Who was the better guitarist: Hendrix or Van Halen?

March 25, 2014 | By:

Hendrix or Van Halen? : For as long as there’s been rock there’s been the debate of who was the better guitarist, Jimi Hendrix or Van Halen. It’s a cliché at this point. It’s such as cliché that I’d likely be right to say that when you first read the article headline you thought to yourself “God, not this argument again.” However I’m not going to state my opinion on who was better like some mellowed out stoner who just listened to “Eruption” for the first time, instead I’m going to look at this subjectively and do a point system.

Yes, a point system. I’ve devised several categories that should represent what I believe to be the “essence” of a good guitar player. After that I’ll look at both of their music and see who was clearly the better player in that category and award them a point. At the end of the article I’ll tally up the points and see who won. The categories are: Technique, Showmanship, Style, Solos and Songwriting. Let’s begin.

If you’re a Van Halen fan I know what you’re thinking right now, “Eddie popularized tapping.” It’s a common misconception that he invented it, Duane Allman, Frank Zappa, Ace Frehley and even Brian May did it years before Eddie, in fact Eddie claimed he got the idea from watching Jimmy Page doing open string pull-offs. However Van Halen popularized it and brought it into mainstream rock, that’s undeniable.

As for Hendrix his signature technique is feedback, sure he did that awesome thing with the barre chords, but feedback was really his muse (Before you start writing a 3 page essay on the wah-wah pedal you should note I’m not counting pedals in technique.) Just like Van Halen didn’t invent tapping, Hendrix didn’t invent feedback. The Beatles did it in their 1964 song “I Feel Fine” years before 1967’s “Foxy Lady.” So who did it better?

Jimi is amazing at feedback.

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And Eddie is amazing at tapping.

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It’s tough, but I’d say the point goes to Van Halen because even though Jimi quite clearly has some astral control over his guitar amp he was far from the first to experiment with it as “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and “My Generation” by The Who used feedback in 1965. And that’s not even scratching the surface. The Monks, Jefferson Airplane, The Velvet Underground, The Grateful Dead and even Brian May experimented with feedback in his teens (unlike most teens of the 60’s who experimented with other things) before 1967 while in comparison only about 3 artists used tapping and most of them did it with a pick instead of their fingers.

Anyone familiar with Van Halen knows that Eddie has his own style and he doesn’t stray from it much: harmonics, vibrato, tremolo and a hell of a lot of tapping. Sure some songs are a lot different from the others but if you spend awhile listening to a Van Halen album or two you’ll get a sense of Eddie’s “style” to a point that you can listen to a song by an artist such as Def Leppard, for example, and think “that’s very Van Halen-esque” or “that’s a typical Van Halen song.”

Jimi on the other hand, he’s a bit harder to pin down to a specific style. There’s quite possibly no other band like The Jimi Hendrix Experience and no other guitarist like Jimi Hendrix. I’m going to give the point to Jimi for this one, but before you disagree with me, name just one mainstream artist like him, just one and I’ll give the point to Eddie. Until then the point goes to Jimi.

After about an hour of watching Van Halen’s live shows on YouTube I’m convinced they’ve all been taken straight out of 80’s music videos with a lighting technician who’s blind in one eye.

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Even though Van Halen are a talented group of people and can play their songs live almost without any error, it’s the fact that you’re seeing Van Halen that justifies the ticket price. They don’t really do anything unbelievable or extraordinary other than stand there and look badass while they occasionally flourish their guitars a bit. I’ve seen typical garage bands in my local music circuit put on a similar acts. It’s just that on a larger scale only with better musicians and now brown M&Ms.

Jimi on the other hand was able to play his guitar using his teeth.

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And behind his back.

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He even had a habit of setting fire to his guitars.

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If setting your guitar on fire for the sake of a performance isn’t dedication, then I don’t know what is. Point to Jimi.

Guitar solos are more or less the staple of any guitarist, you can’t really be an awesome guitarist by just plucking a few chords.

Jimi sounds like something from another planet playing guitar, there’s not a single person living or dead but him that could write such solos, but his solos don’t require a lot of technical guitar skill to play, you could learn one in a few hours. Eddie’s solos however require an heavily experienced guitar player to play.

As sort of a test I decided to pick up my guitar and learn a Hendrix song and a Van Halen song. I picked “All Along The Watchtower” and “Jump”. I found Watchtower quite easy, 13th fret g string, then 12th fret B string, then 14th fret B string bend, some vibrator. Then it picks up a bit with some hammer-ons/pull-offs etc. I learned the guts of the song quite quickly.

I look up how to play Jump’s solo and the first thing I see is I have to jump from 19th fret to the 7th fret and then to the 10th, then rapidly alternate between the 7th and 10th fret on different strings incredibly quickly before tapping the fret board like I have Parkinsons. With that in mind plus “Eruption” I think Van Halen is the clear winner for this category. Point to Eddie.

If you’ve been keeping tabs on the score so far, it’s neck and neck, and this is the last category. Who was the better songwriter can qualify as an article on its own, personally I think Van Halen wrote better songs, but that’s unfair as a tiebreaker. I’m going to look at some facts:

According to whosampled.com 178 notable artists other artists have covered a Jimi Hendrix song while only 26 artists has covered Van Halen songs.

According to the RIAA Van Halen has sold 63.8 million worldwide. I wasn’t able to find any solid facts about Jimi’s sales to date. Can anyone help with that? Feel free to comment below.

Bob Dylan, who wrote All Along The Watchtower, loved Jimi Hendrix’s version of the song so much that Bob said the version he likes to perform is based off Hendrix’s version. Let’s not forget Bob Dylan is an acclaimed songwriter in his own right and even wrote what Rolling Stones Magazine considered the greatest song of all time, Like A Rolling Stone.

On the other hand The Kink’s (The guys who did “You Really Got Me”) Dave Davis has said he hated Van Halen’s cover of the song and believes “Van Halen would be penniless without The Kinks”.

This article looks at Eddie alone and not the rest of Van Halen. Eddie co-wrote most of his songs with the other Van Halen members, while Jimi wrote most of his songs on his own.

With all of the above in mind, even though I personally disagree with it, the point (and the competition) deserves to go to Jimi Hendrix.

What are your thoughts on the Hendrix/Van Halen debate? Comment below.