We lost Eddie Van Halen last week, on Tuesday, October 6, 2020.
I’m not wallowing in the depths of despair or anything like that. I never even met the guy, although I wish I had. But I admit this has been a lot harder for me than I originally thought it would be.
I didn’t really grow up listening to Van Halen, ironically. The first Van Halen song I knew of was Jump. I would have been about 12 or 13 at the time. I heard it from time to time on the radio. I knew of the album 1984, but didn’t ever buy it - something about an angel baby smoking a cigarette on the cover made me think it would end up in the garbage if my parents ever saw it, so I never owned it in junior high or high school.
Thus, for me, 5150 was the first real exposure I had to Van Halen, followed by OU812. I was on a mission in Spain for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge came out, so I didn’t listen to that until after I got back from my mission and went to college.
So, since I didn’t really follow the band much before my college years, and since we didn’t really have the Internet back then, it wasn’t until I was in my 20s when I learned that Sammy Hagar had not always been the lead singer of Van Halen, that David Lee Roth had previously been with the band for many years, that they’d released not just 1984 but several albums with David Lee Roth as lead vocalist, and that a lot of people had been pretty upset about this change.
It was while in college that I had a roommate who played guitar, who taught me a bit about it as well, and taught me how to listen for the guitar work in the songs I liked. It was then that I really got turned on to Van Halen. I bought every album released up until that time and listened to them all until I knew every song by heart. I came to realize what an amazing guitar player was Eddie Van Halen.
It was he who inspired me to learn to play guitar - not to become like him, which I’ve always considered a bridge too far, but to learn to appreciate the guitar. I love music, and I love the electric guitar. I think it is a fascinating instrument. And I don’t think there’s anyone, ever, who has done more with that instrument than Eddie Van Halen.
Through over 25 years of growing music appreciation I’ve come to understand even more about just how impactful Eddie was. This has taught me to appreciate him not just as a guitarist, but as a legend, a musician, an innovator, and an influencer.
Let’s take those in reverse order.
EVH The Influencer
I don’t think Eddie invented every technique he made popular, like two-handed tapping, the use of harmonics, or the use of the tremolo (whammy bar), for example. But until he came along nobody knew what to do with them or why they needed them.
A large part of music in the ’80s was hard rock and heavy metal, and Eddie Van Halen had a huge influence on ’80s hard rock and heavy metal. Every decent hard rock and heavy metal band had to have a guitar player that could shred. That sound was defined by Eddie Van Halen. Because of him, guitarists knew why they needed a Floyd Rose or when they should use two-handed tapping. And they absolutely had to be great at guitar solos. The gold standard? Eddie Van Halen. It’s said that many bands when auditioning new guitarists would require them to play Eruption or Cathedral or some other Van Halen solo as part of the audition.
Even their equipment was influenced by Eddie Van Halen. Before Eddie came along, solid-body electrics came in two basic forms: The Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Stratocaster. It was Eddie who thought, “I want something that sounds fuller and heavier, like the Les Paul, but is lighter like the Strat.” So he just combined the two together into a guitar of his own creation. This monstrosity became the most recognizable electric guitar on the planet, the guitar Eddie called Frankenstein. You can buy an official replica from Fender online today for $40,000. But if you don’t want an exact replica, or don’t have $40,000 to spend on a guitar, you can settle for one influenced by this style. They are known as “Superstrats” and basically every well known electric guitar manufacturer makes them - Ibanez, Jackson, Charvel, Schecter, Paul Reed Smith, and ESP just to name a few. They make them because Eddie Van Halen told us we needed one.
Next came the tremolo. Eddie wanted a tremolo on his guitar. However, up until this point these had mostly been used for generating a bit of vibrato. Eddie’s vision was much grander - to use this to generate massive pitch changes. Tremolos of the day weren’t designed for that, couldn’t handle it without completely going out of tune. Eddie collaborated with Floyd Rose to develop a tremolo system that could bend the pitch several steps higher, drop the pitch so low that the strings would crash onto the pickup heads, and come back into tune, every time. A Floyd Rose, or a tremolo inspired by the Floyd Rose, is almost standard equipment on a Superstrat.
Then came the pickups. Eddie was looking for a warmer, fuller sound out of the pickups available at the time. He concluded that maybe the reason the sound was too harsh and tinny from the pickups he had was because the coils were vibrating too much. To prevent this, he decided to try dipping the pickup in melted wax. Who knows how many pickups he destroyed trying this out, but eventually he managed to get a wax that didn’t also melt the pickup. And it worked. This became known as a “potted” pickup, and was key to Eddie’s trademark sound. Today, every significant manufacturer of electric guitar pickups has potted pickups, because Eddie taught us all that we wanted them.
EVH The Innovator
Eddie Van Halen was a great innovator for the electric guitar. In addition to those just mentioned, he also came up with a lot of other guitar innovations - body shapes, neck shapes, electronics, and more. I own several electric guitars, but my most favorite guitar to play is my EVH Wolfgang. It is lightweight and super easy to play. Eddie’s innovative touches are everywhere on that guitar - the neck profile, the head, the body, the pickups - all working together to make it amazing to play.
In fact, Eddie holds three patents for guitar innovations - and could probably have obtained many more.
But to me the most innovative thing he ever did was to revolutionize what we knew of as rock music.
The first time I heard Eruption I was, of course, blown away. Still am every time I hear it. But to really get the full experience, try spending a week or so listening to rock music from that time period, the mid-to-late ’70s - Led Zeppelin, early Journey, Deep Purple, Aerosmith, The Cars, even Kiss. Then listen to Van Halen’s self-titled debut album starting from the beginning. The sound is nothing like anything else that was going on at that time. It was heavier and louder and yet happier and more joyful-sounding than anything else. Eddie was doing things that none of his contemporaries were doing - and there were a lot of really great guitar players at that time. The sound was unlike anything before it, and everyone after that was trying to figure out how to get it.
EVH The Musician
I once heard or read an interview with Eddie Van Halen that stuck with me forever. Paraphrasing of course, he said something to the effect that while learning to play at his level was very difficult, it was much more difficult to learn how to write a good song. For him, a good song is one that appeals to a broad range of people, is instantly likeable and memorable, and doesn’t get old quickly. He said that writing a song like that was much harder than learning to play at a virtuoso level.
This, I believe, is Eddie’s most underrated talent. I listen to a lot of great music, and there are a lot of great guitar players in there. Some really incredible ones are guys like Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, and John Petrucci. But to get into this music, you have to want it. It’s an investment. Dream Theater, for example, the band Petrucci plays for, is one of my all-time favorite bands. But appreciating Dream Theater is an investment. It isn’t for everyone. Petrucci plays the guitar beautifully and he is an amazing talent, but Dream Theater’s music isn’t as approachable as Van Halen’s.
In contrast, Van Halen’s music is incredibly mainstream. There is no such thing as a fan of rock music that does not like Van Halen. Second to Eddie’s talent for writing really great songs was his talent for writing amazing, complex, unique guitar solos that fit the song and support it, rather than detract from it. For many great guitarists, the song is a means for them to play their solo. For Eddie it’s the other way around - the solo is there to make the song great.
Consider the song Jump. It is hard to imagine that there’s a person alive between the ages of 8 and 80 that hasn’t heard that song (although I’m sure there are, those poor souls). Jump is a great, great song. It ticks all the boxes - catchy, easy to hear, uplifting, relatable to non-musicians and technically interesting to aficionados, and you can listen to it again and again. I’ll be listening to that song until the day I die.
As great a guitarist as he was, Eddie was an even better songwriter and musician, which is why I rate him as the absolute best rock guitarist of all time. Not “all time so far”. I don’t think we’ll ever have another like him.
EVH The Legend
The stories about Eddie Van Halen are many and astounding. He’s the Chuck Norris of rock guitar.
Yes, he contributed the guitar solo of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, uncredited, in about 30 minutes of studio time, much of which was rearranging the song to make it better. The rumor is he did the solo in one take. I also read somewhere, once, that he did the entire song “Big Fat Money” on the album “Balance” in one take.
Yes, they stipulated that their dressing room should have a bowl of M&Ms, brown ones excluded, just to make sure the organizers were paying attention.
Yes, he manufactured his own guitar using a $50 throwaway body - and played that same guitar for years and years, recorded multiple records with it, and used it for countless concerts.
Yes, he used to turn away from the audience while playing Eruption live, so nobody would figure out how he was doing what he was doing.
Yes, he once tried to get into Kiss and was not offered the job because Gene Simmons told Eddie he would be “too big” for Kiss.
Yes, he initially played the drums, with Alex on guitar - but switched to guitar when Alex kept playing Eddie’s drum set.
Yes, he became a very accomplished pianist at a young age, and regularly and repeatedly won many piano competitions - despite never, ever in his life learning how to read music.
We lost Eddie on October 6, 2020, but he left us with twelve albums full of music and the memory of his infectious smile he always seemed to wear while he would play the most complex guitar passages with seemingly effortless ease. The world of music is a better place because Eddie Van Halen lived, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.
RIP EVH 1955-2020