The first time hearing Van Halen was the first time you held an iPhone, saw a Marvel movie, had an online gaming experience and read a “Harry Potter” book.
Maybe add your first love, kiss and movie theater experience.
The sum of all those can’t touch what the band Van Halen meant to the cultural landscape. Founding guitarist Eddie Van Halen, who died on Tuesday from cancer at the age of 65, represents the most impactful death to affect guitar-oriented music since Jimi Hendrix in 1970.
Rock and roll and American music have a “before and after” point. The continental divide in modern music is 1978 when “Van Halen I” was released, a sonic change and redefinition of what was possible with an instrument. You can’t overstate the importance of Van Halen and its first album, and the 11 other studio albums they released through 2012.
As an inventor, Eddie Van Halen was superior to Steve Jobs. As a musician and composer, he had no equal except Jimi Hendrix, his only rival in forwarding the explosion of the electric guitar, his only other equals being classical like Wagner or Bach.
On cultural impact, the band was equal or greater to the British Explosion, New Wave, the ;80s alt-rock movement, the ’90s revolution, punk, hip-hop and Garth Brooks.
I could write my feelings about his music, his playing and what he’s meant to me as my favorite guitar player and favorite band. It won’t do justice to his life and career.
He was a poor kid, who had to invent a new guitar out of necessity, a new way of using guitar amplifiers and new techniques to dig the sound he had out of his head to make the songs he wanted. Like that he was every person who ever picked up a guitar and tried to write a song, except he was a once-in-a-century genius.
Instead, I’ll let some of his accomplishments and innovations speak for themselves.
- Eddie Van Halen’s playing, and tone, necessitated a guitar that didn’t exist. He favored Gibson Les Pauls for their humbucking pickups, which had more output than the single-coil pickups used in most Fender guitars, including the Stratocaster. What the Strat had that Eddie needed was a Whammy bar, which allowed him to deliver harmonic tones and screams and shrieks, a plethora of new notes, essentially. In order to do this, he took the PAF Pickup out of an old Gibson guitar, dipped it in wax, then installed it into a $50 warped body he bought from a guitar store that was in the shape of a Stratocaster and an $80 Fender Stratocaster neck. This required hammering a bigger hole into the body with whatever tools his dad had in the garage. His devoted use of the Whammy bar led to companies like Floyd Rose to invent their own that could be used without knocking the guitar out of tune, like the traditional Strat would. Why’s this important? Because you hear this guitar on every commercial.
- Eddie Van Halen grew up a classical musician trained on piano from a young age, and his father was a professional jazz player. To get the sounds out of his head, he needed an amplifier that could deliver sustain that nothing else on the market could yield. This led him to almost torch his parents’ house. Van Halen kept blowing up amplifiers to achieve the gain and sustain he needed to play the way he wanted. He saw the dimmer knob light switch in his mom’s kitchen and thought he could maybe back the amp’s wattage off a bit, he could keep his amps from catching fire. Catching Edison-like inspiration, Eddie wired his amplifier to the light dimmer knob in his mom’s kitchen. He solved blowing up his amplifier but blew up the electric in his parent’s house instead.
- As a classical pianist, he saw the guitar fretboard differently than the standard guitarist, taught to use one hand to pick and one to fret notes. In an interview in Guitar World in the ’80s, he described seeing Led Zeppelin live and saw guitarist Jimmy Page doing a move called a hammer-on to a second string. This inspired Eddie to use a finger on his picking hand to play matching notes higher up the fretboard, using the massive sustain from his amp. Players had used this technique for years but not like Eddie. It quickly became the most copied technique in all of music, even on early rap albums.
- The band was so unique its label, Warner Bros., didn’t know how to market the group. Van Halen’s first proposed album cover had them dressed and looking like The Clash. Instead, they went with more of a glam rock look. It was a tribute to just how unique the band’s sound was, it didn’t fit any genre. This stuck with the band throughout its run. When ’80s pop metal bands were dying off in the wake of “grunge” and alternative rock in the early ’90s, Van Halen was at a creative peak with singer Sammy Hagar. The band helped launch Seattle stalwart Alice In Chains into the mainstream as its opening act during a major tour. When its album “Balance” was released in 1995, singles from it were played on alt-rock stations. Van Halen was America’s greatest rock band, and maybe the last rock band that crossed so many genres.
- Van Halen catapulted hard rock into the overall music conscious, enough that Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones asked Eddie Van Halen to play the solo for “Beat It,” one of the biggest singles on the biggest album of all time. One of Van Halen’s best friends, Steve Lukather, did much of the song’s arrangement and played all of the rhythm guitar and some of the other instruments. Van Halen’s touch on the album and its overall appeal kept it No. 1 for most of 1984. To give perspective, imagine if Beyonce launched her biggest album and one of the biggest singles on the album featured a 2-minute guitar solo from John Mayer, Joe Bonamassa or Derek Trucks, and it would be a selling point for the album.
- If you take away all of the previous accomplishments, inventions and innovations listed, Eddie Van Halen is one of the greatest song writers and arrangers in the history of modern American music. His ability to play highly technical guitar and combine it with hooks and melodies that stick in your head for days is unique only to this band. No one could combine technicality and sharp song writing like Van Halen, particularly with singer Sammy Hagar. Eddie proved his hard rock chops with singer David Lee Roth, using the heavily favored hard rock E-minor focused riffs. His ability to write in so many ways, and also write songs on piano, and stretch from pop music (“Why Can’t This Be Love”), to country (“Finish What Ya Started”) to modern grungy hard rock (“Humans Being”) to metal (“I’m On Fire”), is singular to him.
Van Halen unfairly was tagged in the headlines for battles between the band and its three lead singers over the years. The band’s massive status and importance forced any potential upheaval into headline territory, and it led to further problems between the band members.
The truth is much different.
Van Halen, despite all these massive innovations, inventions and accomplishments, was a party band. Their photos were all smiles, their songs could stretch from the serious such as religion (“Mine All Mine”) to all things sexual, to grasping the mortality of existence (“Without You”) and have a good time while doing it.
This is ultimately what made the band special. It’s what people will remember from Eddie Van Halen and remember when they hear the band’s songs into eternity.
B.J. Bethel is a guitarist, mainstream media journalist, freelance political columnist and has been a contributor to Christian Toto’s site through the years.