Edward Van Halen’s impact on guitar playing was like a meteor crashing into the atmosphere. And he did it all with an unforgettable smile, as seen here onstage in 1988. Photo by Ken Settle
An electric guitar is made of wood, wires, metal bits, and magnets, all inert and lacking biological response. However, we know that certain mysterious combinations can unlock the powers of sapient creatures, like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone. For most of us, the guitar is cruel, incapable of ever being played fully in tune, and causes its suitors to shed layers of skin on their fingertips while trying to tame it. It taunts all of us as if to say, “You’re adorable, I like what you’re trying to do.” Many of us humbly quit and curse the very existence of the instrument, lamenting that we do not possess the skill required to make the guitar obey our commands.
But every so often a guitarist comes along who does something so unexpected, even the guitar itself has no choice but to surrender. Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was such a guitarist, and arguably, he inspired more people to play guitar than anyone in history. A perennial rule-breaker with a name mightier than most mythical beasts, he commanded the instrument to perform as a pure extension of his unbridled creativity all while smiling wider than the Grand Canyon. It was as if he space-docked himself to the guitar prior to launching into the “ZONE,” where he was able to effortlessly summon otherworldly riffs.
Music was changed forever when Edward Van Halen was introduced to the world and now it’s forever changed by his early departure from our world. To this day, there isn’t a more original guitar intro than “Mean Street.” It’s as perplexing now as it was 39 years ago when it forced all of us to ask ourselves, “How is he doing that?” Which, by the way, he had all of us asking that question since the first Van Halen album, when we heard “Eruption.” Because he was such an innovator, we may never stop asking that question.
For those of us old enough to remember living in an analog world where we listened deep and hard and caught all the nuances on every recording because we didn’t have search engines to offer us ubiquitous visual references yet, take a moment to cherish that feeling of being so completely blown away by EVH’s contributions to music. We lined up at record stores to pay for as much music as we could afford and camped out in the snow in long lines with other worshipers to buy tickets for concerts we couldn’t imagine missing. We took binoculars with us hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of EVH demonstrating what in the actual fuck he was doing. We couldn’t get enough and couldn’t wait to see what he would come up with next. He changed our lives.
Edward Van Halen fueled a desire for music in millions of fans through his guitar playing and his signature sound. The geometric patterns he designed for his instruments became iconic as well. The abstract nature of his guitar artwork bolstered the originality of his music, causing players to not only imitate his playing but his actual artwork as well. There aren’t many musical artists who can be recognized within seconds the way EVH can. We know him from a single note or a single glance at his guitar. He was the architect behind it all.
He often simplified the complexities of his music, explaining, “I just want my guitar playing to make people feel something.” He accomplished that beyond his wildest dreams. For all of his incredible skills, he remained humble, even a bit insecure. That made his music even more likable because he remained human, even though we all idolized him as a superhero. His influence can already be measured over 40 years, and without question he will inspire many future generations.
Edward Van Halen himself was lightning in a bottle, and he could transfer that energy to arenas and stadiums like nobody before or since. Van Halen as a band left audiences feeling like they were floating above the ground for weeks after seeing them perform. The band described it as playing for 10,000 of their closest friends and, at their apex, there was nothing that could compete with the almighty Van Halen.
Even though he had the physical capability to display his prowess, EVH had the maturity and restraint to know what was right for the song in every sense. He was a brilliant arranger, opening all our minds to the utilization of interstitial structures to lead us back to the massive hooks he composed. When it came to soloing, his opening phrases were the stuff of legend. He was natural, he flowed seamlessly from improvisation to calculated and sophisticated syncopations. Edward’s impeccable inner pulse was his greatest asset and the very thing that made his playing so unique. To even get close to imitating his actual playing would take a lifetime. If you ever did get there, you would be confronted with the realization that Edward would’ve climbed his own mountain instead.
As athletic as his playing could be, it was never flash over substance. He epitomized the fusion of technical precision and musicality. His intense rhythmic bond with his brother, Alex, fueled their music in a way that can’t be accurately described in words but can most definitely be felt emotionally. It was glorious to watch the virtuoso Van Halen brothers doing what they do best, and when Wolfgang joined the mix, the DNA trifecta was one of Edward’s proudest moments. He loved playing music with them and we should all take a moment to recognize that the Van Halen family loss is deep. If “Unchained” used to fire you up, it might make you cry your eyes out now.
We are the benefactors of Edward Van Halen’s groundbreaking and timeless music, innovations, and design. We are the awestruck bystanders who witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime culmination of groove from the soul, harmonic complexity, and wicked tone wrapped up in a childlike grin. Edward Van Halen didn’t play the electric guitar like us: The guitar was filtered through him and his deft guidance. He made it look easy—we know it wasn’t. For many, he will always be the King. Long live the King!