Great Songs: Hot for Teacher

Song: Hot for Teacher

Song performed by: Van Halen (Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth, Alex Van Halen, Edward Van Halen)

Album: 1984

One night a while ago I was at a dinner party and I struck up a conversation with another guy there.

He was about my age, but unlike me was very clean cut, very well dressed. In our conversation I learned that he was a very high-ranking official in his church (for those playing at home, he was the Stake President of the local LDS – aka Mormon – church). I live in a fairly conservative area in Arizona, so this is not unusual. Basically any time I’m at a dinner party of some kind, I’m on my best behavior so as not to embarrass my wife or anyone else.

Anyway, he was a nice guy so we talked for a while. At one point we got on the topic of music. He asked what kind of music I liked, etc. At some point I told him I was a guitar player. Upon hearing that, he said “Oh, well, are you a Van Halen fan?”

I was a bit surprised at this, to say the least. Most Mormon church leaders I know (yes I do know a few) don’t listen to any music that is even remotely heavy, and if they do, they don’t talk about it at dinner parties.

“Of course,” I replied.

“Me too,” he said. Uh, what? Then he paused, and said, “You know, I wish I could listen to them more often, but I just can’t. I’m kind of a straight-laced guy, but when I hear Van Halen, it makes me crazy. It just does something to me. I can’t explain it. It’s something primal that I just can’t help.”

And that about sums it up. Van Halen really is a force of nature, and for me, the ultimate tour de force is “Hot for Teacher”. If this song doesn’t stir something in you, you may be dead. Built over a classic Van Halen groove – the hyperspeed shuffle – this song has a force and propulsion that just will not stop.

To begin with, “Hot for Teacher” has perhaps the most famous intro section of any rock song in history. It starts with Alex Van Halen’s extended drum solo. A classic double bass tour de force.

Now I’m no drumming expert, but I would venture to say that this intro is up there with “Wipeout”, “In the Air Tonight”, and “Moby Dick” as one of the most recognizable and beloved of all drum parts. The recording is actually somewhat controversial, but the consensus seems to be that Alex played most of the parts live in the studio, and overdubbed a few of the tom-tom and cymbal hits. I have no idea how he plays it live. I’ve seen Al play it, but it was hard to tell if he was doing all of it, or triggering some parts, or playing a very slightly modified version. The world may never know. And it doesn’t matter – the recording stands as an incredible achievement and one hell of a lead in to…

Perhaps my favorite guitar passage that Edward Van Halen has ever played, and that, my friends, is saying something. What can I say about this intro solo? It’s everything about EVH’s playing that I love all wrapped up into one intro. It’s in your face, fearless, and that TONE. The section is a rolling tapped arpeggio riff that moves like a rollercoaster up and down the guitar neck. And like any good rollercoaster, this one culminates in a precipitous drop – a rapid fire descending tapped lick set in Edward’s favorite Dorian/Blues scale hybrid (a Dorian scale, or mode to be technically correct, is a type of minor scale that Eddie has always favored, both for the sound and because it happens to lay fairly symmetrically across the guitar fingerboard, facilitating this type of tapping run and fitting nicely with his legato playing style).

And then there’s Dave. OK, let me get one thing out of the way right up front. I am not a Dave zealot, nor am I a Sammy zealot, nor am I a Gary zealot. I love this band – in every incarnation. Period. They have managed somehow to create insanely great music over 30 years, and each incarnation has produced classics. OK, maybe I’m going a little far with the Gary Cherone years, but you get the idea. Enough about that.

Back to Dave. Now, Dave is not a singer so much. He is a showman. An entertainer. I think Steve Vai said it best when comparing his tenures with Dave and Whitesnake: you won’t see David Lee Roth standing center stage hitting a high E and holding it for 30 seconds. And you won’t see David Coverdale doing a splits jump off the drum riser. Both are great – they’re just different.

This lyrics are pure essential David Lee Roth. Cocky, brash, sly, with a Cheshire Cat grin the whole time. Most of all they are just plain fun. “I think of all the education that I missed/But then my homework was never quite like this.” And then there’s the immortal “I don’t feel tardy.”

Michael Anthony of course had the thankless job of being the bass player in a band with Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth. Especially on a song like this, there’s just not much he could do to really stand out. Add to that the fact that he was pretty much buried in the mix throughout the Ted Templeman years (VH’s producer), and you have some grounds for contention. I’m not even going to go into the whole Wolfgang thing, but I will be writing more about Mike soon in another post. For now, though, suffice to say that he holds down the bottom end of this tune admirably, and provides his patented harmonies to the vocal chorus and pre-chorus. One of the nicest parts about this tune being recorded live (more on that below) is that you can actually hear Mike during the guitar solo. Check out his lines at around the 3:05 mark – he plays some really nice fifth and octave intervals that give the song a great sense of movement (yes, even more than it already had) before dropping back in the pocket for the rest of the tune.

The verse breaks are reminiscent of ZZ Top’s “La Grange”, but lighter and less swampy. Eddie skipped playing one of his usual Frankenstein Strats for this tune in favor of a Gibson Flying V, for two reasons: (1) it was the only guitar he could find that day that had dead strings on it, and (2) the dual pickup switch allowed him to switch seamlessly between the verse and chorus sections. The dead strings are something I’ve never heard from anyone other than Eddie. He has always sworn that dead strings sound better when recording than new strings do. Most guitarists love new strings for their bright sound, but obviously Ed knows what he’s doing.

In another classic VH move, the song was recorded essentially live, with Ed, Al, and Mike all playing live in the studio (the vocals were overdubbed later, as they always are). Eschewing overdubs, they played the whole song through – if someone messed up, they just ran through the whole song again. Want proof? Listen to the guitar solo – there’s no rhythm guitar underneath, just bass and drums. This I think is the key to the lifeforce evident in the song – you just can’t get that same raw power when everyone plays their parts separately.

Speaking of the guitar solo…it kicks off with a reprise of the descending tapping lick from the intro, and stays in the same F# minor tonality for the duration of the solo. The solo itself is kinda fascinating, because it contains little of the histrionics for which Eddie is famous – no tapping, no whammy bar madness. There’s barely a harmonic (tap or artificial) to be found. The song is going by at such a walloping speed that you hardly notice that Ed is essentially blowing straight up blues licks over the entire solo. It’s times like this that you remember Eddie’s guitar hero growing up was Eric Clapton. Think Crossroads-era Cream, put a manic shuffle underneath it, and bingo, you’ve got this solo. The Cream comparison is even more appropriate when you factor in the no-rhythm-guitar-underneath-the-solo aspect. It’s pretty much the ultimate power trio tune.

As I said earlier, Van Halen has produced so many classic songs that it’s hard to single out just one. And of course a bunch of them will eventually show up on this list (and the Great Albums list…and the Great Solos list…). But I had to cover “Hot for Teacher” first. It may not be the best song of the Dave era, but it’s up there. And above all else, well…I can’t explain it – it just does something to me.


Great Albums: Kind of Blue

Album: Kind of Blue

Personnel: Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Bill Evans (piano), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums)

Writing about the movie Casablanca, Uncle Roger once wrote: “It is *the* movie…Within its frames are so many of the many different and sometimes conflicting reasons why the movies are so special to us; Casablanca is popular art, and it is Art, as well.” The same sentiment could be applied to Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. It is *the* jazz album.

The influence that this album has had on popular music really can’t be overstated. Consider the musicians on the album. With the exception of Jimmy Cobb, who was a great solid drummer but not hugely influential in the drumming world, the musicians on this album have influenced an entire generation of musicians.

There is no trumpet player alive who has not been influenced by Miles Davis.

There is no alto player alive who has not been influenced by Cannonball Adderley.

There is no tenor player alive who has not been influenced by John Coltrane.

There is no piano player alive who has not been influenced by Bill Evans.

There is no bass player alive who has not been influenced by Paul Chambers.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say there is not a musician alive today who has not been influenced by the music on Kind of Blue.

Kind of Blue was the first real jazz album I ever heard. At the time I was a competent rock guitar player, and my instructor wanted me to expand my horizons a bit. It just so happened he was learning to play jazz, so he sort of brought me along and showed me some of the stuff he was learning. The first tune he played for me was All Blues. I remember thinking at the time how LONG it was…he recorded it on a cassette for me and it took FOREVER to finish recording. I took it home and listened to it. I didn’t understand any of it. I knew the chords, because he had showed me a basic way of playing it on guitar. I knew the Mixolydian mode, and I even knew how to play a dominant 7#9 chord thanks to Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix. But I just didn’t get it.

Though I understand it now, Kind of Blue still has that same feeling of unattainability that it always had. It’s so effortless, so organic, it sounds as if it wasn’t an album that was set up and recorded in a studio by people over the course of several months – it seems as if it was just born, and blossomed into existence in one perfect moment.

So What starts the album. Miles’ solo on this tune is a classic, one of his best. He sits right in the pocket, never showing off or overplaying. It’s a deceptively simple solo – working out the lines on my guitar one day, I was surprised to find how complex Miles’ note choices are here.  Coltrane’s solo on this tune is a little more experimental, searching. Which makes sense; soon after this recording he would pen his own tune “Impressions” based on the exact same modal changes (D Dorian/Eb Dorian). The tune would go on to become a staple of his live sets for the rest of his life.

Freddie Freeloader, known simply as “Freddie” among musicians, is the only tune on the album to feature Wynton Kelly on piano. And Kelly shines on this tune. In his autobiography, Miles said of Kelly “he could play behind a soloist like a motherfucker”, and he proves it here. Listen to his comping behind Miles in particular – he is almost telepathic in his ability to fill in the spaces that Miles leaves. Kelly’s solo is also a gem, bluesy and complex at the same time. But it is Cannonball Adderley who owns this tune. His solo is simply one of the greatest solos of all time, a master class in melodicism and groove.

Quick side story: a friend of mine was hanging out at George Benson’s house when Benson got a call from Jon Hendricks, informing him that he would be singing Cannonball’s Freddie solo in the vocalese version on Jon Hendricks & Friends. Apparently Benson was more than a little nonplussed. He killed it though, of course. Benson is a badass. But I digress…

One more note on Freddie: listen to the monstrous moving bass line that Chambers plays under the head (the “head” is a jazz cat term for the main melody of a song). It is one of the busiest lines he plays, and it plays perfectly against the slower, longer notes of the melody. Once the solos kick in, he’s back to his propulsive swing.

Blue In Green is a tune with some controversy surrounding it. For years Miles claimed he wrote the tune, and he collected the publishing royalties for it. But everyone I’ve ever talked to about it is certain that Bill Evans wrote it. And with good reason – just listen to it. It’s a Bill Evans tune all the way. A few years after Miles died, his estate finally released the publishing rights to Bill Evans’ estate. Better late than never I guess.

Another side story: the same friend told me another story, also about GB. Seems GB walked into a club one night many years ago to see Bill Evans play. When Benson walked in, Evans was playing “Blue In Green”. GB looked around and saw Miles Davis in the crowd, and sat down next to him. Miles turned to him and said “how you like my tune I wrote?” GB replied, “Man, you didn’t write that tune.”

Evans’ compositions favored pensive moods, and Blue In Green may be the most pensive, melancholy tune ever written. It also contains the saddest note ever played: Miles plays it at around the 4:32 mark, and it just kills me every time I hear it.

I mentioned All Blues at the top of this essay. This was the tune that sort of started it all for me. At the time, all I knew about the blues was what I’d heard from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, and Albert King. But this was something completely different. It had the same chords, and the same notes, but they were put together in such a way that it was just so foreign. In many ways I still haven’t wrapped my head around it.

Cannonball’s solo is my favorite on this tune, I think. Which makes sense – he had the most bluesy feel of all the players, so this was right in his wheelhouse – same with Freddie. But my favorite moment of the tune is a note that Coltrane plays at about the 6:26 mark. Coltrane had a way of playing just one note and making it sound like his entire life force was pouring out of his horn. It seemed to happen most when he was playing a blues (the album Coltrane Plays the Blues has lots of examples).

Flamenco Sketches finishes up the album. Based on Evans’ Peace Piece, this tune was my favorite for a long time. It’s no secret I’m a sucker for a great melody, and this tune is just that – pure melody. Everyone kills it on this tune. It’s really tough to pick a favorite solo, but if pressed I’d probably say Evans’ because it is so brilliant in its simplicity.

What fascinates me most about this album is something Miles stated in his autobiography. He said that when he conceived of Kind of Blue, he was going for a very specific kind of sound. I can’t recall the album that inspired him (I can’t find my damn copy of the book), but I do recall that in the end, when Kind of Blue had been recorded and all was finished, he felt that he had missed the mark. Not that it wasn’t a successful album, or that he didn’t like it – he did – but that he missed his target with it. In the course of recording it became something different from what he was originally going for. I would love to have heard what was in his head, but I am eternally grateful for what was recorded.