Not long ago — OK, actually about a quarter century ago — rock and metal guitarists were gods. Then grunge came along and spoiled the fun.
George Lynch of Dokken? Whatever happened to that guy? Jake E. Lee of Ozzy Osbourne’s band? So underrated. Same for goes for Reb Beach. And, oh man, speed demon Michael Angelo? (OK, nobody knew who he was even back in the ’80s.)
But the Knitting Factory Concert House remembers. Boise’s Downtown concert club is bringing three icons of the electric six-string to the stage: Eric Johnson (Aug. 14), Buckethead (Sept. 22) and Steve Vai (Oct. 3.) Get tickets at Ticketfly.
(I totally love how Vai blows his OWN mind.)
Whose whammy bar will bend your jaw clear down to the floor? Whose dazzling right hand will sweep pick the skin right off your melting face? Which guitarist will make you feel like he’s finger-tapping every goose bump on your quivering body?
Who among those three is the best?
That's a tough question. Pitting guitarists against one another like MMA fighters is a moot point — at least according to Edward Van Halen.
Back in the 1990s, I got the opportunity to ask Eddie who was better — him or Yngwie J. Malmsteen. This question seemed perfectly reasonable to me at the time. Still does.
Here’s what Eddie had to say:
VAN HALEN DUCKS QUESTION LEFT OVER FROM HIGH SCHOOL BATTLES
There were two camps of metalheads in my high school.
One was the Van Halen camp.
The other was the "guitarist of the minute" camp.
The armies of pimple-faced warriors battled endlessly over the most urgent question in our detention-filled lives:
Who was the best guitarist?
Think about it, buds.
Was it Eddie or the dude from Metallica?
Eddie or Randy Rhoads?
Eddie or Yngwie J. Malmsteen?
This week, I knew my chance had come.
I would ask Eddie himself.
Then I would return home for my high school reunion and crush those dorks once and for all.
And I, along with Eddie Van Halen, would rule.
Or so I thought.
"I think it's a stupid argument, " Van Halen told me promptly. "Because there's no such thing as better. Everybody plays differently."
No, no, no, Eddie.
Who's better, though?
"If you look at Peter Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, all those guys. Who's better out of them?" Van Halen continued. "None of them. They all play their own way, you know what I mean? I mean, making music to me is such a personal form of expression.
"And technically, "Van Halen added, "I suck."
After I regained consciousness and picked up the phone again, I figured I'd better change the subject.
But Eddie wasn't done lambasting himself.
"I know people who are technically much better than I am," he said, seeming to mock me.
But then he added: "They sound like typewriters when they play."
At this point, I sighed with relief. Eddie just laughed and coughed — two things he does often.
"I realized I was a decent player when my technique was up to where I could play what I heard in my head," he explained. "That's why I started tapping (the two-handed style he's famous for inventing). Because I couldn't do it the proper way. So I said, 'S---, I've got to figure out some way to make the guitar do what I hear in my head.'"
Suddenly, Eddie got quiet, like he had a secret to tell me.
"I'd never heard anybody do it, " he said. "And I'll never forget the day I thought of it. I was at a Zeppelin concert, and Jimmy Page was doing an open pull-off an open G string with his hand up in the air. It was probably at the intro to the solo for 'Heartbreaker.' And I said, 'Wait a minute ...'"
A revolution was born.
Van Halen, as many of us know, used the tapping technique to unleash mind-blowing, ground-breaking guitar work, from the blistering squeal of "Eruption" to the scale-fractured solo on Michael Jackson's "Beat It."
Still, he maintains a charming ignorance to his own creations.
"These guys from like Guitar Player magazine will interview me, talking about Mixolydian scales and all this, and I'm like, 'What the f--- are you talking about?' To me, you've got 12 notes, and you mix them up however you want to please your ear, know what I mean?
"They analyze what I'm doing and I'm like 'I don't have a clue what I'm doing,"' Eddie laughed.
There's a reason.
Eddie can't read music.
"The transcription of my own s---, I can't read," he muttered.
"It's funny sometimes; I'd just like to see if they're doing it right."
As if in the context of the universe, it really matters.
I'm afraid there are more important issues in life, Ed.
Like, uh, who's better you or Yngwie?
Please, please, please.
"I swear to you I don't know a thing about Yngwie," Eddie said. "Believe it or not, to this day, I've never really heard anything he's done. All I hear is he's an amazing, like, classical guy."
That's coming from an amazing, like, classy guy.
Bottom line: If I have to choose, I think Steve Vai is the greatest electric guitarist of all time. If you're even a casual guitar nerd and haven't seen him in concert, do yourself a favor and go. It's insane what he does with the instrument.