Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Van Halen's "Little Guitars" by Andrew Roudny

Andy and I in "Black Hour"
  This post will feature another great friend of mine, the second best guitar player I have ever played with, Andrew Roudny (and he is only second because I am incredibly lucky to play with Jeff Waters, who is one of the best in the world). Andy and I met way back when I was in college; I will never forget it, I answered my phone one day and I heard "hey, you don't know me, but I'm looking for a bass player, and I hear you're pretty good". That was the beginning of a friendship that has been one of the most gratifying of my life. With Andy I played in a band that had TWO bass players playing at the same time! we recorded an instrumental album that has some of the best bass parts I've come up with to date; we then performed as an acoustic instrumental duo for some time before finally splitting into separate musical paths. My admiration for Andrew continues, and here I am again blown away by his ability to make really hard things seem easy as pie. Watch him rip through Van Halen's "Little Guitars":

This is what Andy had to say about the song:

  "Alberto Campuzano, wizard of the bass guitar and the best musician I know has invited me to cover a song on his blog. I am well and truly grateful to perform for his one thousand plus readers. So let’s start with the excuses! I haven’t played any serious electric guitar (by which I mean I haven’t played on stage for grumpy music execs) in nearly 3 years (wow), so I hope I’m up to the task.

  The song I’ve chosen to play is Little Guitars from Van Halen’s 5th album, 1982’s Diver Down. It’s not my favorite VH song (that’s Girl Gone Bad). It’s not the one everybody else likes the most (that’s probably Jump or Panama) and it’s certainly not the one the radio plays the most (I guess when you’re playing Born to Be Wild every 14 minutes, you don’t really have time to diversify). So why have I chosen this tune? Well, it’s been a pet project of mine for a number of years. When I was in a classic VH tribute band, we played the song but it was never part of our regular set. I once spent 4 hours at a rehearsal studio playing only the verse riff, but I never really got into all the corners of the tune and finished it off. So here’s my chance.

  There are lots of reasons I like this song. Here are three.
  1. From a guitarist’s point of view, it’s a truly odd work of genius. Only a musician with strong classical training and thousands of hours spent practicing and performing hard rock guitar could ever conceive a song like this and make it work so that regular folks can actually listen to it. Don’t even get me started on how far ahead Eddie is compared to today’s crop of rock guitarists. Even bands than “can play” these days couldn’t hope to write something like this. The ultimate genius of Eddie Van Halen may be this very thing: He made music that’s so goddam brilliant that it was at the same time completely progressive but totally accessible to the masses. So accessible that he doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves for his blazing musical intellect. As far as I’m concerned, he’s in the same league as Mozart and Beethoven. Little Guitars shows all this, despite not even having a proper guitar solo section.
  1. Any other rock singer would hear this song and run screaming. Or at least say something weak like, “I can’t sing over that…. Ughhh….write something simpler”. But our hero, Diamond David Lee Roth, a wild west cowboy with his massive ego in tow behind him like two saddle-bags full of gunpowder, took it on and did a wonderful job. Painting a compelling picture of a shady L.A. dude seeking solace from the law in the arms of a Mexican waitress (stripper, dancer, biker slut, choose your own adventure). Despite not having any formidable instrumental training, Dave is indeed a musical and lyrical genius.
  1. Like almost all Van Halen songs, it’s better live than on the original recording. As I write this, I’m listening to a YouTube playlist of live versions of Little Guitars. I implore you to stop reading this right now and go listen to the US Festival version of this song. It is positively transcendent. This is probably the thing I like most about Van Halen: They are fantasy land. They are the place where the sun shines, the parties are epic, the strippers are sympathetic tan gals with hot legs and hearts of gold. Everything glistens in Van Halen land, and this song is one really good example of their skill in bringing you not just a set of notes but a time and a place and an experience. As good as they’ve been over the years in the studio, in their prime they were even better on stage, drunk or sober.
So, down to the technical particulars.

The Guitar For The Practicing Musician Magazine transcription that I used initially to learn this song is written for a miniature Les Paul tuned to one half step above standard tuning. I tried this on a full sized guitar and I found that either it was impossible or I didn’t have the skill to pull it off. What’s the difference? Other people?? Malarkey! It became clear that I had to modify things to my situation. First, I do not own a ¾ sized Les Paul (and I can probably make a list of 100 ways I’d rather spend that money). Second, I needed to be able to play this song on a guitar in standard tuning because I only have 2 decent guitars and by the third set I’m too drunk to switch competently from one guitar to another anyhow. So I re-jigged the riff a little and played it mostly around the 7th fret E barred chord area. You’ll see this in the video. This allowed me to get the basic idea of the riff but not have to switch guitars. The only tradeoff was that I had to play the tune a half step lower than recorded in order to accommodate the open high E string. I’ve remedied this in the video version you’re seeing here because I’ve tuned the guitar up a half step. That’s F Bb Eb G# C F for those of you keeping score at home.


  I’ve seen a lot of transcriptions on line calling for a drop D tuning with a capo on the 3rd fret. I even saw one guy try it that way on YouTube, and it sounds terrible. I hope my version does more justice to the song than his does. But in the end, playing a cover is all about capturing the original feeling and mood of the song. Even though I still haven’t learned every last note of Little Guitars (and I probably never will), I hope I’m in the ballpark enough that it makes you ponder how great the original really is.

  So, I hope you enjoyed my version of Van Halen’s excellent song, Little Guitars. Though it might be harder to do in 2011 than it was in 1982, I say to you all, ROCK ON!!!!"

  Andrew Roudny began playing classical guitar at age 9. Soon after discovering hard rock, Andrew started his first cover band, No Cash Value, at age 16. After scoring the independent film Held Secular, Andrew was a finalist in the North American Rock Guitar competition in 2003. He appeared in the nationally televised documentary Driven To Play, as well as in the May 2005 issue of Guitar Player Magazine. He has released several CDs and opened for such classic artists as Kim Mitchell, Honeymoon Suite and Loverboy. Andrew is currently working on a rock version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and his own symphonic/rock instrumentals.

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