I had just come inside from working on the shed I was building this past fall when I saw the news that Eddie Van Halen had died. It was October 6, 2020, and up until that moment, it was like any other pandemic day; you know, the kind that runs together with all of the others.
However, in that moment, the world changed for me in a way that it had not done so before, and probably never will.
It’s always sad when when we lose famous musicians and artists that we revere, and who’s creative efforts have made a difference in our lives, even if it just helped us deal with the difficulties of a broken heart, or of simply being a teenager.
I’m in my 50s now, so I’ve lived long enough to see the world take back many famous rockers, but Eddie? That was too much. That one hit way too close to home for me.
It’s a little weird for me to say that, because it’s not like I knew him. Hell, I’m ashamed to admit this, I never even saw him play live. But like millions of other guitar players, who grew up in the 80s with rock star dreams, Eddie Van Halen was king. He was the ultimate guitar hero that we all admired, and there was no reason to think that he wouldn’t live forever.
There will never be another Eddie. Like Hendrix, Page, Clapton and Beck before him, Eddie revolutionized guitar music, but in a magnitude that had never been seen before, and never will again. His astounding innovations not only changed our perceptions about the instrument itself and the ways people play it, they changed entire world of popular music.
There have been countless obituaries and tribute articles to Eddie Van Halen written during the past few months. I’ve read tons of them, and until now, I’ve resisted writing my own, in part because I’m not sure I have anything else to say that hasn’t already been said before, and also because his death has been very hard for me to process.
Six months later, I’m still in mourning. I can’t seem to get past this one. I think about Ed every single day. I read articles about him on the VHND website, I listen to his music, I play some of it on my guitar, or at least I try, I watch Van Halen videos on YouTube and other VH related stuff.
One of my favorite YouTube channels these days is Sunset Sound, the recording studio where Van Halen recorded their first 5 albums. They’ve been releasing “roundtable” videos where the studio engineers and managers recount their days working with Van Halen and other iconic artists, like Prince and Elton John during the late 70s and early 80s. You know… really geeky stuff.
They’ve been reliving some great stories about how young Van Halen recorded their groundbreaking debut album. Even cooler is the video of a group of Los Angeles music students recreating the entire album at Sunset Sound, using the same room, the same microphones and mic setups.
When I first heard the news back in October, first thing I did was to get on the VHND site and order a Van Halen Frankenstein guitar mug, which I drink from at my desk almost every day. I also came pretty close to ordering one of the special release EVH Frankenstein replica guitars that are due to be released later this year.
Somehow, I exercised a rare bit of restraint on that, but I did start playing my own guitars more often. Just as Eddie inspired teenage Dan Bailey to try and be a better guitar player, his passing is now inspiring middle age Dan Bailey to want to be a better player, too.
So much in fact, that I recently signed up for a guitar lesson site and have been carving out time for dedicated practice sessions. It’s been a fun journey, because I see myself going both back and forward in time. Pretty much all I want to do these days is play electric guitar. I’m trying to remember those old licks and songs I used to play, and I’m also seeing myself move past the stale plateau I’ve been at for years.
I’m using this inspiration as I write and record the music for my next album, which I plan to release later this spring, and it’s reminding me of the endless hours I spent as a rambunctious kid, practicing, hoping that someday I’d be one tenth as good as Ed. That was one of the only things that could make me sit still for hours. It still is.
Eddie had it all. He had the look, he had the sound, he had an immensely cool guitar, he had the biggest rock and roll band of the the decade, he wrote the coolest songs, and he had his infectious smile that showed us that he truly loved what he was doing.
That didn’t mean that Ed’s life was perfect. He struggled with drugs and alcohol for many years, he had to have a hip replacement, and he eventually got cancer, which is what ultimate killed him.
He also had the kind of singular focus creativity and talent that at times alienated him from all of his other band members, (except for Alex and Wolfgang,) although everyone who knew Eddie said that he was a genuinely friendly, good natured person; he was just hard to work with sometimes. What creative professional isn’t?
Eddie’s Frankenstein Guitar
Although Eddiee used many guitars during his career, his most iconic is the “Frankenstrat”. On the surface, Eddie’s one-of-a-kind Frankenstein guitar was a fitting instrument for a true rock star, but underneath, it was nothing more than an experiment cobbled together and improvised by a curious young lad who was part creative, part innovator and part tinkerer.
Never mind the fact that sound which came out of this instantly identifiable instrument changed the world, and that it was played on some of the biggest hits of all time, it’s kind of a piece of junk, but one that was tweaked to refinement and played perfectly by its master.
It’s another reminder that the tools don’t make you great, the person handling them is what makes the difference. That’s a good lesson for us photographers and all artists and craftspeople. Tools don’t innovate, people do.
Originally built from a $50 factory reject ash body and an $80 neck, and painted black with Schwinn bicycle paint, the guitar saw numerous customizations and “striped” color schemes over the years.
Although it had the style of a Fender Stratocaster, Eddie was dissatisfied with the thin sound and excessive hum of single coil pickups, and so he pulled the stock PAF humbucking pickup out of a Gibson ES-335, dipped it in wax and screwed it directly into the body cavity.
Everything about the guitar, from the original Floyd Rose Tremolo bridge, numerous necks, oversized strap screw eyes and even the 1971 Quarter that he screwed onto the body to keep the tremolo unit in tune when he tuned the guitar down to D, was engineered by Eddie to match his own needs to push things “past where they’re supposed to be.”
Nearly all of Eddie’s own innovations with his guitar have become standard fare for all of the guitar companies these days, and every single “Super Strat” owes its ancestry to Van Halen’s tinkering. As he no doubt did to countless other guitar payers, he even inspired me to customize and repaint my first electric guitar.
Eddies orignal Frankenstein guitar, and his entire 1978 touring rig were on display two years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Play It Loud” Instruments of Rock and Roll exhibit. Sadly, it closed right before my last trip to New York, so I missed it.
Eddies Legacy as a Creative
When I ponder why Eddie’s death has hit me so hard, I think it’s because it makes me realize the enormous effect that one person can have on the world, and at the same time, how life can be so short. We only have one chance on this rock to do the things we want to do, and due to the strange and serendipitous alignment of genetics, hard work and timing, some of us end up making a rather big splash.
He said it best himself, when he told this to the GuitarWorld crew in 2008.
“I never would have imagined in my craziest dreams that a little dutch boy could create such a ruckus.”Eddie Van Halen
When I hear Ed say this, it reaffirms the notion that if you relentlessly dedicate yourself do doing what you love to the best of your ability, and without compromise, you will indeed find success. Theres really no telling where you can go in life, and how many people you can touch and influence when you put your energy in the right direction.
Sure, not everyone will make as big a ruckus as Eddie Van Halen did, but we all have our parts to play, and we all shape the world in some unique way.
I continue to be so torn up about this because I think about how much this one guy inspired not just me, but the millions of others. Also, it’s because he was still pretty young. Eddie was only 65 when he died. That’s too early.
Something else comes to mind when I think about the impact that Eddie made on the world. He was an immigrant who came to this country to escape a racist environment in The Netherlands during the early 60’s, only to end up in another.
With a Dutch father and an Indonesian mother, Eddie and his brother Alex were often referred to as “half breeds,” and their mother was treated as a second class citizen in their country.
After moving to Pasadena by boat in 1962 with their $50 piano, the two young boys started a brand new life in a country and a segregated school where they couldn’t even speak the language. They were considered “minority” students, and were often bullied for being different than the white kids.
Despite the hardships, the two boys obviously grew up and prospered because of their talents; yet another example of the massive contributions that immigrants continue to bring to not just our country, but to every single place in the world where someone shows up who happens to be different in some way.
Eddie himself recounts his experience and success as being a product of the American Dream. He talks about his life and his early years as an emerging musician during this interview in The Smithsonian’s series “What it Means to Be An American.” This is an amazing video, and it’s one that usually brings tears to my eyes.
If Eddie’s story doesn’t reaffirm the importance of diversity in our world, then I don’t know what does. Sadly, not everyone shares this sentiment.
It’s an absolute truth that our world would not look, or sound the same, were it not for the talents, energy and curious genius of Edward Lodewijk Van Halen. I don’t know if I’ll ever full get past the feelings of loss I have for him and for what he gave to us.
I know that I’ll continue to be inspired and entertained by him through the rest of my own life, and his smile will always remind me of what you can accomplish when you dedicate your life to doing what you love.
rest in peac… Have fun rocking out for all eternity with Jimi, Stevie, Rory, Randy and all the other guitar slingers who were taken from us too soon. And thank you for everything.