Guitarist Eddie Van Halen passed away in October, 2020, leaving behind a tremendous legacy. Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 1955, and later moved with his family to Pasadena, California. In 1972 he started a band with his brother Alex, joining with Michael Anthony and David Lee Roth to create Mammoth, later renamed to Van Halen, which produced their self-titled first album in 1978. Van Halen went on to lead the rock scene for decades, racking up platinum albums and becoming the greatest guitarist to ever play.
In about the 7th grade, I started exploring rock and roll. Sure, here and there I would listen to the songs my parents liked, but I had never been fully immersed in the music. One day, I asked my dad who I should start listening to for an introduction to legendary musicians, and he told me about Van Halen—and what an introduction it was! The music was captivating, provocative as was Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing style. At the time, my only musical experience had been playing piano for two years, but even I could tell that his playing style was like nothing else. Van Halen classics like “Ain’t Talkin Bout Love” (1978) and “Hot For Teacher” (1984) had guitar pieces I couldn’t even imagine being played. But nothing came close to what I felt when I heard Eddie’s performance on “Eruption.”
Before recording, “Eruption” was only an improvisational piece that Eddie had played at live shows. Van Halen’s producer Ted Templeman overheard Eddie playing it and recorded it for the first album. When asked about his inspiration for the song, Eddie pointed out that one part of the piece is a rock-style version of “Etude No. 2” by Philip Glass, a classical piece Eddie knew from playing the piano and listening to music with his father. Eddie completely brings you into the song when he begins the guitar trend that forever changed the way people played the guitar: tapping. Eddie utilizes both of his hands on the guitar neck instead of the traditional picking pattern to produce a sound in music that had been performed before, but never to the extent that Eddie did.
During that first listen of “Eruption,” I was swept off my feet by its sound, instantly wanting to pick up a guitar and learn how to play just like my new music idol. When my dad and I were fortunate enough to see Van Halen in concert, my admiration for Eddie’s guitar prowess blossomed. Blown away by his skill, my dad and I couldn’t stop talking about him on our ride home. “Sure, people come to see the band play. But people stay for Eddie; that’s who they’re really there for,” said my dad after the concert. Years later, we continued to be awestruck by his abilities, when even in his sixties, the guy could still play. When I eventually got a beginner’s guitar, I spent nights blistering my fingers and destroying guitar picks trying to imitate his sound. To this day, I am learning new ways to play “Eruption,” “Spanish Fly,” “5150,” “Drop Dead Legs,” among Van Halen’s other masterpieces. As I immersed myself into rock music, its subgenres, and various artists, I kept on coming back to Eddie. His playing inspired musicians everywhere. Damon Johnson of the band Thin Lizzy once said, “We’re all still trying to get that sound. It’s a cascading sound, and Eddie wrote the book on that.”
In high school, about 3 years into my admiration of Van Halen, my classmates and I were tasked with picking argumentative topics for speech class. Of course, I chose to write a 10 minute speech on “Why Eddie Van Halen is the Greatest Guitarist to Have Ever Played.” I mentioned the accolades, the records, the press, and everything else people indicate to show a musician’s artistry. But what I emphasized most was the feeling, the focus that both Eddie and I had when he was playing.
Like many others from his time, Eddie was an avid user of drugs and alcohol, leading him down a difficult road to recovery for most of his life. It never seemed to affect his playing, which remained entirely pure for forty more years. His entire discography demonstrates his talent, which is even featured in his guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” He will truly be remembered for eternity, whether it’s for his synth playing on his eighties albums (now close to quadruple platinum), his guitar being used as a cigarette holder during solos at concerts, or the “Frankenstrat” guitar he designed to maximize the playing he loved most. I will forever listen to Eddie Van Halen, and you should too. He is forever an icon.
Bonavita is a freshman in the SFS.