On Oct. 6, vocalist and guitarist Edward Lodewijk Van Halen died from throat cancer at the age of 65. If you are unfamiliar with this legendary man, he was widely known to be one of the greatest guitar players of all time. He had an unflinching ability to play solos with such rhythmic precision and otherworldly coordination.
Halen was born on Jan. 26, 1955 in Nijmegen, a city in the Netherlands. Eventually, he and his family moved to Pacedena, California in the 1960s, and he started taking classical piano lessons with his brother Alex, dabbling with the drums. As a teenager, Halen switched to the guitar and Alex took up drumming, and they started a band called Mammoth. In 1974, the gifted duo met up with their future lead singer David Lee Roth and bass player Michael Anthony to form the illustrious rock band Van Halen, according to biography.com.
The band had a lot of early successes, like having Kiss guitarist Gene Simmons fund their first recording session in 1977. The following year, after signing with Warner Brothers, their self titled debut album sold over 10 million copies. Not only this, but the band’s 1984 single “Jump” spent five weeks as No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. This synth-driven bop held some darker undertones, as the lyrics discuss someone in the act of committing suicide.
In 2007 the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Around this time, Halen’s son Wolfgang took Michael’s place on bass. Since 2007, Van Halen has sold 75 million albums worldwide and has produced 13 No. 1 tracks on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart, according to Billboard.com.
Halen’s guitar playing was revolutionary. He was a self-taught prodigy who never learned to read sheet music. He was very off the cuff with his performances, never planning out his next move. He introduced finger tapping or playing the guitar with two hands like it were a piano. He built his own electric guitar using scraps of various materials like chrome, plastic and nickel and then spray painted it. He then called it the “Frankenstein” guitar, and it was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019 for the “Play it Loud” exhibit. Halen also experimented with regular guitars by rearranging the frets and removing electric guitar knobs, or using other materials on the instruments like sandpaper.
Halen’s musicianship was a force to be reckoned with, especially when he performed an uncredited solo on Michael Jackson’s smash hit “Beat It.” The combination of pull-offs (keeping the sound going for longer and letting it ring) and glissando (pitch sliding on the fretboard) led to a riff that had just the right amount of complexity to be chaotic but also gave off the illusion of effortless ease.
I have always adored Van Halen’s sound, as it is just the right amount of experimental, new wave rock that I frequent. “Panama,” on their sixth studio album called “1984,” has stylized vocals, a boastful chorus and it's actually about a race car. “You Really Got Me,” on their debut album, is quite the earworm, but I’d be fine if it never left. Additionally, I also find that “Hot for Teacher,” also on “1984,” is super eccentric, fun and jam packed with charisma.
The guitar scene will never be the same, and we have Halen to thank for that. His innovative spirit should serve as a reminder to all of us to keep pushing boundaries and to never settle for mediocracy. Better yet, grab some of that old scrap metal or recycled plastic and create something from nothing.