Berton Averre, whose guitar riff propelled The Knack’s “My Sharona” to the top of Billboard’s charts in 1979, was aware of Eddie Van Halen before he ever heard the legendary guitar sound that framed his namesake band, Van Halen.
The Knack and Van Halen were each approaching stardom from Southern California in the late 1970s.
“We were a Hollywood club band, and they were a Hollywood club band,” Averre told WTOP. “We’d both be playing and making a name for ourselves, and we’d always see their name playing the same clubs that we were.”
Although Averre saw Van Halen’s name on flyers for clubs, including The Starwood, the two guitarists’ paths hadn’t crossed.
“I never saw them in the clubs, and I assume they never saw us,” Averre said. “But, I knew they had an outrageous frontman, and a guitar phenom.”
Soon after the release of Van Halen’s first album, in February 1978, featuring David Lee Roth on vocals, Eddie Van Halen on guitar, brother Alex Van Halen on drums and bassist Michael Anthony, Averre realized what the commotion was about.
“And when I first heard that album, I said, ‘Damn, yes, he’s a phenom,'” said Averre.
Averre, who characterized his own guitar style as “give me my Les Paul, plug it into the amp,” said Van Halen, who died Tuesday, was very different.
Citing the guitar riff of Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” which included harmonics blended with propulsive arpeggios, Averre said Van Halen’s guitar talents were multi-layered.
“He had insane chops. But, one of the things I was always jealous of is he was a real gearhead. He obviously just worked really hard at getting the best sounds. The best overdrive. He would work that Strat, and he would get everything possible out of it.”
And despite Van Halen’s ability to play lightning fast, Averre said that clearly wasn’t Van Halen’s goal.
“He was all about the entertainment. It was all about playing cool stuff, fun stuff, new stuff,” Averre said. “It wasn’t just ‘listen to how many notes I can play.'”
Averre’s guitar riff in “My Sharona,” which he described as “a simplistic, staccato, contained fury thing,” eventually crossed paths with Van Halen.
“It’s been documented that when Michael Jackson was in the process of writing songs for ‘Thriller,’ [producer] Quincy Jones said to him, ‘You should write a “My Sharona” kind of song,’ and that was ‘Beat It,'” Averre said.
Eddie Van Halen’s sonic guitar solos were part of the reason Jackson’s “Beat It” went to No. 1 approximately four years after the success of “My Sharona.”
“I always thought it was funny that Eddie Van Halen is just like going nuts on that solo,” Averre said.
The Knack guitarist said Van Halen’s musical range was vast.
“For him, it was all about finding a way for making it appropriate, for what he did. He once said something like, ‘Debussy chords don’t sound right, if you’re playing in overdrive.”
As a fellow classical music aficionado, Averre appreciated Van Halen’s musical fluency and taste: “Nah, that’s not gonna work, if you’re playing through a Marshall.”
Watch Berton Averre, as The Knack performed “My Sharona” at Carnegie Hall, in 1979.