How did you start playing guitar?
My brother and I were forced to take piano lessons, and it wasn't fun for me. I heard music in my head, but I wasn't allowed to play it. Then I bought myself a drum kit, and somehow my mom convinced my brother Alex to take flamenco-guitar lessons. I had a paper route to pay for the drum kit, and while I was out throwing papers, Alex got better than me on the drums, so I said, "OK, fuck you. I'll play your guitar."
What were the first songs you learned to play?
The Ventures: "Pipeline," "Wipe Out," that kind of stuff. My brother and I loved Dave Clark Five, but they weren't really a guitar-oriented band. The first time I turned an amp all the way to 10 and it distorted, I went, "Yeeeah! This is fun."
You ended up covering another Sixties classic, the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," on your first album.
At our shows, we used to do that and "All Day and All of the Night" and, you know, just a bunch of old, semi-obscure rock tunes. I always liked taking old songs and turning a prop plane into a jet plane. To me, that's what "You Really Got Me" sounds like. Ours is like whooosh [laughs].
How important were the Kinks for you?
I just like songs. I don't mean to sound like a prick or nothin', but I've never really been that much of a fan of bands outside of Cream. And I don't really listen to anything nowadays. The last record I might've bought was Peter Gabriel's So. With Cream, I was more a fan of their interaction live. You know, they were an example of "What's the difference between jazz and rock & roll? We just play louder." That's all. We get 12 notes. Do what the fuck you want with 'em, you know?
Your biggest innovation was two-handed tapping — using both hands to fret notes simultaneously. Where did you get the idea?
I was watching Jimmy Page going [sings hammering guitar lick], like that, with one hand, in "Heartbreaker." I thought, "I can play like that, and you wouldn't know if I was using this finger [points to left hand] or this one" [points to right hand]. But you just kind of move it around, and it's like, "You got one big hand there, buddy. That's a hell of a spread!"
Well, don't blame me. It's not my fault. The tapping had been part of my playing since about '72. Early on, my brother told me to turn around onstage so no one could see what I was doing until we had a record out.
Did people think that you were a guitar player from Mars or something?
I remember a long time ago we were playing and someone told us "A&M Records is here to see you guys." And it was Herb Alpert. I met him years ago later and he came up to me. He goes, "One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was passing on you guys." I'm going, "I remember exactly what you said, too. You said the guitarist is too psychedelic and too much uncontrolled energy." I asked him why? He goes, "I didn't understand what the hell you were doing 'cause it was so unorthodox." It didn't make any sense to him.
Was "Eruption" a piece that developed in concert over the years?
No, no, no. We recorded our first record on Sunset Sound in Hollywood, and we were warming up for a weekend gig at the Whisky. And I was just rehearsing, and [engineer] Donn Landee happened to record it. It was never planned to be on the record. So the take on the record was a total freak thing. It was just an accident. He happened to be rolling tape.
Your rhythm-guitar playing is underrated.
Real musicians actually respect me more for my rhythm-guitar playing than my soloing. 'Cause soloing is almost like pissin' up a rope, showing off — unless you're truly improvising off the melody of a song. But I'm actually a very rhythmic player, 'cause I'm the only guitarist in the band, so I've gotta cover both.
I've always been a true believer that music should hold up without singing on it. You know, listen to Beethoven, you know. There's no singing on it.
Has anyone taken the electric guitar further than you did with Van Halen?
That's hard to say. Especially nowadays with all the effects and Pro Tools and all this and that. You don't know what's what anymore.
You've been writing new music for a while?
Yeah, I haven't written much lately because we've been on tour. I got thousands of tapes laying around, but one of these years I've got to go through 'em, see what lurks. I think a lot of them will surprise you, everything from mellow stuff to kind of weird shit. I'm always experimenting with sounds.
Are you going to record?
Yeah. We'll cross that bridge when this tour is over.
How would you imagine the next few years for Van Halen?
I don't really make plans. I don't know. This tour takes us to June 2nd. We'll probably take a little break and then sit down and discuss what we want to do. But it's always based around music.
How have you managed to sustain the tour this time?
It's a way of life, you know? It's just kind of inherently built in. It's the only thing I know how to do. [Laughs] I guess the songs we write stand the test of time, so to speak.
And you're getting along on a personal basis?
Oh, yeah. We always really have. To me it seems like the press made more of a stink out of shit than we actually did. 'Cause everybody kind of parts ways and tries to find their own niche, you know, or whatever, but no hurt feelings about anything.
[From Issue 1054 — June 15, 2008]