Fans and peers shared their favorite Eddie Van Halen memories in the days following the guitar legend’s 2020 death. As the music world mourned the loss of one of the all-time greats, we sorted through our archives for some of the best stories about the Van Halen leader — from early inspirations to numerous collaborations to that time a cop let him out of a speeding ticket just for being an awesome guitarist.
His First Record-Label Battle
Even though Van Halen were completely unproven as an album-selling commodity, Eddie Van Halen had no problem squaring off against one of the biggest record labels in the world right out of the gate. “You should have seen the first album cover Warner Bros. designed for us,” the guitarist later explained. “They tried to make us look like the Clash. We said, ‘Fuck this shit!”
From Unknowns to World-Beaters in Just One Year
In support of their 1978 self-titled debut, Van Halen bucked rock tradition by wowing audiences as a support act. They shared stages with the Rolling Stones, Journey, Black Sabbath and Ted Nugent. But their best gig of the year was most likely in front of 82,000 rock fans at the Texxas Music Festival, where they had to use borrowed equipment when their gear was sent to Chicago by mistake.
His Sense of Invention Came From His Father
Eddie Van Halen traced his penchant for modifying guitars to his father, Jan, who was also a musician. The elder Van Halen continued to play clarinet and saxophone, even though he lost a finger and bottom teeth, by constructing devices that allowed him to compensate for his deficits. He played clarinet on Van Halen’s 1982 cover of “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now).”
His Ears Were Great, Too
While creating his 5150 guitar cabinet with Peavey, Eddie Van Halen discovered it used plywood instead of his specified Baltic birch. Founder Hartley Peavey protested that it would add to the cost without changing the tone, but the guitarist felt differently. So, they lined up 16 cabinets – one made with Baltic birch, the other 15 with plywood – and the guitarist played one long note through each until he got to the one that yielded the sound he wanted.
How Eddie Van Halen Rearranged “Beat It”
When it came time to record Van Halen’s iconic solo on Michael Jackson‘s “Beat It,” producer Quincy Jones gave Van Halen carte blanche to rearrange the part he was playing over. “I listened to the song,” Eddie told CNN, “and I immediately go, ‘Can I change some parts?’ I turned to the engineer and I go, ‘Okay, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.’ Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.”
Why He Built His Own Recording Studio
As Van Halen planned to make 1984, the guitarist was growing tired of producer Ted Templeman’s singles-first approach to songwriting. Wanting “a better place to put my music together so I could show it to the guys,” Eddie Van Halen and engineer Donn Landee started building a home studio. Templeman didn’t like the idea … until he heard “Jump.”
His Keyboard Work Was Also Pretty Great
After the success of the synth-heavy 1984 and the departure of David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen modernized his band by incorporating more keyboards into its sound. The shift led to some of Van Halen’s biggest hits, including “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “When It’s Love” and “Right Now.”
That Was His Guitar in ‘Back to the Future’
A scene in 1985’s Back to the Future features Marty McFly slipping a cassette marked “Edward Van Halen” into a Walkman and blasting it into his future father’s ears to wake him up. In 2012, the guitarist admitted it was “just a bunch of noise” he recorded and not part of an unreleased song.
He Launched the Van Hagar Era at Farm Aid
The inaugural Farm Aid took place on Sept. 22, 1985, and included Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Sammy Hagar was also among the performers, billed as a solo act. About halfway through his set, Hagar brought out Eddie Van Halen to rock through a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” “We didn’t have time to work nothin’ up,” Hagar explained from the stage. “And Eddie and I were sittin’ at his house, bullshittin’, and we looked in the newspaper, and it said Eddie was gonna jam with me. And I said, ‘Well, shit, I didn’t know that.’ So, at the last minute, we decided to go ahead and do it.” Unimpressed with Hagar’s profanity, the Nashville Network, which was broadcasting Farm Aid, cut away before the big announcement: Hagar revealed he had joined Eddie, his drummer brother, Alex, and bassist Michael Anthony in Van Halen.
Wolfgang Joining Van Halen Gave “New Life” to the Band
Van Halen’s 2007 reunion with David Lee Roth came with another lineup change: Bassist Michael Anthony was let go and replaced by Eddie Van Halen’s 15-year-old son, Wolfgang. As Eddie told Guitar World, “Wolfgang breathes new life into what we’re doing. He brings youthfulness to something that’s inherently youthful. He’s only been playing bass for three months, but it’s spooky. He’s locked tight and puts an incredible spin on our shit. The kid is kicking my ass! He’s spanking me now, even though I never spanked him. To have my son follow in my footsteps on his own, without me pushing him into it, is the greatest feeling in the world.”
The ‘Van Halen II’ Guitar Is Buried With Dimebag Darrell
After former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell was killed onstage in 2004, his brother, Vinnie Paul, asked Eddie Van Halen if he could make a yellow-and-black striped guitar, like the one seen on the cover of Van Halen II, to be buried with Darrell. Van Halen, who had met the brothers only a few weeks earlier, did more than that: He brought the actual guitar to be placed in the casket. “An original should have an original,” the guitarist told Rita Haney, Dimebag’s girlfriend.
He Gave Away 75 of His Guitars to Public Schools
In 2012, Eddie donated 75 guitars from his collection to the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation so they could be distributed to schools around the Los Angeles area. “If I can help a kid discover a liking, or even a passion for music in their life, then that’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “Music has provided a good life for me, and, hopefully, it can help make life better for others with this donation.” Felice Mancini, the foundation’s executive director, described the meeting with the legend. “He came to our office with his lovely wife and took some pictures with the staff,” she said. “He’s a lovely man and very shy. It was fun. Eddie’s wife was delightful; they were just so happy that this happened. Eddie did sincerely want to feel that he gave something back, and he did. It was win-win all the way around.”
He Made a Dying Man Very Happy With a Video Chat
In 2017, Van Halen and his wife Janie spent some time chatting via FaceTime with Michael Brewer, a fan from North Carolina who was in a hospice facility with a terminal case of prostate cancer. “Soooo … this just happened!” Brewer’s wife wrote on Facebook. “Eddie and his wife Janie were simply amazing! Felt like we were sitting and chatting with a close friend! Thanks to Eddie and Janie Van Halen and everyone at LCFH [Lower Cape Fear Hospice] for making Michael’s dream come true! Eddie still has the best smile”
He Gave to ALS Research as Part of the Ice-Bucket Challenge
As many celebrities were spending 2014 dumping buckets of ice water on their heads to raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Eddie Van Halen chose to give money instead. He was challenged by former David Lee Roth guitarist Jason Becker, who was diagnosed with the disease in the mid-’90s. “We have been talking lately, and he sent us a donation,” Becker wrote. “People should know that he didn’t ignore the ice-bucket challenge, but wanted to do something less public and from his heart.” Becker added that Van Halen had given him financial assistance and helped his 2001 album, Perspective, come out on Warner Bros. A few months later, Eddie and Alex Van Halen donated a signed acoustic guitar to be auctioned as part of a benefit for KMET DJ Pat Kelley, who was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis in 2003.
He Once Got Out of a Speeding Ticket, Simply Because He’s Eddie Van Halen
Carmaker Audi invited Van Halen to Northern California to test drive its V-10 at the Sonoma Raceway. On his drive up the coast, the guitarist was booked for going 95 in a 65 speed zone. “I’m going, ‘The last thing I need is a speeding ticket for that much over the speed limit,’” Van Halen explained during a conversation with Car and Driver. “We get home and I get a letter from my office. The patrol guy who gave me the ticket, his captain voided it. He said, ‘You don’t give Eddie Van Halen a ticket,’ and I had a letter to prove it. The letter came straight from the captain.”
He Once Jammed With ‘Police Academy”s Michael Winslow
At the 1987 National Association of Music Merchants convention, Eddie Van Halen jumped onstage for a surprise appearance supporting his guitar sponsor at the time, Kramer. He then invited a series of special guests to join him, including Steve Stevens and Tim Bogert. But the biggest surprise was Michael Winslow, the comedian best known as Larvell Jones, aka the human sound machine from the Police Academy movies. The guitarist and comedian traded riffs, with Eddie wailing on his ax while Winslow provided impressively realistic guitar-like vocals.
He Collaborated With Way More People Than Michael Jackson
Eddie Van Halen’s most famous extracurricular guitar moment is the blazing solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” But that’s just scratching the surface of his collaborative resume, which also includes 1977 demos for Kiss’ Gene Simmons, solo tracks from Queen’s Brian May and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and onetime bandmate Sammy Hagar’s 1987 solo LP, I Never Said Goodbye, where he played bass and provided backing vocals.
He Wrote — and Played Live — With the ‘SNL’ House Band
G.E. Smith, guitarist for the Saturday Night Live house band, convinced Eddie Van Halen to come onstage during a 1987 episode hosted by Van Halen’s wife at the time, actress Valerie Bertinelli. He even co-wrote a song, “Stompin’ 8H” — named in reference to the show’s home at Studio 8H in New York’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza — and they played it twice: once in dress rehearsal, once on air. “At dress it was fantastic – it was ridiculous how good it was,” Smith recalled in the below 2017 interview. “He’s a master, he really is. At air it was great, I mean, it was super high quality. But he made a tiny little mistake. He forgot where this one very intricate little thing [was]. Nobody would even know about it; maybe three people in the United States. He was so upset that he had made a mistake, but it was great.”
He Left Behind Dozens of Unreleased Songs
Van Halen’s catalog includes more than two albums’ worth of unreleased songs — both in demo and live form — available to stream on YouTube. There are also more than 15 tracks that have never even been bootlegged. Whenever the time comes for a new retrospective box set, hopefully fans will find a treasure trove.
His Guitar Collection Went Way Beyond the “Frankenstrat”
Eddie Van Halen’s most famous guitar is the iconic “Franksenstrat,” a red, white and black ax he created by piecing together various parts, including the body of a Fender Stratocaster. But he also played many other guitars over the decades, including a modified Ibanez Destroyer he called “the Shark” and a striped, yellow and black six-string known called “the Bumblebee” by fans.
Van Halen Performed During a Freak Summer Snowstorm
Van Halen probably wasn’t expecting a snowstorm during their 1995 summer tour, but that’s exactly what they got during a stop at the Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre, just outside Denver. Eight inches of snow dropped on the area, knocking down power lines and causing all kinds of problems. Still, the band determinedly went through with its 21-song set, with Eddie Van Halen engaging in numerous snowball fights with the audience during the memorable show.
How Van Halen Frightened a Group of Tibetan Monks
Van Halen’s song “The Seventh Seal” memorably opens with about 20 seconds of Tibetan-monk chanting. For most live performances, the band recreated the intro onstage by using recordings, but in 1995, Van Halen and the Monks of Gyuto Tantric University happened to both be in Minneapolis on the same day. Sammy Hagar invited the Tibetan group to open the band’s concert, but when Van Halen proceeded to kick in to their performance of “The Seventh Seal,” the holy men were sent scrambling. One monk jumped into the pit, while another sat down on the drum riser, unsure of where to escape.
Even His Dog Became Famous
Social media is crucial for any band’s success — less so for canines. But Eddie Van Halen’s dog Kody became a miniature celebrity in his own right back in 2012, eventually racking up more than 11,000 Facebook fans. The posts still continue, updating the pup’s playdates, sock-stealing exploits and poolside lounging.
Eddie Van Halen, the Photographer
A fan in the audience at a 2019 Tool show in Los Angeles asked a nearby man if he would take a photo to remember the occasion. The plot twist in this seemingly mundane encounter? The photographer was none other than Eddie Van Halen. “A guy asked my dad if he could take a picture of him with the stage behind him, having no idea who he just asked,” Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie’s son and bandmate, explained in a Twitter post recalling the interaction. “That was my favorite moment from the Tool show last night.”
Van Halen Closed Their Story With a Sweet Farewell
Eddie Van Halen ended his stage career with a fitting wave of nostalgia. During Van Halen’s two-night hometown stand in October 2015, staged at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, the quartet cruised through a set of favorites (including “Panama,” “Hot for Teacher” and closer “Jump”). But they also got sentimental. During the first night, Van Halen and David Lee Roth put their arms around each other, with the singer telling his bandmate, “The best years of my life, the high points of all my life — onstage with you, homeboy.”