Rarely has a band sprung so fully formed as Van Halen did on their debut album. It wasn’t uncommon for bands of the 1960s and ’70s to languish for a few albums before finding their signature sound. It happened to Pink Floyd, happened to Cream, it happened to… Hall & Oates.
But not Van Halen. From the very first notes of ‘Runnin with the Devil’, everything you need to know to fall in love with this band is there: David Lee Roth’s banshee wail and sleazy charm, Michael Anthony’s pitch-perfect backing vocals and bass runs, Alex Van Halen’s thunderous drums. But when it came to revelations, nobody made a more seismic and immediate impact than Eddie Van Halen.
For someone who pretty much single handedly reinvented and reinvigorated guitar-based rock music, Van Halen’s background and set up were modest to say the least. A first generation American, Van Halen’s family grew up poor, and when Eddie looked to pick up the guitar, he realised that he couldn’t afford either the Fender or Gibson he truly wanted. So instead, he created his own: the Frankenstrat.
By the time Van Halen were signed to a record contract, Eddie’s set up wasn’t terribly complicated. His guitar, plugged into a Marshall amplifier, along with an MXR Phase 90 pedal and an Echoplex unit. Most of the sound came from his hands and the way he manipulated his instrument naturally, not synthetically. Bends, volume swells, natural gain, and especially tapping were the tools of his trade, and they could be replicated by just about anybody if they looked hard enough.
That’s what makes up Van Halen’s sound on ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’, although there remains quite a bit of contention as to what Van Halen actually used the recording. Some swear that a MXR Flanger was also involved in the pedal train, but Van Halen himself seems to recall his first usage of the pedal being on Van Halen II‘s ‘Outta Love Again’ — he also occasionally claimed to have used the pedal on ‘Atomic Punk’, but less frequently then he cites ‘Outta Love Again’.
Whatever the specific set up might have been, ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’ remains one of Van Halen’s most indelible riff rockers. Van Halen’s guitar sounds spacey and otherworldly, while still containing the grit and fuzz that made Van Halen the premiere rock and roll back of their day. It was a concert favourite and remained in the band’s setlist for their entire career.
The song was so well liked that it even acted as a bridge between different eras of the band. When Sammy Hagar replaced Roth as lead singer in 1985, he initially declined to sing most of Roth’s songs. One of the few exceptions was ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’, which Hagar brought his own unique Red Rocker persona to. Even when Extreme singer Gary Cherone stepped in for a single album and tour, ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’ was on the setlist.
Check out the isolated guitar on ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’ down below.