Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020) | A Legend Who Re-Invented the Electric Guitar

All were in awe and all agreed the Dutch boy from Pasadena was carrying the Rock guitar torch forward for an art form that was gasping for air in the late 70’s

PHOTO: Getty Images | Eddie Van Halen

By Eric Schermerhorn & Ed Donnelly

I was a junior in High School and lucky enough to witness the re-invention of the electric guitar when I went to see Van Halen in Springfield Mass. as the opening band for Black Sabbath in 1978. Remember, Disco was almost king and Punk had not hit the suburbs yet but we knew the Eruption was meant for us.

Some perspective: Up to that point or “Pre-Eddie” as guitar players call that era, rock guitar was losing its danger and excitement that previously Jimi Hendrix had created the vocabulary and written the book on.

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No one and I mean no one dare use the whammy bar the way Jimi did as evidenced in the brilliant Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. It was sacred territory… dive bombs and sirens…. until Eddie Van Halen.

Eddie got people excited about electric guitar again. Insane phrasing, mind blowing technique with the ability to write great riffs/songs all with the California “shock of the new” done with great humor and passion. From Frank Zappa to Les Paul to the kids in their bedrooms wearing out their vinyl trying to figure out what he was doing, we all loved him.

From 1978 to well into the 1980’s every interview in Guitar Player Magazine (which was the bible for guitarists worldwide) where the interviewer would always ask Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, Joe Pass or Glen Campbell  “what do you think of Eddie Van Halen?” All were in awe and all agreed the Dutch boy from Pasadena was carrying the Rock guitar torch forward for an art form that was gasping for air in the late 70’s.

I did meet him once in 1981 walking down Sunset Blvd. I was visiting my sister from Boston and we were walking towards each other on the sidewalk. Walking? Really? In Los Angeles? EVH? I stopped and asked him a few questions about his guitar as I wanted him to know I was not just a normal fan. Pathetic probably. He was so nice and patient. I learned later after years in the music biz that all the good ones are.

It’s always an interesting exercise to go back and put musically historic moments in context and see how they feel and hold up today. I think Eddie Van Halen was a prodigy, he listened to Debussy and played classical piano as a child. He had a guitar in his hands non-stop and probably did his 10,000 hours by age 16. He was a garage tinkerer who customized and pushed the hardware of the guitar and amplifier to its limits like the Southern Cal Hot rod culture he grew up in. But the best part and the most human part was he did it with a smile all while laughing killing it night after night, riff after riff, solo after solo.

How cool was Eddie? He played the solo on Beat it For free. Beat that.

Thanks Eddie: From all of us who love the sound of the instrument. You made the world a better place and that’s not an easy thing to do.

Eric Schermerhorn (Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Seal, The The)

Let’s talk about JOY. Eric just summed up everything about Eddie Van Halen’s groundbreaking playing and guitar pyrotechnics. All of it is true and all of the accolades you’ll read from fans across the globe in the next few days are more than well deserved. 

But think for a minute about he was doing while he played. He was expressing the absolute, unbridled, pure JOY of rock music and the deepest joy in simply being alive.  Early in the recent “The Beastie Boys Story” documentary they fess up, “we were just trying to crack each other up”. 

Eddie approached music the same way. Unlike the dour, nihilistic punks or the pompous prog rockers of the 70’s, Van Halen just wanted to play fun stuff that cracked him and his brother up. You could see it flicker across his face while playing onstage, “THIS IS RIDICULOUS AND FUCKING BADASS!”. It didn’t matter how loud, aggressive, bombastic or even absurd his playing was, as long as it brought on his famous grin. That joy is what lead to the deep emotional connection that fans have with the music and why it will remain timeless.

Rock and roll music is by nature transgressive. Rebellion can change the world but sometimes rebellion, and raising hell in the loudest way possible, is just simply FUN.

Ed Donnelly (Willie Nelson, The Cult, Zac Brown, Smashing Pumpkins)

You can hear Eric and Ed playing guitar together on The Reset Players recording of “Come Together” at https://resetplayers.bandcamp.com/track/come-together






  1. Cool stuff. Being of an earlier generation, I never realized what Van Halen was about until reading the recent tributes. Are the band in parentheses after the author’s names bands that they’ve played with?