Remembering Eddie Van Halen, guitar hero
EDDIE VAN HALEN did not play his most famous solo for his own band. He was asked to play on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, one of the biggest singles of all time, with Quincy Jones. Unwilling to deal with complex business arrangements, Mr. Van Halen offered to play for a case of beer and dance lessons from Jackson. He arrived at the studio, rearranged the song, recorded two takes and asked the producers to choose the best one – all in less than an hour. As usual, he did more with less and it generated joy.
Mr. Van Halen, who died this week at the age of 65, delivered blasts of rock guitar while wearing typical painter’s overalls and a beaming smile. In solos full of technical fireworks, he expanded the rock guitar repertoire to include percussion (playing with both hands on the neck of the guitar) and the hammer, draw and harmonics, as well as extreme note bending “divebombs” . Pushing boundaries and popularizing the electric guitar like no one since Jimi Hendrix, Mr. Van Halen was a bona fide rock star and innovator.
With Van Halen, the group he founded with his brother Alex on drums in 1972, his playing and execution was a perfect match for lead singer and beach-bum-meets-showrunner David Lee Roth. Broadway. The band battled their way up from Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip club scene, signing with a major label just as disco and punk arrived, and still finding an audience in the American suburbs where big guitars had gone out of style. He had his first chart success with covers such as “Dance the Night Away” in 1979, and reached his artistic and commercial peak with “1984”, a number two album in America (behind ” Jackson’s Thriller). That success was driven by the number one hit, “Jump”, on which Eddie Van Halen also played the synthesizer, and by MTV. Mr. Roth soon went solo, citing differences with the Van Halens, and Sammy Hagar took lead vocals for the next four albums. Both singers joined the band at different times, but often found themselves at loggerheads with the guitarist.
Mr. Van Halen had a blues-rock background – he closely studied Eric Clapton’s turn in Cream – but instead of settling at the psychedelic crossroads, he went on to a more modern place. He used blues rock and his band’s powerful rhythm section as a backdrop for dramatic and technical moves. The hard rock show often masked Mr. Van Halen’s progressive taste; His favorite player was jazz-fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth. For “Eruption”, a 1:42 guitar instrumental from Van Halen’s debut album, he fired notes at a fast clip, tapped the strings in the middle of the guitar’s fretboard and bent them to evoke the sounds of WWII bombers. The recording gave generations of young guitarists a new rite of passage.
While Mr. Van Halen’s stage persona was pure joy and effortless, he grew up understanding music as a matter of survival. His father, Jan, was a saxophonist and clarinetist who toured Europe in jazz and swing bands in the 1940s. But his marriage to an Indonesian woman, Eugenia, made the family, including Eddie and his brother Alex, targets of racist abuse in the Netherlands. So Jan packed up his piano and the kids and emigrated to America, settling in Pasadena, California, despite not speaking a word of English. Eddie’s parents worked odd jobs, and Jan performed at weddings.
Music kept them together. The Van Halen brothers studied the piano. Eddie was first drawn to the drums, but changed instruments with his brother. They formed Genesis (not the British band of the same name) in 1972, playing backyards in Pasadena, and changed their name to Mammoth until joining forces two years later with rival Mr Roth crosstown, like Van Halen.
Mr. Van Halen was also a self-taught tinkerer (he has two American masters) who imagined equipment with sounds and performances that did not exist in the early 1970s. He tinkered with a Fender-style guitar with elements from other manufacturers including a Gibson humbucker pickup, and redesigned the neck to create a “Frankenstrat”, a hybrid he decked out in bike paint stripes . He modified his amplifier with a light machine to extract more powerful sounds from it. Decades later, he launched his own line of guitars and amplifiers under the EVH brand. Mr. Van Halen donated a modified guitar, Frank 2, to the National Museum of American History in 2011.
His riffs and solos for “Panama”, “Runnin’ with the Devil”, “Hot for Teacher” and “Jamie’s Crying” have been staples of rock radio for decades. He was open about his long battle with alcoholism, and possessive about using the name Van Halen, but he could also be petty. He said he didn’t know guitar scales, creating his own symmetrical scale to run fast notes. And he expected no one to even notice that he had played, uncredited, “Beat It”, until he heard some kids in a record store say, “Listen to this guy who ‘trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen.” Mr. Van Halen couldn’t help himself. Smiling, he tapped one on the shoulder and said, “That’s me.”