Eddie Van Halen, pictured in 2015, was the axe hero’s hero
Eddie Van Halen, pictured in 2015, was the axe hero’s hero © Daniel Knighton/Getty

“Where’s your little magic black box?” Ted Nugent barked at the young guitarist whose band was supporting him at a Los Angeles show in 1978.

The guitarist was sound-checking at the time, running through his tricks before the performance, a dazzling series of solos and riffs. Mr Nugent, an older rocker, grabbed the younger man’s guitar but wasn’t able to repeat the tricks. “You just removed your little black box, didn’t you? Where is it?” he shouted. But there was no pedal box with sound effects, a common aid for lead guitarists. “It’s all in the fingers, man,” Eddie Van Halen explained, recalling the encounter in a 2012 interview.

Van Halen, who has died aged 65, was the pre-eminent rock guitarist of his era. His band, also called Van Halen, specialised in party-hearty anthems, uncomplicated paeans to the Californian good life. But their music was transformative. Their lead guitarist was the axe hero’s hero, a pioneer who brought new techniques to this most flashy of instrumental skills. He popularised double-tapping, a method whereby the player uses both hands to manipulate the strings on the top part of the neck of a guitar. Playing at great pace, he was able to unleash splashy feats of technique — dive-bombs, whammy bar work, tremolo-picking — while remaining true to the melodic requirements of a song. “I am not a rock star,” he said in 1988. “I’m a musician.”

Born in Amsterdam in 1955, he moved with his family to California as a child. His father was a saxophonist and clarinettist who struggled to make ends meet on the club circuit. Lack of funds was one reason for his son’s dexterousness as a guitarist. “I couldn't afford the pedals, you know?” Van Halen recalled in 2015. “I couldn't afford a wah-wah pedal. I couldn’t afford a fuzz box and all the toys that everybody else had. So I did everything I could to get sounds out of the guitar with my fingers.”

In 1974, he formed Van Halen with his older brother, Alex, as drummer, Michael Anthony on bass and David Lee Roth as singer. They established themselves as a formidable live act in Los Angeles before landing a record contract and releasing their self-titled debut album in 1978. The guitarist announced himself to the world on an instrumental track called “Eruption”, an aptly titled masterclass in baroque fretwork pitched somewhere between Bach and Jimi Hendrix. He was twice married, with a son by his first wife.

Eddie Van Halen on stage in 1983. He revolutionised guitar play with his instrumental track 'Eruption' in 1978
Eddie Van Halen on stage in 1983. He revolutionised guitar play with his instrumental track 'Eruption' in 1978 © RTMarino/MediaPunch/Alamy

As a guitarist Van Halen had the necessary axe hero poses, casually blowing smoke circles from a cigarette before reeling off impossibly fast flurries of notes at shows. But he didn’t lapse into self-indulgent displays of technique like many of the guitar heroes who followed in his wake — “typewriter players”, in his dismissive phrase. The real exhibitionism in Van Halen was provided by its frontman, Mr Roth, a witty narcissist with a leonine mane of hair, shirts split to his navel and impossibly tight trousers (“Somebody get me a doctor,” as he hollered on one of their songs).

The pair’s relationship soured in the mid-1980s, when Mr Roth left the band, but for a decade they represented the perfect mix of stage extroversion and intense inner drive.

Rock’s history abounds in rivalries between singers and guitarists. One of Van Halen’s guitarist forebears, Jeff Beck, went so far as to create a guitar tone that mimicked the human voice so as to do away with the tiresome need for a prancing lead singer. Van Halen wasn’t immune to similar resentments. “I’m not saying the lead vocal detracts, but in general the first thing people focus on is the vocal,” he complained in 2012. But his ego was sufficiently flexible to allow him to be a versatile and inquisitive musician.

Among his best-known solos came from a guest appearance on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” in 1983, a far-reaching fusion of rock and pop. Meanwhile, his band’s biggest hit, 1984’s “Jump”, swapped guitar riffs for synthesisers, to Mr Roth’s dismay (“Dave said that I was a guitar hero and I shouldn’t be playing keyboards,” Van Halen said).

After Mr Roth left the group, Van Halen were relaunched with a new vocalist, Sammy Hagar. Such personnel changes often prove fatal to bands, but under their guitarist’s aegis Van Halen maintained their place at the pinnacle of rock music. 

“Eddie Van Halen is the most amazing musician I’ve ever been around,” his regular producer Ted Templeman once marvelled. “He’s like Charlie Parker, man — he’s a monster. He can do things with a guitar that other people just can’t do.” Almost as rare, these lavish instrumental gifts were placed at the service of his band, not vice versa.

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