Eddie Van Halen
Legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen passed away recently. Van Halen’s music had a huge impact and Eddie’s approach to the guitar still influences me today.
I stood for a while in front of the Arctic white guitar. A kid in a crowded music store. It was a Korean-made clone of a Fender Stratocaster, but for less than a third of the price of the real thing. That meant I could afford to dream about taking it home. I was by myself, 16, and although I knew my way around a nylon string guitar, I’d never actually played an electric guitar before. Having travelled into the centre of town with cash in my pocket and the intention of buying a guitar, I now felt intimidated.
Once I had the guitar in my hands, it felt like the whole crowded store was waiting for me to play. I strummed a few chords, picked a handful of notes and meekly said: “I’ll take it.”
I’ve mentioned that guitar before, and how it reminded me of one Prince had played in a music video and of the guitar that Jimi Hendrix was often seen playing in posters and photos. That was the guitar I learnt to record with, the one that started me on the path from occasional player to serious musician. I took it to jam sessions, I led pre-show singalongs with the cast and crew of our high school theatre production, and I even played my first gig with it.
However, that guitar was a piece of shit.
The Genius Of Eddie Van Halen
In senior high school, my music tastes shifted away from the pop, funk and electronica that I’d been listening to and towards more muscular guitar music. Van Halen’s music, in particular, started to spend more and more time on my turntable.
Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing sounded so fresh. By the time I got into his music, he was already a huge success, and Eddie was often featured in the guitar magazines I bought. Still, his playing sounded new, urgent, wild and unpredictable.
What also caught my attention, just as much as the music, were his guitars. Most guitarists customise their instruments in some way, but Van Halen did radical mad scientist-like surgery on his guitars. It’s no wonder his original copy of a Stratocaster (pictured above), made from DIY kit parts and bits salvaged from other guitars, came to be called the Frankenstrat!
How I Killed My First Guitar
My Stratocaster copy, that first guitar, was a lemon. By today’s standards, it would never have left the factory. If I knew then one tenth of what I now know about guitars, I would’ve put it down right away. It was noisy, it didn’t stay in tune and it had an irreparable fault in the neck that meant it would always be hard to play.
But, I kept looking at the photos of Eddie Van Halen, on stage with his red, white and black striped guitar. It was so ugly, hacked together in a thoroughly unprofessional way. At the same time, it was so cool, and it sounded amazing!
The sensible thing to do would’ve been to trade my terrible guitar in for a decent one. Instead, I doubled down on my mistake, spending way more than a new guitar would’ve cost on parts, enlisting my father’s help with rewiring the electronics, and refretting, refitting and refinishing the guitar.
The result was a guitar that sounded amazing, but not any easier to play. Eventually I bought another guitar, a Steinberger, inspired by one I saw Eddie playing on a concert video. I also modified that guitar, but not so radically, and it mostly played well.
The Van Halen Soundtrack
The soundtrack of the final days of my youth had a lot of Van Halen in it (from both eras, if there’re any fans reading this).That was a time when adult relationships felt unfathomably complex. Making music felt easy, and technology offered nothing but promising optimism.
But, it was also a time when everything I did felt riddled with mistakes. Sometimes, you can learn only by breaking things.
Eventually, I stopped listening to Van Halen’s music. My tastes changed. The lyrics didn’t connect anymore. And music styles kind of moved on. I don’t think I’ve put on a Van Halen album since the mid-90s.
But, when Eddie Van Halen passed and I gave into the inevitable nostalgia, long-forgotten lyrics started flowing from my lips and I could remember a surprising number of Eddie’s riffs and solos. While I wish the videos on YouTube were higher resolution, that doesn’t really matter because my memories are so vivid.
And, I kept that crappy old guitar. It was in pieces for decades. But I put it back together a few years ago and hung it on the wall of my Tokyo studio. Right now, it’s in storage again, along with most of my music gear. But, when I get it back, I’ll plug it in, and I know exactly whose music I’ll play.