Eddie Van Halen made his first Guitar World cover appearance with the January 1981 issue. The cover asked readers if the young EVH was the world’s greatest guitarist, while the original headline dubbed him The New King of Heavy Metal Guitar. Here’s part one of the interview.
Just give me some of that rock ‘n’ roll music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
Gotta be rock ‘n’ roll music
If you want to dance with me.
Chuck Berry wrote those words over twenty years ago. Edward Van Halen, guitarist for the group sporting his last name, couldn’t agree more.
At 24, you might just say he’s respecting his elders. Along with brother Alex on drums, Michael Anthony on bass and lead vocalist David Lee Roth, the group Van Halen pumps out hard-rockin’ music that was born in the basement, fused in the bars, and explodes on stage.
Describing himself as a kid “living his rock-and-roll dreams,” Eddie Van Halen has been heading there since the fourth grade. He was born in Amsterdam, Holland, where his father, a professional musician, got both brothers to the piano at an early age. His musical knowhow was born in the classics, but his spirit was in rock-and-roll.
“Who wants to sit at the piano!” he exclaimed. “I want to go crazy. Everybody turned me on. I grew up on a lot of early Beatles, DC5, Cream, Clapton, Page, Beck and Hendrix.”
He was 10 when the family moved to Los Angeles, “land of opportunity.” After the high school dances and diploma, he graduated to the bars and the start of the band that bears his name. “We were all in various bands in the L.A. area, and when we got to the college age everyone started flaking off; wanting to be doctors. We got stuck with each other. There was nobody left that was into it.”
They played all the bars and all the oldies, including a version of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” which Eddie calls “a hot tune we turned into a jet plane.” The crowds got bigger and Van Halen were able to draw 3,000 people to a gig they threw themselves. Kiss’ Gene Simmons paid for their original demo sessions, and Mo Ostin, chairman of the board at Warner, and Ted Templemen, V.P. of A&R, caught their act at the Starwood Club. They were signed the next day. Three years ago they played the bar scene, today they headline arenas.
“I never imagined that we would get to where we are this quick,” Eddie reflects. Eddie Van Halen is not the arrogant, brash, or angry young man I had imagined. In fact he wears the kind of smile that could sell soft drinks on television. And he wears it well. Because Eddie Van Halen is one happy fella. The explanation is easy.
“Everything I did is because I wanted to do it,” he says without arrogance. “If I weren’t playing this arena, if I were playing a club, I’d still be doing it because that’s what I want to do. I love playing the guitar.”
More than just playing guitars, Van Halen builds them. In fact, when we met for this interview, he was surrounded by guitar parts, preparing to put together the instruments for a performance only two hours away. As the pickups, bridges, necks and strings found their way together, I began to see the picture of a young guitarist whose success in high voltage rock has left his spirit intact and his feet remarkably on the ground.
In essence, Eddie Van Halen travels in overdrive while the visions in his rearview mirror remain clear. “I’m not a rock star. Sure I am, to a certain extent because of the situation, but when kids ask me how it feels to be a rock star, I say leave me alone, I’m not a rock star. I’m not in it for the fame, I’m in it because I like to play.”
GUITAR WORLD: Were you as good a piano player as you are a guitarist?
I won first prize four years in a row at Long Beach City College for my category. The piano is a universal instrument. If you start there, learn your theory and how to read, you can go on to any other instrument.
Sounds like you had a solid foundation in the basics.
Well, I’m not a good reader. I would read and remember. The one thing I do have is good ears. I don’t mean perfect pitch, but ears for picking things up. I developed my ear through piano theory, but I never had a guitar lesson in my life, except from Eric Clapton off of records.
Do you have the ability to think something and play it immediately?
Not automatically or perfectly, but that’s the thing I don’t think when I play. It’s spontaneous, it’s feeling. It’s not calculated or figured out ahead of time. That’s why you might say I playoff the wall. When I was in junior college at Pasadena City, I took scoring and arranging class with a Dr. Fischer. Frank Zappa had also been his student. Dr. Fischer was very avant-garde and the one thing he taught me was fuck the rules. If it sounds good, it is good.
I take it you took to the guitar fairly easily?
Not to sound-ego-out, but I was a natural. My father has been a professional musician all his life, and he said, ‘Kid you’ve got it,’ Some people have got it and some people don’t, Even people who don’t have it can practice long enough to get it down to a point. But there’s always a difference between a person who has the feel and those who don’t. The difference is in the amount of emotion expressed in your playing. I listened to Debussy by two different pianists and it was like day and night. One guy had it and every note was beautiful. The other guy had lead fingers.
Did you go through a period of imitation before your own days of invention?
Definitely, and Clapton was it. I knew every note he played. That’s what I was known for around home. Me, Alex and another bass player called ourselves Mammoth and we were the junior Cream. [Shortly before going on stage, Eddie played Clapton’s “Crossroads” solo for me, calling it “one of the best live recorded songs ever.”] It’s funny; when I do interviews and tell people Clapton was my main influence, they go “Who?” Because they’re thinking about Clapton doing “Lay Down Sallv,” not the Bluesbreakers or Cream.
Your current trio and a singer format is not much different than Cream. Have you ever thought of working with another guitarist?
I’ve never played with another guitarist because I make enough sound on my own. What I loved about Cream is that everybody had to put out It was three people making all this noise and you could hear each person. The Allman Brothers’ feel is something I never got into. Duane was an excellent slide guitarist, but I never cared for Dickie Betts. I found their music too cluttered for my taste.
In your Clapton days, I’m sure you did some intense studying on the instrument. Do you still work as hard to improve your playing?
Yes, but I don’t call it practice. This will sound real funny to you, but we tour for eight weeks and then take eight days off. When I’m home on a break, I lock myself in my room and play guitar. After two or three hours, I start getting into this total meditation. It’s a feeling few people experience, and that’s usually when I come up with weird stuff. It Just flows. I can’t force myself. I don’t sit down and say I’ve got to practice.
Can you be specific about how you play better today than, say, when the first album was released?
I don’t consider myself a better player. I consider myself different. With the technical ability I have, I can play just about as fast as I’d like to play. Any faster at the volume I play, and I’d have distortion. So technically there’s no reason to get any faster.
But do you still reach any new plateaus?
Sure I do.
Can you point some out on your records?
The solo on “Cradle Will Rock” is different. One guitar player who I respect and think is the baddest, is Allen Holdsworth. I do one short lick on “Cradle” which is very spontaneous. That came out because I’ve been listening to this guy. On the second album I expanded a little more on harmonics.
You’re talking about hitting false harmonics by using your right hand to hit the fretboard?
Yes. First I just used my first finger on the right hand to hit a note (Heard on “Eruption” from the first Van Halen album). Then I discovered the harmonic by hitting the fret an octave above where the left hand is positioned. Now I’m expanding on that, by using all the harmonics in between the octave. I also use the slap technique, which I got from black bass players. Jimi Hendrix influenced me on how to hold the pick when I do the harmonics. I saw the Hendrix movie and discovered where the pick goes when it disappears. He holds it between the joints of his middle finger. I pick weird too. I use the thumb and the middle finger.
One thing that strikes me about your playing is that of all the high-energy players, you don’t take long guitar solos.
I haven’t heard anyone do a long interesting guitar solo outside of early Clapton. I do a guitar solo in the live show which is long, and some people may think boring, but I have fun. Clapton was my favorite. With his feel he’d hit one note where someone else would hit twenty, and his one would do something to you, whereas the other person’s twenty would leave you flat.