Eddie Van Halen in 1979
Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Celebrating Eddie Van Halen, A GRAMMY-Winning Guitar Legend
"The power just engulfs you. You just feel it, it makes you vibrate."
That's how Eddie Van Halen, who passed away today after a battle with throat cancer, described the guitar in a 2015 interview about the instrument that not only defined his life but elevated rock 'n roll as an art form. It should come as no surprise that Van Halen—both Eddie as a person and the moniker of his gargantuanly successful band—grew into a musical prodigy and stayed that way throughout the rest of his life.
The son of immigrants from The Netherlands, Eddie grew up in a musical family—his father was a talented musician, playing the clarinet and piano. It’s the latter instrument that Eddie would first learn to play once the family immigrated to Pasadena, Calif. in the 1960s, the roots of a life he would later refer to as a true American dream. Later falling in love with the guitar and growing up emulating the likes of Eric Clapton, Eddie easily met his idol’s popularity and talent in the intervening years, becoming the mainstream face of the guitar and helping cultivate the perception of a rock God.
"During his legendary career, GRAMMY Award winner Eddie Van Halen contributed to some of the world’s most iconic music," says Harvey Mason Jr, the Interim President of The Recording Academy, of Eddie, who was nominated three times and won one GRAMMY. "His explosive guitar playing and approach to the musical process solidified him as an undeniable force in his field and forever established his place as a true guitar hero."
How else can one explain the Eddie and his bandmates' (including his brother Alex, bassist Michael Anthony and frontman David Lee Roth, with whom Eddie had a famously complex relationship) career, which kicked off with an explosive 1978 eponymous debut that included instant classics "Runnin' With the Devil," "Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love," the stunning instrumental "Eruption" and an inspired cover that bridged the innocent riffs of the '60s and the powerful intensity of the '70s with "You Really Got Me"? It’s an album that announces itself with the distinct sound of sirens in the distance, perhaps an appropriate introduction considering the collection, which was essentially a record of the band’s popular yet scant club setlist at the time. Because of its sheer inventive force, it's still regarded as one of the best musical introductions ever, with Guitar World calling it one of the greatest guitar albums of all time, while Rolling Stone ranked it on the list of best debuts in music history.
In short order, Van Halen became one of the most popular acts in the world (the RIAA would subsequently rank them the 20th best-selling artist in the United States), spawning countless imitators and helping culture usher in the big-hair 1980s by creating pop-rich rock confections that hinged on ultra-catchy riffs. Of those, none is more iconic than "Panama," one of the ultimate songs of the genre, guaranteed to give listeners a jolt within its first memorable seconds and tearing along like a muscle car (even the revving sounds of Eddie's 1972 Lamborghini Miura’s engine can be heard on the track). It’s a similar unique and energetic fun that runs through Van Halen’s towering discography, whether it's the early David Lee Roth years or the Sammy Hagar era, including the kinetic and pulsating "Hot For Teacher," the infectious dance floor anthem "Dance The Night Away," or their only Pop No. 1 hit, "Jump," an originally rejected Eddie-penned track that showcases him trading the guitar for an '80s-era synth, giving a sound to a generation. The effort earned the band a GRAMMY nomination in 1984 for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group, eventually winning in 1991 for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal for their ninth album, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.
It’s also passion for the craft that consistently shone through and gave Eddie an array of impacts on the genre. Take for example his iconic solo for Michael Jackson’s indelible "Beat It," its guitar riff as important to the song as Jackson's falsetto. The unusual collaboration was the result of a call from producer Quincy Jones, and, as if it were a scene from a movie, a monitor speaker in the studio managed to catch fire during his recording. Eddie even contributed his talents to the record for free—and it went on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time.
Outside of the creative innovation he brought to the guitar, Eddie also contributed a number of physical tweaks to the instrument, popularizing the "tapping" solo technique and even patenting a suporting device that frees up the guitar player's hands. As for the instrument itself, it should be no surprise that Eddie's Frankenstein 2 currently sits in the National Museum of American History. He also passed on the musical bug to his son Wolfgang, who Eddie regularly championed and later became a member of Van Halen itself.
"The world is lucky to have witnessed Eddie’s genius as a guitarist,” sums up Mason Jr. of Eddie’s impact. “We know he will influence and shape rock music indefinitely."