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Eddie Van Halen


For a while in the 1980s Van Halen was both the biggest rock band and rock star on the planet. The band, named after the leader Eddie Van Halen and his brother Alex, became renowned because of Eddie’s scorching guitar solos and catchy keyboard playing. The band was one of the pioneers of the hair-metal genre that dominated rock during the decade of the 80s. Eddie is generally considered one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock n roll. Let’s take a closer look at the life and art of this complex man.
Born in the Netherlands in 1954 Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was the son of a Dutch saxophonist and an Indonesian mother, who moved to Pasadena, California at the age of eight. He was exposed to music from a very young age. His piano playing netted him multiple awards as a youth. Alex also played the piano as a young man but soon the brothers grew tired of tickling the ivory and picked up new instruments. While Alex learned to play the guitar, Eddie bought a drum set. Eddie gave up drumming after hearing Alex’s rendition of the drum solo in the song “Wipeout”. He was annoyed his older brother had more ability, so Eddie chose to learn the electric guitar. Rock n roll would never be the same.
Van Halen, originally known as Mammoth, was formed in 1972 in Pasadena. The band consisted of Eddie on lead guitar and vocals, Alex on drums and Mark Stone on bass. The band had no P.A. system of their own so they borrowed one from David Lee Roth (who had auditioned for the band but failed). Roth charged $10 a night for use of his P.A. and Eddie eventually figured he could save money by letting Diamond Dave, as he came to be known, into the band. The band soon changed bass players, from Mark Stone to Michael Anthony, and names, they switched from Mammoth reputedly because another band in the region also used that name.
In 1977 they got their big break when Gene Simmons of KISS saw one of Van Halen’s shows at a club in Hollywood. He financed the creation of their first demo tape. Soon after, Warner Bros. signed the band to a record deal, and by 1978 they were ready to release their first album. The self-titled debut album met with immediate success, soaring as high as #19 on Billboard’s chart of pop albums in 1978. Also the first single released by the band, a cover of the Kinks “You really got me”, reached the top-40 on Billboard’s chart.
The album was also greeted with praise from critics and guitar enthusiasts, as well as mainstream fans. In particular the soloing of Eddie got the attention of guitarists around the world. His solo on “Eruption” became especially influential for future guitarists. The cadenza near the end is generally considered a watershed moment in the development of fret-board tapping, a virtuoso style of playing that became popular in the 1980s. The solos “dive-bomb” pitches also led to wide spread use of bridge tremolo bars. This solo was rated as the second best of all-time by Rolling Stone magazine. The album has reached diamond status, attained by selling over 10 million copies, in the United States alone and was ranked as one of the top 500 ever by Rolling Stone magazine.
The band released four more albums in the four years that followed: Van Halen 2 (1979), Woman and Children First (1980), Fair Warning (1981), and Diver Down (1982). While these albums were successful by the standards of most bands they failed to match their original album in both sales and impact. Then in 1984 the band released the album MCMLXXXIV, usually shorthanded as 1984, which proved to be arguably one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. The band changed their sound for this album. A number of songs on the album, including the first single “Jump,” featured Eddie on the keyboard. “Jump” had a synthesized hook and none of the screeching guitar that the band had become famous for. However “Jump” was a hit as it became the first and only song of Van Halen’s that would hit #1 on the pop charts. It also netted the Van Halen boys a Grammy nomination. The album didn’t exclusively feature Eddie on the keyboard; you can still hear his scorching lead guitar on hits such as “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher.” The album rose all the way to #2 on the Billboard chart, only bested by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” (Eddie can be heard on this album too, he laid down the guitar riff on Michael’s hit “Beat It”). 1984 also achieved diamond status making Van Halen one of only six rock bands with two albums that sold over 10 million copies. The other five are: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, and Def Leppard.
Unfortunately this was the beginning of the end for the Roth era band. Tensions that had been building between the lead singer and lead guitarist for years; finally came to a head in 1985 and Diamond Dave left the band to pursue a solo career. The rest of the band stayed together and they brought in former Montrose singer Sammy Hagar to do lead vocals. Van Hagar, as it was dubbed, was somewhat successful but failed to duplicate the success of the Roth years. Eddie’s keyboard playing became a permanent fixture during these years as the band drifted farther from its hard rock roots. Hagar left the band in 1996 and the position of lead singer has been in flux for over a decade.
Eddie Van Halen’s legacy is as one of the most technically flawless guitarists to ever handle a pick. His band had a large impact on the world of rock music but arguably the biggest impact Eddie made was on future guitarists who would imitate his innovative style. 
Eddie’s inspiration for learning the guitar came from his brother Alex, specifically to best Alex at something. He spent hours trying to emulate guitarists of the 60s, most notably Eric Clapton. He has claimed by the time he was 14 he could play all of Clapton’s solos, from the time he was in Cream, almost exactly. Eddie spent hours upon hours a day practicing. As he told Guitar World magazine in 1996, “Practice. I used to sit on the edge of my bed with a six-pack of Schlitz Malt Talls. My brother would go out at 7pm to party and get laid, and when he'd come back at 3am, I would still be sitting in the same place, playing guitar. I did that for years… I still do that.” Other guitarists that Eddie has credited with influencing him include Queen guitarist Brian May and fusion guitarist Allen Holdsworth.
Eddie’s approach to the guitar involves several distinctive components. His innovative use of two-hand tapping, like in “Eruption”, natural and artificial harmonics, and tremolo picking combining with his rhythmic sensibility and melodic approach is what makes him a guitar legend. Eddie’s tapping technique, in which he uses both hands on the guitar neck, is his most well known attribute as a guitarist. Contrary to popular belief Eddie did not invent this technique, it was known to jazz guitarist as early as the 1950s. But he did popularize it in rock music. Ritchie Blackmore stated in an interview with Guitar World that he recalls seeing a man named Harvey Mandel “tap” in 1968. Harvey Mandel was the tutor for one of Eddie’s boyhood friends, Terry Kilgore, which is one theory on where EVH learned to tap. Another theory presented by KISS guitarist Ace Frehley is that Van Halen started tapping after watching him perform the technique on stage around 1975. One fact that seems to support this assertion is that demos of Eruption dated in 1976 don’t feature tapping though that changed by the time the track was recorded in 1978. In any case Eddie did a lot to refine the technique, to wit he is believed to be the first person to use a technique referred to as tapping harmonics, he holds the pick between his thumb and middle fingers which leaves his index finger free to tap and makes it easy to switch from tapping to picking.
Another unique aspect of Eddie’s playing is the tone his licks generate. Van Halen’s unique sound is generated by using a stock 100-watt Marshall amp, a Variac, and a “Frankenstrat” guitar. The “Frankenstrat” is Eddie’s name for the guitar that he constructed from a Charvel factory body and neck, a vintage Gibson P.A.F. humbucker pickup sealed in surfboard wax (to reduce microphone feedback), a pre-CBS Fender tremolo bridge, and a single volume control. The now famous single pickup, single volume knob guitar configuration was arrived at due to Van Halen's lack of knowledge in electronic circuitry and his failure to find a decent bridge and neck pick-up combination. The “Frankenstrat” has become one of the most famous guitars in rock history.
Different people associated with Van Halen have claimed that his amp is either completely stock, or has been changed significantly. It is most likely that Eddie used a stock amp for Van Halen and then made significant alterations before releasing Van Halen 2. There is some confusion about Van Halen’s decision to use a Variac. It is a widely held misconception that the presence of a Variac reduces the amount of sound the amp can produce. It reduces the amount of sound the amp can produce without distorting. The presence of the Variac is probably intended to produce distortion at a lower volume level.
A crucial part of Van Halen’s sound is his use of the Floyd Rose fulcrum vibrato for electric guitars. Developed in the mid-20th century, early versions of this device allowed the guitarist to impart a vibrato to a chord or single string via movement of the bar with the picking hand. Eddie Van Halen would combine with Rose to design changes to his original device. Van Halen also pioneered the use of the Trans-Term system on the Steinberger line of guitars during the Van Hagar years. The Trans-Term system allows for the effect of an instant “capo”, increasing the pitch of all strings up to a minor third or all the way down to a perfect fourth.
To many people Eddie Van Halen is the face of 80s rock. He forever changed the way electric guitarists will play their instruments and is now recognized as living, breathing rock royalty.



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