Eddie Van Halen Was the Guitar God Who Made It All Look Easy
Remembering the lifetime of hard work, and groundbreaking shredding of the Van Halen guitarist who died today at 65.
The first thing I noticed about Eddie Van Halen was the smile. A goofy, guileless, Spicoli smile and a candy apple red guitar that looked held together by tape, in the video for “Jump,” in 1984, from 1984.
We’d all heard him, of course; by then, Van Halen had been a staple on the hard-rock radio stations for years. But unless you were old enough to see them in concert—and surely your parents would want to raise the minimum concert-going age for one of these bacchanals—you didn’t see him until the band made its full assault on MTV in early ’84.
And if you were like me, you couldn’t help but be a little stunned: that’s the guy behind those fearsome guitar solos I’ve heard bumping out of the house of the burn-out kids next door? That guy? He seems so…nice.
Eddie Van Halen was born and semi-raised in Amsterdam before his family moved to Pasadena in 1962, and not speaking English at first, he threw himself into music pretty much right away. He and his brother started a band in grammar school; they’d play at lunchtime, and after school, he’d run right back into his bedroom, close the door, and practice. Practice is how you get to Carnegie Hall, sure, but it’s also how you get “Eruption.”
The story of how Van Halen were discovered somewhat murky, but this is the version I’ve heard, so it’s the one I’ll tell you: They had a standing weeknight gig at a boardwalk bar in Hermosa Beach (then a scruffy South Bay beach town, now a scruffy South Bay beach town where a 2-bedroom house will cost you $2.1 million). One weeknight, someone wandered in—some say it was Gene Simmons, but probably just a regular A&R guy—and although there were four people in attendance, he said the band played like they were headlining Wembley Stadium. It may be apocryphal, but I can tell you it’s still a thing performers say to each other as they’re about to take the stage for four people on a Tuesday night: Van Halen in Hermosa Beach. Give them Van Halen in Hermosa Beach
However they leveled up, they did it fast: the standing gig got moved to the Whisky a Go-Go on the Sunset Strip, the deal with Warner Bros. Records got signed, and in 1978 the album Van Halen was released, and high school pep rallies would have a soundtrack for decades.
For the next six years, the band remained huge in a format called AOR, or “album-oriented rock,” which leaned toward harder music and rejected the idea of “singles.” Four successful albums followed, but no top 40 hits.
Eddie wanted to experiment with two new things: the synthesizer, and mainstream appeal.
He built his own studio called 5150, and in 1983, he locked himself in there, alone, without David Lee Roth and longtime producer Ted Templeman looking over his shoulder, and laid down the tracks for what would be the band’s breakthrough 1984.
And with that, Van Halen were megastars.
If David Lee Roth had an issue with synthesizers in the band’s music, the multiplatinum success seemed to have made up for it. 1984 went to number two on the Billboard charts, and it would have been the band’s first number one had it not been kept out of the spot by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which of course features Eddie Van Halen on guitar in “Beat It.”
Eddie was known for insane guitar solos—be ready to read the word “pyrotechnic” a dozen times today—but after 1984, he seemed just as happy writing massive mainstream rock anthems. He sent DLR packing, hired Sammy Hagar (Van Halen had opened for his band Montrose in the mid 1970s), and went to work making hits. 5150, OU812, and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (look at the first letters, dude!) would all go to number one, he would still shred in the live shows, and the singles were palatable enough to dominate the charts. The best of both worlds.
Eddie Van Halen is one of the most influential guitarists in rock history, even if most of the guitarists he influenced got the wrong thing from him.
“Typewriter players,” he said in 1985. “They all play as fast as they can, as loud as they can, scream as high as they can. But they don’t even scream or play fast with a unique quality. It leaves me cold. The speedy licks boys. Hey, that’s not my fault. Maybe they cop the speed because they can’t cop my feel. Maybe they shouldn’t think so much. I don’t think when I play. It’s spontaneous, it’s feeling.”
It’s joy is what it is.
Van Halen is one of the rare bands to take on a more radio-friendly sound without alienating its fan base. The line-up would change again, and again, and again, but the audience stuck with them.
They gave Crystal Pepsi its theme music, yet nobody even thought to call them sell-outs. They’re still on the playlists of the AOR stations that we now call classic rock, they’re still considered the best of the genre, they toured to sell-out crowds as recently as 2015.
Some of that is down to the swagger of David Lee Roth, of course, or the tequila-dad energy of Sammy Hagar, or whatever it was Gary Cherone brought to the table. But the constant in it all is Eddie Van Halen himself: the picture of hard work and virtuosity, the guy who never made himself the center of attention but whose face you couldn’t forget, the performer who put a gallon of sweat into each gig, yet somehow made it look easy. He served it up to you with a smile.
Eddie Van Halen was 65 years old. He’s survived by his wife Janie, his ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli, and their son Wolfgang.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.