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The word virtuoso isn’t used lightly to describe musical and artistic genius. However, there are few better descriptors for Eddie Van Halen, who died on Tuesday at the age of 65 from throat cancer. The Van Halen guitarist redefined rock stardom, spreading joy and exuberance from the stage while making jaw-dropping technical moves look impossibly easy.
Born in 1955 in the Netherlands to a Dutch father and a mother from Indonesia, Eddie moved to the U.S. in second grade along with his older brother, Alex. Their early years were tough. During a 2015 Washington Times interview, Van Halen recalled his family members lived in one room together after arriving in Pasadena, California, and didn’t speak English; in fact, they’d scour dumpsters for scrap metal to sell. However, the Van Halens fortuitously brought a piano with them to America — patriarch Jan Van Halen was a professional musician who also played clarinet and saxophone — and the brothers started taking lessons. Naturally, the next step once they had this grounding was forming a band. “As we got a little older, we started playing drums and guitar,” he told the Washington Times. “We used to play gigs with my dad. Everything from weddings to bar mitzvahs and oomph music.”
That musical voracity would become a boon when the Van Halen brothers became more serious about their own music. In the mid-’70s, the nascent group, which eventually brought on irrepressible front man David Lee Roth, landed steady gigs at various Southern California locales: high schools, massive backyard parties, and clubs such as Gazzarri’s and Starwood. Playing a mix of originals and eclectic covers — ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Slade, Stevie Wonder — the group became a fiery live act and learned how to be entertainers. These free-spirited concerts went a long way to explain Van Halen’s future success. They made the band versatile — in 1976 and 1977, they opened for Sparks, the Ramones, and UFO — and allowed Eddie to discover his strengths. “When we started playing clubs, we had to play Top 40 songs, and for the life of me, I could never make anything sound the way it was supposed to sound,” he told the Associated Press in 2015. “I could never emulate other people’s playing — a blessing in disguise.”
It helped that Eddie Van Halen was also determined to manifest his own unique sounds. He regularly deconstructed and refashioned instruments and gear — there’s a reason his black-, white-, and red-striped guitar is colloquially known as the Frankenstrat — and protected his innovations with patents. “I’ve always been a tinkerer,” Van Halen wrote in a fascinating 2015 Popular Mechanics article in which the musician cites as inspiration his dad’s own experiments, like a homemade prosthesis that allowed his father to keep playing even after starting to lose his teeth. “Watching him do that kind of stuff instilled a curiosity in me. If something doesn’t do what you want it to, there’s always a way to fix it.”
That tinkering mindset extended to Van Halen’s evocative, epic solos: There are the parts Eddie played in the studio, and then there’s the way those parts metamorphosed in concert. He started playing guitar as a teen while still studying piano and was a natural at the instrument. In the book Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal, a friend who knew Van Halen in junior high recalled the then-13-year-old figuring out how to play Cream’s “Crossroads” after just two listens. Eddie Van Halen’s skills and acuity accelerated as the band played more, and he was just 23 when Van Halen’s 1978 debut album hit stores. Below are just six of the late musician’s most influential guitar solos, among many.
If Eddie Van Halen had just decided to replicate “Eruption” live, it would’ve been groundbreaking: The song demonstrates a frenetic, impressive technique called tapping — think of it drumming your fingers rapidly on a table, only over guitar strings — which became one of his signature moves. But the 100-second studio version of “Eruption” was a mere jumping-off point for a song that would become the centerpiece of Van Halen shows right through the band’s final tour in 2015. With a big grin on his face and buoyed by the crowd’s cheers, Van Halen gazed at his guitar and coaxed chattering notes and dive-bombing, bluesy, hard-rock licks out of it. Across the years, the “Eruption” solo became richer, less a flashy display of his technical prowess and a more soulful look at how age and experience deepen connection to music.
Another song where the sonic distance between the studio and stage is awe-inspiring. The version of the song on the band’s 1978 self-titled debut exudes delicious danger, with lightning-bolt riffs zigzagging across Alex Van Halen’s propulsive rhythms. At the Tokyo Dome in 2013, however, Eddie unleashes a solo that unfolds like a multi-movement classical piece, with dynamic ebbs and flows that veer between feral aggression and hushed delicacy.
Over and over again, Eddie Van Halen demonstrated that a solo didn’t have to be lengthy or expansive to make an impact. Part of that came from the band’s economical approach to arrangements — there’s a very good reason the pop world finally embraced the group as the ’80s progressed — although the interplay between Roth and Van Halen’s instrumentalists also had an impact. The band’s songs were often structured like conversations. Eddie was comfortable soloing in the spotlight, sure, but he also provided subtle accompaniment for the vocalist’s musings. “Everybody Wants Some!!” exemplifies this: After a compact, power-pop-leaning solo that’s not far off from Cheap Trick, Eddie steps back and chimes in between Roth’s bedroom talk with a fiery riff here or a melodic boost there
“Beat It,” the third single from Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking Thriller, featured an Eddie Van Halen solo so intense the studio monitor speakers caught on fire as the guitarist recorded it (really!). Fittingly, the solo careens out of the mix like a revving engine and blooms into a passage full of his trademark bustling notework. “I listened to the song, and I immediately go, ‘Can I change some parts?’” Van Halen told CNN in 2012. “I turned to the engineer and I go, ‘Okay, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.’ Took him maybe ten minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.” Jackson wasn’t mad; to the contrary, he loved the results. “He gave it a listen and he turned to me and went, ‘Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song and make it better.’”
“Beat It” was a massive cross-genre success. The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 and the equivalent of the R&B/hip-hop chart, but also became Jackson’s first mainstream rock hit, reaching No. 14 on the rock charts. For good measure, the song also won Grammy awards for Record of the Year and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.
When Eddie Van Halen decided to go (mostly) all-in for synthesizers on the 1984 LP, the move could’ve easily gone sideways. But thanks to his classical training — he even won piano contests as a kid — the musician approached these keyboard-based compositions like a rhythm guitarist. The result was that while 1984 sounded very of its time on the surface, the songs overflowed with the kind of melodies and riffage that were familiar to Van Halen fans. That was none more obvious than on the U.S. No. 1 hit “Jump,” which boasted a cracked-mirror guitar solo that segued right into a cascading, melodious keyboard solo. Both are indelible moments.
Want to start an online argument? Fire up a debate over whether David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar is the better Van Halen front man. Hagar served as vocalist from 1986’s 5150 through 1995’s Balance, an epoch that coincided with one of mainstream rock’s biggest evolutions. However, as the genre splintered into different scenes and subgenres — industrial, funk metal, hair metal, grunge — Van Halen defiantly stuck to their slick hard rock roots.
To say that polarized fans is an understatement. In fact, the dividing line seems to be 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, the album featuring the piano-driven “Right Now.” A massive MTV hit with a video famously parodied on Saturday Night Live after the song was used in a Crystal Pepsi ad, “Right Now” was a deliberate move away from the band’s lighthearted fare. However, the song boasted a pile-driving guitar solo flecked with funk and metal that illuminated the band’s more serious work without being too ponderous. Many might find the Van Hagar years tolerable only in small doses — but there’s no denying that Eddie Van Halen’s commitment to guitar transcendence never wavered, no matter who was on the lineup.