Paul Gilbert Explains How Van Halen Were Better Than Other Arena Rock Acts, Shares Honest Opinion on Eddie

One of the most influential shredders on the scene, Paul Gilbert, recently caught up with Guitar World where he shared the top 11 guitar players who shaped his tone. Aside from the fact that this is an obvious Spinal Tap reference, the list, of course, featured the almighty Eddie Van Halen.

And while discussing Eddie, Paul also explained what made Van Halen so special compared to the other bands of the era. Reflecting on the legendary guitarist’s work, he said:

“Anybody who plays guitar and is around my age has got to have Eddie’s name on their list, right? I mean, when Eddie came out, it was otherworldly. But beyond that, it was just the sound of Van Halen as a whole band that was very different from what was going on at the time.

Van Halen - Runnin' With The Devil (Official Music Video)

As Paul further explains, no other arena rock bands or artists could even get close to what Van Halen were doing. Sure, they were all great but they made things too “safe” by making their albums too polished which, according to Gilbert, sucked the life out of them. He continued:

“Other arena rock acts like Kiss, Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, and Aerosmith would be produced and cleaned up, and while that was nice, the cleaning up of their sound sucked the energy out of the music.

“But Van Halen sounded like their live show — it wasn’t too careful-sounding. They had this energy when they came on the radio, and their music stood out so much from everything else. And then, of course, you get down to what Eddie was playing on guitar, which was totally different.

Van Halen 03 25 1979 Fresno Superb performance

Although Van Halen’s early original music made a huge impact, doing covers of rock classics was another thing they were great at. In particular, The Kinks’ classic “You Really Got Me” got a whole new perspective after Van Halen covered it. And to Paul, this cover was a game-changer. As he explained:

“I liken hearing his version of ‘You Really Got Me‘ to him taking a charming picture of a dinosaur and then turning it into a da Vinci painting. I heard him play — it’s like, ‘Okay, the adult has entered the room.’

Most importantly, Paul notes how Eddie was, at the time, one of the few guitar players — if not the only one — who had absolute control of over his instrument:

“Eddie was just in total command of his instrument. There were no rough edges, and everything was played with intention. His level of virtuosity was like what you’d hear from a great violinist or a classical piano player. He had that level of control with his guitar playing.”

The list saw a variety of other great guitar players. But it’s no surprise that Gilbert also cited Rush legend Alex Lifeson as one of the biggest inspirations. He said of Lifeson:

“Another warbly guitar player, where you know he’s using some type of pedal that makes the whole world swim. And you know, with the early Rush stuff, there’s depth and a kind of Zeppelin influence that I liked a lot. 

“To me, when somebody is influenced by somebody that I like, I don’t care – I will never criticize anybody. You won’t find me saying, ‘Oh, you sound too much like this great person.’ I’m more like, ‘Bring it on. I love it.’ I can take in as many Jimi Hendrix clones as you can throw at me. I can have a million versions of that, and I’m totally happy because that’s the right person to clone [Laughs].

And, as Paul adds, some of the comparisons with Led Zeppelin that Rush received back in their early days made sense. While some saw them as a way to disparage Rush’s work, to Paul, this felt like a compliment:

“So, with the early Rush stuff, when people say, ‘Oh, it’s too much like Zeppelin,’ I’m like, ‘Um, no problem.’ Because I’ll take as many Led Zeppelins as the world can handle – I feel like the more, the better. But, of course, as Rush progressed and Neil Peart joined, they began to find their own thing.

He also added:

“So, Rush was really my introduction to prog-rock: odd time signatures, long songs, and having to really memorize a lot of stuff to be able to play along with it. But it was a fun challenge to try and play these complicated songs that required more than a couple of lessons to understand.

2112: Overture / The Temples Of Syrinx / Discovery / Presentation / Oracle: The Dream /...

“I used to play a lot of that stuff in the bands I was in, which meant it was a total pedalboard-building process. It was like, ‘Okay, I want to play ‘Red Barchetta,‘ I need to have my delay set at a certain setting,’ or whatever.

“I got very into all the pedal stuff to try to copy what Alex was doing. He was a very interesting guitar player who did a lot of stuff that I would never have thought of beyond the scope of the Jimmy Page stuff I was into. So, he exposed me to elements I didn’t know about in very creative ways.”

Photos: Lars Horstmann (GS2019 – Paul Gilbert), Abby Gillardi (Van Halen-8611 (20022175423))

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.