Into the Arena: Edward Van Halen
and the Cultural Contradictions
of the Guitar Hero
In 1984, Van Halen broke through to the top of the pop charts with one of the catchiest singles of the year, Jump. An upbeat, tuneful number, the song was seen as a breakthrough for the band on several counts, not least in that it featured the musical leader of the band, guitarist Edward Van Halen, abandoning his usual instrument in favour of the lush-sounding synthesizer chords that defined the song. For Edward, the success of the song was especially sweet, because he had fought with his bandmates - especially then-lead vocalist David Lee Roth - over the inclusion of Jump on the band's album, 1984. At the heart of the conflict was an issue dating back to the band's third album, Women and Children First, released in 1980. The lead track, And the Cradle Will Rock, sounded like a solid, guitarheavy, more or less typical Van Halen track, but underneath the flanged and distortion-laden textures of the tune was a secret weapon, a Wurlitzer electric piano that Edward had camouflaged by playing through his Marshall guitar amplifiers. So effectively disguised, the inclusion of the keyboard posed no serious problem with regard to the recorded version of the song. Playing the cut live, though, was a different matter. As Edward recounted in a 1985 interview: ‘That was my first encounter with the band not wanting me to play keyboards - when we did the song live, Mike [Anthony, Van Halen's bassist] played it. They didn't want a “guitar hero” playing keyboards, and that kind of ties in with why they didn't want Jump’ (Guitar World 1997: 40). For all his widely admired virtuosity, Edward Van Halen was expected by his bandmates, and perhaps by many of his fans, to adhere to an ethos of rock‘heroism’ that tethered him to his principal instrument, the electric guitar.
Though a small episode in the broad course of Edward Van Halen's career, the tension surrounding the guitarist's use of a keyboard in concert and, later, on record testifies to the power that the image of the guitar hero has wielded over the past