In a genre renowned for larger-than-life figures, frenetic showmanship and stylistic excess, it’s no little achievement that Eddie Van Halen, who died yesterday (October 6) from throat cancer aged 65, bestrode hard rock like a fire-fingered colossus. Famed for popularising the ‘tapping’ technique that revolutionised heavy metal and credited with placing the genre at the heart of the American mainstream thanks to the 80 million album sales of his band Van Halen, he was considered amongst the greatest guitarists in history, the man who turned the fine art of the guitar solo into a firework display.
Born in Amsterdam in 1955, Van Halen and his family settled in America in 1962 “with approximately $50 and a piano”. As a child he won piano competitions by improvising in Bach or Mozart recitals, but soon switched to guitar, learning Eric Clapton’s solos on Cream records and inspired by the “reckless abandon” of Led Zeppelin‘s Jimmy Page.
In 1972 he formed a band with his brother Alex; originally named Genesis, they changed the name to Van Halen in 1974. Singer Dave Lee Roth was invited to join in order to save them money on renting his sound system, and alongside bassist Michael Anthony the band became favourites of the LA rock club scene. Their self-titled 1978 debut album was an instant hit, ultimately selling 10 million copies and introducing the wider world to the finger tapping technique – previously used by rock, blues and prog guitarists such as Ritchie Blackmore and Steve Hackett – during Eddie’s legendary solo on ‘Eruption’, voted the second best solo ever by Guitar World.
Though such fretboard gymnastics and onstage antics would lead to behind-the-scenes ego clashes with the charismatic and flamboyant Roth, the combination made Van Halen a riveting live experience, and the band became one of ‘80s rock’s biggest success stories. In 1983 they entered the Guinness Book Of World Records for playing the highest-paid single gig at $1.5 million, and the following year’s ‘1984’ album, with which fore-fronted synthesisers on tracks such as the mammoth international hit ‘Jump’, matched their debut for sales and became a benchmark for the mid-‘80s glam metal genre.
The success of the record, combined with Van Halen’s infamous drug use and growing animosity with Roth, caused ructions within the band, and Roth left the band to be replaced by Sammy Hagar. Van Halen’s success wasn’t dented by such a major upheaval; their following album ‘5150’ (1986), featuring the hit ‘Why Can’t This Be Love’, became the first of four US Number One albums over the coming decade. Band conflicts continued, however, with Hagar leaving in 1996 when his relationship with Van Halen broke down – Roth briefly returned but the band would ultimately see out the ‘90s with Gary Cherone of Boston rocker Extreme upfront.
In 1999 Van Halen were forced to take a hiatus while the guitarist recovered from surgery for a long-standing hip injury sustained from his onstage acrobatics, and underwent successful treatment for tongue cancer. Over the coming decades Van Halen would variously reunite with both Hagar and Roth for sometimes tempestuous tours – the 2003 reunion with Hagar was derailed by Van Halen’s alcohol abuse and Roth said that he worried any reunion with Eddie would result in “a Jerry Springer-style fight”. In 2007 Van Halen completed several rehab stints, and the band steadied enough to record their first album in 15 years – and their first full album with Roth in 27 – 2012’s ‘A Different Kind Of Truth’. It returned the band to the upper echelons of the charts across the world.
Following a tour with Roth in 2015 the band fell into inactivity. “I think Van Halen is finished,” Roth said last year. But Eddie Van Halen’s magnificent fingerwork remains embedded in rock and pop culture, from his iconic riffs on Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ to the generations of metal’s fretboard ninjas and math rock boffins who emulated his ground-breaking solos. Countless are the faces melted in his name.