Rest in Riffs Eddie Van Halen, 1955-2020

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In 1984, guitarist extraordinaire Eddie Van Halen was sitting on top of the world. His eponymous band topped the US singles chart for the first time with ‘Jump’, complete with unforgettable of-its-time synth riffs. The lead single from the band’s 6th album, ‘1984’, helped propel it to #2, denied its place at the album chart summit by a certain ‘Thriller’ on the way to shifting over 10 million units.

If that wasn’t sufficient to give the Amsterdam born, Californian raised fretboard shredder a warm glow, there’s more. His blistering guitar solo on Thriller’s ‘Beat It’ not only showcased talent, but widened the song’s appeal on MTV. The channel’s early years, dominated by AOR and early 1980s British new wave, previously left little or no room for black artists. But, ‘Thriller’ producer Quincy Jones’ masterstroke to include a rock-out track, enlisted Eddie for his services, ridding MTV of their mainly white audience. After needing convincing that Jones’ approach was genuine, Eddie recorded dazzling licks gratis, his monitor catching fire in the process. Another Jacko chart-topper ensued, its video becoming an MTV staple. And, at the vanguard of a welcome, the gradual widening of the station’s playlist curation beyond its traditional rock oeuvre.  

Following piano lessons with older brother Alex, young virtuoso Eddie switched to guitar. Influenced by 60s blues boomers Clapton and Page, he dabbled with school bands before the brothers joined forces in 1972. This eventually saw them adopting their Van Halen moniker, and teaming up with vocalist David Lee Roth and bassist Michael Anthony.

Incendiary live shows helped garner a Californian cult following, where a subsequent introduction to Gene Simmonds led to the Kiss star financing their first demo. Signing with Warner Bros in 1977, their titular debut album exploded raw rock and roll sprinkled with Eddie’s guitar pyrotechnics. Unsurprisingly, ‘Van Halen’ broke the top twenty. A handful more albums followed but culminated in 1984, by which time Eddie and Roth had fallen out over the band’s direction, with Roth departing post-tour.

Undeterred, Eddie enlisted Sammy Hagar as Roth’s replacement. Their new long-player, ‘5150’, was the first of four stateside chart-toppers over the next decade. The more keyboard-heavy Hagar-era material was still a big draw with the punters. Following Hagar’s departure, Van Halen’s frontman changed regularly. In 2007, they settled on their most recent line-up, featuring Eddie, Alex, Roth, and Eddie’s son Wolfgang on bass. 

His classical background shaped Eddie’s signature guitar style. From flamenco elements to ‘tapping’ (both hands on the fretboard), he influences future generations of metalheads and guitar geeks alike. Solo material includes ‘Out the Window’, famously used by Marty in Back To The Future when terrorising his back-in-time dad, George. Film soundtracks crafted with Alex kept Eddie busy, not forgetting patented guitar gizmos, his trademark ‘Frankenstrat’ cannibalized from assorted parts. Van Halen also pioneered now commonplace contract riders, improving previously dubious safety standards at gigs.   

Sadly, the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle finally caught up with Eddie. He also suffered with long-term injuries caused by on-stage acrobatics. Eddie Van Halen succumbed to throat cancer aged 65. He is survived by son Wolfgang.  

Eddie, thanks for the listening pleasure. 

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