The making of a guitar legend: A look inside the life of Eddie Van Halen

From his classical roots to his rise to fame, take a look at what made the guitarist quite so important.

(Photo: Ross Marino/Getty)

When it comes to the world of rock and metal, there is seldom seen a musician who reinvents the wheel to the same extent as Eddie Van Halen. From the way he helped pioneer the metal genre to the way he revolutionised guitar playing, the wounds left from his passing last year are near impossible to heal.

Now, on what would have been his 66th birthday, we take a glimpse back at the life of the monumental musician and rediscover exactly what it was that make him quite so important to so many people.

Born in Amsterdam, it seemed almost inevitable for both Eddie and his brother, Alex, to ignite the music industry with their ability. Sons of a jazz musician, their father worked as a multi-instrumentalist, playing the piano, clarinet and saxophone professionally and heavily encouraged both to pursue a career in music. 

Collectively relocating to Pasadena, California, when he was just 7 years of age, Eddie’s legacy as a musician already began to take form. Learning to play the classical piano, it appeared although this was the path he was destined to take. Earning first place continuously at Long Beach City College’s piano competition between the years 1964 and 1967, Eddie Van Halen was establishing himself as one of California’s most talented up-and-coming musicians before he was even 10 years of age. 

However, in the same way as it captures the passion of nearly all adolescents, the developing rock and metal scene began to entice both Eddie and his brother, leading them down a path that would, without doubt, begin to change their lives forever.

Going against their parents’ wishes, the pair neglected their piano lessons and swapped their classical origins for the rapidly growing metal scene infiltrating western culture. No longer reciting the works of Mozart and Bach, instead, the brothers immersed themselves in learning the discographies of popular rock bands at the time, including Led Zeppelin and Cream.

Beginning his career as a rock musician as a drummer, whilst his brother learned the guitar, it was only upon learning The Safaris’ song, ‘Wipe Out’ that set the two on their destined path. This reversal of instruments came as Eddie secretly played his brothers guitar when alone and his brother, Alex, began to learn the drum solo within ‘Wipe Out’ rather than focus on the guitar sections. 

Inspired by both the technicality and precision of Eric Clapton alongside the reckless abandon of Jimmy Page’s style, the brothers teamed up with three of their class members to perform in their school cafeteria under the name ‘The Broken Combs’. 

(Photo: Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

This passion for performance would become the foundations for his later career, with the brothers forming the band, that would later come to be known as Van Halen, when Eddie was just 17. Immediately forming a name for themselves across the LA music scene, playing historic venues including the Whiskey A-Go-Go, it was just 5 years later that the band were offered a recording contract with Warner Records.

The following year, the band released their debut, self-titled album. This was an immediate success that catapulted them to No.19 on the Billboard Pop Charts and became one of the most commercially successful releases in rock history

As their career pushed on, continuously gathering more momentum with each passing year, Van Halen’s rise to fame came at an equally incomprehensible speed. With the band winning a Grammy Award for their album, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, in 1992, going 5 times platinum with their 1984 album, earning a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and selling over 80 million albums globally, it comes as no surprise why the band is continually seen as one of the most inspiring and important acts of all time.

Yet, it comes as no surprise that the success galvanised by Van Halen wasn’t solely as a result of the songs they produced. What set the band apart from everyone else on the scene was Eddie’s ability to revolutionise guitar playing and incorporate unseen technical abilities into the rock world.

With his iconic “Frankenstrat” guitar, self-built from an assortment of parts, the sound captured by Van Halen was a distant stretch from most other guitarists on the scene- helping establish the shift from classic rock to heavy metal playing.

 Inspired by the guitar solo in Led Zeppelin’s ‘Heartbreaker’, Eddie took the Flamenco style of ‘tapping’, (playing by tapping the strings using both hands on the fretboard) and incorporated it as a vital part of his playing style. By embedding this lesser-seen technique of playing into the band’s discography, Eddie Van Halen singlehandedly revolutionised what the guitar meant for musicians across the globe and restructured the future of rock and metal for decades to come.

Yet, whilst pioneering the road of metal music for generations yet to come, Eddie’s health began to fluctuate as the years passed by. Still suffering from an extensive battle with both drug and alcohol abuse, the musician went back and forth into rehabs until eventually getting sober in 2008. These struggles began from a young age, with him beginning smoking and drinking at just 12 years old.

Despite reaching paramount levels of success at this time, collaborating with musicians including Gene Simmons, Roger Waters, Michael Jackson and Brian May, Eddie openly spoke out about his struggles with alcohol abuse: claiming that he was wholly dependent on alcohol and needed it to function.

Then, following his struggle with Throat Cancer, beginning in 2000, Eddie Van Halen was hospitalised in 2019, passing away as the result of a stroke the following year. Surrounded by his wife, son, ex-wife and brother at the time, it was suspected that the passing of the musician was connected to his ongoing struggles with cancer. Although declared cancer-free in 2002, the musician blamed the illness on his habit of holding metal guitar picks in his mouth- insistent it was unrelated to his previous struggles with addiction. 

Three months on, fans across the globe still remain heartbroken at the news of the musician’s death, with numerous of his childhood landmarks transformed into memorials for fans to pay their respects. Whilst the tragedy of his passing will continue to echo in the hearts of those he inspired, the music and legacy of the musician only grows stronger with time. With the world becoming increasingly filled with a generation of those inspired by his abilities, it is certain to say that the music industry will always be inextricably tied to Eddie Van Halen. 

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What are your thoughts on Eddie Van Halen? Let us know via the comment section!

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