You know who it is the second you hear the crack of that snare drum. Like a musical fingerprint, Alex Van Halen’s sound and style are singularly his own.
While he’s often overshadowed by younger brother Edward’s game-changing reinvention of the electric guitar, Alex and his signature wide-open, high-pitched snare, heavy ride cymbal wash, and galloping double bass assault have helped Van Halen define the hard rock genre and pack arenas for decades. It’s a behemoth of a sound, evident on the band’s 1978 self-titled debut LP; its brand new album, A Different Kind of Truth (the first with original lead vocalist David Lee Roth in twenty-two years); and the ten studio LPs released in the years between.
Though the group is synonymous with the sunny climes of Southern California, the Van Halen brothers began their musical journey a world away, in Nijmegen, Holland, the sons of a jazz-saxophone-playing Dutch father and an Indonesian mother who encouraged them to study classical piano. In 1963, when Alex was nine and Ed seven, the family relocated to Pasadena, California. Originally it was Eddie who took up the drums and Alex the guitar, but, as legend has it, while Eddie was out delivering papers to pay for his kit, Alex was at home playing it. After swapping instruments, the brothers began performing together in a string of groups, most notably Mammoth, a hardrocking cover band that allowed Alex to develop his John Bonham/Ginger Baker/ Buddy Rich–inspired style.
After acquiring David Lee Roth in 1973 and bassist Michael Anthony a year later, Mammoth—soon rechristened Van Halen—began honing its sound, playing any backyard party, high school dance, and supermarket opening that came its way. Though the band’s early repertoire leaned heavily on Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, and Queen covers, Roth encouraged his mates to throw in songs by Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and even KC and the Sunshine Band.
This blending of heavy and funky would go on to define Alex’s style. Peruse the Van Halen catalog and you’ll find that for every straight-up rocker like “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” “Unchained,” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” there’s a “Feels So Good,” “Outta Love Again,” or “Amsterdam” that shows a funky, around-the-beat approach absent from the playing of many of VH’s heavy-rock contemporaries.
“There’s great versatility in the way Alex plays,” says Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock. “He can sit back and just keep the 2 and 4 happening, but he can busy it up with the best of ’em when the time is right.” Even when busying it up, Alex walks that fine line between showiness and serving the song. You need only check out Van Halen’s “I’m the One,” Van Halen II’s “Bottoms Up!,” or A Different Kind of Truth’s “Stay Frosty”—all heavy, bass-drum-driven shuffles—to realize it’s possible to dazzle without getting in the way of the tune.
And while we’re on the subject of bass drums and shuffles, no discussion of Alex Van Halen would be complete without mention of “Hot for Teacher,” the blistering hit single and MTV video staple from the band’s sixth LP, 1984. Alex achieved the song’s iconic intro—imagine a tap dancing piece of heavy machinery joined by another, larger tap-dancing piece of heavy machinery—with the use of electronic Simmons pads and acoustic Rototoms, two musical tools that were decidedly not de rigueur for your typical mid-’80s heavy rock band.
It’s this fly-in-the-face-of-tradition mentality that has set Alex apart from the rest of the drumming pack, especially during the band’s Roth-fronted heyday. Watch the video for “Jump,” Van Halen’s biggest hit single to date, and you’ll see Alex playing an entire kit essentially made up of Rototoms. When the band hit the road in support of 1986’s 5150, its first album with Sammy Hagar taking over for Roth (Gary Cherone would replace Hagar in 1996, with subsequent returns from both Hagar and Roth), Alex’s gargantuan set consisted mainly of Simmons pads and clear Octobans. Again, not your typical rock ’n’ roll drum setup—or sound.
Van Halen has always been a very visual band, and while Alex’s over-the-top drumkits have sometimes leaned toward Spinal Tap-ish excess—an early-’80s set featured bass drums stuffed with large chrome exhaust pipes—they’re no doubt designed to leave an impression on concertgoers. You can imagine the discussions that must’ve taken place in high schools the morning after a Van Halen concert:
“Neil Peart had two bass drums? Alex Van Halen had four…with radial horns in them that made them look like giant loudspeakers!”
“Roger Taylor used a gong during his drum solo? Alex Van Halen set his gong on fire!”
But at the end of the day, it’s the playing, not the elaborate kits or showmanship, that makes Alex Van Halen such an important figure in modern rock drumming. He proves that even in the context of heavy rock, where it’s so crucial to lay it down with authority, there’s always room for spontaneity, groove, and creativity. Give a listen to the music of any number of bands who’ve followed in Van Halen’s wake, from Metallica to the Foo Fighters, and you’ll hear some of Alex’s licks. As Alex and his bandmates have always been quick to point out, “There’s a little Van Halen in all of us.” Jon Wurster
“In hard rock,” says 2012 MD Pro Panelist Chris Adler, “Alex Van Halen, like Vinnie Paul and myself, has been lucky to have worked alongside his brother in his band. I’ve always considered this an advantage, a vibe and an unspoken communication that can’t be replicated outside of blood. I’ve been a huge Van Halen fan from the day that I grew a pair, and Alex continues to serve as the model of being overqualified but knowing the role and working for the song. That confidence and ability come over time and with experience, and there’s no better example of that than Alex Van Halen. I’m a far better drummer today because of the time spent listening to my old Van Halen records. Thanks, Alex.”