When Edward Van Halen performed live, he looked like a twelve-year-old kid that just learned a bunch of new skateboard tricks. He was grinning the whole time while he coasted, (playing rhythm) then when it came time to do some tricks, time to shine (playing a lead), he would often hold up his index finger on his picking hand and look at the audience as if to say “Watch what I can do! Just watch and listen!”
He didn’t wear leather, try to look tough, or scowl at the audience in some ridiculous effort to convince the audience that he was a “badass.” He WAS the music. There was no pretense to what he did. Pretense was the furthest thing from his mind, yes?
It’s hard to overstate the influence that Edward had on the history of music, expression, technique, and technology. Of course consider his efforts on guitar; electric, AND acoustic. He was also a fine keyboard player. He played cello as well. (Did you know that?) He was an innovator in the construction and design of guitars, amplifiers, and pedals.
He learned to play, like many of the greatest players, by his wits, intuition, inspiration, and imagination. He didn’t read music at all. There was no need for that either. When he heard in his mind what he wanted to play, the guitars that existed did not suffice. So he built a guitar that would; Frankenstrat, built of “parts” that were worth, let’s say very little. He painted it himself and then on a whim put bicycle tape on it.
Van Halen, the band, very early on, played all over SO CAL, anywhere they could. Anywhere people would let them. At backyard parties that ended with cops showing up, and endless club dates, honing their chops. Gene Simmons produced a demo that didn’t end up being the trick. Then Van Halen, the album was released. Put it on and imagine you’re an accomplished guitar player in 1978. One of your player friends calls you and says “OMG, you HAVE TO HEAR THIS.” Side one track one, Running with the Devil.
Steve Vai describes:
Then the second track, a tiny space on the vinyl, 1 minute and 42 seconds. “Eruption.” What’s this? An attack on the senses. The tremolo picking. So much happening so quickly. Then just 57 seconds into the track something ELSE happens. “Wait. What? What’s happening? This is not possible.” Guitarists that developed their chops listening to Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and so on, could not understand, process, or transcribe this. It came to be known as “Tapping.”
Rick Beato describes:
Things had changed, forever.
It’s one thing to be VERY VERY GOOD at something. It’s another thing to develop COMPLETE MASTERY of an expression, an art form. It’s another thing entirely to re-invent how the thing, the expression, the art form is done. This is what Edward Van Halen rendered.
I’m reminded of Dog Town Z Boys, a fine film, narrated by Sean Penn, about the rowdy gang of youngsters that “invented” modern skateboarding over the course of a drought in CA in the 70’s that left many pools devoid of water. And…
Edward Van Halen in my mind is one of the 3 most important guitar players in the history of guitar.
The first, in chronological order, was Andres Segovia. When Andres Segovia began playing guitar, it was considered a “parlor” instrument; That is to say, to be played in the parlor, for sing-alongs and to accompany drinking and merriment. “Parlor” instruments were considered quite differently than “concert” instruments. “Concert” instruments were instruments to be taken seriously. These were the instruments of Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin, to be played in concert halls. Segovia changed that, by transcribing the works of classical composers and other major pieces for classical guitar. He played these works in large concert halls, to large audiences, completely acoustically of course, as there was no amplification. Imagine him filling these large “concert” halls with sound with just those fingers, the wood, and the strings of his guitar. After Segovia, the guitar was taken seriously as a “concert” instrument. For this, we owe Andres Segovia. Here is a snippet of his playing:
The second is Django Reinhardt. Django as a young man, traveled across Europe with his family in a Gypsy caravan. He developed a reputation at a very young age as a remarkably fine guitar player. Then one night a fire broke out in the Gypsy caravan. Django attempted to help others and recover what could be salvaged. In the effort, his fretting hand was badly burned. He lost the capacity to fret with two fingers of his fretting hand, so he did without. He persevered, and is now synonymous with the style of guitar playing known as Gypsy Jazz. He played most famously in The Hot Club of Paris, a band in which he was joined by the great violinist Stéphane Grappelli. There are no known recordings of Django playing with his four fretting fingers, only the two, index and middle. It defies belief. In this rare footage you can see his fretting hand:
The next is Edward Van Halen. And by now you know why I think so.
Many may not agree with my list.
Edward was not without his troubles. He overcame addiction and lead singer issues, bless him! The through line for Van Halen was always Edward and Alex, the brothers. It was never about the lead singer or anything else.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were never really a big part of the Van Halen story. But when they heard of his passing, they felt compelled to express their feelings and thoughts in music the very next day. They went into the studio and composed, performed, and recorded “Eddie.”
“Sometimes we don’t realize how deeply affected and connected we are to artists until the day they die,” Kiedis said in a statement. “Eddie Van Halen was a one of a kind. The day after his death Flea came into rehearsal with an emotional bass line. John, Chad, and I started playing along and pretty soon with all our hearts, a song in his honor effortlessly unfolded. It felt good to be sad and care so much about a person who had given so much to our lives. Although the song doesn’t speak to Eddie by name, it talks about his early days on the Sunset Strip and the rock ‘n’ roll tapestry that Van Halen painted on our minds. In the end, our song asks that you not remember Eddie for dying but for living his wildest dream.”
Edward at his best was a completely realized being. He wasn’t trying to be, or trying to become, something he was not. He manifested his destiny in this universe in a beautiful play of color and light… and sound.