Eddie Van Halen 1955-2020: The Ultimate Rock Star
Eddie Van Halen was the greatest guitar player in the history of rock music…no matter who was behind the microphone in his band. His impact even beyond music was immeasurable.
Eddie Van Halen – The Ultimate Rock Star
Not many musicians can take that “ultimate rock star” title…the image, the persona, and the impact.
Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page embodied it all as much as anyone, but neither of them did it through virtuosity on an electric guitar. They were capable players who made their marks as songwriters more than anything else.
What made Eddie Van Halen so special was that he excelled at both. Eddie’s strength wasn’t just coaxing otherworldly sounds out of a guitar. It was doing so in a tasteful way…making the unusual sounds and technical brilliance perfectly fit the song.
He may have been extraordinarily gifted with a musical ear, but what he accomplished musically took more than talent. You have to practice a lot to be as good at playing guitar as Eddie was…and you have to put some serious time in a studio to make songs sound as great as Van Halen’s did.
They may have played in different styles and appealed to different rock audiences, but the recently departed Neil Peart and Eddie Van Halen were two of a kind. Their strength was not just astounding technical skill. It was what they added to the songs with that skill. Eddie’s guitar playing made mediocre songs good and good songs great.
That is, ultimately, what makes a rock star Hall of Fame-worthy, if I were to decide who was worthy…and I’m certain I’d do a better job of it than the Hall’s crop of judges, who for some idiotic reason thought that Van Morrison and Jefferson Airplane deserved induction before Chicago or Rush did.
How To Get A Rush Fan To Like Van Halen
I barely knew anything about Van Halen before I entered high school in 1982. At the time their latest album was “Diver Down”, and I may have been slightly familiar with “Eruption” and “Dance The Night Away” or something. I don’t really remember.
It was my high school friend Greg Mitchell who played “Little Guitars” and “Cathedral” for me, jolting me into realizing that Eddie’s skills stretched beyond this party band’s reputation. This guy could play, and he could compose too. Mitchell knew what to play for a Rush fan.
Some of my favorite Van Halen tracks are the little solo pieces of Eddie’s…like “Cathedral”, “316” from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, the opening synthesizer intro in 1984, and of course, “Eruption”. It’s no small trick to make little pieces of serious musicianship and artistry fit on records from a band that never seemed to take anything seriously.
I’ve never been a worshiper of any other members of Van Halen. Alex could play fast and had a great rock drum sound, but his drum parts weren’t all that imaginative, and his solo…at least, the one time I saw Van Halen live…was nothing special. Michael Anthony isn’t worth mentioning in any discussion of great rock bass players; he probably contributed more with his backing vocals than with anything he did on a bass guitar. And the revolving door of lead singers for Van Halen…take your pick…needed only to act like rock and rollers. Any reasonably decent singer on the microphone would have been enough, in this scribe’s humble opinion.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful to Eddie’s bandmates. David Lee Roth possibly excepted, they were smart enough to perform to their abilities and let their superhuman guitar player write the songs and steal the show. Mike and Alex probably deserve credit for recognizing their limitations. Trying to steal the spotlight from Eddie Van Halen would be like Denny Laine leaving Wings because he felt he was a greater talent than Paul McCartney.
Who knows…it may be a little harder than it looks to enjoy performing when you know 98% of the audience isn’t there to see you.
Eddie may have been the only exceptional artist in Van Halen, but it was enough.
Was Eddie Van Halen The Greatest Rock Guitar Player Ever?
Even if it’s a subjective question, it’s not difficult to make the case for Eddie as the best rock guitar player ever, especially when you talk about the whole package.
After all, what actually makes a great guitar player? Technical ability and precision? Songwriting and arranging capability? Live performance? Influencing a generation of guitar players? When it came to being a complete rock star, Eddie was that great, head and shoulders above the guitar heroes of his day or any day.
Maybe the best way to gauge whether Eddie Van Halen was the best ever is to ask the question: who was better?
Here are some names I can think of and what I think…and I am no guitar player, so take this for what it’s worth – the opinion of a music fan:
Jeff Beck. This is a tough one for me, because I’m a huge Beck fan, and he’s a true genius and innovator who made great music to go along with his insane playing. But ultimately, I would argue that Eddie played with more precision, especially on stage, and listening to both artists, I focus more on the guitar playing more when listening to Van Halen…not much, but a bit more.
Don’t make me ponder this one. I thought Eddie was better both technically and certainly so on a songwriting level (Beck didn’t compose most of his music), which I hate to admit as a Beck devotee.
Eric Clapton. Clapton was a great blues artist, but ultimately he was probably overrated as a guitar player. As a musician friend of mine put it, “I have no patience for a guy who’s proud to call himself ‘Slowhand’”. He was great for his genre, and I love a lot of Clapton performances…it’s no easy thing to upstage a Beatle, but “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is brilliant because of him. But Slowhand couldn’t keep up with Eddie on a rock stage.
Joe Satriani. Again, I love Satch and I might even say that he’s technically better than just about everybody, even Eddie. The dude can shred. But all things considered, with all due respect to Satch’s music, which I like, he isn’t in Eddie’s league on a songwriting level and making a guitar part fit a song. Technically better than Eddie? Probably. Musically? Not even close.
Steve Vai. Like his mentor Satch, Vai is also superbly skilled, which was, of course, why he was featured on David Lee Roth’s solo records after Dave’s contentious split with VH. But while Vai has put out some decent solo music, he also isn’t in Eddie’s world on a songwriting level.
Yngwie Malmsteen. Yeah, the guy could play a million notes a second. But comparing Alcatrazz to Van Halen brings to mind David Letterman’s comparison of Buddy Biancalana to Pete Rose. Still, Yngwie did inspire this utterly awesome Onion headline.
Jimmy Page. There was no one better in the history of rock than Page when it came to composing musical hooks. But when comparing the two, it’s the inverse of comparing Joe Satriani or Steve Vai to Eddie…technically, Jimmy was nowhere near as proficient with an axe. Jimmy might win as a composer, but not by very much. Eddie wins hands down on technical skill and precision.
Jimi Hendrix. Jimi did a million things on a guitar that no one ever thought of, and I love a lot of Hendrix songs…I don’t think any artist’s work lent itself to covers better. But like with Clapton, I wouldn’t argue that Jimi was better than Eddie on many levels, except possibly live performance. Eddie was a big fan of Jimi, so that counts for something, but I’d argue Eddie outperformed Jimi overall.
Slash. I liked Slash in Guns-N-Roses and even more in Velvet Revolver. He’s been a part of some truly killer rock numbers. But while he’s very good, Slash doesn’t really stand out as either a one of a kind guitar player or someone with so much impact on aspiring players. Not even really a close argument.
George Harrison. He wasn’t even the best guitar player in the Beatles. Next.
Stevie Ray Vaughan. Like Clapton, Stevie Ray was another player who was great for his genre, and I am a huge fan of his too. But ultimately he falls short of Eddie on imagination…let’s face it, Stevie’s solos could get a little repetitive at times…and he wasn’t the technical wizard that Eddie was, although he was pretty darn good. SRV is one of the greatest blues rock artists ever, but he wasn’t a better guitar player than Eddie.
Allan Holdsworth. Don’t know who Allan Holdsworth is? Well, you should if you’re reading this…because Eddie himself pronounced Holdsworth to be the best. I’m including him in this discussion for that reason. Eddie wasn’t the only one who thought no one could touch Allan on a guitar. But as his lifelong dues-paying career showed, Holdsworth played music for a small niche, and his focus was more on playing than songwriting. Which is fine, even admirable in his case, but we’re talking about the whole shebang here.
(Still, I love the Atavachron album…and it’s still the best exhibit of the SynthAxe, an instrument I would have loved to have seen Eddie take up.)
Was Van Halen Better With Dave or Sammy?
As someone who owns just about every VH studio album, here’s my humble opinion…which was, judging by record sales, shared by many: it didn’t effing matter who was behind the microphone.
Okay, maybe the Gary Cherone era wasn’t Van Halen’s finest hour, but one could argue that the band had run out of gas by that point. It happens to many great artists, especially the ones who fully embrace the drinking and drugs lifestyle as they did.
It’s not that Diamond Dave and the Red Rocker didn’t have their merits as performers, but as the 5150 album proved…and quite easily I would add…Eddie was the genius behind Van Halen.
I love 5150, because I remember well when it was released and what a statement it was. That statement was: F*** you, Dave. We’ll be just fine without you. As much as Dave seemed to take credit for the band’s enormous success, it was kind of fun to see him deflated.
The Roth split from Van Halen was great fodder for the music press, especially when Dave and Eddie were trading barbs. Forgive me for not remembering the sources…Circus magazine might have been one…but I remember Eddie being quoted saying “Twelve years of my life, putting up with his bullshit.” Dave’s response: “Poor little Eddie Van Halen. Forced to live a lie.”
Dave also took a shot at Sammy, saying that Sammy will be singing “Jump” on stage, and that he would never sing a Sammy Hagar song. To which Sammy responded by handing the microphone to an audience member at a show before the band performed “Jump”, telling him, “Any old schmo could sing this song.”
It was fun for all of us to watch, I suppose. Music fans seem to enjoy dysfunction, maybe because we love to argue who was most important to our favorite acts. As recently as 2013, Paul McCartney has told the world to stop blaming Yoko for the Beatles’ demise. David Gilmour and Roger Waters went at it pretty spiritedly after Waters’ departure from Pink Floyd and Gilmour’s decision to keep the band going without him. But it probably wasn’t as fun for the band members. Later Eddie would admit that he was in tears when Dave left the group.
But the band soldiered on with what was arguably their best album at the time, and for another three albums afterward Eddie continued to improve, both as a songwriter and guitar player…which was a pretty high bar. As any Van Halen fan who remembers it could tell you, the band didn’t miss a beat when Dave departed.
Have the argument all you want whether VH was better with either singer. To this fan, it’s moot. It’s far easier to argue that David Lee Roth would never have been heard of without Eddie working his otherworldly magic on the same stage. Before replacing Roth in Van Halen, Sammy Hagar’s big radio staples were “Three Lock Box” and “I Can’t Drive 55”. The guy didn’t exactly have a Hall of Fame career without Eddie wailing on a guitar next to him.
I don’t prefer the Dave or Sammy version of Van Halen. I love songs from both eras. Because both eras feature the sound of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar.
Eddie Treated Michael Anthony Badly? Really?
I’ve read a lot in the past few days that paints an unflattering picture of how the Van Halen brothers treated bassist Michael Anthony…cutting him out of royalties, treating him like a paid session musician, and generally dismissing his contribution to the band. Sammy Hagar, from what I’ve read, was particularly disgruntled about this in his tell-all autobiography.
I imagine that the reaction, if you’re a Van Halen fan anyway, is supposed to be: That’s disgraceful! Michael Anthony’s backing vocals were a key part of their sound! He was there from the beginning! What a jerk Eddie is!
Here’s my reaction.
Michael Anthony was, at best, a marginal bass guitar player. He couldn’t measure up to a Geddy Lee or a Flea. He also contributed next to zero compositions to Van Halen’s records. If he was treated as a hired gun in the band’s later years, it’s likely Eddie could have hired a much more skilled player for the same amount of money.
When I read articles on the topic, I don’t see anyone asking the question that to me is obvious: why was Anthony collecting royalties in the first place? Up to and including the 1984 album at least, as I’ve read it, Michael Anthony was receiving a quarter of the royalties from Van Halen’s record sales…which was a pretty substantial amount of cash.
Michael Anthony became a fabulously wealthy and famous rock star on minimal talent, and he did so entirely on Eddie Van Halen’s coattails. If Eddie made Michael Anthony drink a cupful of Eddie’s cigarette butts before every show to stay in the band, I’d still say he treated him pretty darned well.
There are VH fans who would likely tell me that Anthony’s contribution was bigger than that, which I understand, because I’m always telling people the Beatles would never have made it without Ringo. And in fairness to Anthony, he’s always taken the high road in the press on the matter.
My point is just to say that Anthony’s done okay. Don’t feel bad for him.
Making Michael Jackson The Biggest Star In The World
Remember Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”? Of course you do. Even if you’re too young to remember when it was released, you’ve more than likely heard the song.
I am old enough to remember the times well.
Michael Jackson had a huge hit with his previous album Off The Wall, which featured chart toppers like “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and “Rock With You”. So R&B and Top 40 radio stations were easily receptive to his new singles, “The Girl Is Mine” and “Billie Jean”, both of which quickly rose to the top of the charts.
But it was the next single from Thriller that catapulted Jackson into the stratosphere, ultimately becoming the biggest star in the world. All because of a well-known rock star’s contribution of a 31-second guitar solo.
At the time, to an extent anyway, there was a racial component to the type of music people liked. This was in 1983, when a rock star’s greatest sin was still “going disco”. It was still a time when white artists who sounded black were more easily accepted than black artists…the Bee Gees and Boz Scaggs come to mind. In the late 1970s, disco music was seen as infringing on the stronghold of rock and roll (a trend, incidentally, that Van Halen helped to reverse), and as I remember it, it was fairly rare to meet a music fan who liked both styles. Or at least admitted to it.
It’s hard to imagine that for young fans of today, who often have everything from R&B to hip-hop to blues rock to country in their Spotify playlists. But yes, that was a thing. (And I confess, I was sometimes guilty of it myself, although I was and still am a big Stevie Wonder fan.)
So for Michael Jackson and his producer Quincy Jones to include one of the most popular white rock artists of the day on Thriller was a brilliant masterstroke. Having Paul McCartney on the album wasn’t as big a deal…McCartney was a pop star, not a rock star, and everyone knew McCartney would happily boost his image by working with anyone who was popular at the time.
But rock fans who loved Van Halen trusted Eddie’s judgment enough to buy the “Beat It” single…or maybe they just bought it because they loved anything Eddie did. The single sold very, very well…and his solo was a big part of the reason. The song actually made it to #14 on Billboard’s Rock chart.
“Beat It” suddenly made Jackson much more mainstream…not just with white people, but with rock music fans who had for years been burning records anytime one of their favorite artists played anything remotely danceable. Perhaps more than any other song on the album, “Beat It” was the key to making Thriller the biggest-selling album of all time. (It still is today, incidentally, which is even more remarkable.)
It’s doubtful that Eddie realized it, but without any speeches, marching or kneeling in front of an American flag, without even really trying, he made a larger difference in race relations than most celebrities or politicians ever do. And he did it through music, where it matters most.
As he modestly said years later, it was just 20 minutes of his life. All he did was play a guitar solo. Eddie Van Halen was that good.
It’s well-known, of course, that he was not paid for his considerable contribution to MJ becoming the biggest star on Planet Earth. If he were paid $10 million for that solo, it probably still would have been a bargain for Jackson. Eddie never cared.
One wonders if any musician today with as much musical clout as Eddie Van Halen…and there weren’t and still aren’t many of them…would have made such an enormous contribution to another artist’s popularity, without bothering with what was in it for them.
Eddie may have been flawed like all of us, but that gesture was the mark of a true gentleman.
The Million Dollar Smile
Did you notice how often Eddie Van Halen, while playing the guitar like so few people could, was almost always wearing his infectious, friendly smile?
Eddie’s perpetual beaming visage was a remarkably underrated facet not just of his appeal, but the band’s appeal. The ever present grin on his boyishly handsome face was so likable.
Of course, why wouldn’t he be smiling? He was living the dream as a wealthy, universally admired rock star, married to the gorgeous actress wife. But given all of that, the smile seemed to suggest that he was never full of himself…as he certainly could have been given the hero worship heaped on him. Even during the band’s peak, he didn’t badmouth people, he never seemed excessively brash, he praised musicians that he felt were better than he was, and he ultimately just loved to make music.
In interviews, he almost always came across as a friendly, humble guy…and infinitely more gracious than his brazen, cocky lead singer bandmate. In a way, it made him and Roth great foils for each other…if you found Dave obnoxious, you had this outstanding guitar player and affable fellow that you could pay attention to instead.
Most of us probably think we’d be smiling all the time if we were living his life too. But ask yourself how many celebrities…not just musical stars, but actors and actresses, athletes, and others…always wear a smile on their face, and always seem as friendly and humble as can be in interviews? You could easily think of a couple dozen celebrities who become more known for their political stances than anything they’ve accomplished on a stage or playing field. It’s a whole lot harder to think of a wealthy and famous celebrity who simply loves what they get to do for a living and acts like it.
Eddie wasn’t always a perfect gentleman, as we all know. He succumbed to the booze and partying lifestyle enough to cost him his marriage and probably quite a few years of performing and music making. And in his later years he came across as fairly incisive towards Dave, Sammy, and Michael.
But on a behavior level, plenty of rock stars have done worse, and ultimately the onstage smile seemed and probably was genuine, the smile of a guy who loved to play music and loved being a rock star.
To musicians who would like to become more famous: smile more. Especially when you’re playing. Make that your Eddie Van Halen influence, not the tapping technique.
A Gift For Someone You’ve Never Met
Other than Bill Bruford, Howard Jones and Allan Holdsworth, I can’t think of many of my musical heroes that I’ve met in person. I sadly never met Neil Peart or Eddie Van Halen.
That I never met either of two of my all-time favorite musicians didn’t stop me from being more than a little emotional at their departure from this world in 2020. You always feel like you know your celebrity heroes on some level, even though you really, really don’t…and would probably be disappointed at who they really are.
With both Eddie and Neil, I don’t think about losing the man. I thought about the gift they gave all of us while they were here.
The day I learned of Eddie’s passing, I drove home from work playing a thumb drive full of Van Halen music. In a random shuffle, as “Good Enough”, “In ‘N’ Out”, “Fools”, and “Spanish Fly” and other VH greats played, I realized how huge a part of our lives the music we love is. I remembered the periods of my life when those songs were new. I smiled at how I still loved so many Van Halen songs, and how I could still verbalize the guitar sounds, three whole decades later.
When an artist who created so much music that you loved is gone, a part of you is, too.
Edward Van Halen spent thousands of hours of his time on this planet practicing, composing, producing, performing, and generously giving the gift of his music, to millions of people throughout the world that he never met. And almost always with a warm, genuine smile on his face.
As saddened as I was riding home that day, I counted myself among the fortunate and grateful.
Farewell Eddie, and thank you.
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