Great Albums: Chickenfoot

Album: Chickenfoot

Personnel: Sammy Hagar (vocals), Joe Satriani (guitars), Michael Anthony (bass), Chad Smith (drums)

Sometime around ten years ago, I got a little lost.

OK, that’s a little dramatic. Nothing really bad happened in that time period. In fact, a lot of really great things happened. I moved to Arizona, started a new career as a programmer, had two beautiful kids, bought a house, switched jobs a few times, and my wife became a published author. So when I say I got lost, I don’t mean that I was wandering the streets howling at the moon night after night. I mean that something that was previously a huge part of my life – music – took a bit of a backseat to everything else that was new. I stopped playing guitar, almost completely. Stopped going to record stores, and buying CDs every chance I got (mp3s weren’t everywhere yet, and I still like buying CDs). Stopped going to clubs and concerts, seeking out new music. Pretty much just stopped. But so much other stuff was going on that I almost didn’t realize I was missing anything. Life went on, and it was good.

Then one day about three years ago I was surfing around online, and made my way over to Joe Satriani’s site, which even in those days I would visit from time to time. And then I saw this word on one of the pages, “Chickenfoot”. It was a little unclear what it was, but my interest was piqued, so I Googled it. And sure enough, up came the website. And my jaw dropped when I saw the site header – Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Joe Satriani, and Chad Smith. In a band. Together. Called Chickenfoot?

At that moment something clicked. Something changed inside me. It was something I hadn’t felt in a really long time. Excitement for music. I was crackling with it.

The album wasn’t due to be released for several months yet, but I told everyone who would listen about this “new” band. I put the Chickenfoot logo up as my Instant Messenger avatar. For the next few weeks, I had the same IM conversation with a whole slew of people:

Them: “Chickenfoot? What’s that?”
Me: check this out
(a few seconds pass by…)
Them: “No shit!”
Me: “I know!”

I would then proceed to tell my friend/coworker/random stranger everything I knew about the band, whether they wanted to hear it or not: when the album was coming out, how they got together, if they were going to tour, if I thought it would be good, etc. I did this so often that my friend Brian created a Chickenfoot whiteboard sticker for me (my kids got in on the act too, hence the “Chickenfoot Dad” scrawl and red clay logo).

My wife, being a writer and therefore more than a little perceptive, noticed my excitement too. And bless her, unbeknownst to me, she signed me up for the Chickenfoot Fan Club for my birthday – the first time I’d ever been in a fan club in my life. And I loved it. So basically I was a fan even before the album was released. I just had a feeling it would be something special.

During that time, there was some speculation online that Joe Satriani would have trouble playing in a band setting, having been a solo artist for so long. But I knew that was just stupid. Satriani is one of the few absolute masters of the guitar – the guy can do anything. I remember an interview Joe once gave where he lamented the fact that so many people still thought he was some kind of “mad fusion” player – “I play rock music,” he said. Yes, yes he does. Need proof? Read on.

Quick aside: my all time favorite quote about Satch was from jazz guitar legend Pat Martino. Satriani played on Martino’s comeback album many years ago. After the recording session, Martino remarked, “Man, I’ve played with the best of the best, and that guy’s a motherfucker.”

For those not versed in jazz parlance, that was a huge compliment.

So when the album finally came out, I was more than ready. As I bought the CD I had a weird sense of terrible excitement tempered ever so slightly by the knowledge that so-called “supergroups” like this often didn’t work out so well – uneven efforts at best, and epic failures at worst. But I had nothing to fear. I went home and listened to the album straight through, just like the old days, smiling like a fool the whole time. The album rocks. Somehow these four guys managed to come together and create a kick ass record that not only showcases their considerable individual skills, but also sounds like a great band.

“Avenida Revolucion” kicks things off, and right away it’s high energy hard rock. Satriani is hitting his trademark harmonics and wailing all over the place; Chad Smith is beating the drums like they owe him money; Sammy is screaming the way only he can; and Mike is holding down the bottom and the top all at once, with his solid bass lines and steady harmonies. The guitar solo finds Joe in legato mode, and the rideout has some nice moments where Mike is able to shine on bass for a bit.

While we’re on the subject, let’s take a moment to talk about Michael Anthony. To be honest, I never really appreciated Mike when he was in Van Halen.  When the Chickenfoot album came out, the band put together a series of videos to sort of introduce the band and the songs. In one of the videos Sammy said that they really made a conscious effort to feature the vocal harmonies in every song, because Sammy and Mike’s voices blended so nicely and created that signature Van Hagar sound. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, but he was right – it is a very distinctive sound and a lot of that comes from Mike.

Chickenfoot put out a concert DVD after their tour (filmed, by the way, at the Phoenix show which I attended – I’m even in the video for half a second…well, my hair is anyway). There is one moment in that video that epitomizes Michael Anthony. I don’t even remember which song they were playing, but it was a moment that Mike was away from his mic, just jamming along on his bass. When the chorus came up, he just casually stepped up to the mic and belted out one of his patented VH-style harmonies, all the while holding down the bottom as if it was nothing. And that moment, for some reason, clicked in my head what an absolute pro Mike is.

It reminded me of a story about the actor Hal Holbrook (yes I know that’s an odd reference…stay with me). He was hired to be on a few episodes of The Sopranos back when it was still on the air. Sopranos creator David Chase was watching Holbrook film the first take of a scene, and when it ended, someone turned to him and said, “Wow, that was really good, wasn’t it?” And Chase replied, “Well, when you want something done right, you hire a pro.”

So hats off to Michael Anthony, the man, the myth, the professional.

While promoting this album, Sammy Hagar made a somewhat controversial statement comparing Chickenfoot to Led Zeppelin. He has since recanted that statement, saying he was drunk and it was just a really stupid thing to say (he even went so far as to pay homage to Led Zep on Chickenfoot’s second album, mentioning Houses of the Holy in the song “Big Foot”). Now, I’ll agree that his statement wasn’t exactly well thought-out. But, I have to say that if any Chickenfoot song were to win the honor of a Led Zep comparison, it would have to be the second song on the album, “Soap on a Rope”. This song ROCKS. It has a monster riff that Jimmy Page (or Tony Iommi, Angus Young, James Hetfield, or any of the all-time riff master gods) would be proud of. This song has it all and you can really tell that the whole band put everything they had into it. Chad’s drumming is funky and hard hitting at the same time. Joe’s tone is unreal, Sammy is killing it and Mike has some ridiculous harmonies going on. And to top it all off, they give us the extended rideout, somewhat reminiscent of Joe’s “Summer Song”, so by the time the song is finished the listener is just exhausted. What a great tune – one of my all time rock favorites.

“Sexy Little Thing” is a straight ahead rocker with some nice harmonies from Sammy and Mike, a tasty clean solo from Joe, and some really nice high-hat work from Chad. I hate to throw more fuel on the Led Zep fire, but Chad really does remind me a lot of John Bonham on this album. They were both big, powerful drummers who you expect to just bash the hell out of the drums, but they continually surprise you with how intricate their drum parts are, and how perfectly they fit the songs. “Thrifty” was how Robert Plant described Bonzo’s drumming, and I think that’s a very appropriate term for Chad here as well.

“Oh Yeah” was the first single off the album, and for good reason. It’s got the same attitude as “Soap on a Rope”, but with a bit more polish and restraint. It also features some of Joe’s best rhythm playing ever. I wish I knew how he got that extra crunchy rhythm tone.

“Runnin’ Out” is another mid-tempo tune, similar to “Sexy Little Thing”, with plenty more thriftiness from Chad and a killer wah solo from Joe.

“Get it Up” is next and is by far the most exotic of the tunes. One of Joe Satriani’s favorite scales is the Phrygian Dominant mode, which has a strong Middle Eastern tonality. Not something you hear every day, especially in mainstream rock music. But somehow Joe manages to write an entire song built on it, make it accessible, and make it rock. More great hi-hat and cymbal work from Chad on this one, and probably my favorite vocals of the whole album. Sammy and Mike’s harmonies are right up front on this one, with Mike joining in on all the verses rather than the chorus. The mix of their voices creates a really nice haunting effect that floats above the rhythm section like shifting sand.

The story behind “Down the Drain” is amazing. Joe had brought in a rough demo to share with the guys, and while he was tuning up his guitar, he started playing a little of his “Rubina’s Blue Sky Happiness” (my most favoritest tune of his ever, by the way). He then started just messing around, playing some slow, swampy riffs, and the guys joined in, thinking that was the song Joe was going to show them. They continued to jam for 15 or 20 minutes, instinctively following each other and never calling out chord changes or notes to each other. Sammy even got into it, throwing down rhythmic scratch vocals on top of the music. When the jam wound down, they all realized how cool it was and went to listen back to it. When they heard it they knew they had a song, so they edited it down, added a short bridge, Sammy overdubbed some vocals, and boom, there it was. They even kept Sammy’s original speaking parts from the start of the jam: “Is that that new thing, Joe? Huh? Talk to me, chief!”

“My Kinda Girl” is a tricky one for me. This is by far the most commercial sounding song on the album, and by that I mean it veers away from hard rock and into pop territory, especially in the chorus and bridge, where Sammy and Mike’s harmonies are really layered on thick. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with a good pop song, and I’m a sucker for a good melody, but in this context it just doesn’t quite feel right. Joe saves this one though, ripping into his guitar solo with one of his patented single-string runs, leaping through arpeggios punctuated with open strings, and ending with a blues run and whammy bar growl.

“Learning to Fall” is a beautiful ballad in B minor, featuring some great vocals by Sammy and Mike. But Joe steals this one too, with a soaring harmonic at the start of the guitar solo that is the emotional high point, elevating the song to another level.

“Turning Left” might as well be called “The Joe Show”. Another killer riff, and just a ridiculous amount of high-octane soloing insanity throughout. Supposedly he did all the solos in one take. Unreal.

“Future in the Past” is a bit of an oddball tune, but it’s my second favorite on the album, behind “Soap on a Rope”. This is the album’s closer, and the boys take us on an epic journey, winding through a dirty, funky verse section, into another Phrygian Dominant interlude, and winding up with a bombastic rock rideout. Joe is in full-on Hendrix mode here, and he delivers some gut-wrenching and soulful blues lines in his outro solo, while Sammy belts out his most emotional singing on the album.

Chickenfoot (the album) went gold just a few months after it was released. Compared to some of the past multi-platinum successes of its members, that seems like nothing to really brag about. But when viewed in today’s music climate, where hard rock is rarely seen or heard except on classic rock radio, and albums are something made in the olden times before iPods existed, it’s nothing short of extraordinary. My guess is that I’m not the only one out there who was awakened by this album and the glorious music on it. I’m thinking there are a lot of us out there, who for one reason or another really needed something like this, and the boys in Chickenfoot delivered.

Since this album came out, music has become part of my life again. I have been listening to so much more, discovering new stuff and also re-discovering my old favorites. I started going to concerts again (just saw Sting a few months ago). I started this blog. And I’ve even started playing guitar again – my wife got me a book of Coltrane transcriptions that I’m working through. Slowly. Very slowly.

I will be forever grateful for Chickenfoot. And since I may never get to say it in person, I’d like to sincerely say thank you to Sammy, Mike, Joe, and Chad for making the music they make, and stoking the fire.


Proud Papa

So I’m driving in the car the other day with my two girls (ages 6 and 9) and “Fade to Black” comes on the radio. So naturally I crank it up. A few seconds go by, and my oldest pipes up and says, “Hey Dad, this sounds like Metallica.” I am gobsmacked, of course, and I ask how on earth  she knew that. She replies, “I could just tell by the sound of the guitars.”


Great Performances: Joe Walsh Plays “Desperado” on Howard Stern Show

I’ve been a fan of Howard Stern’s radio show for many many years. The show certainly has a huge number of memorable moments. However my favorite moment is one most people probably won’t remember at all.

It was back in the K-ROCK days, before satellite, during one of the F-Emmy awards shows. The award was for Best Musical Performance, and Howard was playing clips of the nominees. When Howard played a clip of Alanis Morisette (I forget what song it was for), he was silent for a brief moment, and then said “Dammit, I love musicians. Music is the only thing that stirs any emotion in my soul anymore.” He said this loudly, passionately, and for the most miniscule moment you could almost hear his voice crack with emotion. And then his tone changed slightly, veering off to a self-mocking tone that seemed to attempt to mask what a true statement it was.

Maybe it’s Stern’s almost Svengali-like ability to pull such great performances out of the artists; maybe it’s simply the fact that he’s been on the air for so long that he’s bound to collect a number of great performances over so many years. Whatever it is, there is no denying that Stern has in his collection an incredible array of stellar musical performances.

While there are many to choose from (the Alanis performance was indeed fantastic, and fans picked Dave Grohl’s performance of Everlong as the best), for me the best of the best is Joe Walsh’s performance of the Eagles tune “Desperado”. There’s a long story behind the performance, which I’ll try to relate here, but I may be missing some details. Hopefully someone out there can fill in if I miss anything.

This was back in 1989 or 1990. Walsh was on the show when Stern asked him to play something. Walsh had no guitars, just a crappy Casio keyboard that was hanging around the studio. He set it up and started playing, and turned out the best rendition of the song I’ve ever heard.

Now apparently, at the time the Eagles were just beginning discussions about reuniting for the first time since they broke up in 1980. And apparently Don Henley, who wrote the song (Glen Frey co-wrote some of it), is (or was) very sensitive about other people performing this song. So when Walsh left the show that day, it seems he had a change of heart about playing the song, and tried desperately to get Gary Dell’Abate (the show’s producer) on the phone to pull it from the air.

Unfortunately for him, Gary had already left for vacation for the weekend, and Walsh left several increasingly violent and angry messages on Gary’s phone. So the song aired, and of course Henley heard it and exploded. Shortly after, the reunion was off, and it was not until 4 years later that they reconciled long enough to do the Hell Freezes Over tour.

Now, there’s some confusion on my part on one point. There are actually two performances of Walsh singing “Desperado” on Stern’s show – one solo, and one with Sam Kinison on guitar. Now, I believe the incident with Henley was over the version with Kinison, which aired on Stern’s infamous Channel 9 show. However the version I’m referring to as the best ever was the solo version. Unfortunately Kinison just ruined the other version with his unending, meandering guitar lines. I love Sam as a comedian, but he was not a musician. Anyway, I am not clear on when the two performances took place. I know the Kinison version was around 1990, but I’m foggy on when the solo version happened. I think it was a little earlier than that, but I’m not sure. Hopefully someone can shed some light out there.

So enough of the drama and back to the performance. What makes this one so special? Well for me it was an eye-opener. Truth be told I was never really a fan of Joe Walsh. I had always heard his name mentioned among the periphery of great guitar players, but I never understood why. He always seemed like a decent guitarist, but nothing special. I thought he was more of a spectacle sideshow for the Eagles rather than a true musician.

To begin with, “Desperado” is a great song. It’s a timeless melody with evocative lyrics of loneliness, sadness, pain, and a little hope.  The stark instrumentation of Walsh’s version – just a keyboard – provides an intimacy that matches the song perfectly. The cheap organ sound also lends an almost plaintive, gospel/spiritual tone to the overall sound.

But the thing that makes the performance special is Walsh’s voice. On his solo records, his voice always sounded like a whiny drawl to me. Not a pleasant sound. Here, however, his voice is gravelly and nuanced. The original recording of the song sounds far too polished by comparison. In Walsh’s voice you can hear the late nights, the booze, the depression and sadness that embody the song.

While it’s a shame that this performance caused Joe Walsh so much anguish, I’m glad it happened. I will forever be grateful that he did it, and that I was able to hear it. I sincerely hope that this performance, and the other great performances from the Stern show, will be available in some form for all to hear for a long time.

Great Solos: Unit 7

Song: Unit 7

Solo Performed By: Wes Montgomery

Album: Smokin’ at the Half Note


I’ve wanted to write about this solo for a long time.

Everything I’ve ever heard or read about Smokin’ at the Half Note mentions any number of the following things: the excitement of two titans coming together in a live gig, the exceptional rhythm section of Miles Davis alums, the epic solos on the tune “No Blues” (clocking in around 13 minutes), the beautiful ballads. But I never heard anyone talk about “Unit 7”. It was as if it didn’t exist. Which boggled my mind, because since the first time I heard it I’ve considered it my favorite Wes solo ever, and one of the greatest guitar solos of all time.

The song itself is basically a 12-bar blues with a bridge. The bridge is fairly simple, winding through a few II-V progressions on its way back to the blues section, but it is different enough to provide the soloists a little harmonic interest to work with. In fact it is this bridge section that, in my opinion, serves to elevate this tune above the others on the album. Without the bridge, you’ve got just another blues, and it’s pretty damn hard to beat “No Blues” in that department. But the addition of the bridge provides Wes with the platform to showcase his two best qualities as a musician: (1) his soulful blues playing (over the blues sections), and (2) his melodicism (over the bridge sections).

The solo follows Wes’ favored solo structure of single note lines, followed by octave lines, followed by block chords. After a nice piano solo by Wynton Kelly, Wes comes in around the 2:30 mark with a classic blues lick, and the first thing you notice is his tone. Big, full and round, and surprisingly present.

The next thing you notice is Wes’ patience. I once read a quote about Wes from Lenny Tristano (as told to Joe Satriani): “You know, Wes never played a wrong note. He never played an extra note, he never left one out”. Listen to these single note lines, and he always sounds completely relaxed, and never overplays.

There is a quality that the best players have that is hard to put into words, but you know it when you hear it. It’s a quality of being in complete control of their instrument. It’s not so much in the notes they choose (which are usually great), but the quality of the sound, the tone, the command you hear in their fingers. You can hear that their instrument is a part of them, that it’s some kind of wild thing that they have not only tamed but mastered. Stevie Ray Vaughan immediately comes to mind when I think about this quality. John Coltrane had it too. And Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Kenny Burrell, Jeff Beck, Michael Brecker, George Benson, Clifford Brown, Joe Satriani, Pat Metheny…you get the idea. Wes had that quality in everything he did, and it is on full display here.

Over the first bridge (at about 2:56) Wes plays a really nice counterpoint line, keeping a sort of pedal tone in the upper register while he subtly moves the lower notes around. It’s a beautiful example of his melodic sense – where most players see a II-V progression and jump all over it, blowing a million notes per second or playing one of thousands of rote patterns, Wes plays a simple melody that just sings.

At about 3:18 Wes plays a really nice melodic quote from the Sonny Rollins tune “Pent-Up House”, made famous by Clifford Brown (another great solo, by the way). This kind of musical quoting – where a soloist will mimic a melodic line from another song or even another solo – is a long-standing tradition in jazz. Charlie Parker was the king of it.

When I listen to this solo, time and again the most prevalent thing I take away from it is movement. Try listening to the solo while keeping your body perfectly still. It’s impossible. Particularly the section starting around 3:42. It’s another bridge section (can you tell I’m a sucker for the melodic stuff?), and Wes falls into it by playing a beautiful cascade of notes. It’s really just a descending C major arpeggio, but he plays it by sliding up to each note, creating a sort of leaping-up-the-down-escalator sound, before landing solidly on the minor third (F) of the Dm7 chord that starts the bridge. Too much! But that’s just the beginning – he plays some more tasty lines in the bridge, and then at about 3:50, Wes plays my favorite lick of the solo, and one of my all time favorites. When you analyze it, it’s really a fairly basic turnaround lick, another set of II-Vs. But somehow it manages to sound so fresh and invigorating, mainly due to the interval leaps he makes, which recall Charlie Parker’s intervallic gymnastics (who in turn was influenced by Bach). This is one of those magical musical ideas that defies analysis – even though I have studied it and can even play it pretty well, I still shake my head in joy and wonder every time I hear it.

Wes ends his single note lines with, appropriately, a few blues licks, before moving into the octave section.

I’m not sure if Wes was the first guitarist to ever play solo lines in octaves (I doubt it, but it’s certainly possible), but he was far and away the master of it. Ever since, anyone who has ever played an octave line on guitar immediately invokes a comparison to Wes.

When a guitarist plays lines in octaves, their hand is essentially locked in a specific position, and the entire arm from fingertips to elbow must move as one in order to navigate the fretboard.  Now, Wes was by far the fastest octave player around, but even having said that, the technique still forces the player to forego any really complex lines in favor of more melodic ones – it’s a technique that actually takes “technique” out of the equation. Most techniques are developed in order to facilitate the playing of more complex musical ideas, sometimes to the detriment of the music itself, the melody. Playing in octaves achieves just the opposite; it’s a technique that actually hinders the playing of more complex ideas, therefore putting more focus on the music itself. It’s a brilliant concept when you analyze it, and it becomes even more brilliant when you take away the analysis and understand that that’s just the sound and the melodic lines that Wes was hearing in his head.

In Wes’ hands, the octave section provides not just a melodic boost, but also a rhythmic boost as well. The solo really picks up steam when Wes starts in with the octaves. Check out the line at 4:30 – it’s another escalator-type descending octave run leading into the bridge, and when you hear it you can feel it in your gut, pulling you back down to begin another ascent. This leads to an extraordinary section that builds the momentum even more with just a few simple syncopated lines (4:40-4:50).

Which leads us to the block chord section. Until I started to really study Wes, I was completely befuddled by block chord solos on guitar. I’d listen to Wes, and George Benson, and Joe Pass, and think, “How do they DO that? They must know every possible chord voicing known to man! If I practice for the rest of my life I’ll never learn all those chords.” Well I did try – I went so far as to purchase the classic book “Chord Chemistry” by Ted Greene, which takes a systematic approach to learning, well, every chord voicing known to man, many of them difficult or even impossible to play on guitar, unless you’re Allan Holdsworth. The book remains in pristine shape to this day – I barely cracked it open.

But once I started to actually listen and study Wes, I sort of got it – I couldn’t necessarily do it on guitar, but I could at least wrap my head around it. The thing is, Wes never played more than a dozen or so different chord voicings in his solos. That’s right – a dozen or so. No chord chemistry nonsense – just the basic forms in the higher registers, with a few variations thrown in for various extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc).

The block chord section is similar to the octave section, in that it is so rhythmic and it grooves so hard. Most of the “A” sections are dedicated to syncopated chord strumming, often on the same chords for long periods. Then the bridge sections are used for more complex chords and rhythms. For example, listen at around 5:15, just before the bridge – this follows a long string of very similar chords, with a common top note providing a sort of pedal or anchor. Then the bridge kicks in with another patented rapid-fire descending chord cascade before going back to the syncopated pedal chords.

The solo winds down and it’s back to the main melody and out. When the song is over, I always go back to the feeling of movement. I’m almost physically exhausted by the end of this solo.

Joe Satriani was once asked in an interview to name three of his musical heroes. Naturally his first hero was Jimi Hendrix. His second, Billy Gibbons, was a bit of a surprise but not a stretch. The third musician he mentioned was Wes Montgomery. I’ll close with this excerpt:

“When you sing one of his solos you feel like you’re in the presence of greatness. It’s like reading a poem that’s perfect and you just can’t believe someone came up with that combination of words that you use every day but just in a different order. And that’s kind of like what music is. We all have the same notes in our pocket, but the great ones pull out the right ones at the right time. Wes was one of those guys. He had the timing, the rhythm, the note selection, he had an incredible sense of melody and harmony, and he performed impeccably.”

Other writing on Wes Montgomery:

You can read the full Joe Satriani interview here.

You can read Pat Metheny’s fantastic liner notes to the Jazz Icons DVD featuring Wes here.

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.