I haven’t tackled the massive, sad news of the passing of Eddie Van Halen here yet because it just felt too immense. This guy changed everything for everyone. Do you play a Strat-style guitar with a humbucker in the bridge position? Companies make those because Eddie played them. Play a guitar with a Floyd Rose? The fine tuners were Eddie’s idea. Paid attention to metal over the last three decades? You’ve heard the amps Eddie designed. Artificial harmonics, two-handed tapping, Drop D tuning? Eddie didn’t invent them but he sure mastered and popularised them.
We all have our personal little stories about Ed and how he impacted our lives as guitarists. I wanted to tell you about the most important lesson I learned from Eddie Van Halen, although that lesson was actually imparted by someone else.
When I was in 9th grade I returned to Peter Cominos, the guitar teacher who had taught me when I first started playing in 5th and 6th grade. Peter remains a great player. And he was the perfect teacher for me. During the first couple of years of lessons he would indulge me by breaking out of the ‘Progressive Guitar For Beginners’ book and helping me to train my ear to recognise chords and learn to teach myself songs. And so I’d figure out things like ‘It Must Have Been Love’ by Roxette, or ‘Faith’ by George Michael. In 7th grade I went it alone with my first electric guitar, getting to know this new electrified and expressive instrument, so much more versatile than my plunky-sounding nylon-string acoustic.
By the time I returned to Peter for lessons again, I was doing pretty well with my ear training and I could play pretty fast. I didn’t really understand phrasing yet though, so that was something we worked on a lot. We’d dissect a solo phrase by phrase. One night I showed up for my lesson and Peter put a photocopy of Steve Vai’s transcription of ‘Eruption’ in front of me. As we dug into each phrase we looked at how Eddie began and ended each note, and what he did in between. And Peter said (I’m paraphrasing), “The thing that mades Eddie so special is that he’s put in the work to know exactly how to make the string do exactly what he wants, no matter what he wants it to do.” Essentially, Eddie had played guitar so frigging much that he had internalised all the tiny little micromovements that allowed him to really take control of the note.
That made a huge impression on me, and it was something I always paid attention to from then on, when listening to Eddie or just in general. It’s something that not all players have. I could name any number of great players who don’t necessarily have that kind of ultra-microscopic connection to each note.
I sort of met Eddie once, at a Fender party at NAMM. He showed up towards the end of the party and headed to the EVH section, completely surrounded by people as you may expect. We’re talking high-end retailers, artists, media… people who are used to being around famous guitarists just as a simple part of their job, and they were all grinning like kids at the sight of their hero. I couldn’t get anywhere close, so I got out of the way and looked at some guitars. Then the crowd started to shift and Eddie and I were suddenly face to face. He saw my jaw drop and he shot me that grin and saluted me. It was surreal and beautiful. In the context of a hectic NAMM party it was probably the best I coulda hoped for, and if you told that teenage-kid version of me that one day he’d even get to say so much as hello to Eddie Van Halen at a private Fender party at NAMM, he would have freaked the hell out.
This blurry photo is the closest I got to documenting the moment.
But of course, the fact that I was even there in the first place and working in this industry is undoubtedly due in part of Eddie’s influence and example.
Rest in peace, Ed. You left the guitar world a better place than you found it and you touched millions upon millions of hearts. Thank you.