Not with words but with a song
And forever we would remember him
Long after he is gone.
October 12, 2020. Edward Van Halen passed away from throat cancer this past week at age sixty-five. Like everyone else who loved Edward, at first I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked as was the rest of the world; truly, the rest of the world. Being a guitar player, Edward was my hero, as he was to perhaps millions of other guitarists the world over. I was both shocked and saddened to hear the news of his death. It is impossible to describe how much Edward Van Halen meant to me. From the first time I ever heard Eruption and that first album, to the mezmorizing guitar passages Edward seemed to conjure up at will, to the many times I saw Van Halen in concert and tried to learn his songs on guitar, it was a love affair. I loved Edward Van Halen and the music he brought to the world. In the article “The Genius of Edward Van Halen” I talked about each Van Halen album in detail and described Ed’s wizardry. He was simply unequalled – he played guitar unlike anyone who had come before. He borrowed occasionally from the greats such as Hendrix and Blackmore and Billy Gibbons but he took it all in a new direction. He invented his own signature style of playing which turned the music world on its ear. He was a unique and original talent like no other. He carved a place in my heart from the get-go, as he did with countless others, never to be diminished.
Of course, no one knew how grave Edward’s condition was. He was a private person and wanted to keep his struggle known to family members and close friends only. Even former bandmates Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony did not know the seriousness of his condition. Rumors surrounding Edward’s health have been circulating for years. There were hints that he had been traveling to Germany for experimental treatments that surfaced last year. There were also rumors that a reunion with original Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony for a stadium tour in 2019 were supposedly in the works. The tour never materialized, though. Comments from Van Halen singer David Lee Roth late last year that he would be the opening act for Kiss on their recent tour hinted at Ed’s condition but nothing concrete was ever established. In my article last fall – “Eddie Van Halen Alive and Well” I pointed out the rumors that Ed’s health was suspect. It seemed though, that after every instance that described Ed’s condition as being serious, he would Tweet or post on Facebook showing that the rumors were just that. I even included a video supposedly taken last year showing Edward and his wife, Janie shopping in West Hollywood. It quickly became one of the most popular articles I ever posted. It seemed everyone was concerned about the health of this icon and wanted to know he was OK. In the video he appeared in excellent health. I’m showing it here so you can see for yourself.
Of course, me being the optimist and wanting to give my hero the benefit of the doubt, I accepted his retorts as proof that he was healthy and in good spirits. It seems though, that the rumors were indeed true although no one knew it at the time. Finally, a Tweet from his son Wolfgang on October 6 conveyed the devastating news:
— Wolf Van Halen (@WolfVanHalen) October 6, 2020
When I got over the initial shock and was forming my thoughts for this article I asked myself: “How do I describe the career of one of the most groundbreaking, innovative and widely revered musicians the world has ever heard?” It’s hard, it’s very hard.
I happened to have “The CBS News Sunday Morning” show on television and when they flashed Edward as one of a few famous people who had passed this past week, his picture was captioned with the words “guitarist, bandleader.” I thought: “Edward Van Halen wasn’t just a guitarist or a bandleader. He was so much more than that.”
In addition to being a musician of the highest caliber, Edward was constantly looking for that next new sound or how to improve something that already existed. When he couldn’t find or modify something to do what he wanted, he created it. He was a true renaissance man in a world of copycats.
Eddie Van Halen was the most brilliant guitar player to come along in the past forty-plus years. Only Hendrix dazzled to the level Eddie did, but Ed took it so much further. His three-finger pull offs, tapping harmonics, pinch squeals and searing leads (to name just a few of his dazzling techniques) were sensational and sparked a string of imitators world-wide. He drew accolades from guitar students and established players. Every well-known guitarist in the Rock world was completely stunned by this young punk kid from California who turned the Rock world upside-down with his amazing pyrotechnics on guitar. They had no idea what he was doing because he completely changed the game – they only knew they wanted to find out. As great as his searing lead guitar was, what most didn’t pick up on though, was what a great rhythm player he was. If you listened closely you heard rhythm parts that were just amazing. Edward created the groove to the songs and then put his screaming guitar over top of them to mind-blowing effect. He played lead and rhythm at the same time on almost all of the early Van Halen albums, adding fills in between rhythm parts which no one had done before; “filling the holes” he called it.
Being multi-talented, Ed could switch from guitar to keyboards effortlessly. He played all of the piano parts on the Van Halen albums including “Right Now” and the synthesizer on “Jump.” Even with keyboards he was always pushing the envelope. He played keyboards through his Marshall amps that left everyone scratching their heads in amazement and trying to figure out what he was actually doing and how he got that sound. He also played bass, supposedly playing all of the bass parts on Van Halen’s “Fair Warning” album. What followed was pure gold. Everyone of Van Halen’s album went Gold (one millions units sold) and two went Diamond (ten million units sold.)
Edward was also a master tunesmith – he wrote all the music on Van Halen’s albums, handing them off to David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar for the lyrics. He was equally adept at writing Hard Rock/Metal or Top 40 Pop. He was influenced by the Jazz clarinet playing of his father and on later albums such as 1984 he played jazz passages on guitar, sounding like a saxophone or a clarinet at times. Of course he was influenced by classical music as well. He broke the rules of music even as a youngster. Ed took piano lessons as a child and yet never learned to read music. He learned everything by watching and then duplicating what his teacher did. His teacher never knew Ed couldn’t read. His teacher was classically trained and Ed took that knowledge and incorporated into it Rock with instrumentals such as “Eruption” and “Spanish Fly” and “Cathedral.” Truly, there were no rules as far as Edward was concerned. He crossed musical genres, taking bits from each one to create music that was all his own. Van Halen was the modern day Mozart.
Edward changed the way people played guitar and even the guitar people played music on. In 1978 Gibson’s and Fender’s most famous designs were twenty five years old – as was their mechanics and electronics when Edward created a hybrid of the two by cobbling together parts from a Gibson ES-335 and a Stratocaster. Much like when Les Paul created “the log” guitar, he did that because he couldn’t find a guitar off of the shelf that could let him do what he wanted. He changed the way the guitar looked – painting it with his signature striped pattern that when combined with his playing ability, made every kid that played guitar, and the pros too, want to play a guitar like his. He tweaked his amplifiers in ways that sounded like no other that came before. It happened by accident initially but it got him thinking about things he could do to improve them.
Edward was an inventor, with more than one patent attributed to him. The D-Tuna, a device for dropping the sixth string of a guitar down up to a whole step instantaneously was Ed’s invention. It is standard on all EVH™ guitars equipped with a tremolo. And he created it for the masses, not just for his guitars. You could install it on any Floyd Rose™ equipped guitar. He helped develop the Floyd Rose ™ tremolo system to help keep his guitar in tune while performing “dive bombs” and string bends though he was never credited for it. He invented wax potting – dipping the pickup in hot wax to reduce feedback. This was copied by virtually all pickup manufacturers. His attention to detail carried through to the manufacturing of his guitars. Personally, I own three of Edward’s EVH-brand guitars and I can tell you, they are some of the best built/sounding guitars on the market – even the import models.
Not satisfied with just reinventing guitars, he created his own line of amplifiers, first with Peavey and then Fender (EVH brand.) At the outset, these amps had more gain than most of the other amplifiers on the market, leading other makers to beef up their amps as well. He didn’t just leave it at that. His amps constantly evolved – taking tweaks that he and his engineers developed from road testing live and incorporating them into the next model. The current culmination being the EVH Stealth head shown below:
When Ed built his “5150” studio he, along with Don Landee took over the recording and engineering of all Van Halen albums from “1984” through “A Different Kind of Truth.” No longer happy with letting his record company dictate the way his music was created and recorded, he knew the sound he wanted so he built his own studio to get it. He built what amounted to a “Faraday cage” – a radio interference-proof building so that he could record without picking up noise and electronic emissions from the outside. If you watch the following video that Ed made while being interviewed with MTV you can hear about the comical way he used to describe the building to inspectors upon completion. Ed was also friends with fellow guitarist/engineer/innovator Les Paul. If you look closely, when Ed goes up the stairs in the studio you will see what appears to be a blueprint of the early Gibson Les Paul. I summize that this may have been given to him by Paul.
Ed was revered by professional musicians as well as fans. Just about every well-known guitarist of note has expressed how grieved they were by Edward’s passing. The list of artists is practically endless but includes names like Lynch, Satriani, Schenker, May, Page, McCreary, John 5, Bettencourt and many, many others. Even players that in the seventies initially dismissed him such as Joe Perry and particularly Ritchie Blackmore called him the greatest Rock guitarist in history. Guitar players in other genres such as Jazz like John McGlaughlin and Allan Holdsworth loved Edward’s playing. Frank Zappa thanked him for “reinventing the electric guitar” back in the eighties. He was truly an artist like no other in the music world.
Accolades and condolences have come from all over the world and in the media with the news of Edward’s passing. To see the amount of praise, sadness, love and respect for one of the world’s most revered musicians is what has really touched me. It validates to me what I knew in my heart. I can say without fear that Edward Van Halen was loved on a world-wide level. I compare it only to the death of John Lennon as to the level of impact and love that the world has come forward to honor him with.
Personally, this man touched my soul beyond measure with his guitar playing. I bought and read just about every guitar magazine that Ed ever appeared in – even dating back to the issue of Guitar Player in 1978 that talked about this new flashy Rock guitarist. I still have a lot of them. Ironically, this month’s Guitar World magazine celebrating their 40th anniversary had Ed on the cover from 1979, released just days before his passing. He appeared on the cover of Guitar World more than any other artist – it isn’t even close. He won Guitar World’s Best New Talent award and went on to be voted as Best Rock Guitarist five times in a row before they retired him from contention, no doubt to give someone else a chance.
I kept all of my Van Halen albums I bought when they originally came out. I bought copies on CD as well but I kept the vinyl too. I played my original copy of “Fair Warning” on cassette hundreds of times. I swore I thought it would eventually wear out but miraculously the sound never degraded. I lost track of it when CDs came out but it’s the one thing I wish I still had. I have photos I took of the band live in 1979 on the Van Halen II tour and the winged “VH” necklace I bought back then too. I kept all of my concert tickets of every time I saw the band – my last count was having seen the band seventeen times from 1979 through 2015.
Throughout my life as it changed, evolved and moved forward, Edward and his music stayed with me. Going to see him when Van Halen would tour, right up through 2015 was like going to a family reunion. I anticipated it like nothing else. Even during the years of the band’s dormancy I always looked forward to the day I would see the band, and particularly Eddie again. The love on stage was palpable and our love affair with him was rapture here on earth as shown below:
Rest in peace, King Edward. You led a life well lived. And thank you for the gift of music and the inspiration you gave us all. I will remember you always.
What is your favorite memory of Eddie Van Halen?