When it comes to listening to isolated tracks, it’s hard to find something that truly works without any context around it. The Beach Boys singing the harmonies to ‘In My Room’ a capella? Great. Paul McCartney’s wild bass line on ‘Lovely Rita’? Perfect. But it’s rare to find a single instrument that retains the same amount of power, intensity, and interest when stripped away from its context.
A notable exception to that is Eddie Van Halen. While the other members of Van Halen have some damn entertaining isolated tracks all their own (David Lee Roth’s isolated vocals for ‘Runnin’ with the Devil’ are pure cocaine-fuelled lunacy and it’s beautiful), Eddie always was the most captivating part of any Van Halen song.
The funny thing about Eddie Van Halen is that he very rarely tuned to any kind of standard tuning. While most people tend to replicate Van Halen’s signature riffs by tuning down a half step to Eb standard, there was never an exact science that Van Halen himself followed. He usually just picked up his guitar, got it in tune with his own ear, and had Michael Anthony tune to him. Once they were in the same relative tonality, they were off.
‘Unchained’ is a great example of Van Halen’s comfort tuning in the margins of standard pitch. The guitar configuration is closest to being half a step-down, with the lowest string being lowered an additional two semitones so that the final song is in drop Db. Fun fact: another song to utilise this tuning is Nirvana’s ‘All Apologies’, along with a ton of nu-metal songs.
Van Halen’s looseness with the riff and his chromatic descending lines are great to hear on their own, but of course, the big draw to the isolated track is the solo. In a sonic space all its own, the guitar solo emphasises how much Van Halen was interested in different noises and ear-catching tones that didn’t necessarily have to be specific notes or lines. Every harmonic or way too far bend or use of feedback is a testament to Van Halen’s ability to push the guitar well beyond how most would wield the instrument.
Listen to Van Halen’s isolated guitar for ‘Unchained’ down below.