Today, October 6th (technically 7th since I’m writing this starting from 12:09 am PST), Eddie Van Halen passed away from a long bout against cancer at 65. It was first reported from his son Wolf Van Halen but felt around the world of music.
In some way, I am not surprised. Given the level of tragedy 2020 has thrown at this world, one more major loss seems like the norm lately. Even still, it’s Eddie Van Halen. The ultimate rock guitar god. The reason why generations of guitarists exist and why we hear the frenetic, speedy riffs of shredders with tapping, harmonics, hammer on’s and pull off’s. Also, ultimately for the incredible, unforgettable musicianship he gifted the world.
I say that I am not surprised because I’ve had this horrible feeling for a while. I read that the Van Halen tour had been cut off a while back from David Lee Roth who said that Eddie had been encountering health issues. From what it was said, it sounded as though his cancer had relapsed.
While he did beat cancer once, this second time the results were drastically different. Perhaps, age, the lifestyle, some bitterness and other factors might have played a part to a degree. If you ask me though, maybe it was the heart that could not go on in this sad environment.
Despite all that, Eddie Van Halen’s memory will never be forgotten in the world of music. Not just rock. It’s so rare that you get a genius at the level of an Eddie Van Halen that comes through every generation. But he was like one of the original PhDs in rock guitar.
I remember growing up during the early 80s and hearing my first Van Halen song Jump. It would come on frequently during the local video airplay on Richard Blade’s Video One along with other upcoming metal acts like Quiet Riot, Ratt, Def Leppard, etc. (maybe not upcoming, but I can say for certain that the videos really pushed those groups to superstardom at that time).
Jump was one of those high energy tunes that stood out with David Lee Roth’s incredible acrobatic moves, the positive synth vibes along with the frenetic drumming by Alex, the wonderful background vocals of Michael Anthony and of course Eddie. My mom (or maybe it was my aunt?) would comment how Eddie was such a lovely person because of how he smiled all the time.
There were other songs too such as Panama and Hot For Teacher from the monstrous 1984 album. And Eddie would go on to play with Michael Jackson in his mega hit Beat It (which I didn’t realize was Eddie until years later with the internet).
During the middle part of the 80s, my interest for music had died down a bit but eventually picked back up during high school. Around late 1988, I eventually picked up guitar (mostly because of Def Leppard, although metal was starting to get really huge around then). Then I found out Roth no longer was part of Van Halen when I heard Cabo Wabo with Sammy Hagar.
I guess the Sammy Hagar days were bit of an existential crisis moment for long time Van Halen fans. For me I just couldn’t fathom anyone else but Roth fronting for Van Halen. That said, I really liked Hagar for his contributions. I loved 5150, OU812 and the FUCK albums. I consider Right Now and When It’s Love very inspirational and anthem-like songs that help give me focus to my own creativity with the Eddie’s massively underrated keyboard talent.
As I improved my guitar playing, I would buy guitar books and tabs to learn anything I wanted to play from the radio. Eventually, I got the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge guitar tab book and managed to pick up Poundcake, Top of the World, 316, etc. I wasn’t great at it but I just found it cool to sound like Eddie.
For me, it never was about Sammy vs Roth. I just liked good music. As long as it sounded good, that’s all that mattered to me. And Van Halen music was always great for me. It was fun and defined rock without sounding pretentious.
Of course, the holy grail for many guitarists is the legendary Eruption. That solo alone marked a moment in music history. It’s like if you could name an intro course to rock guitar, you would have to put Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven, Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile, The Eagles Hotel California, Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water and Van Halen’s Eruption as your essentials.
The thing about Eruption is that it sounds so modern. Sure, there are better solos technically, but up to that moment, most rock guitar was very bluesy. But Eruption was so aptly named. It was at least 5-6 years in the future.
Eruption was so huge that I don’t think Eddie really managed to top it in terms of importance. There have been better songs, better solos, etc. But in terms of writing music history, Eruption will go into the books.
And you can’t discount what he would do to his guitar and amps. Reading literature about his search for the perfect sound will show you how he was light years ahead of everyone. I mean this guy actually has patents. And it’s scary what he was doing because you would read these big warning labels about potentially electrocuting yourself if you didn’t know what you were doing.
I think musically with the guitar he eventually hit a point where he found a limit. Like when you listen to other contemporaries, you can see how they might have grown out more like George Lynch, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani. I think with Eddie he had his specific niche with rock guitar. But he still pursued things like tone and improving the guitar itself.
And the thing you can say for certain about Eddie is that honestly no one sounds like him. He really had his own tone, the famous “brown tone” and his playing had a voice of its own. I remember seeing a live concert with Sammy and how Eddie would make his guitar “talk.” It was pretty mind blowing.
The other thing is that he was so well rounded as a musician too in terms of not just being relegated to a rock guitar god. He could compose damn good tunes. For instance, Jump is so memorable but the amount of guitar isn’t huge. And you cannot forget the epic Right Now with the piano.
Eddie knew how much guitar he would need to make a song sound good. I think one of the best qualities of a great guitar composer is that you know how to hold back to let the song itself do the talking. Also, understanding that being able to hum a song makes the song more memorable.
Then there were the later years. It’s very sad to see how things degraded over the years with his cancer, the drama, the bitterness, etc. From all that I’ve read, it seems like he was one hell of a guy at his peak. At least, if Eddie had grown miserable, then certainly the cancer would have aggrandized all the issues a thousandfold.
Instead, I distance myself from the drama and bitterness and think back to my younger days, discovering Van Halen for the first time, feeling the energy, the youthful, innocent grin from Eddie, thinking about all his musical contributions, the bits I managed to pick up from studying his material and how I through countless others developed a love for guitar. You’ve been a big part of my life for the 26 years I have known of you, your music, the band and the pieces that you’ve affected. And for myself, it’s been only a positive experience.