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Many Guitarists Were Influenced By E.V.H.

Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performs at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Tuesday, July 14, 2015, in Irvine, Calif. (Photo by Rich Fury/Invision/AP)

He was not just a guitar player.

Eddie Van Halen was a guitar player’s player — a virtuoso.

In my opinion, whenever he touched the instrument, it was magical. While most guitarists create unique sounds with different effects pedals, Van Halen did not. He used few effects and created his tone with his fingers.

Sadly, he died last week after a battle with throat cancer. He was 65.

Although some players have tried, few have succeeded in emulating his sound, his technique, or his ability.

I first heard Van Halen as a teen, in 1978, on his band’s self-titled release “Van Halen.” The song “Eruption” is as fresh today as it was then. I wondered then, and still do, how he made an electric guitar sound like that. Some critics consider “Eruption” one of the best guitar solos of all time. I think his best solo was on “Beat It.” As I have written previously, here’s why.

This song is from Michael Jackson’s 1982 release “Thriller.” I don’t have to go into detail about how popular this album is. The reason for its popularity is because of Jackson, producer Quincy Jones, and the session musicians hired to play. The solo is played by none other than guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen scored success with his band Van Halen, but when he lent his talents to this song, it cemented the song’s place in music history. This is my favorite guitar solo because of its raw energy, speed, and sound. If you watch the video for the song, the director got it right, when he showed rival gangs in a fight/dance scene with the solo as a backdrop. The solo captures the fierce competitiveness, and ferocity of opposing forces, and the resolve to come together through the power of music.

Van Halen was a virtuoso because he could play any style and make it seem effortless. There are many videos on YouTube with different artists paying their tribute to a guitar legend. He developed amplifiers and designed his own guitar line, But as Van Halen put it, he did so because he was always chasing tone. In a YouTube video about one of his amps, youtube.com/watch?v=8L6cefSzrxg, he said he is always evolving. “My tastes do change and through my career I’ve always evolved in my chasing and making of tone. And I will continue to. It’s just part of my DNA.”

Van Halen said to interviewer Denise Quan that the reason for him developing his style was out of necessity. “The main reason why I squeezed so many — call them tricks, call them whatever, techniques — was out of necessity because I couldn’t afford the pedals. I couldn’t afford a wah-wah pedal. I couldn’t afford a fuzz box or all the toys everybody else had. So I did everything I could to get sounds out of the guitar with my fingers.” You can find the 55-minute interview at youtube.com/watch?v=yb26D8bBZB8. There he demonstrates his virtuosity.

According to the Associated Press, Van Halen was something of a musical contradiction. He was an autodidact who could play almost any instrument, but he couldn’t read music. He was a classically trained pianist who also created some of the most distinctive guitar riffs in rock history. He was a Dutch immigrant who was considered one of the greatest American guitarists of his generation. Van Halen was born in Amsterdam and his family immigrated to California in 1962 when he was 7. His father was a big band clarinetist who rarely found work after coming to the U.S., and their mother was a maid who had dreams of her sons being classical pianists. The Van Halens shared a house with three other families. Eddie and Alex had only each other, a tight relationship that flowed through their music. “We showed up here with the equivalent of $50 and a piano,” Van Halen told The Associated Press in 2015. “We came halfway around the world without money, without a set job, no place to live and couldn’t even speak the language.” Van Halen, sober since 2008, lost one-third of his tongue to a cancer that eventually drifted into his esophagus. In 1999, he had a hip replacement. He was married twice, to actress Valerie Bertinelli from 1981 to 2007 and then to stuntwoman-turned-publicist Janie Liszewski, whom he wed in 2009.

He made beginning guitarists keep the instrument in their hands, so they would get more proficient, while he may have made veteran guitarist rethink their techniques and abilities.

Either way you look at it, he made the guitar glamorous to play.

R.I.P. E.V.H.

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