Van Halen, who passed away this week at the age of 65, was one of the most important and joy-generating guitarists in rock history. Here's why.

By Dan Snierson
October 07, 2020 at 06:33 PM EDT

“You only have 12 notes,” Edward Van Halen said. “Do whatever you want with them.” What did the man who called himself “just a punk kid who plays guitar” endeavor to do with those notes? Oh, not much. Just spin them into the most colorful hard-rock-shuffle-metal-pop-doo-wop-back-to-rock music ever blasted through a boom box, provide the soundtrack for wasted high-school parking-lot hangouts and spiraling-out-of-control backyard parties in the late '70s, '80s, and early '90s, and burnish a rep as arguably the most innovative rock guitarist of the last 50 years.

Fair warning: I don't buy that 12-note talk; the chromatic scale for him seemed to have, like, 28 notes. You see, Eddie Van Halen — who passed away this week at the age of 65 — was just… otherworldly. Like Michael Jordan defied physical gravity, Eddie defied sonic gravity, flurries of notes skittering every which way and hanging in the air longer than they should, squeals rocketing up to the heavens, whammy-bar dives scraping down against the gates of Hades. Was that funky-slap-into-harmonic-tap opening to “Mean Street” some sort of Martian morse code? With Eddie gripping that fretboard, it often sounded like alien possession, prompting millions to chant, “Whoa. Take me to your leader.”

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The first time I heard “Eruption” — Eddie’s solo showcase on 1978’s Van Halen, which was 102 seconds of face-melting, flag-planting virtuosity — the matrix became evident to me and folded in on itself at once. An aspiring-but-doomed guitarist, I would spend hours listening to VH albums on cassette, my fingers spending much more time on the rewind and play buttons than on the fretboard, futilely trying to figure out how he pulled off: those artificial and natural harmonics; those blistering arpeggios; those classically sauced slip-n-slide finger-tapping fills; those frenetic-yet-fluid symmetrical and altered scales over rock and blues shuffles; and that sweet whammy-bar punctuation. Sooner or later, the answers would be made clear: Best to set the guitar aside and just listen. Eddie Van Halen was an explorer, and none of his peers could keep up with him on the path that he’d bushwhacked for himself; they waved him on ahead while catching their breath.

But — and I really should have gotten to this sooner, sorry — he was far greater than the sum of his pyrotechnics. Eddie played with exuberance, with ease, with feel, with taste, things that seemed to be missing from his wannabe rivals’ robotic fretwork. He exuded raw, uncurbed power a la Jimi Hendrix (someone he didn’t claim as an influence, surprisingly enough; he'd pledged allegiance to Eric Clapton), and there was a spontaneous, careening-to-the-finish-line thrill that he and also-electric frontman David Lee Roth turbo-injected into the proceedings. (“Hot For Teacher” is your pal’s bad-ass car that you borrowed for an epic joy ride —and returned it with some paint scraped off and the bumper hanging sideways.) Simply put, to listen to Edward Van Halen play guitar was to listen to fun incarnate.

While those blazing solos grabbed headlines (as did his 1981 marriage to Valerie Bertinelli), Eddie wrote compelling musical stories underneath; he was an exceptional riff-rhythm player. “Dance The Night Away” stands as one of the tightest, brightest, pop-rock anthems of the '70s, while “Secrets” is the wistful, wanderlusty Diver Down deep cut still calmly waiting for the casual fan to bask in it. Oh! And hang on as he lays down those feisty, sprawling foundational grooves of “Unchained” and “5150.” He was two guitarists in one, often at the same time.

Let us also marvel at his songwriting chops, which, when co-mingled with Roth's and later Sammy Hagar's, begat decades of classic-rock radio staples. He could deliver soaring pop with “Jamie’s Cryin’” and “Summer Nights,” and deftly chug through darker rock that could swing and bite, like “Romeo Delight,” “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” and, yes, “Sinner’s Swing!" Or better still, he could mash multiple aesthetics together, as in the stomping “I’m the One.” A deeply intuitive musician who didn’t know how to read music, Eddie wound up winning a few piano competitions as a Dutch-immigrant-turned-Pasadena kid, and he wasn’t afraid to experiment with keyboards (“Jump,” "I'll Wait," and “Right Now”), or with twangy country pop (“Finish What Ya Started”). or with ‘20s jazz (the band’s surprisingly restrained cover of “Big Bad Bill [is Sweet William Now],” featuring his father, Jan, on clarinet).

Eddie wasn't typically described as restrained, but the shredder with a gift for hooks and melody could recognize when less was more. (Hear: the solos on "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love, "Runnin' with the Devil," "Jamie's Cryin,'" and "When It's Love.") Whether you preferred Eddie's dirty, chunky swagger during the Roth era or his polished power-balladry during the Hagar tenure (years that also did feature a few foundation-rattlers), his playing was always laced with textured magic dust that provided you with a contact dopamine high.

While those blazing solos grabbed all the headlines, Eddie Van Halen wrote compelling musical stories underneath them
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

He leaves a sizable footprint in pop culture, well beyond the 80 million-plus records sold. Who did Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson call when they needed a killer genre-crossing solo for “Beat It”? Who did Bill & Ted desperately want in their band? Whose sick six-stringery did Marty McFly use in Back to the Future to persuade George McFly that he was from another planet? Whose groove did Tone Loc sample on his ride up the charts? Whose power chords were served up in a bizarro animation sequence in Better Off Dead when Lane Myer Frankensteined a burger to life? Eddie was the go-to guitarist, the poster child for the guitar-god poster.

He dominated those guitar magazine covers; one publication moved him out of running for Guitarist of the Year because the guy won so many damn times. Budding axemen and women all over the world still post on YouTube their attempts at conquering one of his solos. He remains one of the most influential rock guitarists ever; references to Mozart have been made. Hordes of disposable hair metal bands may have clumsily copy-catted in his wake, but Eddie also imprinted on future players of all kinds — Tom Morello, Billy Corgan, Dimebag Darrell, Slash, Rivers Cuomo, John Mayer, Lenny Kravitz, Vernon Reid, Keith Urban, and Mike McCready, among them — so that they could think and stretch differently. (A moment of silence not just for Eddie, but also for a time when guitar heroes were our superheroes. When they mattered.)

His loud licks and godhead status always seemed to be in conflict with his press-shy personality (his 1981 marriage to Valerie Bertinelli cranked up the spotlight) , as Eddie preferred to let his instrument do his bidding. (Though his warning to Roth during one of their many skirmishes — “If you ever speak to me like that again, you better be wearing a cup” — was rather inspired.) Over the years, he would battle both alcoholism and cancer, the latter seemingly leading to a recent retreat from the spotlight, though he was known to do that. But Van Halen’s last album, 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth, and their final tour, in 2015, once again showcased a legend who could still bring it and sling it. (That late-era VH became a true family affair for Eddie, whose brother, Alex, already served as the band's thunderous drummer; in the mid-2000s, he replaced the golden-throated, beloved Michael Anthony with his talented teenage son, Wolfgang, as the band’s bassist.)

Eddie’s legacy is secure — as is his spot on Mt. Rockmore — but how will we remember him in the years to come, aside from all that joyful wizardry and murderer's row of stadium pleasers? I’ll think of the red-and-white striped guitar, complete with matching overalls. I’ll think of the cigarette burning at the end of his headstock while he scorched through another solo, as if the smoke were venting out from an overheated fretboard. I’ll think of him with his back to us, eye-chatting with Al on drums, the two of them locking into some giddy groove that seemed like an inside joke between them. I’ll think of his faces of astonishment after another lickety-split legato run or supernatural squeal, as if he were mouthing, “I know! Right?” I’ll think of him bouncing around the stage with Diamond Dave, two competing and complementing forces creating a spectacle of you-gotta-get-in-on-this-s---! circus energy. But mostly I’ll think of that guy with a grin on his face and a guitar in his hands,  just happy to be in his natural element, just happening to be rewriting the rules of rock, doing whatever he wanted with his 28 notes.

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