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Adrian Belew Reveals How Eddie Van Halen Took Guitar Playing "To the Next Level," Before He Even Had a Record Deal

Adrian Belew (left) and Eddie Van Halen
(Image credit: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

There's not much left to be said about Eddie Van Halen's impact on the electric guitar. Quite simply, he defined the modern cultural image of the guitar hero as we know it – techniques, showmanship, and all.

In a new interview with Ultimate Classic Rock (opens in new tab), Adrian Belew – whose credits include extensive work with King Crimson, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Talking Heads, and many more illustrious artists – recalled how, even before his band had been signed to a record label, it was clear that Van Halen's playing, particularly his trademark tapping, was a step above even his well-known contemporaries.

In the interview, Belew recalled how he and the Bears’ Rob Fetters were trying to master the then-largely unknown technique of fretboard tapping around the time Van Halen first started making a name for themselves in the Los Angeles club scene.

“I had just started playing this thing where you hold a note down and then you do this,” Belew said. “It’s called tapping, but back then we didn’t have a name for it. Rob Fetters and I were the only two guys we knew who were doing it. 

“It was on a Steely Dan record ["Kid Charlemagne," from 1976's The Royal Scam], and I figured out, that’s how [Larry Carlton] must have done it. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to start doing that.’ Rob started doing it, too.”

Before Belew and Fetters could become synonymous with tapping though, they ventured in to the famed Whisky a Go-Go club, where Van Halen were in the middle of a set.

“We walked in and there’s Van Halen, unknown, unsigned, no one knew them, playing like crazy on stage,” Belew said. “Eddie Van Halen is doing that all over the neck of the guitar. We looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, he’s doing that thing that we do!’ 

“We laughed, and we said, ‘And he’s doing it better than we do!’ Because he had already taken it and advanced it to the next level. Good for him.

"It became something," Belew said of the technique's influence, "that a million different young guitar players tried to do since then."

Should this make you hungry to capture some of Eddie's magic in your own playing, take a look at our primer on the technical and musical ingredients of his trademark soloing style.

Jackson Maxwell
Jackson Maxwell

Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com and GuitarPlayer.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.