If things had gone differently, Eddie Van Halen might have made his mark as a pianist rather than a rock virtuoso — or, fans might prefer, Guitar God.
Fortunately for at least three generations of guitar players and hard rockers, Van Halen found his future in six-strings and influenced, easily, tens of thousands of players who followed him over the course of more than 40 years, primarily through the band that bore his name.
That legacy came to a close Oct. 6, when Van Halen died after his battle with cancer at age 65. His son, Wolfgang, shared the news on Twitter.
— Wolf Van Halen 🐺 🚐 🙌 (@WolfVanHalen) October 6, 2020
The flashy guitarist and bandleader had been the subject of near-death rumors for many years — some due to his documented substance abuse issues but most stemming from news of tongue cancer in 2000 — which caused doctors to remove a third of his tongue — though Van Halen was declared cancer free two years later. In recent months, however, reports stated that he was battling throat cancer and flying to Germany for specialized treatments — though rumors of his imminent demise seemed to be exaggerated.
In recent months, after a protracted period out of sight that led to more rumors of ill-health, Van Halen made a determined attempt at a public profile. During October he was photographed at a McLaren auto dealership in Beverly Hills, Calif., and shortly after that he attended Tool’s October concert in Los Angeles — and even took a photo for a fan who didn’t recognize Van Halen. Van Halen posted holiday messages in December, celebrated the release of some new branded gear at this year’s NAMM Show and, most recently, wished his son Wolfgang Van Halen a happy birthday on March 16.
“I feel like a 60-year-old punk kid who plays guitar in a rock band, and I am so blessed and so honored to be able to do that, making music,” Van Halen said during a 2017 public interview for whatitmeanstobeamerican.org at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Van Halen was born Jan. 26, 1955 in the Netherlands. His father Jan Van Halen was a classically trained clarinetist, saxophonist and pianist. “Music was a common thread throughout our lives…ever since we were young,” Van Halen said at the Smithsonian — adding, presciently, “we always liked things loud.”
The Van Halens moved to Pasadena, Calif. in 1962, where Van Halen and his older brother Al took piano lessons and became contest-winning youth players — despite Eddie’s inability to read music. But enamored by rock ‘n’ roll and, specifically, the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over,” the younger Van Halen took up drums. “I never wanted to play guitar,” he said at the Smithsonian. But hearing Alex play his drum kit and realizing his brother was better, “I said, ‘Go ahead, take my drums and I’ll play your damn guitar…'”
By the time Van Halen’s debut album came out in 1978, Eddie had become an accomplished and innovative player as well as an avowed gearhead who experimented with instruments, amplifiers and effects. With the Van Halen instrumental “Eruption,” meanwhile, popularized the tapping technique that had been introduced by predecessors, advancing it by using both hands to on the guitar neck to blend percussive and melodic elements. “I think I got the idea of tapping watching Jimmy Page do his ‘Heartbreaker’ solo back in 1971” during a concert at the Los Angeles Forum, Van Halen told Guitar World. “He was doing a pull-off to an open string, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, open string…pull off, I can do that, but what if I use my finger as the nut and move it around?’ I just kind of took it and ran with it.”
Acknowledging at the Smithsonian that he did not invent tapping, Van Halen added that, “I never really heard anybody do with it what I really did, which was actual pieces of music.” He added that, “The main reason I squeeze so many, you call them tricks, whatever, out of a guitar is out of necessity. I couldn’t afford the pedals, the fuzz box and all the toys everybody else had. So I did all I could to get all the sound I could out of my fingers.”
The run included a dozen studio albums during the Van Halen band’s on-and-off run, adding synthesizers to the mix for hits such as “Jump” and “I’ll Wait.” He also played the solo on Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit “Beat It” and made guest contributions to albums by onetime Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar, Queen’s Brian May, Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters and LL Cool J and David Garfield.
Van Halen’s inventive streak, meanwhile, led to a number of patents for guitar body technologies. “More is always better,” Van Halen noted. “The main thing is I always ask myself, ‘What if I do this? What’ll happen if I do this?’…through trial and error.”
A perpetual winner of guitar polls — he was voted No. 1 by readers of Guitar World in 2012 — Van Halen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, though he did not attend the ceremony. The band also won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal in 1992. The group has sold more than 80 million albums worldwide — the last of which, “A Different Kind of Truth,” came out in 2012, with “Tokyo Dome Live in Concert” following three years later.
Van Halen was married twice — to actress Valerie Bertinelli from 1981 to 2007, and to Jane Liszewski in 2008. Wolfgang Van Halen, meanwhile, played bass in Van Halen from its 2006 reunion with original frontman David Lee Roth.
Memorial arrangements for Van Halen are pending.