Eddie Van Halen, Melting-Pot Virtuoso

We don't normally talk about how rock's late, great lead guitarist was an immigrant success story and inspiration to early hip hop, but that's only because he (and America!) were too busy getting rad.


Eddie Van Halen, the most important rock guitarist of the past 45 years, died of cancer this morning at age 65.

Van Halen reinvented what the electric guitar could sound like, while his monster-selling band, also named Van Halen (his brother was on drums, and his son would much later join on bass), forged a new genre of heavy metal that stressed California technicolor over British gloom, Jack Daniels over Jack the Ripper, hair spray over hobbits.

You will recognize Van Halen's pyrotechnic guitar technique and "brown" tone even if you have never consciously listened to a single one of his songs. This instrumental, from the band's eponymous and still-astonishing 1978 debut album (which sold more than 10 million copies), is why:

It was the fretboard-tap that spawned a thousand imitators. (And, indirectly, one of the all-time great documentaries: The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, by Penelope Spheeris.) As Eddie—that's what we all called him—told Billy Corgan in 1996 (recounted in an excellent L.A. Times obit), "When I used the stuff I invented, I was telling a story, while I felt that the people who were imitating me were telling a joke."

The invention element here is a much-overlooked aspect of the band's breakout success. Despite featuring two virtuoso musicians (Eddie and Alex's father was a lifelong classical clarinetist and saxophone player) and one of the most outlandishly charismatic and athletic frontmen rock has ever seen in David Lee Roth, the Pasadena quartet was a strictly and impressively D.I.Y. outfit for years in the mid-1970s, putting on their own shows in the San Gabriel Valley and Sunset Strip while the music industry flocked to disco and soft rock, and critics turned to punk.

Appropriately for era and place, Eddie's instrument itself, later to be donated to the Smithsonian, was a self-made hot-rod.

"His iconic, road-battered guitar, named Frankenstein, was pieced together to his personal specifications in 1975 from the components of other instruments—a $50 body, a $75 neck, a single Humbucker pickup and crucial tremolo bar," writes the L.A. Times. "With a red surface crisscrossed frantically with black and white stripes (and traffic reflectors stuck to the back), it remains one of the most recognizable guitars in rock 'n' roll."

Such was the ubiquity of the Van Halen influence that it made perfect sense that my dopey little Beatles-covering garage band in high school would feature a guitarist kitted out like this:

It's hard to gaze backward from artistic and cultural success and imagine it as anything but preordained, but in fact the Van Halen kids' immigrant work ethic (both were born in the Netherlands, coming to America in elementary school) helped give them not only world-beating chops but the kind of stubbornness to shrug off being initially turned down by every record label and shunned even after arrival by a legion of myopic rock critics. Even Creem, that critical champion of rock's atavistic yawps, declared in June 1978 that "'dinosaurs' may be too harsh a term, even if Van Halen-style rockers do find their evolutionary fulfillment in a quick extinction."

In creating their own lane, depending on your taste for hyperbole, Van Halen "saved heavy metal"—nay, saved rock music itself!

"We came here with approximately $50 and a piano, and we didn't speak the language," Eddie said in 2015. "If that's not the American dream, what is?"

A crucial part of that American (and Californian!) dream is people just not giving a shit one way or the other if you've got a funny name like Edward Lodewijk Van Halen. Not that there's a cauldron of anti-Dutch sentiment bubbling under the San Andreas, but what made Eddie important to his millions of fans was the same thing that drew people to the biracial Slash (and his schoolmate Lenny Kravitz), the Greek-born Tommy Lee, or the Hungarian-American Flea—he shredded, and looked dead cool (or at least very pleasantly stoned) doing it. If the East Coast is where people ask you where you went to school, the West Coast is where they instead want to know what you're working on. And what Eddie Van Halen was working on was kicking your ass, with a goofy smile on his face.

I won't be surprised when, if not this week then next month, the outrage archeologists will pick through the off-the-record wreckage of Eddie's life or the on-the-record outrages of songs like, um, "Hot for Teacher" (a song that inspired a classic case for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Cock-rock, after all, was never shy about its excesses.

But in an age allergic to grace, obsessed with race, and overly anxious about "cultural appropriation," here's one triviality perhaps worth celebrating: Eddie Van Halen not only laid down the template for rock guitar and hair metal, he not only helped cross what was then an honest-to-God racial divide in pop music by laying down a guitar solo for Michael Jackson's "Beat It" (for the cost of precisely one can of beer), he was for a while there being sampled in early rap music at a rate just below Curtis Mayfield and James Brown. If you march through the hip hop just from the year 1989, you encounter Van Halen everywhere from Tone Loc to 2 Live Crew.

Many of those samples came from one of the all-time great guitar riffs, on "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love," which on any other day would be my go-to Van Halen song (and cover). But there was something also sweet and unapologetically pop about Eddie's playing and songwriting, which you can hear (and see!) not only in the band's synth-pop masterpiece "Jump" but also in this blissed-out teenage trifle. May we all be dancing the night away again sometime soon.

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  1. RIP

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    2. I was 16 in 1978 when their debut album came out. The songs were everywhere at school, at every house party, in every car’s cassette deck being played in the mall parking lot.

      For us, it was like when Nirvana’s Nevermind hit the Gen X kids in 1991. Total game-changer

      1. Van Halen fan here myself!

        Now, note that sometimes, SOME of their lyrics were SOOO deep, the mere mortals among us had a hard time following them! I am a fart smeller… Ooops! Make that a smart feller… And I have pondered some of their deepest lyrics, long and hard! Accordingly, I now share my deep decoding wisdom…

        Van Halen
        Oh yeah! … (Meaning: I like sex!)
        Uh-huh! … (Meaning: I like sex!)
        Jump back, what’s that sound? … (Meaning: I like drugs!)
        Here she comes, full blast and top down … (Meaning: I like drugs!)
        Hot shoe, burnin’ down the avenue … (Meaning: I like sex!)
        Model citizen, zero discipline … (Meaning: I like more sex!)
        Don’t you know she’s coming home with me … (Meaning: I like sex!)
        You’ll lose her in that turn … (Meaning: I like lotsa sex!)
        I’ll get her … (Meaning: I like fast cars!)
        Panama … (Meaning: I like REALLY fast cars!)
        Panama … (Meaning: I like cheap beer!)
        Panama … (Meaning: I like cheap whiskey!)
        Panama … (Meaning: I like cheap cigars!)
        Ain’t nothin’ like it, her shiny machine … (Meaning: I like cheaper beer!)
        Got the feel for the wheel, keep the movin’ parts clean (I like cars!)
        Hot shoe, burnin’ down the avenue … (Meaning: I like hookers!)
        Got an on-ramp comin’ through my bedroom … (Meaning: I like coke!)
        Don’t you know she’s coming home with me … (Meaning: I like sex!)
        You’ll lose her in that turn … (Meaning: I like sex!)
        I’ll get her … (Meaning: I like more sex!)
        (Uh-oh!) … (Meaning: I flunked my exams!)
        Panama … (Meaning: I like more coke!)
        Panama (ow!) … (Meaning: I like too much coke!)
        Panama … (Meaning: I like more drugs!)
        Panama (ah-oh-oh-oh-oh) … (Meaning: Let’s get stoned!)
        Woo! … (Meaning: I think I’m stoned now, but let’s do more!)
        Yeah, we’re runnin’ a little bit hot tonight … (Meaning: OK, stoned now for sure!)
        I can barely see the road from the heat comin’ off … (Meaning: I love cars crashes!)
        (You know… … (Meaning: MomDad will buy me a new car anyway!)

        1. funny. MTV did a “Lost Weekend With Van Halen” contest we all tried hard to win.

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  2. Name a better more influential 80’s rock guitar god. I’ll wait.

    1. They weren’t “better”, but Jeff Beck, Brian May and Stevie Ray Vaughan were as good, I guess.
      Eddie put on the best show though.

        1. You gotta be kidding Granite…

      1. The “better” and/or “best” guitar player is subjective, to be sure. Eddie was very influential in the late 70’s and 80’s. I agree that Jeff Beck is a fine musician – but put him in the 70’s – and he has never had the commercial success of Van Halen. SRV was one of my favorites, and I’d say he was indeed influential. I put Brian May in the 70’s – but that may not be fair (even though it seems to me that all of Queen’s best songs were in the 70’s). Don’t know how influential this guitar player was/is – but I think he’s one of the most underrated: Lindsey Buckingham.

      2. you didn’t see what i did there. 🙂

    2. Van Halen the band and the guitarist were 100% commercial, if that’s what you like. As for the best? He jumped around good, just like Pete Townsend.

      Fast does not mean the best. Just fast.

      1. Thank you.

  3. Notice how the Van Halen brothers managed to fit right in. They didn’t invent rock music, they adapted to it. They learned the language.

    Notice how others don’t. They get elected to Congress and any time you dissent to their opinions they cry white supremacy, racism, islamophobia, etc.

    1. Dude! Chillax man…

  4. Rest in peace, Eddie.

  5. Best. Guitarist. Ever.

    1. Excuse me? There’s a Mr. Hendrix on the line for you….

  6. Van Halen was a featured player in the soundtrack of my youth. I got introduced to 5150, then dug through the entire back catalog. When I got my first drum set, all I tried to do was replicate the intro to “Hot For Teacher,” (poorly), which my brother had no problem playing on the guitar. Most of my youthful rites of passage had a VH song somewhere in the background.

    Shred In Peace, Eddie. Thanks for the good times.

  7. Way to fuck up an obituary reason. Why was race brought into this at all? I grew up with my parents listening to Van Halen and never once did I think of Eddie as having a race. Fucking stupid / the whole race category should be removed from existence / no one cares until it’s brought up.

    1. Eddie’s race wasn’t just “rock”?

      1. He was born on Mt. Olympus.

        1. Born *of* Mount Olympus. Hewn directly from the rock! 😀

    2. Yeah, I don’t know what immigration or race has to do with this either. It’s the least interesting thing about him.

    3. Narrative man, narrative.

    4. Would it have mattered if he’d been born in Pasadena? Is he a better guitar player for having been an immigrant? There’s this thing called “meritocracy”. Identity politics flies in the face of it, and Eddie Van Halen was amazing because of his talent–regardless of anything else about him.

      1. I first heard Van Halen on the school bus in third grade. Somebody had a boom box and played ‘Why Can’t This Be Love’ every morning. One of my all-time favorite songs.

        Since the 1990s though there’s been a sort of Van-Halen-is-too-white thing. I can’t describe it very well but it’s there. So the whole thing of Eddie and Alex being born in the Netherlands, and their mom is not white – Indonesian-Dutch – it flips the script on the people who wrote Van Halen off due to their perceived race.

        I’ve been watching old footage of their shows. Including more recent performances and interviews with a gray-haired, stockier Eddie still playing. Look for the Hollywood Bowl 10/2/2015. You can see he loves sound and he loves playing music and he even loves being on stage most of the time. I don’t know if he ever got to play a pipe organ but I feel like that’s the sound he’s looking for some of the time, not always, when he branched out into keyboards in the 1980s. The hair metal world may have been siloed in the eighties, watching the interviews of the people following the band around asking them the same questions year after year. I wonder if he ever met Brian Eno. I hope somebody makes albums of his unreleased tracks. I think he passed away before his genius could be fully worked out but I’m grateful for the music that he and his band(s) made.

    5. Way to fuck up an obituary reason.

      You assume it was an obituary. It’s pretty clearly Welch’s opportunity to use Eddie Van Halen’s death as a platform beat down all the backwards, anti-immigrant, rednecks that don’t know how to run things as well as Matt Welch does.

  8. Oh and tool saved metal, not van Hagar.

    1. spiral out.

  9. “Appropriately for era and place, Eddie’s instrument itself, later to be donated to the Smithsonian, was a self-made hot-rod.”

    When Dimebag Darrell was murdered by a fan, Eddie Van Halen showed up and put his Van Halen II guitar in Dimebag Darrell’s casket so he could be buried with it.

    1. That’s some serious class.

  10. I’ve met most of my punk rock heroes at one point or another, but I never thought that rock god status was deserved by anyone–except for Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page. The thing about Eddie Van Halen was that he could play with incredible precision and speed and also with a tremendous amount of heart and soul. I’ll go see a show like Buckethead, and he’s great, but when you go see the speedy technical guys, like that, you often find that they lack soul.

    1. Yngvieh malmsteen was criticized for being too technical with no soul. Dude could play though. Wonder whatever happened to him? Thought I heard something about arthritis in his hands at a young age ending his career. Makes sense the way he played. Dude might not have had soul, but he was dedicated.

      Maybe soul is overrated.

      1. It’s not overrated. It’s just that the combination of elite technical speed and soulfulness is rare–and that’s what sets Eddie Van Halen apart from his peers. The other guy that sticks out to me in that way is Page–though Page wasn’t always going for technical speed.

        Steve Howe, Alex Lifeson, Jimi Hendrix, they all had soul–but they weren’t necessarily going for blinding technical speed either.

        Yngvieh Malmsteem, Buckethead, and Michael Schenker go for technical speed, but they don’t necessarily have much soul.

        The thrash metal, death metal, black metal guys aren’t necessarily going for soulful, and the groove metal guys aren’t necessarily going for technical speed.

        Eddie could do either soulful or technical speed and he could do both. I can think of one other example of someone who was going for technical speed and could approach soulfulness like that, and it’s an old video of Kerry King of Slayer doing a soundcheck with Pantera in an infamous thrash metal venue in Texas–back in the day.

        Pantera were originally glam metal Van Halen/Judas Priest acolytes before they sold out [bought in] and dropped the glam.

        They’re covering “Green Manalishi” but they do an interlude in the middle of “Victim of Changes”–and you can hear Kerry King almost flirt with being soulful in addition to King’s speed. Didn’t quite get there or wasn’t there for long.

        Here it is:

        The set list from that night shows that they didn’t play Green Manalishi. They did Diamonds and Rust or something instead.

        Scott Ian might have gotten there in that technical speed = soulful equation in S.O.D. but he’s just doing rhythm. That’s practically HYHC stuff, and they’re avoiding leads. Dave Mustaine could be both soulful and fast, but not as soulful as Eddie or Page–and that wasn’t what he was going for. Neither Eddie nor Page were metal guys per se. Angus Young might get into the conversation on the soulful side, but I wouldn’t compare his speed to Eddie either.

        I can’t think of another guitarist who could play with technical speed like Eddie Van Halen and could also be soulful like he could be. And I think that’s what makes him stand out from the crowd. Who else played as fast as he did and was as soulful as he was? I can’t think of anybody.

        1. The thrash metal, death metal, black metal guys aren’t necessarily going for soulful

          Yo, Chuck Shuldiner’s best song is literally called Voice Of The Soul. And I’ve never heard a better voice of the soul.

        2. From someone who wasn’t alive at the time: if Van Halen never existed, Schenker seems like the most important guitarist between Page and the 80s. He never seemed like the type to play purely for speed. Imagine Iron Maiden without UFO!

        3. Very good points. Joe Satriani comes to mind also – as a technically proficient player, but one who lacks soul. His “Surfing with the Alien” album was popular back in 1987-88 and I enjoyed listening to it for a while. I even went to see him in concert – at a small outdoor venue in Florida. He sounded great, but… soul.

        4. Jeff Beck

        5. SRV could shred with soul, while dancing/prancing, while changing a broken string/re-tuning…without missing a beat, and he did it on 12 gauge strings.
          Each had they’re own bad-assery that was unique to them. They just did what was authentic to themselves. That’s the only way anyone leaves a mark in this world.

        6. I can’t think of anybody either. Vinnie Moore should be in the conversation, but I don’t think he’s Van Halen level.

  11. Not that there’s a cauldron of anti-Dutch sentiment bubbling under the San Andreas

    We were all anti-Dutch back in the 1970s

    (My apologies for not finding a link to the whole thing)

    1. “There’s only two things I hate in this world: people who are intolerant of other people’s culture….. and the Dutch.”

      Haha. Austin powers.

  12. I was 16 when the first record came out. I didn’t like it that much.
    Couldn’t turn on the commercial rock radio w/o hearing You Really Got Me and it just sounded way too clean and over-produced. Most everybody at my school believed they wrote it.The record stores all had that push promotion with a big display of one aisle-end rack with hundreds of copies of the record.
    Runnin’ With the Devil was the other song with heavy rotation. None of it was bad. For commercial album rock it beat the shit out of Styx, Toto and REO Speedwagon. I was listening to back catalogue stuff and loving everything new out of NYC then and for the past 3 years or so.

    Then 3 or 4 years later I saw Van Halen opening for the Stones and realized they were really fucking good live.

    RIP Eddie

  13. And this has to do with what, how?
    OK, a rocker got cancer and died; I’m sure many fans are not pleased, and that’s fine.
    The rest of us are affected similarly to when princess whoever died on the car crash.

    1. a rocker got cancer and died

      The first non-covid death since March.

    2. Yet you took the time to put in your comment… LOL

    3. Given the number of people commenting, I’d say a fair few of us found it worthwhile. Plus, I mean, at least it’s not another Shikhastorm. 😉

    4. hahaha. Enough about what anyone else thinks is important. Let’s talk about sevo.

    5. I guess we could talk about COVID or Trump or new stimulus funding.

  14. When I was in high school, they had an 8 track player that would come on when a period ended and played for 5 minutes until the next class. Most of the music was 50s era stuff.

    One day someone stuck Van Halen’s first album in there. I don’t think it lasted the full 5 minutes, but we were all introduced to Van Halen. Good times.

    He also married way above his grade, so you gotta respect the guy all around.

  15. Did I miss him? Where’s the mention of Michael Anthony? His killer bass grove and backing vocals were part of the band’s unique sound…

    “Eddie Van Halen not only laid down the template for rock guitar and hair metal…” Um no. That’s quite the fan boy-ism.

    I was very fortunate to catch the band in a backyard party in South Pasadena. Yeah it was all cover tunes but it was one the greatest ROCK concerts I have ever attended.

    RIP Guitar Slinger.

    1. And they hit all those high notes before auto-tune!

  16. When I was young and before I studied music I considered Eddie Van Halen to be a guitar virtuoso. But after immersing myself in music (in general) and after listening to real guitar virtuosi, I realized that he was just another run-of-the-mill rock guitarist. For anyone who wants to hear what virtuoso guitar playing sounds like:

    1. That link is cool. Really, really good guitar playing. Thanks for sharing it.
      It is ok if you don’t hear, or no longer hear, what is interesting or special about Eddie Van Halen.
      He’s not Paco DeLuca or John McLachlan either, also not Django Reinhardt.
      But I think his music is still worth listening to.

  17. xm27 is running all VH.

    saw VH in the 80s and 90s Eddie was always ridiculous live. Diver Down was my first they were playing Dancing in the Streets every hour on WMMR when I was in 6th grade … Little Guitars.

    also Steve Hackett gets forgotten so I’ll throw him in the mix. I saw Steve Howe above too.

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  19. Excuse me, not “Frankenstein”, but “Frankenstrat”. WTF?

    1. Srsly!

  20. He didn’t invent sarod picking or double tapping – but man did he own it. And the sample of Eruption on his debut album is nothing compared to what he would do live.

    Eruption live in New Haven 1986

  21. I thought Eddie’s playing was innovative and I loved their debut album.

  22. There are obviously great guitarists from every generation. What I think that makes Eddie stand out the most is his ability to blend the technical aspects of guitar playing with heart. You only need to listen songs like Dance the night way or Jamie’s crying, no guitar of a technical nature, but just plain fun. That’s what makes Eddie stand out. That and he was flat out cool.

    May you shred in peace Eddie.

  23. He was the main songwriter and lead guitarist of the American rock band Van Halen, which he co-founded in 1972 with his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, bassist Mark Stone, and singer David Lee Roth. Some of Eddie Va Halen Songs

  24. 2020 has struck us again. Now its elite musician Eddie Van Halen. In the latest news of 2020 the musician has left us. He was one of the best. I loved his debut album very much.

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