How’s this for praise? The authoritative All Music Guide describes Eddie Van Halen as “second only to Jimi Hendrix… undoubtedly one of the most influential, original, and talented rock guitarists of the 20th century.” Starting with the 1978 eponymous debut, Van Halen rewrote the entire book on what an electric guitar could do. Within six months Van Halen was certified platinum and providing the template for all other rock bands to follow. Even established bands would now have to reconsider what audiences expected from a lead guitarist.
Born January 26, 1955 in the Netherlands, Eddie Van Halen immigrated to the U.S. in 1967. The son of a musician (his father played saxophone, clarinet and piano), both he and his brother Alex took piano lessons at an early age. Eddie began playing drums while Alex took up the guitar. They soon switched roles when it became apparent what their respective talents were. Eddie’s early guitar influences included the hard rock guitar work of Cream and Led Zeppelin. He claimed to have learned note for note nearly every one of Eric Clapton’s guitar solos in Cream, while he identified himself with Jimmy Page’s “reckless-abandon” approach to guitar.
Growing up in L.A. the Van Halen brothers could be found playing a mix of covers and originals in backyards and clubs. Their first band, Mammoth had Mark Stone on bass and Alex on drums while Eddie fronted the band with vocals and guitar. They had no PA and rented one from singer David Lee Roth for ten dollars a night. Eddie found himself unhappy as lead vocalist and, in a stroke of artistic and budgeting genius, asked Roth to join the band. Stone wound up being replaced by bassist Michael Anthony and (at Roth’s suggestion), the band’s named changed to Van Halen.
The group caught a big break when KISS bassist Gene Simmons saw them live. He was so impressed that he financed a recording session and on the strength of his recommendation the band was signed to Warner Brothers, a label they stayed with for over thirty-five years.
Their 1978 debut album, Van Halen, features the songs “Runnin’ With The Devil,” a cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” “Jamie’s Cryin'” and “Ain’t Talkin’ “˜Bout Love.” The album’s second track, “Eruption,” serves as Eddie’s electrifying signature song. This one minute forty three second instrumental track showcases Eddie’s prodigious talents as a soloist. The All Music Guide praises “Eruption” for producing “sounds that were unimagined before this album, and they still sound nearly inconceivable.” From the late seventies and all through the eighties “Eruption” would play a big role in popularizing the tapping technique of soloing. Eddie’s guitar talents had already found many admirers, including his own inspirational hero Jimmy Page who said, “For my money, Eddie Van Halen’s the first significant new kid on the block. Very dazzling.”
Van Halen cemented the group’s reputation as “the best bar band in the world” by selling over 10 million copies, making it one of the biggest selling debut albums in rock history. Van Halen II, 1979’s appropriately titled sequel. proved an excellent followup, by offering more of the same and then some. Starting off with a super charged cover of “You’re No Good.” Eddie showcases his pyrotechnical guitar ability also works on an acoustic guitar with the instrumental “Spanish Fly.” And what Van Halen album would be complete without a few party anthems? “Beautiful Girls” and “Dance the Night Away” kept the party atmosphere going – the latter gave the band their first top twenty single.
With an air of confidence from their early successes the band swaggered into the studio to record their next album, Women and Children First (1980). Forgoing a cover song this time, the album was recorded live in single takes, with only minimal overdubs. The minor flubs you can hear only add to the rock and roll exuberance of songs like “And The Cradle Will Rock…” “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Take Your Whiskey Home”.
By their third album, Fair Warning (1981), inner tensions were starting to dominate the band’s output. Singer David Lee Roth was trying to steer the band in a more commercial direction while Eddie wanted to be taken seriously as a musician. Neither Fair Warning or it’s followup, Diver Down (1982), produced any significant hits for the band. Fair Warning was a decidedly dark album with rockers like “Unchained” while Diver Down reveled in its lightness. The album was recorded in twelve days and was mostly highlighted by cover songs, including the Kinks’ “Where Have All The Good Times Gone,” the soul number “Dancing In The Street” and Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” It’s also more of a family affair with Eddie and Alex’s Dad playing clarinet on the song “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now).”
Now that it sounded like the band was having fun again, they were ready for their biggest album to date. Released on New Year’s Day of that year, 1984 was to be their last album with David Lee Roth as lead singer. At the time a lot was made of the heavy use of synthesizers, which the band had been using since Women and Children First. Perhaps the hype over electronic instruments was because Van Halen was crossing over to pop audiences for the first time. “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher” were popular MTV favorites, while “Jump” became one of the most played songs of the year and one the top rock songs of the decade. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All Music Guide said, it’s probably for the best that Roth left the band after this album. They never could have topped it.
1984 halted at number two on the charts, the top spot taken up by Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Eddie had a role in the making of that blockbuster album as well, playing the uncredited guitar solo on the song “Beat It.” He recorded the solo free of charge and was prevented from appearing in the music video by his record company.
According to the website Classic Van Halen: “All was not well within the band… Rising tensions between Roth and the other band members were increasingly evident; on their 1984 world tour the band didn’t even play on the same stage, but rather performed on four separate platforms, symbolic of the escalating rift among its members.” Roth was already enjoying success as a solo star on MTV and the band soon moved on without him.
In 1985 the Van Halen brand started a new phase with replacement singer Sammy Hagar. Ignoring the record company’s suggestion that they change their name, Van Halen pushed forward with a new album 5150 (1986). The new songs with Hagar were noticeably different – 5150 contianed more ballads and love songs than any previous Van Halen album.
Additionally, Roth wasn’t the only collaborator the band had lost. Ted Templeman, who’d produced all of their albums to date, left to produce Roth’s solo album Eat “˜Em and Smile (1986). With a new producer, Van Halen’s guitar sound was definitely different. On the Templeman-produced albums Eddie’s guitar was always prominent placed in the mix and usually pushed to the left channel to simulate a live sound. The “new” Van Halen sound offered a more balanced mix and there were decidely mixed opinions about the results, both with the critics and with the group’s audience.
One interesting thing that Hagar brought to the new Van Halen was his solid guitar playing ability, which gave Eddie more leeway to use keyboards during live performances. Perhaps because of his early training in piano, Eddie was always striving for musical credibility, and with Roth’s antics behind them the world’s biggest party band could seek out more respectability. Hagar’s run of albums was certainly not short lived, although 5150 and its followup OU812 (1988) were not well received by the critics. Robert Christgau of The Village Voice suggested that “trading Dave for Sammy sure wrecked their shot at Led Zep of the “˜80s.” With Dave the music sounded like a party, with Sammy the songs sounded like hard work.
By now Van Halen were no longer being touted as the best bar band in the world, instead they were routinely knocked for having “the most predictable rhythm section in rock.” They reconciled with producer Ted Templeman who joined them For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991). The album produced the most recognizable Van Halen hit of the Hagar era – “Right Now.” They released a live album, Right Here Right Now in 1993, and one more studio album Balance in 1995. They contributed two songs – Human’s Being and Respect the Wind – to the soundtrack for the film Twister.
In 1996 the band released Best of Volume I, a hits compilation featured songs from both Roth and Hagar. The inclusion of two new songs with Van Halen’s original singer effectively marked Hagar’s departure from the band for the time being. Roth was only back on the band briefly before an appearance at the MTV Music Awards went awry and he was out again. Former Extreme singer Gary Cherone was recruited as the next new singer for Van Halen III in 1998. Roth and Hagar had each served eleven years in the band. Van Halen III was Van Halen’s eleventh and final album.
In the summer of 2004 the band toured with Hagar again. In 2006 Michael Anthony was replaced by Eddie’s son Wolfgang on bass. The band then reunited with Roth and managed to tour successfully without falling out again. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Today Eddie is ranked 8th on Rolling Stone’s list of Top 100 Guitarists. The song that started it all, “Eruption,” was voted #2 on Guitar World magazines 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.
In 2012 fans had good reason to be excited. Van Halen released a new album with David Lee Roth called “A Different Kind of Truth.” They also undertook a 44 city North American Tour. As Sammy Hagar said in a 2011 interview for Rolling Stone, “He really needs to be more prolific because we need more great music out there. There’s a lot of bad music out there. We need guys like Eddie Van Halen.”