Guitars may have six strings, but in Eddie Van Halen’s hands they could produce a near infinite array of sounds.
KISS frontman Gene Simmons remembers exactly when he first heard that for himself — on a fateful night in October 1976 at the Starwood Club in Hollywood. Already a rock star, Simmons was enjoying the perks of the VIP section of the balcony when an unheralded band took the stage.
“I wasn’t there for Van Halen, I never heard of Van Halen,” Simmons recalled to NBC News. “I went to see another group, but as soon as they hit the stage, I couldn’t believe all that music coming out of one guitar.
“I was in the middle of paying attention to members of the opposite sex when I heard this sound,” said Simmons. “‘What’s that?’ And while people were crowding around, I just pushed everybody aside and went to the front of the railing, and there’s (David Lee) Roth flying up in the air, defying gravity, and then it was time for the solo. Eddie stepped up. Just one guitar player playing live making a symphony of guitar sounds — and beautifully.”
Simmons signed Van Halen on the spot and flew the band to New York to record a demo album. In 1978, Warner Bros. signed Van Halen to a contract and the rest of the world would soon hear those symphonic guitar sounds for themselves.
Embodying a raw, guitar-driven sound that provided a contrast to the overly polished disco and rock tunes that were dominating the airwaves at the time, Van Halen’s self-titled debut upended the rock world with the force of one of Roth's karate kicks.
With all due respect to the singer's swagger and the rhythm section of Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony, though, the sound that everyone was talking about was that guitar. Nobody attacked a fretboard with the speed and precision of Eddie Van Halen — and judging from his trademark grin during live performances, no one could have been happier doing it.
That smile was contagious.
“I was standing in my Berkeley apartment with my guitar on playing along to the radio when ‘Eruption’ came though the speakers,” fellow guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani said by email. “It took my breath away. It still has that effect on me today. Every time I listen to Eddie play ,it’s like hearing him for the first time.
“He was truly remarkable, and the greatest guitarist of my generation.”
That generation is now grieving. Van Halen, 65, died Tuesday five years after being diagnosed with cancer, leaving behind millions of devastated fans — including all those rockers who followed him onto the stage.
When a friend called to tell him of Van Halen’s death on Tuesday, guitarist Parris Mayhew happened to be wearing a Van Halen T-shirt. It was appropriate because the co-founder of the Cro-Mags and guitarist for Aggros credits his idol for inspiring him to pick up a guitar 42 years ago.
“The world is a lot less everything today,” Mayhew said. “The guy had an impact on me that has never diminished, from the 14-year-old me in the front row at the Palladium in NYC rocking my brains out, to this day as I sit at my desk coincidentally wearing a Van Halen T-shirt.”
Born on Jan. 26, 1955, in the Netherlands, Van Halen emigrated with his family to Pasadena, Calif., in the early ‘60s. He and his younger brother, Alex, inherited a passion for music from their father, a professional clarinet and saxophone player.
Originally, Eddie gravitated toward the drums, with Alex playing guitar, before they switched instruments to form the band Mammoth in 1972. With Roth and Anthony in the fold, the band soon changed names and started forging an identity on the Hollywood club scene.
At the time, Lita Ford was in the pioneering all-female punk band The Runaways, who played the same circuit. She’d see this smiling wunderkind and his band jamming at backyard parties in Pasadena, immediately recognizable by his guitar with those jury-rigged pickups.
“They were poor, they didn’t have a lot of equipment,” said Ford, laughing at the memory. “But Edward would always manage to wire something together. He would always have wires hanging out of his guitar and things weren’t screwed together right. He was a mad scientist with tight pants. You know what, dude? If you don’t blow up the entire neighborhood, then it’s going to work.”
From the first riff of the first song on their first album, it was apparent everything was going to work. Years before he would go on to RIP magazine, Lonn M. Friend heard "Running With the Devil" for the first time in his car while scrambling to find a parking spot on the UCLA campus so he could be in time to register for his junior-year classes.
"I'm nervous and this sound comes on the radio, I'm listening to KMET 94.7, and it goes, 'mmm mmm,' and then there's this bass-line like a Tyrannosaurus Rex approaching. Then comes the riff.
"So, I'm mesmerized in my car. I'm frozen. I'm going to be late to register for classes, but I can't take my ear away from this song."
Even before Friend became a professional music journalist, it was apparent that Van Halen's fiddling with his instrument produced the most seismic shift forward for rock guitar since Hendrix.
“His soloing techniques may have gotten the lion’s share of attention (understandable, as they were nothing short of revolutionary),” said guitarist Alex Skolnick of Testament and the Alex Skolnick Trio, "yet Eddie was a true renaissance man in every aspect of music he approached: riffing, songwriting, arrangement, tone, even fashion.
“After all, his striped patterns — first applied to his guitars, later jumpsuits, sneakers and other clothing items — are one of the most easily identifiable images in music. He changed our sound. He changed our look. He changed our technique. He raised standards of playing for musicians of all styles and genres and will continue to do so for many years to come.”
But it doesn't take a serious musician to appreciate the Van Halen sound. What set the guitarist apart from contemporaries was the way he wielded his pen before even picking up his instrument.
“Everyone will say he's a great guitar player, of course, but I think the other important thing is he was a great songwriter and a great producer," said Eddie Trunk, host of TrunkNation on SiriusXM Radio. "You could be the greatest guitar player in the world but if you don't have great songs that go with it."
Songs great enough to propel Van Halen to superstardom with the band's sixth album, "1984." Their looks and hooks were perfect for MTV airplay, and the quartet mined the reach of MTV with quirky videos that never seemed to drop out of rotation that year. Oddly, Van Halen's biggest hit, "Jump," a song that spent five weeks as the No. 1 song on the Billboard charts, featured Eddie on the keyboard.
By then he was already rock royalty. In 1981, he married sitcom star Valerie Bertinelli, the couple had a son, Wolfgang and divorced a decade later. Their child would go into the Van Halen family business as a teen, replacing Anthony on bass in 2006.
The band members' egos swelled almost as large as the arenas they sold out as the hits piled up. Roth left the band amid a feud with the guitarist in 1985, but Van Halen didn't miss a beat with the debut of his successor, the raspy voiced Sammy Hagar, on the "5150" album the following year.
In fact, "5150" would earn Van Halen its first No. 1 spot on the Billboard 100 chart, a feat the band would repeat four more times in a row. ("1984" made it to No. 2, blocked by the juggernaut known as Michael Jackson's "Thriller.")
Celebrity spouse aside, Eddie Van Halen avoided many of the ostentatious trappings of being a celebrity.
Simmons recalls attending a concert with Van Halen at Long Beach Arena in the early '80s — a rising act called Metallica.
"After the show I was waiting for my limo, schmimo, and all that rock star pandering, and he said, 'Hey man, I got my jeep, I’ll drive you home,'' said Simmons. "I said, 'OK,' so I jumped in this jeep that looks like it’s going to fall apart, like a jalopy. It didn’t have side doors.
"I buckled in. I was f--ing scared s---less. And he was driving literally over 100 miles an hour with no doors on the side of his jeep. I asked him to slow down, and he said, 'Why?'"
Van Halen didn't do anything slowly. He partook liberally of the rock-star lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock n' roll from the first notes of his career. He credited his father for both his love of music and his love of alcohol.
“I don’t mean to blame my dad, but when I started playing in front of people, I’d get so damn nervous,” Van Halen told Esquire magazine in 2012. “I asked him, ‘Dad, how do you do it?’ That’s when he handed me the cigarette and the drink. And I go, 'Oh, this is good! It works!' For so long, it really did work.”
Nothing, however, was as important to him as the tunes. Among his many contributions to music history, Van Halen produced the memorable solo on Michael Jackson's 1983 hit "Beat It." When Ford got hired to help the pop star rehearse for a tour in the early '90s, she went to her buddy for advice on how to play his famous solo.
"I went to his house and I said, 'Hey, show me exactly how it goes because I want to do a good job,'" Ford said. "He looks at me and says, 'Ah, S---, Lita, it’s just C, D to E…' I’m like, 'Uh, OK, got it.' He was just matter of the fact.
"He even gave me one of his Music Man guitars to play for 'Beat It,'" added Ford. "I picked it up, and said, 'Oh my God, this plays so easy!' He says, 'Yeah, why make it any harder than it already is?'"
Ford said she plans to pull out the Music Man guitar, which she still keeps at home, and strum a few tunes in her late friend's memory.
Van Halen made even the most technically difficult sound easy right through the band's last show, at the Hollywood Bowl in 2015.
Simmons said he can keep reminiscing about how great Eddie Van Halen was as a person and as a guitarist, but Tuesday night he just wanted to listen.
“The best homage that you and I and everyone else can give Eddie and Alex and the guys is to shut up and put on some Van Halen music,” Simmons said.
CORRECTION: (October 7, 3:15 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the first name of the original bassist in Van Halen. He is Michael Anthony, not Mark.