On The Passing of Eddie Van Halen

photo: Carl Lender

There is a lot one can say about the passing of Eddie Van Halen, and virtually none of it is relevant to country music. But it’s all relevant. If you grew up in the late 70’s, 80’s or early 90’s, or rock music is in any way important to your little universe and Van Halen doesn’t loom large in it, you missed out on the preeminent American experience.

Lead guitar players are usually like the wide receivers of music. Mouthy, flashy, always feeling like they should be the center of attention, taking away from the team aspect that is important to sports, and music. But Eddie Van Halen was an introvert, even though arguably, he was the best to ever play the position. David Lee Roth was all about making rock ‘n roll into a spectacle. Eddie Van Halen preferred letting the music speak for itself.

Eddie said he had only one guitar influence, and that was Eric Clapton. Beyond that, he figured it all out on his own. That’s how he was so innovative, as opposed to imitative like so many of the guitar players who came before and after him, as skilled and talented as they may be. People love to to point to the importance of taste over technique when talking about guitar playing. Who who you rather listen to play a solo? Keith Richards, or Joe Satriani? With Eddie Van Halen, you could listen to both. He’d blow your doors off, while making you weep.

Classically trained, Eddie Van Halen’s brilliance brought conversations surrounding rock guitarists into the same realm as the classical maestros whose talent, vision, and influence still resonate centuries beyond their own, just as Eddie’s will. Ludwig Van Beethoven. Johann Sebastian Bach. His guitar work did for rock music what the lyrics of Hank Williams did for country. It took something that many regarded as vapid entertainment—hokum for the poorly heeled—and made it into a legitimate art form.

One of the most interesting moments and anecdotes about Eddie Van Halen surrounds the band’s album 1984. Here was Eddie, the undisputed guitar God of the time and at the top of his game who was worshiped far and wide . . . and he was colossally bored with the instrument, and just six years into his career. But you can’t blame him. He had mastered it. So what does the greatest guitar player of the generation do? He barricades himself in a makeshift studio in his back yard and starts messing around with synthesizers. The result is what you hear at the beginning of the 1984 record, leading into their gargantuan single, “Jump.” It was scandalous coming from the King of guitar. It also worked. It became the band’s most successful record.

There are a lot of people much more informed to speak about the form and influence of Eddie Van Halen than some country writer, and why he was so crucial to rock music. They can diagram his finger tapping technique and his pentatonic brilliance, and delve into gear talk, and the significance of bringing back the growl in rock music via tube amps and overdrive pedals when New Wave was looking to drop a sedative in the rock realm.

But when even dyed-in-the-wool country writers and fans feel so rocked by the word of the passing of a rock guitarist that they have to take a long pause and collect their thoughts, that’s how you know the kind of footprint Eddie Van Halen left on this world.

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