Eddie Van Halen, Melting-Pot Virtuoso
Eddie Van Halen, the most important rock guitarist of the past 45 years, died of cancer this morning at age 65.
Van Halen reinvented what the electric guitar could sound like, while his monster-selling band, also named Van Halen (his brother was on drums, and his son would much later join on bass), forged a new genre of heavy metal that stressed California technicolor over British gloom, Jack Daniels over Jack the Ripper, hair spray over hobbits.
You will recognize Van Halen’s pyrotechnic guitar technique and “brown” tone even if you have never consciously listened to a single one of his songs. This instrumental, from the band’s eponymous and still-astonishing 1978 debut album (which sold more than 10 million copies), is why:
It was the fretboard-tap that spawned a thousand imitators. (And, indirectly, one of the all-time great documentaries: The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, by Penelope Spheeris.) As Eddie—that’s what we all called him—told Billy Corgan in 1996 (recounted in an excellent L.A. Times obit), “When I used the stuff I invented, I was telling a story, while I felt that the people who were imitating me were telling a joke.”
The invention element here is a much-overlooked aspect of the band’s breakout success. Despite featuring two virtuoso musicians (Eddie and Alex’s father was a lifelong classical clarinetist and saxophone player) and one of the most outlandishly charismatic and athletic frontmen rock has ever seen in David Lee Roth, the Pasadena quartet was a strictly and impressively D.I.Y. outfit for years in the mid-1970s, putting on their own shows in the San Gabriel Valley and Sunset Strip while the music industry flocked to disco and soft rock, and critics turned to punk.
Appropriately for era and place, Eddie’s instrument itself, later to be donated to the Smithsonian, was a self-made hot-rod.
“His iconic, road-battered guitar, named Frankenstein, was pieced together to his personal specifications in 1975 from the components of other instruments—a $50 body, a $75 neck, a single Humbucker pickup and crucial tremolo bar,” writes the L.A. Times. “With a red surface crisscrossed frantically with black and white stripes (and traffic reflectors stuck
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