Knack guitarist on almost-famous Eddie Van Halen: ‘I knew they had a guitar phenom’

The Knack at The Troubadour: Prescott Niles, Doug Fieger, Bruce Gary, Berton Averre. (Courtesy Berton Averre)

LOS ANGELES – AUGUST 1981: (L-R) Bassist Prescott Niles, drummer Bruce Gary, singer/guitarist Doug Fieger, guitarist Berton Averre of the rock and roll band “The Knack” perform on stage at the Starwood in August 1981 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Knack singer/guitarist Doug Fieger, drummer Bruce Gary, bassist Prescott Niles, and guitarist Berton Averre stage at the Starwood in August 1981 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

American Rock musician Eddie Van Halen, of the group Van Halen, performs onstage at the Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, Illinois, April 6, 1979. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
American Rock musician Eddie Van Halen, of the group Van Halen, performs onstage at the Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, Illinois, April 6, 1979. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Van Halen Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Van Halen live at Nippon Budokan, The three gathering at the stage front, Tokyo, September 1979. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

(MANDATORY CREDIT Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images) Van Halen live at Nippon Budokan, making greetings after the show, Tokyo, September 1979. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)
Van Halen live at Nippon Budokan, making greetings after the show, Tokyo, September 1979. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

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American Rock musician Eddie Van Halen, of the group Van Halen, performs onstage at the Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, Illinois, April 6, 1979. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
(MANDATORY CREDIT Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images) Van Halen live at Nippon Budokan, making greetings after the show, Tokyo, September 1979. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)
Knack guitarist Berton Averre knew of Eddie Van Halen before he ever heard a note

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.

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