There are many ongoing, unwinnable rivalries for a top tier of historical significance: Genghis Khan or Atilla the Hun? The Vikings or Columbus? Hemingway or Fitzgerald? Kennedy or Nixon? Bush or Gore? Beatles or Stones? But within one highly specialized field of scholarship, no debate is more emotional, more subjective, or more awesome than the age-old question: who was the greater rock guitarist, Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhoads?
Emerging in the late 1970s and early 80s with the commercial ascendancy of heavy metal music, the fretboard skills of EVH (1955-2020) and RR (1956-1982) represented landmark developments in instrumental prowess. Until that time, critics, players, and listeners maintained an exclusive elite of guitar heroism, in which Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck stood overshadowed by the posthumous eminence of Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). Further contemporary fast and flashy six-stringers – Pete Townshend, Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi, Ted Nugent, Joe Perry, Robin Trower, and a few besides – were hailed for their peculiar idiosyncrasies, but the basic standard of rock virtuosity appeared to be firmly established. Then, in 1978, the debut album Van Halen was released.
Guitar playing was never the same. The record’s standout tracks – “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “You Really Got Me,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “I’m the One,” and the solo pyrotechnics of “Eruption” – reset the instrument’s potential, while Eddie’s performances of later songs like “Mean Street,” “And the Cradle Will Rock,” the Roy Orbison cover “Pretty Woman,” and even his guest appearance on Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit “Beat It” were further advances. His breakthroughs lay in his speed, his attack (the percussive force with which the strings are played), his aggressive use of the tremolo or whammy bar (to slacken or tighten the tuning in mid-note), and in his innovation of artificial harmonics, “tapped” with both hands on the strings to reach octaves above the guitar’s natural range. His elaborately customized gear – guitars, amplifiers, effects – also afforded him a monster aural signature which manufacturers rushed to incorporate into off-the-shelf equipment. Above all, Eddie’s image was of a guy having fun while he played – older guitar heroes grimaced and pouted their way through the same old riffs and scales, but Van Halen grinned delighted, delightful expressions of sheer musical joy onstage, even as he displayed imagination and dexterity beyond those of nearly any of his rivals.
Sensing a new direction in the medium – and new expectations from the public – the industry scrambled to adjust. After his substance-related ejection from veteran British quartet Black Sabbath in 1979, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne launched a solo career with a new band, including semi-pro discovery Randy Rhoads; exciting newcomers Van Halen (the group) had opened shows for Osbourne’s last tour with the tired Sabbath, and the singer had seen firsthand the next generation of audiences’ awed reactions to the next guitar star. Rhoads, in a sense, was his answer to Eddie Van Halen. A second very fast guitarist who wrought unheard-of roars, slurs, squawks and squeals from his equipment, Randy Rhoads also demonstrated a fluency in the classical lexicon, contrasting with the blues motifs worked and reworked by most other rockers – including Van Halen. From the two albums he made with Osbourne (Blizzard of Ozz, 1980, and Diary of a Madman, 1981), Rhoads’ lines on “Crazy Train,” “Mr. Crowley,” and “Over the Mountain” evoked an almost Gothic feel, with melodic, precisely executed patterns unlike rock’s conventional call-and-response improvisations, while his furious live renditions of the Black Sabbath tunes “Iron Man” and “Children of the Grave” were astonishing in their technical extravagance. But between gigs on a US circuit in 1982, his promise was snuffed out when he and two others from Osbourne’s road crew perished in a squalid airplane stunt. Randy Rhoads was twenty-five.
Since then, aficionados have argued over Rhoads’ legacy, and whether his unfulfilled prospects may have eventually elevated his status over that of Eddie Van Halen. EVH appeared first and became the household name, but was RR the superior musical talent? EVH played a lot of notes, but did RR play better ones? Before his death Rhoads acknowledged the other guitarist’s impact: “I do a solo live, and I do a lot of these things that Eddie Van Halen does, and it kills me that I have to do that. It’s just flash, and it impresses the kids…Eddie is great. I don’t want to get near competing with people like that.” Van Halen, on the other hand – selling millions of records and courted by instrument makers, music journalists, and legions of aspiring players – was assured of his place atop the guitar hierarchy: “I can’t tell the difference,” he said of his real and supposed imitators. “There’s no unique quality that sticks out in my ear…[Am I responsible] for kids playing like typewriters? Hey, that’s not my fault. Maybe they cop the speed because they can’t cop my feel.”
Both Van Halen and Rhoads shared a musical background (Eddie’s Dutch father was a jazz clarinetist, while Randy’s mother owned and taught at a music school), but perhaps more important was their Southern Californian roots: two suburban Boomer children growing up on the outskirts of the world’s entertainment capital, with easy access to high-end musical instruments and concerts by top-name musical stars (EVH, in one account, claimed that the idea for tapping came to him watching Jimmy Page at a Led Zeppelin show). Hundreds of beginner guitarists in their time and place took for granted the technical conveniences and cultural encouragement that kids in small-town Oklahoma or Ontario could only dream of: to play rock at a really advanced level, it helps to have practice space enough for loud amplifiers that pick up every subtlety of the player’s touch, and to have the healthy competition fostered by a vast population of teenage music fans who share, debate, and inspire each other’s tastes. That’s a pretty good description of the tract homes and high schools of Pasadena and Burbank circa 1976 – think Fast Times at Ridgemont High with jam sessions. It takes nothing away from Van Halen’s and Rhoads’s gifts to say that they were in the right place at the right time. In the same way that Elizabethan London produced William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and Nineteenth-Century Paris produced Renoir and Monet, perhaps the strip malls and basement rec rooms of SoCal during the late American imperium produced two distinct but equally brilliant rock ‘n’ roll icons, now shredding licks and dropping jaws for all eternity.
My final verdict? As an amateur picker I personally prefer Page and Hendrix, along with Iommi, Angus, Ace, SRV of course, George and Keith obviously, plus numerous other inspirations, but Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads are each secure in my and millions of my fellow guitarists’ pantheons. To paraphrase Ozzy Osbourne’s eulogy on the 1987 Tribute album notes, “God bless you Randy, and Eddie, my friends.”