As if 2020 hasn’t been brutal enough, news arrived today that in this hellscape year, we’ve lost one of the all-time greats: Eddie Van Halen, legendary guitarist of legendary rock band Van Halen died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. We wanted to take a moment to acknowledge one of the greatest (some would say the greatest) guitarists of all time, who influenced too many others to count and brought so much joy to millions of rock fans, with a few of our favorite memories of him. Please feel free to add your own in the comments: What’s your favorite Eddie Van Halen memory?
Van Halen was the perfect hard rock gateway band for a kid like me: not as rough as Metallica, and hardly as heady as Rush. If Van Halen were going to be rock stars, they were at least going to goddamn well enjoy it. David Lee Roth was the clown, but he could be as outlandish as he wanted because he had the solid, constantly smiling Eddie Van Halen backing him up; Dave’s vocals were amazing, but they still came in second to Eddie’s soaring guitar lines. My friends and I had the first four VH albums on near-constant rotation. Diver Down was kind of a step down, with only covers as standouts, but the band rebounded in a major way with 1984, offering one classic MTV video after another (“Jump,” “Panama”). For me, Van Halen peaked with that album’s “Hot For Teacher.” Alex Van Halen leads it off with a rock-solid drumbeat, which becomes a percussive launching pad for Eddie to set sail from, in a string of almost scalelike notes so fast that they sound like they’re 64ths. The song is basically just a series of epic Eddie guitar solos, bolstered by Dave’s one-offs (I have used the line “I don’t feel tardy” too many times to count) and a chorus that sounds almost bluesy before it sends you out into the rock stratosphere again. I was once so delighted to find “Hot For Teacher” on the jukebox at Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center, I played it three times in a row. I got some glares when round three kicked off, but I have zero regrets. When I think of Eddie, I think of him in that ugly red tux in the “Hot For Teacher” video trying to line dance with his bandmates, waving goodbye at the end in white gloves—and smiling, naturally. [Gwen Ihnat]
I think I was in the sixth grade when I saw Van Halen with David Lee Roth for the first time. (I believe Kool & The Gang opened for them.) It’s one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever seen. Although I was an 11-year-old kid still widening my taste, I was very familiar with their music, even the deep tracks considered “rare.” During the Midwest leg of their 2007-2008 tour, Eddie pulled out a very brief piece of “Donut City” for his solo. The way he seamlessly intertwined his usual line-up with this gem was mind-blowing, and I was ecstatic. Seeing Eddie play something I never thought I’d get to ever hear live was truly something. The man was an idol. [Angelica Cataldo]
I’ll always remember the video for “Poundcake,” which is pretty silly, all things considered. Not exactly one of Van Halen’s finest songs, it was nonetheless the one that introduced me to the band on my own as a grade-school kid watching MTV in hopes of seeming cool to my almost decade-older siblings who were in high school and had no time for anything they perceived as the least bit lame. But to me, it was revelatory: The song opened with the sound of a power drill revving up, and then it actually became part of the song. To a kid who was still mostly hewing the fourth-grade line, it was the awesomest thing I had ever heard. And given that Sammy Hagar is no David Lee Roth, the thing I clocked the most besides that was how much the guitar player smiled. This was rock ’n’ roll. There’s no smiling in rock ’n’ roll! But there was Eddie Van Halen, all grins as he played guitar parts I slowly realized were too difficult for most kids I knew to be able to cover. And that’s the main takeaway I’ll always have of the musician—a guy who was so happy to be doing what he loved, he couldn’t stop smiling. Personal demons or no, Eddie made a giant impact on this kid at an age when he was just learning what it was okay to be, and what it wasn’t. He made smiling and music of a piece; that’s huge. [Alex McLevy]
Van Halen was responsible for so much memorable music, but one of the things that I always found most badass (for lack of a less trite word) about Eddie was how little he cared about contributing to one of the best-selling singles of all time. It’s well-known that Van Halen provided the guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” but he actually never asked for compensation or credit for his part—even though it was more significant than coming in and playing a written piece of music. “It was 20 minutes of my life. I didn’t want anything for doing that,” he told Billboard in 2015. “I literally thought to myself, ‘Who is possibly going to know if I play on this kid’s record?’ So I went to the studio and listened to the song twice, and I didn’t like the section they wanted me to solo over. They wanted me to solo over the breakdown. I asked [Thriller producer] Quincy Jones to edit the chords underneath the solo. Then I could play the solo in the key of E, but it was the chords underneath that made the solo interesting.” Even just referring to Jackson as “this kid.” Badass. [Patrick Gomez]