When Tom Petty died, I talked about how rare it was for me to be into a musician or band that was popular when they were popular. Van Halen was one of those bands for me. I mostly think of the 80s as a low point for music, but Van Halen was one of the few bright spots. It often surprises people when they find out I like Van Halen, as if it’s somehow out of character. I’ve never really understood why.
Since Eddie died, much of the talk has been about him as a guitarist, for good reason. He was an extraordinary guitar player. I’m not one to get into rankings, but I will say that he is in a special class. He changed what people thought was possible on the instrument. There’s guitar before EVH, and there’s guitar after EVH, and they are different because of Eddie.
I wanted to bring up two things that haven’t been getting the same attention, but are two of the most important reasons I’m a fan. First is the songs. Van Halen wrote a lot of really good songs. They’re not just shred-fests where he could show off his skills. They are high-quality songs. They’re catchy, fun, hummable, and danceable. The virtuosity was always in service of the music, of the songs, never the other way around.
The other thing is that Eddie was a really hard worker. It’s always bothered me a little when musicians talk about being a vessel or being divinely inspired. Good music takes a lot of hard work. Eddie’s practice is legendary. He would practice, then practice more, then practice more, then practice more. It’s no accident that he got as good as he did. His story about “Little Guitars” from Diver Down is a great example, “I think that the best thing I do is cheat. I came up with the intro after I bought a couple of Carlos Montoya records. I was hearing his fingerpicking, going, ‘My God, this guy is great. I can’t do that.’ So, I just listened to that style of music for a couple of days and I cheated! [Using a pick] I am doing trills on the high E and pull-offs with my left hand, and slapping my middle finger on the low E. If there’s something I want to do and can’t, I won’t give up until I can figure out some way to make it sound similar to what I really can do.” He called it “cheating,” but it was anything but. That’s what work looks like. When Eddie was faced with a musical problem, he worked at it until he solved it.
I’m going to spend the next few days listening to a lot of Van Halen. It will be a lot of fun, thanks to Eddie’s hard work. I want to thank him for that.