What I Learned from Eddie Van Halen

Like everybody else, I’ve been reflecting on the loss of Eddie Van Halen. Wasn’t a huge fan but virtually every rock guitarist from 1978 on was influenced by him.


Much has been said about his innovations and impact on the art of rock guitar. So I’m going to dig deeper.


Innovation comes from curiosity. He was a curious individual, always exploring and refining. Not content to stick with his original iconic “Frankenstein” guitar, he would go on to work with several guitar makers to create signature guitars. We are all born with curiosity, but it appears to get drummed out of the majority of us by the time we hit puberty. The whole guitar community benefited from him not losing his.


He was also a visionary. Other than Clapton, he claims to have no influence. And I believe him. He had a singular, unique, unprecedented approach to rock guitar that blew everyone’s minds. He had the healthy artistic selfishness to know that allowed him to do whatever he pleased. Many players, myself included, would try to find approval/acceptance by first doing what’s been established already.


And his vision came from his outside-the-box imagination. His creativity literally drove him to stretch the vocabulary of what was possible on guitar. It takes the rarest of an artist to dream up something so radical out nothing.


Finally, when he played what he expressed was this unbridled joy of life. Listen to how his notes pour out in flourish. There is no holding back in this man, at least in his elements. There is a reason why many can study his technique but few can play like him. To do what he did, first you have to have that joy of life inside. Then spend so much time with the instrument to be able to channel that freely. And you need to have the freedom and audacity to play what comes from the heart, the very deepest part. Few have all three parts down like he did.


It doesn’t happen often. But history remembers these towering figures that come and forever change how we think of something. Eddie was such a figure. Every rock guitarist is forever indebted to Eddie.