When John 5 heard Eddie Van Halen’s flamboyant and iconic guitar playing for the first time, it rocked his world. He wanted to play like that. He wanted to marry Valerie Bertinelli and perform with David Lee Roth.
“It was like if you were living and suddenly you could breathe or see,” said John 5, best known for playing with Rob Zombie.
“Everything was wide open. It was like everything was black and white and, all of a sudden, I could see in color. That’s the effect it had on me. It changed my life forever.”
Dead at age 65 on October 6, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was born in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, on January 26, 1955—after his brother, Alex. The family left The Netherlands and landed in Pasadena, where Van Halen would fall in love with the Dave Clark Five. The smiling axeman who always looked like he was having fun went on to change many young guitarists’ lives.
“It’s a horrible day and even year,” John 5 said. “It’s been like, ‘OK, we’ll get through this year’ and then there’s one thing after another. This has to be rock bottom. It can’t get any worse.”
John 5 knew Van Halen well, having recorded 1998’s “DLR Band” with Roth.
“I was close, very close with Dave,” said John 5, who saw Van Halen perform at Joe Louis Arena in his hometown of Detroit on the “1984” tour. “I’ve known Dave for years and years and years. I’d known Eddie probably since 1997. We would talk on the phone and he was just a friend and just someone who changed the world. He wasn’t just another guitar player. He was really someone very special—so special, I wanted to just protect him always. He was that special to humanity.
“He was the greatest guitar player who ever lived. It’s so weird that he’s not here and died at such a young age. He made so many people happy. He changed so many lives—millions and millions of people.”
Motley Crue drummer and DJ Tommy Lee said he was with former Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar less than three weeks ago and he didn’t mention a word about Van Halen’s condition.
“I thought he was in the clear and everything was cool,” Lee said. “I still don’t know the details, but obviously that wasn’t true. It came back and bit him. I thought he was going to be fine. It comes as a shock.
“I can think of a handful of other people that death could have come and taken away rather than Ed. What an amazing musician. He completely—not slightly—changed the way people played guitar. I’ll never forget listening to the radio and ‘Eruption’ came on the radio. I thought, ‘What is this?’ It was foreign to my ears. ‘Is this guitar? What is this?’ From that day on, it freaked me out. ‘You Really Got Me’ was the first single those guys release, I think, and boom I was done. Those guys were insane.”
Comedian Brendon Small, who also performs with the virtual melodic death metal band, Dethklok, called Van Halen’s death a “really horrible shock.”
“I’m part of this guitar community and we all pay attention to Eddie; we all knew he was ill 15 years ago or so,” he said.
“There are so many horrible deaths happening lately. This one is so rough. He’s such a hero.”
As a child in Illinois, Small saved money to buy his first guitar in junior high. He was familiar with Van Halen but didn’t get into the deep cuts until age 14. Small was enamored with “Eruption,” from Van Halen’s self-titled album.
“That’s the thing that made my brain explode,” he says. “It was the introduction to ‘You Really Got Me.’ It sounded like he was playing a piano or something. I just didn’t understand. It was like that moment on a movie where they said, ‘Listen to this’ and they play it on a cassette tape. I couldn’t believe that was made by a human being.
“He’s known for his crazy lead playing and flurries of notes, and the hammering and the tapping. The thing that really caught my ear was how musical he was. He was such a great rhythm guitar player, too. He changed everything.”
Testament’s Alex Skolnick had a hard time processing Van Halen’s death.
“This is a tough day, if you play guitar,” said Skolnick, who met Van Halen once. “He was a troubled person. It’s a certain type of genius, like Jaco Pastorius comes to mind—those savant types.”
Like John 5 and Small, Skolnick was influenced by Van Halen. He was introduced to Van Halen when “1984” came out, except he was only on its first album at the time.
“It was just a knockout punch,” he said. “It was like a supersonic jet arriving before the age of aviation. There have been so many losses the last few years. I thought 2016 was bad, losing Prince and David Bowie in a short time. This is like that. We lost (Rush’s) Neil Peart this year.
“This one is for a lot of guitar players, though. It’s like losing a relative. This is one of those where you’re just knocked out and the day is done. It’s a national day of mourning. This is the RBG for guitar players.”
In the eighth grade, Skolnick didn’t know what type of guitarist he wanted to be. He loved The Beatles and ’50s rock and considered a singer-guitarist career. Ace Frehley of Kiss wasn’t enough to persuade him to be a lead guitarist.
Then he heard “Eruption.”
“I knew right then, ‘I’m going to be a lead guitarist,’” he recalled. “‘I don’t know what that is, but I need to know how to do that.’ I saw myself doing that, even though I knew it would take years. It was that meaningful when I heard it. I was committed to developing the skills necessary to do it. Very few musicians have that kind of impact.”
Skolnick called Van Halen a “renaissance man.”
“I think his influence goes beyond the band,” he said. “It’s ’80s music. Even the stuff they did in the ’90s and later. With Eddie’s playing, he changed amps, his tone was amazing. Nobody had that sound and it affected music beyond the band. He changed the way guitars were manufactured and fashion as well.”
John 5 summed it up best.
“It’s just sad,” he said. “He was the king and he will always be the king to me.”
Talkin’ ‘Bout Eddie Van Halen
“I was in an LA rehearsal room long ago. I heard a shimmering, powerful guitar from next door. I looked in the room and Eddie said, ‘Come in.’ From that moment on, I enjoyed his unique brilliance. I am so sad to see him go. He was a sweet man, humble and brilliant and created a tribe of 9-year-olds on YouTube to shred just like Eddie…Almost….”
— Michael Des Barres, musician and Pasadena resident
“Eddie Van Halen was, needless to say, a guitar icon, but also a brilliant songwriter, musician and innovator of music. I’m grateful to be able to say I saw his magic on stage many times and his music has been a part of every one of my radio shows since I started back in 1983. I got the first Van Halen album when it first came out and I’ll never forget the impact it had on me. RIP Eddie and condolences to his fans, friends and family.”
— Eddie Trunk, author, radio show host
“Edward Van Halen is the world’s greatest guitar hero. Pushing the limits of technical ability, innovation and style, Eddie single handedly set the standard of what rock guitar playing was for his own generation and the ones that followed. His impact was not confined solely to the mastery of guitar. As a songwriter, Edward’s pop sensibility and song craft propelled his band Van Halen through decades of worldwide, chart topping success, weathering extreme shifts in popular music trends. His impact on rock music cannot be measured. Eddie Van Halen is the sole reason I ever dreamed of playing guitar. Literally millions of people all over the world have found a passion for music through his work. I am grateful to have been one of them. Eddie Van Halen will be loved and celebrated forever.”
— Mark Morton, Lamb of God