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The electric guitar may be the quintessential symbol of rock ‘n’ roll, but of the many individuals who’ve strapped one on over the years only a select few have made such an impact as to become virtually synonymous with the instrument. That short list would obviously include Eric Clapton and the late Jimi Hendrix in addition to Edward “Eddie” Van Halen, who died on October 6th at age sixty-five after a lengthy battle with cancer. The Netherlands-born Eddie had been axeman for the band Van Halen (which also included his older brother Alex on drums and later his son Wolfgang on bass) for more than four decades. There – and in a handful of outside projects – his playing went far beyond just technical perfection: Eddie Van Halen innovated a style and countless techniques that many who came after him would emulate but none would ever achieve with the same panache.
Between the thundering beat of disco and the calculatingly simplified musical attitude of punk, 1978 hardly seemed like fertile ground for a new rock band with a more familiar approach that featured (and was named after) a guitar virtuoso. But that very year Van Halen’s classic self-titled debut album made the Top Twenty and would eventually sell over ten million copies. Though usually categorized as hard rock or even heavy metal, Van Halen typically bypassed the dark fantasy which had come to define the genre, leaning instead towards more of a general sense of fun (albeit loud fun).
In 1982 – the same year that Van Halen released their fifth consecutive platinum album Diver Down – Eddie provided one of his trademark guitar solos for Michael Jackson’s track “Beat It.” Although his only contribution to Jackson’s mammoth Thriller album, those roughly thirty seconds on the number one song transformed pop music, breaking through the color lines after years of rock radio and MTV largely ignoring black artists, in addition to helping a generation of listeners rediscover the idea that music is music.
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Around that time Van Halen themselves were working towards more of a pop sound, thanks largely to Eddie’s growing interest in playing synthesizers. Some hard rock fans saw the move as blasphemous, but the general public was clearly on board since the album 1984 became yet another huge success, generating the band’s first (and only) number one single, “Jump.” Shortly after, lead singer David Lee Roth left the band in what would become one of the most publicized splits in rock history. In another divisive but ultimately triumphant action, he was replaced by Sammy Hagar, an already-established platinum solo artist who lacked the distinction of Roth’s vocals and persona but made up for it with his unmistakable commitment to true rock. The Hagar-led Van Halen plowed through more than a decade of sold-out arena shows as well as four consecutive number one studio albums.
In his personal life, Eddie was always known to be a complex individual. The band’s former manager would recall an early Van Halen overseas tour where he found Eddie in tears, insisting that he never wanted to be a rock star and only wished “to go home.” His 1981 marriage to actress Valerie Bertinelli seemed for decades like the model for a successful celebrity union until they separated and then divorced in the 2000s (Eddie later got remarried to actress Janie Liszewski). Though rarely seen or photographed without his winning smile, Eddie struggled with drug addiction and especially alcoholism for the better part of his life.
In 1998 Van Halen III, featuring one-time frontman Gary Cherone (formally of Extreme), became the first album in the band’s history not to go platinum. However, the record is notable for the inclusion of “How Many Say I”, the only commercially released track ever to feature Eddie on lead vocals. Unlike Hendrix or his idol Clapton, Eddie was categorically disinterested in doing his own singing, preferring instead to let his guitar do all the talking necessary. And talk his guitar did – and will continue to do so through the work that Eddie Van Halen left behind – in its own unique language that most of us will never be able to fully comprehend, but that all of us can appreciate.