How Eddie Van Halen Made Music, and Our World, So Much Richer
Steve Vai, Nuno Bettencourt, and a host of stars join Guitar Player in paying tribute to a revolutionary guitarist.
Our guitar universe got kicked in the soul on October 6, 2020. That’s when we lost our king. Edward Van Halen left this mortal world on that day. It was a world that he seemed only tangentially connected to beforehand. But when he left it, there was a huge, unexpected, devastating, EVH-shaped hole in that world.
Medical experts are divided on the severity of soul kicks. The consensus is they aren’t fatal, but they hurt really bad. You can recover from them, but it will probably take a long time. That’s where we find ourselves. In a world without Van Halen. A world without Ed.
Say that again. You never thought about it, did you? None of us did. And yet here we are. It was easy to think that Eddie Van Halen would live forever. Eddie Van Halen was bulletproof. He wasn’t just tougher than any other guitarist; he was cooler, stronger, groovier, better, and cooler than any other guitarist. (And yeah, I said cooler twice. Because, well, EVH.)
Given that we have no choice but to think literally about a world without Van Halen, let’s take a step back and ponder figuratively a world without Van Halen. Think for a minute where we might be if Eddie Van Halen had not existed. Where would we be, as guitarists? There is no answer, but let’s just go ahead and ask the question.
Would your neighborhood have gone from one or two guitarists who strummed folk tunes or attempted Aerosmith or AC/DC covers to a neighborhood where every kid on every block pestered his parents into getting him an electric guitar (thanks, Mom!), and then somehow convinced those parents to let that kid and his friends play as loud as they could in their garage, because now they had a band and they needed to play all day, every day, because they were going to make it big?
No. That wouldn’t have happened.
How do we know? Because your neighborhood had one guitarist before Van Halen was released, and then, seemingly overnight, your neighborhood had a dozen guitarists who wanted to play in Van Halen–style bands. And that’s what they did. We all saw it, and we were all part of it. It was our “Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show” moment.
Things changed in an instant – because of a guy named Van Halen – and they never went back again.
Ask yourself this: What if Eddie Van Halen hadn’t been around to put a PAF in the bridge position of his Strat? Sure, Robbie Robertson had already done it. But he didn’t change the game. Robbie Robertson is cool, but he didn’t transform the industry. See where we’re going here?
What if Ed hadn’t painted his guitar? In 1977, you could pretty much choose between red, white, or black guitars. Oh, the irony. With a Strat-shaped body, Eddie took some paint and some tape and well… We all know what happened. But here’s what people forget: It was unprecedented. No guitar, no player, and no design ever changed the business instantaneously.
Les Paul, for all his genius and talent, did not see the world freak out like the world freaked the fuck out when Eddie Van Halen hit the scene. Guitars went from staid and predictable to flashy, edgy, and crazy fun overnight. Strats with humbuckers? Guitars with a single humbucker in the bridge and a single volume knob and no tone knob? Custom graphics? Are you serious?
After 1978, no company was taken seriously if it didn’t adopt those Eddie-approved ideas. Eddie would obviously continue to be a guitar design trailblazer throughout his career, crafting excellent models with Music Man, Peavey, and eventually his own EVH brand. Fine instruments all, and many branded with the name of his son – Wolfgang – to whom he was famously and fiercely loyal.
None of those instruments, however, would captivate a generation. It’s Frankenstein. It’s the black and white guitar that would morph into the red, white, and black guitar that would laser-etch itself on our brains.
Name one other guitar pattern in history that you can put on a pair of board shorts and people in other countries will recognize it. Put the greatest 1959 Les Paul sunburst on a pair of flip-flops and see how many comments you get. What if Eddie Van Halen had never asked the question, “I wonder what would happen if I fret this note with my right hand instead of my left hand?”
No, Eddie didn’t invent two-hand tapping. Henry Ford didn’t invent the internal-combustion engine, either. But Eddie Van Halen changed the world with it. Brian May, Larry Carlton, Billy Gibbons, Harvey Mandel, Ace Frehley, Roy Smeck, and others did two-hand tapping before Eddie. Ask them what they think of his contribution to that technique.
He didn’t just bring tapping to the masses. Eddie Van Halen owns tapping. Here’s another question: What if Ed hadn’t been around to be an influence? What if 1978 had come and gone and our greatest guitar heroes were still the guys that we loved in 1977?
Forget about the fact that we wouldn’t have Eddie’s amazing catalog of guitar magic. What would have become of Steve Vai, Jason Becker, Paul Gilbert, Nuno Bettencourt, and countless others who followed him? Would we not have those great players? We would.
Eddie didn’t have a monopoly on greatness, and those guys were going to be brilliant no matter what. But would they have the swagger, the swing, the fire, and the ungodly chops that they all happily possess if it weren’t for EVH? Maybe. But most of the rest of us got all of that from Eddie. He let us believe in the freedom to play with humor, fearlessness, and unbridled joy.
We saw it in every video and on every gig. Before Eddie, guitarists performed onstage. Eddie Van Halen celebrated onstage, and he invited all of us to join in on the celebration. So we’ve imagined the very sad version of a world without Van Halen, one where Eddie never existed. But thankfully, gloriously, we are not in that world.
To give a little more perspective, remember this: We got the Beatles for seven years. We got Led Zeppelin for 10 years, and we got Jimi Hendrix for way less than that. Then try to peer through our collective sadness and realize that we got Eddie Van Halen for more than 40 years.
Think about how lucky we are. Think about how much better our lives are because that dude came along and did what came so easily to him. Let’s contemplate that. And let’s give thanks. This tribute will not attempt to Wikipedia Ed’s career, or include a discography, or compile a list of his greatest solos, or tell you how to get the “brown sound.”
Those topics and that minutiae have been covered eloquently many times and will continue to be talked about. But quite frankly, Eddie Van Halen is bigger than those details. What we will do here is celebrate the man and how happy and inspired he has made us. That’s it.
Then, tomorrow, we can get back to arguing about what magnet was under the pickup on the Bumblebee guitar, what role the MXR EQ played on his pedalboard, whether he played that Strat with the Dano neck on the intro to “Women in Love,” what the true signal chain was on “Unchained,” whether he came up with his tapping technique from watching The Song Remains the Same or from a Harvey Mandel gig, how he got the neck-pickup tone on the “I’ll Wait” solo, and if Fair Warning is the best Van Halen album or the best freaking album of all time.
We will talk about these things for as long as we have breath, and we will do it with the same exuberance we had as kids. We all met Edward Lodewijk Van Halen the first time he flabbergasted us with his guitar playing. But the first time we encountered his spoken words was in the pages of Guitar Player’s November 1978 issue.
The writer who got there first was Jas Obrecht. It was in that spellbinding magazine that we learned about Ed’s gear, his techniques and unorthodox approach to effects. Guitarists the world over hung on every word, memorized and repeated them, sometimes as if they had originally said it themselves.
The onset of the Age of Van Halen was so powerful that it led a young Mike Varney to ponder, “If in the ’60s we had Hendrix and in the late ’70s we have Eddie Van Halen, who might be the next big guitar hero? There must be guitarists all over the U.S. no one has ever heard of. What could be more exciting than discovering the next great undiscovered guitarist?”
When he started Shrapnel Records, Varney put out the call for guitarists who could burn in the style of Ulrich Roth, Michael Schenker, Allan Holdsworth and – you guessed it – Eddie Van Halen. Varney’s search attracted the attention of Obrecht and eventually led to a GP column on new guitar talent called Spotlight.
The floodgates opened and Varney got cassettes from legions of unknown guitarists. Although Spotlight was for great players in all genres, the most common influence was Eddie Van Halen.
“When I first started looking for the next guitar hero, a lot of players were trying to tackle ‘Eruption,’” Varney recalls. “But they were unremarkable, with little soul and nothing original to offer. By 1982, things changed and there were amazing players – such as a 15-year-old Paul Gilbert – who were deeply inspired by Eddie and were starting to push the envelope and explore new techniques.”
Some of the other submitters who were influenced by Eddie Van Halen included Vinnie Moore, Richie Kotzen, Jason Becker, and Greg Howe.
One of the few female guitarists to appear in Varney’s Spotlight was Jennifer Batten, who would ultimately go on to play with her hero, Jeff Beck. But before that happened, Batten would need to play a few shows along the way.
At the time, Ed was pushing the state of the art through his own compositions and playing with such relentless creativity that rock music couldn’t possibly contain his talents. Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones came calling (with the Hall of Fame badasses from Toto in the rhythm section) and asked the biggest guitarist in the world to play on a little song called “Beat It.”
Spoiler alert: It obliterated musical, cultural, racial, and stylistic boundaries in an instant. It changed the game overnight.
Where have we heard that before? There’s no question that Jennifer Batten got the Michael Jackson gig because of her deep musicality. But there was one tune at the audition that you had to know to get the job.
“I remember the first time I heard Eddie’s ‘Beat It’ solo,” Batten says. “It was shockingly good and stood miles above anything else on the radio, so I set out to learn it. It kicked my ass, and I gave up three times before I got it. Then I had the honor of playing that solo for 10 years with Michael Jackson. I’ll likely be asked to play it for the rest of my life.
“That’s okay, because it’s one of the most perfect solos ever recorded: exciting, wicked, challenging, lyrical and innovative, and it tells a story on its own. In the end, that solo bought me a house and launched my career. Thank you, Edward!” Zillions of working musicians were also digging what Eddie was bringing to the table. One beloved guitar teacher in Berkeley, Calfornia, attended Van Halen gigs like the rest of us.
“I watched Eddie take over the Cow Palace stage one night at an incendiary Van Halen concert,” Joe Satriani says. “That remains fixed in my memory. Even with the total rock and roll mayhem of early ’80s Van Halen shows, Eddie had the entire arena mesmerized, hanging on every note he played.
“His sound and timing were perfect: dangerous, outrageous, joyful, playful – all this and so much more. At one point, he seemingly stopped the show to let us all watch him play his guitar, all by himself. No pretense, just Eddie freely improvising with no time constraint. His performance was jaw-dropping, over-the-top amazing. He was a brilliant musician on every level.
“We all know that, but it needs repeating. More importantly, he filled our hearts with hopes and dreams, and enriched the soundtrack of our lives with his unique gift. I will miss him in our world.” It’s not at all surprising that high-energy rockers that came of age in the late ’70s and early ’80s loved EVH. But a lot of players that were established pre–Van Halen were not as smitten.
Some felt threatened. Some were offended. But the true heavyweights knew a kindred spirit when they saw one, and they loved and admired Eddie Van Halen. Steve Morse, who had dominated GP’s Readers’ Poll for so long it wasn’t fair, jammed with Ed and the great Albert Lee at a memorable 1991 NAMM event for Ernie Ball/Music Man.
“Playing those few nights with Eddie and Albert Lee for the Biff Baby’s All-Stars gigs showed how he could enthusiastically tackle music that was outside of his normal fare,” Morse says. “The more rocking the songs got, the more he absolutely wailed. But I was equally impressed with his rhythm ideas and his ability to come up with parts having some space, as we had three guitars onstage!
“He used his ears to follow the unfamiliar tunes, and showed he had a lot of raw talent at following the band on those tricky arrangements. Even though I came from a different strata of the music business, I felt like Eddie and I conversed easily. We had many things in common, including the fact that we both admired and had played with Allan Holdsworth. All in all, it was an exciting few days for me.”
Sonny Landreth is another player that had established his unique voice on the guitar well before Van Halen arrived. He recalls his encounter with Ed.
“Mike Post was producing my Levee Town album, and he had worked with Van Halen. Eddie came by the studio and he was just digging it – really encouraging. He said he was a fan. Such a sweetheart. I was blown away by his innovation. It’s a huge thing to take guitar into an all-new direction. His tone and phrasing came out of nowhere. He had a wide soul. That was always apparent.”
The crossgenre appeal of Van Halen was undeniable. In every era there is a guitarist that is a litmus test. No matter what you’re into, if you don’t get this guy, that says something about you, and not something good. Eddie Van Halen was that guy.
Eddie Martinez knows a thing or two about crossing genres. He played on Run-DMC’s “Rock Box,” Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” toured with Mick Jagger, and, in a very VH-connected bit of serendipity, recorded with both David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar.
“It’s really hard to explain EVH’s impact with mere words,” Martinez says. “I first saw Van Halen open for Journey in the late ’70s in New York. I knew right there and then that I was witnessing a seismic shift in the world of full-frontal rock guitar.
“Edward Van Halen’s impact was so new and authentic, with an irreverent sense of humor, hitting us with a barrage of insane iconic licks, all with great aplomb for a new generation. He was a transcendent and true guitar hero, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude.”
(As if Martinez needed more VH street cred, there is ample footage of Eddie VH playing Eddie M’s “Addicted to Love” parts onstage. Is that cool? Yeah, it is.) Somewhere along the way, there was a shift in the VH universe.
Maybe because of that singer guy? Things changed. Dave was out, Sam was in, and Ed embarked down a road of pop melodicism, where, even if he wasn’t doing “I’m the One”–level burning or “Mean Street”–style innovation, he was still playing inventive, beautiful guitar parts with a facility and fluidity that can only be described as Van Halen–esque.
But what was that other branch of the EVH tree, the one that was also know by three initials – DLR – doing? Well, in true Dave fashion, he hired the one dude who people thought could “out Eddie Eddie” – Steve Vai.
It was a shot across the bow. Our tribalistic nature forced many of us to take sides. Vai possessed unreal chops and insane musicianship. But the stuff that terrified the players so fiercely loyal to Ed was Vai’s sense of humor. His swing and sway. And Vai did everything he did with a slightly unhinged grin. He was happy. Could this guy actually dethrone the king?
“I absolutely understand people’s loyalty to Edward,” Vai says, “because I’m part of that group of people that was enamored with his playing. That Van Halen music was just as important to me as it was to everyone else.
“When Dave called, it was exciting for me because I kind of felt I knew the direction the music was going in, and I knew I could contribute. But as much as I loved Edward’s playing, I knew that if I tried to compete with him and create guitar parts that were trying to emulate him, the fans would see right through it, and it wouldn’t work.
“It certainly was great playing those Van Halen songs. Those guitar parts are like orchestrations. They sit so beautifully under your hands. They’re so well constructed. They were a challenge for me, because the way he played them, each note had its own zip code.
“When Edward laid down a guitar track, it was handed to you on a silver platter, without the need of any accoutrements. It was all right in there. It was sort of like a universe, you know? The notes are the stars and planets, and there’s all this beautiful space in between.
“Edward was connected. His DNA was so vibrant in every note he played. There’s this thing that can happen if a person finds what they really love doing and they throw themselves into it with no excuses, no obstructions, and no desire except to get their intention across.
“When they do that, there’s this shift that occurs, and it’s like that person stepped on a freight train in the direction of their intention and nothing stops them. Everything works with them. I saw this so obviously with Edward.
"Our mental obstructions can get in the way of our own genius. He never allowed that to happen. He let it come through innocently and purely. And that’s the beauty of genius. There’s a fascinating innocence in it, and he had that.”
Speaking of guys who had to follow in the massive footsteps of EVH, Jason Becker got the gig with Dave after Vai, based partly on the most incredible audition tape of all time, where Jason double-tracked the intro to “Hot for Teacher,” tapping one track and picking every note on the double. (Google it. That happened.)
No big shock that Jason – the heir apparent to everything that Eddie made cool – got the gig. He wasn’t able to fully realize that promise (as we’ve detailed in the second best-selling GP issue of all time), but Jason remains a massive Eddie Van Halen fan and is gratefully aware of where he sits in the EVH pantheon.
“It’s tough to put how I feel about Eddie’s music into words, because it was all about pure power, energy, aggression, beautiful tone, swing, funk, and his musical personality,” Jason says. “No matter how many times you listen to Eddie, it always sounds fresh, new and fun. He was beyond his awesome techniques, like tapping. It was all about his feel.
“When I first started playing with David Lee Roth, he liked me because the way I played with my right hand reminded him of Eddie. It’s an honor to have played with Dave and to be friends with Eddie. They both took me under their wings in different ways.”
Jason Becker’s DLR bandmate Steve Hunter knows cool guitar. He played with Lou Reed, he played on Aerosmith’s “Train Kept a Rollin’” and he played the riff on Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.”
When asked about the impact of EVH, he did not hesitate. “So along comes Eddie Van Halen to show us all a new way to play the guitar,” Hunter says.
“Hundreds of thousands of young guitar players all over the world found themselves saying, ‘I wanna play like that!’ I don’t use this word much because I think it’s abused, but Eddie is a true legend. His incredible playing will live on in the millions of guitar players influenced by him.”
Nuno Bettencourt came up in the VH era and took the Van Halen influence and made it his own. He reflected on his, and our, relationship with Eddie only a few days after Ed’s passing.
“Before Eddie,” he says, “there would be rhythm, then there would be a guitar solo. Eddie would do both. He would sprinkle these amazing things throughout the other three minutes of the song that made it so interesting. It was a new form of playing that reinvented the guitar and made it so fun.
“I follow people on Instagram who are so advanced technically that I don’t know how they can do what they do. Eddie trumps all of that. And it’s not close. He was the perfect balance of technique, emotion, tone, touch, and swing. Eddie was the most well-rounded guitarist ever. His solos almost had a verse, a chorus and a bridge all just within the solo.
“I’ve gotten so many texts from people saying, ‘Sorry for your loss,’” Bettencourt continues. “I do feel like I lost my big brother. A lot of us feel that way right now. Eddie didn’t hold anything back. All of his emotions are there, with pure honesty. That’s why we all feel so connected to him, even people who didn’t meet him.
“You did meet him. You met him when you listened to his playing, or saw a gig or watched a video. It’s super sad that we lost him as a human being, but we haven’t lost his music. And we are so lucky.”
Somehow this story needs to end. We could easily keep reading and talking and reminiscing forever. So let’s all take a deep breath and say what we all know to be true in our hearts: Eddie Van Halen is the greatest guitarist in the history of great guitarists. I am not saying that. We are saying that. Because he is our guitar hero. He is our guy.
We love you, Ed. We miss you terribly, but we are eternally grateful for what you have given us. We wouldn’t play guitar if it weren’t for you. We wouldn’t know one another if it weren’t for you. We wouldn’t be talking if it weren’t for you.
You are our Beatles. You are our Hendrix. And you are the reason that we still, to this very day, get that feeling in our gut when we hit an A chord really hard. That’s because of you, and everyone reading this knows that. You are the reason. Thank you.
Get The Pick Newsletter
All the latest guitar news, interviews, lessons, reviews, deals and more, direct to your inbox!
“’Sunday Bloody Sunday’ Was an Absolutely Pivotal Song for Us”: Three Albums Into Their Career, U2 Found Their Triumphant Sound and Activist Voice on ‘War’
“There Were No Rules With This Project”: The Edge Reveals the Secrets Behind U2’s New Album, 'Songs of Surrender' – a Whopping Collection of “Reimagined” Songs From Their Back Catalog
By Mark McStea
By Art Thompson