And just like that, he was gone.
The story of one of the greatest musicians to walk amongst us on God’s good Earth came to an end yesterday, Oct. 6, with the death of the legendary Edward Van Halen.
We called him “Eddie” for short. But you knew that. Everyone over the age of 30 does. He was — and will always be — The King. Period. You get those titles when, well, you are. You don’t single-handedly change an entire musical landscape by being good. You have to be extraordinary. He checked both of those boxes. And then some.
Ask any guitarist in the music industry, and they’ll tell you that, in the 1980s especially, every single one of them wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. Every. Single. One. When Randy Rhoads first heard Eddie play he admitted he had to “up his game.” And this is Randy Rhoads we’re talking about. Eddie made millions of guitar players better. He caused an additional millions to simply want to pick up the instrument. He made it look so easy and …. fun.
Eddie and his drummer brother Alex Van Halen, bassist Michael Anthony, and the inimitable David Lee Roth burst onto the music scene with their 1978 self-titled Warner Bros. debut album, featuring the likes of “Runnin’ With The Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” “I’m The One” “Atomic Punk,” and, oh, just the greatest guitar solo ever put to tape, the one-minute-and-42-second piece of genius called “Eruption.” And a generation of guitar players was born. The album was damn near sonic perfection.
Of course, Eddie will always be remembered as the guitarist who mastered the two-handed fretboard tapping technique, but he was much, much more.
He was an inventor. His Frankenstrat guitar, with its black and white stripes strewn haphazardly across and up and down a beat up red Stratocaster, was his own creation. He heard a guitar tone in his head that he wanted, and he tinkered about at his cluttered workspace-slash-studio until he got it. He modified amplifiers, hot-rodding them to fit his needs. Same with guitar pickups. All to achieve what he called the “brown sound.” Each of these inventions is used to this day.
He was a songwriter. And an extremely gifted one at that. This wasn’t the Eddie Van Halen show. When it came time for the guitar solo, sure, he delivered as only he can, but Van Halen was a team venture. He rode the fine line of hard rock and accessibility to the masses to harmonic perfection. You can tap your toe to Van Halen songs. Eddie’s instantly-recognizable guitar tone and soaring playing makes you want to raise the horns and bang your head. While tapping your toes. Simultaneously. And sometimes just his simplicity was his genius. The keyboard intro to “Jump,” for example. Go ahead, hum those chords. You know you know them. Perfection.
And he was an equally adept rhythm guitarist, laying down the foundations of the songs with metronome-like precision.
And I could go on and on. But like every song, this tribute has to have an end. There will literally be millions of more words written about Eddie over the course of the next few days, and he deserves each and every accolade he receives and then some. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to photograph the band and see the show at Wells Fargo Arena in 2009 along with my good friend, Michael Swanger. Shooting one or two songs at ground level through a few thousand arms from the back of the arena is never optimal, but I could have cared less. It was Van Halen. The resultant image of Eddie is not my best work, admittedly, but you get the idea.