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Eddie Van Halen: Goodbye, guitar god

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Eddie Van Halen was one of the greatest and most influential guitarists of our time (Screenshot via YouTube)

Guitar god Eddie Van Halen has died following a long battle with cancer. He was 65.

He was born Edward Vodewijk van Halen in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on 26 January 1955. His father was an accomplished musician and taught his children, Eddie and Alex, to play the piano at an early age. Neither could read music and Eddie said he learned the instrument “from watching and learning”.

The Van Halen boys moved to the United States in 1962 and became naturalised American citizens. Alex took up the drums and Eddie became a formidable lead guitarist. He carefully studied Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton while learning the new instrument.

In 1972, the Van Halen brothers formed a band based on their surname with bassist Mark Stone and lead singer David Lee Roth. Eddie Van Halen popularised a guitar solo technique called “tapping” where he played with two hands on the fretboard. Eddie was also an inventor and took out several patents for devices that enhanced the guitar’s capabilities.

Over the ensuing years from the 70s to the 80s, Van Halen scored regular gigs in the L.A. music scene. They played at venues like the Whisky a Go Go, and released a self-titled album that reached number 19 on the U.S. record charts. By the 80s, they were huge and went five-times platinum with their album 1984. The lead single ‘Jump’ became their only international number one hit.

At their peak, Van Halen had 56 million album sales in the U.S. alone and charted 13 number one hits in the Billboard mainstream rock chart. In all, they sold more than 80 million albums worldwide and 11 of these reached the U.S. Top Ten. They kept churning out the hits and came up with stunners like ‘Panama’...

…and the always saucy ‘Hot For Teacher’.

Their hits inspired legions of teenagers growing up in conservative towns and summed up exactly what they were interested in — cars, girls, parties and loud music. The louder, the better.

In 1983, Eddie Van Halen signed up as a session musician for a blockbuster hit called ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson. Within 32 seconds, Eddie packed in an encyclopedia of guitar godliness without receiving any fees or credit for it.

The later years, however, were not kind to Eddie. He started drinking heavily and using cocaine, a manifestation of much earlier problems.

“I started drinking and smoking when I was 12,” he admitted. “I got drunk before I’d show up at high school.”

Eddie continued:

I didn’t drink to party. Alcohol and cocaine were private things to me. I would use them to work. The blow keeps you awake and the alcohol lowers your inhibitions. I’m sure there were musical things I would not have attempted were I not in that mental state. You just play by yourself with a tape running and after about an hour, your mind goes to a place where you’re not thinking about anything.”

He eventually sought help and became sober in 2008. However, due to his lifetime of smoking, he was diagnosed with tongue cancer which would eventually claim him.

Eddie Van Halen’s death has prompted a flood of tributes.

Gene Simmons of Kiss wrote:

‘Eddie was not only a Guitar God but a genuinely beautiful soul.’

Hard rock artist Ted Nugent said:

‘Thank you, Eddie, for vitalising, enriching and stimulating our lives with your brilliance (sic) gifts and vision. Jam on, my friend, jam on.’

In a 2017 interview, Eddie Van Halen said:

“My whole life has been music. I could not imagine anything else.”

Eddie said in an earlier interview:

“We came here with approximately $50 and we didn’t speak the language. Now look where we are. If that’s not the American dream, what is?”

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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