On 6 October, 2020, Eddie Van Halen, the undisputed number one guitar hero of the 1980s, passed away at the age of 65. The musician, who played lead guitar in the band Van Halen for 48 years, died after a long battle with throat cancer.
On top of being a much-loved father, Eddie Van Halen was a true icon of the 80s, and a monumental influence on generations of rock guitar players. Let’s reflect on the life of this musical legend with some facts about him that you might not have known.
20. He was born in Amsterdam
He may be regarded the quintessential American rock star, but Eddie Van Halen was originally from the Netherlands.
Edward Lodewijk van Halen was born on the 26th of January 1955 in Amsterdam.
He was the second child of the family after Alex van Halen, who was born in May 1953.
Musicianship ran in the family, as Eddie and Alex’s father Jan van Halen was a professional musician, playing the piano, clarinet and saxophone.
The Van Halen brothers are also of Asian descent, as their mother Eugenia was from the Dutch East Indies, in what is now Indonesia.
The family moved to Pasadena, California in 1962, where Eddie and Alex were naturalised as citizens of the United States.
19. He wanted to be a drummer at first
Eddie Van Halen once said of his family, “We came [to America] with approximately $50 and a piano, and we didn’t speak the language.”
As such, childhood wasn’t always easy for Eddie and Alex, but they both threw themselves into music.
Initially both brothers took piano lessons, but as they got older their interest veered toward rock’n’roll.
However, initially it was Eddie who wanted to be a drummer, whilst Alex took up guitar.
But when Alex proved to be better on the drums than he was, the brothers agreed to swap instruments.
Rock fans and historians would probably agree that the Van Halen brothers made the right move there!
18. His band was originally called Genesis, then Mammoth
Eddie and Alex Van Halen first played in a band together whilst they were in elementary school.
Then, when Eddie was 17 and Alex Van Halen was 19, they formed a band which they initially named Genesis in 1972. (Their first bass player was Mark Stone, who by a sad coincidence also passed away from cancer barely a week before Eddie.)
When they found out about established British rock band Genesis (famed for launching Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins), the band performed for two years under the name Mammoth – until they discovered there was another band using that name as well!
Finally they renamed themselves Van Halen in 1974, and played regularly around Los Angeles for three years before being signed to Warner Records.
It was with the classic line-up of Eddie on guitar, Alex on drums, Michael Anthony on bass and David Lee Roth on lead vocals that they recorded their self-titled 1978 breakthrough album, informally known as Van Halen I.
As well as proving influential musically, other rock bands were inspired by Van Halen to use a member’s surname as their moniker, notably Bon Jovi and Dokken.
17. He once asked Gene Simmons if he could join Kiss
While Van Halen became hugely successful and influential, relationships within the band weren’t always great.
In particular, there were regular clashes between the group and flamboyant frontman David Lee Roth.
This became such a problem that by 1982, Eddie Van Halen wasn’t sure he could put up with it.
Because of this, the guitar hero asked Gene Simmons – co-founder and bass player in rock supergroup Kiss, who had helped discover Van Halen – if he could join the band.
Simmons recalls, “Eddie said, ‘I want to join Kiss. I don’t want to fight anymore with Roth. I’m sick and tired of it.'” However, Simmons turned him down.
“I told him, ‘Eddie, there’s not enough room. You need to be in a band where you can direct the music. You’re not going to be happy in Kiss.’ I talked him out of it. It didn’t fit.”
16. He played the guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s Beat It (for free)
Van Halen’s own output sold very well and had a major impact on the musical climate of the 80s.
However, Eddie Van Halen reached an even broader audience when he made a guest appearance on Michael Jackson‘s smash hit single Beat It, featured on the pop legend’s phenomenally successful 1982 album Thriller.
Van Halen demonstrated his unmistakable lead guitar technique in Beat It’s searing solo (starting around 3:05 in the video above), which has been widely acclaimed as one of the greatest guitar solos ever recorded.
However, the guitarist only spent around 20 minutes in the studio, and he did it entirely free of charge as a favour to record producer Quincy Jones.
Not only did Van Halen add muscle to Beat It with his solo, he also casually changed the arrangement of the song, as he’d originally been asked to play the solo in a different section.
The story also goes that Van Halen played so loud and hard that a speaker in the studio burst into flames!
15. He recorded an original solo of “just noise” for Back to the Future
The significance of Van Halen as a band, and Eddie Van Halen specifically as a guitarist, was well established by 1985 – the year that Back to the Future was first released to cinemas.
The classic sci-fi comedy adventure from director Robert Zemeckis acknowledged the cultural impact of Van Halen in some really fun and inventive ways.
From the early scenes, set in 1985, it’s made clear that Michael J Fox’s Marty McFly is a huge Van Halen fan – and the contrast between that high-volume, high-energy rock and the more sedate popular music of the 50s could not be much more pronounced.
In 1955, Marty uses Van Halen’s music to ‘torture’ his future father whilst pretending to be an alien – based on the not unreasonable assumption that, to someone of that time period, Van Halen’s music really would sound like it was from another world.
At the request of the filmmakers, Eddie Van Halen specifically recorded a solo for the movie which has never been officially released elsewhere.
Years later, Van Halen remarked that he simply improvised the solo, describing it as “just noise,” which was, after all, what the filmmakers wanted.
This isn’t Back to the Future’s only nod to Van Halen, as in the later sequence when Marty performs Johnny B. Goode, he emulates the guitarist’s signature two-handed tapping technique.
14. He was also an accomplished keyboard player
Eddie Van Halen will always be best remembered as a pioneer of the lightning-fast lead guitar style that dominated 80s rock music.
However, this was by no means the limit of his musicianship, as Van Halen was also hugely passionate about keyboard playing.
As the years went on, his prowess on the keys was emphasised in Van Halen’s music – most notably in their only single to reach number one on the US charts, Jump.
Perhaps the best-loved song Van Halen ever recorded, Jump featured on their sixth album 1984. While the song features his lead guitar playing as prominently as ever, the real focal point is the central keyboard riff.
Van Halen would focus further on keyboard playing further in the band’s later years, when David Lee Roth left to be replaced by the band’s second vocalist Sammy Hagar.
As Hagar was also a guitarist, this enabled Van Halen to spend more time on the keyboard in live performances – although some Van Halen fans were not best pleased with this, preferring their hero to stick to the shredding he made his name with.
Other Van Halen tracks that put the keyboard front and centre include I’ll Wait, Why Can’t This Be Love and Dreams.
13. He overcame alcohol addiction
As is sadly common for rock superstars, alcohol and drugs were a big part of Van Halen’s lifestyle in the band’s heyday.
Stories of the band’s drunken revelry are plentiful, and while some sound like youthful hi-jinks, others are more sinister.
For himself, Eddie Van Halen admitted that he started drinking as young as 12, and by adulthood he was an addict.
He told Billboard in 2015, “I needed alcohol to function… I’m not blaming my father at all, but he was an alcoholic, too. So in our household, it was normal.”
The guitarist claimed this “didn’t affect my work” at first, but he admits that “around 2004, I suppose I became a very angry drunk.”
After spending some time in rehab, Eddie Van Halen stated that he lived an entirely clean and sober life from 2008 onward.
12. He brought his son into Van Halen in 2006
Van Halen underwent a number of line-up changes over the years, including a brief stint with Extreme’s Gary Cherone as their lead singer.
In 2006, longtime bassist Michael Anthony left the band, to continue working with Sammy Hagar, who was also estranged from Van Halen by that point.
Many were surprised by Anthony’s replacement on Van Halen bass duties: Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen, who was aged just 15 at the time.
Wolfgang remained Van Halen’s bass player for the remainder of the band’s time together, with David Lee Roth back on vocals.
It was this line-up of Van Halen that recorded what proved to be the band’s last album, A Different Kind of Truth, in 2012.
Nor was making Wolfgang part of the band the only grandiose show of affection Eddie Van Halen made toward his son: he also named one of his signature guitars the EVH Wolfgang in honour of his child.
Wolfgang Van Halen is an accomplished musician in his own right, and has also played with the band Tremonti as well as recording solo work.
11. He needed hip replacement surgery because of his acrobatic stage moves
As much as Van Halen were famed for their virtuoso musicianship, they were also legendary for their energetic performances.
Van Halen himself, along with his cohorts David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony, would run and jump all over the stage like gymnasts in their live shows.
Sadly, all those years performing wild scissor kicks would take their toll on the guitarist physically.
In 1995, Van Halen was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a condition which can lead to severe pain in the joints.
Once the pain from this became unbearable, Van Halen underwent hip replacement surgery in 1999.
As a result he was slightly more restrained on stage in his later years – but still couldn’t help doing the occasional jump.
10. He once threatened Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst at gunpoint (allegedly)
As Eddie Van Halen acknowledged in his later years, he had some dark and angry moments when his alcoholism was at its worst.
It seems likely that this had a role to play in one rather unnerving incident that is alleged to have taken place when he met the band Limp Bizkit.
In Andrew Bennett’s book Eruption in the Canyon, it is claimed that Van Halen was once invited to jam with the members of the notorious 90s rap-metal band at frontman Fred Durst’s Beverly Hills mansion.
Durst reportedly found this idea “hilarious. The greatest guitar player ever plays with the worst band ever.” Van Halen came to jam anyway, but then walked out angrily as band members were using drugs – leaving behind his guitar and amplifier.
When his equipment wasn’t returned to him, Van Halen is said to have driven to Durst’s home the next day in a gun-mounted military assault vehicle (not legally allowed on public roads), then marched into Durst’s house bare-chested and holding a gun.
According to Bennett, Van Halen said he approached Durst, “I put my gun to that stupid f***ing red hat of his, and I said, ‘Where’s my s**t, motherf***er?’” Durst then had one of his employees bring out the guitarist’s gear immediately.
9. He got his father to play clarinet on a Van Halen record
Years before he enlisted his son to become the band’s new bass player, Eddie Van Halen also brought his father in to play on one of their records.
You’d be forgiven for thinking there wouldn’t necessarily be a place for a clarinetist to perform on a record with one of the loudest rock bands of all time.
However, the band found a suitable spot for Jan van Halen to make a guest appearance on their fifth album, Diver Down.
Diver Down has long been a divisive Van Halen album, both among fans and in the band itself.
The record comprises largely of cover versions, with a poppier feel than the band was used to. This was largely at the behest of David Lee Roth, who would leave to pursue a lighter solo career three years later.
The father of Van Halen’s guitarist and drummer played the clarinet on Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now), a tongue-in-cheek take on a dixieland jazz standard first performed in 1924.
The band played the song at the suggestion of Roth, who also hit upon the idea of bringing Jan van Halen in to perform on the track.
8. He married twice
As wild men of rock’n’roll, Van Halen unsurprisingly had a reputation for being fond of the ladies.
However, when the band were at the height of their fame, Eddie Van Halen was a married man.
The guitarist wed actress Valerie Bertinelli in 1981, a year after meeting her at one of the band’s shows.
Ten years later, Bertinelli gave birth to their son Wolfgang Van Halen – but the rock’n’roll lifestyle, and in particular Van Halen’s substance problems, put a strain on the relationship.
Van Halen and Bertinelli separated in 2001, and finalised their divorce in 2007 – but happily, they remained friends.
Bertinelli was in attendance when Van Halen married his second wife Janie Liszewski in 2009, in a ceremony officiated by the guitarist’s brother Alex.
7. He was asked to play Rufus in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Marty McFly wasn’t the only time-travelling teen of the 1980s to have been a huge fan of Eddie Van Halen.
Much the same is also true of the rock-obsessed dimwits played by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
The movie begins with the duo discussing ways they can lure Eddie Van Halen to join their band Wyld Stallyns, and if you look closely you’ll notice Reeves’ Ted is wearing a Van Halen T-shirt throughout.
Van Halen himself joked later that he would have joined Wyld Stallyns if they’d asked him – although the guitarist had at one point been offered a role in the movie.
We tried to get him to do something – anything – in Face the Music, but they said he was unavailable and wouldn’t tell us why. Sadly, I think I know now.
— Ed Solomon (@ed_solomon) October 6, 2020
Van Halen had been one among the many possible candidates considered for the role of Bill and Ted’s mentor Rufus (other possibilities including Sean Connery and Charlie Sheen) before George Carlin was cast.
Since Van Halen’s passing, screenwriter Ed Solomon has said that they had tried to involve the guitarist in the recent third film Bill & Ted Face the Music, but realise now that he’d had to decline due to his ailing condition.
6. He built his own guitars and invented a number of guitar gizmos
Guitars were such a huge part of Eddie Van Halen’s life that he not only played the instruments, but built them too.
He constructed his most recognised guitar, dubbed the ‘Frankenstrat,’ in a bid to combine the attributes of two of the most prominent electric guitars used in rock music, the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul.
Over the course of his career, Van Halen would construct many more such guitars, usually identifiable by his signature striped paint jobs.
Van Halen’s technical expertise didn’t end there, as he also invented a number of devices to aid guitar players.
One of these was a support device which would hold the guitar upright like a piano, allowing the guitarist to play “hands-free” with freedom to “create new techniques and sounds previously unknown to any player.”
Another device of Van Halen’s invention which proved popular was the D-Tuna, which enables the guitarist to instantly de-tune the bottom E string to D at the flick of a switch.
5. Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell was buried with one of his guitars
Although Van Halen’s popularity waned a bit by the late 90s, the band and Eddie in particular were still a huge influence on the next generation of rock guitarists.
One such musician for whom Eddie was a personal hero was Dimebag Darrell, lead guitarist in metal band Pantera.
Tragically, Darrell’s life was cut short when he was shot dead on stage in December 2004.
In the months prior to this, Darrell had asked Van Halen if he could buy one of the guitarist’s original customised guitars: a black and yellow-striped Charvel nicknamed Bumblebee, used extensively on the Van Halen II album.
Van Halen instead offered to build Darrell an exact replica of the guitar, but he didn’t get around to doing so before Darrell was murdered.
Because of this, Van Halen presented Darrell’s family with the original Bumblebee, and Darrell was buried with the guitar.
4. He recorded original music for the movie Twister
Back to the Future wasn’t the only movie for which Van Halen provided original music.
The guitarist was asked by composer Mark Mancina and director Jan De Bont to contribute to the soundtrack of 1996’s Twister.
After seeing a rough cut of the film, Van Halen composed two original tracks specifically for the FX-heavy disaster movie.
Firstly, there was Humans Being, performed by the band and released as a single in support of the film.
On top of this, Eddie and Alex Van Halen also recorded an instrumental piece entitled Respect the Wind, which became Twister’s theme song.
As Van Halen were signed to Warner Records, sister company Warner Bros. Pictures recognised the value in bringing the band in to their movies.
Another Warner Bros film Van Halen provided music for in the 90s was Lethal Weapon 4; Fire in the Hole, the band’s third single to feature their third singer Gary Cherone, was featured on the soundtrack of the action sequel.
Other movies to feature Van Halen’s music include 1984’s The Wild Life, for which the guitarist recorded original music, and 2016’s Everybody Wants Some!! which takes its name from the band’s 1980 song.
3. He made guest appearances on records by Brian May, Roger Waters, LL Cool J and more
As Eddie Van Halen was almost universally recognised as one of the best musicians ever in his field, it stands to reason his skills were in demand.
His guest appearance on Michael Jackson’s Beat It was of course Van Halen’s most famous collaboration, but he played with many other big names over the years.
Early on, Eddie recorded a number of demo tracks with Gene Simmons of Kiss; Simmons remarked that he later ordered Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley to recreate Van Halen’s solo note-for-note. (This was in 1977, five years before Van Halen would ask to join Kiss.)
One gloriously cheesy project Eddie Van Halen made an appearance on was The Star Fleet Project, a solo record by Queen’s Brian May, inspired by 80s TV puppet show Star Fleet.
Years later, Van Halen teamed up with another British rock legend, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.
The guitarist guested on Waters’ 1999 song Lost Boys Calling, co-written by legendary composer Ennio Morricone for the film The Legend of 1900.
Another perhaps more surprising collaborator was LL Cool J, with whom Van Halen worked on two tracks for the 2013 album Authentic.
2. Eric Clapton was his biggest childhood hero
Eddie Van Halen inspired legions of would-be guitar heroes that followed in his wake – but who inspired him to pick up the guitar?
The guitarist was often mentioned in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix, but he declared his greatest personal inspiration to be Eric Clapton.
In a 1978 interview, Van Halen stated, “the main guitarist I’d say that influenced me to play the most was Clapton.”
The guitarist went on to state that music reviewers tended to assume his biggest influences were Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore and Jeff Beck.
However, Van Halen insisted that he “never really sat down and copped their licks like I did Clapton.”
In his first band with his brother Alex, Van Halen would play songs by Clapton’s group Cream until he could recreate them note-for-note.
1. He previously beat tongue cancer
Eddie Van Halen’s life was sadly ended by throat cancer, but this was not his first battle with the disease.
Many years earlier, Van Halen had also been treated for cancer of the tongue.
He underwent surgery to remedy this in 2000, and had to have a third of his tongue removed.
Van Halen later suggested that his tongue cancer may have been down to his habit of holding metal guitar picks in his mouth.
He was then declared cancer-free in 2002 – but sadly he was later diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014, and after a long struggle with the illness he passed away on 6th October 2020.