A few months ago, I had the pleasure of being involved in a project with the PAS Drum Set Committee. Our mission was to put together Top Essential Drummer Lists for Spotify. So many incredible and influential drummers jumped into my head, but my first choice was Alex Van Halen. I think the music of Van Halen has been in my ears more than any other band or artist over the decades.
Recently, I dissected every nook and cranny of the Van Halen catalogue to come up with my Top 10 Essential Van Halen songs (123 tracks with drums to be exact)! Obviously, we all have different things we listen for and inevitably hear things differently, but I’d encourage you to listen with an open mind and discover some things that you may not have heard before. Granted, this list could change daily because there are so many outstanding tracks full of bombastic drumming from which to choose. Alex’s swagger and swing are untouchable because he pulls from so many different styles of music when creating his drum parts. It’s not just rock drumming; you can hear jazz fusion, blues, Latin, dance, and more. His drum sound is unique and stands out immediately with only one listen, but more important is the way Alex plays the time and accents those abstract syncopated rhythm guitar parts from his brother Eddie. So different and refreshing while still serving the music, like any great drummer would.
With the recent and shocking death of guitar hero, icon, musical genius, innovator, composer, producer, and legend Eddie Van Halen, we have been hearing a lot of Van Halen’s music and reading more about the brothers growing up playing music together. There is something special to be said about siblings and how they interact and play music. Alex and Eddie were extremely fortunate to have had that special bond for all their lives and are perfect examples of this unspoken magical chemistry between two brothers.
Don’t necessarily think of this list as the “best,” but as an introduction to a wonderful catalog of incredible timeless music. Van Halen has always been, and will always be, the band that makes me smile from ear to ear even before I hear a single note.
1. “Hot for Teacher” from 1984: https://youtu.be/gbanpC_K62M. This iconic drum track is the first thing most drummers think of when they hear the name Alex Van Halen. The drum intro alone is a masterpiece of thunderous hertas, triplets, and that incredible double bass shuffle. Alex’s swing is extremely tight; you can definitely hear the jazz influences in how he sets up each section of the song. He is always supporting the music without distracting the listener and still inspiring drummers of the new generation. This is a true classic.
2. “Pleasure Dome” from For Unlawfully Carnal Knowledge: https://youtu.be/_6JltF-NeDo. This song starts off with some beautiful guitar harmonics and textures before the drums stumble in and set up a very abstract time feel with a unique tom groove. This continues throughout the first part of the verse, then switches to a funkier syncopated hi-hat beat that gives the song a new color. Alex eventually moves to the ride cymbal, creating his signature bell and washy crash tone. This tune is a barn burner from beginning to end.
3. “House of Pain” from 1984: https://youtu.be/mg5zzivyOcA. This is a great example of exceptional timekeeping against crazy rhythm guitar parts. It’s a little confusing to feel where the “one” is during the verse until you get to the first chorus. At 1:40 the tune kicks into high gear for an explosive guitar solo supported by a tasty ride cymbal beat. Then at 2:20, Alex plays a funky cowbell part during the breakdown. This one is a fresh and original composition.
4. “Light Up the Sky” from VH ll: https://youtu.be/Mzo3Sf7MpZw. This song has incredible energy from the first note to the last. I love the dynamic drum solo during the breakdown at 2:21. The tune doesn’t have a traditional chorus, but it has a memorable sing-a-long at the end and is a demonstration of relentless power and precision. Light ’em up!
5. “China Town” from Different Kind of Truth: https://youtu.be/-Cl1f_6FYQo. Alex is like a powerful freight train on this crazy track. The whole song is a wild extravaganza of off-the-wall rhythms by both Alex and Eddie. There is something special in their DNA for sure.
6. “Everybody Wants Some” from Women & Children First: https://youtu.be/4EI8JN-fSLo. This party anthem kicks off with one of the most memorable tom intros ever. The tom groove during the verse is driving and accents the guitar part very well before the chorus comes in with a great supportive back beat. At 2:22 Alex lays down a powerful Motown beat that dumps into the guitar solo. Then, at 3:15, he is back to the intro tom beat for the breakdown over some classic David Lee Roth poetry.
7. “Right Now” from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge: https://youtu.be/DLQawHJ38Sc. This is a great song from start to finish because the music, lyrics, production, and drum parts are perfect. I love everything about this track. Alex always knows how to keep the drum parts fresh and exciting with his instantly recognizable sound. The song has a very special groove, and it is challenging to play like Alex does.
8. “Aftershock” from Balance: https://youtu.be/9N_kpr-6PpU. This tune has a nice intro with hi-hat and cymbal embellishments along with a few cymbal chokes. The verses have a great feel, but I love how in the second verse Alex spices things up and introduces the ride bell into the hi-hat groove. The song manages to be very funky, yet still powerful and driving.
9. “Ice Cream Man” from VH: https://youtu.be/i2RKWJD5ops. Old-school Van Halen albums have a magical sound and feel that can’t be described in words; you have to experience the band’s timeless catalog for yourself. This particular track sounds like Alex pulling from his days of listening to swing and big band records. He sets up each section of the song with attitude and conviction as a fantastic example of a shuffle that rocks and swings!
10. “Finish What You Started” from OU812: https://youtu.be/nqyZMjFqFf0. I always loved the kick, snare, and rim intro to this track. I hear some inspiration from world rhythms against the country-picking guitar style. It is very abstract and offbeat while shifting between a deep pocket groove. Great hooks and harmonies make this a fun, catchy song from start to finish!
Larry Rodbell has built a reputation as a versatile and musical drummer, educator, clinician, and live performer. With over 40 years playing experience and over 20 years teaching, he approaches everything with passion, enthusiasm, and integrity. He teaches at his home studio, Rodbell Drums Teaching Studio in Annapolis, Maryland. He has been the Percussion Ensemble Director and Drum Coach for the Magothy River Middle School Concert Band percussion section since 2011. Larry is also a member of the PAS Drumset Committee. For more info on Larry Rodbell, visit rodbelldrums.com.