Over the weekend I stumbled across this YouTube video of Van Halen rehearsing The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Given the personnel, it must be around the time of the Right Here, Right Now live record. What the video lacks in visual quality (was this shot on VHS?) the band more than makes up for in power and style.
This little morsel highlights a lot of underappreciated aspects of Eddie Van Halen’s rhythm playing. The song itself is a fairly straightforward basher that really puts the singer out front (say what you will about the song writing differences between the DLR and Sammy Hagar era, Mr. Hagar has a great rock and roll voice). Which means that it isn’t really an Eddie Van Halen showcase. There aren’t a lot of fills or pyrotechnics. The solo is a quick assembly of some standard EVH licks that most fans will recognize. Nothing special. But the really good stuff is in his timing and what he doesn’t play.
I’ll bet most folks don’t realize how much Eddie and Angus Young share in common in their rhythm playing. This video shows off two aspects in particular. The first is the penchant for open chords, rather than “bar” chords fretted further up the neck. Both Eddie and Angus play more powerful versions of the “cowboy” chords we all learn when we first start playing the guitar. Both prefer a modified open A chord (with just the 3rd, 4th and 5th strings) to the same chord played at the 5th fret on the 4th, 5th and 6th strings.
Why? One reason is that the longer string lengths will sustain longer. For a song like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” the guitar part calls for long sustained chords. Try it for yourself. Whack an A power-chord on the 5th fret and then do the same thing in the open voicing. Which one rings out longer?
Another reason has to do with the compromises made in tuning the guitar. There’s no way to get a guitar to be perfectly in tune all the way up the neck. Proper intonation is really about minimizing these compromises, but you can’t ever make the imperfections go completely away. Since most players tune their guitars with open strings, it makes sense that open chords are more likely to sound in tune than ones fretted further up the neck. Sometimes being out of tune is so subtle that it isn’t obvious that it’s the problem. Being slightly out of tune just results in a weaker sounding chord. So a well-tuned open chord gives you all the rock and roll power you need.
The second thing Eddie and Angus do in common is the gently plucking technique that Eddie uses to mimic the keyboard part from the original song. You can hear Angus do this kind of thing at the end of Shoot To Thrill from the Back in Black record. You hear Eddie do this in Little Guitars and, if you’ve heard it, from the Starfleet Project with Brian May.
The key to this sound is using the fleshy bits of your fingertips and gently brushing the strings. You’re not trying to snap them like a country-player. You’re just barely moving them, and then quickly cutting them off for that staccato sound. I love Eddie’s interpretation of the keyboard part using this technique (I always thought the original was kind of dorky sounding).
The rest of it is really just putting the right chord in at the right moment. Oh and can we talk about the pick slides? Oh my god, those pick slides are perfect. Such a great finish to those big powerful open A chords. It’s a great example of putting a Van Halen stamp on the song, but paying due homage to the original.
I have a running list in my head of bands that covered a song better than the original artist. As much as I like the original, I love this version. I think I have a new entry for my list.