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Remembering Eddie Van Halen: the man who reshaped rock

ByElla Cockerill

Oct 21, 2020

Legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen, whose trailblazing techniques produced some of the most astonishing pieces of music the rock world has ever encountered, died last Tuesday, aged 65. While he may no longer be with us physically, his legacy remains within the fretboards of countless contemporary artists inspired by his irrefutable greatness.  

Music ran in the blood of the Van Halen clan. They moved to California from the Netherlands in 1962 and as the son of formidable saxophonist Jan van Halen, music was currency. As a result, Eddie became something of a prodigy. The brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen started their first band in 1964 called the Broken Combs in which, ironically, Eddie played drums while Alex was on guitar. 

It took many years of experimentation but when the pair finally landed on the now legendary Van Halen moniker and the boys swapped their tools of the trade, it set them on that serendipitous path to greatness. 

The final twist of fate came in the early ’70s when Eddie saw Led Zeppelin play at the Los Angeles Forum and became transfixed on the genius that was Jimmy Page’s revolutionary style. “It’s like having a sixth finger on your left hand,” he said, mesmerised later on, “Instead of picking, you’re hitting a note on the fretboard.” The rest is history. Eddie took that technique and refined it, pioneering his infamous sound: a heady mix of lightning-quick two-handed picking techniques and gorgeously intricate harmonics.

Energetic, joyous and passionately contoured, his repertoire is so audibly vibrant and vivid. The band knew they’d struck gold with this unprecedented sound, or ‘the brown sound’ as it came to be known, and took the precaution to have Eddie play with his back to the audience so other bands wouldn’t steal it before they bagged a record deal. 

Eddie broke the mould of what being a rockstar was supposed to be. His ecstatic joy for what he was doing shone through above all else and this is why he was so unparalleled. Until someone could match his unbridled love for the music he made, no one would ever come close to his level of mastery. 

“Eddie put the smile back in rock guitar at a time when it was all getting a bit broody,” fellow guitarist Joe Satriani told Billboard magazine in 2015, “He also scared the hell out of a million guitarists because he was so damn good.” 

The boys went on to enjoy fifteen years of multi-platinum award winning records followed by notable solo careers, but when it came to making his mark on the rock scene, Eddie didn’t stop there. He revolutionised the craft by creating and developing multiple pieces of guitarist equipment. 

His own souped-up weapon of choice, nicknamed the “Frankenstrat” and known for its red body criss-crossed with black and white stripes, featured in an exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. 

His ability to fine tune and elevate not only his own performance, but the work of other guitarists, by providing these tools shows his intense knowledge for the intricacies of his craft. It is clear he knew the world of rock guitar music, of which he was king, through and through.

He may have provided many physical gifts to the rock industry in these inventions but there’s no debating that the true legacy lies in his formidable passion and spear-heading technique which he bestowed upon the rock scene, passed on to swathes of inspired young artists. From the first listen of a Van Halen track, the seed of musical glory is planted in the hearts of countless potential rockstars. 

Kids that would grow up to become the likes of Cacophony’s Jason Becker, DJ Ashba of Guns N’ Roses and Testament’s Alex Skolnick to name but a few – and his attraction remains just as potent now as it was when those now household names were formed. 

Chris Greatti, one quarter of a relatively newly established rock band, Blame Candy, posted a touching tribute for Eddie on Instagram in which he recreated a snippet of that iconic “brown sound” posted with the caption: “My number one hero and the greatest guitarist to ever live died yesterday. It’s impossible to imagine the world of guitar or my life without Eddie Van Halen’s influence.” 

Eddie Van Halen died on Tuesday 6th October following a long battle with cancer that had started twenty years prior. It began in the year 2000 with tongue cancer which, he speculated, he had contracted from holding metal guitar picks in his mouth. If anyone was to disregard the risk of death to continue in a world that they loved it would be Eddie. In 1981 he told Guitar World, “If you’re a musician you just play until you die. It’s not an ordinary job.” 

According to Van Halen’s manager Irving Azoff, there had been a stadium tour in the works for 2019 but plans were put on hold due to the star’s poor health. And so, nearly forty years later, our guitar hero has proven true to his word, wielding his weapon of choice right to the end. His spirit lives on in the unequivocal mark he made on rock ‘n roll. 

Image: K. Todd Storch via: Flickr

By Ella Cockerill

Music Editor