Today, guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s long battle with cancer ended. He died. He was 65.
My condolences go out to family and friends. I never knew the man like you knew him. I can’t imagine what you might be going through right now.
And this post is not about newsjacking or talking about the trend of the day. Eddie Van Halen was – and still is – a huge inspiration to me.
Something about 80s music always resonated with me. It’s reflected in some of my own musical efforts.
As I started learning guitar at 17, I gradually got into rock. I was honestly more into pop and hip-hop at the time, but before I knew it, I got sucked into Collective Soul, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and many, many others because of my guitar teacher.
One day, my guitar teacher played something in the style of Eddie Van Halen, and right then and there, he knew I was into it.
No doubt I had heard Van Halen as a kid. But up until that point, I had yet to place a name or face with the songs I had probably heard on the radio. Songs like “Jump” and “Panama” of course.
In those days, the Columbia House CD club was still a thing, and I remember my sister got a bunch of rock albums, including some Aerosmith and Van Halen. Somehow, I ended up with all those. Probably because I played guitar.
In that pile of CDs was Van Halen’s 1984. And, to this day, I still think it’s one of Van Halen’s greatest moments.
In terms of live performances, I always felt Eddie was at the absolute top of his game in Live Without a Net, but in terms of albums, nothing compares to 1984.
The Brown Sound
Any guitarist looking to establish themselves in a scene, and possibly beyond, must find their tone. Eddie’s tone was always spectacular, and something I aspired to.
These days, dialing in a tone you’ve heard somewhere isn’t that hard. Emulation has come a long way, and there are even amp profilers like the Kemper Profiler that will get you at least 80 to 90% of the way there. Whatever tone you want is practically at your fingertips.
But as I was working my way up to becoming a professional, there was still plenty of misinformation, and amps didn’t always sound so uniformly great… Or, for that matter, uniform, as they all seem to sound so close to each other these days.
I messed around with effects, and amps, and floor units, and DIs. The whole works. I couldn’t even touch Eddie’s tone.
But I was smart enough to pick up an Ernie Ball Music Man Axis in those early days of searching. I’d tried dozens of guitars before I’d tried that one, always disappointed with the results. The Axis was amazing. It didn’t let me down. I still have that guitar and still love it (even named her “Hailey” after Van Halen).
Then it was a matter of figuring out the amplifier. Eventually I determined that I liked Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. That was a win. I managed to get a Crate Blue Voodoo 4×12 cab for a steal of a deal, and that thing got me infinitely closer to where I wanted to go.
Then, I rented and tried head after head – mostly Marshalls and Randalls. There were some good ones in there, but nothing that stuck.
Eventually, I came across the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and I was convinced. Some of my friends told me it sounded too transparent to their ears. Wrong person, wrong amp. For me, transparent is apparently exactly what I needed.
But for whatever reason, things didn’t work out that well for me in rock bands. It’s what I thought I wanted to do. Meant to do. But somehow, I kept getting pulled back into the singer-songwriter world, where I found the most success.
Eventually, I had to tear down my home studio, sell my home, and move on. I kept playing guitar, of course, but I sold my amps too.
Years later, I picked up the Peavey 6505 Mini Head, after learning that it was basically identical to the 5150 amp, only Peavey couldn’t call it that because of a branding conflict.
Through the years, I came to discover that it wasn’t just the amp you played through, but also how you played the guitar. Your attack. Your technique.
But when I plugged into the 5150, I had finally found it. Because I had been working on my technique all those years. This was it. It’s what I had been looking for all along.
No, it wasn’t identical to Eddie’s early tones. But it gave me everything I needed and satisfied every curiosity once and for all.
I put that thing through a Vintage 30 on the clean channel, and it sounds glassy like a Victoria amp.
Put it on the dirty channel, and of course I can get everything from classic rock to full on metal mayhem. The “Brown Sound” is in there too.
Thank You, Eddie Van Halen
When I got into music, I never imagined spending so many years chasing tone. But it’s been a fun ride to this point, and if I have anything to do with it, it’s far from over.
The point is none of this would have ever happened without the infinite source of inspiration in the form of virtuoso guitarist Eddie Van Halen.
The man was creative. Distinctive. Unique. He was talented, hardworking, imaginative, and most importantly, inspiring.
The party rock of Van Halen certainly got people up and dancing. But if you listen closely, you can often hear something deeper in Eddie’s playing. The emotion. Maybe even the price paid.
Sounds cheesy to say, but appropriate.
Without him, I don’t even know who I would be as a guitarist.
Thanks Eddie. You will be missed.