“To me, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ is just a term that describes something because there is no better word to use. ‘Rock ‘n’ roll’ in the ’50s meant something completely different from what it means today. Now they try to be a little more specific by using the terms ‘new wave,’ ‘middle of the road’ and ‘rockabilly.’ When you say ‘hard rock’ or ‘acid rock,’ all of a sudden, your mind conjures up a very specific idea, but they’re just names. To get away from that, Van Ha/en took the term ‘big rock,'” Alex Van Halen explains.
Everything about Van Halen is big, from the success they have had since coming onto the scene in 1977 and their album sales, to their equipment, sound and stage presentation. And let’s not forget the fun they have and initiate in their audiences – that’s what they’re there for. To Alex, music is fun and not work.
“We don’t get out there and pretend we’re ‘artistes,’ said Alex, whose warmth and good humor make it impossible for a pretentious bone to exist in his body. “We are out there to have a good time and enjoy it with 10,000 of our closest friends.”
If you’ve seen Van Halen live, you know that Alex’s statement is sincere. He is the first to admit that there are no hidden meanings to their lyrics, no political or social commentaries suggested and that the band’s primary concern is pleasure for all. That’s not to say that the members are not concerned with how to put that fun across through their instruments, because certainly the Van Halen brothers, Eddie and A lex, would not be highly acclaimed musicians if that were the case. It definitely goes deeper than fun.
“In rock ‘n’ roll, there is always this stereotype of the drummer. This goes anywhere from the maniac bashing away behind the drums on the Muppets, to the real guys like Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, or Bill Ward. People think that kind of lifestyle – including the drugs, the booze, staying up all night, the girls – means rock ‘n’ roll,” he pauses, utilizing his talents as a jokester to set up the punch line, “and yeah, it does.”
He continues seriously, previewing the essence of the forthcoming interview: “When I was a kid, I’d go out in the audience and just stare at the drummer. The first thing I did was let my hair grow, but suddenly I realized, ‘Hey, this isn’t right. There’s got to be more to it.'”
RF: Who were some of your influences growing up?
AVH: The reason I started playing drums was when I heard the Dave Clark Five and when I saw Ringo getting all the girls in the Beatles’ movie. He wasn’t exactly the handsomest looking guy, but I figured that if drums could do that for him, I’d give it a shot. Also, we always did have a very heavy musical thing happening. I started out on piano, and went through violin, clarinet, saxophone – you name it, I tried it. I played guitar for about a year and I had some classical training – flamenco and reading. At the same time, Edward had bought a drumset. To pay for the drums, he had to sell newspapers, and while he was out selling newspapers, I’d chuck the guitar and get on the drums and it was great. Ed would come back and he’d play drums and I’d play guitar. Finally he just realized that we should switch instruments because I could play drums much better than he. So he picked up the guitar and I could just tell by the way he was moving his fingers around that he could do things that I would never be able to do, no matter how hard I practiced. I guess we were right.
RF: How long did you take piano lessons?
AVH: For about 10 or 15 years. The drums were kind of secondary at that point, more like recreation and a good time to get together with the guys at about 12, 13 years old. That was the fun aspect. The work part was practicing piano because the teacher we had was a concert pianist. At that time, we didn’t have a whole lot of money and it got to the point where he said, “Look, I’m not even going to charge you kids. You just come here and you practice and you play because I think you have talent.” Our teacher thought we had something and was kind of disappointed when we said we didn’t want to play piano anymore, at least full time.
RF: When did you finally realize drums was what you wanted to do and it was no longer just recreational?
AVH: I think it just happened very gradually because by the time I was 13, I was working in clubs with my dad, who was a professional musician. They let me sit in and my dad said, “Just keep your head down and nobody will notice that you’re only 13.”
RF: What kind of music were you playing?
AVH: Jazz. And later on to make a few bucks on the side when the rock thing wasn’t happening for us, I worked with my dad doing weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, parties. And this is where you play everything. You play Latin stuff, you play jazz, they tried to play rock ‘n’ roll, but with an accordion and a saxophone, it’s a bit difficult. Finally I made enough money where I could quit the other job I had. We’re moving along about five years now. At that point, I was working in a machine shop and working at night playing with the rock band. It was Edward and me, always with two other different guys. When we weren’t making money doing that, I’d play with my dad. Finally, when the four of us got together and we started working, I slowly phased out the Bar Mitzvah stuff and the stuff with my dad.
RF: There was a quote from Eddie that said you were doing odd-time stuff when you were really young.
AVH: Yeah, we messed around with it. It’s interesting. At a certain point, you have to decide whether you’re going to play for musicians, for yourself, or for the audience. Ninety-nine percent of the people do not understand music. They don’t have any training and they don’t go to school to learn the stuff, so why bore them with it? If you want to put out a special album that sounds like . . . well, I don’t want to name any names, go ahead and do it, but don’t expect to make a living off it and don’t be upset. You know, it’s funny – you get these people who write this way-out music which nobody really understands, including the artist, and they’re always saying how they’re not interested in record sales, but yet when the album is a flop, they say, “Hey, what’s the matter with you people? Can’t you understand that I’ve created some art here?” I wish they’d make up their minds.
RF: Do you think the classical orientation affected your musicality as a youngster at all?
AVH: I think the classical aspect was only just to gain the groundwork, the actual foundation of music and to understand how it’s put together and what makes it work. Being able to read music obviously helps. It just gave us so much more insight into what’s really going on. Then you can take a Beatles song and tear it apart and know how it works, so you can steal it and write your own Beatles song. [laughs] It’s definitely a help. I’m not saying we should play classical music, but the basic training was great for us.
RF: What about formal training on drums? Did you have any?
AVH: None. Formal training to me seems like a strange word. Just because you pay somebody, does that mean it’s formal training? I’ve hung around different drummers and they’ve said, “Hey, try this,” or “You’re doing this wrong,” but as far as going to a school and doing X amount of hours of classwork a day and paying up the butt for it, no, I didn’t do that. I gave up on the “formal” lessons after the piano.
RF: So how did you teach yourself?
AVH: Just by listening and by working. When I finally started playing drums full time – which was about when I was 18 – we were playing all the clubs. To be able to work those clubs, you had to be able to play every song that existed, so aside from learning how to arrange songs anywhere from James Brown to Led Zeppelin to the Doobie Brothers, with only bass, drums, guitar and vocal, you had to really manipulate things. That’s partially how Van Halen got such a fat sound out of such a small group.
RF: I read that when you were in high school, you arranged a production of West Side Story for a 15-piece jazz ensemble.
AVH: Yeah, it was junior college, and it was a major flop.
RF: Where did the arranging knowledge come from?
AVH: I went to school for that. I would have had a degree in music, but I quit after a while because I just wasn’t getting anything out of it. It got to a certain point where these intellectuals—and I’m not knocking any intellectuals—would, just for the sake of making a song, in their eyes, interesting, go through a meter change or a key change for no reason at all. Song wise, structurally, the song didn’t hold up. Meanwhile, the four of us were writing songs in typical I-IV-V, just simple stuff with a memorable melody. Then these guys would say, “You guys are musical prostitutes. You’re writing garbage.” At that point, I said, “Alright, I’ll take my garbage and peddle it elsewhere.” I don’t hold any grudges, but I think they’re very closed-minded. Count Basie said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” If it takes more to get it across, fine. If it takes less, fine. That’s where the producer comes in. He has the ear to be able to tell you, “Well, wait a minute guys, you’re going overboard on this section. Let’s cool it.” And then other times, it may need a little extra this or that. That’s why I think a lot of bands who are producing themselves are digging a hole for themselves. If you spend 24 hours straight on a certain part, there is no way in hell that you’re going to leave that off the record. It’s going to get in there somehow and it takes that producer to say, “Forget it. It doesn’t work.”
RF: Were your parents always supportive of music as a career?
AVH: As a career, no. It was always, “Get yourself a job” while we’d be busting our chops playing five or six hours in an evening—five 45-minute sets. And we weren’t doing what most club bands do, which is just stand there and play. We’d do the show that we do now on stage for five hours a night. So for us, this is a vacation. Two hours on stage, no prob’. So they’d say, “Get yourself a job. Look at your cousin—he’s an accountant.”
RF: Generally parents who have been in the profession go one of two ways. They either really support it or they say, “Learn from my mistakes—I’ve seen it and it can break your heart.”
AVH: That’s the same thing my dad would have said, but he was always gone working, so he didn’t really have the chance. It was a typical story. We went out and played and played and played. Sure we didn’t have any money and sure this broke down and sure there were lousy people we had to work with, such as psuedo managers and club owners. But the audiences were always there and it was a great time. Some people call it paying your dues, but we just called it having fun. We had a good time. I wouldn’t have wanted it any different.
RF: Has anything changed now that you’re on a larger scale? Was any of the magic lost?
AVH: No, not at all.
RF: Even the intimacy of the club as opposed to a large hall?
AVH: No, not really. It’s just on a larger scale. I think some people tend to put a barrier between themselves and the audience. I don’t know why they do that, but we try to keep in touch.
RF: You have a reputation for being a hardy partier. How does one maintain that kind of pace and keep the gig intact?
AVH: Rock ‘n’ roll is a lifestyle. It’s a thing where there are no rules. You can play what you want, you can wear what you want, and nobody tells you that you have to have one bass drum, one snare, one rack tom and one floor tom. Even though Louie Bellson wasn’t exactly a rock ‘n’ roller, he had the right attitude—you play the music, you don’t work it, and you don’t have to live by the rules. The whole thing of the lifestyle of not having any rules, includes—I hate to use the word “party” because then you think of Foghat—but I think all of Van Halen, including the entourage, are pretty much into having a good time. Of course, you don’t want to spread yourself too thin, but as long as you can do the gig, it’s okay.
RF: Have you learned a method by which to pace yourself during the show?
AVH: I think basically it’s that you know you have to be there for two hours and you know that those lights make the stage about 150 degrees, so you pace yourself. One consideration is the way the set is put together, as far as which songs are more difficult to play than others, where your drum solo is going to be, and when the guitar solo will be so you’ll have a few minutes rest. But I’ll be honest with you, the actual stopping and starting, such as having a bass or guitar solo, is actually more detrimental because all of a sudden you cool down and it takes a few minutes to get back into it. So I prefer to take a solo out of the last fastest song. There I again, I don’t solo too long. I just make it long enough to make it interesting because I think a drummer’s place is more in playing with the band and kicking them, as opposed to playing alone for 20 minutes. It’s very admirable to see somebody who has practiced eight or ten hours a day, and see him do a fantabulous buzz roll, but again, the people don’t understand. Twenty minutes just seems unreasonable to me—it’s just a good time for the rest of the band members to take a break while the good old drummer is back there beating the hell out of the drums, indulgent, getting cardiac arrest. A lot of things that these drummers play could be done during a song and it would make the songs much more interesting. I think it’s an ego problem a lot of drummers have.
Drums not being a melodic instrument—even though there have been some things done to them where you can make them a little more melodic, such as the Simmons, the Octobans and such—it’s not really a front-type instrument. At least that’s my philosophy. I mean, being a drummer, I would appreciate having the drums out front, but I look at it from the standpoint of the average person who listens and whistles along with a song. He’s not going to recognize a Swiss triplet from a flam. I don’t want to spend my time doing something just to impress other drummers. It is true, though, that in rock ‘n’ roll, a drummer figures more prominently in a band than previous styles. While I don’t see the drummer as being up front, more attention is paid since there are only usually four people, so the sound is more important than in other styles.
RF: You have said that a concert should be an event. How much consideration do you give towards showmanship?
AVH: Showmanship, first of all, should come naturally. It shouldn’t be forced and it only comes through constantly playing so that after a while, you’re not even aware of it. When Buddy Rich plays, he’s a showman. He looks great and I don’t think he consciously sits there and says, “Okay, now I gotta do this and do that.” Nowadays I see a lot of people who really concentrate heavily on twirling their sticks and so they drop one and miss a beat. A drummer can’t move around too much. I mean, I’ve seen drummers who will get up on the drums, walk around and it’s very novel, very good and interesting, but I think it detracts from the music, which is, after all, the most important thing. It’s important that it be a unit. It’s fine to show off a drum thing here and there, or a guitar or a bass here and there, but the bottom line is that it has to be a unit.
RF: What is required of you as drummer for Van Halen? What is your role in that unit?
AVH: That’s a complicated question because it works the same with the guitar and bass. Everything has to flow together; it has to go into a certain direction. There’s a beginning, middle and end of a song. If a guy were to do a solo during an entire song, it obviously wouldn’t fit. It has to be what’s musically appropriate and yet, at the same time, you try to throw in something that’s a little bit different—something you may have heard or seen some other person do or maybe something that dawned on you in the middle of a dream. I think the most important thing is to let it flow. If you worry about it too much, then it does sound mechanical. The first priority for a drummer is to keep the meter and if you really start worrying about that, then often it’s not happening. I’m sure all drummers can relate to that. That’s why they have click tracks in the studios. Ted [Templeman, their producer] will not allow a click track. It’s got to be there naturally and that’s the way it goes. And I agree. I think that’s what music is—music flows. So what if it slows down a little in the quiet part? Nobody says it has to be right there. You can’t slow down while the other guys are still speeding up, but just flow with the songs; flow with the other musicians.
RF: Do you subscribe at all to the bass/drummer relationship theory? It seems like you play off the guitar.
AVH: I don’t think the bass/drummer thing makes any sense at all. Obviously, there’s an underlying pattern that the bass and the drums play, but as far as throwing in extra stuff or doing fills, I think it’s much more interesting to play along with the guitar. Again, when you’re in the studio, you’re a little bit limited as far as the freedom of really going hog wild and taking a super, super chance because you’ve got that one take and it’s the pure thing. You can edit it and try this here, but that’s all tape magic. Live, I think I play a little bit different. I play more open—more stuff that I would normally not do in the studio—because when you’re making a song, don’t forget, you have to live with that thing for the rest of your life.
RF: When you go offstage, you can say, “Well, tomorrow night I can do that part a little bit better.
AVH: And not just better or worse, but something that might not be appropriate, that might not fit. And again, Ed might not always play the same thing, but that’s the beauty of live.
RF: Is there a lot of improvisation on stage?
AVH: Yeah, a lot. Especially when you’re on the road for eight months. At first it starts out basically by the rules, but after a while we’ll just do a set completely backwards, or sideways, or we’ll throw in a song at the last moment for no reason at all. We opened for the Stones in ’81. There were about 100,000 people there and we had the set all written out, what we were going to play and how the segues were going to be. In the middle, Dave just said, “Wait, wait, wait—let’s play ‘Summertime Blues.'” So we played “Summertime Blues.” What the hell.
RF: What is your approach to a new tune?
AVH: Usually Ed comes up with the music and then he’ll have a certain idea in mind as to how he would like to hear the percussion. So he’ll say, “Why don’t you try it this way,” and usually it’s by name—”Play, it a la so and so.” And sure, I’ll listen to it.
RF: Who are some of the so and sos?
AVH: [laughs] Well, everybody has a little different style. If I listen to Steve Smith for a couple of days, then for a couple of days I’ll play just like him, just to get the feel of it. If I listen to Bonham, I’ll sound like him. It’s really a chameleon- type thing. When we do a new song, I’ll play it a certain way, but the next day, I will have listened to somebody else and I’ll play it a little bit different. All of a sudden, in the middle of the song, somebody will say, “Hey, hold on a second. The song sounds different. What’s the matter?” I’ll just keep my mouth shut. I think it’s very advantageous and beneficial to listen to any and all different drumming. Not everybody is an originator. Things have been rehashed and rehashed over and over and you can build on that. For instance, nowadays, when you turn on the radio, almost every single drum sound is identical to the next. There are very few drummers where you can actually hear the difference. I think it’s the multitude of different influences that you can finally hone down and you filter through it what you like and apply it to the song that makes it happen.
RF: Sometimes you adopt different styles from different people and suddenly you have developed your own style because you’ve made it your own.
AVH: Sure. A lot of it comes subconsciously. You don’t even know you’re doing it. I think a drummer’s sound is as important as the way he plays. A lot of times I can recognize a drummer right off the bat by a certain sound somebody has. I think the drum sound is his signature and I can tell, usually, who’s who, just by the sound. A lot of times I’m not in agreement with some of the sounds. Russ Kunkel is a great drummer, but I can’t stand his snare sound. Sorry Russ. My personal taste is a little liver sound such as Bonham’s snare sound. I like Neil Peart’s tom sound, but not his kicks and his snare. Don’t get me wrong, though. Anybody who spends his lifetime devoted to music—the suffering, the discipline and all that—is to be commended, but I have different tastes than other people do. Bill Bruford is a great player, but again, I can’t stand his snare sound. Usually the snare sound is the signature of the drummer.
RF: Whose do you like?
RF: Is that where it ends?
AVH: [laughs] That’s it. I like the old ones such as the old Dave Clark Five. It’s a great sound for those days with one overhead.
RF: And I wonder if that isn’t why it sounded so great.
AVH: Yeah. Lately, now that we have a new studio we’re working in, we can try some different stuff, like different miking techniques. It’s amazing—everybody has his own technique for miking drums, depending anywhere from what kind of microphones to use, to the placement, to the room he’s in, to whether he should be isolated, to whether the other musicians are in the same room as the amplifiers, to temperature control—all of which really makes a difference.
“Sunday Afternoon in the Park” was done with one overhead, one remote, which means the other microphone was at the other end of the room, and that was basically it. The band was in the room and that’s why you hear the synthesizer along with the drums. The vibration got picked up by the synthesizer. It was a mistake, but we left it on the record.
RF: You guys don’t do a lot of overdubbing.
AVH: No. There’s no sense to it. We go in and cut the song once or twice and if it’s not happening, we move onto something else because then the magic is lost. If you do it too many times, it gets stale. I recently read an article in Modern Drummer about somebody saying you edit the tape, take a little piece from here and put it over here and take the best takes of the two and put it together and that way everybody’s happy. Bullshit! The person who played that knows that he didn’t play it all the way through, which to me, doesn’t make any sense. Get it right. If not, go back and practice it. Luckily now, we have the time to be able to mess around since Edward built a studio.
RF: Is the writing really a democratic process? All the records say, “Composed by Van Halen.”
AVH: That’s because we didn’t want to lock ourselves into the problems other bands have, which are, “I wrote this word and you wrote that word and I wrote this guitar lick.” Basically, the music is written by Ed and the lyrics are written by Dave, but by the time it’s actually on vinyl, it’s essentially a four-way deal. That also includes the stage set-up, the way it looks, and the songs we’re going to play. It encompasses the entire thing.
RF: Where did the choice of “Big Bad Bill” come from?
AVH: Dave had just bought one of those new portable radios with the little tape recorder. He was testing it at home and picked up this program from, believe it or not, Cincinatti, and it was some kind of weird ’40s-type hour. He taped it and we heard the song and it just seemed to click. So we set it up like the old days with one microphone in the room, no separation, no vocal booths, no nothing, and played it and there it was— one take.
RF: I am assuming, when you were younger, you had messed around with brushes, but when was the last time you had seri ously played with them?
AVH: That took a couple days of brushing up—ha, ha, ha. It took a couple of days to just get the feel of it again, but basically, if you’ve done it once, it’s like riding a bicycle. I’m no profound player on the brushes and brush technique, but it fit the song and we said, “Let’s go for it.” But, I know—you’re saying, “Who would think a hard rock band would play ‘ Big Bad Bill’ or ‘Happy Trails’?” A sense of humor is very important. If you take yourself too seriously, you find out that you’re in the wrong-thing. Like I said earlier, you play music, you don’t work it; you don’t compete it. Just let it flow. It’s there for the enjoyment. Not for, “Hey, I’m better than you,” or “I can play faster than you.” I think that’s really a deterrent to young musicians. A lot of times they give up before they really start because they say, ” I can’t play that fast or do that.” Who says you have to play like this guy? It’s really a shame because I’ve heard a lot of good music and raw talent.
RF: That goes back to something that Eddie said in an article about how there is no consideration to the “right way” to do something. He just does what feels right.
AVH: There isn’t. And now all of a sudden, people look at Ed and say, “Wow, that’s amazing. Why didn’t I think of that?” There’s nothing wrong with experimenting and trying different things.
RF: On a cover tune, is there any consideration given to how it was originally played?
AVH: Sometimes, but mostly no. First of all, let me say that a lot of people knock us for doing covers. You get the record reviews and they say “Van Halen is really coming to a creative dead end because they now have three cover tunes on their record.” If you take the singing off of “Dancing in the Streets,” it’s nowhere near the song. We could have very easily just bent the lyrical content, bent the melody just a little bit and made another song, but we felt that was a song we wanted to go for. Plus we felt that Martha and the Vandellas could use the royalties to buy some new lipstick. But this goes back to the same thing: if it sounds good, it is good. The old philosophy we have is that if a song is a good song, it remains good. You have to realize that Elvis Presley rarely wrote his own songs, and neither did the Beatles when they first started.
RF: You gave me the example of how you recorded “Sunday Afternoon in the Park.” Obviously you don’t record like that all the time, so why don’t you tell me what you generally do, al though I am sure there isn’t a general rule of thumb.
AVH: Well, that’s the whole point—there is no standard thing. Sometimes we’ll do the old technique, one overhead and maybe just to cover me, we’ll put a couple in the bass drums and some close up for the toms. Usually in the studio I record with single heads for the reason of isolation. That way you get a purer tone. The purists will say, “The drum can’t resonate unless it has both heads on it,” and that routine. The snare is just miked from the top and lately what we’ve done is put the mic’ right against the shell. I’m using a rosewood snare [6 1/2 x 14] now and that’s how I got the sound on “Pretty Woman,” which gets a much liver sound. I always record with the kit on a wood something, with wood around it, so it does bounce around a little bit. If you hear the echo, most of it is acoustic, not machine. It makes a difference. I like to keep it generic.
RF: What kind of heads do you use?
AVH: CS black dot because I don’t like to switch between the studio and live set-ups because then it sounds different. I know the acoustical problems of the live situation as opposed to the controlled studio situation, but to me, it seems like if this is the drum you recorded it on, then play it that way live.
RF: Doesn’t your set-up alter with the situation though?
RF: Most people with large set-ups live, don’t end up recording with them.
AVH: If the song requires only kick, snare and a couple of tom fills, why strip it down? I feel comfortable with what I play. I know where everything is, so why mess with it?
RF: So you feel that you don’t always have to use all of it?
AVH: Of course not. Just because it’s all there, it doesn’t mean you have to smack everything the whole time.
RF: There are a lot of pros and cons to large set-ups. A lot of “purists” criticize the need for all that stuff if you can do it on one tom, one kick and a snare.
AVH: I’ve heard that argument and I agree and I disagree. When you have a simple set-up, it forces you to be a little more creative, but I think if you don’t have the discipline to be creative anyway, why bother with even a simple set-up? Why not go super simple? I admit, a lot of people will take advantage of having the toms and all they do are tom rolls. When you’re right, you can play a lot of different patterns and interesting things just on one rack and one floor. Back to Bonham—he did it. The pros for a large set, obviously, is that you have much more of a tonal range. If you can be creative on a four-piece set and then if you can augment it with different intonations and different sounding drums, such as Roto-toms or the Simmons or a double kick and possibly even a second snare to have a floppy snare sound like Russ Kunkel, then I think it can definitely be a plus. Having a large set-up, though, should not be an excuse for just rolling down the toms. I think a lot of people cover their butts by just having a large set and doing that kind of a tom fill. It can work both ways, but a large set can give you so many more possibilities and angles to work from. It shouldn’t be used as a crutch, though.
RF: In a lot of what I’ve read about Van Halen, there is a feeling, which David has even outwardly said, that the band does not take its music seriously. How do you interpret that statement and where do you draw the line between not taking the music seriously, yet taking your playing seriously?
AVH: What Dave meant by that is that we don’t write songs about changing the course of history. We don’t go into outer space, we don’t use double entendres and we don’t get into politics. It’s more of a reflection of what we see around us—our experiences. Fortunately enough, there have been enough people who have had the same experiences so they can relate to it.
RF: He made the comment that there are even times that he doesn’t care whether he remembers the right words.
AVH: The bottom line, obviously, is that the music has to be there. By saying “not too seriously,” we just mean that we take it as it comes. If tomorrow the whole album takes a dive, then what the hell, we’ll record another one. I just think that a lot of people take it too seriously when they get up on stage—they’re out to change the course of history and they get so serious that they go off the deep end. If you can take it with a smile, great. It should be really you up there. I’ve seen a lot of people where, when they get offstage, they’re completely different people. There’s no genuine feel behind it. That’s why the timeless performers are the same offstage as they are on, and it shows. Some people put on a funny suit or funny clothes and think, “Hey, I’m going to get a haircut just like this guy, get the guitar that looks like this guy, play like this guy, move like somebody else, how come nothing is happening?” The feel just isn’t there. Maybe one album, maybe two, but I think longevity is if you’re really into it. We’ve been together for ten years, even though we’ve only been recording for five or six.
RF: Let’s talk about your elaborate equipment.
AVH: Okay. First, God created the bass drum.
RF: And Alex uses six?
AVH: Well, it is six because the two main ones I play are two joined together. They’re actually 28″ long, which started because the projection is much better. For some reason, I got a much better punch on stage when I had a longer kick drum. I wasn’t really happy with the sound I was getting, so I tried a longer bass drum and it really did make a difference. Each one is a regular 26 x 14, and when you join both of them together, it’s 26 x 28. That’s my right one. The left one is a 24 x 28 and then on the outside of each of those, I have a 24 x 14. I may end up only using three, because that right bass drum sounds good by itself. The center drums are open; there are no heads on them. The ones on the end do have heads on them. They’re all miked and what happens is I get a balance between a doubleheaded drum and a single-headed one because the air goes through the pipe and forces air into the end ones. It’s not as loud as if you would kick it, but it’s enough to make a difference, and if you put a mic’ to it, it gets a little bit more resonance. There’s no dampening of any kind except for a felt strip on the inside ones, and that’s it.
RF: When did you start using the kicks joined together?
AVH: That was after the first album was recorded during the hiatus between the recording time and the time we actually went on tour. That was when we had the time to test stuff out on stage and found that the longer bass drum had more projection in a specific direction. Shortly thereafter, Ludwig came out with their longer bass drum.
RF: How are the middle drums connected?
AVH: Just bolted together, air tight. Billy Cobham was the first one who started screwing around with this by using two snare drums and three bass drums, and everybody said, “Wait a minute—how does he play three bass drums?” It works for me and makes sense. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but for me it works. I like it because it gives me a wider range of acoustics. Each drum is tuned differently and depending on which one you accent through the PA, you get a different sound. Sometimes you want a little liver sound, so you just mess with the faders and you can balance it out front.
I use 12″, 13″, 14″, 18″ and 20″ toms, and then I use three of the latest Simmons and two Roto-toms. I used to have five rack toms, but it just got to the point where I didn’t need to have little concert toms. If it’s not necessary, I don’t use it. It’s not just for trying to create the biggest drumset in the world. I had the concert toms, but it made it very difficult for me to see Ed on stage, who I really mainly play off of, and secondly, I can get that kind of sound just by tuning the 12″ up a little higher and then anything else can be played with the Simmons.
RF: Your rack toms are single headed?
AVH: Yeah. Especially live, where you don’t really have a great ambience. Sometimes we use double heads in the studio, because the studio is a little more adaptable to that situation. The bleed from the other instruments is not there, so you can tape a little bit further from the drums, such as having an overhead that will do only drums and pick up room ambience. Since we don’t really have to worry about re-patching guitar and playing it again because some of it does leak onto the drum track, there’s no problem. We play that song straight through and it’s there. If you start doctoring it and say, “Wait a minute, this guitar part needs to get out and put something else in,” then you’re in trouble, but we don’t do that.
RF: What about miking for a live situation?
AVH: How I keep the monitor I use from bleeding into the different drums is I use a limiter which is set at the frequency of the drums so it picks up only that drum and nothing else. I’m sure a lot of people have the problem of when a guitarist plays, you really have a hard time hearing what’s going on. So I have a special set-up which is a cabinet which is a direct hook-up to Ed’s amp so it doesn’t even go through a monitor system. It’s an identical cabinet he plays through. For the drum mix, that goes through a side monitor guy who sits there and has the 16 channels. During the sound check, that will be adjusted and then we adjust the noise gates to the point where nothing bleeds through. When you’re playing at such a high volume, problems you can encounter tend to multiply, but after all the trials and the testing, we finally found how things work best for us. I’m sure our sound man would say, “Wait a minute—you guys really can play quieter on stage. Come on, have a little control.” But there’s a certain point where you draw the line and that’s how we wanted it.
RF: Of course the question that comes up is do you really need all that wattage?
AVH: It depends on where you play. You obviously don’t want to make it uncomfortably loud for everybody, but at the same time, you want it to project across the whole thing. Part of the music we do is the raw power that’s involved. You have to feel the music as well as hear it and it’s just one big package. That’s one of the things that used to impress me when I was younger and I would go see Black Sabbath. You could feel that kick drum go right through your chest, and I said, “I want to do that!”
We carry the most extensive sound system that anybody ever takes on the road. We don’t sell our audiences short by cutting back on sound. I think we usually carry about 40,000 watts, which is twice what most bands use, but the difference is the same thing as if you were to take a transistor radio and turn it full blast and get the distortion, or take a nice stereo and play it halfway. Sure you encounter certain problems, but the one thing we always do demand is that we get an extensive sound check and we have all the best sound men available. For our kind of set-up, it works. It took us four years to really get the best situation happening with somebody who has a good ear, because the sound mixer out front is your producer on the road. You can be playing the best stuff you ever played in your life, but if the sound isn’t good, what’s the point? And that includes anything from the balance of the instruments, the tonality, to the way the speakers are set up, to the hall itself. In one respect, sound check is almost pointless because the sound changes so drastically by the time the people get in, but it gives you a good point to start at and especially to make sure everything works. It’s a tedious type thing, but we always do it. I just wouldn’t get up there if I didn’t know what it sounded like. We usually will tape a piece and then play it back and stand out front to see how it sounds. You can’t really go by one person’s ear. Everybody has different tastes and what might sound good to one person, might not be what somebody else likes. We also have reference tapes we listen to.
RF: How do you protect your ears?
AVH: [laughs] I don’t. Over the last 15 years, I’ve lost about 20% in my left ear and about 15% in my right ear. It just comes with the job. If you want to be able to hear what’s going on, you can’t really effectively use any kind of ear plug. I was thinking of using cotton because it does help to cut the super highs out. When I went to the doctor, he gave me a DB meter to go out and actually measure what was happening. The chart he gave me said that if you’re exposed to about 110 decibels, you can get away with it for about half an hour before there are any dangerous side effects. He told me with 120, you can last for about five minutes. So we went to a rehearsal, and before the monitors were on and before any of the sound was plugged in, with just straight drums, I was banging away at the cymbals a little bit, and it was already 130. It’s something that most drummers, I’m sure, can identify with, especially under loud situations where the ride cymbal just really chews into your ear. At the end of the night, it’s called noise drunk. You don’t hear any more highs, and you kind of feel alienated when you’re finished playing. It happens. I guess if you can get used to ear plugs, it might be a good idea. But it’s just one of those things that comes with the territory.
RF: Tuning. Is there a method to your madness?
AVH: Each drum has an inherent quality that lets you tune it only to a certain extent. You don’t tune it to a note, really. The best thing is to make the individual drum sound the best it can to itself. You can’t make a floor tom sound like a little concert tom . You just play with it until it sounds like the drum. Certain drums have certain frequencies that respond well. You can tell when you’re out of it, below it or above it, and when you hit that right spot, there it is.
RF: You mentioned before that you like a live snare sound. How do you achieve that?
AVH: I like to have mine tuned a little higher than the average person. The best person I can use as an example is Bonham. His snare is tuned pretty high. I’m not saying high to the point where it sounds like a concert snare with a little pop, but not like a thud, although we’ve done that. In the studio, you do a variety of things, but I prefer that higher sound. The best way I can describe it is it is almost like chopping wood. It has the attack and the resonance, but it also has a bottom sound to it and a lot of mid. Everybody has his own taste, though.
RF: What snare did you use on Van Halen II?
AVH: A 6 1/2 x 14 Super Sensitive with the same head combination as I use now—the CS black dot on top and a clear bottom. I stopped using that particular snare after the third album. From the fourth on, I have used the rosewood.
RF: What about muffling, taping, etc.?
AVH: There’s a minute amount of taping on the snare just to get certain pitches out. It depends again on the song. That will usually dictate what kind of snare sound you want. If you tend to tune it lower, sometimes certain rings will come out, and as opposed to using the built-in muffler which only muffles a certain area on the drum, I usually just put a thin layer on the outside where the rim meets the head.
RF: All the way around?
AVH: I just put it on until the ring goes away. I find that the higher I tune it, the less problem there is with ringing.
RF: Do you endorse Ludwig?
AVH: I didn’t endorse them until two years ago. Even if I didn’t endorse them, I would have to say they are the most dependable, road-worthy and best drums I’ve ever played. I’m sure that some of the 9-ply shells with so-and-so veneer with extra- heavy-duty spurs are fine for maybe playing a club, but you have to consider going through all that electronic stuff and what comes out of the speakers. Basically, when you’re miking a head, the resonance of the drum has very little, if anything, to do with it, except for the difference between double head and single head.
RF: What, in your opinion, can you do with two bass drums that you can’t do with one?
AVH: Well, the reason is obviously that your foot is only so fast and if you want to do a certain pattern, you have to either have an incredibly fast foot or you cannot play that pattern.
RF: Do you find that you tend to rely on the hi-hat less?
AVH: No. I think there is a time and place for everything. Again, it’s back to the same thing we said earlier—just because you have them there, you don’t have to play them all. Steve Smith uses them tastefully. It just gives you an extra dimension to be able to play something you might hear in your mind that you wouldn’t normally be able to play with one foot. The proof of that is they have even gone so far as to develop a pedal where you can play two feet on one drum. Also, if you want to take it one step further, you can make the tonality of the drums different, which is another added thing. Baker used to do that. His left one was always a little looser.
RF: How long have you been playing double bass?
AVH: Since about a year after I started.
RF: Was Ginger Baker the one instrumental in that for you?
AVH: I think so.
RF: You mentioned Louie Bellson before.
AVH: Yeah, I have some of his old tapes. A lot of people think Baker and Keith Moon were the first to use them, but that’s not so. I think Baker played music on the drums—not just rhythm. I could listen to him play by himself. It’s interesting. Of course his solos are great too, but not everybody can relate to that. Ninety percent of the people do not play drums. It was around that time that I began to play drums and I tried to pick up on what he was doing and I was thinking, “How did he do that?” because I only had one kick. I finally saw a picture and the secret was out. And there’s no reason why your left foot can’t be as good as your right. It just takes time.
RF: What did you do to work on that?
AVH: It’s just a matter of playing. If you do it often enough, it gets good. One trick to do is, if you’re practicing, play everything in reverse that you normally would. Set up your drums left handed and put the hi-hat on the right side as opposed to your left, like lan Paice.
RF: I assume you don’t use the double bass drums much when you’re recording.
AVH: I would say I use them about ten times more live than recording, basically because in the live situation, you do improvise and you have room to expand and sometimes it warrants it. I won’t use it in a song unless I feel it really needs it. Again, I’m not there to solo. Sure, I could pack in all the double bass licks that you can find, but with us, the important thing is that we sound as a band, and it’s a good springboard for Ed to go out and do melodic things. There won’t be any solo projects because we all have the room to breathe and the freedom in this band is really good.
AVH: Paiste all the way around. I endorse them for the reason that I think they’re the best quality-control cymbal. When you’re in the middle of nowhere and you need a cymbal, you can go into a store and if you want a 20″ ride, medium-heavy, you’re going to get a 20″ ride, medium-heavy. I played Zildjians for years and years, but they’re unpredictable. Some people will say, “This is a one-of-a-kind cymbal”— fine for you, but not for me because I go through an awful lot of cymbals. I think the clarity of the cymbal is much better too, especially the hi-hat. Listen to our records. The brightness of those cymbals is amazing.
I have a 24″ ride, 20″ China cymbal, a 20” heavy, which I use for that “SHHH” effect, a 20″ medium, which I use for a crash, then there’s a 20″ Rude, another 20″ ride so that when I go back and forth between two, there’s no tonal difference, an 18″ Rude, and a gong that I use once or twice a night. The hi-hats are 15’s. The top is a 2002 and the bottom is a Rude. I mixed them up because I wasn’t quite happy with the sound I was getting from the Rude on top. It was too dead. My preference is still the 20″ medium for a crash.
AVH: It has the sustain, it has the instant attack and it has durability. I’ve tried lighter cymbals and they fall apart. Not everybody uses 3S sticks. I found in a live situation, especially, you tend to hit a little bit harder than you do in the studio and once I got the hang of them, it was odd to go back to a different stick just for studio work and go back to the bigger ones for live.
RF: Why do you ride on a crash cymbal?
AVH: It’s the 20″ medium and I picked that up from the old Beatles’ records when Ringo would get that layer of sound. It fills it up. I think it’s a very nice texture. Of course you can’t do it on all songs, but there’s an appropriate place and time for every little part. I just ride the crash to the point where it sounds like a wash and then use the left hand for accents.
RF: Your music requires you to be quite powerful. Do you feel that sometimes you might tend to lose some of the finesse? Does being a powerful drummer have to exclude being tasteful?
AVH: Not at all. I think that’s a popular misconception. If everybody is blazing and you’re trying to be dynamically different in certain points, there are two problems: you’re not playing with the band and it’s not going to come out. If there are quiet parts, you can play quiet parts with 3S and as far as finesse, you can throw in little drags and things here and there.
RF: Sometimes an arena makes it difficult to be subtle.
AVH: It makes it difficult to hear it. It doesn’t mean you’re not playing it.
RF: What do you do with the Simmons?
AVH: Since they’re relatively new, a lot of people just think they sound like the Syndrums when actually, the way you can adjust them, you can make them sound anywhere from a timbale to a timpani, provided, of course, that after it comes out of the PA, you have some room ambience. It’s limited in certain things, but I use them basically for different sounding toms and I use the bottom one to make it sound like a kettledrum.
RF: How do you feel about electronic drums?
AVH: Why not try it? That goes back to the purists—”Let’s only do this; only with wood shells; only with double heads; only with one kick drum; only with so and so.” I prefer to try different things. It wasn’t until Bonham used kettle drums that people started using them and now, Michael De rosier uses them, among other people. There really are no rules or limitations. Go for what sounds good to your ear and do it.
RF: What about a computer like the Linn machine?
AVH: Well, the Linn machine will never replace a live drummer.
RF: Would you mess with it?
AVH: I would never put it on a record, no. I think one of the interesting things about it is that you can program different patterns. You can program your foot pattern and program a left-hand pattern on a tom and snare and vice versa, and a right-hand pattern on something else and a left foot doing something else. You can play it back and something comes out that you have never thought of or that nobody ever played before. Then you learn through independence that, “Hey, it might work.”
RF: So then you’re talking about using it as a stimulus as opposed to using it as an instrument.
AVH: Right. But it is sterile and it isn’t human.
RF: Could you take me through some of your prior set-ups?
AVH: Well, in the past I had the Vista-Lite set by Ludwig. It had the black and white stripes and it was put together by gluing the different strips together. One of the first things we do before anything—because Dave tends to jump on the drums, stand on them and humiliate them—is to test them for strength. I stood on the drum and it promptly snapped in half, so we took it to a place where they coated the inside with a quarter inch of fiberglass and the sound on it was unreal. That is what I used in ’81. In ’82, I wanted to try something different, so what we did was take different lengths of tube which projected from each kick drum along the lines of church organ pipes. Each different length would accentuate a different frequency and we isolated the ones that we liked and pumped those out front. We also miked the batter head so there would be a balance between what comes out the front of the drum and the actual impact of the pedal hitting the head. I use wooden beaters, and to keep them from going through the head, I put a little pad of leather on it so it gets the same attack. You don’t lose any punch and the heads don’t break.
RF: What do you have planned for your set on this tour?
AVH: We’re putting some radial horns in the front of the bass drums. You put a radial horn in there and it will be hooked up electronically just to punch a little more highs out in the stage area in front. The batter head will be miked, the front will be miked and we’ll get a balance out of that. That way, it will almost be like a pre-mix. There will be a mix that goes into the thing before the sound man out front will have a chance to, again, accentuate the proper frequencies because all halls are different. Also, this year I changed to power toms, the longer ones. They seem to have a little more resonance and depth and if you tune them just a little bit higher than the drum actually should be tuned, you get a cross between a regular tom and a deeper sounding one.
RF: Is it difficult working with someone to whom you’re related?
AVH: No. I think after a certain point, you’re basically related to everybody in the band anyway, if you work with them long enough. You eat together, you sleep together on the bus, you travel, you practice, you rehearse, you throw ideas around. We stopped fighting a long time ago.
The thing is that you have to keep an open mind. Never lock yourself into some thing, because then you can get really frustrated if, for instance, the other people who are involved, including the producer, don’t happen to agree with you. If you’re locked into an idea, you have problems. You have to learn to flow with the tide.
RF: What’s next?
AVH: Our album came out recently, so we’ll be leaving on tour shortly. What’s good for us is that we take the music to the people. We don’t just want to sit there and release an album, because there is a certain magic about seeing someone live. It’s re ally where it’s happening and we have a good time with it.
FOCUS ON ALEX
The high-energy style of Alex Van Halen is representative of heavy metal drumming at its finest. It’s a style characterized by simple rhythmic patterns, played with driving force, intensity and clarity. The transcriptions below focus on several rhythms from a selection of Van Halen recordings, and offer an inside glimpse at the powerhouse drumming of Alex Van Halen.
Van Halen: “Runnin’ With The Devil”
Van Halen: “I’m The One” and “Ice Cream Man.”
Note: Both recordings are based on a very fast, very intense shuffle rhythm, a notable Van Halen trademark. Note how Alex keeps it simple on top, while at the same time, propels the band with a driving shuffle feel through the use of double bass drums.
Van Halen II: “D.O.A.”
Van Halen II: “Beautiful Girls”
Diver Down: “Hang ’em High”
Here again, notice the interesting use of double bass drums which ignite the bottom end of this tune.
Diver Down: “Pretty Woman” (Intro)
Diver Down: “Little Guitars”
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