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Textbook for the School of Rock-Chapter II, Part B February 9, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Education, history, Music, Other, Rock.

Van Halen came to power in the late 1970s and the first few times I heard the band I was put-off by David Lee Roth’s trademark yodel-howl vocal stylings.  For those of you unfamiliar with this, simply finish each phrase on a rising note, reaching as quickly as possible the highest note your voicebox will accomodate.  Done by somebody like Roth, who could frighten the tiny forest animals from miles away, it was merely odd.  Done by legions of teens and tweens and 20-somethings since, it is flabbergasting.  For those with lower vocal registers every phrase sounds like a question?  It is good to have somebody to blame for this?  And I’m, like, happy that it is David Lee Roth?

After I got past Roth’s eccentricities I was confronted by a guitar sound that some people found difficult.  I don’t mean difficult to mimic, although it was.  (My good friend swore for years that Edward Van Halen’s unbridled velocity came from an effects box, the “echoplex.”  It was only upon seeing them in concert that I realized that he was striking the fretboard with fingers on his left hand and the index finger of his pick hand, enabling him to achive speed which could not be described with standard Italian musical notation. [On the sheet music for “Eruption,” for example, it didn’t say “Allegro,” or “adante,” or whatever.  It said in the upper-left hand corner “Play as fast as possible.”])  What I mean by difficult is this:

You are a sheltered, self-conscious, suburban teen at your first rock show.  Imagine row upon row of happy forest creatures of different sizes.  They have been selected for their ability to yowl in pain at specific frequencies corresponding, more or less, to the E-Blues scale.  There are little rabbits, field mice, shrews, and birdies for the high notes, muskrats, beavers, hedgehogs, tiny deer, all the way up to the low notes of the grizzly bears and the elk.  Suddenly you hear a rhythmic thudding noise.  Then someone fires up a chainsaw.  From the hills in the distance you hear anti-aircraft fire, coming closer.  Then a group of samurai descend upon the forest tableau, hacking them to bits with short swords, road flares, sporks, jack-hammers, and dental drills, as the stragglers are picked off by automatic weapon fire.  And someone with an odd voice is screaming and howling a song called “Running with the Devil.”  You know fear.  But the cool people next to you seem to be enjoying it, so you chill.

In time, of course, you get used to it, and come to love it, especially the songs where the guitar sound is like all of the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge rhythmically giving way, people, cars, eighteen-wheelers, the entire Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, plunging into the cold water, hundreds of feet below.  How could anyone resist?

I mentioned in the first part of this chapter that there were more ways of coming up with new music than copying songs that had already been performed by others.  Copying would have been easy for Van Halen, because their sound was (at the time) so distinctive, that anything they played would sound completely new.  But Edward also created new riffs and phrases by a second method, which goes like this:

  1. Improvise a solo as quickly as you can, or play a song you don’t know well.
  2. Listen very carefully to the mistakes that you make: remember them.
  3. Adapt those mistakes, turning them into songs and phrases.

Up until the mid 1980s Edward Van Halen used this method very creatively.  But he reached a point that he really should have seen coming, given the amount of time he spent practicing and playing, and his aptitude and talent.  Eventually he made so few mistakes that he ran into a writers block of sorts.  So he started playing keyboards, to free up his creative side, to make the kinds of mistakes that would generate new music.  Unfortunately, Edward and the band made a fatal mistake, they used the keyboards on their next album. 

Why was this a mistake?

It probably would not have been a mistake if “Jump” had not been a huge hit.  “Jump” made lots of people who were not cool at all say “hey, I like Van Halen.”  So Van Halen was no longer cool for rockers.  Which was a shame.  And “Jump” was just weak, dude.



1. ggwfung - February 10, 2007

That’s quite an intriguing point you make about “musical mistakes”. When I used to muck around with poetry in my university years, I would flick through poetry magazines until I found an exceptionally striking line. I would then rip that line wholesale, and use it as a springboard for creative development.

It’s almost like finding a seed to grow your thoughts.


2. caveblogem - February 10, 2007


Thanks. I like that phrase, “springboard for creative development.” I once heard that David Byrne of the Talking Heads used to write phrases down on scraps of paper and when he had a bunch of them simply fling them into the air and try to assemble them into a song. There are millions of ways to do this sort of thing, I guess. I think many creative people do these things without even realizing it.

I also like the idea of a “seed to grow your thoughts.” All the hard work, much of the creative work, is done by the sun, the fertilizer, the CO2 in the air, the rain, that sort of thing. But you have to have a seed.

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