Revolutionary Guitarist Eddie Van Halen Dies at Age 65

influential rocker lost battle with cancer tuesday

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Eddie Van Halen died of cancer Tuesday, NPR reported. On Twitter, Van Halen’s son announced the passing of the legendary guitarist. Van Halen evolved heavy metal with a technique called two-handed tapping.

Guitar player tapping on the guitar with two hands
The legendary guitarist, Eddie Van Halen, co-founded his namesake band Van Halen with his brother Alex in 1972; Van Halen’s hit songs spanned five decades. Photo By Joaquin Corbalan P / Shutterstock

The worlds of hard rock and heavy metal have lost another legend with the passing of Eddie Van Halen. “In a band known for its instability, due in part to a rotating cast of lead singers that most notably includes David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, Eddie Van Halen and his brother Alex remained constants, appearing on 12 studio albums that reached across five decades and sold tens of millions of copies,” the NPR article said.

“No matter the singer, Eddie Van Halen’s high-flying guitar sound—heavy on tapping, with both hands on the neck of the instrument—was deeply influential, but also hard to imitate. He grew up obsessed with Eric Clapton, only to find himself become a lodestar for generations of guitarists.”

As the article said, Eddie Van Halen was best known for applying both hands to the neck of his guitar to hammer out seemingly impossible melodies at lightning speeds. Here’s how it happened.

Before Eddie Was Eddie

“Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was born in Nijmegen, Holland, on January 26, 1955,” said Professor Colin McAllister, Music Program Director at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. “His father Jack was a professional musician who’d enlisted in the Dutch air force around the time World War II broke out. After the war, Jack married an Indonesian woman, Jan, who gave birth to two boys, Alex and Ed.”

The Van Halen family emigrated to the United States in 1962, when Eddie was seven and Alex was nine. Professor McAllister said that on the ship that carried them to America, the boys played piano for other passengers while their father collected tips in a hat for them. In middle school, they played parties and school dances. Eddie took to guitar while Alex drummed. Their neighbor, David Lee Roth, owned a PA system so he became their singer.

“Van Halen was a big fan of Eric Clapton and Cream from the 1960s,” Professor McAllister said. “But he credits his pyrotechnic playing of one-handed hammer-ons to a Jimmy Page solo on ‘Heartbreaker’ by Led Zeppelin. He also developed that two-handed tapping, which transformed the frets into a stringed keyboard and contributed to his phenomenal speed.”

The Failed KISS Experiment

According to Professor McAllister, in October 1976, Gene Simmons was scouting unsigned bands he could manage. He heard Van Halen and worked on some demos with his band, but Simmons tried to make a number of changes to the band rather than let them be themselves.

Simmons didn’t care for the band name Van Halen. He marketed them as Daddy Long Legs instead. He also bought the band leather pants and boots to reshape their image. Finally, when they auditioned for KISS’s manager, they had to do so on KISS’s equipment—”including Ace Frehley’s bottom-heavy Les Paul guitar, which made Eddie uncomfortable,” Professor McAllister said. Due to this, things fell through.

“Not long after, back at the Starwood club, the band was introduced to a nephew of Milton Berle,” he said. “This was Marshall Berle, who became their manager and talked up Van Halen around town. Warner Brothers boss Mo Ostin came to see them at the Starwood, as Gene Simmons had. ‘And just like that,’ Eddie said, ‘we finally had a record deal.'”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Professor Colin McAllister contributed to this article. Professor McAllister is the Music Program Director at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in Musical Arts at the University of California, San Diego.