There are some elements to Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing that will forever be associated with him. There’s tapping, which Van Halen transformed from a relatively obscure technique to being at the forefront of all rock music made throughout the 1980s. There’s also his signature tone, thanks to his unique blend of Marshall amps, gain, an MXC Phase 90 and occasionally an EchoPlex. His hammer-ons, dive bombs, and atypical chords shapes were also essential, but Eddie didn’t use all of these techniques on every Van Halen song.
At least not most of the time. One exception is ‘Panama’, the hard-rocking single from 1984. That album saw the band’s biggest step into modern production yet, with synthesisers and studio sheen being more prominent than ever before. But ‘Panama’, along with tracks like ‘Drop Dead Legs’ and ‘Hot For Teacher’ was a throwback to the band’s guitar-rock roots. Eddie was still unrivalled as the king of the guitar, and he set out to prove it on ‘Panama’.
Right off the bat, you get to hear some of the guitarist’s high-quality techniques along with his theatrics. The opening chord-based riff that kicks off the song is fleet-fingered and more technically challenging than it sounds, but the vibrato bar dive bombs are pure fretboard fireworks from Van Halen. Eddie is already in overdrive from the jump, and things only get more exciting from there.
Wild harmonics, some bluesy string bends, and some solid rhythm guitar work underpin the verses, while chromatic descending riffs kick us back into the massive chorus. After a few times around, we all know what’s coming: an explosive guitar solo. Featuring tapping, lightning-fast picking, and wild bends, it’s everything that fans have come to expect from a Van Halen guitar solo.
But then something special happens: Eddie lifts to a softer, more melancholy section. No histrionics, no special effects, and no shredding. Just a few perfectly placed notes that give the song a greater depth. The push and pull between David Lee Roth’s nonstop 24-hour party and Eddie’s desire to take the band in a more serious and thoughtful direction played out in the press during their 1985 split, but you can also hear it in the dynamics of Eddie’s guitar playing.
The ascending chords that launch us back into the song’s chorus should be taught in music classes across the world. It’s the perfect way to break “the rules” of composition and chord progressions. As we climb higher and higher on the fretboard, the excitement comes to a fever pitch as one perfectly-sung harmony from Michael Anthony rockets us into one final pass. Even in the isolated track where it’s muted, you can still hear Anthony’s high note in your head, solidifying ‘Panama’ as one of Van Halen’s most iconic and memorable tracks.
Check out the isolated guitar tracks from ‘Panama’ down below.