He had memorized Megadeth and Metallica classics. He also knew Iron Maiden, Pantera, and Sabbath. I still had to find out if he knew the Eddie I thought he should. Sho nuff, he plays the “Beat it” solo verbatim with the recording. I don’t think I mentioned to him how obsessed with this solo I was when I was little, but I let him know I was impressed. He was assigned “Hot 4 Teacher” for the student band and we played it together. I played rhythm while he was learning the solo. The kid still has much to learn as a player if he ever wants to be as good as Eddie. If he opens himself up to other styles of music that include different rhythms and textures, he can definitely take his playing to new heights.
October 6, 2020
Eddie Van Halen died after a long bout with lung cancer. This year has lost millions of lives to a deadly virus worldwide, and almost a quarter million American lives. When things seem like they can’t get any more grim and someone you thought was untouchable because of their immense talents dies unexpectedly, the sinking feeling you get is enough to rob you of hope for the future. I thought to myself, Oh no, not Eddie too?! when I heard the news. Unfortunately, mastering an art doesn’t mean much to the universe when it comes to mortality. Even the humans we deem immortal, aren’t. But he was really, really, really fucking amazing at the guitar and he changed the way all of us think about the instrument forever. I think we should all agree to that. Here’s to Eddie.