Alex Van Halen Hot Licks

alex van halen

Photo: Neil Zlozower

Alex Van Halen’s drumming has influenced generations of drummers and always served as the perfect complement to his brother’s stellar guitar riffing. Sure, he’s got chops – just listen to “Hot For Teacher” – but like Keith Moon, there’s also something a little loose about his drumming, as though he’s thinking more about the whole song rather than obsessing over each note. That hint of looseness is also a bit magical since it seems to transport you to another time and place, always making you feel like you’re at a concert hearing the band playing live. Let’s check out a few of this iconic drummer’s best moments.

“Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love”

Van Halen’s debut record sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. and this track is a good reason why. There are several interesting drum parts in the track, but the ending has a few drum breaks that are classic AVH. The first run across the toms feels a little atypical because he doesn’t move on the beats but changes toms on the &’s. The next two fills are memorable simply because Van Halen first moves melodically down his kit, then reverses direction.

DRUM! Notation Guide

alex van halen

“Ice Cream Man”

Chicago blues guitarist John Brin penned this track that VH covered on their debut. The intro of this fun version is a classic and is the perfect vehicle for Diamond Dave and may be the progenitor of A Different Kind Of Truth’s “Stay Frosty.”

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“House Of Pain”

This track off 1984 reveals one of the things that makes Van Halen’s drumming so interesting. He sometimes enters songs on the offbeat, creating a momentary deception of where the beat actually falls. For this song his first two hi-hat notes land on ah of 4 with his snare played powerfully on the e – creating the brief impression that his snare is on a backbeat rather than its e – and then completes the measure with two more hi-hat notes. The beat that follows is a standard rock groove but it takes a couple of seconds to regain your bearings. Again, we see his signature use of sloshy hi-hats.

alex van halen

“Hot For Teacher”

This is the drum groove Van Halen is best known for. Billy Cobham is often credited with creating the double bass shuffle on his track “Quadrant 4,” where bass drums are used to play a shuffle pattern of 1 (&) ah 2 (&) ah 3 (&) ah 4 (&) ah, usually played either R - L R - L or the opposite. Using the bass drums to outline the shuffle can free the hands from the duty of playing it on the ride cymbal. Simon Phillips, who was very influenced by Cobham, played another example of this feel (though in 7/4) for Jeff Beck’s tune “Space Boogie,” but VH’s version of it on “Hot For Teacher” is by far the best known example of this pattern. What makes this version so unique is that his ride cymbal pattern doesn’t just play quarter-notes or a swing pattern. His cymbal pattern falls on 1 & (ah) 2, 3 & (ah) 4 filling in a couple of the &’s, giving the groove a unique feel. Though at this breakneck tempo this aspect of his unique pattern is often overlooked.

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“Jump”

1984 was a great rock and roll album. The song “Jump” kickstarted the Van Halen keyboard sound (provided by an Oberheim synthesizer) and another great drum part from AVH. The prechorus has an unusual pattern that uses his ride bell, ride, and snare to outline the dotted quarter-note accents. The unique tom sounds were provided by the Remo Rototoms and Remo CS heads that Van Halen and other drummers like Terry Bozzio were fond of at the time.

alex van halen

“Panama”

Here’s another one of those tricky VH entrances that can throw you for a loop if you’re not paying attention. This version has the guitar part broadly outlined to help you keep your place.

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“Unchained”

If the guitar intro of this great song doesn’t disorient you, this section just might. Van Halen plays a tricky beat that’s phrased in 7/4, but is more easily thought of as being all in 4/4.

alex van halen

“Judgement Day”

Van Halen leads into this high-energy song with some syncopated choked crashes and follows them up with a powerful groove and offbeat cymbal accents.

alex van halen

“China Town”

This song is off Van Halen’s newest release and reunites David Lee Roth with the band, but this time with Eddie’s son Wolfgang featured on bass. This fast track shows off Alex’s quick feet. For the intro, he plays a sixteenth-note double bass drum pattern with the snare landing on all the beats, but then flips the groove for the verses, placing the snare on all the &’s and moving his right hand from the hi-hat to catch the recurring (4) & ah notes.

alex van halen