Steve Vai reveals the most difficult aspect of playing Eddie Van Halen’s guitar parts

Steve Vai and Eddie Van Halen
(Image credit: FilmMagic/FilmMagic for Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival / Ross Marino/Getty)

When appraising the tab sheets of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar parts, a number of challenges will present themselves. The sheer technicality of EVH’s playing alone would spell trouble for most, but beyond that was his emotion, timing and playing style – something few, if any, could adequately emulate.

While the average layperson may find it an especially difficult task to conquer, you’d imagine a more seasoned professional would find it significantly easier, right?

Well, it turns out even the best of the very best struggle with playing Van Halen’s electric guitar parts, and have trouble tapping into a tone that, in reality, only the man himself could achieve.

Speaking to Ultimate Classic Rock, Steve Vai detailed his experiences of playing Van Halen’s guitar parts, and revealed the one aspect he found most difficult to overcome.

Vai, who toured with David Lee Roth in the '80s and thus had to learn EVH’s guitar lines, dubbed Eddie’s playing as “perfectly orchestrated”. However, despite the gracefulness of their composition, Vai admitted it was the “educational” part he struggled with the most.

“The challenging aspect for me in playing those tracks was also the educational aspect, and that was how Edward quantified his parts,” Vai began. “They had no sharp edges – this is hard to explain, but they’re well rounded edges. 

“His ability to sync to his brother was magical,” he continued. "Finding that groove [was interesting] because his brother didn’t play straight like a drum machine, but the way that they locked was remarkable. That’s something that you can’t really learn by learning where to put your fingers. That’s an internal thing.

“You’d have to be playing with Alex [Van Halen] to understand how you would navigate those parts the way Edward did. I played them with Gregg Bissonette, who is a fabulous drummer. He’s a little more straight ahead in the groove. It’s like, Alex flows more; Gregg is locked. So I was playing to Gregg, so that was a bit different.” 

Despite the understandable struggle, Vai went on to reminisce further about the “incredible opportunity” of playing Van Halen's songs, and said he took it as a chance to pay his respects to both the tracks and Eddie Van Halen himself.

“As a guitar player,” he added, “playing Edward’s parts, it’s a joy because they’re perfectly orchestrated. They fall on your hands beautifully. They’re just engineered so beautifully. 

“Now, you can learn how to play them, but it’s not going to sound like Edward. You know, it will always sound like you. They sounded like me playing Edward’s parts. I did my best to pay respect to them, because they’re great fun to play. It was nice. It was such an incredible opportunity and a joy to play those songs in front of 25,000 people a night. 

Elsewhere in the interview, the shred legend detailed his insane triple-neck Hydra guitar, which will feature on his upcoming album, Inviolate.

Of the axe, which was recently unveiled in a hands-on video, Vai explained it had been five years in the making, and was built from a desire to “create something where everything is integrated in one performance”.

“The designers and engineers in Japan flipped out,” he recalled. “They just went above and beyond. I couldn’t believe it, because they’re usually very conservative. They sent me back a rendering of a Hydra and I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘You’re going to build this?’ And they’re like, ‘Yes we are, Mr. Steve!’”

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.