Eddie Van Halen, who passed away last week (6 October 2020) was a pioneering and hugely influential rock guitarist. For many he re-invented the rock style and it was never same again. His career was eclectic and powerful, he played the solo on ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson and was notable for the techniques he brought to the masses like pinched harmonics, left and right hand tapping, legato (hammer-ons and pull-offs) and fast picking. His flamboyant and exciting style captivated the 80’s scene and his band Van Halen, reached immense heights.
Academy director Shaun Baxter was a teacher at the Guitar Institute in 1995, and had the opportunity to interview his guitar hero for his first ever interview as a journalist, at the Park Lane Hotel in London. What follows is that very conversation. The interview has been edited for this platform – you can download the complete, unabridged transcript here.
On a train to our rendezvous at a hotel in Marble Arch, I couldn’t help wonder what it was going to be like to finally meet Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen are very powerful these days, having gone from strength to strength over their impressive 15-year career, with the last two albums going straight to the top of the American charts. I entered the foyer of the impressive Park Lane hotel only to wonder how long it would take before I was being carried back out by one of Mr Van Halen’s burly minders after exception had been taken to one of my questions…
I was met by Amanda, Van Halen’s ultra-efficient personal assistant, who ushered me to the interview suite where the photographer and his assistant were setting up. I introduced myself and admitted to being a little nervous as the photographer returned my sweaty palm. I picked up a copy of Metal Hammer from the coffee table and my buttocks clenched tighter at the sight of the recently-bearded, short-haired and totally unrecognisable face of my interviewee staring menacingly out at me from the cover. It was my first ever interview and I couldn’t possibly start any higher up the ladder. Edward Van Halen, easily the most influential rock guitar player since Jimi Hendrix.
Just as I was wondering how we were going to cram an interview, a lesson and a photo session with the great man into the space of an hour, he entered. I knew he’d be small, but he was a lot sturdier than I expected. The new beard, which was now trimmed to the chin, and short spiky hair were in direct contrast to the long-haired, clean-shaven and elfin-grinned look I’d always come to associate with the hero of my formative guitar years.
As we shook hands, I realised that although I’d probably read every interview that Eddie Van Halen had ever done, nothing could have prepared me for his voice. His penchant for cigarettes and alcohol are almost as legendary as his guitar playing, and his broad West Coast accent has been fermented by well over a decade of indulgence to produce a heady brew somewhere between Dennis Leary, Leslie West and Edward G Robinson; however, the most remarkable thing of all was his total lack of pretention. Within minutes, I’d forgotten my earlier worries and, by the time Eddie grabbed his guitar and joined me on the sofa, I had completely relaxed.
I started telling Eddie how at the Guitar Institute, our Rock programme is split into two areas – pre and post Van Halen. Such is the magnitude of his influence. I also told him that a lot of young guitarists today are listening to third-generation Van Halen copyists and yet have never heard any of his earlier albums. Therefore, I wanted to devote the bulk of this interview to the origins and development of his unique style, the influence that he’s had on rock guitar and then bring things right up to date by talking about his new album Balance…
To resort to conventional punctuation when transcribing a conversation with Eddie Van Halen would only serve to betray the enormity of his personality. When I listen back to the tape, it’s as though I could be in conversation with a loveable cartoon character. The cadence of Eddie’s voice demands that certain words are written in CAPITALS if you are to get a proper sense, not only of the rise and fall of the sentences, but also the animated way in which he communicates. He does it with patience, enthusiasm and always with good humour.
One noticeable aspect of Eddie Van Halen’s style, when he first burst on the scene, was that it seemed geared towards catering for a low boredom threshold. Every solo a balanced mixture of new and ear-catching techniques. I asked him how calculated he’d been in putting together a style that was so stunningly different from anyone else:
“It really wasn’t calculated at all. Meaning, I just stumbled onto this shit. I’m telling you man, it’s all a coupla beers and wingin’ it. I’m serious,” he laughed. I told him that most guitarists wanted to emulate their heroes, and yet he sounded different. “Yes, ‘cause I grew up on [Eric] Clapton and ended up not playing like him at all, so it’s weird to me too.”
It seemed one negative aspect to Van Halen’s influence was that a lot of players started producing horribly formulated solos in an effort to dish up the same wide range of musical ingredients. “They used the techniques that I used as a TRICK.” (I understood his use of the word ‘trick’ to mean using a technique more as a cosmetic effect, rather than a vehicle for expression). I agreed and pointed out that, suddenly, players started approaching a solo as though they were baking a cake: “a hand-full of whammy bar histrionics, a touch of tapping and a pinch of harmonics and ‘voila’ a successful solo.” To me, the results always sounded stiff and contrived.
“Exactly! Very stiff!” Whereas he never sounded like that? “No, because I played that way for YEARS before we even had a record out. So like, for ME, it wasn’t a trick. For me, it was just the way I played.”
Obviously, thinking that my use of the word ‘formulated’ was curiously at odds with my profession, Eddie continued, “Yeah, I think the main reason behind that is because [leaning forward, he gives me a reassuring touch on the knee] and I don’t mean to say that you’re part of the problem, but YOU’RE TEACHING THESE PEOPLE.”
I felt like pointing out that actually I was also completely self-taught and I always stress to my students the need to be both expressive and different, but time was short and, besides, I was too busy laughing. “No-one taught me. I stumbled onto this shit.” He paused. “I guess my point is – and I don’t mean to say [he puts on an important-sounding voice]: ‘Hey, well I’m bitchin’ because I never took a lesson.’ What I mean is NOBODY I knew played guitar. I was very isolated.”
Eddie explained how his original style developed from trying to figure out how people played certain things and, because he didn’t know any better – he discovered his own way of doing them. “If I had something in my head, I would figure out some way to do it. I’d hear Segovia’s stuff and go [whispering]: “No… I can’t fingerpick, so I CHEATED… And it worked [demonstrates pseudo-flamenco beginning to ‘Little Guitars’ from the ‘Diver Down’ album]…. [What with] playing classical piano – you know, doing arpeggios – I’d go like: ‘How can I do that?’ [demonstrates right-hand tapping]… ’Cause I sure as hell couldn’t do it any other way so I had to cheat. You know. I’m actually a good cheater” he laughed.
I assumed then Eddie spent hours and hours experimenting just to explore the potential of each separate technique. Like harmonics? “Yes!…and they just CAME! I just stumbled across those….[he demonstrates fret-tapped harmonics] and I found out later what the ‘correct’ way to do it is. You see people [demonstrates the ‘orthodox’ method of creating artificial harmonics]… Picking them out like that. You know what I mean? I CAN’T DO THAT!”
“It’s a fuck! So I just cheat and go…[demonstrating the Intro to ‘Women in Love’ from Van Halen II]… And it works.”
Not only that, but it sounds different. I put it to Eddie that his celebrated experimentations on guitar were more akin to Avant Garde ‘art’ guitarists, like Fred Frith, who hang paper clips from the strings of the guitar and then beat it with a hammer. “Actually, THAT I do more on piano. I don’t know if you’ve heard the new record?”
I told him I had and asked him to tell me the story behind the piece in question, Strung Out. “Back in 83/84, my wife and I ran into [Marvin Hamlisch]. We went to rent his beach house and he had this beautiful white Yamaha Baldwin and I, you know, proceeded to cop a buzz and destroyed his piano. For three days in a row, I used forks and knives on the strings and, I don’t know, if you asked me: ‘What possessed you to do that?’ [lowering his voice] I’m fucked if I know. I just felt like playing around. I would hit notes and do harmonics on the strings and stuff and I’d just have a lot of fun doing it… And wasted his piano while doing it.”
“No-one taught me. I stumbled onto this shit. I don’t mean to say ‘Hey, well I’m bitchin’ because I never took a lesson,’ what I mean is NOBODY I knew played guitar. I was very isolated.”
Legend has it that an extremely irate Hamlisch presented Van Halen with a bill for $15,000 upon his return.
“….And then I found out that he was coming back home and I said: ‘Oh Shit! What am I going to do?’ There were cigarette burns on it and everything. You know, I had to buy him a new piano.” I added that it was probably the piano on which he wrote The Way We Were – the guilt became too exquisite and he threw his head back and laughed out loud.
I reminded Eddie that he’d also trashed a few guitars in his time while subjecting them to the same investigative torture. The fact is that Eddie Van Halen’s creativity and thirst for adventure go far beyond the average guitar player when left to their own devices. He’s always maintained that most of his ideas came as a result of practising while watching television. But I told him that I frequently had problems teaching his stuff to a classroom of unamplified guitarists as a lot of the techniques that he uses are inaudible when the guitar is not plugged into a distorted amp.
“Yeah, for years what I’d do is I’d have a Marshall cabinet with an old Fender Bandmaster [like an old light tweed head] and, on a Fender, if you take the speaker output to the cabinet you get full volume. If you plug it into the external output [whispering] it’s really quiet. It’s no good for the amp. Yeah, you’ll fry the amp after a while, but I used to play for years, you know, we would live in a small house and my mom would go: ‘Why do you have to make that high crying noise?'” he laughed. “The distortion and the characteristics of the amp were EXACTLY like it would be if it was plugged in normally, except it was really quiet – like a Rockman or something –you know what I mean? It was great. All the harmonics and all the shit came out that way. I probably saved myself a lot of hearing by that too.”
“The left is kinda shot,” he said after I asked about his hearing. “When I had it checked to see…at 10k I have the hearing of a seventy year-old.” The photographer and I looked at each other with a mixture of amusement and horror.
I brought up his domination of rock guitar in the ’80s, but was cut off mid-stream. “That sounds so funny,” he retorted, “I just feel like I’m this punk kid. I don’t know what the fuck I’ve done. It’s almost like it’s not me. I really don’t feel like I’ve done Jack shit, because I would love to be someone like Steve Lukather who is a TOP studio musician who can play you anything you ask him to play, whatever you ask him to play. I CAN’T DO THAT. It used to drive me crazy when we used to play clubs and we’d have to learn other people’s songs and it would NEVER sound the way it was supposed to.”
I’d always been curious as to how somebody with such an inquisitive mind and strong creative drive should still claim to be in the dark when it comes to music theory: especially as he’s so enamoured by the playing of people like Allan Holdsworth. Doesn’t he find it restrictive as to what progressions he can function over?’
“Yeah, I CAN’T DO THAT. It’s very confusing to me. I mean, I’ve tried, believe it or not. I took piano lessons from the age of six to twelve and I fooled my teacher. I would play something and it was my EARS… I would REMEMBER. Granted, it was simple stuff, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to fool him, but I never learned to read.”
I told Eddie I was referring more to the way that harmony functions rather than knowing how to read; after all, Allan Holdsworth can’t read. I suggested that the reason that he had never actually got round to learning theory was because he never has to play outside Van Halen. Most musicians, who learn theory, do so in order to be able to function over any chord progression that may be thrown their way when playing with somebody else; whereas, in his case, he only ever has to play over Van Halen’s stuff, so he’d have time to work something out beforehand if he found a passage difficult.
“EXACTLY! I’ve always been in, kinda like, my own little world, so I can do whatever I want,” he chuckled.
So that doesn’t leave him feeling restricted? “WELL, what I’m saying is I wish I COULD DO. I guess I do feel… limited… as a musician. That’s why it’s hard for me to get up on stage and play like say… uh… Branford Marsalis, the sax guy on ‘The Tonight Show’, you know, he’s playing for Sting. He calls me all the time. He wants to JAM! I feel like an IDIOT! I’m scared to death because I CAN’T KEEP UP WITH PEOPLE LIKE THAT.”
I couldn’t help but think all the ‘schooled’ musicians I knew who were versatile enough to play with most people, but would never make any lasting contribution to music and, yet, whatever he chooses to do in the future, the contributions that a completely self-taught Eddie Van Halen has made to rock guitar will live forever.
“I can only do what I do. You know what I mean? So, in that respect, I wish that, earlier on, that I would’ve learned how to do things in the ‘correct’ way, but, if I HAD done that, I don’t know if I’d be who I am.” I told him that a lot of guys felt the same way about taking lessons. They’re afraid that, by having to view music from a common perspective, they’ll lose their own personal ‘vision’ of what music is, and so loose their identity in the process.
“Yeah, but with me, I didn’t have a choice” He lowered his tone, “meaning it’s too late for me now to be taking lessons. Then I’d feel like a REAL idiot!… ‘Cause, in hindsight, I wish I would’ve, but, at the same time, I don’t know whether I’d have ended up doing the stuff that I’ve done had I take lessons.”
I was starting to think that, in Eddie’s case, he was probably right. If, as he maintains, his uniqueness came, not by design but as a result of having to work things out himself then, presumably, he would have ended up sounding like everybody else had there been someone available to teach him the ‘correct’ way to do things; however, as Eddie had been keen to point out, learning in isolation also has its limitations.
I told him that I’d learned all my theory from books – “Once I’d learned [plays up and down A minor blues scale shape #1] it’s all from there” he said.
I agreed that, for Rock, it was. “Yeah, THAT’S what I play! Every now and then when you make a mistake, hey, it’s a passing note right?”
“It was obvious that Eddie found it farcical to talk about music in these terms. Where I used a scale name, he would use an adjective. He doesn’t recognise a note as a word or number, it’s an intention or an emotion. As with most passions, where the magic seems to be directly proportional to the mystery, Edward Van Halen seems to have sustained his enduring romance with the instrument by refusing to demystify it. To him, music is a purely spiritual thing and so any attempts to quantify or label a ‘feeling’ are seen as both clinically and comically academic.”
Part of the interview was dedicated to a lesson. Click here to read more from Eddie on improvisation, and his relationship with the world of guitar theory.
PRETENDERS TO THE THRONE
After being at the top for nearly a decade, the standard of guitar playing shot up as the first wave of copyists emerged offering refried Van Halen at twice the speed and half the style. I was interested as to what was going through Eddie’s mind right then.
“Well, first, when I saw people going like that [whispering, he imitates right-hand tapping action] I’m going, ‘COME ON’. I could just tell that they were doing it like ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, look! I got a new trick’, but I swear it doesn’t bother me at all, because I can see that nobody really UNDERSTOOD.”
At the photographer’s request, Eddie shifts from the sofa to a chair in front of the camera for the shots of his hands.
“In the beginning I guess it bothered me” – I told him that I sensed that he was more competitive then? “NOT competitive, it was more… Because I played like that in the clubs and Richie Blackmore used to come by and these guys from a band called Angel and my brother used to say, “Don’t show them how you’re doing it until we get a record out, you know, so I used to turn around.”
I was amazed. “Yeah, well it really pissed them off, because they tried to cop my stuff before we had a record out.” I wondered if he ever felt pressure once his reputation had grown, at the prospect of having to come up with yet another load of amazing licks, flicks and tricks each time they did an album… “Well, you see, I don’t know, to me, that just comes along with being in a rock band and being the guitarist. In fact, it was more competitive in the club days.”
One of Van Halen’s major strengths was that he seemed to have an innate ability to know what non guitarists would find flash. He was fast, but he never overdid it. His fast licks were never longer than a bar; however, towards the end of the ‘80s, rock guitar playing had become an Olympic sport and it seemed ironic that the one player responsible for spawning a generation of technique-hungry guitarists was going to have to start to play too many notes if he was to compete or lose his crown. On the face of it, it looked as though Van Halen refused to get involved and, instead, stood aside to let the newcomers fight it out while he concentrated on taking the band to greater heights.
“You know it’s really funny, and I don’t know whether you believe me or not” he whispered, “but I’ve never listened to them, I’ve never heard a record by them, you know, NOTHING. Even Steve Vai or… uh… Satriani. The only thing I heard by Satriani is the damned Sony commercial. How does that song go [starting to hum]? …And it’s not because I’m a prick about it, it’s just that, for some reason, I’ve always kinda lived in my own little thing and played with my brother.”
I told him that I was interested to know whether his current shift of emphasis from lead guitar playing to song-writing and solid rhythm parts (a trend never more apparent than on the new album, Balance) was because he’d become tired of competing? “It’s actually always BEEN that though, I’ve always been into writing… trying to do a song.”
I pressed my point and said that ‘Balance’ was the first Van Halen album that hasn’t got a lead guitar break on the opening track. “I guess that comes from in the old days. Alex and I grew up with Cream and it would be one verse and then fucking solo for twenty minutes and the come back and finish the song. We’d play five songs and it would be a two-hour set” [laughs] “You know, we’d just jam.”
From an outsider’s point of view, it seemed like it was from the time that vocalists Sammy Hager joined the band (replacing Dave Lee Roth) that they started to focus on a more general market (a market that they wanted to cater for and Dave Lee Roth didn’t).
“It wasn’t a matter of catering. It was more a matter of… I play keyboards and I’d written ‘Jump’ an album or two before it was allowed to be on the record and I’m going, ‘Hey, fuck this shit! It’s another instrument I play’. He’s going [impersonating Roth]: ‘Hey, nobody wants to see you play keyboards’. That was Roth’s trip. He was adamant about it. In fact, I built my own studio. I said, ‘Fuck you!’ and [beaming with delight] he quit.”
“I don’t care if people consider me to be a guitar hero or whatever, if I play TUBA well, and I write a song, I’m going fuckin’ play it. ‘Jump’ was the first song that we recorded in my studio ‘cause I’m going ‘I like the song.’ It wasn’t like I changed my thing; it was that, finally, he couldn’t stop me anymore, you know, and when Sammy joined the band, I was free to do what I wanted. I didn’t have anyone saying, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
I asked Eddie what his thoughts were when, having left Van Halen, Dave Lee Roth unveiled Steve Vai. “I’m going: ‘this guy is better at what I do than I AM’, you know, but [whispering] he lacked the vibe… the feel. He was technically VERY proficient, but stiff. It always made me feel bad in a way, because it made me feel like, ‘Wow, is that how people perceive ME?’, ‘cause, to me, listening to him it didn’t SOUND like me, but he took my chops, so to speak, and made them very robotic… and did them twice as fast.”
I pointed to the sentence in my pre interview notes that read, “…offering refried Van Halen at twice the speed but half the class of the original”. “Yeah! Yeah! It didn’t seem natural, the way THEY did it.” I remarked that, today, a lot of players sound as though all their solos are written down. “Well, [Vai] used to transcribe my stuff for magazines. That’s how, I guess, he started learning it.”
Recently I’d read Eddie saying that he was becoming “more bluesy and traditional” in his guitar playing. In fact, he’d gone as far as to confess to feeling slightly embarrassed for being associated with techniques such as right-hand tapping. I was curious as to why he would want to move away from the very thing(s) that had set him aside from the competition in the first place and made him a star? “I guess because there isn’t a whole lotta sillier shit you can do with the guitar. What else can you DO? At the same time, I guess I don’t want to have to keep coming up with tricks in order to be respected as a player.” He continued, “I pull out the tricks – if you want to call them that – all the time.”
I wondered how much Eddie was interested in keeping up with new developments and trends in guitar playing. I remarked that I’d noticed that he doesn’t seem to sweep pick much. What did he think of it as a technique? “What does THAT sound like? Like Country?” Reluctantly, I quickly showed him how some players use it with arpeggios. “That sounds more like an Yngwie thing.” I agreed and said that it was also associated with players like Frank Gambale.
“Who?” I told Eddie that he was a fusion player and showed how he applied the technique to scales. “So THAT’S how they do it so fucking fast!” The photographer and his assistant started laughing– so does Eddie.
“WELL, I DON’T KNOW! I’ve heard stuff where people are kinda just goin’ [gestures with his hands on the guitar in time with his voice], “RAAGROO! RAAGROO!… and I’m going, ‘What the fuck?… I ain’t playing like that’. See, to me, I’m TOO OLD to start taking lessons and figure that shit out. It’s just for years that I’ve been doin’ my own thing, you know, and I’m quite happy doing it.”
It was another testimony to Eddie’s modesty and TOTAL lack of pretention that we were able to talk like this without him getting the least bit defensive. He doesn’t seem to entertain ANY competitive thoughts, but then why should he? He’s got nothing to prove. “Yeah! I was NEVER out to prove anything in the first place. You know? To me music isn’t a competitive thing. It’s very personal, It’s ME, it’s MY emotions, MY vibe and NOBODY can copy that.”
Eddie Van Halen is an incredible paradox. I’ve never met a player who’s less competitive and, yet, no one is more responsible for making guitar playing more competitive than him. The legacy, it seems, is completely at odds with the man. “But it’s ALWAYS guitarists! What’s the fuckin’ deal? I don’t get it.”
I told him that it was because they are all influenced by him. He changed it. “Yeah, but I’M not like that,” he laughed. “See that’s the WHOLE POINT. They missed the WHOLE DAMN POINT. It’s not about who’s FASTER or BETTER or whatever. It’s what’s INSIDE of you. What makes YOU want to play guitar, you know? Do you want GIRLS? What do you WANT? I did it because I’ve got nothing better to do, you know, and I LOVE DOING IT. It’s something that nobody can take away. It’s a way to express myself ‘cause I’m actually kind of a SHY, QUIET GUY, believe it or not, and it was a way for me to express myself.”
The photographer asked Eddie to get into position for the main cover shot. I started opening another cassette. In the background I can hear Eddie practising his sweeps (Raagroo, Raagroo), he calls over to me: “I couldn’t THINK that fast!”
“If you play rock guitar, you are influenced by Eddie Van Halen. His earlier works will need no introduction, but if you’ve only ever listened to guys playing pale imitations of what Van Halen was doing 16 years ago, why settle for second best when you can listen to the real thing?”
He had me laughing again. I found it amazing to think that Eddie seemed to have remained so cocooned from other guitarists. For some reason I’d imagined that he would have his ear to the ground for new developments in guitar. Instead, I learned that he’s content to continue as he is. In fact, being around somebody of Eddie’s stature and modesty was starting to make me feel guilty for ever having entertained any competitive thoughts as a guitarist, but the truth is that most guitarists have to be competitive in order to get anywhere near the standard that Eddie has set, furthermore, the music business is fiercely competitive for any young guitarist and only a few survive. If we were all as free and easy as Eddie, we’d probably still be in our bedrooms strumming a few open chords.
Amanda reappeared. She stood there and pointed at her watch as the cameraman took the final few shots. Eddie talked to me throughout (unwittingly frustrating the photographer by not looking into the camera).
Just before he left, I handed Eddie a copy of my CD (Jazz Metal) and assured him that I sounded as much like him as he did to his hero, Eric Clapton… “Yeah, Cool! I might have to steal some chops,” he laughed.
I told him I’d felt a bit nervous before meeting him, but now realised that I needn’t have been. “Oh shit no! I’m just an old fuckin’ Joe, you know. Yeah, I find it really amusing, it’s like you find some guys are just COMPLETE pricks and it’s like, ‘Hey buddy! All you do is play the GUITAR’, you know what I mean?”
As I was leaving, I met bassist Mike Anthony in the doorway. We chatted and, like Eddie, I couldn’t help but think what a friendly and unaffected guy he was. In producing two successful players who seem so at ease with themselves, the close-knit environment of Van Halen seems to have produced a true rarity.
If you play rock guitar, you are influenced by Edward Van Halen. If you are influenced directly, Eddie’s earlier works will need no introduction; however, if you’ve only ever listened to guys playing pale imitations of what Edward Van Halen was doing 16 years ago, why settle for second best when you can listen to the real thing?
The king is Ed. Long live the king.
Words: Shaun Baxter, 1995.
Shaun is director at the Academy of Music and Sound and a self-described huge fan of Eddie Van Halen.
Read more from the AMS blog here.